In 2009, when I took to writing as a creative outlet and ventured to read my work to an audience, David Landrey was there.
I, fumbling my way through my first open mic appearances, would see him, close to the front, adjusting his recording equipment and taking notes. He has been a great supporter and archivist of Buffalo poetics for many years and in getting to know him these last seven I've had the opportunity to work collaboratively with him on a few occasions.
So, I was able to convince my friend to answer a few questions about himself, his work and poetry in Buffalo.
Fred Whitehead - Did you know early on that you wanted to be a writer?
David Landrey - So many poets were apparently at the craft from the time that they first seized a pen. Not I. I grew up in a family oriented towards business (though my mother was a nurse), largely a result of my parents’ coming of age in the depression.
F.W. - What did your folks do and did they encourage you to write?
D.L. - My father had to work even before his teens and never finished high school, but he had an influence in my movement to literature. He was an avid reader (not of poetry); and his approach to finding work never had making large sums as a motivation (nor did he make much in his life, retiring at his largest salary of $15,000/year). He gravitated to the airline business—American Airlines—out of curiosity and fascination with the new world of flight. His entire career was dedicated to making the experience of flight good for the passenger and to caring for the employees that he came to supervise (I wonder how much this attitude may now be found). As we moved, all of my childhood, from city to city, I was steeped in the idea of a world greater than myself (whether I’ve always been true to that I can’t say). So what am I saying? Love of language and of finding contact with what matters were bred in me by the wisest man I’ve known.
F.W. - Where was your schooling?
D.L. - Because of all the moves and the resultant skipping of school grades, I graduated high school at 16 and entered Hobart College before my 17th birthday. No doubt I was too young; no doubt I’ve spent all of my life “catching up”; but as I struggled at the college, Dad encouraged my constant changes of major—from pre-med at entry to American Studies at the end. Also, the magnificent teachers at Hobart saw something in me despite my pedestrian record. They, I came to realize much later, nurtured fellow students (it was as if they saw that I needed to be helped to some measure of maturity) and carried me through a difficult four years. The motto of the college was Socrates’s “the unexamined life is not worth living” (a proposition that itself had to be examined); we pursued that idea 24 hours a day in an atmosphere where all students were steeped in the history and literature of our kind.
F.W. - How did you get your start in poetry?
D.L. - Ah, poetry. It seemed a vague mystery to me until, in my senior year, I took a course entitled “Modern Poetry and Its Criticism.” I still have and just uncovered the remarkable text of Modern Poetry edited by Oscar Williams, and I became a lover of New Criticism, which, for all its faults, taught me how to read and think closely. When I graduated, age 20 and way too young to have a clue, I knew that literature was, in some way, to be central to my life (or maybe simply “my life”), so, after working for a year, I began graduate school in Iowa, where, having found Kathy, I never actually finished. Instead, after another year of work, I entered The University of Buffalo, then a private school that became part of the State University while I was there.
F.W. - Was this your entrance into the Buffalo poetry scene?
D.L. - While I was there, my first child was born—the event about which I wrote my first poem. It emerged much as my son did—as a process that seemed as natural as breathing. It would be some time before I wrote any other poems.
F.W. - Charles Olson seems to have been a big influence, and thank you by the way, for introducing me to his work. When did you discover him?
D.L. - At the end of my college years I discovered Moby Dick. The experience of that book was and continues to be transforming. So when it was announced that Charles Olson would be coming to UB, brought there by Albert Cook, I was thrilled: “Wow! The author of Call Me Ishmael will be among us.” I had no idea that he was a poet, perhaps the most important poetic figure of mid-twentieth century literature.
The next transformation, then, was a class with Olson. Again, I was hugely ill equipped and naive, but his influence would linger and develop. Charles died in 1970 during the fifth of my 35 years at Buffalo State. I began to teach his work and the work of others of his “school.” Then, in 1973, just 10 years after the birth of my son, poems began to come, in the form of Divorce Poems and Dinner Table Scenes. Will I ever finish those? Should I? Since then, although I am not prolific, poetry has been a full-time concern. Robert Graves wrote, in The White Goddess, that if a poet is serious and to be taken seriously, he/she cannot give part-time service to her, to that overpowering muse.
F.W. - What do you think of poetics in buffalo now, compared to before?
D.L. - Not just my own life but the life of poetry/poetics in Buffalo was forever changed by Olson and by those he caused to come here, especially Robert Creeley. In the mid- and late-sixties, one could trip over poets in and around the old campus of UB. How could I not breathe the heady air thus present?
It’s now over a half-century since Olson’s appearance. I would assert that, no matter what the poetic persuasion of any writer is, our scene to this day is because of him. I’ve counted almost 400 people writing poetry in Western New York, most out of love and a sense of destiny. We have, mostly, responded to the craft as a basic necessity. Careerism is not the primary motive. Perhaps, given that Careerism is the dominant mode in our culture just now, we are engaged in an act of preservation of an energy field easily lost in a world where Corporations “run the country and then they make the news.” Except for isolated pockets, education has become, as John Marvin recently put it, “training.” So all around us is a polluted atmosphere, literally and figuratively; it’s up to us to clear the air. Even the industry of poetry programs stands against the vitality of life and language.
F.W. - How long have you been recording poetry readings?
D.L. - I began recording readings and talks about poetry in the 1970s.
F.W. - What equipment did you start with, what are you using now?
D.L. - First with a cassette recorder, then with mini-discs, and now (blessedly) with a digital recorder, a Tascam, which will record on a mini-SD card 2900 hours. I have trunks and notebooks full of the poetry of our local scene. I’ve recorded elsewhere also, but Buffalo is at the center.
F.W. - What are some of the most memorable readings you've recorded?
D.L. - Except for a couple of famous occasions of readings by Joel Oppenheimer and Robert Creeley, I find that our local scene keeps producing widely memorable occasions. The mutual nurturing that continues to grow is beautiful to behold. Of course, there have been some lesser events, usually marked by painfully self-indulgent utterances, but there are honestly only one or two times when I did not hear something that made being present worthwhile.
F.W. - What are the plans, if any, for the archives?
D.L. - Ah, what to do with this huge archive? Wherever they finally repose will be determined by how accessible they would be to the public.
F.W. - Can you say a little about your own work?
D.L. - My own work consists of many “unfinished”series; even Consciousness Suite, a complete book by any standard, seems part of a single series of connected impulses.
F.W. - What is your vision for Consciousness Suite?
D.L. - Because Kathy has persisted in seeing that I learn more than the obvious, because she has cut out and underlined hundreds of articles from newspapers and magazines, I was plunged into Consciousness Suite. In my preface to the book, I mention the two most critical, from the New York Times:  “The Conscious Mind is Still Baffling to Experts of All Stripes,” by Sandra Blakeslee (April 16, 1996) and  “Wondering How the World Will End? Some Mordant Thoughts from Physics,”by Malcolm W. Browne (July 14, 1998). As I said, “Thoughts of the eventual end of everything swirled together with a poignant sense of the end of all I—or anyone—had assembled in the way of a mind.” I quickly discovered the work of Antonio Damasio, and the poems came bubbling forth. I can’t keep up, but I try to read all I can about the study of consciousness, the mind, and the brain.
F.W. - Do you feel you've finished the Suite?
D.L. - A sequel to Consciousness Suite has been developing, entitled Dancing in the Dark.
F.W. - We have worked together a number of times in collaborative projects. What do you like about the format and do you think it has a greater impact on an audience, compared to a single reader?
D.L. - You ask about collaborative work, which seems to me increasingly important--at least for me. As in your case, I've written poems in response to the poems of others; and, as we have done, I've sought occasion for performance together by both writers. Audiences appear to enjoy this, if only as a shift of energy, but such an activity enables me to hear my own language differently. I read the lines with richer emphasis, and I imagine that when I write thereafter I have access to a wider field of force.
Similarly, I have worked more with musicians. As examples, (1) Ben Christy, Dean of Arts and Humanities at Buffalo State, and I have performed a set we call "Predictions of the End of Time" several times at colleges and high schools, most notably at Empire State; (2) also at Empire State, Kelly Bucheger, Jonathan Golove, and Doug Dreishpoon played as I read; (3) Dan Kolb with his magic guitar and I have done several performances (including occasions where I have read from his "Umbrella Man" while he played); perhaps my happiest presentation of my own work occurred at the Gray Hair Series with Dan playing and Jorge Guitart as the other reader. Especially at that last event I was plunged into nooks and crannies of my work of which I had been only dimly aware if at all.
Look for David at any of the local readings in and around Buffalo. In the meantime here is some of David's work. Enjoy it. As I have.
Pip’s ringed horizon began to
expand around him miserably
——Herman Melville in Moby-Dick
His history rapidly receded,
left his concentrated self to see
God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom.
We rarely know such suddenness
but in time we cast away or
things and people drift away and
we may find ourselves shorn.
A favorite possession can’t be found,
we cease to care about that pile
in the corner of the room,
loved ones vanish leaving briefly
their eidolons which in turn
lose definition, outlines faded in
our womb of consciousness.
For a time perhaps we reach to them
struck with fear at the loss but
a concentration of self may build
and we may gain the secrets objects share
and “feel then uncompromised,
indifferent as his God.” “His”?
Whose? What cosmic presence—or absence--
inhabits the recesses of self?
and if we meet in the vastness of
Pip’s ringed horizon, can we stay afloat
long enough to cast away
——David Landrey, late January 2015
Gloom settles this late October evening
black cat grooms to my left
after kneading me purring
I needing her why? what for?
and to my right Kathy silently as always
these fifty-six years reading
feeding my senses
needing her in this room where
so long we’ve sat why? what for?
What do we think
leading where we’ve been or will go
following what pattern on whose loom?
She came five years ago
a new focus on why? what for?
and we unwitting fell under her spell
no room for gloom in her frolic
but frolic yields to silence
gloom settles yet again
each time deeper until
needing cat and Kathy in the room
the cycle complete for a moment
I seem to know why what for.
——David Landrey 25 October 2015
The Other Side
——for Kelly Bucheger and What Would Mingus Do?
—and for Fred Whitehead
The world ended a long time ago
back when the Universe exploded, what they call the Big Bang
we’re all just ghosts, part of the afterglow
slow cooling embers thrown out by that immense bonfire
—John Roche in The Joe Poems
We hear them far and
seeking us and we them
them and us
shimmers shivers shakes
our vision leading us
or far within
our side or theirs
as the sounds
theirs and ours
assemble and hover
both sides singing until
we seem to know … … …
And they come to the edge
And we seek without fear
And we hear from beyond
And respond deep within
and we reach on through
the other side.
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