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James Baker Hall
A Conversation

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Guy | Who were some of the others in your classes?

Jim | In a workshop that Gurney and I were in, Larry McMurtry, who wrote Lonesome Dove and The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment and a whole lot of books that a lot of people have read and that have been made into all these big movies. Ken Kesey, who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, was in that workshop and read it to us one chapter at a time. Peter Beagle, who is a fairly well known and widely read fantasy writer, was working on his second novel; he’d already published a novel. Chris Koch from Australia, Joanna Ostrow ... a bunch of people in there who had either published a novel or would publish a novel soon. And many of us went on to publish a whole lot. And in the case of Larry and Ken, to become fixtures in American literature. So it was a real, real, real intense group of hotshots. And often when you get a bunch of hotshots together, it doesn’t work. Like they don’t ... There’s some kind of inescapable competitiveness that zaps the dynamic of the whole thing. That was not the case with us. We all liked one another; we all loved one another’s hopes and ambitions. And we gave, as far as I can remember, unqualified encouragement and support to one another.

Guy | Who was your teacher?

Jim | The year that Gurney and I were in that workshop, in order to hold a Stanford fellowship, you had one requirement: You had to go to Palo Alto, and you had to attend this advanced writing workshop. And the first—it was on the quarter system—the first quarter, Malcolm Cowley, who was a literary critic and historian, was the teacher. And the second and third semesters, Frank O’Connor, who was an Irish short story writer of international fame—by that time, thought to be one of the great masters of the short story form; still is thought to be one of the great masters of the short story form. Very, very delightful, charming Irishman, who sat at the head of the table and listened to all of this and would comment occasionally. What he would say more often than not is, “That’s not the story.” And we would read another one, and he’d say, “That’s not the story.” But he was ... He was dear. And we got very interested in the form of the short story because we couldn’t measure up, according to Frank O’Connor. And I’m not, by any manner or means, oblivious to his influence on my thinking.

Guy | Were you around the Perry Lane crowd or ...

Jim | A little. Perry Lane was the historical Bohemian locale in that area. It was—I think I’m remembering this correctly—not technically in Palo Alto, but just outside Palo Alto, outside the Stanford University campus in Menlo Park. Gurney would tell you whether this is right or not. But it was a dead-end easement, and it’s where a bunch of Bohemians had lived generation after generation. And that’s where the Bohemians of that time, the artists, the crazy, the wilds, lived. And Kesey lived there and several other people that we knew and circulated among. Kesey had his beginnings on Perry Lane. And Gurney and Ed were much more involved in that scene than I was. I was involved in it occasionally here and there.

Guy | Could you tell there was something happening there?

Jim | Oh, sure; there was something happening there, yeah. It was really one wild scene. And Kesey was making a little bit of his livelihood by being a guinea pig at the Stanford Hospital in drug tests. And the guinea pigs at the drug tests at Stanford Hospital were paid to swallow whatever it was that they were given. You know, like, “Swallow this.” And so he would say ... Well, Kesey would swallow anything; I’m absolutely sure of it. So he would swallow.

And then LSD, which in those early stages was called lysergic acid 25—is that right?—was an experimental drug at that time. And Kesey brought it back into the culture of the scene there as an unknown, unnamed pill. Carried it around in the cuffs of his blue jeans—along with many other things that you might not want to swallow.

Guy | So we got that story now about him bringing LSD back to Perry Lane, and you want to just wrap that story up? I mean, that was the beginning of a kind of ...

Jim | Oh, it was the beginning of a significant little episode in American cultural history. And Ken Kesey met Timothy Leary in Ed McClanahan’s living room. And those of us who know who Ken and Timothy Leary are understand what that means.

I was down in—I don’t know where it was—as [Kentucky] Poet Laureate doing something recently, and I was saying something, and I was looking out and coming to understand that I didn’t know where I was, and I had absolutely no idea what the terms of consciousness were in the people I was talking to. So I said, “How many of you know who Ken Kesey is? How many of you know who Timothy Leary is?” So I said, “OK, let me start over again with another subject,” you know.

I wasn’t around ... I wasn’t aware of the fact that all this had disappeared from people’s awareness. You know this ... I mean, you know. Not too long ago—whoever it is I’m talking about—not long ago, everybody knew who Timothy Leary was and Ken Kesey. And Ken died recently, and it was the passing of a significant spirit in American literary culture and in American culture at large. And bless his contribution. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the embodiment of the spirit of the ring-tail screamer in that generation, in our generation. It was the embodiment ... It was the story of the spirit of freedom and self-assertion and independence, and of suspicion of the establishment.

Guy | Ring-tail screamer?

Jim | Yeah, ring-tail screamer; that’s like a frontier term. A ring-tail screamer was the guy, the riverboat guy, who could jump higher, dive deeper, and stand there longer than any man alive. You understand? That was Kesey.

Guy | Wow. Yeah, bless his heart. It’s amazing your lives have been intertwined with other writers’ lives through your all’s travels. That’s not a question. OK, what’s my next question? So all of you left Kentucky, and eventually, all of you came back.

Jim | Yes.

Guy | Talk about that.

Jim | Yes. Wendell was the first to come back. I was in New York with Wendell when he decided to come back to Kentucky. He was teaching at NYU. He was director of freshman English at the Bronx Campus of NYU, and he decided he was going to come back home. He had been in Italy for a year on a Guggenheim. He had been on the West Coast for several years as a Stanford Stegner Fellow, and then a writing teacher at Stanford for a while. And he was in New York, living downtown in the produce district in a loft, with Denise Levertov upstairs, in the loft upstairs. And it could not have been a more different circumstance than the one he came back to.

He decided he wanted to come back to Kentucky. And at that time, the received opinion about such matters was very, very emphatic and simple and un-negotiable: You don’t do that. You can’t go home again, and you don’t even want to go home again. And Wendell decided that he wanted to go home again, and he was going to do it.

And he was offered a job at the University of Kentucky, went in, resigned at NYU. And the head of the English Department at NYU said, “Are you crazy, young man?” Duh-duh-duh-duh. And Wendell wanted support from the people around him, and he didn’t get it. I argued with him and said, “No, you can’t do this, you can’t,” and he did it.

And when he came back, for the reasons that most people imagine that one would go home again, he wanted to take up the heritage that he had. He wanted to live the life that his father and grandfather had lived, in the same place, in the same way, according to the same values, that he had inherited.

The rest of us came back for much more complicated reasons and much later on. I came back in ’73, after having been gone—what is it—like, 20 years or so. West Coast, New England, New York. I came back because my life was coming unhinged; it was falling apart; I needed a job. I could get a job by calling up the UK English Department, where Wendell was teaching creative writing, and saying, “I want a job.” They said, “Well, come on down.” And I came down, and I ended up staying. And I found out after a number of years that I had very, very profound unfinished business here. But I didn’t know that when I came back. And I conducted my unfinished business here, and it took about 20 years. And I stayed on because, you know, it’s my home. You don’t have to like your home, right? I mean, you only got one.

Guy | Have you finished that business that was unfinished?

Jim | Yes, yes. And I don’t mean to suggest that I don’t like Lexington, you know. I mean, the Wildcats are here, right?

Guy | I should cut that part out. Should we talk about your book?

Jim | We can talk about anything you want to, Guy.

Guy | Or should we talk more about coming home? You talked about coming home enough already. Has it been gratifying to come home and find that then, you know, Ed comes home, Bobbie Ann comes home ...

Mary Ann Taylor-Hall and James Baker Hall Jim | Oh, yeah. I mean, the lives of Wendell Berry and Ed McClanahan, Bobbie Ann Mason, Gurney Norman, myself, and then, in the last 20 years or so, [my wife] Mary Ann Taylor-Hall, have all been intertwined. History has brought us together and kept us together. There could not be more unlike people. Mary Ann and I are alike in a lot of ways. But Wendell and I, Gurney and I, Ed and I, Ed and Wendell? Ed and Mary Ann, Ed and Bobbie Ann, Bobbie Ann and Wendell? The differences between Bobbie Ann and Wendell are much more significant than their similarities. They share Kentucky as a heritage and literature as a devotion, and that’s it. They are quite different people. But we’re all intertwined.

I was in Storrs, Connecticut, at the University of Connecticut, where my wife at that time was teaching for a number of years, and Bobbie Ann turned up there as a graduate student. She got her Ph.D. at the University of Connecticut. I knew her there as a Kentucky friend; she had not started to be Bobbie Ann Mason at that time. She was just a regular old graduate student, hacking out her Ph.D., doing academic writing. I knew her there then as a Kentuckian, as somebody who had been Robert Hazel’s student at UK; who had published her first story in the Stylus, the literary magazine here, as we all did; who knew a lot of people that I knew; who was a friend of Gurney’s.

And Gurney, during that same period of time, came to live with my wife, Joan Joffe Hall, in Storrs, Connecticut, as a babysitter. He babysat two or three hours a day for room and board so that he could write. So Gurney and Bobbie Ann and I were in Storrs, Connecticut, almost—Gurney and I not by coincidence, but certainly Bobbie Ann and Gurney and I by coincidence—and history kept doing this with us.

And now Gurney, Bobbie Ann, and I are three of the writing teachers—well, Bobbie is not a teacher; she’s the Writer-In -Residence at UK—Gurney and I are writing teachers in residence at UK. I mean, history has just done it. And we all have come—may I speak for myself?—to like one another very, very deeply, to keep from killing one another and all of those things.

Guy | Well, let’s segue into A Spring-Fed Pond, your book of pictures of these friends. Maybe I should first ask you about your photographic work.... Tell me when you began to be a photographer.

Jim | I started photography when I was 11 years old, working for a commercial photographer in Lexington who had the UK Athletic Department account. And when I was 11, 12, 13, 14, and on until I was 15 years old, I worked for the photographer who had the UK Athletic Department account, which meant that I was in closed practices with Adolph Rupp and all of the ’40s basketball team—the Fabulous Five and all that. And I was in closed practices with Bear Bryant and the Sugar Bowl championship team. And we made the first films, the first game films. Before game films were being made as a regular thing in big-time athletic programs, we made the first game films. For the first couple of years, the game films did not, after they were made and seen by the coaches, belong to the Athletic Department, but they reverted to the studio, and they were available for rent around the state. And I traveled with films around the state and narrated a play-by-play over the projector microphone of the basketball games and the football games to people who had never seen these people, who had only seen still pictures of them, who had in their imagination these sports heroes—Wah Wah Jones and Ralph Beard and Alex Groza and all these people—deeply, deeply in their imaginations, but who had never seen them. And so I got to go with these films and narrate play-by-play accounts.

So I, when I was 11, 12, 13, 14 years old, so I got [into] photography, that commencement of photography, at a level of intensity and excitement and significance that, to this day, obviously excites me and thrills me. And then I dropped photography after a while when I got interested in sports. I didn’t have any time for it. And I didn’t come back to it, except erratically from here to there, until I was in my mid-30s. And then when I picked it up again, I did my first art photography when I was in my mid-30s.

Guy | What led you to do that?

Jim | My marriage was breaking up, and my literary career was in a tailspin. And I was being sued by my publisher and harassed by my agent, and I was running. And so I ran into the photography world, you know, in 19-whatever it was, when the doggoned darkroom was ... I ran sort of headlong into the photography world and ended up as a contributing editor for Aperture and teaching photography at [the] University of Connecticut and at MIT and worked with Minor White at MIT and ended up writing Minor’s biography.

And then after about five years of that, I realized that if I was going to get my writing done, I had to get out. So I got out. And then I came back again. I kept coming back again, and I kept coming back again. I don’t know how many times I’ve said, “I will never have a darkroom again.” It’s like a sponge, right? You go in there and three months, six months later, you come out and you say, “Wow,” you know, “what was that?” And I could not get my other work done if I had a darkroom. So I divested myself of any number of darkrooms. We’re sitting in the middle of an enormous studio right now, and the darkroom’s right over there. And I can’t quit, I can’t quit. I wouldn’t ... I don’t want to quit. I like making pictures. I love making pictures.

Guy | You don’t have to quit.

Jim | I’m not going to quit.

Guy | What brought about this book, A Spring-Fed Pond?

Jim | I’ve been taking pictures of Wendell and Gurney and Ed and Bobbie Ann, and then when Mary Ann and I got together, Mary Ann, for all of these years, from the time Wendell was 21 years old, Gurney was 21 years old. And Harriet Fowler, who is the now-retired director of the UK Art Museum, and I were talking one day, and I told her about a show that I was going to make someday of the pictures that I had taken—the black-and-white portraits that I’d made over the years of Gurney, Bobbie Ann, Wendell, Ed, and Mary Ann from her mid-years on. And she said, “That sounds like a good idea. Let me see some of them.”

So I started digging around in my boxes to see what was left. And when I found some of those early pictures of these people, I thought, “Oh, yeah, I can do this.” There are those pictures that I knew were there, but didn’t know whether [others] were still there. And I started to show them to Harriet, and she said, “Yeah, there’s a show here.” And so I got busy printing or imagining, conceiving, the show and getting work prints made and selecting pictures. And at some point when the show was on the schedule of the UK Art Museum, Harriet started looking for a catalog. And we ended up at—or I ended up at—Crystal Communications, who wanted to publish this book. And then the book got much bigger than the catalog. The book is 240-some pages long. It’s got 200 and I don’t know how many pictures in it. And it’s a big book of pictures, rather than a catalog for a show.

Guy | What was it like going—I know something about this, but—what was it like going through pictures you made 40 years ago? It’s sort of like your life flashes slowly before your eyes.

Jim | Yes. When you line them all up in a row like they are in the book, chronologically more or less, it looks like the Bataan Death March, you know. I mean, the only story that you can see being told is this guy was 21 once, and then he was 28, and then he was 30, and then he was 35, and then he was 40, and then he’s 50, and now he’s 67. And it’s inescapable, when you put them down chronologically, the story that’s being told. The overwhelming story that’s being told is of aging. I saw that, and I revisited in an ongoing way the occasions in which all of these pictures were made.

I did a lot of pictures of Wendell because I was down at his place a lot. And it wasn’t just a face, a visage, and a body that I was photographing; it was a way of life. So there were a lot of pictures of Wendell; I mean a lot. And there were a lot of pictures of Mary Ann, ’cause I’m around her all the time. But there were sporadic and periodic shoots of Bobbie Ann and Ed and Gurney.

And what one ... What I think when I look at all of this is, “Oh my God, isn’t this wonderful?” And there was no ... I wasn’t a working photographer when I was making those early pictures. I was just a guy who had a camera. But I was interested enough in photography for the pictures, some of them, to have more than documentary value, more than archival value. Some of them had aesthetic value.

James Baker Hall And so looking at all these pictures was interesting in several different ways. The principal way that most people will appreciate is archival. These writers now are widely read and internationally known. Their stories are interesting. There’s several books been written about Wendell already. You know, he’s still in mid-career. And Bobbie Ann, several books, and there are going to be many more books. And so pictures of these people are of interest because of the work that they have done.

But they’re of particular interest to me because I have been their friend all of these years, and I have happened to have collected all of these various times and places. There’s a picture of Gurney running up out of the ocean, the Pacific Ocean. When I found that one, when he and I got together on the West Coast ... Gurney got to the West Coast in an old car. The transmission failed when he got to the Donner Pass, and he had only two gears, and he had to back over the Donner Pass. So when he finally got to Palo Alto and we had our reunion there, we went to the coast, and he went out into the surf and ran up out of the surf, and I took a picture of him. And when I found that picture in the box, under the box, under the box, I thought, “I got the show.” You know, that’s like a presiding image of this youngster in all of his beauty and enthusiasm and spirit running up out of the ocean.

Guy | Was it an odd experience for your colleagues to see their lives ...

Jim | You ask them.

Guy | Well, I’ll just ask you one more kind of broad question. But many of you all taught, are teaching. You all represent a generation that kind of came out of nowhere, that’s not a tradition. I mean, there was Walter Tevis and ... A.B. Guthrie. And there were certainly books written in Kentucky, in the turn of the century, but there was never a group of writers like you all. And you have, in turn, inspired a successive generation of writers. Talk about teaching a little and what that means to you and to your generation—your group of writers—and take ...

Jim | Well, let me back up and say this. It looks from the outside, when you see this group of writers together in one place, that it must be the school or something like that. Well, it ain’t. There is not a school here. We don’t share all that much in our work. There’s no way in the world anybody can look at this group and even see that we had the profound common denominator of a single teacher.

I keep coming back to the fact that history has kept us connected. And we’re all, I think, each in our own way, now aware of the fact that we very easily could not even have known one another .... I think others can bow down to what has been and to see that there’s some real, real vanishing point or perspective at work in this ongoing connection.

I have needed to make a living, and teaching is something that I really like to do and that ... In fact, I love it. And I feel as though there’s no way in the world I’m going to be able to discharge my responsibilities to my fellow human beings in my writing. My writing is not that kind of writing. And that I need to do that. I can’t be left alone in my own mind in all of those ways. And teaching is a wonderful way to, for me, to help other people. I mean, I have 30 new students each semester, more or less. And they’re a very select group of people. I teach advanced writing classes, basically. And it’s a very select group of people. And they want something; they need something; they can use, maybe, most of them, help. And so I come into that situation wanting to help them and having had a profound experience of having been helped.

And so I love to work with aspiring writers. And it’s a very fruitful and uncomplicated way for me to make a living. I don’t have much of a role in the university outside the classroom. But inside the classroom, and the overflow from the classroom—like the hours afterwards, and the particular students that I want to have a particular ongoing conversation with ... Those relationships, those transmissions, those transactions, are profound for me, life-changing, for a number of people.

And you know, we weren’t born knowing how to write, right? I mean, you have to learn how to write. And you can be put in the way of your teachers. You can be connected with the poems and the stories and the writers who will be your everlasting teachers, and you can be put in the midst of a conversation that will hasten your understanding of your need to learn and the ways you might learn. And I love to do that.

Guy | Maybe in these next couple of months sometime we could get some footage in your class.

Jim | Call ahead, Guy. Some of it’s pretty intense, Guy.

Guy | How does it feel to be a generation that has inspired successive generations?

Jim | OK, you did ... I didn’t speak to that at all. I have, in my own attitude and understanding, been not particularly interested in the making of careers. Robert Hazel was preoccupied with the making of careers. He wanted us to be writers and known to be writers and to publish and to become famous writers. I don’t. That doesn’t interest me a whole lot. I’m interested in—profoundly interested in—the fact that people who come to me probably are trying to listen to the voices in their head that are being ignored. They probably, most of them, are trying to make the connection with that part of the mind that I made when I got on the roll, when I got in the trance. And I know something about it. And it doesn’t have anything to do with worldly success at all. It has to do with much more important and profound and transforming spiritual matters in the progress of one’s soul. So I don’t try ... I don’t talk about publishing and career-making in my teaching. It comes in at a certain point.

And there are certain writers that I work with, would-be writers, wannabe writers, that I think have it and are writing, capable of writing, work that is good. And it needs to be pursued as writing, as poetry, as fiction. And with those, I take up a different conversation with [them]. And in recent years, the most prestigious of the prizes in this country for first books of poems is the Yale Younger Poet prize. In the last seven years, three of the Yale Younger Poets have been Kentuckians. Two of them have been students from UK.

And so there is another generation of writers having worldly success of the sort that leads us to this conversation, right? We would not be having this conversation were not Bobbie Ann, Wendell ... like, international translators all over the world are trying to figure out the way Kentuckians talk because of the work of Bobbie Ann Mason and Wendell Berry, Ed McClanahan. And Gurney and Mary Ann. And that’s why we’re here having this conversation. But that’s not my preoccupation; that’s not my understanding of what my role is in the lives of the people that I’m teaching. Does this make any sense?

Guy | So why don’t you tell me what you’re working on?

Jim | I’m making a new show of black-and-white portraits of other writers. The UK show that is up now until the third week of January [2002] is made up of pictures of Mary Ann, Gurney, and Wendell, and Bobbie Ann Mason. I’m going to have another show opening at the Ann Tower Gallery on Main Street in Lexington after the first of the year that will be some pictures of those authors that are in A Spring-Fed Pond, the book, and other pictures that I’m working on now; in fact, pictures that I’m still taking now of other authors in Central Kentucky who have published a couple of books or more: Guy Davenport, who has an international reputation as a writer of literary criticism and fiction, and Jeff Worley, Jane Vance, George Ella Lyon, Normandi Ellis, Crystal Wilkinson, Nicky Finney, Frank X Walker, Kelly Norman Ellis, Gray Zeitz, Richard Taylor—I’m going to forget somebody and be embarrassed by that—a dozen other writers of accomplishment and reputation in Central Kentucky. I’m in the process now of shooting that show. I’ve got it mostly shot, and I’m in the midst of printing it. And what I’m doing now is ... These are work prints of those shoots. I am shooting about probably four, an average of four or five rolls a person. And working then from contact sheets into 4 X 6’s or 5 X 7’s. And off of those work prints then, into pictures that I think might be in the show.

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