Sarah Kortemeier: You recently made a very generous donation of poetry books, journals, and ephemera to the Poetry Center—some in the mimeo tradition, many connected to poet Paul Blackburn, whose collected and selected poems you edited, and all important to the documentation of twentieth-century American poetry. Could you tell us about this collection? How did these books and journals come into your life?
Edie Jarolim: I made this donation as part of a still-in-progress decluttering project I began during the pandemic in lieu of cooking, exercising, and actual house cleaning. Parting with books presented a huge problem; I wanted to keep them all and still have more than I probably should. I gave many of the more popular ones to the Friends of the Pima County Library and the Little Library in my neighborhood, but I wanted this particular group of books and journals to be appreciated and realized they could benefit poetry scholars and poetry readers if they went to a terrific library like the Poetry Center.
As for how these materials came into my life: I was attending NYU as a grad student and studying with the poetry critic M.L. Rosenthal. Blackburn had been one of Rosenthal’s students under the G.I. bill, and they kept in touch. Blackburn’s widow Joan asked Rosenthal to put together a collection of his poems after the poet’s death. This being a job for a graduate student rather than a full professor, that’s where I came in—somewhat naively.
Blackburn’s papers were in many different places. Joan Blackburn sold those in her possession to the Archive for New Poetry at the University of California-San Diego. Blackburn had been active in the NYC poetry scene and was instrumental in founding the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church. I studied and worked in New York and was connected to the poetry scene there as well. So the materials I donated reflect a long and bicoastal scholarly journey.
SK: The published Collected Poems of Paul Blackburn started out as the aforementioned NYU dissertation, a four-volume work you gave to the Poetry Center, along with the other materials. What was it like collecting all his published works into a single, complete, authorized edition? In an earlier conversation with me, you mentioned the difficulties of the editorial decision-making: Among other things, you had to decide what constituted “publication” and which poems should be included/not included. How did you approach those questions and other aspects of the editorial process?
EJ: I approached it with trepidation and lots of index cards; I did this work in the 1980s, before complex computer filing systems existed. And it was all new scholarly territory. That is, there was a precedent for editing poetry collections in the Library of America, interpreting handwriting and trying to figure out authors’ intentions for their work, but that didn’t apply to things like mimeographed publication. I had to come up with logical and well thought out justifications for my decisions independently.
For example: If Blackburn wanted a poem to see the light of day and distributed it in mimeographed form, I included it in the Collected, but if he subsequently revised the poem and published it again elsewhere, I’d use the later version—which was often rather different from the earlier one. Blackburn’s poetry looks spur-of-the-moment and casual but he was an inveterate revisor, very careful about his word choice and line breaks.
I also had to think about how to present the poems, whether to break up the published books and start from scratch with a strict chronology, which is what I decided to do. Then the question arose: Since I was putting the books in chronological order, should I go by the date of the first draft or the date of publication? You can see why it took me nearly a decade to finish…
SK: You’ve described yourself as a “poetry detective,” tracking down information about Blackburn from friends and family and corresponding with numerous literary repositories. How did that scholarly journey affect you? What are some of your favorite memories of that research?
EJ: My favorites were anecdotes relating to the many people I met through the work, friends and admirers of Blackburn. But not all were admirers. As a feminist, I almost hate to tell this story. I knew, going in, that Blackburn had three wives and many extramarital affairs, so I took with a grain of salt the warnings I’d had about his first wife, Freddie, who was no fan of her ex-husband. I needed her to help me determine chronology for some of the early poems, and I’d been told that a gift in the form of a bottle of Scotch would make her more amenable to giving me information. It did, but within limits. She would drink and tell stories, then tell me she had more information to give me but I needed to come back again, with more scotch of course. I ended up avoiding her eventually—as Paul Blackburn had!
Most of the encounters I had with people were a lot more fun. Blackburn was only 44 years old when he died in 1971, so I got to meet many of his friends in New York, including poets I admired like Robert Creeley. And poet Michael Davidson, who was then the head of UCSD’s Archive for New Poetry, ran an excellent reading series. I had good times at post-reading gatherings and got to know a number of visiting writers who taught at UCSD for a semester; several are still friends today.
Many long-distance encounters were enjoyable too. I corresponded with the late George Butterick at SUNY-Buffalo, for example, and we developed a friendship based on that correspondence.
And, in spite of my griping, the research itself was in many ways fun, in the way that puzzles are fun.
SK: Your research files on Blackburn are housed, in the main, at the Archive for New Poetry at UC-San Diego. Can you tell us about your relationship with that archive?
EJ: I was extremely fortunate in many ways. San Diego is a beautiful place: La Jolla in the ‘80s was pristine, nothing like the smaller version of L.A. I’d imagined it would be before I went there. I was able to work in this gorgeous setting—and because the donation of the Blackburn materials to UC-San Diego was new, roughly concurrent with my starting on my dissertation, the library needed an archivist to put them in order. I needed the papers archived in order to work on them, so I was thrilled to be paid a stipend to do that; it was a win-win situation. I now have an archive under my name there [see link above]; it’s almost all of my Blackburn research. On the 50th anniversary of Blackburn’s death recently, several people contacted me for Blackburn information, and one editor of a poetry magazine asked if I’d kept any copies of those research files for myself. I had to laugh. It’s boxes and boxes of papers and recordings, and I didn’t need any more papers, especially in my tiny Manhattan apartment!
SK: How did your relationship with Blackburn’s work change along the way?
EJ: Academic departments being what they are, the powers that be at NYU decided that an annotated edition of Blackburn’s work, replete with (if I say so myself) groundbreaking theory about the scholarly editing of contemporary poetry, was not Ph.D.-worthy by itself. I was not happy to have to write a nearly 200-page critical introduction to my already voluminous edition of 623 annotated poems. (When I brought my eight volumes of dissertation material to the NYU recorder, she said, “You only needed to turn in one copy,” and I said, “This IS one copy!”)
Blackburn’s poetry was also a challenge to type: if you look at his poems, you’ll see that it’s not like you can type the beginning of each line flush left and then go on to the next line that way; the poems are scored like music and Blackburn used them to guide his unique reading style. So typing was a chore in itself.
But when I wrote the critical introduction to my dissertation and, later, one to the published edition of the Collected Poems, I was glad to finally step back and think about the poetry as poetry, and not as a series of artifacts to be tackled and tamed. It made me remember that behind all my hard work there was a worthwhile goal beyond me getting a degree: To bring a volume of excellent poetry out into the world, to make Blackburn’s body of work accessible.
SK: What brought you to Tucson?
EJ: It was a long time later. After I finished the dissertation, I had trouble finding an academic job; after all, Paul Blackburn was a dead white guy. I worked for several years as a travel editor at Frommer’s, a division of Simon & Schuster, spent a year in London working for Rough Guides, and then came back to a job at Fodor’s at Random House. In the end, my Ph.D. and also my work in publishing were a circuitous route to get to what I really wanted to do, which was to become a writer. I knew that to accomplish that goal, I had to give up my in-house job and my Manhattan apartment and live somewhere that wasn’t expensive. I also wanted to be somewhere warm, fairly diverse, and progressive, which made a university town ideal. Maybe the clincher: I have a deep, possibly genetic, affinity for the desert, where my people wandered for 40 years (I think I inherited my sense of direction from those ancient Jews too).
Moving to Tucson also gave me proximity to San Diego, where I had a lot of friends.
SK: You’ve done a few stints teaching food writing and memoir writing in town, but generally stayed away from academia in the years since getting your Ph.D.– but you haven’t stayed away from poetry or from the poets you met. Can you talk a little about your connection to the poetry scene here and how your past work on Blackburn connects to any of your current work?
EJ: My connection to the local poetry scene started with editing Blackburn’s Parallel Voyages for Tucson’s SUN/gemini Press and publisher Clint Colby. Colby was friends with poet Clayton Eshleman, who chose from among the available unpublished poems, and I selected the best versions. So even before I moved to town, I was involved with a local press.
There were many other strange convergences once I settled here; one of Blackburn’s former girlfriends lived in Tucson and I met her in a completely different context. She was 17 when they met, he was still married to his second wife, Sara. She had no idea the Collected Poems existed, or that I had worked on that volume.
I also started going to readings at POG, run by Charles Alexander, and it was at POG readings that I met Lisa Cooper, a poet whose day job was being the managing editor of Tucson Guide magazine. Through Lisa, I met the publisher, John Hudak, who founded the annual Tucson Poetry Festival. I ended up writing for Tucson Guide for more than 20 years; I was a contributing dining editor and also wrote about art and travel. It was a terrific local magazine and a jumping off board for a lot of my other writing outlets in town and a connection I made through poetry.
Lots of friends from San Diego and New York came to read at the Poetry Center over the years, and some stayed with me. Off the top of my head, I remember spending time with Charles Bernstein, Susan Bee, Erica Hunt, Rae Armantrout, Lydia Davis, Ron Silliman, and the late Tom Raworth when they came through. (I’m sure I’m forgetting a lot of others; apologies if you’re reading this, take it as a hint to keep in better touch with me.)
My latest project is a genealogy blog and memoir. Both my parents had to flee Vienna because of the Holocaust. They didn’t talk much about their backgrounds, but one story my mother liked to tell was that one of her uncles in Vienna was Sigmund Freud’s butcher. If I didn’t want to talk about horrible things, I could divert the conversation to this part of my family background. Then I found out that my great uncle’s butcher shop was in the same building where Freud lived in for 47 years, the famous Berggasse 19. So the story became real to me and I had a hook to research my great uncle and the rest of my family, a milieu to hang it on.
I started a blog called “Freud’s Butcher,” and the tagline is “A Blog about Genealogy, Psychology, and Meat.” When I told Charles Bernstein and Susan Bee about the project, Charles wrote a poem called “Freud’s Butcher” that Susan illustrated. I thought it was very good except that he (off-)rhymed my last name, Jarolim, with “frozen,” which was a bit disconcerting. Still, he got the pronunciation of my surname more or less right.
SK: I love how there’s a thread of poetry tying all of this together.
EJ: It did come full circle, didn’t it?
Now I have a question for you: How do you anticipate the collection of books I donated being used?
SK: What’s interesting about library work is that researchers will always surprise you with what they are working on, so if I made a prediction, I would be almost certain to be wrong. I’m excited to see how folks use digital tools to find this collection, though: A lot of the work you gave us is quite scarce and I’m hopeful that scholars anywhere in the world will be able to see it in our online catalog and reach out to us for access. I love finding and sharing the little surprises you find in personal collections, too—the detritus of a scholarly life.
EJ: I love that too; archives aren’t boring at all. When I was very young and mouthy but with my head in a book all the time, my mother predicted I would be either a librarian or a comedy writer. I no longer think those things are mutually exclusive, at least not the way my life has panned out.
Visit Edie online at www.ediejarolim.com.