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Remembering Norma Kassirer (1924-2013)

There will be a gathering of family, friends, and fellow artists and writers this morning at 11 a.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 695 Elmwood Avenue in  Buffalo, to celebrate the life of the late Norma Kassirer.  

Ms. Kassirer, the Buffalo-based writer and artist whose oeuvre ranged from children's fiction to experimental prose and poetry, and from collage pieces and hand-made artist's books to painted murals, died unexpectedly on February 17th following an evening at the movies with friends.  She was 89.

Only a handful of individuals  have had as generous and beneficent an influence on the Buffalo area arts community as Kassirer,  about whom it can fairly be said that she was a progressive and forward-thinking mentor to no less than three generations of Buffalo writers, and her gentle wisdom, wit and grace made her one the most quietly admired and beloved figures on the entire Buffalo arts scene.

At a  time when generational distinctions are rigidly drawn across the culture at large, Norma was no less admired by--and no less admiring of--younger Buffalo writers and artists in their twenties and thirties than she was by writers of her own generation, and she remained an active and supportive voice, a vital presence and--with the warm twinkle of her eyes and sweet and forgiving  cackle of her laughter--a constant inspiration right up until the very end.

I had the good fortune of knowing Norma and her late husband Earle from virtually the moment I set foot in the early Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, at first on Essex Street and later at 700 Main Street.  When my friend Annie Pluto and I agreed to co-curate the "Fiction Diction" reading series in the early 1980's, Norma was one of our strongest supporters and a reliable source of curatorial counsel. 

The early Hallwalls may be most strongly associated with "The Pictures Generation" of media and conceptual art influenced baby-boomers working in a spectacle-seeking confabulation of narrative and non-narrative forms, but the murals on the ceiling of the original location of Hallwalls on Essex Street were painted by this remarkable fifty-something year-old woman--a well-known and widely respected children's author who had already penned the classics "Magic Elizabeth" (1966) and "The Doll Snatchers" (1969), but was now writing innovative fiction and prose poems that put her in closer proximity to John Ashbery than Judy Blume on the aesthetic register.

Later, I came to know the direction her writing was headed in at the time, in her under-appreciated collection  "The Hidden Wife and Other Stories" published by Michael Boughn's Shuffleoff Press in 1991, in which the precision of Norma's mastery of the rhythms of  idiomatic speech combined with a narrative logic of minimalism to create a kind of  feverish and dreamlike antecedent to what a decade so later would come to be more popularly known as "flash fiction."

In Norma's final full length book, the extraordinary novel "Katzenjammered" published by BlazeVox Books in 2011, the arc of her life's work became more clearly evident.  Here was a novel about the darkest of family secrets--suicide-- and the most gruesome of human experiences--the horrors of war --as narrated by a precocious nine year old protagonist named Martha, who Kassirer freely admitted was a stand-in for her younger self, telling the story her beloved father (also a writer, Norma's entire family, up to the current generation, are people of the word), and his inability to adjust to civilian life after his experience in the trenches of World War One.

One of Norma's greatest gifts as a writer was her ability to shift seamlessly from past to present tense so subtly that the reader barely noticed the transition.  In "Katzenjammered," she used this technique to magnificent effect, permitting her nine year narrator to discover but only partially comprehend the anguish of her father's letters that she discovers, unbeknownst to her mother and extended family who are attempting to raise her in as normal and middle-class an environment as was possible in Great Depression/Prohibition Era America.  Yet unmistakably, in every sentence, in every paragraph nine-year old Martha narrates, you can hear--you can almost visualize--the mature Kassirer looking over the girl's shoulder, her lips silently mouthing her syllables until the two voices are merged, are one.

Norma was that kind of writer: someone whose work packed an emotional wallop without fully pulling back the veil of uncertainty and artfulness.  It was a privilege to know her and to know her work.  She will not soon be forgotten in this community, either in her presence or in her spirit.

--R.D. Pohl
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