Monday, December 05, 2011

Richard Kostelanz: The Avant Garde at Brown University: 1960 (Excerpt only)

Richard Kostelanetz, the noted avant-garde writer, was kind enough to send this excerpt of an interview conducted at Brown University in 2004 to the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene.


Richard Kostelanetz, born in New York City in 1940, went to Brown in 1958, graduating with honors in American Civilization early in 1962. He later did graduate work at Columbia University in American history and at King’s College, the University of London, as a Fulbright scholar, taking an M.A. at the former in 1966. Ever since, he has been an independent scholar/writer/media artist residing, until recently, in lower Manhattan. His work in various domains has been recognized with individual entries in Contemporary Poets, Contemporary Novelists, Postmodern Fiction, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, A Reader’s Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, the Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Webster’s Dictionary of American Authors, The HarperCollins Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature,, and, among other distinguished compendia.

The interviewer, whose comments appear here in italics, was Sarah Bird, an undergraduate working with the radical cultural historian Paul Buhle in the American Civilization program at Brown University. She talked with Richard Kostelanetz in November 2004 after RK's lecture to the Coalition of Independent Scholars at the General Society Library in New York City. RK corrected and amended the transcript then and, with brackets, later.


The only remotely avant-garde entity on campus around 1960 was the college literary magazine that had been edited by the painter John Willenbecher just before I arrived. In its small office I met Bill Berkson, who left Brown only a few months after I arrived, later becoming a prominent poet and art critic on the West Coast, who remembers our meeting in the literary magazine office in a memoir that I found on the Internet and incidentally reprinted in my CD-Rom Intellectual Correspondence in the 21st Century (2005): “I can hear you now, in the Brunonia office, talking of Dissent, PR [Partisan Review], and other critical journals, of which at the time I knew not one thing.”

In my library is an impressive copy of Brunonia's Fall 1958 issue that contains contributions by Berkson, Richard Foreman, and myself, each of us presaging what we later became. While Bill has a critical review of "beat" poetry, Richard contributes not only a short play that he calls "a cartoon," but also an extended review of Bertolt Brecht's "epic opera," as he calls it, Mahagonny, which Richard was invited to direct decades later in Lille, France. (It didn’t happen, even after being fully prepared, for reasons beyond his control.) My own contribution to Brunonia is a witty aphoristic dictionary that presages the Dictionary I wrote in 1990 and rewrote a decade later. (This issue also has a stylistically unusual story by Peter Goldman, who briefly became an avant-garde filmmaker before doing something else.) May I wonder if other issues of Brunonia and its successors, not to mention undergraduate literary magazines anywhere, are so professionally prophetic?

I knew less Steve Overbeck, perhaps two years ahead of me, who, as S. K. Overbeck, was later a Newsweek cultural staff writer for a while. Only after graduating did I meet Harry Smith, who left Brown just before I came, but as publisher of a literary periodical titled Pulpsmith he became one of the few Brown alumni to publish me.

I took only one course with S. Foster Damon, a great teacher and a sort of underground avant-garde celebrity, whom I saw more off-campus, so to speak. An activist in the art and musical avant-garde dating back to the 1920s, he taught me an awful lot of useful stuff, especially how to be a professional, which is not quite the same thing as “how to write.” There was at Brown around 1960 no conscious political or artistic avant-garde or underground to any degree that Paul Buhle, a few years younger than I, understands the latter term from his own experience at Wisconsin—certainly not when I was there in the late fifties and early sixties. Paul edited an anthology of rich memoirs about the 1950s and 1960s in at the University of Wisconsin that I recall reading with envy [History and the New Left, 1991], because nothing comparable could be written about Brown during those years.


For my last three semesters at Brown I lived down Hope Street, next to a local library that became an historical society; that location was at the time really more off-campus than it appeared to be the last time I visited Brown—in the early 1980s. We lived on the edge of a Portuguese slum called Fox Point that was probably slummier then than now. And Foster Damon lived a few blocks away, at a parallel distance from the main campus, at 24 Thayer.

Who is Foster Damon?

Foster was an extraordinary man whom I hope is still remembered in some way or another at Brown. Do a Google search of his name now, and you’ll find a healthy number of references, thousands I think. His influence persists, even though he died decades ago. He founded the Harris Collection of poetry in the library, he knew avant-garde music, and he knew avant-garde literature. As an undergraduate at Harvard before World War I, he had co-founded with other students the Harvard Musical Review (1912-1916), which was meant to appreciate contemporary music ignored by their teachers. One partner in this Review was a man who went on to a more distinguished career, the composer Roger Sessions, whose daughter Elizabeth was my Most Significant Other for many years. Foster’s brother-in-law was the eccentric Boston poet John Brooks Wheelwright, who died too young, whose literary executor Foster became, whose poems are treasured to this day by John Ashbery, among others.

[Since this interview, Ashbery questioned in correspondence with me about New Directions waiting thirty years between announcing in 1939 and finally publishing Wheelwright’s collected poems in 1970, conjecturing that Foster might have been responsible for the delay, speculating further about Foster’s possible dementia. Knowing John, I replied that Foster was quite lucid in 1960-62, when I knew him best, if often pickled. John replied that the Wheelwright papers kept at Brown were a mess. I recalled that though Foster sorted American songs for the Harris Collection he wasn’t skilled at detailed archiving. I didn’t recall Foster discussing Wheelwright, though he often mentioned W.S.B. Braithwaite, who had anthologized Foster; but in 1960 I might not have recognized Wheelwright’s name. I speculated that perhaps publication had to wait for his wife Louise, Wheelwright’s sister, to return from institutionalization, as she did just before he died. Since he, not she, was the official executor, while they didn’t have children, my speculation was admittedly insufficient.]

Foster was important as well for publishing in 1924 the first big book on William Blake in America. In this respect, he influenced my wife-to-be, a Pembroker, who wrote her Columbia doctorate on Blake and, I’m told, gave her son by her next husband the first name of Blake. In the 1930s, Foster compiled a pioneering anthology of American Songs that subsequently influenced the musical compositions of his contemporaries Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland.

Then roughly that same age that I am now—in his mid-sixties--Foster had been involved in various boys’ clubs in Fox Point, which was then a Portuguese slum behind Power Street. Ed Margolis, long an English professor in Staten Island, remembers that a decade before me Foster taught boxing to the Fox Point kids. Because his wife Louise Wheelwright had been institutionalized for many years, select local kids would become his house helpers. Some of them went on to careers at Brown, like Ernie Costa, who worked in the Brown library until he died young. Though Foster had more connection to Fox Point than I did, perhaps my experience there prepared me for my next address, which was a low-rent public housing project in Harlem, down the hill from Columbia University.

Dinner at his Thayer Street house once a week, first for me and then for both Bunny and myself, was central to our experience of “underground Brown.”

Were you already interested in the avant-garde when you were at Brown?

Not so consciously. I remember reading on my own initiative Harold Rosenberg's The Tradition of the New, which turned me onto the idea of the avant-garde, and then Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years. I must have reviewed the Rosenberg book for the undergraduate literary magazine because I received an appreciative letter from the publisher who a few years later did a book of mine. Foster told me a lot, as I said, about the American avant-garde, not only in literature but also in music.

Did you feel at that time that avoiding the Brown writing program was probably a wise move?

As a major yes, but not Foster Damon’s verse writing course for which I signed up, even though I had no ambitions to write poetry at the time and I didn’t much like Damon’s assignments, which required us to write poems in a succession of English verse forms from Beowulf to the present. [A half-century later, long since a devout radical formalist, I wish I could take it again.]

From Foster above all others I probably developed the intellectual ambition for always aiming to take my work to a higher level, to go where no one else has gone or would go, in my case not only in criticism but creative work and even in this interview I hope, much as he and Cummings did in their own careers. Remember that Foster’s big book on William Blake, published in 1924 when Foster was only thirty-one, achieves an extraordinary unraveling. Check it out sometime to be impressed even now by his powers of elucidation, defining clarity in literature that previously seemed inscrutable. Foster would tell that when he was a graduate student in English lit at Harvard in the early 1920s, supplicants were asked what they thought of William Blake. It was enough for the student to say, “Oh Blake, he’s crazy,” for the examiner to move onto another subject. Simply, Foster’s Blake wasn’t crazy, and he’s not been crazy since. When I edited a decade ago an anthology of the more radical Cummings writings, it was appropriate to dedicate that book to Foster. From him and from the Brown history professor Bill [William G.] McLoughlin, as well as other intellectual heroes, such as George Orwell, whom I also discovered in college, also comes the ambition to tell the truth, even an unfamiliar truth, much as I hope to do here.

Though David Kelly continued to major in creative writing, I realized, partly through observing David’s experience, that I should stay away from other Brown writing courses, which I now think were designed to make high school teachers. I have a vague recollection of John Hawkes telling me in my freshmen year that I had “no talent for prose.” Since he dismissed me, I had no reason to take any other courses with him, probably to my good fortune, we could now judge. I must have kept in touch with Hawkes nonetheless because I remember taking him and his wife Sophie to dinner at Foster Damon’s. They hadn’t met before, even though they were Harvard undergraduates thirty years apart. Should we be surprised that Hawkes never contacted me after my graduation, though, need I say, as an alumnus publishing both fiction and fiction criticism that are recognized in histories and encyclopedias. If he mentioned my work or even my name to later Brown students, I’ve never heard about it. Should this be considered another sign of Brown professors’ lack of respect for their more successful students? I remember a close relative of his telling me, perhaps two decades ago, that Jack “hated every minute” of teaching, which may have been true.

Some alumni writers a generation younger than I have acknowledged John Hawkes’s importance to their development. One of them, whom I’ve not met, Jeffrey Eugenides, even successfully appropriated the Hawkes formula of a narrator whose physical abnormalities give him a peculiar perspective on experience. Perhaps by Eugenides’ time Hawkes became more respectful of his better students, not to mention his teaching talents, and thus a more effective writing teacher.

Probably because Hawkes and Edwin Honig didn’t get tenure at Harvard, where they had previously taught, they assumed that even their stronger students were likewise Harvard rejects, as indeed we probably were, though that stigma didn’t disqualify us finally from literary careers.

David Kelly, at any rate, went on to get an Iowa MFA writing degree and is now [was, alas] a prominent West Coast editor, whose book on Secrets of the Old Growth Forest (1990) won an award from northwest booksellers.

******** Kostelanz has an ebook BROWN UNIVERSITY REMEMBERED (Amazon Kindle)

Richard Kostelanetz
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c 2011 Richard Kostelanetz

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