Monday, December 05, 2005


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?
Are you—Nobody—Too?
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.


David Alworth said...

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.

Michael said...

Thanks for this great response, David. I just looked the Dickinson up in the varorium edition. It's number 260. Turns out "banish us" and "advertise" are both correct -- "banish us" seems to be the preferred manuscript, but "advertise" is one of Dickinson's alternatives listed beneath the poem.