A place to ‘be’

While attending Black Mountain College in the 1950s, award-winning writer Michael Rumaker says he was “literally shaken up” as, each day, a fresh yet rigorous world of artistic freedom was disclosed to him. His vivid memories of those impressionable years served him well when he began to record his memoirs of the controversial and celebrated college, some 20 years later.

For the past five years, Rumaker, now a professor at City College in New York, has worked intensely on Black Mountain Days. Though excerpts of the manuscript have appeared in various university newsletters, the full work has yet to be published as a book — which makes this as-yet-formless tribute an especially fitting memorial to the tradition-eschewing school.

Black Mountain College was a short-lived, burningly original institution that emphasized the importance of hard-won creative knowledge over a senseless grasping after grades (which were never a part of the curriculum, though Rumaker admits he did opt for a conventional graduation, enabling him to enter Columbia University’s master’s program with honors). Among the school’s many famous alumni are poet Robert Creeley and artists Willem de Kooning and Joseph Fiore. Rumaker’s days there, however, were shaped by his primary instructor — the towering poet Charles Olson.

At 6 feet 8 inches tall, the author of the epic volume The Maximus Poems cut an intimidating figure — and inspired many worshipful followers.

“[Olson] was a kind of spiritual father figure to us: a very complex man, a man of genius, and a powerful teacher,” Rumaker recalled during a recent phone interview from his home in New York City.

Happily for Rumaker, a careless indulgence of struggling young writers was not among the poet’s fatherly qualities.

“When he deemed you were worth something, he was very hard on you,” Rumaker remembers. “A lot of my [earlier stories] he rightly criticized,” continues the author, who has long viewed his “real” work as beginning with his 1954 short story “The Truck,” a still-lauded piece about a New Jersey street gang that he wrote under Olson’s tutelage.

Rumaker, who came from a working-class background, says he cannot imagine what course his life and writing might have taken had fate not drawn him toward Black Mountain.

“I think about that, try to speculate on what would have happened … but I’m not so sure [my life] could [have] turned out any differently,” he notes. “We are all pulled in certain directions, and I felt a very powerful pull to that place. We see things as [happening] accidentally, but I can’t imagine [my life] as happening any other way. I was looking for a way to learn how to write, and Black Mountain prepared me for nothing but my destiny.”

Part of the magic, Rumaker feels, was the heart-grabbing certainty of the mountain landscape, a spiritual mantle he still senses during his visits to western North Carolina.

“The mountains,” he offers softly, “are forever.”

As lasting for Rumaker as the area’s beauty was the innovative atmosphere he gratefully absorbed while studying in Black Mountain. “When I came [to Black Mountain], I didn’t know a lot about the ‘avant-garde,’ which was certainly happening there,” he says. “We all had to unlearn a lot. [We had to] begin to overcome what we had [acquired] growing up, whatever it was that was keeping us blind, rigid or overly comfortable, and learn to see things differently, hear music differently, [appreciate] poetry and dance. … All that was happening in Black Mountain then. It was a lively time, and it changed me.”

Rumaker went on to write six novels, a collection of short fiction, and many poems, stories and essays, picking up a Dell Publishing Foundation Award along the way. He is also the subject of Dossier #6, Eroticizing the Nation: Michael Rumaker’s Fiction, by Leverett T. Smith, part of a series published by the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center to honor the students and teachers of this singular institution.

Dossier #6 takes its title from a line in Rumaker’s 1981 novel, My First Satyrnalia, in which a gay writer attempts to transcend his feelings of emotional pain and creative stagnation through a meaningful connection with other people; this redemption is promoted through a loving ritual called a Satyrnalia, during which participants, at one point, call out, “Eros humanizes! Eroticize the nation!”

James Thompson, who co-edits the Black Mountain dossiers, recalls Rumaker’s earlier pieces of fiction — violent sketches of American life in the ’50s and ’60s: “Some say Rumaker anticipated Raymond Carver [with] these gutsy, slice-of-life tales of Americana.” These first stories contain no (or only heavily veiled) gay characters because, as Thompson notes, “you couldn’t talk about being gay, back then.” Rumaker’s more expressly autobiographical later works address openly gay themes — the legacy, in part, of the crucial social and creative liberation the writer gained during his days at Black Mountain College, Thompson maintains.

All BMC alumni are “hell to edit,” Thompson says with a laugh, because of their ingrained disregard for conventional grammatical confines. “You can’t impose that kind of structure on them,” he explains.

Structure (or lack thereof) aside, in Black Mountain Days, Rumaker takes a philosophical view of his days in the mountains: “[There] was the feeling that maybe here I could finally learn to write; equally as important, maybe here I could find a place to be.

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