OlsonNow at the Poetry Project was one of the most gratifying and exciting events I’ve helped put together in quite some time. Kudos to my compadres, Ammiel Alcalay and Fred Dewey. We would love to post any highlights or memories people have of the event, as well as suggestions for future events. (The place was abuzz yesterday with talk of potential happenings in Philly, Gloucester, Asheville, NC, and Buffalo). Please email them to us at olsonnow (at sign here) gmail address (dot com).
Here are the facts as I recall them:
We got going at about 1:30 and finished at 6 p.m.. Throughout the day about 150 people came. According to headcounter Douglas Rothschild – who announced this to the entire room about midway through the conversation – 33.33 percent were women, 66.666 percent men.
After I introduced Olson and the OlsonNow project, Ammiel called for those working on projects, papers, etc. on Olson to announce them to the crowd. Jonathan Skinner, Fred Dewey, Kristin Prevallet, Lee Ann Brown, Michael Hoerman, Peter Anastas and Schuyler Hoffman of the Charles Olson Society in Gloucester, Henry Ferrini and others (please forgive any omissions as I didn’t take any notes and am writing this all down from memory after the fact) all spoke up about projects they were working on. This was interspersed with messages and greetings that Ammiel read from people who could not attend, including Albert Glover, Diane di Prima, Joanne Kyger, Robert Kelly, Basil and Martha King, and John Sinclair.
We watched a clip from the Charles Olson “Outtakes” video from March 12, 1966 of Olson sitting in his Gloucester kitchen giving a growling shamanistic reading of “Maximus from Dogtown 1.” Ed Sanders followed with a musical rendition of the same poem played on a two-string dulcimer.
At that point we opened up the forum to the question: Where is Olson Now?
Apparently, that was all we needed to do, because the conversation lasted until about 3:45 and could have gone on for hours. We heard spontaneous comments from Jonathan Skinner, Susan Howe, Pierre Joris, Don Byrd, Laura Elrick, Charles Stein, a Melville Scholar whose name I can’t recall, and others. Jack Hirschman read an “Arcane” about Olson as well as a reminiscence of the man. Anne Waldman gave a fiery reading of “Feminafesto,” addressing the feminine in Olson, as well as of a cento written of lines from Olson. Conversation ranged widely: Olson in the classroom, Olson and the feminine, Olson and Melville, Olson and walking, Olson and Place, et al.
Following a quick break, we were treated to the premier of Polis is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place, a nearly completed film by Henry Ferrini. Henry received a standing ovation afterward and answered a few questions. David Amram closed the show with a stunning jazz recorder improvisation of “Amazing Grace.”
Many highlights -- Ed Sanders’ beautiful voice, Anne Waldman’s dynamic thought-presence, Susan Howe’s precise and heartfelt articulations, Jack Hirschman’s moving recollections – but for me the most poignant moment of the day came during a scene in Henry’s film.
A waitress at a Gloucester diner recalls that Olson often had to sign for his lunch and then pay later when he had some money. He always apologized for not tipping, she says, always paid up when he had the money, and always over-tipped in the process. She describes Olson as a man that never put on any airs or made her feel inferior. Then she goes on to say their interactions reminded her of the poem by Emily Dickinson that begins, “I’m Nobody! Who Are you?” After a brief pause, in which she seems to be trying to recall the next line, she slowly, haltingly, but with growing confidence, recites the entire poem from memory:
I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise—you know!
How dreary—to be—Somebody!
How public—like a Frog—
To tell one's name—the livelong June—
To an admiring Bog.
It just gave me chills. It is so rare in American life to witness poetry (actual poetry, not poetic analogues, but the actual words of an actual poem) affecting an everyday life in an atmosphere that has not been produced for the occasion. In other words, outside the academy, outside the classroom, outside the literary organizations, outside the poetry scene – just a person receiving the poem, its energy intact, and passing it on to the next person listening.