The following interview was conducted by telephone between Charlottesville, Virginia, and Davis, California, on February 15, 1997.
You began your career as a visual artist, not as a writer. You studied at the Chicago Institute between the late 1950s and early 1960s. Is there a relationship with your studying visual art and your writing career? When and how did your writing career surface as you went about the work of the visual artist?
Well, that’s a very good question. I started writing rather naively but seriously around the age of twelve. And of course I was painting and drawing much earlier. And the writing, I think, was always complementary to the painting and vice versa. It seems to me that when I started taking art lessons at the Art Institute, I was in high school. Chicago at that time had a program for talented students. They could get scholarships to places like the Art Institute. So that’s how I got started there. And later on, I won a fellowship and continued there until I went into the Air Force. But, anyway, the writing was something that was much harder to master. And I continued with the painting and made whatever effort I could with the writing. It was so frustrating trying to write well. I can remember the frustration of writing novellas—writing them down in long hand and then reading them a month later and being very disgusted with the quality of the writing. But that was not true of the painting, and so I tended to gravitate toward the painting more, because satisfaction was almost immediate. So I found myself writing poetry more frequently than prose, because that too gave more immediate satisfaction and was somehow easier for me than trying to write those novels, which were really not novels, anyway. They were long stories and rather clumsily done, but still it was a useful apprenticeship. And, you know, we all need that.
We all need the apprenticeship, and, you know, there were times when I did have people I could turn to with the painting, but rarely with the writing. I took private art lessons from Gus Nall, who was a well-known painter at that time in Chicago, and I learned a lot about what I needed to do with the surface of the canvas and so on. He built an easel for me and taught me how to stretch canvas and so on. But there were very few people I could turn to with the writing problems I had. My teachers were not always available. I mean there were a couple of teachers I can remember who were [End Page 667] very encouraging, but it was just hit and miss all the time. There was an old man who ran a bookstore in my neighborhood who was also very encouraging. He had known Richard Wright. He talked about Wright a lot and got me started reading people like Wright and Chester Himes and so on. But he was one of the few, one of the few along the way early on who gave me a sense of direction and helped me.
Do you know why the writing was more difficult—that is, the writing of prose fiction more difficult than the painting? And why poetry was easier and more satisfying than prose fiction?
Well, it was more immediate. Because of the density and the way poetry tends to lend itself to a sense of play and music and so on. You know, I think we’re all closer to poetry when we’re younger than we are later on. But I think I was instinctively closer to poetry because of the rhythms and the patterns. We all grew up with a sense of poetry, in the nursery rhymes and so on.
But we don’t grow up with a sense of paint on the canvas. Why was that easier than writing? I realize that we don’t grow up writing prose either, but we use the medium of prose from the beginnings of our lives. We...