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An evening with poet Irving Feldman: Legacy of friendship, fostering and creativity

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In the mid-1970s, Michael Basinski, current curator of the UB poetry collection and poet, took a creative writing course in Clemens Hall taught by poet Irving Feldman. Feldman’s skill and patience in critiquing student work encouraged Basinski to work fervently on polishing his craft, helping him become the artist he is today.

This past Thursday – more than 40 years after Basinski took that course – Irving Feldman returned to Buffalo to read his poetry at the Anderson Art Gallery. A crowd of more than 40 people attended the reading.

The name of the event was “An Evening With Irving Feldman,” but it was much more than that.

Dr. Sandra ‘Sandy’ Olsen, director of UB Art Galleries, said that the evening was about “a painter, a poet and their friendship.”

Olsen said that Robert De Niro Sr., who taught at UB for six summers and is the late father of the famous actor with the same name, would have never even been at UB if it weren’t for Feldman, whose recommendation helped him get his position in the arts department.

“Sandy and I got together and we decided that we would really balance the art in this collection with the literary art,” Basinski said.

The event was in honor of the friendship that Feldman and De Niro, a professor in the arts department with Feldman, shared during their time at UB as peers.

Olsen said the collection presented at the gallery demonstrated a practice that Albert Cooke, head of the English department at the time, praised for its unification of the illustrative and literary arts.

At one point during the evening, Feldman addressed his roots and how his poetic career came to be.

“I was a 17-year-old artist who had never taken a creative writing course,” he said.

A Long Island native, Irving said he made his way to UB from to the East Village of New York City when he was younger, his passion driving him to seek out his art.

“Once I got my teeth into something it wouldn’t let me go,” Feldman said. “Coming to UB was like being let out of jail.”

Although the event was dedicated to celebrating the skills of an artist and a poet, one member of the audience came to the event not knowing what to expect.

Amy Lora, a local poetry enthusiast, said that she had heard of Feldman from her friend who introduced her to the poet, but that it was her first time ever experiencing Feldman’s poetry in person.

Lora said that “Variations On A Theme” by May Swenson,” a poem about the power that the individual has to create value and meaning in their own life, was her favorite piece.

“I was mesmerized and fascinated,” Lora said. “I never got bored because what he was saying was so profound.”

She said that she had a headache at the beginning of the event, but by the end of the last poem noticed her headache had disappeared – a testament to Feldman’s smooth poetic style.

“Tonight was very successful. I understand from [Basinski] that normally, you’re lucky if you get 30 people to a poetry reading. Irving was concerned that nobody would come because it’s the opening of the hockey season,” Olsen said.

Olsen said that Feldman is such an important person to UB and Buffalo history as a whole.

“It’s important for people to remember that UB’s regard for academic excellence and success was established by UB’s English and Arts programs,” Olsen said.

Feldman said the meetings the English professors used to have, when they would meet and share their poetry, is one of the fondest memories he has of UB – and a big influence on him as a poet.

Feldman said he isn’t upset that, in recent years, the arts at UB have received less funding. The creativity is just coming from different places, he said.

“You don’t get bohemian poets anymore. You get people who are professionalizing,” Irving said.

The difference is the artistic spirit in the ’60s and now is evident – although the arts aren’t as sought after as they used to be, their impact is not forgotten.

Tomas Oliver is an arts editor. Arts desk can be reached at arts@ubspectrum.com.


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