The lively, town-hall style conversation that Michael eloquently recounts from memory began with a question from a Melville scholar, a more specific version of the general inquiry posed by the event: Where is Olson now in the Academy? Because I did not say this on Saturday, I would like to suggest, echoing Jonathan Skinner’s remarks, that Olson is alive in the Academy, at least for me. My name is David Alworth and I am an undergraduate at New York University, writing my senior honors thesis on Olson or, more particularly, the massive Olson-Creeley correspondence.
I came to Olson by way of Creeley, who provided me with an instigation, a roadmap, a “way in,” as Olson would say, to the massive undertakings of this writer, this scholar (historian), this Archeologist of Morning. If space is a first fact, then the structures of circumscription, the frames in which we operate, are of central importance to Olson; “limits,” says Maximus, “are what any of us / are inside of.”
My Charles Olson is a revolutionary, but not the kind who obliterates boundaries. He is instead one who considers the limits in which any of us exist—as if/because they pre-exist us—to reconfigure the spaces they create, an internal revolutionary, churning the gears of reform and re-conceiving the cartography of human experience as framed, but not limited; the Olson map may have boundaries and limits, but it also has richly embroidered textures, topographical force-fields. If the poem is limited by the physical features of the sheet of paper, then let us work with that, so the page becomes a score, a force field, a flux, an isomorphic instantiation of the universe as routed through the poet’s body. The Creeley Correspondence becomes/is a space; though limited by the vagaries of the posts and circumscribed by the duties of daily life, it remains a place of free-play, of wildly excited and raw articulations, of need and urgency, of companionship, of anger and joy and sadness, of vision and revision, of “FIRST FACTS,” as if, and perhaps because, limits are counterintuitively freeing. The message of Olson is that if limits—and by extension, space—is what we are inside of, then our task is to conceive of space differently: as a force field, a field of action, to make that space “of use,” whatever and wherever it is.
On December 3, 2005 at the Poetry Project—a space that has been, for me, just such a force field of intellectual and creative exchange that offers an alternative to the institutionalization and bureaucratization of NYU—I attended OlsonNow and could not help but feel like this was an instantiation of what Olson had in mind, growing from Williams, with his particular conception of the local, of using one’s space in a radical, energizing way. Michael points to one of the most touching moments of the day when he writes of the waitress’s recitation of Dickinson; although it was dark and the notes I was taking during the film are illegibly sprawled across my notebook pages, I recall an error in the Dickinson poem. She said, “I’m nobody! Who are you? / Are you—Nobody—Too? / Then there’s a pair of us! / Don’t tell! they’d banish us—you know!” Banish us. Not Dickinson’s line, but perhaps more compelling for our discussion of Charles Olson, who never fit in the normative moulds offered him, whose intellectual, creative and physiological space was perhaps too richly embroidered for traditional institutionalization. And whose project—the very kernel of it—was reflected Saturday in a radical, freeing, energized and jam-packed space.