Even on the verge of his 75th birthday, even having won the exalted Bollingen Prize, Robert Creeley shies from the idea of leaving a legacy. "It hasn't been a career in any determined sense," he says from his home in Buffalo, N.Y. "Poets were presumed to be people who didn't have careers."
Still, his terse, emotionally charged, and much imitated body of work has formed a brilliant career, though he dare not apply the word to himself or to his peers. "Allen never had any idea of a career, and Lawrence is still paying dues for his outspokenness," Creeley says, referring to Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti, whom he first met around 1955, when -- young and broke -- he crashed at a tiny apartment on Montgomery and Broadway. Creeley hasn't been a stranger to the Bay Area since: He lived on an artists' colony in Bolinas for much of the '70s, and several of his children and grandchildren now call San Francisco home. He returns to San Francisco State's Poetry Center and American Poetry Archives this weekend to read from his recent work, including 1998's Life & Death; his collaborations with visual artists such as Donald Sultan and John Chamberlain are on display at Stanford University's Peterson Gallery through Jan. 6.
Expectations were much different during Creeley's formative years, a full four decades before the Master of Fine Arts boom lured poets out of low-cost locales (Creeley lived first in Majorca, then taught at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina) and into big universities. Creeley at one time spent a full eight hours a day corresponding with his early mentor Charles Olson. And though Creeley himself is now firmly ensconced in the new MFA system as a member of the State University of New York faculty, he envisions the old-fashioned epistolary system that served him so well moving into the 21st century. "Especially with e-mail, it's extraordinary: One can write and exchange poetry so much more simply," he says. "That's what's interesting to me, the ways in which poetry can be distributed most simply and can find communities."
Creeley has always taken it upon himself to develop those poetic communities, attending dozens of writers' conferences a year. "It's my responsibility to show up as an elder," he says. But the kinds of communities he's looking to build are not necessarily academic.
"Last night I was reading at a two-year community college," he says. "It's not a literary audience at all. It's night students. And there was this one student there, he looked like a linebacker and he had in his hand what I thought was a football helmet, but it was a motorcycle helmet. He said, "It's the first time I've ever gone to one of these things and [I] thoroughly enjoyed it.' And when that happens it certainly makes my year."