Michael Rumaker, 1932-2019

Author and Black Mountain College alumnus Michael Rumaker — writer of fiction, poetry, short stories, non-fiction and memoir — passed away on June 3, 2019.

Michael Rumaker was born in South Philadelphia to Michael Joseph and Winifred Marvel Rumaker, the fourth of nine children. He spent his first seven months in the Preston Retreat charity ward, too sickly to be brought home, while his mother helped pay for her keep and his birth by peeling potatoes in the hospital’s kitchen. He grew up in National Park, New Jersey, a small town on the Delaware River, and later attended the school of journalism at Rider College in Trenton on a half-scholarship. After hearing artist Ben Shahn speak enthusiastically of Black Mountain College during a lecture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he applied to the college and was granted a work scholarship. In September 1952 he transferred to Black Mountain–washing dishes seven days a week, managing dishwashing crews, and taking care of the kitchen his first year–and studied in the writing classes of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. While at Black Mountain College he produced three stacks of manuscripts, each a foot high, which he kept hidden on a top shelf.

His breakthrough was “The Truck,” written for Olson’s writing class in October 1954: “after two years of confused false starts and superficial scratchings, I wrote my first real short story, although, in what was to become usual for me, I didn’t know it till after the fact.” He had “reached back,” by his own account, into his adolescence in the mid-1940s and a street gang he knew in the northern section of Camden, New Jersey, “to get it.” Olson’s response was enthusiastic, and he suggested that Rumaker send the story to Robert Creeley for the Black Mountain Review, which he published.

In September 1955 Rumaker graduated from Black Mountain with an honors degree ( Robert Duncan was his outside examiner)–one of only two or three students to have graduated from the college in its final years. After graduation, he lived in Philadelphia for a year, working in an advertising agency during the day and writing stories at night (“Black Mountain College,” he wrote, “had prepared me for nothing but my destiny”). In October 1956, he quit his job at the agency and hitchhiked the three thousand miles to San Francisco, where he worked as a clerk for a steamship company, again writing in his spare time while staying with former Black Mountain friends there, on hand for the energies shortly to be recognized as those of the Beat Generation. He describes these days vividly in “Robert Duncan in San Francisco,” part of his memoir of a literary life in progress.

He returned to New York in April 1958, suffered a breakdown some six months later, and was hospitalized, first at Bellevue and then at Rockland State just north of New York City, until August 1960. His first contract, then–four stories for Scribners’ Short Story 2 anthology–was signed in a mental institution. Since recovery he continued to live in Rockland County.

Rumaker received an M.F.A. in creative writing from Columbia University in 1969 and taught writing at the New School for Social Research, City College of New York, the State University of New York at Buffalo, and Rockland Center for the Arts.

Beginning in the 1970s, Rumaker began publishing memoirs and poems as well as fiction, often using a first-person narrator. His principal subject was gay life in the novels A Day and A Night at the Baths and My First Satyrnalia, the memoir Robert Duncan in San Francisco, and the poem “The Fairies Are Dancing All Over the World,” originally published in the periodical Gay Sunshine (1975) and later included in the 2005 release Pizza: Selected Poems

According to George Butterick, who began reading and collecting Michael Rumaker’s literary papers at the University of Connecticut in 1974, “Rumaker proceeded from writing about disengaged youth in a generation willing to declare its difference, to being a celebrant of total life and human joy. Actively participating in his own destiny, he has left a glowing trail of work to document the struggle toward identity. He represents, in his later writings, one extension of the Beat revolution: the embracing of sexual diversity. Governing all his work is an indefatigable spirit that gives the creative life reward.”

The Michael Rumaker Papers, assembled by Rumaker, contains his literary manuscripts, letters, notebooks, diaries, photographs, audio recordings and periodicals documenting his life, writing, activism, friendships, and literary affinities from 1950 to 2015.

Rumaker was a friend, supporter and collaborator to archivists and staff at the University of Connecticut over the years. We send our condolences to Rumaker’s friends and family. Read more on the website of The South Jersey Times.

On Charles Olson: poetics and / as pedagogy

Image

Dr. Michael Kindellan is a Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Sheffield, UK. He has published research articles on several 19th and 20th century Anglo-American poets, and has recently completed a book on Ezra Pound’s late cantos (to be published in September by Bloomsbury). Made possible by a generous a Strochlitz Travel Grant, in January he travelled to the Archives and Special Collections at the Dodd Research Center to consult the Charles Olson Research Collection, along with other, related collections, such as the Ed Dorn, John Wieners, Michael Rumaker, Fielding Dawson and Ann Charters Papers. This trip marks the beginning of work on his new project, tentatively called “Present Knowledge: Charles Olson and the Poetics of Pedagogy”.

I have been meaning to begin this project since late 2011, when I was first awarded a Strochlitz Travel Grant. Sadly, I was forced to defer that in favour of a temporary lectureship position. One thing led to another, and two intervening post-docs later, I am thrilled to have been afforded the time and opportunity, both by Sheffield and by UConn, to properly get started.

Charles Olson [FIG. 1] was a poet and a pedagogue. He began his teaching career at Clark University in the mid-1930s. In 1938, he took up a Guggenheim Fellowship in support of research on Herman Melville, leading to the publication of Call Me Ishmael. During the 1940s Olson also worked in various positions for the US Government: as Associate Chief of the Foreign Languages Division for the Office of War Information and as Foreign Nationalities Division Director for the Democratic National Committee). In the late 1940s, partly on account of his poetic debut Y & X (in collaboration with the Italian artist Corrado Cagli) and partly after a strong recommendation from Edward Dahlberg, Josef Albers invited Olson to give a series of classes on writing at Black Mountain College,[1] where he eventually took up a permanent position before becoming its rector until its closure in 1957. [FIG. 2] These academic posts were followed by others in the 1960s, initially at SUNY Buffalo and then at the University of Connecticut. Olson’s reputation as poet/theorist was secured by his seminal 1950 essay “Projective Verse”; from that point on, he wrote poems until the day he died.

With that in mind, setting his poetics (the theory and practice of verse composition) in relation to his pedagogy (the theory and practice of teaching) seems an obvious thing to do. However, my project attempts something slightly more ambitious, namely to read Olson’s poetics and pedagogy as both complementary and also as coincident undertakings. Some of Olson’s comments in the minutes of BMC faculty meetings, where the subject of conversation is how best to go about teaching, often sound exactly like his ideas concerning good writing practice and procedure; similarly, his verse is frequently didactic in tone and instructional in form. Just how Olson’s prosody can be seen to issue the reader with “instructions” is the subject of an essay I published in Contemporary Olson (Manchester UP, 2015), a work that serves as a starting point the larger project at hand. Throughout, I mean to argue that Olson’s ideas and methods of writing are identical to his ideas and methods of teaching, and to explore the consequences of that.

As Eleanor Berry and Alan Golding have recently suggested, Olson sought to extend “his formal concerns into the epistemological realm in arguing that projective verse involves a ‘stance towards reality’ that he labels ‘objectism’”. Olson understood “objectism”, Berry and Golding rightly note, as the “getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego”, which they describe as “an ethically anti-humanist move to take poetry beyond mere self-expression into more culturally capacious realms of statement”.[2] As a poet as well as a teacher, Olson might well have wanted to strip away all traces of the “individual as ego”, but it is not necessarily how he went about the actual business of either teaching or writing poems. Indeed, a good deal of archival material demonstrates that, in actual and historical fact, Olson’s methods are highly egoistic, often radically so (where by “egotistic” I do not mean “excessively conceited”, but rather interested in the “self” as a foundation for both practice and comportment).

Consider, as a case in point, the exam questions he set for students taking his 1964 “Literature and Myth” course at SUNY Buffalo. Question 4 in particular, which begins “My own belief is that…”, demonstrates the extent to which Olson exerted strong control over the parameters of whatever horizons of understanding his students operated within. [FIG. 3] By all accounts, Olson was, as his long-time correspondent J. H. Prynne recently put it, “an influential and powerful teacher”; but he and his “Black Mountain team”, Prynne goes on to contend, “practised ascendency over the students and dominated their development, and offered themselves as exemplary models to be followed, not as choices to be made”.[1]  This assessment is consistent with reports given by Olson’s actual students who never quite fell under his spell, such as Francine du Plessix (later Gray); likewise, Olson’s often bad tempered and downright condescending notes to Cid Corman in Letters for Origin portray an authoritative teacher who suffered dissent badly.[2] Charles Boer also reported, speaking to Olson in the second person, “your classrooms were for your ideas. If a student thought otherwise, he was soon set straight on the matter”.[3]

The question for me is, how to square this authoritarian streak with Olson’s anarchic, deeply anti-technocratic approaches to teaching and writing.[6] In regards to both he admonished students and burgeoning writers to practice “istorin’”, an activity he attributed to Herodotus’s historiography and defined as “finding out for yourself”. The implications of this are far too numerous to encapsulate here, but foremost amongst them is Olson’s total refusal of conventional curricula: Olson was profoundly skeptical about lesson plans and learning outcomes, all of which promised to curtail in advance any line of inquiry that organically emerged from the pedagogical process itself.[7] Several former students of Olson’s recount how he would habitually stay after class to study the chalk board, as though trying to make sense of what had happened, what was said. In “FIELD COMPOSITION”, or “projective verse” practice, the poet “puts himself in the open—he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself”.

The examinations Olson wrote for Clark University students reveal a key aspect of his pedagogical drive, namely the prioritisation of writing well over reading well. He was constantly interweaving questions of personal style, form and the like, into questions ostensibly about other texts. The idea here is that, for Olson, the most important texts were always one’s own. A headnote to a 22 January 1935 mid-year English II examination begins: “keep in mind that this is a course in writing. Clarity, accuracy, even beauty of expression is expected. No paper carelessly written will be considered satisfactory, in spite of content”.[8] [FIG. 4]

What exactly to make of all this I have yet to rightly determine, and giving a good answer will be the aim of my work over the next couple of years. But the plan is to conceptualise and then critique Olson’s pedagogy as poetics, and visa versa. What is clear, however, from the two weeks I was able to spend exploring and working in this extensive archive—a task made all the more challenging by Olson’s increasingly illegible handwriting and his tendency to write with dull pencils on acidic paper or the backs of dirty envelopes—have proven invaluable in terms of grounding a rather abstract idea in the hard facts of archival materials. For instance, the Charles Olson Research Collection holds large numbers of documents categorised as “prose”, which, upon inspection, are clearly notes for lectures or seminars given (mostly) at Black Mountain College. Though not a systematic thinker, not by a long shot, Olson, in many of these documents especially, is forever attempting to enumerate and order his thoughts on myth, on writing and on history. In others, such one that “begins” (if it can be said to begin anywhere) “You can’t use words as ideas”, Olson’s writing is (dis)organised spatially, composed quite literally “by field”, that is to say, in different intersected planes of the page space. [FIG. 5]

The archive also contains a great bulk of correspondence, written both by Olson, especially in his capacity as Rector of Black Mountain College, and by hundreds of correspondents, many of whom either taught with Olson (such as Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley) or were taught by him (such as Dorn, Dawson and Wieners). These letters have an obvious historical importance, given the established reputations of Olson’s peers. Of equal if rather different interest are letters Olson wrote to and received from lesser known interlocutors: officers at funding bodies, benefactors, university administrators, invitees to BMC’s summer “institutes” programme and parents of students. I expect many of these to feature significantly in my completed work. Naturally the manuscripts and other pre-publication material of the poetry—those pertaining to The Maximus Poems particularly—will feature throughout my work as well. The first drafts of Olson’s poems, written mostly in longhand and sometimes to spectacular effect [FIG. 6], demand readers reassess the value and importance of the typewriter to this work. But it’s the less glamorous reaches of the archive that have thrown up the most interesting preliminary findings.

 

 

– Michael Kindellan
Sheffield, March 2017

 

 

Figures:

  1. Fielding Dawson Drawing of Charles Olson (ink on paper), Fielding Dawson Papers. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.
  1. Black Mountain Ephemera, Fielding Dawson Papers. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.
  1. Series III, Box 268. Charles Olson Research Collection. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.
  1. Series III, Box 259. Charles Olson Research Collection. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.
  1. Series I, Box 26. Charles Olson Research Collection. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.
  1. Series I, Box 5, Folder 273. “I have been an ability—a machine”. Charles Olson Research Collection. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

 

Notes:

[1] Josef Albers, 24 September 1948 Letter to Charles Olson, Series II Box 124, Charles Olson Research Collection. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

[2] Eleanor Berry and Alan Golding, “Projective Verse”, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th ed., ed. Roland Greene et al, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 1109.

[3] J. H. Prynne, “The Art of Poetry No. 101”, The Paris Review 218 (Fall 2016): 183.

[4] Charles Olson, Letters for Origin: 1950-1956, ed. Albert Glover (London: Cape Goliard, 1969).

[5] Charles Boer, Charles Olson in Connecticut (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1975), 54.

[6] As Martin Duberman reports, John Cage esteemed Olson’s Black Mountain College a truly anarchic community, in contradistinction to Josef Albers’s, where the “anarchic feeling… was only on the surface”. Martin Duberman, Black Mountain College: An Exploration in Community (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972), 367.

[7] Cf. Olson’s statements on the matter in “Minutes of a Meeting of the Black Mountain College Faculty, 1951”, Olson: The Journal of the Charles Olson Archives 2 (Fall 1974): 16-24.

[8] Charles Olson, “Clark University English II Mid-Year Examination, Series III Box 258, Charles Olson Research Collection. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

 

Magdalena Gomez: A Story that Inspires Minority Feminists and All Alike

The following post is by undergraduate and UConn History Department intern Diana Alvarado about her current project working with materials in the Archives & Special Collections. 

The Women's Times, 2004

The Women’s Times, 2004

My name is Diana Alvarado, and I am a first-year student at the University of Connecticut. Lots of people seem to think that being a history major is just about learning the facts of the past, but it really is so much more than that. It’s also about making a connections with stories and getting into the minds of the people in those stories.

At the Archives & Special Collections in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, I have been doing research about second wave feminism, and I found an article in “The Women’s Times” about Magdalena Gomez, a Puerto-Rican poet, playwright, and feminist. While reading the article by Allison Tracy, I was able to get a good look at her life as a minority and a woman. I can understand that also being a Puerto-Rican and female would make it easier for me to relate to Gomez than someone who wasn’t, but her story gives us a look inside the mind the of the feminists who weren’t the center of attention in the movement. Why is this important? It’s important because we can learn so much more about how the movement continues to impact our lives today; we can understand who we are a little more, and we can be more inspired to continue the work that feminists devoted their lives to. Continue reading

Out of the Frame: Alternative Arts of the 1980s

Out of the Frame: Alternative Arts of the 1980s

Out of the Frame: Alternative Arts of the 1980s

A co-curated gallery exhibition of alternative arts of the 1980s is currently on display at the Dodd Center.  This exhibit features selections of dial-a-poems, artists’ books, offset lithography, punk rock, zines, buttons, show flyers, cyberpunk literature, comic books and related ephemera from the Archives & Special Collections.  By focusing on underground visual and aural arts of fringe countercultures, our goal is to demonstrate the range of expression found within these distinct cultural enclaves.  The show offers materials from three distinct curatorial areas, however the threads that tie these materials together become interwoven through their reactions to the dominant modes of production of the era.

March 3-May 11, 2014

Thomas J. Dodd Research Center

Gallery Hours: 8:30-4:30, Monday – Friday

For more information on the libraries ongoing exhibits, please visit the exhibitions page.