Don's Diary

April 7, 1995

SUNDAY. I'm sitting in the comfort of an Amtrak coach up the Hudson river to Albany, thinking: Why am I doing this? I've been in New York state since Friday evening and already my stomach aches from two nights of Third World cuisine, and my head aches from the din of an equal period of time with New York's poetic community (the inhabitants of which are all, it seems, passionate travellers on the Global Information Highway). I've never felt more like the classic image of the librarian out of his/her environment.

Last night I read at the proverbial bookshop-cafe off Canal Street, and enjoyed myself but couldn't avoid the feeling that my "English reticence and quaintness" (the phrase was actually used, though not about me) is my greatest asset on this visit. Watching the waterfowl preen themselves on the icefloes, I determine to play it up henceforth.

MONDAY. Before my class I'm directed to wander in the shopping mall - to look at the abstract expressionists, of course. I ponder the trick of art values which has turned Pollock, Motherwell, Grace Hartigan and the rest into shopping centre art as we drive out to campus.

Albany campus at the State University of New York is covered with "Save SUNY from the cuts" posters as the new powers-that-be propose a package of cuts in funding, increasing of fees and "campus rationalisation" which sounds all too familiar. My seminar (on Northumbrian poet Basil Bunting) is greeted by the question: why do the British take so little care of their literary heritage? To which I can only murmur about poverty and British reticence, and say that we are trying to do our bit in Durham and so on. In the evening I give a reading of my own poetry, and my introducer makes me feel like a bit of literary heritage myself.

TUESDAY. Everyone's told me how cold it is here in Buffalo, in upstate New York, and they are now practically apologising for the mild spring day. I first came here at Robert Creeley's invitation ten years ago, and immediately liked the place for the energy of its poetic community. That's still evident today, with distinguished poets such as Creeley, Susan Howe and Charles Bernstein very much in evidence for their students: the graduate class I talk to are all poets, publishers and critics at the same time, and the spirit of invention is everywhere. There's enough poetic activity to get a few real literary feuds going - by email of course. In the evening, it is Thai cuisine (again). The TV news is of cuts in social services and education (especially schools music programmes), and the return of the death penalty.

WEDNESDAY. Ah, that's more like it - four inches of snow this morning, and the taxi ride out to campus, besides the part-frozen Niagara river is both spectacular and highly dangerous. I'm visiting the rare books collections, to see their Basil Bunting material, which includes manuscript notebooks of Briggflatts, Bunting's greatest poem. It is an act of piety on my part, rather than serious research at this stage, but I come away very moved from the experience. There is a lot of Bunting in collections all over the United States, and as custodians of the Basil Bunting poetry archive in Durham we are fortunate to have good relations with all the holders.

For my reading I am joined by English poet and lecturer Peter Middleton. Our work is different, but with enough in common to make the double billing work - for us, anyway! In the way of our English quaintness, we have followed each other's work for some time - but it took a trip to Buffalo to get us together.

THURSDAY. A piece of pure Americana on the plane at Buffalo airport: a rowdy couple do not like their seats and start shouting at the crew, so the pilot aborts the take-off, returns to the gate, and has them quietly and efficiently thrown off. He is the kind of tall, grey man you can imagine wrestling bears in the old Wild West, and we give him a round of applause. He returns the gesture with a round of free drinks as we fly over the Catskills.

Back in New York I give my last Bunting lecture, at the independent Poet's House on Spring Street. The audience is all horribly literate, and a combined list of their publications would stock a small library. In fact, looking around the room, I see that their books do indeed do just that. Several of them come up to me afterwards to tell me their personal Bunting reminiscences. This is always a pleasure, and I contemplate an anthology of these yarns at some point in the future.

FRIDAY. My free day before flying out tomorrow. As I pace the chilly streets I note that the bars here are bristling with promotions for American-Irish beer - but on inspection it seems to be far more to do with drinking than politics.

At a party in the evening I am introduced to one poet after another and I begin to suffer from bibliography blur: it is a well-known condition among librarians who have been away from their books for too long.

Richard Caddel

Assistant librarian at Durham University, and a director of the Basil Bunting poetry centre at Durham University.

His most recent collection of poems is Ground, published by Form Books, 1994.

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