Thomas Fink: I want to begin in a very general area and get to specifics a bit later. Whether in prose or, less often, in verse, Learning to Draw presents numerous stories about historical figures in the arts, about political and social trends, and about you as an artist and individual who left his native London to live in the U.S. The subtitle “A History” is important here: whether or not you consider your book a long poem, this massive accumulation of narratives bears comparison in scope and cultural emphases to the “poem including history” that Ezra Pound was trying to make cohere in The Cantos, and that Charles Olson, your professor at Black Mountain College in the fifties, was working to achieve in The Maximus Poems. The diverse stories keep coming back to a group of particular themes or motifs, but between each story, there’s often a big jump. I cannot envision the whole as either a single large story or a set of tightly interlocking narratives. Yet I am reminded of what Judith Halden-Sullivan in The Topology of Being: The Poetics of Charles Olson writes about her subject: “Olson is less interested in readers identifying the particular facts that fill his poems than in their discovering a pattern of connections in his work that shows something larger than discrete bits of information” (23). I also think about Paul Bove’s assertion in Destructive Poetics: Heidegger and Modern American Poetry, which depends in part on Olson’s exhortations about perceptual movement and process in “Projective Verse” that “Pound and Olson do not hope to see the whole world laid out spatially on a map seen from above,” but “rather,. . . try to regain the older method of map-making which grows directly out of motion, dis-covery, and encountering the unknown. Pound calls this process of charting a coast line, periplum” (267).
How then, do you regard your map, periplum, flexible overall procedure or design, or poetics for this project—especially regarding the possible relationships among narrative elements? Am I right to see a connection with Olson’s (major) “push,” as Sherman Paul has it? And how does Daniel Staniforth, your editor, enter into all of this?
Basil King: I have no map when I start. When I paint I have a figure or a group of figures in mind – or writing I start with one or two people from real life, history usually, not my personal life. As I start other people will come to my mind. But first, whether in painting or writing, I have to place them. Am I going to talk in terms of biography or some insights I have about them?
As this progresses, I begin to know more. I begin to see a bit more clearly.
I’m travelling down a road, yes. Very often on the most familiar route, I’ll see something I never saw before. And that prods me on to the next thing. I do like Pound’s idea of a map but it isn’t particularly useful to me. Too many things come into my head, I see too many things all at once. But I have learned over the years to find space for the things I think about. I suppose that’s why there are jumps.
Often I find a phrase or a few lines of poetry that I repeat because this literally helps me begin again from there. And I’m sure it helps the reader because the repeats give a reader time to take it in, to breathe.
The sections or pieces are not in a preordained sequence – I didn’t write them that way and I had the feeling that one could start or stop almost anywhere. In fact several readers have told me they read this book that way.
I like that. It feels democratic. Daniel Staniforth asked me if I wanted to publish Learning To Draw/A History. And it was wonderful to be asked. I was comfortable with Daniel’s sensibility and felt very confident that he would do justice to the manuscript so I decided to ask him to organize the sections into book form. I told him only that “Across and Back” had to be the first piece.
It could be done another way. And another time it might be.
Fink: Why did “Across and Back” have to be first?
King: Because ‘across and back’ is what I do. From Europe to America, from the cave to the present. This section also contains a nice introduction to H.D. who is muse. D.H. Lawrence has always been very important to me, as well – and there it is: America. Europe. I don’t mention my father’s statement to me about Lawrence in Learning to Draw, but I have it in mirage—he said, “Read Lawrence. He’s an anti-Semite but he’s a great writer.” That was a great lesson to me and has helped me to stay open.
Fink: One motif that often seems to orient you is “Get rich. Be rich. Get rich. Be rich” (15). Why is that one important to you—as psychopolitical critique?
King: Yes, I often use it instead of “Pause” as a break between sections. I don’t think of it as a political statement. I think of it as a way to declare a central theme of capitalism, a motif that repeats itself in American life…from the outside, from the inside.
Fink: OK, I understand. For readers who aren’t yet acquainted with this book, however, I would advise them to pay special attention to the representation of the political in two sections near the end of the book, “Twin Towers,” which addresses the tragedy of 9/11 and its aftermath, and “Basil’s Arc,” which includes a sharp critique of militarism in all its forms.
Would you say that this book is a long poem, a hybrid of several genres, or something else?
King: This best way I can think of answering this is to cite a note I received from Nathaniel Tarn: he said that he thought I had found a way for an artist to write his autobiography.
Fink: I might add that it’s an aesthetic/intellectual autobiography by an artist who is also a poet. The “Across and Back” section is challenging because sometimes I think you’re giving an actual account of a historical event—for example, the meeting between H.D. and D.H. (Lawrence)—and then you segue into something like the account of the war hero, and it seems to be fictitious or the narrative gets scrambled to the point where it couldn’t be “a history.” This kind of segue happens repeatedly in that section. For example, Freud appears to proposition H.D. It didn’t happen. What kind of guidance can you give your readers about what you might like them to make of the movement from historical reportage and interpretation to out-and-out fiction?
King: Your definition of the book is fine by me.
As for my switches between ‘fact’ ‘invention’ and outright ‘fantasy’ – I don’t want to provide clues. I happen to think that way. Somehow I think about how Pieter Brueghel, Gruenwald, and Bosch treated actual events and fictions and fantasied them, way before the coming of Surrealism. I also take a lot from Rimbaud’s instructions on disarranging our senses.
I should also add that more than one piece has taken me over a year to complete. I don’t always know the final destination.
The ‘war hero’ came to me because H.D. and D.H. really did meet just as war was declared in 1914. So I was thinking about people who have been in combat. I just know they come out with thoughts that are not always real. That passage has a great deal of reality I believe. Just not the same kind of fact.
That kind of mix-up is important to me, bringing disparate things together.
As for Freud propositioning H.D. – wouldn’t H.D. have loved it!
Fink: After a prose passage on Walt Whitman and the Civil War and the racial situation during early Reconstruction, you break into a highly evocative free-verse strophe on the painting process that seems a statement of poetics:
We paint from memory
But experience gives
Us our background
Background: the sum of
One’s experience re-invented
And made conspicuous
Brings the disparate together (79)
Why might that statement be coming after the Whitman/Reconstruction passage? And does the strophe, which, I think, gives “re-invention” some degree of priority over “memory,” help us understand not only your process of painting but your intentions? Also, what tends to motivate the decision to use lines of verse rather than prose, or vice-versa?
King: The process immediately after the Civil War, Reconstruction, was redoing something. Reinventing a society that would work differently. That would be better for everybody. What came to my mind next was how I begin a painting. I don’t think about reinventing society but I do think about reinventing what I already know. That means working with my memory. Reinvention has to start with memory.
It’s not a question of priority…memory is the raw material reinvention works with.
I switch into poetry as a means of letting people follow how my thought has changed. When my thoughts are changing, I don’t think prose. I hope it’s clear that the language itself changes. It becomes a poetic statement.
Fink: Yes, that does seem clear.
You are frequently interested in linking artistic achievement with both courage and, I think, angry resistance to a society that lacks an egalitarian sociopolitical ethos: “Philip Guston and Jackson Pollock were kicked out of high school for printing a subversive magazine. Not all but some angry young men become killers and a few grow up to become artists. There are always angry young men that are willing to face death daily” (47). This passage can be found in “Quartet,” the section on Nathaniel Tarn, Jacob Lawrence, J.G. Johnson, and Robert Frank, four figures linked by their ability to use “different instruments to find a way to migrate to something that is not theirs “a resource that documents possibility” (32). Of course, migration and anger against the anti-Semitism that you encountered while growing up (and which is the subject of various narratives in the book) are important to your own autobiography. It appears, then, that artistic production (or “reinvention”) derives from both memory of personal experience—oppressive more often than not—and “resources” or material outside the constraints of the self that permit the “migration” to more satisfactory aesthetic and political possibilities. Anger, then, is a fuel for such migration. What in my conjecture about your views am I getting right, and what am I leaving out or overgeneralizing about or just plain getting wrong?
King: Most of your statement is fine. I pause when I get to “Anger, then, is a fuel for such migration.” Yes, it is but not all the time. If I were to rely on anger only I would have to leave out too much. I wouldn’t be using my whole self. I’d deny other people, and history, mine and all that is in back of us.
Fink: Because of its associative leaps, one of the most challenging sections in the book is “Dictation,” in which you move from a consideration of Saul Steinberg to Franz Kafka (briefly) to Diane Arbus and then to another photographer, Jerry Shore. Interspersed are some autobiographical narratives. What impels you to put these figures together?
King: All four of them are cosmopolitan Jews who had a very personal twist on reality.
I think I am just about finished with a new piece I’ve been working since last spring. Twelve =
This one has six popular singers, a boxer, a movie star, two writers and two politicians… And the painting continues downstairs; it’s tiring and rewarding all at the same time.
Fink: Twelve characters are a lot to juggle in one composition: congratulations!
Fink: Being a student at Black Mountain College was a crucial point of your development as a painter/poet. In “Windows,” you write:
In class Olson was a marvel holding a little piece of chalk in his large hand he’d turn his eyes. Would Ahab get the better of him and would he never see Gloucester again. . . . Olson wanted information that pertained. Process became a passion a declaration of intent that never wavered. He pursued those of us who were in class for information and by so doing he taught us how to use windows. (129)
Then, in “The Real Thing Has Four Parts,” you put forth the idea attributed to Willem de Kooning, the professor (in your fantasy) of Holbein the Younger, that “Black Mountain College is a community where everyone learns,” as notions like “the faculty their discipline will humble you,” “Black Mountain welcomed those who were willing to leave home, meet strangers and learn to draw,” and “Black Mountain was a democracy no tests, card markings, lights out” (163). In a subsequent verse section, you add, “Voices never heard before/ Gave themselves/ Permission to speak/ And speak they did” (164).
I assume that you, Baz, were “in class for information”: how did Olson “pursue” you? How did he teach you “to use windows”? And how did “the faculty’s discipline humble you”? De Kooning’s—especially? Also, did you need Black Mountain’s “permission to speak,” or were you “speaking” already?
King: The summer he was there was three or four years before my time . I met deKooning in New York--because of the Black Mountain connection. What Olson taught me was that you had to look outside, outside of yourself, outside the window, to find information that you needed. That didn't mean that you shouldn't look inside yourself or use your own intuition but that couldn't be the only source.
I came to Black Mountain when I was only 16; I had never known mature artists, I'd never seen how hard they work. Olson was writing “Maximus” at the time. Volpe was composing. Merce was working his dances out. I think the same can be said of Cage. At the same time, there was a truly democratic environment there. The differences between the faculty and the students were minimized. Everyone worked and people mined each others work regardless of where they were in terms of age or maturity. Pretty much everyone pursued everyone. It could get pretty combative. If you didn't work, you couldn't stay there. It was famous. People came and sometimes three days later they were gone.
I didn't need Black Mountain's permission to speak, I needed it to find my own voice. Black Mountain taught me that I needed to find my own voice.
Fink: Learning to Draw includes generalizations about artists that can be deemed part of an unorthodox art criticism or, sometimes, art history. Here are sentences from “The Trusting Child”: “Matisse wasn’t the first artist to stick his fingers in the paint and like honey he rearranged and made his own colour wheel. Black became a noun a predator an intuitive device that could be placed in any room on anyone’s face an eye a space is asked to take its clothes off” (110). When you say that Matisse created “his own colour wheel,” do you mean that he ignored the usual arrangement of complementaries, analogous harmonies, triadic harmonies, etc. and put colours together in unprecedented ways, or something else? And did he literally paint with his fingers, or are you speaking about a particular development of textures—i.e. scumbling? I have always been struck by Matisse’s powerful use of black outlining and solid black elements; I sense how it can seem “predatory,” according to old associations of the word, but in what way is “black” “a noun”? And how does “a space” have “clothes” that black can induce it to “take. . . off”?
King: Let me say first, when Matisse was a young man he took his paintings to Renoir, whom he greatly admired. Renoir looked at them for a long time and then said, "I could never use black that way."
Yes, Matisse exaggerated his colors and very rarely is anything a prime color. As for fingers, artists have been sticking them in the paint since the cave. Titian did it in old age and you can see his prints in the paint. I believe Matisse did it ... certainly a lot of moderns, like Soutine or deKooning let it be obvious. I think earlier, fingers were used but without leaving a trace.
As for other changes, as elsewhere, I really believe the surreal knocks....