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Jen Bervin & The Gorgeous Nothings

Jen Bervin

In an era of smart phones and social media, when digital culture is king, poet and book artist Jen Bervin forces us to reconsider the book as art object and, in doing so, to reimagine our roles as readers. Bringing together text and textile in a practice that encompasses poetry, archival research, artist books, and large-scale art works, Bervin comes to Buffalo this weekend for a series of events curated by Just Buffalo Literary Center.

All three events focus on Bervin’s groundbreaking book, The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope-Poems (Granary Books, 2012). Edited with Marta Werner, professor of English at D’Youville College, this limited edition artist book presents Emily Dickinson’s late compositions on envelopes and features nearly 50 full-color prints of manuscripts, many of which are published for the first time. Described as a “quiet masterpiece—equal parts artist book, portfolio, and act of archival scholarship,” it is the culmination of various threads in Bervin’s work.

With a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an MA in Poetry from the University of Denver, Bervin’s work weaves together poetry, performance, and installation art with an effect that is at once beautiful and haunting. My choice of verb here—weave—in many ways epitomizes Bervin’s aesthetics. Her work often includes needlework, sewing, weaving, fabric—materials traditionally associated with women’s homespun crafts, relegated to the category of “quaint” more so than “high art.” And, yet, as these artforms increasingly become archaic, Bervin’s privileging of these forms in gallery spaces and extremely rare artist books points to the larger complexities of domesticity’s implicit gender roles, the rise of mass production and outsourced labor over artisanal craftsmanship, the willful erosion of natural resources in the name of globalization, and the demise of using one’s fingers or digits (pun intended) for something other than manipulating digitized technology.

Consider some of Bervin’s projects: Nets (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2004), arguably Bervin’s most well-known work, in which she pulls single words and phrases from Shakespeare’s sonnets, leaving the ghostly presence of the previous text in faint print around her own new poems; The Desert (Granary Books, 2008), an erasure poem with more than 5,000 yards of pale blue thread machine sewn over an existing text; Mississippi, a 230-foot scale panoramic model (one inch : one mile) of the Mississippi River handsewn in sequins; or her 2011 exhibition, Jen Bervin weaving at GRIDSPACE, which featured her, clad in white overalls with “WEAVER” inscribed on her back, working on the sidewalk as she created a white-on-white weaving directly onto the gallery’s iron fence in Crown Heights.

But it is The Dickinson Fascicles that proves the most relevant complement or precursor to The Gorgeous Nothings. This exhibition features eight-by-six-foot quilts on which Bervin used handspun, hand-dyed red silk thread to embroider Dickinson’s punctuation and variant markings. These small crosses and lines were notoriously omitted by Dickinson’s editors so as to “regularize” Dickinson’s verse, resulting in poems which are far more standardized than what she actually composed. Within Dickinson scholarship and the larger sphere of poetics, these acts of erasure have spurred on significant debate.

The University at Buffalo’s own Susan Howe (now professor emerita) was one of the pioneers in questioning the far-reaching implications of Dickinson’s use of variants in her landmark study, My Emily Dickinson. Werner, who completed her PhD at UB under Howe’s guidance, has continued this work, honoring textual conditions as integral to poetic composition. So, too, Bervin’s work—which has been compared to Howe’s highly acclaimed poetry—continues in this tradition. Bervin explains that her desire with the quilt project was “to convey the exact gesture of the individual marks.” The effect powerfully underscores that in poetry—arguably the first minimalist artform—no mark is without meaning. That Werner and Bervin found their way to each other seems absolutely fitting.

And, to say that Jen Bervin is one to watch does not adequately convey the astonishing career of this 40-something artist whose works appear in more than thirty collections including The J. Paul Getty Museum, The Walker Art Center, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and the British Library. Most recently, she received a 2013 Creative Capital grant in Literature for her project The Silk Poems, an experimental book that takes this textile as its subject and form.

There will be three related events, all held at the Western New York Book Arts Center (WNYBAC), 468 Washington Street at Mohawk Avenue in downtown Buffalo:

STUDIO TALK featuring Jen Bervin & Marta Werner—Friday, April 26, 7:30pm. Free and open to the public. Jen Bervin will be joined by Marta Werner, highly-respected textual scholar and Dickinson expert, to discuss their collaborative project. Presented in collaboration with Daemen College’s Visual and Performing Arts Department.

STUDIO WORKSHOP: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope-Poems—Saturday, April 27, 12:30-2:30pm. $25/$20 for members of JBLC, $10 students with ID. In this hands-on writing workshop led by Jen Bervin, participants will look closely at the Dickinson manuscripts published in The Gorgeous Nothings and make their own experiential discoveries by exploring Dickinson’s material vocabulary: envelope forms, cuts, folds, seals, stamps, postmarks, and more. Space is limited; pre-registration required. Call 832-5400 or register online at

BIG NIGHT—Just Buffalo’s interdisciplinary series, Saturday, April 27, 8pm. $5/$4 for members of Just Buffalo and WNYBAC. Capping off the weekend, Jen Bervin will read her own poetry at BIG NIGHT on Saturday evening. Also performing will be UVB76, an electronic dance music duo, and filmmaker Meg Knowles will be screening a selection of her video shorts. Local chef and editor, Geoffrey Gatza, will create his culinary spectacle once again. Doors open at 8pm. For more information, visit

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