For Robert Creeley, collaboration has been an active and essential part of his long artistic career. In fact, the books, paintings, and musical compositions that have resulted from his joint ventures with other artists were the subject of a recent exhibition at the New York Public Library, "In Company: Robert Creeley’s Collaborations." Creeley has worked with visual artists such as Jim Dine, Alex Katz, and Susan Rothenberg, as well as composers such as Steve Lacey and Steve Swallow. Though the tradition of poets working with artists in other media is significant, Creeley is among the most prolific over the past fifty years.
Creeley’s work with the jazz bassist and composer Steve Swallow is particularly notable. In 1979, Swallow set several Creeley poems to music; the words were sung by Sheila Jordan and resulted in the album Home. In the two decades that followed, Swallow continued to think about Creeley’s work and eventually collaborated with him. They joined in 1998 with the trio Forever Sharp & Vivid (guitarist David Torn, reedsman David CasT and drummer Chris Massey) to make the live recording Have We Told You All You’d Thought to Know? The album features Creeley reading ten of his poems set to ambient sounds.
This collaboration led to The Way Out is Via the Door, released in 2002. This time, Swallow’s band, Courage, featuring Massey and saxophonist John Mills, combined with Creeley to create an album that placed all four artists on equal footing, mixing Swallow’s melodic bass lines with the drum and saxophone. Recorded during public readings, Creeley intones poems whose lines repeat perfectly sculpted rhythmic gestures, naturally fitting into the seven tracks on the album in which he appears.
The innate ability of Creeley's verse to match jazz rhythms is no surprise, since jazz, especially bebop, with its improvisational riffs and sudden swerves from expectation, has long influenced Creeley’s poetry. As he has said, "To me the timing that I use, or depend upon, in poetry is very, very, very like the timing that they are using variously in music." Creeley’s poems have always positioned the familiar on the edge of a surprising line break and destabilized the quotidian with an aggressive, often ruptured syntax. Creeley has pointed to his time at Black Mountain College with mentor Charles Olson as particularly influential in shaping his sense of cross-pollination between various artistic media. At Black Mountain, musicians, writers, painters, and dancers mixed freely, in discovery of alternative methods of academic instruction and artistic creation.