The poet's hand by Ralph Gibson, 2005
Photograph by Sebastien Kim
Max Blagg arrives, apologizing for being but a few minutes late, his British accent quite debonair. He steps into the salon, sitting on the sofa, allowing Glitterati mascot Alfrieda the basset hound to snuggle on up, as he recounts the adventures of an Englishman in New York.
“I was the youngest of twelve children. We lived in a small town in the English Midlands. We were working class. There was lots of love. It was a great family. But I was the only one with the inclination to read books.
“I started writing at 15, a gift that was triggered by my sister dying of breast cancer, a slow motion event that happened at home. It was truly awful. Writing poems about her pain seemed to give me some relief. At the same time, I was becoming interested in girls. A bizarre collision of sex and death. Looking back, I wrote a lot of pretty bad poetry back then. But I also played soccer for the school team. I had a double life.
“In my house, higher learning was not encouraged. It was that working class mentality: Don’t expect to rise above your station. At 17 I passed the A level exams and qualified for college. My mother had no intention of letting me go away, but I secretly applied and got into a college in London with a very generous government grant. The poorer your parents were, the more money you got. That would never happen today.
“I wasn’t that comfortable in London, it’s under the sign of Capricorn. But after almost getting a B.A. degree I met a lovely girl at a jumble sale who gave me lots of American poetry to read. I was so entranced by Frank O’Hara that I quit my job as a bricklayer’s laborer and bought a one-way ticket to NYC. I had one address, 118 Spring Street. I want to put a little plaque on that building. I showed up there, and Ignacio and Caroline, kind folks I hardly knew, put me up for months. We’re still close friends. Soho back then was deserted, a playground for artists. I got a job in construction on 53 Street, Street, across from MOMA where Frank O’Hara had worked. New York, miraculous place. Instantly felt like home.”
In the years since he first arrived, Mr. Blagg has made a life for himself in the New York literary scene. Since 1979, he has published five volumes of poetry and prose, as well as collaborated with artists including James Nares, Alex Katz, Jack Pierson, Richard Prince, Donald Sultan, Billy Sullivan, Keith Sonnier, Joe Fyfe, Jerelyn Hanrahan and Nicholas Rule, creating texts and poetry inspired by their work and used in gallery and museum exhibition catalogues, and artworks. Along the way he has performed his ‘stand-up poetry’ at venues as diverse as the Kitchen, the Guggenheim Museum, the legendary club Jackie 60, as well as St Marks Church, Bowery Poetry Club, CBGB, The Gershwin Hotel, Tin Pan Alley, the Performing Garage, and many other choice locations.
“Poetry seized me by the scruff very early on. I’ve always worked at it, albeit erratically rather than methodically. It is what I do. I haven’t published as much as I would have liked, but in the last ten years, there’s been a personal renaissance. ‘In age I bloom again/and relish versing,’ as Georgie Herbert put it. Most recently, I did a collaboration with the photographer Larry Clark. It was pure poetry. He gave me the images and said, ‘Write whatever you want.’ Then he created an exquisite limited edition portfolio just so I could make money from poetry! I’ve always gravitated more towards artists than writers. I hate the starving poet cliché. It’s too old, that story.
“Recently, I’ve been working on vintage typewriter covers, stenciling text on them. It’s an object you can hang on the wall. The catalogue, Venus at the One Stop, has the poems that the stenciled fragments are taken from. It’s a new vehicle for me, and a way of putting the Word on the wall. The only drawback is that now my loft looks like a typewriter repair store.”
One of the poems featured in the catalogue is titled “Into the West” and it appears alongside a corresponding case, titled “Remington Streamliner #2.” It hangs on a white brick wall, a Duchamp readymade with but one distinction: it reveals the hand of the poet.
my nerves are rocking like a chair,
Mr. Blagg reveals, "I have been reading, among other scriveners, the medieval Chinese poet Lu Yu. There is a sparseness to the writing, an elegant simplicity that evokes very human moments. I would love to do that. Good poetry is concise, compact, and compressed. In the last couple of years, I've written an 'embellished memoir' Ticket Out, and it was hard for me to stretch out the pose. The more I pushed it, the more I could see the stretch marks."
Poetry, in its essence, is the word emboldened. It is liberated from the strictures of syntax and the taxes of grammar, and as it lives upon the printed page or breathed into the ether. And so the poem becomes something else, perhaps a potion, perhaps a spell, as it conjures another world, a world of the sensations of pure literary form.
A poem may be as chic as a gown, as precisely refined and exquisitely designed, evoking that great je ne sais quoi that is what we think when we say “chic” even if we can’t exactly define it. Mr. Blagg observes, “Chic is a way certain people carry themselves. Paris is chic by definition. My idea of chic is more like New York, needs a bit of rough, an edge here and there. There is nothing deliberate about it. It’s something innate rather than acquired; you either have it or you don’t.
“Black Sparrow Press, Charles Bukowski’s former publisher, was my idea of book chic. I would buy the authors they published, just for the look and the texture of the books. Ecco Press bought the company after Bukowski died, and they started printing facsimile editions of his original works, but the covers are reproduced on shiny paper, It was a like a fake Chanel bag. It was anti-chic. You can’t fake chic.”
Photograph by Sebastien Kim