Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Celebrating Robin Blaser (updated)

On May 7th Robin Blaser, one of the last major figures among those who came to public notice via Don Allen's New American Poetry, passed away in Vancouver, just shy of 84. Though he will forever be associated with Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer as a primary figure in the renaissance of San Francisco poetry in the late forties and early fifties, he also recognized affinities between their work and that of Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and the other Black Mountain poets. His 1987 lectures on Olson are a rich resource for Olson's poetics, and his own. He and Creeley were friends from the sixties till Creeley's death in 2005. He taught at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC, for many years, and also occasionally at Naropa's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.

(An earlier post on his passing is here.)

I never successfully recorded Robin myself; both times I tried, my usually trusty Uher developed problems. Thankfully, the great Penn Sound audio archive has hours of readings and lectures in his voice, so I put together this week's Wordplay from three of its recordings. The first finds him reading in Vancouver in 1965; the second, discussing his work, and that of his fellows, in a BBC interview with Iain Sinclair from 1994; the third, reading at Milwaukee's Woodland Pattern Bookstore in 2004.

In Vancouver he read "The Moth Poem", an early exploration of serial form; it's a great poem, but the recording, given that it was made on analogue tape over forty years ago (probably by Fred Wah, though he's not credited), had some hiss that I removed for better audibility. In Milwaukee, Blaser began his reading with the introductory section of his extended poem on Dante, then switched to shorter poems, and then returned to the "Great Companions" piece on Dante, saying he hadn't "prepared anything else". I brought the two pieces together for the show. It's a powerful reading.

Music for the show by Bach (the Allegro and Adagio from the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 2 in E Major, performed by the Camerata Romana, conducted by Eugene Duvier); the Kronos Quartet, playing Jimi Hendrix' "Purple Haze"; and Olivier Messiaen, "Praise Eternity" from the Quartet for the End of Time, performed by the Orchestre de l'Opera Bastille, Myung-Whun Chung conductor. The Quartet was one of Robin's favorite pieces of music in the mid-seventies, when I had the good fortune to be at least a peripheral* participant in the continual commotion that was Vancouver poetry scene - at the epicenter of which, I believe most then there would say, stood Robin Blaser.


* I actually lived most of the time not in Vancouver, but in Alert Bay, a fishing village a day's journey north. Anyone curious can glean a little of what I was up to from this post from a few years ago.

Uncredited photo from a collection of shots from Blaser's Berkeley years over at the EPC.

Update, 23 May, 2009: And it turns out that this was the last Wordplay - for awhile, at least. See the story here.

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