An Interview with Jeff Davis,
by Michael Hettich
Jeff Davis is a generous, open-hearted man whose interests and enthusiasms are wide-ranging and refreshingly unpredictable. He also happens to be a fine poet and a nationally-known scholar of the poet Charles Olson. Shortly after my wife and I moved to Black Mountain, NC, about two years ago, he and I met briefly at a gathering of writers. Hearing that I called myself a poet, he immediately invited me to join him on his weekly radio program, “WordPlay,” which airs Sunday afternoons on an Asheville public radio station (WSFM-LP, 103.3 FM). He didn’t know me or my work, and he didn’t seem to care much about where I’d published or whether I was a “good” poet or not: the fact that I was a poet (even so-called) was enough for him to welcome me. Since then I’ve appeared on his show three times and have come to consider him a good friend. He’s an easy man to love.
As will become clear in the following interview, as community-minded and open as Jeff Davis is, he is also an astute and articulate scholar of the Black Mountain poets and particularly of the great poet Charles Olson. The following interview had its inception on Jeff’s radio program, when I interviewed him on their air and we began our formal conversation about Olson. Though the interview that follows was conducted through email, in a real sense it actually happened in—and on—the air, as Jeff and I talk about poetry and poetics every time we see each other--even when we seem to be talking of other things.
Michael: To start, please talk a bit about your background: where did you grow up? Who & what were the formative influences on you as a young man? Were there any particular experiences that influenced the course of your life? How did you find your way to university teaching and scholarship? What was your main academic concentration?
Jeff: I grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, back when it was a much smaller city, and I remember gratefully the good teachers I had there, some of whom I stayed in touch with for years after I’d gone on to college at UNC in Chapel Hill, which I still call ‘Carolina’. I still have my senior English teacher’s annotated copy of Eliot’s The Waste Land, which she gave me one summer when I visited her at her beach house. I majored in English at Carolina, and took courses and tutorials in writing, as well. My friends included others who wanted, as I did, to write. I met novelist and poet Robert Morgan there, as well as William Matthews and Russell Banks, who launched Lillabulero, their great little magazine, when they were in grad school.
Michael: How did you become interested in “avant-garde” poetry, particularly US/American poetry, and especially the work of the writers associated with Black Mountain College and particularly with that of Charles Olson?
Jeff: Early in my time in Chapel Hill, I came across For Love, Robert Creeley’s great early collection, his first from a major national publisher. It became my measure, in a sense, for new poetry. Soon after, Donald Allen’s New American Poetry introduced me to a whole range of poets and poetries, and gave me a provisional frame for understanding the work of the poets of Creeley’s generation. It was there I first came across Charles Olson, I believe.
Ironically, I never heard of Black Mountain College or any of the ‘Black Mountain Poets’ in my English classes; in them we were reading Eliot and Pound, and some things by William Carlos Williams, whose late work, particularly Pictures from Breughel, really caught my ear.
The ‘Confessional’ poets – Lowell, Sexton, Plath, Snodgrass, et al – dominated the conversations of the younger faculty. Lowell’s friend Randall Jarrell, of course, taught at UNC Greensboro, a sister campus (as it were; it had been The Womens’ College until a few years before) fifty miles away. So I certainly read them too. And I actually began the program in creative writing in Greensboro before I’d finished at Chapel Hill. I’d hoped study with Jarrell, but he died before I was admitted. After a semester there and a summer as a Vista volunteer, I returned to Chapel Hill. The next fall, some friends were headed to grad school in Buffalo, where Creeley was then teaching, so I took off to visit them, thinking I’d stay a couple of weeks … I stayed a lot longer! In Buffalo I audited Creeley’s classes in American poetry, and got to know him socially as well. Many of Creeley’s friends came through town – John Wieners, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsburg, and Ed Dorn among them – and Robert Bly, James Wright, Bill Knott came through as well to give readings at UB. John Logan and Bill Hass were on faculty, so it was really quite an extraordinary scene.
I finished my M.A. in Buffalo in 1975, and then came back south to live. I taught a decade at UNC Asheville, and have managed the arts non-profit MadHat, Inc. since 2012.
Michael: You’ve told me that you spent time with the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw (or more commonly, the Kwakiutl) people in British Columbia. Would you talk a bit about that experience and how it shaped your thinking? How did this experience affect your worldview/aesthetics? Is there any connection between your interest in the Kwakiutl and that of Olson in the Maya?
Jeff: I’d read at least part of the Mayan Letters in Creeley’s edition of Olson’s Selected Writings, but I was also teaching with Iroquoian faculty and had Iroquoian students, and that had much more to do with opening my eyes to the other realities that indigenous worlds present. What got me to British Columbia was actually a photograph by Edward Curtis, taken about 1914, of a group of masked Kwakiutl dancers. I’d been working a bit with masks in the context of ceremonies I’d been performing – marriages, mostly – in my own community of grad students, tripsters, and psychonauts, and had begun to appreciate their power as foci of perception and vectors of energy. These Kwakiutl masks, though, were amazing. I had to learn more about them, and the folks who had created them. Off to British Columbia, then! I bought a camera and made an effort to document the work of the native carvers active in the little town, Alert Bay, where I’d decided to live, and then apprenticed myself to one whose work I thought the most striking in its dramatic symmetries.
There’s nothing like living in another culture to give you a new perspective on your own, and the years in British Columbia certainly did that for me.
Michael: Now, let’s turn to Olson himself. My sense is that most culturally-literate Americans know his name and that he was a poet, and a good portion of those people know he served as Rector of Black Mountain College; it seems to me, however, that very few people—including poets—have actually read his work. Why this relative neglect? As a corollary, which of Olson’s works—poetry and prose—would you recommend to an interested Olson novice?
Jeff: I think that neglect is, in some sense ‘normal.’ Olson was never a poet who was adopted, as Eliot was, as Pound, to a lesser extent was, by the intellectual institutions of his day. He’s often taught now, if he’s taught, as a sort of adjunct to the Beat scene. And to be sure there are affinities between Olson, Creeley, et al, and the Beats. They were friends, if sometimes argumentative ones. They gave readings together; they appeared at conferences together. The Black Mountain Review published Ginsberg’s work. And so on. And now we’ve lost the context of that moment. Melville was hardly read for thirty years before his death, and thirty years after. And now we see him as one of the major figures of the nineteenth century. Olson, incidentally, was one of those who ushered Melville’s work back into the light.
There’s a reason Donald Allen lead his New American Poetry with the work of Olson and his fellow Black Mountain poets. Olson, for one thing, had a poetics that had major impact on poets for twenty or thirty years; sadly, of course, ‘Projective Verse’ might be all that most readers now know of his work, and Olson went far beyond it, both in his poetics and in his poetry.
What I liked about Olson was that when you dug for more in his work, it was there. There was another stratum. If you read his lectures – and you could, because his students and fellow poets published them in close to real time – they had real substance, they were amazing explorations of intellectual and psychic territories that few other poets could have ventured into. They were adventures in cosmology. When two sets of his lectures at Black Mountain College were published after his death, they proved to be profound examinations of the fundamentals of the human condition – human history, human language, the human mind grappling with its existential situation. It was one of those sets of lectures, in fact, The Special View of History, that just took the top of my head off, as we used to say, and convinced me that Olson was worth reading over the long haul. I’ve been reading him ever since.
Readers coming to his work now might do well to start with the poems Creeley included in the Selected Writings or the Selected Poems published after Olson’s death. Ralph Maud’s Charles Olson Reader gives a great overview of the arc of Olson’s work.
Michael: I believe Olson is rightly classified as a “major” poet. Would you agree? And if so, why?
Jeff: Oh, yes. His work, particularly in Maximus IVVVI, stands on a level of its own, to use the common vertical paradigm. It’s truly an epic poem.
His work, too, has had major impact on American poetry long after his death. The ‘Language Poets,’ for instance, adopted some of Olson’s later rhetorical tools, like parataxis, as fundamental to their project. It’s really the case that you can’t understand half, say, of twentieth century poetry without some grasp of Olson’s work.
Michael: Please speak briefly about the relationship between Olson and Robert Creeley, two poets often lumped together as the best-known poets of the so-called “Black Mountain School” of poetry. On almost every level, their work looks very different. What aesthetic values unite them? --And as an adjunct to that question, how about Olson and Robert Duncan?
Jeff: What unites them, I think, is their determination to open American poetry, both on the level of form, and on the level of its materials. They were very different poets from the beginning, of course. Creeley didn’t write like Olson, Dorn didn’t write like Olson, Duncan didn’t write like Olson, and Olson didn’t write like any of them. And yet they stand together at the center of ‘Black Mountain’ poetry.
This insistence on difference, on the particularity of poetic voices, is right there in ‘Projective Verse,’ which ties the poetic line to breath.
the HEART by way of the BREATH to the LINE
We all breathe, but we do breathe differently, and we speak differently. Listening to Olson and Creeley reading in, say, 1963, the year of the Vancouver Poetry Conference, a real watershed in the history of the ‘New American Poetry,’ is certainly clarifying in this respect. These two collaborators in poetics transparently had very different approaches to breath, and to poetic line.
In terms of Duncan, though he and Olson were not collaborators in the same way Olson and Creeley were, they shared a like commitment to openness in their work. They were both true visionary poets, and recognized that commonality.
Michael: In addition to his poetry, Olson wrote many scholarly essays and essays on poetic theory and form. In fact, his first book, Call Me Ishmael, broke new ground in Melville studies. Can you briefly talk about a few of Olson’s aesthetic ideas you find most engaging and useful?
Jeff: Middle Voice is one idea of Olson’s that I’ve found intriguing for years now. I guess we might say it’s not even an Olson idea; Olson borrowed it. It’s a term from linguistics, the name of a reflexive mode ancient Greek used, and that other languages use into the present. Most of the romance languages use it. To say ‘I remember’ in French, for example, you say ‘Je me souvien’ where the ‘me’ is actually reflexive; literally, looking at ‘souvien’ etymologically, it’s something like ‘I come back to myself.’ Olson came to regard it as the voice of the soul. English has no middle voice, though, so what to do? It’s a problem Olson addressed in the Proprioception papers: radical nominalization proved part of the answer. Ever inventive, he also used the structure of Maximus IVVVI to create the ghost of a middle voice for that book, juxtaposing poems grounded in his own personal memories with work based in myth, or in the history of Gloucester.
Michael: What was Olson’s vision for Black Mountain College?
Jeff: Initially, I think, he had large ambitions for it. He had a deeply ecological vision, and he knew that things were fundamentally out of whack in the western world. He hoped that Black Mountain could become a center for a new vision of human possibility and responsibility. The lectures he gave in 1953, published after his death as The Chiasma: Lectures in the New Sciences of Man, enacted his project to dig into the deepest sources of human culture in an effort to reconstruct human character for the present world. ‘Objectism’ was the name he gave this new stance in ‘Projective Verse.’
His vision foundered on the realities of small college funding in the period after World War II with its conservative political shift. FBI agents investigated the Black Mountain campus, and the college was denied clearance for GI Bill educational funding. Many of the relationships Olson formed there, though, lasted for the rest of his life. They formed the core of the polis he’d sought, the center of ‘another kind of nation.’
Michael: I know you’ve concentrated your own Olson scholarship on the ideas he worked with during the last ten years of his life. These ideas, as far as I understand them, are only peripherally related to his work in poetry. As far as our short space permits, would you briefly discuss the most salient of these ideas? What was he working on at his death?
Jeff: Most of the ideas Olson worked on actually did come to figure in his poetry, some in major, others in minor ways. The notational ‘essays ‘of Proprioception, for example, point to the concerns and to the poetics of the second volume of the Maximus poems, Maximus IVVVI. His few prose works of the last decade of his life, many of them reviews of books he found critical to his own work, like Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato, likewise announce shifts in his poetics, and new areas of exploration. His talks, especially the Causal Mythology lecture he gave in Berkeley in 1965, and the Beloit talks published as Poetry and Truth in 1968, give crucial insights into the concerns of the poems, and announce a vision in which myth is more and more central. He’s very much concerned in these later years to create an imago mundi, a mappemunde, through his work.
He was very much engaged, as always, with the history of Gloucester, and had done research in England on the origins of her early settlers on his trip there in 1967. He was also digging more deeply in the work of Henry Corbin, and into a range of other works on Islamic cosmology and mystical traditions.
Michael: Would you talk a little bit about the influence of Henry Corbin on Olson’s work? Start, please, with some background into Corbin himself and his main ideas. --and, just for extra interest, would you please briefly discuss the work of Tom Cheetham?
Jeff: Henry Corbin was a great French religious scholar who delved into Mazdaism (the world’s oldest religion) and medieval Islamic Sufism, which preserved preexisting archaic intellectual and mythological threads. He was a member of the Jung circle at the Eranos Institute, and that association gave him immediate credibility for Olson, who thought Jung (certainly rightly) one of the great intellectual explorers and innovators in the intellectual life of their common time. Olson read Corbin’s ‘Cyclical Time in Mazdaism and Ismailism’ in Man and Time, a collection of papers from the Eranos conferences, shortly after it came out in 1957. That it had real impact on him we know because he thereafter cited it many times in his own writing and talks. Corbin’s later work Avicenna and the Visionary Recital had like impact, and Olson dug into other sources on Islamic cosmology and scientific thought to supplement his reading of Corbin. One thing he got from this exploration outside the western intellectual sphere was the concept of Ta’wil, which in Corbin’s work (and in his sources) refers both to the exegesis of a written text (specifically, most often, the Quran), and also to enquiry into the esoteric aspects of the phenomenal world, its inner and metaphysical dimensions. Ta’wil became a central part of Olson’s thought in his last years, though it does not leave many overt traces in his work. It’s fascinating to think what Olson might have made of it (and other material from Corbin) if he’d had the ten years he thought he’s need to ‘finish’ (whatever that means, in terms of the long American poem) with Maximus.
Tom Cheetham, trained as a molecular biologist before he became involved, through the work of James Hillman, with Corbin’s thought, has become a primary proponent and exegetist of Corbin’s voluminous work. In this age of plague, he teaches online courses that I would heartily recommend to any who might be curious about M. Corbin and his vision of the world. Or anything else! His Corbin blog is at http://henrycorbinproject.blogspot.com.
Michael: Finally, for those readers who’d like to read more of your own work and/or more about the work of Charles Olson, where should they start? And could you tell us a little about the conference of Black Mountain College you coordinate each year?
Jeff: My book Natures: Selected Poems 1972-2005 is out of print, but there are copies floating around out there, I’m sure. I’m planning to post some of the poems to my old, neglected, blog, https://naturespoetry.blogspot.com, just to keep them available. The Appalachian Journal Volume 44 No. 3-4, 1-2, has a piece I wrote on Olson’s work at Black Mountain College, and a couple of previously unpublished Olson pieces I edited. Josh Hoeynck’s anthology Staying Open, Charles Olson’s Sources and Influences has another of my essays on Olson, along with some other fine work.
The Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center started the Re-Viewing conference a decade ago. Most of the organizers were visual artists, so I’ve worked with them to bring in more work focused on the poets at the college. It’s been great fun! I’ll be organizing a panel or two again this year, epidemic permitting. Here’s hoping.
Michael Hettich has published ten books and a dozen chapbooks of poetry, most recently TO START AN ORCHARD, which was published in September, 2019. His work has appeared in such journals as TriQuarterly, Ploughshares, Orion, Prairie Schooner and Terrain.com. He lives with his family in Black Mountain, NC. His website is michaelhettich.com.