LEWISTON – The Lewiston Arts Council has chosen local poet and retired college English professor E.R. Baxter III to launch its new poetry/music series beginning at 7 p.m. Feb. 11 in the Lewiston Opera Hall, 732 Center St.
Eva Nicklas, the council’s artistic director, said, “I loved his book, ‘Niagara Digressions,’ and look forward to hearing him read some of his poetry from his new book, ‘Niagara Lost and Found: New and Selected Poems,’ in the cozy and intimate setting of the Lewiston Arts Café.”
“I’ve gotten to know Bob Baxter a little bit and have found that beneath his tough exterior dwells the heart of a poet warrior,” she added. “His writing is often hilarious and sometimes bittersweet. He’s one of Western New York’s literary treasures.”
Describing a barn on his Wilson farm, Baxter writes, “The outer skin of the barn, tongue and groove siding applied vertically, keeps the cold wind from the animals. The barn had been painted red, darker than ox blood, so long ago that it may even have been the year it was built (1900), and not repainted since. It’s faded now, the blush of a half-remembered embarrassment that refuses to be forgotten altogether. A reddish chalk bleeds onto the palm or the shoulder when someone brushes against it.”
Canisius College English professor Eric Gansworth, once a student of Baxter’s, and now a close friend, accomplished writer and respected reader, wrote the introduction to “Niagara Digressions.”
Gansworth wrote, in part, “This book, in its more unorthodox style, is closer to truth than most of the memoirs with which you might already be familiar. It’s an aesthetic representation of the way we really see our lives, if we are at all careful listeners and viewers, witnessing the way we perceive the world.”
Baxter calls himself a “late-night writer” who routinely starts working around 11 p.m. He recently took some time to share his colorful early memories and to mull over the writing life.
Please tell us a little about your background – where you grew up, went to school, held your first jobs, for example.
I was born and raised in Niagara Falls, on the northwest, industrial fringe of the city proper, on Virginia Avenue. That matters only because it was where the “street namers” were running short on imagination – avenues to the north and south of me were Rhode Island and Tennessee – and the pathetic thing about that is: I was into my teens, I believe, before it dawned on me they’d been named after states. This might speak to the advisability of teaching very young schoolchildren the history of their own neighborhoods along with the other events of the country’s stories.
There were about 15 families spread along the three blocks of those avenues, homes dispersed among the bare fields, the nearby factories and railroads as backdrops. We thought it was a wonderful place as kids. We were acquainted early on with the basic elements: factory smokestacks spewing smoke, huge coal piles, cinders (that paved our avenues), steam engines and railroad cars, steel, pallets, chain-link factory fences with strands of barbed wire along the top – and also the nature of the fields where we ran and played, the weeds, the wildflowers, daisies, Queen Anne’s lace, burdock, milkweed … monarch and other butterflies, praying mantises, the toads and snakes, field mice, and so on. Our fathers and grandfathers worked in those factories, and some of us would work there when we were old enough.
I attended Trott Vocational High School, carpentry, having been advised there by a North Junior High School counselor, who noted I was taking wood shop (required) and, therefore, because I “liked working with wood,” was an ideal candidate. Enrollments for Trott must have been dropping, I realized years later. I did end up working on the Power Project as a “carpenter’s helper,” which, in the world of reality, was a laborer. Before that, I cut lawns like most teenagers looking for a few bucks in those times, caddied, worked as a dishwasher in the old Busy Bee restaurant, then at International Graphite, and at Pittsburgh Metallurgical on the yard gang.
When did you decide to become a writer?
There wasn’t a time when I decided to be a writer. I just “always was one,” writing little stories and what I thought were poems since I was a little kid. I have a friend whose wife once said about him, “I don’t think he’s ever done anything on purpose in his life.” I laughed when she said that, but it described me, too, to some extent.
How long did you teach English at Niagara County Community College and what did you enjoy most about it?
What I enjoyed most about my over 20 years at NCCC was the free exchange of ideas with students, the back and forth, the discussions, the analysis of pieces of writing with them – all an absolute joy in my memory. There’s little that beats the pleasure of seeing that light go on in someone’s eyes: They “get it!” It was really something to see a student write something good after long struggle, and we both knew it!
What’s your method of writing? Pen and paper or computer? And how would you describe your style?
I scribble that first draft by hand, pencil or pen, on notebook paper, usually. When the ideas flood in faster than I can write, I jot notes in the margin that I can go back to. I try to tell the truth about human relationships, the joys, the sorrows, the aggravations and conflicts – and to do so in memorable language – or at least in language that doesn’t for one reason or another get in the way of the thought or story. My writing “style” is for others to make judgments about.
What’s the reason for the unusual structure of “Niagara Digressions”?
The book begins with one person requesting that another tell a story. That first story leads to another and another, sometimes linked by an idea or an image, at other times by word association, from family to local history to wider perspectives.
This is the way people talk naturally. They veer away from a topic and come back to it. For example, the narrator tells a story about retrieving a deer bone from the Niagara Gorge as a child; later, the reader finds out about the early settlers on the Niagara Frontier protecting their corn crops from deer by surrounding the plots with pointed stakes; more recently, deer have impaled themselves on the ornamental points of the fence around the cemetery in Williamsville; the cover of the book is a photo of a deer’s rib cage on a fence post (the focus of yet another story); these stories by now have expanded to include Georgia O’Keeffe and her marvelous paintings of skulls and bones.
Threads of other stories, little and large, weave in and out of this ongoing narrative.
I think one of the final paragraphs sums it up: “… There are only a few pages left, and you may be wondering where all of this has been going, how it’s going to end. There were buffalo, and deer, and that golden shoulder blade. There was johnny cake and maple syrup, Georgia O’Keeffe positioning her bones, a bear that used to be a rug and a housecat that used to hold an ashtray becoming uneasy friends and wandering off together, and Richard Brautigan and my Grandfather Pa crawling on their hands and knees down some long, dusty road.
There were the Burroughs brothers singing their broken blues, Bloody Run, stories about drinkers, and way back there, Straight Arrow, the best friend you ever had, and the flutter of monarch butterflies down through the years and Kid McCoy, Uncle Earl and Christmas, cowboys and Indians, foxes, pigeons, including the vanished passenger pigeon, reflecting pools and a cave painting, poems and porcupines, and an assortment of other stories told for the sake of telling, because of the voice that came out of the dark.”
“Niagara Digressions” was selected by ForeWord Reviews as one of three 2012 Books of the Year, in the adult nonfiction, ecology and environment category. Both “Niagara Lost and Found: New and Selected Poems” (published by Abyss Publishing) and “Niagara Digressions” (published by Starcherone Books) are available at the Book Corner in Niagara Falls, the Market Street Art Center in Lockport and Talking Leaves in Buffalo. Visit the author’s website at: www.erbaxteriii.com.
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