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Essay

Ice Storm Freezes Creeley Conference

But dedicated academics dig themselves out and read their papers as the trees start to fall.
Introduction
Who ever thought having a conference could be so tough? Michael Kelleher looks back at how even a blizzard, government decrees, falling trees, and an absentee audience couldn't put the brakes on a conference set up to celebrate the work of Robert Creeley.

Robert Creeley lived in Buffalo for nearly 40 years. He taught in SUNY Buffalo’s English department, where, along with poets Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe and others, he founded the widely regarded Poetics Program, which placed Buffalo on the map as a home for poetic experimentation.

Buffalo has been celebrating Creeley quite a lot of late. Immediately after his death, a memorial was held at the SUNY Buffalo Poetry Collection, and last May, Amiri Baraka headlined an 80th-birthday celebration.

On Words: A Celebration of the Life and Work of Robert Creeley sought to be a third kind of event: a three-day academic conference densely punctuated with readings by some of America’s foremost avant-garde poets.

And then the snow began to fall.

It looked more like a modest, slushy afternoon traffic disruption than anything else. However, when I left work at 5 p.m., great wet flakes were still falling. I shuddered, remembering the storm of 2000, which left me stranded for six hours in a car running on fumes.

After dinner I drove downtown to Trinity Church. The leaves on the trees had yet to drop and all that watery slop clung to them, bending the branches and boughs toward the ground.

When I arrived the great hall of the sandstone church was empty, except for a few scattered people seated in wooden pews. They might have been there to pray. I was beginning to wonder if the conference had been called off when the sexton tapped me on the shoulder to indicate that the pre-reading reception was being held in a side chapel. My phone buzzed in my pocket: a friend wondering why no one was at “The Church,” meaning a church down the street recently rehabbed by Ani DiFranco and turned into a performance hall.

“Not Ani’s church,” I said. “Trinity, half a block north.”

As I approached the chapel, most of the attendees were filtering back into the great hall for the reading. All the stars were out—John Ashbery, Ann Lauterbach, and Susan Howe among them. (Charles Bernstein was stuck at La Guardia.)

Rosmarie Waldrop and Robin Blaser read the first night. Poet/translator Waldrop is the co-publisher (with husband Keith) of Burning Deck Press in Providence, R.I., which has been publishing some of the best avant-garde writing on both sides of the Atlantic for the past 40 years. Blaser is the last of that visionary circle of Bay Area poets that came to be known as the “Berkeley Renaissance,” a group that included Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan.

Unfortunately, the sound system was not working well, and Waldrop’s prose poems could barely be heard despite several interruptions to readjust the volume. When Blaser opened his mouth to read, a massive thunderclap shook the church. That was the loudest sound we heard from the podium all night, which was too bad, as I’d always wanted to hear him read. I did manage to hear a few lines when he read from “The Plan Is the Body,” one of my favorite Creeley poems:

The plan is the body.
There is each moment a pattern.
There is each time something
for everyone.

The plan is the body.
The mind is in the head.
It’s a moment in time,
an instant, a second.

The rhythm of one
and one, and one, and one.
The two, the three.
The plan is in the body.
After the reading, the destruction wrought by the storm became apparent as we drove up Richmond Avenue toward our home in the Black Rock neighborhood: tree trunks split down the middle, whole trees tipped over on their sides, roots pulled up, limbs everywhere forming labyrinths, near-total darkness. We were awakened several times during the night by limbs snapping and falling on top of houses, cars, and whatever else was in the way.

Next morning we had to climb over branches, power lines, and snow just to get out to the driveway. I was sure the rest of the conference had been canceled because a travel ban had been issued in the city and by the looks of our street Buffalo had been hit very hard. Around noon, however, word filtered out via text message and voice mail that papers were in fact being read at the Hampton Inn and Suites hotel, where the poets and critics were staying. We decided to ignore the travel ban, hopped in our car, and wended our way through fallen trees to the hotel.

Despite the storm, we huddled together over the next two days: in a nondescript conference room, in a small chapel with vaulted sandstone ceilings, and in a great big empty church, to listen to readings and talks. Poet Michael Gizzi juxtaposed readings by Creeley with recordings by jazz pianist Richard Twadrzik, near-perfect exemplifications of Creeley’s breath-line in music. Feminist poet and critic Rachel Blau du Plessis read a paper on “re-gendering” in Creeley. Michael Davidson (“Creeley's Rage”) and Stephen Fredman (“Creeley and the Interview”) gave back-to-back papers in the chapel. In the middle of one, a boom box near the altar let out a shriek of feedback, at which point I wondered if Creeley’s ghost wasn’t hiding behind an arras somewhere, squawking his disapproval or joy or embarrassment or all three.

No more snow fell after the first day, and Buffalo was declared a federal disaster area. Susan Howe and John Ashbery read on the last night to about fifty people in a church that seated six hundred. I have never thought of Ashbery’s work in terms of sound, but perhaps because of the cavernous echo of the church, I heard complex rhythms I’d never heard before. Howe read from various pieces of hers set in Buffalo. One of my favorites, “Pythagorean Silence,” begins here, and sounds a note that I think aptly describes the feeling I had of being in Buffalo and of participating in On Words: A Conference on the Life and Work of Robert Creeley:
It is dark.
The floor is ice.

they stand on the edge of a hole singing—

Related

  • Michael Kelleher is the author of To Be Sung (Blazevox, 2005) as well as the chapbook Cuba (Phylum, 2002). His poems and essays have appeared in Slope, ecopoetics, The Poetry Project Newsletter, Kiosk, and others. He is the artistic director of the Just Buffalo Literary Center and the literary editor...

Essay

Ice Storm Freezes Creeley Conference

But dedicated academics dig themselves out and read their papers as the trees start to fall.

Related

  • Michael Kelleher is the author of To Be Sung (Blazevox, 2005) as well as the chapbook Cuba (Phylum, 2002). His poems and essays have appeared in Slope, ecopoetics, The Poetry Project Newsletter, Kiosk, and others. He is the artistic director of the Just Buffalo Literary Center and the literary editor...

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