Sunday, December 21, 2014

Interview with Christopher Busa: Founder of the Provincetown Arts magazine

Interview with Christopher Busa founder of Provincetown Arts Magazine

With Doug Holder
Christopher Busa, founder and editor of Provincetown Arts magazine, was born in New York City in 1946, the son of a painter who participated in the formative years of  Abstract Expressionism. Spending part of every year in Provincetown  since infancy, he slowly absorbed its mythology as a place where artists  and writers gather to work and live. After graduation from the University of Minnesota, he studied for a year in Paris at the Sorbonne, and then pursued a Ph.D. for ten years while teaching English at Rutgers University. His interviews and profiles of artists and writers have appeared in the Paris Review, Arts, Partisan Review, Garden Design, and other magazines. Two published pieces were reprinted in Interviews and Encounters with Stanley Kunitz, edited by Stanley Moss (Sheep Meadow Press). Another essay, “Being a Great Man Is a Thesis Invented by Others,” appeared in Such Desperate Joy: Imagining Jackson Pollock (Thunder’s Mouth Press). He has curated exhibitions and written catalog introductions for many artists. He co-edited and introduced the Erotic Works of D.H. Lawrence (Crown, 1989), the subject of his dissertation. He is the author of The Provincetown Artists Cookbook, with Written Sketches of the Artists Creating a Contemporary Portrait of the Town as an Art Colony (Abingdon, 1988).Over the past 20 years he has taped several hundred interviews and created files on over 1000 artists and writers in preparation for a comprehensive title about the century-long history of the art colony.  His WOMR FM 92.1 radio program, “ArtTalk,” airs three times a month over the past five years, introducing new and established artists, performers, and writers discussing their current project and what moves them to do it.He is a member of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA), based in Paris, and he is one of 16 members of the American New England Chapter, which selects two dozen “Best of” exhibitions annually in museums, commercial galleries, and university art galleries in painting, sculpture, and architecture. He is on the board of the Norman Mailer Society and on the editorial board of the Mailer Review,published by the Society and by the University of South Florida. He teaches one semester a year in the low-residency Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania.

 I had the pleasure to speak to him on my Somerville Community Public TV show: Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.

Doug Holder:  You have created over 1,000 interview files of artists, writer and poets that will be the basis of a memoir of years in Provincetown. Tell us about this project.

Christopher Busa: That book is going to be two books. The memoir I am working on is titled: Provincetown Arts. Many of the pieces that will appear in the book have been published already. I am editing it for redundancies—repetitions, etc… My motivation to start Provincetown Arts magazine—was well, after 10 years of graduate school at Rutgers University—that brand of a PhD on my hide—made me feel diminished in some odd way. I was the son of an artist who participated in the formative years of the Abstract Expressionism movement, and he taught at many universities. But every time he went to a new university art department there was always a war between the scholars and the creative people. I saw my father suffer. He was a very distinguished professor—many of his students became top artists in the country. I can think of Robert Hass, as one of them. I kind of escaped  just after I did all my work for a PhD. I moved to Provincetown to start Provincetown Arts in 1985. Our magazine has covered all the major figures that have populated Provincetown since then. Provincetown is known as the nation’s oldest art colony. It began in 1899. Originally it was a Portuguese fishing village. It was much like an European fishing village, not unlike the end of the railroad places in France. Those were places where all the artists in Paris would escape to in the summer. They could live cheaply and in a beautiful environment. And Provincetown picked up on that after the First World War. One of the ex-patriots came back and said:’ How can we replace Europe?’ And Provincetown reminded him of Europe, not only because half of the population were Portuguese fisherman, but because the fishermen and the artist were part of the “gift economy.’ Fishermen would give fish to the artists, and in turn the artists would gave them paintings, etc…

DH: Is there still a gift economy?

CB: Artists still barter. For dental work they will give a painting.  There is still a “this for that” sensibility. I grew up watching my father doing that routinely to pay bills. I found it a very natural thing to do. I take the gift economy very seriously. I have seen this with artists, and poets too—like Stanley Kunitz. Poets don’t get a lot of money for their books of poetry—but you got a prize, a teaching job, and other sources of compensation.

DH: I remember living in the Back Bay of Boston in the 70s, in a furnished room, writing, living cheaply. Is the Bohemian lifestyle harder to achieve now?

CB: I always think that it was difficult. The terms just change. When my father was audited by the IRS, they said to him: "You are not selling your painting--you are taking off too much for expenses--maybe this is a hobby." My father replied " No, No--it is a necessity ."  You see artists--either poor or rich--they have a compulsion to work.

DH: What is the difference between the artist and non-artist?

CB: One of the ways to distinguish between a non-artist--is to talk about the way artists totalize. The non-artist can do work that they  don't enjoy for the sake of earning a living.  The artist totalizes--everything he or she wants to do is everything.

DH: Some would claim art is useless...

CB: If it is so useless--then why do we create so much?

DH:  Provincetown Arts has interviewed and published a huge amount of writers since 1985, not to mention a plethora of artists have appeared on your pages. Can you talk  a bit about this?

CB: Our cover subjects tend to be major artists and writers--and they sort of cut through the theme of each issue. We have featured such writers as: Jhumpa Lahiri, Norman Mailer, poets Mark Doty, Mary Oliver, Stanley Kunitz, the filmmaker John Waters, not to mention the artist Robert Motherwell, and many others.

DH: Are all off your features connected to P-Town?

CB: Either they live down the block or they are from neighboring communities.  They have deep roots.

DH: Many people have told me interviewing is an art. How is it an art?

CB:. I couldn't be more affirmative to the question of " Is interviewing an art?" I want to bring out the genius, the genuine voice of the artist--not some secondary rendering. As a son of an artist, I heard my father speak about painting with astonishing vividness. Robert Motherwell published a series of artists writings, including interviews--that influenced me a great deal. To me  interviews are a way to isolate the artists' voice. The interviewer is talking to the face of the moon, and through the interview he can see the dark side too.

DH: You have a memoir coming out about your life ant times in Provincetown--including your experience with Norman Mailer--who you knew since you were 7 years old. Can you talk a bit about this?

CB: Norman rented my father's studio in P-Town.  I would watch Norman come in to work for 5 or 6 summers. He wore work clothes--got into his studio around 10AM--and left about 4PM. He was like a house painter going to paint a house. He really had a profound work ethic. One story that went around was you had to catch Norman in the evening between his 7th and 14th drink--to talk to him. Hey--he wrote 50 books--so he didn't waste a lot of time. Norman was interested in things that altered his state of consciousness. And writing could do that for him. He has an unpublished manuscript about his experiences with cannabis titled Lipton's Tea. Mailer said of Provincetown  "This is a town you can find yourself digging in and fighting for." So he thought Provincetown was worth protecting. He called it the " Wild West of the East." He liked the fact that there was a town in America that people of all types could co-exist.

DH: You knew and wrote about the poet Stanley Kunitz who also had a home in Provincetown.

CB: I wrote one essay about his garden. How he started this garden from which was once a barren sand dune. He terraced it--like stanzas in  a poem. He worked on this garden for two years, in many ways like he worked on a poem.

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