A new generation of poets

Michael Basinski, curator of UB’s poetry collection, retires


After working for 32 years and personally bringing in more than two and a half million dollars in grant money, Michael Basinski, curator of UB’s poetry collection, is retiring.

UB has one of the largest collections of poetry in the nation, including original manuscripts and unpublished works by some of the world’s most renowned poets. Basinksi is the man behind the collection and has meticulously sifted through all the works on the fourth floor of the Silverman Library. He has now decided to turn his prized possessions to a new generation of poets and collectors.

Basinski is retiring the position of Curator of the Poetry Collection to Dr. James Maynard but will maintain his position as Director of the Special Collection and work on special projects for the library.

Poetry has always interested Basinski’s. He first started reading it in the fifth grade and has been hooked ever since.

“I guess I was attracted to images of what poets were and I remember reading Shelly as a young person and I was moved, it was a summoning and I just obey,” Basinski said.

Basinski attended classes at UB as early as 1973 and was hired to work in the American Studies department in 1976. Over his 40 years of work experience at UB, Basinski says it’s the atmosphere that he loves best about his job.

“Being part of the university community was a significant moment in my life. I liked it so much that clearly I didn’t leave,” he said. “I wanted to relish in it for more than two-thirds of a life time and that’s what I’ve done.”

Basinski said he’ll miss engaging with the collection on a day-to-day basis the most. With new material always coming to his office, it will be a hard part of his daily schedule to replace.

“It’s the daily activity, of engagement with the realm of the poem and the harvesting of all the books that we do. Eventually I won’t be here at all, it’ll be in the hands of someone else,” Basinski said.

Basinski compared the collection to any person’s favorite hobby.

“One of the great things about being here is that all poetry in English moves through here, you can literally watch it day after day so it’s very much like watching the ocean, can you ever get tired of it? It’s very soothing, just watching the collection on a daily basis will be a small regret.”

Maynard said the collection wouldn’t be the same without the countless hours and labors of love Basinski has put into the library.

“I can’t stress enough how much he has done for the collection in his 32 years as the curator. He’s been responsible for bringing in countless collections, donation of books, global partnerships and collaborations as well as award winning exhibitions.” Maynard said.

Maynard admires Basinski not only as a colleague but a close friend too.

“I’ve said for years I can’t imagine a better colleague and friend to work with than Mike, he’s enormously generous spirit with a great sense of humor and what I think is his biggest attribute is that he has the ability to help people around him succeed,” he said.

While Basinski and his colleagues may be passionate about poetry, most students don’t share the same love for the dying literature. The curator commented that students might not necessarily notice that they’re exposed to poetry in their everyday lives.

“There’s an ad on TV right now, and its Walt Wittman and I just saw a movie that featured a poetic phrase,” Basinki said. “People’s access and what they consider poetry may be different than the stereotype of traditional poetry, it’s not all Shakespeare.”

Basinski added his thoughts on making poetry a general requirement for students who need to fill an English requirement, saying it’d be a good idea but eventually students will naturally become interested in the topic again.

“Sure, I think it’s a great idea, why not try to get more students involved. But you have to understand, it comes in waves. Most people’s readings are governed by pop-culture. At one particular time students’ interested will be peaked by one type of poetry and at other times it will be different,” Basinski said.

Alison Fraser, a graduate student working in The Poetry Collection agreed with Basinski stating that while students may not be reading traditional poetry, they are exposed to it in their daily lives.

“I think one of the more recent moves in our department is to redefine our expectation of what poetry is. Anything we look at we shouldn’t take for granted; the act of reading,” Fraser said.

To honor the work that Basinski has published an accomplished for the university, his colleagues threw a retirement party for him with over 100 people in attendance and showcased his work in an exhibit within the Special Collections lobby.

When asked what he wanted to do after his retirement, Basinski commented that his life will remain mostly the same, focusing on expanding the collection, reading multiple books at a time and publishing his own poetry.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do much differently from what I’m doing now,” he said. “Making what you want, reading what you want, I have two new grandchildren so that’s my administrative duty now.”

Max Kalnitz is the senior arts editor and can be reached at max.kalnitz@ubspectrum.com