Monday, May 08, 2017

Interview with James Maynard--New Curator of the University at Buffalo Poetry Collection

James Maynard ( New curator the University of Buffalo Poetry Collection)

 "When the Poetry Collection began in 1937, its original mission was to collect first editions of poetry written in English and English translation published since 1900. Today, the collection houses over 140,000 titles of Anglophone poetry including 6,600 broadsides as well as an extensive selection of little magazines, anthologies, criticism, reference books, ephemera and audio recordings, making it the largest poetry library of its kind in North America." ( From the University of Buffalo Library Website)

I had the pleasure of dealing with the former curator of the University of Buffalo Poetry Collection--Mike Basinski--for many years. Mike is semi-retired, but the new curator is James Maynard. I figured this would a good time to interview his successor. The Ibbetson Street Press has long donated books to this extensive collection--and we are glad that many of our publications have found a permanent home.

I would love to get a statement about your background. I know [former curator] Mike Basinski is a poet--wondering if you are?

I haven't identified myself as a poet in almost two decades, but I did write poetry for several years. Looking back, I've been interested for a long time in poetry and poetics and started writing it in high school, where I also worked on the school literary magazine. I then continued to do both at Ursinus College, where I was an English major, creative writing minor, and also received my certification to teach secondary education. After teaching high school English for two years, I went back to school at Temple University to do what they offered at the time as a hybrid MA English: Creative Writing degree, in which half of my credits were in writing seminars and tutorials, and the other half were in graduate lit and theory courses. While at Temple I was never really satisfied with my writing and increasingly felt like a spy among the poets, eventually coming to the realization that what I really loved most was learning about poetry from the perspective of those who actually made it as opposed to the presumed stance of critical objectivity from which it is often taught. I also loved spending time with poets, and appreciated the opportunity to get to know a wider canon of avant-garde and other innovative poetries as per the aesthetics of Temple's program. Consequently, after finishing the master's degree it was an obvious choice to continue my graduate study as a PhD student in the University at Buffalo Poetics Program, which, like the larger English department in which it is housed, has a long tradition of both hiring creative writers to teach doctoral students and also valorizing more experimental writing practices.

Since first starting as a graduate student assistant in the Poetry Collection in 2004 it has been a long and happy apprenticeship--as I think all special collections jobs are--during which I've served as Assistant to the Robert Duncan Collection, Assistant to the Curator, Visiting Assistant Curator, Assistant Curator, Associate Curator, and now Curator. And after 13 years I think I'm finally starting to scratch the surface of the collection's possibilities!

What are your particular literary interests?

Honestly, I've always been interested in all kinds of poetry from a wide range of poetic practices and movements, and less interested in partisan debates about which are superior to others, although I certainly appreciate historically the value of such social tensions for the development of the art. In the broadest terms I see poetry as a function of need--a confluence of personal and political need--and am sympathetic to how different needs manifest themselves formally into different poetics. My own work--a product of my own needs, I suppose--has focused largely on the poetry and prose of Robert Duncan, which I find endlessly generative and inspiring for the world of possibilities they project. I am also interested in 20th- and 21st-century Anglophone poetry and poetics more broadly, as well as pragmatism and process philosophy, the history of little magazines and small presses, and literary archives.

Previously my book-length projects have included co-editing a single volume edition of Robert Duncan's Ground Work: Before the War / In the Dark (New Directions, 2006), editing Discovering James Joyce: The University at Buffalo Collection (The Poetry Collection, 2009), editing (Re:)Working the Ground: Essays on the Late Writings of Robert Duncan (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) and Robert Duncan: Collected Essays and Other Prose (University of California Press, 2014), and co-editing Such Conjunctions: Robert Duncan, Jess, and Alberto de Lacerda (BlazeVOX Books, 2014). A longer list of my select publications is available here: Right now I am very excited about a collection of Helen Adam's collages which is forthcoming later this year from Further Other Book Works (, and in spring 2018 I’ll have a monograph titled Robert Duncan and the Pragmatist Sublime that will be published in the University of New Mexico Press series “Recencies: Research and Recovery in Twentieth-Century American Poetics.” Currently I have either just finished up, am working on, or will shortly be working on an essay on Duncan and his partner Jess's private library, an introduction to a Duncan manuscript on the poet's experiences at Black Mountain College, and a reflection on the relationship between the Buffalo Poetics Program and the Poetry Collection in the early 2000s. Another larger project that I've started is editing an edition of Duncan's uncollected prose.

What is your vision for the library collection?

I became the Poetry Collection's seventh curator last fall (2016) at a particularly auspicious time in the collection's history, which dates back to the mid-1930s. Thanks to my predecessor Michael Basinski (whom Doug you've known for many years) and his distinguished 32-year career in the University Libraries, the Poetry Collection has benefitted from the acquisition of numerous manuscript collections and book donations, award-winning exhibitions like the 2009 Discovering James Joyce, countless collaborations and partnerships, new endowments, and over $2.5 million in grants and private donations.​ I take it as my challenge to continue fundraising and bringing in new collections, grow the collection's staff, increase access to materials through additional digital collections, oversee an eventual relocation and expansion project, and, with any luck, usher in the Poetry Collection's 100th anniversary in 2037.

What do you view as the future of libraries and the physical literary book?

Regarding the future of university libraries, I think the University at Buffalo Libraries provide a telling example. Recently, the UB Libraries have enjoyed a major renovation of what was previously the undergraduate library, with the browsable stacks replaced with new user spaces and reading rooms, smart classrooms, computers, a cafe, and media labs. I've heard many people lament the loss of physical books from the library proper, but the truth is, access to the books and other resources has simply shifted (the books themselves have moved into a library annex and are still available on demand to anyone who wants them), with students today wanting electronic access to everything. As a result, as more and more academic libraries subscribe to the same digital resources, they are becoming more and more homogeneous. However, this is only half of the story. I tell everyone that if they only see the renovated area their tour of the library is incomplete unless they come upstairs and visit Special Collections--the Poetry Collection, the University Archives, the Rare & Special Books Collection--where our rare and unique primary materials complement the digital resources otherwise available. Consequently, more and more libraries are highlighting and promoting their special collections as the answer to the question of what makes them truly distinct. This is by no means an original observation, but I think it is true.

As for the book itself, for the past few years it seems that every few weeks there has been another article proclaiming the decline of the physical book and the ascension of digital texts. Now, the tables have turned and there are stories appearing that claim that interest in both e-books and devices like kindle are lagging. The truth is, we are in a period of publishing where we will see both print and digital copies existing side by side for a long time to come. For many of the presses that have published my own books, for example, they still publish a small number of print books, but the expectation is that they will earn a greater return in digital subscriptions. That said, although one can point perhaps to a certain decline in poetry publishing by university presses, I see overall no decline in the print publication of poetry. This is especially true among small and independent presses, where if anything the rush to digitize everything has led many people back to the analog skills of letterpress and other artisanal aspects of bookmaking. So all such reports of the death of the book have been greatly exaggerated, and in fact poetry books are doing very well, thank you! This is not to say that online blogs and poetry journals don't play an essential role in the art form, but print chapbooks are still the coin of the realm, especially for younger poets.

We know why libraries collect the manuscripts, books, etc. of famous authors, but you guys also warehouse the obscure, the oddball, the fringe. What is your method behind this madness?

We love "the obscure, the oddball, the fringe"--to which I would add the ephemeral, the marginalized, the transient, and the fugitive. In fact, I can think of no other collection that has from its inception dedicated itself to the impossible goal of attempting to collect the sum total of anglophone poetry at any given historical moment. "Completion" is a horizon that forever haunts the Poetry Collection, but I like to think that we fail a little less every year. Of course, we are only able to accomplish what we do thanks to a very large network of friends, representatives, fellow travelers, and ambassadors. I'm thinking especially of people like you, Doug, who have been generously sending us donations for several decades, and countless others who help keep us informed about new presses and publications. One of our founder's--Charles Abbott's--greatest accomplishments was involving poets (and editors, publishers, critics, etc.) themselves as active participants in the process of building the Poetry Collection, and that same extended collaboration continues to this day.

No comments:

Post a Comment