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John Chamberlain’s Previously Unknown Poems From Black Mountain College

Here’s a sneak peek of the artist’s previously unknown writings from 1955, to be published by Princeton University Press this month.

Black Mountain: Chamberlain, edited by Julie Sylvester (Princeton University Press)

Many of us know John Chamberlain for his scrunched-up and twisted steel sculptures. But before he became famous for his art, Chamberlain was writing poems. This month, Princeton University Press is publishing a collection of the artist’s previously unknown writings when he studied poetry at Black Mountain College in 1955, alongside illustrious poets like Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan. Titled Black Mountain: Chamberlain, the book shares a facsimile of poems that Chamberlain completed while at the college. Throughout, you can spot small markings and comments made by the artist and fellow poet Charles Olson. 

Today, April 16, on Chamberlain’s birthday, we’ve shared five poems that we thought our art-minded audience would enjoy. Some specifically allude to the art of sculpting, while others are delightfully funny (“i have abbreviated you / to a pimple to be / squeezed”). Not all of the poems in the collection are marvelous works of literature — and some poems contain outdated, offensive language (including a sober poem that uses the n-word when describing a disturbing picture of a lynching). The main draw of this collection is how it offers a new window into the sculptor’s process, how he broke the world around him into words.

Chamberlain saw his poems as closely intertwined with his visual art practice. As he said in an interview with Julie Sylvester, “I’m still making sculptures in the way that I made the poems.” It is thanks to Sylvester (also author of John Chamberlain: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture) that this project came to be. For the introduction to the book, she has included excerpts from a series of interviews she conducted with Chamberlain between 1981 and 1984. The opening paragraphs below were pulled from these interviews. 

John Chamberlain, “S” (1959) in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (image via Wikimedia)

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Art is a particular madness where you are using a means of communication, which means are recognizable to other people, to say something that they hadn’t heard, or hadn’t perceived, or had repressed. Curiously, it’s only recently that I’ve noticed that I’m still making sculptures in the way that I made the poems. It’s all in the fit. Say you take one word that’s on a page. You like this word, this word looks nice to you. Maybe you don’t even care what the word means. But you like the word. You can conjugate the word. If the word is beauty, it can become beautiful. Then it can become beauteous, can’t it? Or beautification. You can play around with it, add to it, or if you want you can take the word apart. You can play with the letters in the word, that’s making ana- grams. There’s also a way of taking the syllables apart, rearranging the syllables.

What I do is not unlike this. In quite a few of these stories I am telling you, I didn’t get their point until years later.

When I went to Black Mountain, I found that there were other people who spoke with tension, trying to find out what they didn’t know. Everybody else before them had been happy with what they knew. They weren’t curious about what they didn’t know. Probably the main description of the occupation of art is to find out what you don’t know. By starting someplace that’s curious and delving in, in a common way, and coming out with an uncommon satisfaction, an uncommon piece of knowledge, that is very satisfying to your nervous system.

The greatest influence on my work and on my thinking actually came from the poets at Black Mountain College. As far as the poetry I wrote then, I’m certain it was all very personal. There isn’t a body of work, so I couldn’t include myself as a poet in the poet sense, like Creeley is. See, Creeley, is a real poet. Whether it’s on a postcard or the way he phrases sentences, he works with words. He has his own manners and attitudes in that regard. He understands my foam sculpture, but that doesn’t make him a sculptor. From having the foam sculpture around, did he understand the wadding technique, or the compression? Not necessarily. But the next time he washed the dishes, when he squeezed the sponge and one end of it popped out of the end of his fist, it looked like the sculpture. It was because of the one that he could see the other. He could get an added perception. It’s daily life. That’s where I get the idea that everybody makes sculpture every day, whether in the way they wad this up or the way they throw the towel over the rack or the way they wad up the toilet paper. That’s all very personal and very exact, and in some sense very skillful on their part, but it is discarded as not-useful information. But it’s not not-useful. These little things, like blowing up the paper bag and hitting it so it pops — say you take it one little step further and you do it in slow motion and you explore what resistance of the air in the bag is, and you make something. That is to me very interesting. If there is a body of work demonstrating all these things that come together, that’s useful in art history, as part of the accumulation of how knowledge goes on and on and on in this particular occupation.

John Chamberlain, as told to Julie Sylvester 

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Black Mountain: Chamberlain is available from Princeton University Press and your local indie bookstore.  

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