Fielding Dawson

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Guy Fielding Lewis Dawson, writer, artist and teacher: born New York 2 August 1930; died New York 5 January 2002.

In 1984 Fielding Dawson, in Buffalo for three days as writer-in-residence, was asked to teach a workshop at Attica Maximum Security Prison. The experience, he said, politicised him and changed his life, and for the next 17 years he taught in prisons, in women's shelters, in alternative high schools, until his last class at Sing Sing in December.

"Fee" Dawson was born in New York City in 1930 and moved to Kirkwood, Missouri, when he was eight. At 15, his mother, saying that the world needed a new Saroyan, gave him a portable typewriter and some paper. His memoir of growing up there, Tiger Lilies: an American childhood (1984) was noted as "a book of singular beauty and literary distinction" by the critic Edmund Fuller.

After studying portrait drawing with Tanasko Milovich and taking a few classes at Washington University Art School in St Louis, Dawson moved to rural North Carolina in 1949 to attend Black Mountain College, where his teachers and fellow-students included Charles Olson, Franz Kline, Stefan Wolpe, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Creeley, Jonathan Williams, Cy Twombly, Paul Goodman, John Chamberlain and Edward Dorn.

Dawson wrote, "Black Mountain worked: we made a potent little mandala in an archaic valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains to be felt long into the future", and his The Black Mountain Book (1970) is the only work about the college written by someone who was there. In 1953 he was drafted, with non-combatant status, and served as an army cook at a Military Hospital near Heidelberg. He returned to New York City in 1956.

Continuing his friendship with painters met at Black Mountain, Dawson drank with them at the famous Cedar Bar. An Emotional Memoir of Franz Kline (1967), a remarkable book, conveys in an intimate way an intense feeling of that time, while showing the daily lives of Kline, Pollock, the De Koonings, Guston and others in an affectionate but clear light. From his high-school days in Missouri Dawson had kept an enthusiasm for baseball, bringing his pitching skills to the city where he was a regular in the Sunday afternoon artists' softball games along with the writers Joel Oppenheimer, Amiri Baraka, Paul Blackburn and Gil Sorrentino: later he pitched for the Max's Kansas City team.

In the early 1960s Dawson's prose was widely published in magazines both in the United States and abroad. His first book in the UK was Thread (with a collage cover by the author) from Andrew Crozier's Ferry Press in 1964. The pieces were generally short, often less than a page in length; but the flickers of mood and tone, the fragments of dialogue, their confidence in the reader's capacity to assume and infer, illuminated worlds much larger. Robert Creeley wrote: "I have never seen a writer capable of such fast shifts, so instantly, nervously exact." By the early 1970s their influence could be detected in the work of younger writers such as Stephen Emerson and Dale Herd.

In 1990 Larry McMurtry, then Pen (USA) President, appointed Dawson chair of the Pen Prison Writing Committee and his enthusiastic promotion of this almost moribund group gave it renewed energy and brought in many new members. For six years, from 1994, he hosted a weekly radio programme, Breaking Down the Walls, on WBAI New York, broadcasting prisoners' writings and dealing with issues of incarceration. His most recent book of stories, The Land of Milk & Honey (2001), reflects these experiences in both style and content.

Fielding Dawson wrote more than 20 volumes of short stories, novels, memoirs and poems. In 1969 Krazy Kat / The Unveiling and Other Stories 1951-1968 was the first of many books of his to be published by Black Sparrow Press during the next 30 years. He produced essays, art and literary criticism, catalogues for exhibitions, gave readings, and frequently taught at colleges and universities. Continuing his graphic work, he created logos and covers for many important small press editions from the 1950s onwards, usually illustrated his own books, and was exhibited in galleries throughout the US. His last show, new works combining word and image, was at the Jack Tilton Gallery in New York last September.

"He was different in that he came across as happy a lot of the time, notwithstanding all kinds of things. I think of a guy with a big smile saying THAT'S TERRIFIC with stress on both words, and doing that twitchy thing with his eyes," Steve Emerson wrote to me last week.

Tom Raworth