August 24, 2009
A Constant and a Variant
I love stories like these, from poet Robert Creeley:
In the late forties, while living in Littleton, N.H., I had tried to start a magazine with the help of a college friend, Jacob Leed. He was living in Lititz, Pennsylvania, and had an old George Washington handpress. It was on that that we proposed to print the magazine. Then, at an unhappily critical moment, he broke his arm. I came running from New Hampshire—but after a full day’s labor we found we had set two pages only, each with a single poem. So that was that.
Good enough, right? Nope:
What then to do with the material we had collected? Thanks to the occasion, I had found excuse to write to both Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. I didn’t know what I really wanted of them but was of course deeply honored that they took me in any sense seriously. Pound very quickly seized on the possibility of our magazine’s becoming in some sense a feeder for his own commitments, but was clearly a little questioning of our modus operandi . What he did give me, with quick generosity and clarity, was a kind of rule book for the editing of any magazine. For example, he suggested I think of the magazine as a center around which, “not a box within which/ any item.” He proposed that verse consisted of a constant and a variant, and then told me to think from that to the context of a magazine. He suggested I get at least four others, on whom I could depend unequivocally for material, and to make their work the mainstay of the magazine’s form. But then, he said, let the rest of it, roughly half, be as various and hogwild as possible, “so that any idiot thinks he has a chance of getting in.”
Creeley goes on then to meet Charles Olson, Louis Zukofsky, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, all of the Beats… it just kind of runs on from there, a glorious march through almost all of the avant-garde poetry of the 1950s, from town to town, magazine to magazine… Just kids cranking away on their rusty old handpresses, broken arms be damned.
(Creeley’s entire Collected Essays is available at the U of California press site - just follow the link above.)