by Michael Boughn
It was Homecoming Day in Buffalo on Friday, April 7, as hundreds of current and former Buffalonians gathered in the auditorium of the Albright Knox Art Gallery to celebrate Robert Creeley’s enormous contributions to the city and its writers and artists. Generations of Buffalo writing communities, former SUNY Buffalo students, and artists, as well as the Poetics crowd showed up to watch a tender tribute to Creeley, the film, “Willie’s Reading,” by Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian, and listen to Nathaniel Mackey deliver the first annual Robert Creeley Memorial Lecture. It was awesome. Local veteran writers Sherry Robbins, Ainsie Baird, David Landry, Pat Tansey (who gave me a copy of her marvelous new anthology of Western New York writers), and many others were there, as well as legendary Just Buffalo founder, Deborah Ott, up from NYC for the event, and current Director, Laurie Dean Torrell. I talked with Jon Welch, owner of one of North America’s great bookstores, Talking Leaves Books, and Robert Pohl who covers writing for the Buffalo News, both former UB students. It was a pleasure to see Harvey Breverman, fabulous artist and the visual chronicler of almost 60 years of Buffalo literary history. Some former students of Charles Olson from the early 60s showed up, including Michael Anania and Fred Wah. I had a very pleasant visit with Will Creeley and got to meet his wife, Serfina, and their beautiful son, Jasper. Later I had a long talk with Penelope Creeley and hung out with Charlie Palau. It was a wild multi-generational mix, but all full of that indefatigable Buffalo energy I love. Fred Wah and I were subjected to rapid temporal disjunctions and time phasing driving down Main Street as all the dead people and dead houses came to life and started talking to us. And they were all there in the auditorium, circulating through the 300+ people who showed up to celebrate. It was a beautiful tribute to Bob’s deep and generous commitment to the community and his constant push to overcome the distance between the university and the city.
Nathaniel Mackey’s talk, “Breath and Precarity,” was tremendous. Right in what I think of as the lion’s den of radical grammatological excess, Mackey talked about breath. It’s all about breath, he said. He began by mentioning Creeley’s artificial breath patterns as a sign of distress during the Cold War. He then moved on to Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse” with its radical claims for a poetry of physicality measured by the breath. He pointed out that breath was not a “natural” measure, but was organized (artificial, he called it) as a way of invoking specific states of being. From there he went on to a marvelously detailed exposition of jazz and breath (filling the auditorium with the sounds of Ben Webster, John Coltrane, and other musicians) and to the ways breathing variously signifies what he called precarity in relation to black lives and the violence they are subjected to in US American society. Pointing out that the breath rhythms of jazz reflect that violence (lynching, choke holds – violent interruptions of breath) he went on to propose that “respiration is what matters. Even if at risk. Especially if at risk,” and that “Black is the color of precarity itself.” It was a brilliant lecture. At the end of the talk he read a stunning poem about America and violence and spirit.
The poem that Nathaniel Mackey read to close off his talk, The Overghost Ourkestra’s Next,” is now available on our Poetry page.