Saturday, July 18, 2015

Richard Kostelanetz on Creative Space: Black Mountain College Revisited


By Richard Kostelanetz

What was important, it seems to me, about Black Mountain was the dining hall, because everyone had breakfast, lunch, and dinner together.  And the classes were less important than the meals. Every time that it’s attempted to make Black Mountain over again, it’s not understood that all the meals should be shared by all of the people.
—John Cage, in an interview

I’d grown up with the image of Black Mountain as the premier American arts college, having heard about it first from John Cage in the mid-1960s, a decade after it closed, and then again in the late 1970s from my good friend Mary Emma Harris who was working on her book on The Arts in Black Mountain (1985). Located inauspiciously in western North Carolina, it housed as either teachers or students such future eminences as Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, Josef Albers, Robert Rauschenberg, Kenneth Snelson, Charles Olson, et al. Black Mountain became the subject of more books than Harris’s, each of them accounting for its uniqueness, all of which I’ve read, wondering, as have others, whether it could happen again.

The closest I’ve come to experiencing something like Black Mountain Collage occurred during my stay as Master Artist at the AtlanticCenter for the Arts in the sleepy ocean-side town of New Smyrna Beach, FL. The ACA, as it is called, customarily invites three established personages in any of several arts. People apply to be “associates” for three weeks. No more than ten are chosen. Most of the previous Master Artists were more conservative in their aesthetic orientation than myself, which is to say, for one measure, that the Black Mountain precedent would have small relevance to them. Photos made of previous sessions with writers customarily show the associates grouped around the Master.

Mine in Experimental Writing worked differently. At our first gathering, I asked each associate to introduce his or her work. I suggested that the general assignment for each of us was to produce something radically different from what they or anyone else had done before. A secondary consideration was that we were also required to help make one another’s work better. The ACA generously made available facilities that include computers, a music recording studio, and video editing equipment. Tuesday morning we all met again in the small building I’d set aside for our group activities.

Wednesday morning I went to the appointed place, only to find no one there. Scarcely anyone came by until12:30, which is time for lunch. Where were they? Working with one another in several locations around the ACA. On Thursday morning, only one associate joined me, mostly because he preferred working on paper, often with words and challenges provided by his colleagues. Nonetheless, at one time or another he collaborated with everyone else in the group, sometimes narrating their texts for recordings, at other times reworking their words to his own ends. 

I began to feel the odd man out. When the regular ACA photographer arrived during the second week to take the customary picture of the “group,” only two of my associates were there. I was less a leader than a facilitator. Instead of lecturing to them all, I advised them individually, usually to take a further step in whatever they were doing.  Unlike too many other short-term creative courses, the ACA residencies are not designed to fleece savings from aspirants with modest talents and ambitions. Bless ‘em.

The group as a whole had extraordinary qualities. Though the ACA billed me as a writer, rather than a media artist (which is something I also am), all but one took their undergraduate degrees in areas other than English literature or writing—the standard certificates for graduate writing students. Indeed, most remembered negative experience with institutional writing courses.

Nearly all of these writers wanted to work directly with audio, video, and computers, some of them staying at these machines into the night. They taught one another how to use Photoshop and video editing programs. One designed and produced an artist’s chapbook from a text that was previously just a manuscript uniformly typed. Some collaborated with the eight visual artists who formed a companion group during our three weeks there. Need I say that all of us—masters as well as associates, visual artists along with writers--took all our weekday meals in a single refectory. The wisdom of John Cage’s advice was not lost.

All of my associates had accepted unreservedly the premise of Expanded Writing that I first articulated three decades ago—that a truly contemporary “writer” must know how to put words on more than paper. Though the associates ranged in age from 22 to 60, none regarded any of the others as esthetically unacceptable. Since they had, like myself, previously experienced situations in which their work was dismissed, this degree of colleagial acceptance was an unprecedented pleasure. None had ever before experienced a situation where everyone was so supportive. All of them were knowledgeable not only in literature but music and the visual arts. Only one talked about the limitations in marketing/exhibiting/publishing their current work, promising to establish a website in which visual poetry incorporating color could be made available to everyone.

After overcoming initial feelings of teacherly neglect, I realized that in collaboration with the ACA I had set in motion something resembling Black Mountain, where, as I recall, the ambitious students likewise helped one another under the benevolent guidance of Master Artists. I, whose grandparents came from old Smyrna, spent most June afternoons at New Smryna’s nearest beach, which I rank among the best in North America. Scarcely authoritarian in temper, I didn’t want to get in anyone’s way. I love to try something similar somewhere else sometime.

Individual entries on Richard Kostelanetz’s work appear in various editions of Readers Guide to Twentieth-Century WritersMerriam-Webster Encyclopedia of LiteratureContemporary PoetsContemporary Novelists, Postmodern FictionWebster's Dictionary of American WritersBaker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Directory of American ScholarsWho's Who in, and, among other distinguished directories.

~Richard Kostelanetz’s website:

~“Previously Unpublished, Sometimes Incomplete Entries Drafted for a Third Edition of my Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes (1992, 1999)”:


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.