Realm of Joy – Poet Mike Basinski, Bard of Lawn Fetes!


Poet Michael Basinski performs at Big Night

On a cold night last November, the curator for UB’s Poetry Collection took the stage at the Burchfield Penney Art Center for a fundraising event for BlazeVox Books, the Buffalo poetry press. The upstairs atrium lobby was adorned with a wine/cheese/fruit spread circled by a dozen or so tables fitted with white tablecloths. The audience was well dressed for a poetry reading: designer jeans, handbags, boots, makeup, clean hair were all easy to spot. BlazeVox editor Geoff Gatza then introduced a man who needs no introduction within the literary community: Michael Basinski. Basinski stood at the podium and quickly exfoliated any pretense of his office found perhaps in his unbuttoned white shirt and dark sport jacket, slipping seamlessly into character as a poet and performer. In his new skin he gave a brief introduction to his poem, “Maid of Beer.”

“The poem is a celebration of lawn fetes, a.k.a. church picnics, particularly those of East Side Buffalo, New York’s Polish parishes, and a celebration of those women who served local Buffalo beer in huge paper cups in the lawn fete beer tents,” he said. “All lawn fetes are contemporaneous.”

On a recent Monday night in Ulrich’s Tavern, Basinski met with me and filled in the gaps. He grew up in the 1950s on Harmonia Street, a block-long street between Walden and Sycamore, and not far from the Broadway Market and even closer to streets with names like Sobieski, Stanislaus, and Kosciuszko. At the time the area was hotbed of swiftly assimilating Eastern European cultures; today the area is a hotbed for ragweed and dandelions covering the lots where houses once stood.

When he was around 10 years old, his aunt gave him an anthology of poetry. “It was one of these early 20th century, mass-produced anthologies with an embossed cover and gilded pages,” he said. “I still have it. I think there’s stars next to Shelley’s poems.” Looking perhaps for the traces of influence of Romantic poets in the mass culture of the pre-Beatles 1960s, he was particularly attracted to the bohemian and beat culture documented in Life magazine and ridiculed in Mad magazine. Of the culture he was raised in, Basinski said, “I didn’t feel like I had to get outside of it. I was outside of it.”

Other than the book from his aunt, Basinski insists that he never received any guidance or encouragement from teachers or friends into what he refers to as the “Realm of the Poem,” aside from a backhanded comment from one of his teachers: “I do remember writing poems and putting ’em in high school literary magazine and one teacher said, ‘Oh, now I understand you.’”

Fete of Egyptian Luxor and cotton towels dry my dripping face dripping of need face a dry throat Gobi alone murmur July of ur nighttime O! and wanton O my moist I more lush quart cups beer cool cups want I’m wanted drunk or alive to hear your sea negligee a sail-lure snail tied tight of negligent honey from da side of the Simon Pure beer truck pore more forth excess cups of beer more

[original story pulbished in Artvoice:]

His father worked at Republic Steel and Basinski himself, bohemian notions or not, went right onto the line at Buffalo China, decorating the kitchenware as it passed by. But he kept at school, earning an associate’s degree in chemistry from ECC. “I could do algebra very quickly, so I wouldn’t have to think,” Basinski told me at Ulrich’s, “and then I could go home and read Tennessee Williams.” But the “Realm” still surrounded him and he was lured to take night classes in literature at the University at Buffalo, where his early professors were Sally Fiedler and Jack Clarke. Soon Basinski was getting long looks and questions during his lunch breaks at the factory while he read Charles Olson and meditated on shipping pallets.

“Being able to move about socially makes me a big proponent of public education—economically feasible higher education,” he said. “I was quirky enough to be to posture myself into different places, but I didn’t know anything about going to school or anything. But I could go down the street and there was exposure to really great teachers and top-notch writers.”

An assignment in one of Clarke’s classes was to attend a poetry reading on campus from the newly returned faculty member, Robert Creeley. Clarke gave his class some important advice beforehand, urging the students to have a few drinks, get a buzz, get psyched up, do whatever they could do to try to make access to the Realm that much easier. Basinski complied. “Me and my friend George met at a bar at the corner of Amherst and Main Street and tightened up a bit. The reading was in the Fillmore Room in Norton Hall, and there were like 300 people there. I remember he read ‘Do You Think’ from his daybook [In London] and I remember thinking, ‘I’m there, this is it.’”

our Lady of Villa Maria on Doat street near Persia and Randolph streets the lawn fete night Mary of vortex Czestochowa Cheektowaga in the darkness of holy magi incense and flickering old candles yellow of old women prayer in the church shadows

Now in his early 60s and almost three decades into a professional career as a custodian to UB’s world-renowned Poetry and Rare Books collection, Basinski never betrays the sense that his primary identification is as an artist. Wearing large glasses under a mat of thick, curly gray hair and an exquisite matching gray mustache, however, he looks like he could be a stand-in for Saturday Night Live’s “Superfans” skit with Chris Farley. A superfan, albeit, with a classic education and an ever-widening imagination focused on increasing the circumference of possibilities within thought. Variations of the word “possibility,” came up again and again during our conversation, whether we were talking about the his work at UB’sz Poetry Collection, his role in the literary communiity, his pleasure in working with younger artists, or the aesthetics of fluxus, of which he is an active practitioner.

Basinski grew up within East Buffalo/Cheektowaga’s Polish-Catholic community, but formal religion was never an active part of his life. The culture and community of church, however, do seem to have translated into his disposition. His job at the Poetry Collection started when he was a graduate assistant, after he was referred to then curator, Robert Bertholf, by English faculty member Kathy Kosinski.

“She knew where all the fish fries were on the East Side so we had mutual points of reference. I called up the Poetry Collection, and I talked to Bertholf. Bertholf said, ‘Come on in, I’ll talk to ya.’ So I put on a tie, went in. I said, ‘Hi, Dr. Bertholf, I’m here. I’m Michael Basinski,’ and he shook my hand and said, ‘Go sign up.’ And that was it. I ordered books. And today, I ordered books. Not much has changed.”

Basinski is extremely catholic in his tastes. In addition to textual work, he creates visual artwork and composes musical fluxus pieces, explaining “making words as pure music without the burden of carrying meaning, is highly attractive to me.” As curator of a prestigious literary institution with a purchasing budget, he has consistently advocated that there is “one poetry,” a single point of reference and unity for all the dueling denominations of the poem.

He explains the frequent mention of the gods in his work as such: “It’s a very spiritual poetry, always. I think the poem touches other realms and in those realms the gods live and thus spirits live, a realm of possibilities. This is what Percy Bysshe [Shelley] did. I’m reading Keats again and I find it there. And this bar maiden is delivering a form of elixir to us so that we are able to experience a higher form of reality. That’s how these gods and mythologies work into our experience.”

O sweetened of salt mermaid sumoon seed conical spire composed of tubular whorls sumoon a rite of candy stores and bakery sweets bakers up before the birds sumoon marauding taffy fertile fruitful productive urmoonoonfecundation sumoonmaiding to you my wedded lips in the center of the night roaring moon

Had Basinski been born in Pittsburgh, he might have been a painter; or if he had been from Krakow, he might have written fiction; if from Chicago, he might have been a musician. Being from a Buffalo steel family, he gravitated to the burgeoning literary culture of his hometown. I got the sense that he is proud and immensely comfortable with his hometown as he relayed to me a story of stealing beers from the Ulrich’s store-room during a busy St. Patrick’s Day rush. “I have picture of myself in the doorway of this bar hanging in my house.”

It’s easy for art to seem stuffy, especially when serious work takes on a certain quality of solemnity in galleries, or when the rules around an art form become rigid and rendered “classical.” Sometimes art takes on modes of exclusivity, often regardless of the artist’s original intention. That November night at the Burchfield-Penney, Basinski immediately unraveled any such pretension, exposing the possibility for art to always be exuberant and joyful.

When he talks or performs, it becomes immediately apparent that the world sounds and probably even looks different to him than it does to other people. Not just in the way that all experience is to some extent individualized; for Basinski reality doesn’t look like reality anymore. Sitting in the bar with him for over an hour, I had barely heard a word of the droning local newscast coming from the TV, and the man coming in trying to sell canisters of decaf instant coffee strangely didn’t seem necessarily real, either. Basinski told me he would head home by driving east down Broadway through Buffalo, Sloan, Cheektowaga. A three-mile stretch directly next to a river of active railyards. He left me thinking how it all would sound, bouncing around in his head to a language only he speaks.

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