Princeton University

Hell’s Hot Breath: Galway Kinnell, Black Mountain College to Montgomery



In an interview with poet, author, and journalist, Daniela Gioseffi, Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Galway Kinnell speaks of the relationship between life and art. He reflects upon his experiences at Black Mountain College–particularly one afternoon when he ventured off campus with a visiting African-American writer, in 1947–and at Montgomery, Alabama, on March 16, 1965, where he demonstrated for Voting Rights with his students from Juniata College, including Harriet Richardson Michel, with whom Civil-Rights photographer Charles Moore photographed him in an iconic image which appeared in Life Magazine on March 26, 1965.

This is a short film by poet and historian, Laura Hope-Gill, director of Thomas Wolfe Center for Narrative at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Asheville, North Carolina. The short film presents three narratives of Civil Rights–Black Mountain College, which desegregated in 1945, Galway Kinnell, who devoted his life and work to social justice, and Voting Rights Marches on Montgomery, which began with blood attacks on protesters and ended with military protection for them. It is an inquiry into the relationship between witness and collaboration, education and action, life and art, creativity and integrity, change within the self and change of the world in which we live.

Laura’s story:
During a visit to his and his wife’s home in Vermont in 2007, Galway mentioned he’d spent a summer near Asheville, where I live. I asked which school. He described Black Mountain College. I had not known he’d attended a summer session there; his name had not come up in conversations I’d had about either the poet or the school. After the visit, I did find his name listed in Mary Emma Harris’ The Arts at Black Mountain, in an essay by Charles Bell, on whose guidance Kinnell ventured to the school, and in this interview with Daniela Gioseffi. I have since worked with Heather South at the Western North Carolina Archive to begin building a Galway Kinnell file within the vast Black Mountain College archive housed in that beautiful former T.B. sanatorium. The reason Galway’s name has not appeared more broadly in the college’s history–despite his acclaim and prominence in the American poetry–is quite simple: he applied only two weeks before the session began, and his name therefore appears on class lists but not on the master list of attendees.

Kinnell was a rising senior at Princeton when his professor, Charles Bell, accepted a position to teach at Black Mountain for the summer. Kinnell, seeking to continue his studies with his mentor and develop his senior thesis, offered to work in exchange for some of his tuition and stated that he planned to continue his Princeton studies while at Black Mountain. The reply he received plainly informed him that all students work at Black Mountain College and there would be no time to do Princeton work. Kinnell returned to Black Mountain in 2008 when I basically created a poetry festival, Asheville Wordiest, now in its tenth year, in order to fund his trip. He said in the car on the way to the Camp Rockmont campus that he wanted something “new,” which is what led him to the small school. He was searching for something new for poetry. Charles Bell had already told him. as he writes in his essay in The Poetry of Galway Kinnell: The Wages of Dying, there was “a romantic fierceness which amazed me” and that “a poet who had done that could beyond any poetic limits to be assigned.” In the poems Kinnell writes at Black Mountain, one of which is glimpsed in this short documentary, we see the early searchings of self as poet, expanding beyond those limits already. Walking with Kinnell around Camp Rockmont, I listened to his stories of running through woods, young men and women, and classes in the General Studies Building, and dances in the dining hall. Kinnell lived a long and rich life of travel, translation, witness, and loving as well as standing for what is good in humanity. Black Mountain College was a mere two weeks within the whole of his becoming. The interview here with Daniela Gioseffi provides a story that expands the meaning of those two brief weeks, a story of a single afternoon in Black Mountain.

This short film is the first part of an ongoing exploration.

PRESENTED BY THE NORTH CAROLINA HUMANITIES COUNCIL IN COLLABORATION WITH THE THOMAS WOLFE CENTER FOR NARRATIVE AT LENOIR-RHYNE UNIVERSITY IN ASHEVILLE. PROGRAM IS PART OF PULITZER NC: THE POWER OF WORDS, A MULTIFACETED PUBLIC PROGRAM DURING 2016 THAT WILL CONNECT PULITZER PRIZE-WINNERS AND THEIR WORK WITH AUDIENCES ACROSS THE STATE, IN COMMEMORATION OF THE 100TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE PRIZES. For more information visit www.pulitzernc.org

For more information about and interviews with Daniela Gioseffi, and essential reading on Civil Rights, the Environment, and Poetry’s vital place in the world, visit www.poetsusa.com. For more of the interview with Galway Kinnell, visit: usa.com/kinnell_interview.html

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