Interview with Miriam Nichols on Mechanic of Splendor

Miriam Nichols

Of the post-war North American poets that wrote from a stance of spontaneity, there are few that spring to mind immediately, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Denise Levertov, Michael McClure and George Bowering. All were friends of Robin Blaser, who lived most of life in one of two hot beds of projective literary activity, the San Francisco Bay Area and Vancouver, B.C. But it may have been Blaser’s life and work that provided the most comprehensive statement on this stance toward poem making he would call “The Practice of Outside.” It may also be Blaser too who could offer the most astute rebuttal to rival trends in avant garde 20th century poetry that sought to supplant this stance.
Miriam Nichols was Blaser’s student, became his friend, was his editor for his collected essays, The Fire, is his literary executor and is clearly the world’s foremost Blaser scholar, which is cemented by the recent publication of A Literary Biography of Robin Blaser: Mechanic of Splendor. We caught up with her on January 3 & 4, 2020, at her apartment in Vancouver, BC, to discuss the book and her literary friendship with Blaser.

In the first segment we discuss how she met Robin Blaser as a student at Simon Fraser University, how she began to see how necessary Blaser scholarship was and set about to do it and ended up editing his books of collected poems (The Holy Forest, second edition) and collected essays, The Fire. Part 1 – 10:10.

In part two, Miriam talks about how it was Ellen Tallman who was most instrumental in connecting California Bay Area poets (Spicer, Duncan, Blaser) with the Vancouver poets and ended up being a very good friend of Robin for many years. Tallman planted a seed in Miriam’s mind by introducing her as Robin Blaser’s biographer over and over. Miriam also talks about the book title: Mechanic of Splendor and Blaser’s teaching by context style. Part 2 – 13:32.

In part 3 Blaser’s preoccupation with making a public world presence, his attempts to find himself in relation to a cosmology and discovering though his teacher Ernst Kantorowicz at Berkeley that poetry could be noetic. A key passage:

Robin thought all his life, never wavered on this, that poetry was a particular kind of knowing, that it was as valid in its way as all the other disciplines, as say, biology or psychology or philosophy. It didn’t erase, it didn’t trump those other modalities, those other ways of approaching the world, but it was equally valid, that it was a mode of knowing. And that without it, the human universe, if I could borrow that phrase from Olson, is incomplete. You’re missing something. You’re missing an important element of the way that human beings are in the word, the relationality of how they are in the world. I always think about poetic knowing as relational thinking.

Part 3-10:32.

In part four Miriam discusses the impact Ernst Kantorowicz had on young Robin Blaser (and on Spicer and Duncan too), about he was one of the junior members of the Stefan George Circle, one of the last to be brought in under the wing of Friedrich Gundolf, his book The King’s Two Bodies and the cosmologies at work with Blaser, Spicer and Duncan. Part 4 – 13:00.

In the fifth segment Miriam talks about Blaser’s move to Boston, about how it was about funding himself as a poet and not be content to let Spicer and Blaser “write his poems for him.” She talked about Blaser’s interest in Boston in surrealism and the occult, the beginning of his serial poems: Cups, The Park, The Faerie Queen, The Moth Poem, Les Chimères, Image Nations 1-4, how his practice of poetry composition differs from Spicer’s notion of “dictation” and criticism by Charles Olson of his work, that it “lacks syntax.” Part 5 – 18.15.

Our second interview session happened that same evening, (03-January-2020) after a break and included several more segments.

In the sixth segment she talked about Blaser’s method, which she calls “The Open Space Poem” and said it is an appropriate term because of Blaser’s use of seriality:

That’s what I called it, the open space poem, because the open space poem is also tied to the idea of seriality because it’s what comes into the space. You create a space in the poem for what is going on all around you, so it’s time-bound. You’re attentive to what’s happening in the culture. That goes back to Pound. We have to know what’s happening. It sounds like an off the cuff remark, but actually it’s not. It’s kind of a directive.
If you have a very, very stable world-view that in your opinion you think is fixed then you might not need to know what’s happening because your world-picture is stable. But if you don’t have that then you do have to know what’s happening, and that’s also, I think, part of the 20th Century that Robin came to join after he went to Berkeley. The serial poem, the open space poem, would be a poem where the poet gives space to and is attentive to, in a sense, assembles in what’s going on around him or her. And of course it’s curated. How could it not be? You want to know where the poet is. Well, the poet’s inside there, and the poet is making the selection. He, in this case it’s a he, is not the only voice and sometimes not even the dominant one in that space. And it’s a moveable space. It has to keep evolving and going somewhere without closing itself off in advance, who gets in, who gets out.

She also discussed the “dust up” between Blaser and Robert Duncan over the translations of Nerval’s Les Chimeres at the crux of which was Spicerian translation in which things don’t connect, they correspond. Part 6 – 11:15.

In part seven the similarity between the ending of the friendship with Blaser and Duncan is compared to that of Duncan and Levertov and Nichols believes that for those he {Duncan] felt were his “juniors” in poetry “he did not well tolerate insubordination.” She also talked more about Blaser’s approach to serial form and how “every serial reworks and modifies the poems that precede it so that the scope and meaning of the whole evolves indifference through repetition” and “with the idea that the end of the story is not within your grasp.” Part 7 – 12:44.

Part eight is a discussion of how Blaser ended up in Vancouver, in a way being pushed out of San Francisco by Robert Duncan, landing in Vancouver thanks in part to divination, becoming a very popular professor at Simon Fraser University and helping their library become a world-class location for Beat and Black Mountain literature. Listen to Part 8 – 10:51.

In part nine Miriam discussed Blaser’s slow work on putting together and publishing the long awaited book The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, about the inclusion of (then new to English readers) deconstructionist philosophers like Merleau-Ponty, about his use of the work of such philosophers and his engagement with Language Poetry icon Ron Silliman on the subject of Spicer’s poetry. The effort to “de-center the self.” Part 9 – 17:13.

In part ten, the final part of the January 3, 2020 interview, Nichols discussed how Blaser came to Canada at a time when Canadian literature was a priority and he was, in part, seen as an American “interloper.” Though the TISH poets knew you could take a process like Projective Verse out of the U.S. and it would be more Canadian than slapping a maple leaf on “Brit-lit” and would not be concerned with the settler story, which now looks like white supremacy, as 70s Canadian nationalism appears now. She discussed Blaser’s short-lived magazine effort, Pacific Nation and about the Projectivist nexus in Vancouver, BC. Part 10 – 17:59.

The following morning I came by and we talked for over an hour on Blaser’s actual poetry, reading examples and having Miriam discuss specific poems. The unedited discussion is 63:41.

See also:

Chapter 1 from Performing the Real – a critical biography of Robin Blaser, by Miriam Nichols

and

https://www.dispatchespoetrywars.com/commentary/performing-real-excerpt-chapter-2-biography-robin-blaser-miriam-nichols/

and

https://www.dispatchespoetrywars.com/commentary/performing-real-literary-biography-robin-blaser-chapter-3/

and

https://journals.openedition.org/itineraires/3663

About Splabman

Paul Nelson is founder of SPLAB (Seattle Poetics LAB) in Seattle, the Cascadia Poetry Festival and the August POetry POstcard Fest (PoPo). He wrote a collection of essays, Organic Poetry & a serial poem re-enacting the history of Auburn, WA, A Time Before Slaughter (shortlisted for a 2010 Genius Award by The Stranger.) He’s interviewed Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Wanda Coleman, Anne Waldman, Sam Hamill, Robin Blaser, Nate Mackey, Eileen Myles, George Bowering, Diane di Prima, Brenda Hillman, George Stanley, Joanne Kyger & many Cascadia poets, has presented his poetry and poetics in London, Brussels, Qinghai and Beijing, China, Lake Forest, Illinois and other places & writes an American Sentence every day. www.PaulENelson.com
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8 Responses to Interview with Miriam Nichols on Mechanic of Splendor

  1. Namaste Paul…my intro to Robin Blaser…..just finished part 4…muchas gracias StanleydelGozo

  2. I’ve listened to all these marvellous interviews and audio recordings, and read Mechanic of Splendor (Cdn. Splendour?) over the seasonal celebrations 2019. Lucidity and wisdom triumph in all! Gratitude to Miriam and Paul. Could someone let me know where the phrase “mechanic of splendour” originates? Is it Emerson? Did Robin use it in one of his poems?

  3. Thanks for finding this link to what may well partially explain Robin’s nuanced sense of the word “mechanical.” I don’t generally resonate with the word “mechanical”; so it seems a rather startling metaphor at first. Writers who come to mind besides Hart Crane (“The Bridge”) and Emerson on sacred geometry are Swift in his satire in “On the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit,” and Poe in the stories where he explores the split between body & soul, life and death (corporeality & psyche/spirit etc.) He has stories speculating about whether automatons can have consciousness etc. Also, I wonder if for Robin, the crafting of a poem is a kind of spiritual/mechanical (in the best sense of the word) process. Maybe these 18th and 19th century writers are responding to the Enlightenment split between science and spirituality, a sense of the sacred, cosmological imagination, poetry etc. The etymology of the word “mechanical” is tied to “tool-making,” which is more resonate in the world of poetry and poetics.
    mechanical (adj.)
    early 15c., “of or pertaining to tools and their use,” from mechanic (adj.) + -al (1). By 1570s as “of or pertaining to machines and their use.” Of persons or human actions, “resembling machines, automatic, lacking spirit or spontaneity,” from c. 1600. Scientific sense of “of or pertaining to the material forces of nature acting on inanimate bodies,” from 1620s. Related: Mechanically. Mechanical-minded is recorded from 1820.

  4. Susan McCaslin says:

    http://individual.utoronto.ca/amlit/exody.htm Here’s the link to the article a friend of mine sent me that address the title “Mechanic of Splendor” of Robin’s literary biography. I think it’s a well chosen title!

  5. George Bowering says:

    Blaser

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