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Robert Creeley

Black Mountain was in some ways a confusing time for Stefan. It wasn't that he needed a necessarily particular social back-up or recognition, but he was used to European middle-class manners, far more articulate and providing than those of our fading Black Mountain community in its last months. I remember that he and Hilda lived in the front part of the "Black Dwarf," a substantial, almost chalet-like cottage, and that Tony Landreau (the weaver) and his wife were living in the upstairs part, and the painter Dan Rice was in there too on the other side too. So there would be these intensely drunken parties in Dan's and Tony's part of the building. And Stefan would tell us, "You're killing me with your racket!" Then he would begin to describe to us, as good examples I suppose, the terrific parties he remembered from his time in Switzerland, where everyone had sat in charming wrought iron chairs and were brought appropriate refreshments by very cultured and discreet waiters. He emphasized that this was the proper decor for social interchange--not a brutal, absolutely violent sense of destroying oneself as if that could be pleasure. Even so Stefan was very good-natured toward me personally. He wasn't paternalistic. He took me generously and seriously. And we got on very well. He had a very droll and terrific sense of humor.

Stefan was at the center of the college's activity. Hilda Morley, his wife, had a far more difficult role, because she was not really taken seriously as a poet. She was identified as Stefan's wife just as I've done here. And that may have been all very well, but she was a decisive poet who got all too little recognition. People, including Hilda, have pointed out (I think reasonably) that Black Mountain--almost in the spirit of the times--was markedly male-oriented, male-determined. And although it had a wide accommodation for diverse behavior, it still thought primary authority, the formal, the decisive authority, came from men.

In the last year or so of the college's existence, Stefan and I were put together in a somewhat desperate enterprise to raise funds for the college. Our company decided that we were to write letters, soliciting monies from anyone we could think of. I had no connections whatsoever and was there primarily to be amanuensis and scribe for Stefan. But Stefan himself had a substantial acquaintance with possible patrons from his past associations in Philadelphia and New York. So Stefan and I were put to work and I was, as said, Stefan's secretary, writing these letters, that is, putting them into appropriate English, really. Because he'd begin, "I bet you got some money lying around you don't know what to do with!" I was charmed. Still I'd say, "I don't think that's really going to get them, Stefan. Got to be a little more circumspect, you know, like, here we are doing this great courageous thin, and we have the interest of Einstein and all these terrific people. Don't you want to pledge your crucial support to our communal interests? etc. etc."

So, anyhow, I was put to composing the letters, and we sent them off. The answers we got were wonderful. For example, we had an answer from Doris Duke saying, in effect, she thought her family had given enough money for higher education in North Carolina and was not about to give any more. Then one of the Guggenheims said she was between inheritances and therefore short of available funds. But our actual progress was one long slow plunge into despair.

Trying to think of who was working with Stefan then, his students, there was Betty Olson, Charles's second wife, who studied piano and composition with him--but primarily performing, not composition, as I now remember. Stefan's students didn't feel socially distant from him, because I remember him as being very much one of their group. The most grotesque instance of Stefan's employment--but we were all "self-employed" insofar as we were the college--was when a local lawyer in Asheville, a black lawyer, wanting to help young persons who were going through a time he also had gone through when young, determined to make a modest scholarship for local black students to permit them to come to Black Mountain. It was one of those terrific instances of very good intentions going very wrong. Two young women from Asheville therefore were driven daily to Black Mountain, and various of the faculty set to and taught them in turn--a little painting--a little potting--and Stefan was teaching them to play the piano, albeit modestly. I mean, the whole enterprise was a wild business. Here are two local black kids at a time when the racism of the place--or in any part of the country--was rampant, being driven to this absolutely "New York" white college, already known as the Communist stronghold of the South, and there being talked to by these people, most of whom they couldn't understand because of their accent. They saw other blacks there, a very pleasant black woman, who was very swinging, bright, solid, from New York--who'd been working in theater there. But Stefan probably gave them the most practical information they got. He taught them so that they could then play a little piano. Ah well!

Stefan was not distant, but he had a droll and objective way of seeing others, so the students per se didn't really know what to do with him. Stefan was one of the company without question. Everyone liked him. But I can't recall anyone there, when I was there at least, recognizing quite who Stefan, in an old-fashioned sense, really was. Remember that Stefan comes after the extraordinary impact, or fact, of John Cage, Lou Harrison, et al. It wasn't that his music was from another disposition, but it was from another location entirely within that same pattern. The college was used to the curiously dramatic, communal aspects of Cage and his music. And Stefan was not like that. He enjoyed his privacy, had his very clear determinants, was thoughtful of others, but he wasn't hail-fellow-well-met. He was a generous host, but he certainly did not have a need for constant company. He came literally from a very different European world. This one was, after all, a Deweyistic, grassroots American company. The farm was still active, but even much more than that, it was Olson's sense of the Herodotean--to learn, check out for yourself, the students being on equal footing with the faculty, solving problems together and/or getting it together by the fact of one's own communal agency. The college was also much influenced by Olson's sense of the necessity of living without any buffers or baffles, living directly, learning directly, by fact and activity of the situation itself. Such "Deweyism" was still a very practical advice, and at the college it was joined by the Bauhaus' strong political disposition.

I remember conversations with Stefan in which he said he would love to do some kind of substantial piece for Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. He thought of each of them as being an extraordinary genius of his instrument. I remember years before that, when I was an undergraduate at Harvard, Aaron Copland was living in our entry of Adams House [1951-52]. We would try unobtrusively to corner him as he came or went, and would ask him if he liked Charlie Parker. He'd say, "Oh yes, he's very nice!" I don't know, but I think he knew who we were talking about. He'd say, "Oh, yes, he's very interesting!" We'd be immensely reassured that our hero was somehow known to this eminent old-timer. Perhaps that might be a presumption concerning Stefan's saying he liked Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, that he's being in some way accommodating or simply good-natured. But, in fact, I remember talking to Hilda about the jazz clarinetist Tony Scott, who had studied with Stefan. There's a charming reminiscence by Tony Scott in the book Bird Lives where he speaks of taking Stefan out to meet Charlie Parker. It's very brief, but it's so charming--Stefan calls him "Birdie." It's absolutely sweet.

I thought Stefan was fascinated by jazz. Not just as a communal music or a social agency of whatever order, but I think he heard it. Yeah, I would say he did. I don't think he would be simply persuaded by the fact that it could move spontaneously. That was his obvious difference and distance from Cage, that his own music was not significantly involved with a situation of chance, or with variables of that sort. He therefore was much involved with basic sense of the musical organization--with voicing. So he must have been interested by the fact of the instrumentation, that Bird played saxophone, for example. That it was not a common orchestral instrument, its range and sound. It was certainly a significant instrument, but not in the context that Stefan had been working in--and so it attracted him.

Robert Creeley (b. 1926) taught at Black Mountain College from 1954-56 and also edited the Black Mountain Review, 1954-57, a gathering place for alternative senses of writing at that time. In 1966 he went to the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he still teaches as Samuel Capen Professor of Poetry and the Humanities. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and most recently was the recipient of the 1999 Bollingen Prize for Poetry. Interview, Andrew Kohn: Buffalo, New York, Nov. 18, 1992


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