Published October 26, 2016
October marks the end of an era for the UB Poetry Collection. Michael Basinski, curator of the Poetry Collection and director of Special Collections, has retired from the university.
Over the course of his distinguished 32-year career with UB, Basinski has led the acquisition of many of the library’s well-known collections, helping both the Poetry Collection and the city of Buffalo garner an international reputation as an literary capital.
The University Libraries will celebrate his accomplishments as a curator, poet, sound performer and visual artist with a public exhibition of his work in 420 Capen Hall, North Campus. The exhibition, which will run through Oct. 31, is open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
“Mike truly embodies the notion of a curator as one who cares,” says H. Austin Booth, vice provost for University Libraries.
“Mike has cared not only for the Poetry Collection, but also for the reputation and advancement of the University Libraries, the poetics community and all of us who have been lucky enough to call him our colleague. I could not have asked for a better partner in moving the University Libraries forward over the last several years.”
James Maynard will serve as the Poetry Collection’s seventh curator.
Although Basinski became curator of the Poetry Collection in 2004, his tenure at UB began in 1973 as a night school student, studying poetry in the Department of English.
“Getting to UB was a nirvana experience,” says Basinski. “I came for the poets in the English department. It was a fantastic, stimulating place to be.”
And he stayed, joining the Poetry Collection in 1984 as a special assistant, advancing through the ranks until he was named a full librarian in 2010 and director of Special Collections in 2015.
As curator, Basinski has worked with poets from around the world, supported numerous research projects and expanded the integration of the Poetry Collection into the undergraduate and graduate curricula.
He led the organization of “Discovering James Joyce,” the largest exhibition of UB’s James Joyce Collection, attracting more than 1,000 visitors.
He also lent UB materials to several prominent museums around the world. In 2014, he loaned several manuscripts from UB’s Dylan Thomas Collection, arguably the world’s finest collection of Thomas manuscripts, to the National Library in Aberystwyth and the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea — the first time the documents were displayed outside of the university.
In 2010, he was awarded the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Professional Service, and in 2013, he received the Esprit de Corps Award for service to the arts community from the Burchfield Penney Art Center.
Basinski also has worked as a literary coordinator for the Polish Community Center of Buffalo, and has taught for UB, Niagara County Community College, Empire State College and the Just Buffalo Literary Center.
He will continue to assist the Poetry Collection with several projects in the coming year, but plans to spend more time with family and creating poetry during his retirement.
“Administratively, I have two grandchildren — 2-month-old twins. Creatively, I will continue to do what I have always done,” he says.
Basinski’s poetry is highly visual and formless, frequently employing improvisation to provide listeners with a unique experience. He chooses a focal point in the image and then radiates outward using a series of riffs, taking his audience on a ride that is never the same across performances.
Equal parts poetry and performance art, the works sometimes include instructions and can last as long as the reader desires.
“After going to 50 years of poetry readings, what do you remember?” Basinski wonders.
“There are a few lines here or there that I remember, but mostly it is impact. What is the aura that was created? I’m more interested in showing not how deep I can feel or how philosophically competent I am, but in what kind of presentation I can do.
“I make a lot of broken, imperfect and improvisational work,” he says. “Most people’s imagination of poetry is a very rigid and complex form. I’m more interested in experimenting with literary aspects and enhancing them to see what happens.”
Basinski has published more than 100 poetry titles and more than 100 reviews of poetry books and magazines. His work has appeared more than 750 times in literary magazines and journals, and has been featured in more than 350 exhibitions at art galleries and spaces around the world, including the Oakland Museum of California, Burchfield Penney Art Center, Albright-Knox Art Gallery and Carnegie Art Center. He also has presented at more than 50 academic conferences and literary festivals.
He has served as chair of the Popular Culture Association’s Poetry Studies Area, as a member of the Burchfield Penney Art Center’s poetry series committee, and as the vice president of the Americas for the International Robert Graves Society. He also co-founded Moody Street Irregulars: A Jack Kerouac Newsletter, a publication dedicated to the history and cultural influences of Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation.
Basinski has been a poet-in-residence at Jamestown Community College; University of Coimbra in Coimbra, Portugal; Niagara County Community College; Gloucester Writers Center; and the Elora Poetry Centre in Ontario, Canada.
It’s been a storied career for a man who spent more than 50 years creating on the fringes of poetry.
Despite handing over the keys to the Poetry Collection, Basinski admits his life will continue unchanged.
“My work in poetry has changed focus and intensity, but essentially I will be doing the same thing — talking with poets, hanging out with poets and creating with them.”