Tuesday, May 12, 2009


It's not often I encounter a handmade, small press book printed, hand-stitched and bound in multiple signatures like those Micah Robbins has produced under the mantle of his Interbirth imprint. The books are exquisitely built with a measure of care and patience comparable to his facility as editor / curator.

Robbins presently has three titles available: David Hadbawnik's Ovid in Exile, Mary Burger's A Partial Handbook for Navigators and Inter 01: Poetry, Prose Plays and Prints. The last of the three is the first anthology in an ongoing series containing work published monthly at the Interbirth site. Each month Robbins features a single author. Some months back—maybe even a year ago now—I had the good fortune of being included in the project and have a few poems appearing alongside an impressive cast of poets and artists. Contributors include: David Hadbawnik, Erin Pringle, Hoa Nguyen, Clifton Riley, Sharon Yablon, Amy Trachtenburg, Mary Burger, Kyle Schlesinger, Christian Peet, Lauren Dixen and Francis Raven.

Robbins curatorial sensibility is something to behold, the juxtaposition of one contributor against another giving rise to otherwise unanticipated formations. His ability to situate work so that certain aspects or particular readings are foregrounded discloses the extent to which editing is a highly interpretive practice. The hand of an editor—like the market—is neither invisible nor disinterested.

This inaugural installment of the Inter series includes an epigraph from Gary Snyder that tells us, at the very least, the source of the imprint's title:

It may well be that rebirth (or interbirth, for we are actually mutually creating each other and all things while living) is the objective fact of existence which we have not yet brought into conscious knowledge and practice.

The seven signatures of Inter 01 are bound in a Long Stitch between two handmade coversheets. Unfortunately only 26 were produced and I imagine most if not all are gone. The two earlier titles brought out by Robbins in editions of 100 (Hadbawnik's Ovid and Burger's Handbook) were both bound in bookboard using a coptic stitch and both are still available.

I'm not sure exactly how to think it, but there's a poetics of struggle, excess or exhaustion in Robbins' approach to editing and bookmaking. Each project seems to exceed any number of limits (labor, strength, material and possibly financial resources, etc). There's also an ethics at play in Robbins' work. The cost for each title ranges between $15.00 and $25.00 dollars—figures which clearly fail to include the hours of labor invested in reading, editing, making (I recall now the itemization of labor in Robert Duncan's prospectus for Groundwork, that he recognized the work of the poet as a form of labor that one should be able to live by).

Editing and publishing. I wish there were a single word, a single concept that would allow for thinking these practices as part of a larger single practice. No one concept allows for imagining editing, criticism, paper-making, printing, binding, distribution, etc as part of a single practice yet for many of us these activities are each part of a single but unnameable activity. Anna Moschovakis, Matvei Yankelevich and others at Ugly Duckling Presse refer to their role in editing/bookmaking as "shepherding"—a concept that seems, on one hand, to minimize their role in bringing a book out and, on the other, to allow for the inclusion of activities that fall outside the rubric of editing or publishing. Diminishing the role of an editor/maker is troubling for me, but making a gesture toward a more flexible and inclusive concept, one that addresses precisely what small press publishers do, is crucial. Either way, I can't imagine a single word that adequately addresses what Robbins does. Shepherding comes close.

Thursday, May 07, 2009


Charles Bernstein sent out a message to the Buffalo Poetics list re-marking Robin Blaser's passing. Blaser died this morning just a few days shy of what would have been his 84th birthday.

Spicer on Blaser (Vancouver Lectures): "Robin Blaser once said in talking about a serial poem that it's as if you go into a room, a dark room, the light is turned on for a minute, then it's turned off again, and then you go into a different room where a light is turned on and off."

The picture of Blaser above—out of focus—is one I snapped during a reading he gave at Trinity Church on Delaware Avenue during the October 2006 Creeley conference here in Buffalo. Despite the poor focus I find the image pleasurable. It seems to disclose a quality in Blaser utterly undefinable to me but something uniquely his own. We see this same quality in early photographs of Blaser. It is the jaw perhaps—maybe the brow—something that comes with the calm, certainty and confidence of a stone in the wood. Self-possessed.

The Creeley conference happened the weekend of a storm that quickly unfolded into a destructive sort of arborgeddon. Winter snow arrived a season too early and as it settled on the turning but unfallen leaves of thousands of trees across the region it brought many of them crashing down across roads, driveways, powerlines, homes, cars and trucks. Much of the city was without electric for several days if not a week. The beginning of the storm coincided with the first day of the conference. Neither Bernstein nor Marjorie Perloff were able to make it. Fortunately Blaser, Ashbery, Rosemarie Waldrop, Anne Lauterbach, Michael Davidson, Stephen Fredman and others were. The mayor of Buffalo declared a city-wide state of emergency and placed a 24-hour ban on driving but the conference unfolded largely as planned.

When Blaser first arrived at the opening reception with DuPlessis, Peter Quartermain, Ashbery, Peter Middleton and others in a large conversion van driven by Michael Cross, I recall Blaser making his way through several inches of snow, ascending the stone steps of the chapel flanked on one side by Michael and the other by his partner David. At 81 years old Blaser moved with a measure of dignity and grace I found myself stunned by. And his body, like his movements, appeared delicate—not fragile but delicate and unswerving. I see this same delicacy, the quiet fall of light metrical feet, in his sense of the line (i.e. "Forest I": "this lovely mind, but the word fall is, for me, too loaded / with a theological beforeness—rather, he or she may step / into oblivion—the state or act of being forgotten—an / answer in real terms—philosophical as they are—of our exit / from origin, that summertime and lacy curtain where we become")

At times Blaser willfully undercuts this delicacy—this measured grace—to great effect with unmasked indignation, scathing irony and humor. Take "The Skill," first written in 1975 and later revised in 2004:

the heart must not be confused
with the body—
the lives of the star-fuckers
who believe a quick rub-down
and come will turn them
into this poetic, thoughtful
art—must not be mistaken
for the desire they never had
except to be beyond themselves
and I love this desire
to go beyond...

A desire to move beyond oneself, the body as permeable shell or discarded shield (that Archilochus fragment, Lattimore's trans:

Some barbarian is waving my shield,
since I was obliged to
leave that perfectly good piece of equipment behind
under a bush.
But I got away, so what does it matter?
Let the shield go; I can buy another one equally good.

Blaser read the opening night of the conference, shortly after the reception. The size of the crowd was surprising given the circumstances (by 7:00 or so in the evening a deep, rolling thunder punctuated the calm of Trinity Church while snow continued to fall and accumulate.

The theological. This was a church (Episcopal) and the podium Blaser and others were to read from was situated immediately in front of the altar. I think now of Blaser's Nerval—Les Chimeres. The epigraph by Jean-Paul that opens "Christ Among the Olives" in both Nerval's French and Blaser's translation: "god is dead! The sky is empty / weep, children, you no longer have a father." According to Stan Persky (his comment in Caterpillar 12) when Blaser read Les Chimeres to he and Spicer shortly after completing it Spicer remarked, "I wish I could write such an apocolypse." Ἀποκάλυψις. A revelation. To lift the veil—that a translation once removed from the source might cut to the chase and disclose or make a forward-looking gesture toward the real. To point us in the direction. The gesture is deeply theological but grounded in a carefully imagined system which, as Bernstein says in his afterward to The Holy Forest , "is wholly secular."

When Blaser stepped up to the podium in front of the altar at Trinity he began to read but couldn't be heard. People in the audience (everyone seated in pews) began shouting, encouraging him to get closer to the microphone. And it snowed out. Each time he stepped closer to the mic people told him to get even closer. And no matter how much closer he got we still couldn't hear him. This went on for what felt like an absurd length of time until finally Blaser climbed up on the mic and mimed a hummer, as if he planned to take the mic into his mouth whole. He asked, "Is that loud enough for you?" And at precisely that moment a sonorous shock of thunder rattled the stained-glass windows of the church. No joke. No hyperbole. Thunder crashed. A priceless moment. A sacred moment. I can't recall if he read from Les Chimeres but I would like to think that he did.

Through the reception, up to that moment, the Church was somber and tense—seeming more a memorial for Creeley than a celebration of his life and work. But Blaser's gesture seemed to break the tension and realign the event. A desperately needed gesture of defiance in an oppressively sacred space. The gesture was apocalyptic, disclosing at one and the same time something about the present moment and also the unactualized possibilities embedded in it. I would like to think of his poetry—his Cups, his Faerie Queene, his Nerval—as work that performs in a similar way, a way that reimagines the sacred, redefines the theological and redirects our attention to the primacy of a particular type of heart capable of moving freely from one space to another, from one room to another. In "The Truth Is Laughter 6" Blaser begins with the following lines:

moving from one room to another a shocked
resilient heart...

And closes the poem with a quote from Blake:

'I cannot,' he wrote, 'consider death as anything
but a removing from one room to another.'