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Michael Basinski Interview


Michael Basinski is the Curator of the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo and Director of UB Special Collections. He performs his work as a solo poet and in ensemble with the Don Metz Experience (D.M.E.). Among his recent books of poetry are Poems of a Polish-American Boy Poems, Piglittuce, and Trailers. His poems and other works have appeared in many magazines including Dandelion, BoxKite, Antennae, Open Letter, Deluxe Rubber Chicken, First Offense, Terrible Work, Kenning, Lungfull, Tinfish, Score, Unarmed, Rampike, House Organ, Ferrum Wheel, End Note, Ur Vox, Damn the Caesars, Pilot, 1913, Filling Station, fhole, Public Illumination, Eccolinguistics, Yellow Field, Western Humanities Review, Big Bridge, Mimeo Mimeo, Nerve Lantern, Vanitas, Talisman, Steel Bellows, Staging Ground, Lumox, Chiron Review, and Poetry. He lives in Buffalo.



Jake Berry is a poet, musician and visual artist. The author of Brambu Drezi, Species of Abandoned Light, Genesis Suicide, and numerous other books. He has been an active member of the global arts and literary community for more than 30 years. His poems, fiction, essays, reviews and other writings have been published widely in both print and electronic mediums. He has released many musical albums as a solo artist and as a collaborator. Forthcoming projects include books four and five of Brambu Drezi, books of short and visual poems and a wide variety of musical recordings.




JB: How did you come to poetry? Reading and listening to your work one feels that you have a connection to language that runs to the fundamental, even primal, sources in sound reaching toward meaning. Did this begin in childhood or did various influences bring you back to these sources?


MB: Given from the first to the realm of the poem, it all has been a slice of pie, pie as would be served at Mom’s in Savona, New York. I don’t think in terms of primal but of pallet. Restriction deforms poetry. One of my personal activities (and I think all of the poetry that I manifest) is, one, to introduce an obtuse into it and, two, to retreat from the finished to a genesis. Unfinished is form. The visual works or more or most visual works are re-manuscripted poetry; likewise the sound(s) available in some is playing with the elemental.  So it is not primal but extending the life of a poem from point one to end (if ever). The poem is done before the poet begins. Why is there a rule that says a poem must look like this or that or a carton of eggs? To what end? The audience, the receiver of the poetry, including the poet, has far too much input into composition. Does rain listen to the lake? Influences, I work in the city of the poem, all neighborhoods have grand houses and all neighborhoods are a ghetto. As Mayor, I attempt to nurse all the needs, get the streets plowed, open the parks on time. The poem is work.


JB: Can you go into your history? Why poetry as opposed to archaeology, for instance? Also when we first met it was through the tidal wave of small magazine and presses that proliferated in the 80s and early 90s. How did you get involved?


MB: The many answers to the many questions are: I can go into my history and do in each work. As we speak, it is July. I know where the illusions are and I am not sure anyone needs to know that or what or where such might be. I like the poem that forces itself back on the audience's imagination, makes an imagination rather imposes an imagination, a poem that makes imaginative the encounter with what a word, what it might be (a word) and a word is many, many proposals. Poem as a portal to the self. This makes poets makers of magic. And, I mean, breakfast is now history, so we are all making it— breakfast and history. I am interested in history as a place, a palace of collective imagination. Tikal. Black cats. Olive Oyl (the Mother Goddess). The poem is archaeology, or has one, and a chemistry, a geography, an etc. Separation is extinction. The poetry encompasses. I saw and see many literary magazines and thought these and other magazines about toy trains as theme, for instance, as a place to be a participant, to be a contributor to the syndicate. One must be a good citizen of the Union movement.  


JB: Yes, it coheres, especially even when it isn't. Better to fiddle with an oboe or maybe a Clara Bow. Olson is charged by the Pound until he hits the bay.


Poetry as gathering—logos expanded. "Poem as portal to the self"? Can we make a distinction between poem and self? Perhaps the self is always otherwise unless through the activity of the poem something manifests we name self? This seems to relegate self to the past, trapped in time. Isn't poetry, especially poetry unbound to form, also a release from the self? Or am I splitting airs?


MB: I don't think there is anything real in the poem as in this is my hand on a cup of coffee but as far as the coffee is hot and my hand is a form of shit, I guess then it is. It is a ghost— the poem.  I think the poem can seek a formlessening state but not be free of form. At best what poets might do is get as close as possible to where form begins. Sort of like the big-bang —or event horizon. Maybe the poetry is only the instance before there is a poem. Seems to me that is what I see in millions of pages of manuscripts. Too bad we are limited organic creatures. Maybe people are inorganic. Certainly, I have engaged many in that form. All and all, I don't think much about this and it seems just exercise and I don't like exercise. You ask if you are "splitting airs?" I like splitting airs.


JB: The term event horizon came to me as well after I asked that last question. Perhaps certain “essentials” manifest at extreme points—poems. selves, organic compounds.


I wanted to ask you about collaborations in performance. For example, the performance with Don Metz on guitar. In the YouTube video,, both of you seem to be working from a “score.” Was he improvising from a print of your poem or had he composed music to accompany you?


MB: That’s a work called Summing the Vegetable Goddess. Location is some reconverted industrial space in Coimbra, Portugal. Ha! In my 60s and still performing in industrial halls painted flat black. It’s a long work so it is scored. But there is improvisation in this work. Like ERRRRRRRRRRRRRRR could be eeeeeeeerrrr. Don played patterns. To make a work like this and not kill an audience to prove an academic, theoretical, philosophical point (boredom) all facets of composition in both things made of letters ABCDEF etc. and notes need to come into the whole. Lots of variation and rising and fallings. It is all about performance dynamics.


JB: Listening to that one is what made me thing of the origins of language, sound falling into patterns that are repeated and associated with things, etc. It's a fascinating collaboration. A good example of what poetry in performance can be but usually is not. You were a poet-in-residence in Coimbra. How was that? Did it yield more poetry? How did the students and others there respond to experimental poetry?


MB: Mostly I was out in the country on a hilltop in a town called Monsanto in which huge boulders become part of the walls of the houses and on top there is a Knights Templar castle from which you can see Spain. It is all very very wild. Unworldly. I felt right at home. I would sit all day and write this project called “The Carrot Book” about being insane in the taverns and saloons of Buffalo. At the University I stayed at this place called The House of the Writer, again way cool. The students responded most wonderfully to the writing. I wrote this work called "Applaud Whenever You Wish." And they did applaud whenever they wanted. Great!! The quest for the manipulation for form as expression is always the writer’s need. I really don't think what I do is experimental. It is just writing that is a combination of forms or an isolation of an existing form. I suggest that everyone should have suckling pig and champagne for lunch, everyday. Makes for a highly creative afternoon.


JB: Well, exactly! Especially if the pig is alive and attached to the sow. Monsanto sounds fascinating. A place into which one might happily disappear and never return. Have there been other residencies? Any details, poetic, culinary, in combination, and/or otherwise, would be most appreciated.


MB: I was visiting writer at the Gloucester Writing Center—obviously in Gloucester—The Center is located in the former home of Vincent Ferrini, poet and friend of Charles Olson. I recommended fresh lobster—always a treat. Gloucester is still a working town, thank the gods, but get there soon before the rich force us out! I was writer in residence at the Elora Poetry Center in Elroa Ontario. Great place—I mean a town where they have huge sea serpents and creatures hanging all over the town! What more! I have no idea why I go places? I want my residence to be my chair looking out the back window at squirrels and such. The business of poetry is always a question. To what end? I do not know. I can only think that it is a place to be while not writing. I always remember that Dylan Thomas said he had in him two lines a day and the rest of the time he had to wait so he went down to the bar. Besides the making of the poem then, well, do the dishes I guess.


JB: This leads to your work as curator of The Poetry Collection at SUNY Buffalo. If anyone on the planet has a sense of what is happening with poetry, or has happened, it should be you. Can you give us a glimpse of what your work involves?


MB: Over these many decades I have seen the ebbs and flows of the poem, the rise and fall of networks, charges, and the challenges to this kind of poetry and that kind of poem, and various manifestations of poetry, the various infections of poetry, contagions, empires, kings and queens, Rasputins and Rimbauds. It is fun to watch and I must say that it is all temporary. The poem is still a very organic—all facets—poems, poetry, poets. Poetry is a small beach on which very large pinnipeds war over patches of pebbles. Humans are very precious and if one is filled with bananas to bursting that poet will want more bananas. Still, the poem refuses the poet. This is a good thing. What do I do? I want all the bananas and the pebbles. Yes, my work is want. Now in fact a necropolis for poetry, a collection, a library, these days, is like poets, hardly supported. I worry about funding, create funding streams, watch some streams dry up and others fountain. I pass the hat. A friend said up at the podium I am like an old time monsignor checking to see who put what in the collection basket. All should know that the poem does not survive because of the generosity of the Feds or State government or arts and university administration. It is the individual that floats the poem. Every poet is a curator and in our collection of creativity we must all participate in the larger survival of the art form. Do give.


Oh, and what do I do? You see what fills my head. $$$. I try to build scholarly archives, collecting papers and literary letters. I collect all poetry—we are a bibliographer’s paradise or oasis, and I try to do that, then there is dealing with administration, donors, and the endless problems of processing and office work. Gosh, I must be crazy. I think people think we sit and around and read poems to each other—it is the opposite—work is work in a warehouse of poetry—instead of tubes of tooth paste and hair spray we have poetry. Talk about the materiality of poetry. Hahah!


A day: We are out of photocopy paper and pencils. The toner cartridge is low. Where should these two dozen boxes of magazine go? We are out of space in ailse six. There is a bat in the stacks. One of the student in the reading room just barfed. Do you wish to order the four thousand dollar broadside by Fred Wartzinger? Can I go to lunch?








In a hurry








Full bladder


I am not sure I could do anything else, by the way. I never wanted to work. Since I had to do something, this seemed OK.


JB: It seems more than OK as jobs go, it sounds wonderful, overwhelmingly agitating and boring all at once. Don’t be surprised if you’re walking down a packed aisle one day and find Jorge Luis Borges in a corner smiling up at you saying, “I wrote it all. You are my story.” Or, I suppose, "Lo escribí todo. Usted es mi historia.” 


I’m tempted to ask about some of the turf wars you’ve witnessed. The stories one hears are legion, and legend. But, if anyone should know the answer to this it’s you. Didn’t we leave the era of movements, revolutions, avant-gardes back there somewhere, maybe 20 years ago or more?


MB: I am also an ambassador within this realm of the poem. Therefore, I deal with it all and I am serious about that. Let me say what makes the poem a most interesting place is its diversity, countries and camps. And that which is unexplored and that which is an old horse beaten to a pulp. The revolutionary and the movement is all about us in germination. The key is to listen to all of it as it is all facets of the greater entire. A revolution and a movement is three poets.  And that’s always happening. It is all a form or the ridiculous. One thing I might comment upon is to not be too serious about what is in and what is out because it all fades or might turn on a dime. The times they are a changin’. 


JB: Very true. The greater entire. All poets are working on the same great poem—one makes many and back again with many more.


In your book Trailers you seem to bring that open sprit into your own work. There is a vast array of voices, musics and all of it has a visual component as well. Here are some notes I jotted down as I was reading it:


From whimsical mythology to sublime revelry to advertising—you run the gamut. Words coalesce into new compounds and dissolve into something else. Strings of symbols that might be read as ideograms. 


You seem to be absorbing the poem around you, but there is also a sense throughout of unique experience and a group of voices that make a sound no one else has made in quite that way. One does not understand this the way one understands, say, an article in a magazine (though that voice is part of your chorus). I think of Gertrude Stein saying of her work, if you enjoy it you understand it. Any comments? Reprimands? Dis-closures? Regarding this take on your work?


MB: This entire thing, the works of Trailers is performative, and it spans sort of June—September, so there is an arc—generative to harvest (raw). And I do have this image of in that work that it is poetry of a syndicalist model where all forms of the poem might come into play as equals. No one form is more significant, correct, radical secular, precious etc. than another. In fact, I do think that all forms must enter the poem to make a poetry. As well as improvisational writing/reading/performing. I used to think in terms of ISMs. No more. I like to more towards a space of no prejudice. And a ruleless space. Funny how ruleless is a rule. Therefore, it becomes important to transcend that. I find it exciting. It comes over me. If you are in front of this work.  Sing it—it performs. Engage and actualize the poetry. The idea for a trailer is that the work are trailers only a high point or a unique point of what otherwise might be a “finished work.” The entire idea of done is I think ridiculous. I like to take a “done” work and force it backwards into manuscript. The idea that a poem can only go from raw copy to a more complete form is, again, I mean—why? SO taking a semi work and making it go back into a less complete form is again another tool in the making of the poetry. So it is the poetry and not the poem. Poetry is strange, a strange thing. As poets know when falling asleep such poetry, the greatest poetry is written in mind and then is slips away. But not away. Like a ghost it is there.


JB: The performative comes through immediately. It fairly demands to be read aloud. The poem(s) seems to be an unwinding movement away from the closure of any kind of ISM. ISMs are well and good good in museums and lit. history, but setting up camp there would be like living in a beautiful cemetery. Trailers succeeds on many levels and very certainly as an unfinished work. There is form but it remains formless with no precise center or entirety.


Given your demanding schedule at the Poetry Collection, when do you concentrate on your own work? Is there a time of day, or setting that yields better results? A pedestrian and cliché question, but I am always curious how poets manage to make it happen.


MB: What it means to be a poet is to be in the poetry. Therefore, I suggest that the entire all about is the poetry. Sitting and so to speak: writing is only one tiny bit of IT. A poet is a poet all day and night long and that is what it is by definition. The dishes, electric bill, cutting the grass, writing, getting gas is all the poetry. Fact is with all the poetry everywhere when do the pants get washed? Seems I did what I wanted to do and that is be in the poem always and all ways.



copyright © Michael Basinski & Jake Berry