JEFF HILSON: Facing Out: Ray Johnson, Gertrude Stein & Black Mountain College

In February 1935, during her intensive U.S. public lecture tour – 74 lectures in 37 cities across 23 states – Gertrude Stein was staying in Charleston, South Carolina when John Rice, then rector of Black Mountain College, telegraphed asking whether she would like to give a lecture as well as talk informally to the faculty who according to Rice were “suitably addicted to conversation and not unacquainted with [Stein's play] Four Faints [i.e. Saints]” (Burns, 15). The invitation had arisen through the novelist Thornton Wilder who having spent five days at Black Mountain the previous year wrote to Stein recommending it as “a live little experimental college that has long read your work” (Burns, 14). Stein replied to Wilder asking why she and Alice B. Toklas hadn’t heard of Black Mountain before – “It looks like a heavenly place and their account of themselves most amusing” (Burns, 15) – regretfully turning down the invitation because of their hectic schedule. Impromptu invites from around the country had continued to pour in thick and fast as news of her lecture tour spread. She did, however, consider Rice’s invite as an inducement one day to visit the college.

 

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Huge thanks to the Ray Johnson Estate for its permission for Junction Box to display the images contained in this article.

Jeff Hilson has written four books of poetry: stretchers (Reality Street, 2006), Bird bird (Landfill, 2009), In The Assarts (Veer, 2010) and Latanoprost Variations (Boiler House Press, 2017). A fifth book, Organ Music, is due out from Crater Press in 2019. He also edited The Reality Street Book of Sonnets (Reality Street, 2008). He runs Xing the Line poetry reading series in London, and is Reader in Creative Writing at the University of Roehampton.

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