James Maynard likes to tell people that he’s a recovering poet. He did write poetry as a younger man. He got his undergraduate degree in English at Ursinus College and received master’s degrees in English and creative writing at Temple University in his native Philadelphia.
But while studying theory in college, Maynard realized he had a different, more academic, literary calling.
“It became clear to me when I was doing my Masters that what I really enjoyed most was learning about poetry, talking about poetry, studying poetry, but to do it from the point of view of the people who make it,” he said early this week. “That became ultimately more interesting to me than my own writing.”
That’s what drew him to the University at Buffalo, where Maynard eventually got his PhD in English in 2007. He knew that UB had a great reputation as a place where you could study and learn about literature from creative writers.
He also knew about UB Libraries’ celebrated Poetry Collection, one of the world’s largest collections of 20th- and 21st-century poetry written in the English language.
“I don’t think I had any real sense of its full depth until I got here and started working with it,” said Maynard, now curator for the Poetry Collection. “But is is a draw for a lot of students, whether they’re interested in poets like Robert Duncan, William Carlos Williams or Helen Adam, it draws people to Buffalo on a variety of different bases. Buffalo itself has always been a great capital of poetry.”
Buffalo and UB were a perfect fit for Maynard. He fell in love with the place, and with the infinite intellectual challenges of the academic life. He has been assistant to the Robert Duncan Archive, an adjunct instructor in English. Maynard has been assistant curator and associate curator of the Poetry Collection. He was promoted to full librarian in 2015 and became the poetry curator the following year.
Maynard has been published widely and written or contributed to 13 books, including “Robert Duncan: Collected Essays and Other Prose,” which received the Poetry Foundation’s 2014 Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism.
“I have what is in my mind the absolute best job in the universe. I’m very lucky to get to do what I do,” he said. “I was here for a very short period of time as a grad student and started working with the collection, and fell in love with it. It’s a large constellation of research materials. It is in many ways endless, and one could spend an entire lifetime and never stop making the connections between the various materials we have.”
The brightest star in the constellation is Irish author James Joyce, who is more acclaimed as a novelist than a poet. Within its Poetry Collection, UB has the world’s most comprehensive collection of Joyce materials. It comprises more than 10,000 pages of Joyce’s working papers, notebooks, correspondence and other memorabilia, along with his private library and a trove of Joyce criticism.
The collection also contains a complete set of first editions of Joyce’s books, including translations and a number of his magazine appearances. Virtually every part of his literary life and his literary relationships can be found there.
Maynard’s mission is raising awareness of the Joyce Collection to a larger world. This week, UB unveiled a 36-foot mural of Joyce on the north-facing facade of the LoTempio Law Group building at 181 Franklin St. in Buffalo. The school also announced a campaign to raise funds for a proposed James Joyce Museum in historic Abbott Hall on the university’s South Campus.
“Our goal is nothing less than to invite the entire world to experience the literary life and works of Ireland’s James Joyce, while ensuring the continuation of the UB Joyce collection as an international destination for research and discovery,” Maynard said at the Monday event.
Satish Tripathi, the UB president, called the Joyce Collection a “treasure” that enhances the university’s reputation here and abroad. State Sen. Timothy Kennedy called Buffalo “the capital of Irish America” and said the unveiling had been blessed by typical Irish weather — rainy in the morning, sunny afternoon.
A hard rain fell late Monday morning, and early visitors were holding umbrellas half an hour before the press conference. But like the 36-foot tall archival photograph of Joyce, it seemed God was shining down on the proceedings as the rain gave way to blue skies and bright sunshine by the 1 p.m. start.
Maynard, 46, was in his glory, stopping to chat with Joyce fans and people from the university and the media, posing for photos in front of the mural, which was designed by Kristopher Miller and installed by Rory Allen. Maynard was thrilled to have his wife, Lauren, and 4-year-old son, Jack, on hand for the big moment.
“I think this was a special day,” Maynard said, “especially after having so many of our public services curtailed over the past year and a half due to Covid. To be once again talking be talking about our special collections and how to make them public and share them with the public — that was a great day.
“It was a chance to promote the UB James Joyce collection, a chance to announce our fundraising campaign, a chance to announce the centennial for ‘Ulysses’ in 2022. I think everything came together better than any of us had hoped, even the weather.”
The event was scheduled to coincide with Bloomsday, the annual celebration of Joyce life and his novel “Ulysses”, which is considered by many literary scholars to be the most important novel in English written in the last century. Bloomsday is June 16, which was the date in 1904 in which Joyce’s novel takes place.
“Ulysses” follows one day in the life of protagonist Leopold Bloom, during which he has his first date with his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle. The novel unfolds from 8 a.m. on Thursday, June 16 until early the next morning. There are Bloomsday celebrations in New York City, Dublin, Paris and all around the world.
The university unveiled the mural and the architectural plans for the museum one year before the 100th anniversary of the publication of “Ulysses” in 2022, which promises to be the most enthusiastic international celebration of Bloomsday yet.
Ciaran Madden, the consul general of Ireland in New York, was in Buffalo this week for the Joyce event. He spoke on Monday and said he wants the UB Joyce Collection — “the greatest” in the world — to get more attention globally.
“I can’t claim to understand Ulysses in all its glory,” Madden said. “As a diplomat, I know a little about a lot. I understand some of it. But more importantly, I understand the import of it. It inspires devotion like no book I’ve ever seen.”
“Ulysses” is a somewhat impenetrable novel. Many readers pick it up and fail to get through it. There’s been great debate among writers. Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Carol Oates and Salman Rushdie considered it a work of genius. Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Aldous Huxley and Virginia Woolf found it overrated.
Perhaps it takes someone with a poet’s ear to truly appreciate “Ulysses”. The novel is not a straight narrative. It’s no breezy read at the beach. It creates a universe where prose and poetry collide. You could say it needs to be heard to be seen.
“One could spend years writing whole dissertations on this topic,” Maynard said. “You’ll find in his earlier work — and I’m not talking about his poetry per se but his prose — you find passages of ‘Dubliners’ or sections of ‘A Portrait of the Artist’ that are very poetic, that work with sound as much as with sense, with rhythm and with rhyme.
“That continues forward, especially in Ulysses, which can be very incantatory,” he said. “I think to understand a lot of Joyce to its fullest extent you have to hear it, and I think that’s especially true with ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, which really is so full of meaning. You have to think of it not just as a semantic text, a text of language, but as a musical text as well. People will take a look at a book like Finnegan’s Wake and see it as a lack of meaning, but it’s the opposite. It’s so full of meaning.”
Maynard is clearly passionate about the subject. He said he could go on for 20 hours, rather than 20 minutes, if you let him. He joked that his wife Lauren, is afraid to give him a microphone in any situation. But what poetry lover wouldn’t gush about a job he considers the best in the world?
What could be better than caring for an trying to expand one of the greatest collections of Anglophone poetry on the planet? Maynard only wishes that more people could be aware of the literary treasure in their midst. The Joyce museum is in the early stages, and raising funds is as vital as raising awareness.
Anway, this job keeps him hopping.
“I’ll be very honest. There’s so much opportunity with this collection, and there’s so much we want to see done with it, that it is a full-time job and then some,” Maynard said. “We’re trying to build the true library of record for 20th- and 21st-century Anglophone poetry, which would be to collect everything by and about every poet writing in the English-speaking world, which is a virtually impossible job.
“But if you’re passionate about it, it’s not really work. If we’re doing our jobs, and we’re continually researching new presses, new publishers, new books and ordering as much as we can and building up our endowments, we’re in many ways failing a little less every year to be able to add as much as we can to the collection.
“To do that, and do it in a way that’s rigorous, it really is a pleasurable but ongoing and endless job.”
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.