Interview: John Olson

Bug: Could you map out your development as a poet? How did you start writing and how did you enter into the world of publishing?

John: It was in August, 1965, that I first felt the urge to write poetry. I was riding in the backseat of a ‘55 Plymouth sedan with two friends from high school. We had graduated that June. None of us had any specific ambition, outside of scoring alcohol and establishing some modicum of independence. I had a vague notion of becoming a painter. My father was an aerospace illustrator at Boeing. I had grown up in a household full of art: easels, thinner, tubes of paint, T-squares, bouquets of sable- and camel-haired brushes bristling out of old coffee cans. There was the constant smell of paint and thinner. Art seemed to be a part of my blood. I inherited my father’s ability to draw. I liked to impress the girls in grade school with my clipper ships and horses.

At 15, I read a book by Aldous Huxley called The Doors of Perception. This was seminal. Huxley introduced me to the notion of altered consciousness, the idea that what we perceived as reality was not set in stone; there were ways to unfetter the mind from the weight of imposed restrictions. Ways to discover the whatness of things, “the carpetness of carpets, the woodness of wood, the yellowness of yellow, the fingernailness of fingernails, the allness of all, the nothingness of all, the allness of nothing,” to quote Stephen Fry. One way was chemical, which seemed a bit scary. Another was art, which required some effort, but was longer lasting. Then, in my senior year of high school I was introduced to Shakespeare. I loved Shakespeare. That tilted me more in the direction of words. I discovered words had power.

So: August, 1965. A sultry, gray summer afternoon in south Seattle. We were on our way to a junkyard. My buddy George was constantly working on cars, constantly looking for parts. I loved junkyards. I saw everything as a form of found sculpture: distributors, carburetors, engine blocks. I loved the funk of junk. George had installed two speakers in the back of his car. The radio was tuned to a local pop music station. “This Diamond Ring” by Gary Lewis and the Playboys had just finished playing. Then, bam! Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” kicked in. It blew my mind. What I was hearing was so wonderful. The music, of course, was great. But the words, the words were spectacular. Hallucinatory, bizarre, incendiary. They lit up my mind. The sounds, the imagery, the sheer wildness of the words was electrifying. It was then I made a conscious decision to become a poet. The next day I made a trip to the Seattle Public Library and checked out some books of poetry. Sandburg, Frost, Lowell. To be honest, the first poems I read were disappointing. I wasn’t looking for wisdom about building fences and picking apples. I was seeking the marvelous. Poets that wrote like Dylan.

Fast forward one year: August, 1966. Richard Christian, a teacher who I had met as a student at San José City College and with whom I later developed a strong friendship, showed me “The Drunken Boat” by Arthur Rimbaud. The top of my head blew off. That was it. That was what I was looking for. Ferocity, intensity, delirium. My course was set.

I did not begin seriously submitting work till many years later. Decades, in fact. It’s a bit of a mystery to me why I waited so long. I just didn’t feel ready. It wasn’t until 1989 or so, after my second divorce, and coming to terms with alcoholism and depression, that I felt the work I was doing was strong enough to submit. It also occurred to me I was getting on in years. I had better get going. So I started sending work out. My first acceptance was in an English journal called Joe Soap’s Canoe. I submitted work to them because they had published Ron Padgett and Kenneth Koch, poets with whom I felt a strong kinship.

Bug: What attracts you to the prose poem? Why does it get treated like the black sheep in the poetry family? What unique properties do it possess?

John: Rimbaud’s Illuminations had long been a model for poetic expression. That book became so familiar to me by the time I was 20 it felt like an appendage. In the early 70s I discovered another interesting form of prose poem by Francis Ponge. Ponge expunged all subjectivity from his work and concentrated on objects, banal, everyday things like fruit crates, olives, lizards, radiators, spiders and washing machines. Anything. His real subject, in all these exercises, was language. The way all these different things concretized certain aspects of language. For instance, in a prose poem titled “Pluie,” in a collection called Le parti pris des choses (Taking the Side of Things), Ponge not only describes rain with exquisite detail but gives the words he uses to describe the rain an acute sense of materiality. The words have a physical feel to them. He refers to the ringing of vertical threads, as if the rain were a form of audible curtain, and gives it a further onomatopoetic push with the phrase “le glou-glou des gouttières,” “the glub glub of the gutters,” and ends the piece by comparing the rain to a form of complex machinery whose gears gradually slow down until the machine stops. The sun comes out and this brilliant mechanism, the rain, disappears. So you see: Ponge is able to accomplish a number of conflicting goals  –  distillation/ expansion, lyricism/ exposition, precise description/ wild comparison, solidity/ evanescence  –  with this wonderful mechanism called a prose poem.

Here is how Baudelaire put it: “Which one of us, in his moments of ambition, has not dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical, without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and rugged enough to adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the jibes of conscience?”

I like the contrarian nature of the prose poem because it is my nature to be subversive. I don’t really think of the prose poem as poetry at all. Poetry is ballet, an exaltation of grace and movement. Prose is aggressive. It’s more like wrestling. There is a vulgar, perverse, and carnivalesque side to it, like that sideshow poem by Rimbaud, “Parade,” with its wild bohemians and rascally jugglers and mad old women, its disgusting luxuries, tender bestialities and demons with flaming eyes. You don’t see carnivals anymore. Not like when I was a kid in the 50s. You still get your Ferris wheels and roller coasters and whirling teacups, but you don’t get the marvelous and strange. You don’t get bearded ladies and Jake The Alligator Man. Maybe that’s why tattoos are so popular now. It’s a nostalgia for the weirdness that was Times Square before Rudy Giuliani sterilized it into yet another ho-hum shopping mall.

Remember: the prose poem is a mutation. You take the DNA of poetry and the DNA of prose and mix them together to get a black sheep with the head of a canary.

Bug: How does a John Olson poem get born?

John: Some poems come to me jet-propelled. I can’t write fast enough to get them down with their life and spirit still intact. It’s like trying to stick a piece of lightning to a sheet of paper with Krazy Glue. But this is rare. Exceedingly rare. Most of the time it is like milking the air, yanking away in a hot sun trying to get a lawn mower started. Bruising my ankle on a stubborn motorcycle. Flying a Boeing 787 through the eye of a needle. You get the idea. Coaxing the muse requires preternatural seductions.

I draw a great deal on notebooks. Notebooks are crucial. They provide a space of complete freedom. It’s vital to create a space for writing with no expectation of an audience. This is the purest way to come in contact with language. Language is preeminently public. It is a public medium. It is as public as a bus stop. To use it as an artistic material, in the same way a painter uses paint or a sculptor uses bronze or clay, is assume language has properties charged with a different kind of energy. The energy of art. It is to see that words are capable of doing more than representing an idea or feeling or directions or news. There is something else. There is haywire. A splendid anarchy. If you remove the social function from language you discover a marvelous knowledge. The glint of autonomy. But to arrive at that awareness you need a special space. For me that space is a notebook. My preference is for the 9 ½ “ by 6” 80 sheet spiral notebook produced by National Brand.

Once I get my hands on a notebook I being to fill it. I fill it with wordplay, observations, Oulipian constraints, celestial navigation, revolts, rhapsodies, exquisite corpses, mass-energy equivalences, crewel embroidery, mime, quoits, quotes, clumps, clucks, whirling liquids and Catherine wheels. Notebooks provide the raw material for what later will become a prose poem, or Vaucanson duck. The rest is a matter of smelting, welding, and slag. Again, it’s that junkyard thing. I feel I am in league with artists like Joseph Cornell, Jean Tinguley, Marcel Duchamp and Facteur Ferdinand Cheval.

Bug: Do you see your poems containing one voice or a multitude of voices? Are your poems slices of chaos? Or transformation?

John: Yes, yes, and yes. I want them to be like gadgets, like those fabulous machines in Raymond Roussel’s Impressions D’Afrique and Locus Solus. A machine made of words, as William’s put it. But not a coffee grinder. Not a clock or monorail. Nothing efficient, and certainly not utilitarian. Something bizarre and sublimely gratuitous, like a Rube Goldberg device. The jewelry of mischief. Am imbroglio of gears and grammar and hair-raising perspectives. The underlying idea is that language, in and of itself, is the primary spectacle. Peruvian X-rays in summer light. A wad of gears glistening with theory.

Bug: Each sentence in your prose poems seems to contain it’s own world and the periods are abysses the reader must cross to gain access into the next world. Would you care to comment on my absurd comment?

John: That’s very accurately stated. It’s deeply gratifying when someone such as yourself gets what you’re doing. Each sentence is, indeed, a possibility. A gateway to elsewhere.

I am fascinated by grammar. By syntax. By the way words project and fracture and multiply meaning when they are put together. I am fascinated by the parts of speech, nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions  –  prepositions especially  –  and the way they drive and skew our perspective. There is an interplay there. The way a sentence is structured will influence how we situate ourselves in space and time. If a sentence can be manipulated, so can our perception. The problem is to find readers who get what you’re up to and can complete the circuit.

Bug: This is from your poem, “Native Emulsion”: The 16th century was cauterized by flippers. Yesterday I languished in silk. Today I crush the minutes under the hooves of my reindeer .” What roles do the humorous and the absurd play in your poetry?

 John: Life is inherently tragic. We come into this life and at some point in our development we come to the certainty that one day we will die. Our parents will die. Our wives and husbands and sons and daughters will die. Our friends and acquaintances will die. Our beloved cat, dog, turtle, tarantula will die. No one gets out alive, as the saying goes. The older you become, the more acute and problematical this circumstance becomes. A deep religious faith is a big help in these situations, but failing that, you’re pretty much out on a stark existential limb. Humor is crucial. A sense of absurdity is the most potent mental balm money can’t buy. We are surrounded on all sides by the absurd. Anyone who has been through airport security lately knows this is egregiously true. Shampoo as a weapon? Ointment, hand lotion, bottled water are lethal threats? Actual bombs, meanwhile, bypass airport security 60% to 75% of the time. Airport security is a joke. But this is the malignant side of absurdity. There is a very healthy, tonic side to absurdity. Dada, surrealism, folklore, the tall tale, these are all wonderful antidotes to the worries and premonitions that get entangled in our heads.

Bug: We found each other through Clayton Eshleman. I’m curious how did you two come to associate with one another?

John: Clayton published some of my work in the early 90s. We met at the Robin Blaser conference in Vancouver, BC, in 1995 and pretty much hit it off. We share a mutual fascination with shamanism and the origins of art. We also share a strong sympathy with outlaws and outcasts, outsider art and a muscularity of language. He’s a little older than I and has been on the scene much longer, so I value his counsel and advice. He has been extremely helpful. Very generous.

Bug: What are some poets who make your soul quake?

John: Shakespeare, Rimbaud, Raymond Roussel, Francis Ponge and Dylan I have already mentioned. There are many others. Tristan Tzara, André Breton, Alfred Jarry, Charles Baudelaire, Isidore Ducasse, César Vallejo, Lucretius, Marcel Proust. Gertrude Stein. James Joyce. Samuel Beckett. Beckett registers a full 9.0 on my seismograph.

Bug: What are your feeling about contemporary poetry, American or abroad? Are there any writers you admire? Any guilty of crimes against the word?

John: Contemporary American poetry continues to be very robust and covers a broad spectrum, from Language Poetry to New Formalism to Def Poetry and Poetry Slams. But it’s a very fragmented world. Much of the work I see is amazing: edgy, electric, ingenious as an Archimedean screw. I would name names but I’m sure I’d leave someone out, then have to spend an afternoon banging my head on the wall.

Most of what I see, however, is lackluster. Work that is competent, smart and virtuosic, but tame. There has also lately been a sudden burgeoning of smarmy, one-dimensional poems addressing themes of great personal import. Transparent vignettes full of hackneyed, tea-cozy metaphors. This group thinks of Mary Oliver as some sort of diva. Oliver now dominates the O section in several of Seattle’s leading bookstores. No Oppen, O’Hara, Owen, Ovid, Ozick, or Olson (me or that other guy, Charles). It’s Oliver all over. With a sliver of Sharon Olds. I suppose it’s gratifying, on some level, that language arts haven’t disappeared altogether. We now live in a world of merciless, predatory capitalism, a very different world than the one in which I came of age in the 60s, when poets like Ginsberg and Corso were treated like rock stars, and to tell someone you wrote poetry was to instantly engage in a stimulating conversation. It’s hard not to wax nostalgic for a time before blogs and MySpace and MFA programs. A time before Reaganomics, NAFTA, CAFTA, and Bushco, and one-bedroom apartments renting for thousands of dollars in cities like New York and San Francisco. These are the cities where it was exciting to be a poet. You could get a menial job and still afford a decent place to live. Now, you’d have to be a professional, plastic surgeon, hospital administrator, advertising exec or software wizard to live in those cities. That means, if you come from a humble background, and your chief focus in life is poetry, you’re pretty much stuck with a job as a barista in Lubbock, or Topeka.

I have a lot of ambivalence toward the MFA programs. They do provide teaching positions for poets, but I often wonder, in this age of grade inflation and MySpace and ubiquitous laptop computers, what actual education the students are getting, and if education doesn’t, in some way, do more harm than good when it comes to something like writing (not reading) poetry. The best way to learn how to write poetry is to read poetry. I have heard that many students are reluctant to read. This boggles the mind. But I have heard about this phenomenon more than once and from different sources, mainly teachers and bookstore owners who specialize in poetry. I just don’t get it. A lot of these MFA graduates seem to know a lot more about schmoozing and networking than the body of poetry that has preceded them. They approach it like it’s some sort of glamorous Hollywood career. If poetry is a profession, it’s a very odd profession, because apart from a few prizes and grants, there ain’t no money.

Bug: In The Night I Dropped Shakespeare on the Cat you write a tribute to Philip Lamantia. How well did you know him and has he influenced your work at all?

John: I got to know Philip briefly, but somewhat well, circa 2000 or so. I got a call from a man with a very odd accent one summer afternoon. The accent sounded curiously uppercrust British, Aristocratic in some peculiar way. This turned out to be Philip. He was in Seattle to attend the wedding of his niece and a friend in San Francisco had given him my number. We got together, and it was flat out weird. It felt like we were related. We were both enamored of surrealism and shamanism and dada, but we had also struggled with depression. We talked the same language. We felt an immediate bond. I had been long familiar with Philip’s work, and had long been fascinated by the man that had written such incendiary poetry. Philip wrote in a voice that sounded very similar to Bréton, yet distinctly American. This is a very strange distinction because the American sensibility, as it is best represented by the transcendentalists, Emerson and Whitman and Thoreau and Dickinson, has a gritty, down-to-earth pragmatism, whereas the European surrealists tend to be more otherworldly, more unabashedly oneiric. Philip combined those two elements. It was like taking a bowl of Whitman and folding in a dollop of moonlight.

Bug: Your wife, Roberta Olson, is also a wonderful poet. Besides having a home with too many books, what’s it like sharing your life with another artist?

John: It’s great. It’s a big plus. Sharing a life with a partner who shares your enthusiasms makes a world of difference. We not only have a passion for poetry, and literature in general, but we enjoy the same sort of poetry. We’re on the same page. We speak the same language. We have an inexhaustible supply of things to talk about.

There is a downside. Whenever I tell her how much I admire her work she doesn’t believe me because I’m her husband, and husbands are supposed to say nice things about their wives. Also, there is a natural tendency for people to compare our work. There are, certainly, some notable similarities, particularly in our fondness for spectacular, nonsensical imagery, but there are some significant differences, too. Roberta was hugely influenced by André Breton, particularly his first manifesto on surrealism, and also Stéphane Mallarmé. It is the Mallarmé influence that is more apparent in Roberta’s work, his intense subtilization of sound and image in particular. There is so much nuance in Mallarmé; nothing is ever direct, everything is always oblique and elliptical. There might be elements of that in my writing, but my preferences lean more toward raucousness and dada. Hijinx and silliness. I like to contrast lines of phallocentric bombast, à la Petruchio and Pound and Olson, against images of a more rarefied nature. Roberta is always more otherworldly and phantasmagoric. She is opium. I am benzedrine.

Bug: Known to most as the city of Starbuck’s, grunge rock, and rain, what’s Seattle really like? Has living there affected your poetry?

John: Grunge is long gone. I don’t know what replaced it. Or if it has been replaced. Something called drone rock, or doom rock, evolved out of grunge, of which my nephew-in-law, Dylan Carlson, is a preeminent figure. Though he thinks the label “drone rock” is silly.

Also long gone is Seattle. The Seattle I remember was a funky, blue-collar, blithely eccentric, unpretentious agglomeration of wharfs, ferns, ferries, puddles, potholes, and corny curiosity shops. The potholes are still here, but Seattle has undergone a sea-change, thanks largely to Microsoft, which boomed circa 1989. 1889 was the year Seattle burned down. Microsoft, in 1989, had a similar effect. Only this case, the devastating force that laid waste to a once affordable and generous city was not fire but affluence. The kind of  affluence only a voracious, unchecked, predatory capitalism can bring about. Glitzy malls, nail salons, gigantic yachts, stupid architecture (case in point: Paul Allen’s EMP, designed by Frank Gehry, which looks like a plane wreck) housing only the well-to-do can afford, and a general overcrowding that leads to chronic gridlock and road rage. That’s today’s Seattle. But the potholes are still here. In fact, they’ve gotten bigger. Wealthy people like to mansionize their already leviathan homes. But they do not care overmuch for the infrastructure. We have a viaduct so rickety the rats have abandoned it.

Seattle has had no influence on my writing. I have always felt more like I was marooned here than living here by choice. My chief influences have been French, and the New York School, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett. If there were a city I could identify with, it would be Paris, or New York. Unfortunately, the same trends happening in Seattle, vis-à-vis affluence and homogenization, are also happening there.

Bug:  In The Night I Dropped Shakespeare on the Cat, there’s a poem, “This Other World: An Essay on Artistic Autonomy,” where you support Adorno’s claims for an art not dependent on social or political utility. Isn’t this in itself a political act?

John: Yes it is, but it’s only effective at the aesthetic level. In order for it to have a true impact on our cultural fabric it would need to have a sizeable audience, a significant portion of the population willing and able to appreciate such subtleties. I was shocked, recently, to read a statement by Michael Gorman, president of the American Library Association and a librarian at California State University in Fresno. “It’s appalling — it’s really astounding,” he said in response to last year’s National Assessment of Adult Literacy released by the Department of Education. “Only thirty-one percent of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it. That’s not saying much for the remainder.” Gorman went on to add that he was shocked by how few entering freshmen understand how to use a basic library system, or enjoy reading for pleasure. “There is a failure in the core values of education,” he said.

I was so outraged when I read that, I wrote a rant on reading, which will be published in the next issue of First Intensity. The irony, of course, is that the very people I want most to address are non-readers. I will be singing to the choir, as usual.

Go into any coffeehouse here in Seattle and the majority of people will be sitting at a table with their laptop computer and a look of glazed, infantile satisfaction as they tweak MySpace, clickety-click their illiterate snippets into the so-called Blogosphere, or watch YouTube videos. There is no doubt this level of ignorance and lack of intellectual curiosity feeds easily into a stifling fabric of corporate fascism. If I see someone reading a book, I want to go and kiss them.

Bug: While we’re talking about the Frankfurt School, what do you make of Walter Benjamin’s claim, “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” that art can never escape history? Isn’t the desire for an art free of politic a political desire to not be defined by cultural/historical wounds?

John: It’s pretty easy to stand outside history if you’re a poet. I consider poetry to be the anti-commodity. I came of age during a time when there was still respect for things with no commercial value. To embark on an enterprise with no monetary goal in sight was worthy of respect. That level of sacrifice was heroic. I wonder a lot what it’s like to be 18 or 20 in these times. I had the luxury of being an English major in college because one, college was eminently affordable, and two, people went to college to learn, not get a job. Colleges have turned into vocational schools. Everything revolves around money.

I read a fascinating book recently titled La tyrannie de la réalité, by a young woman living in France named Mona Chollet. I would love to see this book translated into English. It’s highly pertinent to the issues I’ve been addressing. Chollet makes a compelling argument about the pernicious use of the word ‘reality’ in political arguments. Implicit in the use of the word is the idea that artists are all amusingly eccentric creatures who lead childlike lives with no understanding of the so-called real world. This is patent nonsense. Look at the way artists are represented in the movies as impulsive, destructive, alcoholic children. People watch these movies and then congratulate themselves on leading lives of dull routine because “someone has to face reality and pay the bills,” and all that crap. They use these excuses as an alibi for their lack of any real inner life. Think, for instance, about all the people who voted for George Bush by virtue of the fact the man cannot speak deeply or coherently and prides himself on not being a reader.

Any culture that promotes imagination and reverie above the pursuit of property and power is a healthy culture. A culture that marginalizes the life of the imagination and becomes obsessed with the pursuit of wealth and power is a doomed culture. This recent obsession, for instance, with plastic surgery, and trying to find a standardized look instead of appreciating the inherent beauty in the diversity of traits and morphologies. There is something barbaric in that.

Or resumés: a lot of businesses now use a point system, registering key words or phrases in a resumé rather than take note of how well written it may be. This, too, is barbaric. Barbarism is not always about chopping off heads and pillaging villages. Barbarism can assume many forms, such as someone having their toenails clipped in a nail salon, a celebrity who is a celebrity simply by virtue of being a celebrity, or an elderly woman in a wheelchair dying on a sidewalk in New Orleans from a simple lack of shade and water. It is absolutely stunning how diverted, infantalized and protected from actual crisis the public has become. The tabloids at any supermarket are just as barbaric as the Visigoths, Vandals and Huns laying waste to the Roman empire.

All this would lead one to believe that a poetry of engagement accessible to the broadest number of people would be what is needed. I believe it is the reverse. When poetry assumes the job of politicians it becomes debased. There must always be something wild and untamable in the human spirit. Poetry is that animal. An incendiary power like Blake’s tiger, a terrible, inexplicable energy. Or mysterious, like Baudelaire’s cats, “great sphinxes stretched out in the depths of emptiness, seeming to fall asleep into an endless dream.”

Adorno describes artworks as enigmas, as the duality of being determinate and indeterminate. The aim of artworks is the determination of the indeterminate. What does he mean by this? He means that artworks are purposeful in themselves. They are freed from the compulsion of identity. They cause people to wonder. It is as if they contained the fourth dimension. A time before history. A place outside history. A hysteria. A divine hysteria.

Bug: Poets perenially complain about the lack of an audience. How effective is poetry in its position as a marginalized form of culture?

John: Not very. My wife Roberta and some friends recently went to hear Dr. Oliver Sacks read from his new book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain at the Seattle Public Library. The reading was scheduled for 7:00 p.m. We arrived at 6:30 p.m. There was a line that wrapped all the way around the block. Seating capacity at the library is 200, maybe 300. About 800 showed up. As I told my friends, I feel lucky if I get above five people at a reading. I walked away feeling humbled, inadequate, frustrated, and jealous. Plus, we didn’t get in. Over half the line was left standing in the cold. Lines create a sense of anticipation, and it was sad to see this one let go, lose form, and slowly disperse into the night.

I feel there is a P.T. Barnum in me screaming to get out. I envy the kind of showmanship that Ginsberg commanded. It was Ginsberg who put the Beats on the map. He acquired the status of celebrity. Quite unusual for a poet who refuses to make intellectual concessions for the public. Once you acquire that level of fame you are gifted with a very large voice. You have the media’s attention. There is means to effect change there.

Naturally, what I’ve got going here is a total conflict: need for an audience on the one hand, but a commitment to a difficult, autonomous art on the other. Irreconcilable goals. It wouldn’t be the first time I was guilty of cognitive dissonance.

Bug: Got any new projects brewing?

John: I’m at work getting another collection of prose poems which will be published by Black Widow Press after Backscatter comes out. I’ve also been thinking about writing a novel about Nikola Tesla.

Bug: John Olson. Charles Olson. Coincidence or cosmic connection?

 John: I’d say coincidence. I like Olson’s work, its robustness and intellectual toughness, but my real affinity is with the others I mentioned. A cosmic connection would more apt to be Jimi Hendrix, or Marcel Duchamp.