Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Paul Blackburn and Me 

Edie Jarolim

It’s been thirty years since I finished editing the Collected Poems of Paul Blackburn. I still can’t quit him.

Paul Blackburn died on September 13, 1971 — exactly forty-five years ago today. He was forty-four. I never met him, but I spent more than half a decade with him, writing my dissertation and editing his collected and selected poems. When I started this three-pronged project, it seemed to me that Blackburn had lived a reasonably long life. By the time I finished, I thought he’d died tragically young.

As they say on Facebook, it’s complicated. Bear with me here. I never wrote down this story before, so I’m relishing the details.


I first encountered Blackburn in the late 1970s through M.L. Rosenthal, whose Yeats seminar I had taken as a grad student at NYU. I’d been contemplating writing a thesis about one of the confessional poets, Rosenthal’s specialty, but when I went in to talk to him about possible dissertation subjects, Rosenthal said, “What do you think about Paul Blackburn?”

I hadn’t thought about him at all. I’d never heard of him. Rosenthal explained, “Blackburn’s widow asked me to edit his collected poems. I don’t have the time but I told her I would pass the job along to a qualified graduate student.” He added, “If you do the scholarly edition for your dissertation, you’ll end up with a published book when you get your Ph.D.”

I got hold of The Cities, the book Rosenthal had recommended as quintessential Blackburn. Many of the poems were about the BMT subway line, which I’d grown up riding in Brooklyn. I admired Blackburn’s technical skill, his musical score-like notations of the works, his ability to make the writing look easy. I shoved down my doubts about his attitudes towards women. A published book... Now there was a shiny object for an aspiring academic.  

The project turned out to be far more complex than I’d anticipated. First, I had to come up with a criterion for inclusion in the edition. I opted for poems that had been previously published. But what constituted publication? A lot of Blackburn poems appeared only in mimeographed editions. Should those be included?

I next had to decide on an organization. Should the poems appear in the same groupings as the published volumes? There was too much overlap, and many poems were published in poetry journals but not books.

My choice of a chronological arrangement led to other questions: Should the date be based on the first draft of the poem or the published version? And how would I determine the first draft date? And if Blackburn revised the poem after it was published, which version should I use?

I became a poetry detective, interviewing ex-wives and friends, identifying typewriters, tracking down biographical clues in the poems (luckily there were a lot of those). The process was fascinating, but time consuming. It didn’t help my efficiency that I was commuting between New York and San Diego, where Blackburn’s widow, Joan, had sold his papers to UCSD’s Archive for New Poetry.

San Diego – now there was another shiny object. A typical Easterner, I went there expecting to find a smaller version of Los Angles. The freeways were there, and also some of the congestion, but so was a seascape of surprisingly pristine beauty, and a string of coastal cities, each with their own distinct character. USCD resided in the poshest —and probably most stunning — of them all, La Jolla.

I was hired to catalogue Blackburn’s archive and thus was often on the scene for the groundbreaking reading series created by poet Michael Davidson, the Archive for New Poetry’s director. I became part of the inner circle of the graduate students and young academics in the UCSD literature department. I also got friendly with the local writers in town (Rae Armantrout and Jerome Rothenberg, for example), as well as visiting writers like Lydia Davis and Ron Silliman. By no means was this project all work and no play.

I never quite pinned down how I felt about Blackburn’s poetry, but after a while it didn’t matter. The editing was an end in itself and Paul Blackburn was part of my life, day and night. He haunted my dreams. Sometimes the scenarios were sexual, sometimes as everyday as my kitchen cabinets. Kind of like his poetry.

Finally, I had a scholarly edition of 623 poems. For each, I detailed the decisions that went into the editing and dating. I added a critical introduction of maybe 50 pages, discussing Blackburn’s biography and his place in the poetry pantheon as well as the editing theory.

Seemed like a wrap to me.

The powers that be at NYU disagreed. Now that his oeuvre had been established – by me! – they argued that I had a basis for a  “real” dissertation, a 200-page critical introduction about Blackburn himself, rather than about the editing process. Who says irony is dead?

When I finished this next Sisyphean task, I brought eight volumes into the office of the recorder at NYU. She said, “You’re only supposed to bring in two copies of your dissertation.”

“That is two copies,” I said.

I’d had it with academia by then. It wasn’t just the hoops I’d had to jump through at NYU. By the time I took my qualifying exams, my prose style had been pulverized; I had the sentence structure of Henry James and the verbal clarity of Yogi Berra. A decade earlier, I was writing college papers praised for their lucidity. Next thing I knew, I was submitting a proposal for a dissertation titled “From Apocalypse to Entropy: An Eschatological Study of the American Novel.” I switched thesis topics and advisors but didn’t kick the jargon and passive construction habits.

Which was a problem, because what I really wanted to be was a writer, not a literary critic. 

My not so-brilliant career plan had been to get tenure and then, in my spare time, devote myself to my craft, in whatever genre that turned out to be.  Being a teaching assistant at NYU had cured me of any desire to teach, which I realized would be the main part of my job description. And that published book that was going to help me secure my place in academia? It wasn’t going to do the trick or even come close. Paul Blackburn, I now understood, was a “dead white guy,” academia-speak for someone representing the establishment. My untrendy specialty would consign me to the boonies before I could—maybe, possibly, who knows? — snag a job in a decent city.

Nor did I want to give up my Greenwich Village apartment.

I grew up in Brooklyn and had finally acquired what every bridge-and-tunnel brat aspired to in the days before the boroughs became hip: a rent-stabilized place in Manhattan. Call me crazy, but I didn’t want to move someplace I didn’t want to live to do something I didn’t want to do.

I helped with the publication of the Collected Poems by Persea Press in 1985. I tackled the Selected Poems next. Somewhere in between there were small Blackburn books – The Parallel Voyages, The Lost Journals – and a few journal articles.

Slowly but surely I opted out of my role as the keeper of the Blackburn flame, handmaiden to his reputation — and as a potential academic.

First, I happened into a job as a guidebook editor at the travel division of Simon and Schuster. It took two more travel publishing jobs and a move to Tucson in 1992 to finally jumpstart my long-delayed writing career. This time, I had fewer qualms about leaving New York.


My retreat from all things Blackburn continued until 9/11. My niece had phoned from San Antonio to make sure I was okay; though I was living in Tucson, I often visited New York and my old digs in lower Manhattan.

Talk about wake up calls. Suppose I were to die suddenly – and intestate? I was divorced, had no children, and my parents were no longer alive. Everything would have gone by default to my older sister, from whom I was estranged. I didn’t have much of an estate, except my literal estate. I loved the swirled stucco home near the University of Arizona that I had bought for a song – and I still loved literature. I decided to will my house to the UA’s excellent Poetry Center, where it would be a residence for visiting writers. It would be named for Paul Blackburn.

More time passed. My writing career thrived, though it was diffuse. I authored three guidebooks, published hundreds of travel articles, became a restaurant reviewer, wrote a dog book, became a dog blogger, discovered that my great uncle’s butcher shop in Vienna had been in the same building as Sigmund Freud and became a genealogy blogger [www.freudsbutcher.com].

One day, maybe two years ago, a friend tagged me on Facebook to join a poetry discussion about Paul Blackburn. It was like attending my own funeral. One of the participants wondered what had happened to me. Another chimed in, authoritatively, that I had “become a professional dog person.” Clearly, my dog blog had better SEO than my genealogy blog.

This public erasure of my career between the Blackburn years and the publication of my dog book was one of the many things that inspired me to finish a memoir that had been on the back burner for about a decade, called Getting Naked for Money. Traditional publishing had by now hit the skids and I wanted more control over my work and, especially, over my royalties. I started a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to publish it myself.

It was through that campaign and reconnecting with old friends from my poetry past that I discovered there had been a combined celebration of the digitizing of Paul Blackburn’s archive at UCSD/surprise retirement party for Michael Davidson—to which I hadn’t been invited. Well, fuck. Now even that accomplishment had been erased.

I thought about my bequest to the UA. Why was I still holding on to any connection to Paul Blackburn? Others around me had clearly moved on, abnegating my role. I still wanted to will my house to the university as a writer’s residence, but now, I decided, it would be reserved for women over 50 writing in any genre. Women that the world tended to ignore, in spite of the good work they were doing.

I contacted the UA and said I’d like to change the terms of my bequest.

This was about a month ago. Here’s where the story gets really weird.

At around the same time, I had dinner with a woman whose acquaintance I had made earlier this year at a Seder, another single ex-New Yorker. I started telling her about changing my bequest to the UA. She interrupted me mid-sentence. “Did you say Paul Blackburn?” she practically shouted.

Yes, I said, Paul Blackburn. I thought she was confused. Blackburn had always been a poet’s poet. In my experience, the publication of the Collected Poems and Selected Poems hadn’t done much to widen his reputation.

She knew exactly whom I meant. Paul Blackburn had been her first lover. She had been 17; he had been in his mid-thirties and married to his second wife, Sara. They saw each other for about a year. She eventually left New York and married someone else but always thought, somehow, that Paul would turn up in her town, maybe to give a reading. She was shocked to learn that he died, about a year after the fact.

She sent me pictures that she and Paul had taken in a photo booth, he preserved in amber with a little goatee, she in a fresh-faced youthful incarnation that was equally mythical to me.

I wasn’t surprised at the revelation of the affair; his poetry had always hinted at infidelities. I was saddened because I’d liked Sara Blackburn the few brief times I’d met her, but I was hardly one to judge. Mostly, I was appalled at the age — and power —difference. As my friend said, if it was today, he might have been charged with statutory rape by her parents.

I felt like I was in a weird time loop, doomed to relive a past that was no longer relevant to my present over and over.

But the incident sent me back to The Collected Poems. I looked at my introduction. Apparently, graduate school hadn’t robbed me of all lucidity after all, though I’d had to work harder to achieve it. And I realized, again, that what I thought and think about the poetry makes little difference. The collection exists, beautifully presented by Persea, painstakingly edited by me.  It brought pleasure to Blackburn’s many admirers. That’s no small accomplishment to claim.

And, I figured, if you can’t escape your past, you can share your version of it – with a little help from your friends.

Shameless self-promotion for Edie Jarolim: The Missing Years. My memoir, Getting Naked for Money: An Accidental Travel Writer Reveals All will be out in a couple of weeks. Subscribe to my blog, http://www.ediejarolim.com/ for updates – and for outtakes, emailed only to subscribers. Some pretty fun stuff fell on the cutting room floor.