Sunday, July 09, 2006

BLACK MOUNTAIN memoir and art 

Wow! Last night was an amazing event, and one which I had never imagined seeing take place in Philadelphia. I say that only because I've been to Black Mountain, and it feels like another world, and not until last night have I felt connected again to that feeling of the place, which is so foreign to my feeling of Philadelphia as place.

Michael Rumaker read from his new memoir BLACK MOUNTAIN DAYS at the Bridgette Mayer Gallery, 709 Walnut Street. Before getting into the readings, I must say, PLEASE, YOU MUST MUST MUST MUST MUST GET YOURSELVES OVER TO THE GALLERY AS SOON AS POSSIBLE! It's FILLED with Black Mountain artists' work, from Jonathan Williams, to Robert Motherwell and Elaine de Kooning. What an exciting show it is!

Rumaker is --dare I say?-- Lovely! He's one of those elderly gay men you don't find much in Philadelphia so much as you would in Asheville, or San Francisco. Sweet, not afraid of being EXACTLY who he is. He's queer in that effeminate way that's so rare these days, a fairy, a real live fairy, with fairy poems to top it off!

His stories about Black Mountain fed our eager attentions, the room PACKED with sweating, breathless, quiet people. He told us of the first time he met John Cage at Black Mountain, thinking maybe he was a hired farm hand because of his appearance, that is until he opened his mouth. Rumaker talked about spending hours and hours listening to and talking with John Cage, and said Cage was gentle in that way you always expect him to be. He also told us of experiencing Cage's "3.33" when it first was invented/discovered/what would you say?

Of Charles Olson he mentioned -- as Jonathan Williams has also mentioned -- would work in the fields doing farm work with the other poets, dancers, painters, chopping away at the kudzu vines that even back then covered and destroyed everything in sight. He talked about the serious and joyful business Olson made of teaching poems. In fact every time I hear about Black Mountain I get a tiny bit more of the sense of FREEDOM to create offered up. Not competitive, like most of these creative writing programs tend to be. No one LORDING over you with their unresolved psychological problems. Olson and the others who taught had a way of getting you to experience Life to learn poems. Rumaker talked about learning to dance in the fields with Olson, and it sounded like leaping, twirling, really taking the land the way a deer would in courtship.

One of my favorite stories Rumaker told us was how Buckminster Fuller was trying SO HARD to get his geodesic dome to work, TO STAND, but it kept collapsing. And THIS is the real genius of Black Mountain according to both Rumaker and Jonathan Williams, that it was a place where you were ENCOURAGED to DO WHATEVER YOU NEEDED TO DO and to fail, to fall flat on your face, and to then get back up. You had ABSOLUTE support! And Fuller kept having the damned thing collapse on him. THEN, on the day he finally figured out how to get it up, EVERYONE gave him a standing ovation in the cafeteria.

As much of a utopia it may sound, Black Mountain was also plagued with the KKK and other bigots coming onto the property threatening to burn the school down. Don't forget, this is before the civil rights movement. At the college everyone was equal, but as soon as you left the protection of the college set deep in the woods, every single toilet and drinking fountain was segregated. There was a sense of fear according to Rumaker, that was always in the air, but luckily nothing that had been threatened ever came to pass.

Along with the KKK was the FBI, because this was during the McCarthy era, and many of the folks teaching and learning at Black Mountain were being followed and watched carefully. In fact Rumaker said it's what he first heard about the place as a young man, that Black Mountain College was a hotbed of homosexuals and communists, and he said, "SOUNDS LIKE MY KIND OF PLACE!" What a wonderful old man! Big heart and talent!

Rumaker also read his poem about fairies, which was a beautiful looking book, unlike any book you've ever laid your eyes on, I assure you. Book artist Rutherford Witthus was the creator, a man who has recently moved to Philadelphia. Hope to see more of him, and hope to see more of his unique, beautiful books.

It really would be silly to miss this one!

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