One thing I have enjoyed about poetry in Buffalo is the number of reading series and workshops that are offered here. Every few months it seems one or both pops up. Some lasting only a few weeks, others, like the ones hosted by local artist and poet ryki zuckerman, last for years. Recently I was able to get ryki to tell me a few things about herself, poetry and the programs she has had a hand in.
Fred Whitehead - You have been hosting poetry readings in Buffalo for quite a while now. When did you start?
ryki zuckerman - I programmed and hosted readings in the 1980's for Niagara-Erie Writers which held meetings and performances at St. John's Grace Episcopal Church (and where, strangely enough, I read Sept., 17 for someone else’s series, and where, strangely enough, Robin Willoughby's ashes are interred. Connections.)
I started the Gray Hair series about 10 years ago, after Robin Kay Willoughby, a long-time editor, passed away. We did an issue of her poetry & writing and then I planned a reading by writers who had known her, each reading her work. That took place at the Just Buffalo Hibiscus Room in the Tri-Main Center, where Just Buffalo was headquartered back then. After hearing the various writers reading, Kastle Brill and I talked about how wonderful they were and about starting a reading series for older writers who were not being featured in other series much at that time. I followed through on that and approached Mike Kelleher, after a Gary Snyder reading at the Albright-Knox, about creating a series for older, "established" local writers. He was amenable. However, I got waylaid by starting to teach college classes. At the celebration for Robert Creeley at "Babeville" in Asbury Hall for what would have been Creeley's 80th birthday, I spoke with Ed Cardoni about my idea. At the time, Just Buffalo used an assortment of venues for performances. I wanted a space that we could use for each reading. Ed said, "Let me show you this room we have downstairs." (Yes, oh yes, oh yes.) Afterward seeing it and jumping at the opportunity to use it as the venue, I went back up to the main hall, where people were still schmoozing after the Creeley event, and started talking to various writers, poets. At the end of the evening I had five months of readings programmed (more connections, inter-connectedness).
I started the "new/reNEW" series a year or two after that, wherein I could program writers not yet established and/or younger, pairing them to read with an established writer. The venue, run by volunteers, that was hosting that series became untenable. Then Peter Lisker, at the time the head librarian at the Crane branch of B&ECP library, invited me to start a reading series there. (I remember sitting with Lisa Forrest and David Landrey and some others after a reading somewhere, having coffees at Caffe Aroma, and I asked for their feedback on possible titles for my series at the Crane.) The Wordflight series continued for years, but after cut-backs, shortened hours, and staff changes at the Crane, I moved it to Pausa Art House, a beautiful venue, suggested by David Landrey, where it continued for a season. However, they were opening up one day a month just for us - when they were not regularly open- and it stopped being financially viable for them. Then I read about Parkside Lutheran Church's new Pastor wanting to program lots of community events in the church. He welcomed the Wordflight Series, now Wordlfight at Red Doors (an architectural feature of the the church). Opportunity.
F.W. – The finale of the Gray Hair Series was really good. It was one of the finest gatherings of local writers under one roof that I've had the honor of hearing in quite a while. Why did you decide to end The Gray Hair Series?
r.z. – Thank you. At a certain point in our ten seasons run, Hallwalls wanted us to start paying rent for use of the space. Two years ago I wrote a grant for the series 9 (with assistance from Kastle and Joyce Kessel, two other E.D. editors), and we were able to pay the rent (kindly reduced for us), but last year we did not get the grant. We could not afford to do the series. Also, and very importantly, so many of the older writers we had featured and wished to feature again had passed away or moved away. Our attendance at the series had intermittently declined as well, though not this past, last season. I also had personal reasons for curtailing my curating/hosting activities.
F.W. - I know that you were an art teacher. How long were you a teacher in the Buffalo school system?
r.z. - Too long [ha, ha]. I had a career spanning decades in various different schools as over the years. Art classes/services for students of different grades were removed or added back in addition to various schools buildings closings. I've taught every grade level in the system. Then I started teaching for ECC.
F.W. – Do you still do any artwork?
r.z. – I dabble in collage, sketches, drawing, but not to the extent I would like to do. Planning on doing more in near future.
F.W. - Where are you from originally?
r.z. - Valley Stream, NY
F.W. - Where did you go to school?
r.z. - VSS High School and State University College at Buffalo
F.W. - Were your parents artists or writers?
r.z. - They were both amateur artists, they were both intellectuals. My father was very well-read. They both sculpted. My mother also painted. Together, they were a "Durass" (see Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.).
An aside: I was once at a party at Jim Sylvia's loft on West Ferry, probably after a poetry reading. Jim was photography prof at Buff State, and I believe he was a member of N.E.W. Anyway, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., to whom I had written a letter in college after a rumor that he would come to UB to teach. He wrote me back, but taught at Harvard instead. He was apparently in town and crashed the party to see his old friend Leslie Fiedler. I asked Vonnegut why he had never come to UB. Guess what? He had decided the weather was better in Boston. How did I have Kurt Vonnegut's address when I was in college? I tore the page with his address out of a Barnstable, Mass. phone book in a telephone booth when in route to the Newport Folk Festival. (Opportunity.) And to think there are some who have never experienced a phone booth nor consulted a phone book in this age of smartphones and internet….
F.W. - When did you start writing poetry?
r.z. - Hmmm. When I was a child, my older sister suggested I write stories instead of sentences for grammar school vocabulary lessons, which I did. In high school, I started writing poetry. I have never taken a poetry class. My best friend from high school invited me to attend the bi-annual Dodge Poetry Festival about 12 years ago and that has introduced me to many poets' work. However, I did attend some workshops many years ago, and I have learned a lot about poetry from preparing lessons for my adult learners from Gilda's Club the last twelve years and from my own reading. After Gilda's (which later became Hospice and then Life Transitions after the financial melt down) closed, the group was adamant about continuing to meet with me weekly for classes, and we did that. I eventually, more recently, reduced the meetings to once a month. For five years I have gone to the Cloudburst Council, a retreat for poets, where ideas and poetry are explored, coming back with exposure to the work of poets I hadn't known about and inspiration. While I am not an academic and can not speak easily about poetics or criticism, I am, I guess, a life-long learner.
F.W. - Who are some of your biggest influences, both in art and poetry?
r.z. - A long list, that has changed over the years. Traditional poetry and later the Beats when I was in high school. And I remember liking John Ciardi's poetry then and the Impressionists since grade school. I would take two buses and a subway into Manhattan (a long schlep, but I couldn't afford the LIRR) every chance I had from the time I was 14. I would visit Tchelitchew's "Hide-and-Seek" at the MOMA, and Klee, Miro, Mondrian, etc. At the Met, I would see new exhibits, catch the Impressionists, and stand in front of Bastien-LePage's "Joan of Arc" for long periods of time. And I would go to the city and the village for folk and rock concerts and hanging out (Greenwich village). Today I would have to add Wm. Carlos Williams, Olson, Creeley, Jane Hirshfield, Martin Espada, Billy Collins, Yusef Komunyakaa, Joy Harjo, Mary Oliver, Patricia Smith, Natalie Diaz, Rita Dove, Irving Feldman, Dorianne Laux, Seamus Heaney, W.S. Merwin, Galway Kinnell, Sylvia Plath, and many more.
F.W. - Do you try to make a connection between the art world and that of poetry when you write?
r.z. - I don't, but I have written a bunch of ekphrastic poems. Maybe the left-brain/right brain similarity.
F.W. - When did get involved in Earths Daughters?
r.z. - In the very late 1970's. Marion Perry, who was an editor at that time, invited me to join, after meeting me at a UB radio station show on air, for which we were both reading our work, hosted by Janice MacKenzie, whom I had met in a women's poetry workshop through my friend, the writer (poet, back then) Becky Birtha —Becky, whom I had met because we both had no car and got a ride to work with a guy named Sandy, whom I met from a ride-board notice at Buff State in the last century and rode to LI with over some vacation. I explain it this way because "One thing leads to another." Connections.
F.W. - How long has the publication been in existence?
r.z. - This is Earth's Daughters’ 45th year of publication. Who were the originators of the journal? Judy Kerman, the late Lillian Robinson, Judy Treible (whom I hadn't seen in years but saw again when she came to the Dodge Poetry Fest two years ago with Buffalo writers Irene and David Sipos, whom I didn't even know knew her: connections) and Elaine Rollwagen Chamberlain (an early E.D. editor, whom I tried to find for years, to invite her to read for the Gray Hair series, and then there she was at Sara Ries poetry series one day, now married to Sara's [now] husband's father: connections). When I joined, the editors were Kastle Brill, Marion Perry, the late Joy Walsh, the late Jimmie Canfield (Gilliam), the late Robin Kay Willoughby, the late Bonnie Johnson.
F.W. - How do you think Buffalo holds up as a poetry town compared to some of the other places you have been?
r.z. – There is a lively poetry scene here, but some other cities draw larger audiences — NY, NJ, Philly. It's a thrill to be sitting with hundreds or thousands of other people listening to poets reading (like at the Dodge Festival). "Rock concert effect." Many other cities and towns all over the US have active, vital poetry scenes. Thus, someone like Michael Czarnecki, poet and publisher who grew up in Buffalo, can travel the country annually giving readings for months. Of course, there are also places that are deficient in opportunities for poets to meet and gather, to read. Publishing? Does location matter for that now that there is connectivity via the internet? [I brought Lyn Lifshin to John Roche's RIT class to speak with his students several years ago. He asked her to talk about the process of getting published. She has been published in probably every small press journal for the last 45+ years and has more than 140 books out. I mentioned to his class that whatever it was like in her day, it's different now.]
F.W. - Do you have any particular way of going about your writing? Any daily practices?
r.z. - There was a period of time, for a dozen or so years, when I would write daily, usually a new poem, or several, because sometimes exploring info about something in the content of one would lead to a new discovery and a new poem. Or I would work on revising daily and, often, also writing a new poem. I had slowed down from that now. However, I sometimes feel a small panic about not having written recently, and then, soon, something emerges from the deep recesses of my cobwebbed brain.
F.W. - What are some of your own books and do you have any coming out in the near future?
r.z. - My books are: Looking for Bora Bora (Saddle Road Press, 2013), full-length volume; and 3 chapbooks —the nothing that is (Benevolent Bird Press, 2015), a bright nowhere (Foothills Publishing, 2015), and Body of the Work (Textile Bridge Press), and a micro-book from Destitute Press, suite of six. I am currently working on a forthcoming volume that a local small press publisher will be putting out. No title yet. Half new and half unpublished older work, I'm a bit behind on delivering it. My own horn is now touted.
F.W. - What are some of the organizations you've been involved with other than Earth’s Daughters?
r.z. - Working on issues of ED (reading mss., sequencing accepted work, finding cover art and arranging for its use, proofing each issue before printing, distributing the magazine at local bookstores, etc.), running two reading series, teaching a writing class, writing my own poetry, doing readings, attending periodic conferences or festivals have all required plenty of my "spare" time.’
One must leave time for posting on Facebook.
In the past I was involved in Niagara-Erie Writers, Peopleart Art Gallery, professional teacher organizations, gardening organizations. CIA (no, just kidding)
Facebook is where you can find out, on pages for each, about the reading series that ryki runs and, also, you can check on the Just Buffalo website calendar of events and the News Poetry column listings on Sundays.
I recommend you pick up her books.
In the meantime here are a few of ryki's poems.
(joan of arc exits the painting afterhours)
the hem of her sackcloth skirt
trails the ground;
barefoot, lightly treads
on a carpet of century-old leaves;
at night, she steps out
from the canvas,
pads along on the cold
she exhales a memory of flames,
her arm tired
from holding a branch
day after day,
standing under the tree
where she heard them;
the voices bade her
raise her sword against the british,
but, later, fell silent,
to the whims of bishops,
men inflammed by the simplicity
of her spiritual purity;
or was it the whims of saints?
tracing a path from the leaf in her hand
through the arches of the trees behind her
we see saints catherine, margaret, and michael
hovering in the air above,
luring her from her spinning
with urgent mysteries.
she is poised to leave,
rapt with grace
and angelic vision,
and something more
than the exquisite breath
the artist imbued into her flesh.
her spirit burns, incandescent,
warming the tone of her skin,
flickers with life, so long ago stolen by fire.
she sighs in my ear
and i hear the heartbeat of eternity.
(Jeanne D’Arc, by Bastien-Lepage, 1879-80,
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY)
in the green memory
of plant time
i've seen it all.
how charming my leaf form,
my singleness --
such a gorgeous gymnosperm.
a living fossil from jurassic days,
dinosaurs grazed amongst
my ancestors long ago,
millions of millennia before
the hairless apes
in the green memory
of plant time
i've seen it all,
but, rooted, did nothing
here by the muddied shores
of streams where
a bunch of girly-flowers took over,
grew into a thick canopy,
and tried to blot out the sun
to kill me off.
here i am, wolf-back weed,
here i am, collydoll flower,
and all the rest of you
who morphed into garden blooms.
i am a ginkgo, indelible.
growing wild in the mountains
of china, springing up near rivulets,
looking the same as ever,
still aloof, never to flower,
guardian of mesozoic memories.
it is not the wind you hear
when you visit me,
it is the sighs of the gingko.
(for jimmie margaret gilliam, priscilla devantier bowen, and gabrielle burton)
here is what it is:
first the one leaves
and then another,
same day, on the other edge
of the same country,
from the same malady.
when you see the third,
bidding adieu to the second one,
she exudes the wraith
of her end as well.
faint shimmer in the air,
the dark thought that it is the last time.
here is what is clear:
the essence remains long after.
in each of them was this:
the whorl of her attention
centering on you,
in her presence, a calm center,
her graciousness, her smile,
the many gifts of her self she
shyly bestowed on you.
a breeze brushes your ear,
as if she is whispering her secrets
so you will keep them also,
more for counsel than consoling.
the clouds are wisps now,
lingering, wrapping you
with the determination
to remember her by your
next kindness to another.
Contributor Focus: "News, Reviews & Interviews"