Wednesday, November 30, 2005


I like milk and when I was a child I drank it frequently, let’s say five to seven times a day, not one of those little cartons that they gave you at school, a so-called half-pint, but large glasses, twelve, fifteen ounces, I downed it in one shot, I remember I thought I had speed, real milk-drinking speed, but then this kid came to school, Mike from Alaska, and he was the fastest milk-drinker anyone had ever seen, he could take down a so-called half-pint in less than two seconds, somebody had a stopwatch and we timed him.

Well, I’d like to know something about this recollection, let’s say I’m intrigued by milk itself, milk history, or that name, Mike, how he got to my school from Alaska. I think his father worked the pipeline and then those jobs dried up and they came down seeking some last logging job until that dried up too, all the forests cut except the one or two somebody decided might make for decent hunting and fishing now and again, probably the same logging execs grown fat off all the other forests they carved up.

I’m trying to localize myself here, not because I think you ought to know anything about Sams Valley, Oregon, it’s not on most maps, there’s no post office, no center of town, I wouldn’t even recommend visiting, there’s no water, the crops go dry, you see people buying five hundred gallon tanks and filling them up in some other town from spring to fall, trucking water to manufactured homes set down in the middle of half-dead alfalfa and dirt and star thistle, a nasty imported Australian weed that thrives in Sams Valley, so don’t bother remembering Sams Valley but watch out for star thistle, you can’t pull it up without gloves on and if you want to get rid of it you must burn the plant, roots, seeds and all, every one of them.

And that’s what people in Sams Valley do if they still want to grow something other than star thistle. What I understand of this town that’s not a town, though if you go there and ask a local where they live they’ll say Sams Valley, at any rate, what I want to make of this non-town I think I get from Olson.

The non-town called Sams Valley’s what history is, history as Olson does it, it’s where somebody starts mapping, and what Olson says is go map it, whatever you can do to lay hold of that earth, not like a landowner or colonialist or motherfucking real estate agent (in fact, you’re lucky if one of these types isn’t already pointing a shotgun or shaking a document at you telling you to buzz the fuck off), go dig your star thistle and burn your seeds, try to dig up those transcontinental weeds until you’ve figured out how the hell your field became star thistle and your manufactured home got plunked down amidst alfalfa and dirt fields.

Good luck.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


Don't forget to visit the documents page (see link to the right). There are essays, papers, poems and talks by:

Ammiel Alcalay, Don Byrd, Clayton Eshleman, Alan Gilbert, Pierre Joris, Jonathan Skinner, Douglas Spangle and Andre Spears.



Saturday, December 3, 1:00 p.m.


Discussion and performances 1-3:30.
Screening at 4, followed by a reception.


The Poetry Project
St. Mark's Church, 131 E. 10th St., NYC

Who, where, and what is Charles Olson now? Come as you are for an
open forum on Olson organized by Ammiel Alcalay and Mike Kelleher,
and co-sponsored by Beyond Baroque. See the New York premiere of
Henry Ferrini's _Poet and the City: Charles Olson and the Persistence
of Place_; listen to David Amram, Jack Hirschman, Ed Sanders, and
Anne Waldman perform Olson.

Saturday, November 26, 2005



A few suggestions: if you are working on any Olson related projects, please let us know so that you can say something about it at the event.

Also, if you would like to open a discussion with a quotation from Olson, please bring it.


I am posting two essays on the documents page from my forthcoming book A little history, due out from Beyond Baroque in Los Angeles in Spring 06. Most of the book is centered on Olson or somehow related to concerns emerging from his work or my relationship to it. The first essay, “Republics of Poetry,” serves as the introduction to the book; the second “What to whom” is an exercise in investigation, looking at a selection of commentary by women poets on Olson. Please note that all the references are not included in these versions.

Ammiel Alcalay

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


For me, initially, it was Call Me Ishmael. The uniqueness of that text, a poet's book, a reverie on a writer I hadn't read since I was a kid. That started me off on Meltzer's Melville mania, read everything of Herman's in record time plus Leyda's great Melville Log in early '60s. Wd talk a lot about Melville w/ McClure in those days. Olson was also very present in both our creative intellective households -- those Jargon Maximus fasicles, Projective Verse (which reminded me of WCW's ongoing attempt to nail down 'variable foot' -- similar to Ornette trying to explain Harmolodics [sp?]) -- Mayan Hieroglyphs, another unique text of a poet-scholar -- always felt like a suckerfish swimming under Moby's belly -- in my world then there were two immense poet-thinkers: Olson & Robert Duncan. Both men were peers from Black Mountain days & I can only imagine the kinds of conversations they had.

Ironically, I'm still teaching in the graduate Poetics Program of New College of California, whose first five years were blessed by Robert Duncan & Diane di Prima & Duncan McNaughton who, with Louis Patler, had the vision & chutzpah to create the possibility -- another story altogether, but one deeply influence by the Big O & Robert. A quarter century of the program & neither Olson or Robert are taught in the curriculum.

During the first few years, a renewing floating opera of poets like Michael Palmer, Lynn Hejinian, Michael McClure, Creeley, Whalen, Waldman, Lorenzo Thomas, Robert Grenier, Jerome Rothenberg, Judy Grahn, Joanne Kyger, Susan Howe, Bill Berkson, Clark Coolidge -- can't find the Rolodex -- almost all formed or informed by Robert &/or Olson or both -- were participants in the New College project to, in many ways, embody 'The Curriculum of the Soul'.

What happened? Was it the inability to become the fathers that the death of fathers left us to become? (Baraka nails that down in his obit for Miles: 'now we have to become the fathers.')

So many poets of my generation inspired into a pre-Internet exploration of Field. We became the invisible & invariable historians; hunters & gatherers of the constantly shattering world.

Saturday, November 12, 2005


This question threw me off, as I have so habitually resorted to Olson as a location, his work a where rather than a where is. Nonetheless, it’s an appropriate question to ask, given Olson’s insistent focus on location.

Olson is in the syllabus for a course I’m teaching, called Imagining Open Spaces. It’s an interdisciplinary seminar exploring the multiple dimensions of urban open space (aesthetic, political, sociological, ecological). A seminar of three, intensely dedicated students—interdisciplinarity is not “popular,” these days. Nor is Olson (though Digital Dissertations does turn up eight dissertations addressing Olson in the past five years).

In this course, largely dedicated to study of Frederick Law Olmsted’s writings on landscape, their genetic and historical resonance, with injections from Robert Smithson (amongst others), we begin with a reading of Call Me Ishmael, and Olson’s declaring SPACE first fact.

It’s a particularly American fact, at that. I’m not sure about the claims for cross-cultural interest, on Olson’s part—or for the relevance of his work to postcolonial reflection or anti-imperialist discourses—though he certainly pushes the limits of what can be done within a Western framework. The Mayan Letters, for instance, one of his most potent texts, still, like his Melville, chases after firstness and immediacy, engaging the Mayans as creatures of supple stone and skin rather than of language. Olson’s informant, like Pound’s Brzeska, is a genius of direct sight rather than of dialogue.

Olson, nevertheless, is in translation. A very partial list of translated titles that I could locate online:

Appelez-moi Ismael, Call Me Ishmael translated into French by M.Beerblock, Gallimard (1962)
Maximus amant du monde, selections from the Maximus Poems, translated into French by Jean-Paul Auxeméry, Ulysse fin de siècle (1990)
Commencements, selected poetry and prose translated into French by V. Dussol, H. Dye, E. Giraud, P. Poyet, B. Rival et B. Vilgrain, 106 pp., Theatre Typographique (2000)
Vers projectifs et Martins Pêcheurs, French translations of Projective Verse and of the Kingfishers (translator unkown), Virgile-Ulysse-Fin de siècle (17 novembre 2005)
“‘The maximus poems’ de Charles Olson et la tradition épique américaine,” dissertation by Violaine Perreau, for the University of Nantes (2005)
Una antología de la poesía norteamericana desde 1950, ed. Eliot Weinberger (contains Olson selections that introduced Latin American readers to his work), Ediciones del Equilibrista (1992)
Charles Olson: Poemas, translated by Ernesto Livon-Grosman, Tres Haches (1997)

And where is the Italian Olson, the Chinese Olson, the Portuguese Olson, the German Olson, the Swedish Olson, the Russian Olson, the Arabic Olson, the Yoruba Olson? Someone needs to do a comprehensive bibliography of Olson in translation.

Olson is in the arts. Olson helps keep space open as location for thought, in ways that would be explored largely by plastic artists in the second half of the twentieth century. Whether or not it be a particularly American gesture, what Olson called the push of geography colors American postmodernism more than the over-theorized time of machinery. Be it with the smooth “no space” of the American “desert” produced by postmodern geographies, or the geological and biological recasting of cultural history, in the “compost library,” American makers habitually disrupt post-Darwinian expectations with spatial experiment. Still, even since 1968 space has had to struggle for an overt place in the discourse. Olson was unabashed in his declarations for SPACE, and this has kept him at the margins of the critical map—in spite of the fact that his spatial poetics make powerful contributions to the study of history.

My own work on space, after Olson, thanks to promptings from Susan Howe, keeps leading me back to land art, earthworks, and a range of practices in landscape, from the ephemeral to the monumental—instances we currently are studying in my course. It’s significant that the post-1968 literary avant-garde (Howe’s work being a notable exception) did not take up the large questions of space. While a certain materialism of the word, and a penchant for long projects, perhaps inspired by West Coast expansiveness, did lend itself to what might be called “spatial” works, the “language” writers turned to time-based models of Marxist analysis, in a structuralism whose only spatial dimension does not significantly probe what the twentieth-century’s greatest analyst of space, Henri Lefebvre, calls the “production of space.” As always, with a bold and accelerated development of sculpture in the “expanded field,” the plastic arts appeared to be out in front. The return to Smithson, with the recent MOCA retrospective, and a profusion of new critical studies (from Gilles Tiberghien to Jennifer Roberts to Ron Graziani to Richard Sieburth to Lytle Shaw), might herald an opportunity for the literary arts to do some catching up—a convergence that also warrants returning to Olson’s still-unmined work in space, work that surely influenced Smithson. (Though there is no record of books by Olson in the list of holdings in Smithson’s library, printed at the back of the catalog for the recent retrospective, the compiler does note a copy of Donald Allen’s 1960 New American Poetry anthology. We can be reasonably sure, then, that Smithson had read at least “The Kingfishers” and “Projective Verse.”)

After our readings in Smithson (“A Brief Tour of the Monuments of Passaic,” “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape”), we returned to Olson to read his “Projective Verse” essay and selected pages from The Maximus Poems. To spiral back on Olson this way has us reading him in a light less darkened by questions of legacy or by the often ponderous interests in the archaic that have tended to grip Olson studies. What Olson does with space offers a method—more than a history or a body of knowledge, per se—for breaking the literary-professional shackles (the author, the book, the reading, the reviews, the disciples, the legacy) that continue to constrain our most “avant-garde” poets. Olson’s projective trajectory is mirrored in Smithson’s non-site, a construction that aimed to bust artworks from the four walls of the gallery, or from the four sides of the photograph, while retaining a dialectical relation to the use of those productions.

Olson is in my dissertation. I have devoted part of a chapter to Olson and Smithson, “Sites of Writing: From Frederick Law Olmsted to Robert Smithson,” where I look at the question of the where of writing, in particular at possible relations between writing, as practice, and the practices of walking, landscape architecture and sculpture, in the context of urban open spaces. The chapter is framed by a discussion of Olmsted’s Buffalo parks and their role in my own writing, with an account of the walks during which I meditated the dissertation. I discuss William Carlos Williams’s pastoral excursion in the “Sunday in the Park” section of Paterson. I go on to look at Olson’s on-foot writings, in particular at a poem from The Maximus Poems, OCEANIA, written on check stubs during the night of 5-6 June, 1966. (I am fascinated by the fact that Olson didn’t seem to use a desk, in his last years, and did a lot of writing on the move, including the use of a “writing stand” nailed to a tree-trunk in Dogtown.)

Considerations of Olson’s stance as a walking writer (“I come from the last walking period of man,” he writes, late in Volume III of The Maximus Poems) lead me to look at another break from typewriter-based “projectivism,” in the instance of Olson’s handwriting. In particular, I consider the “difficult texts” from Butterick’s Editing the Maximus Poems, the poem beginning “I have been an ability—a machine . . .” that ends with the nautilus tail of “What is the heart, turning . . . ,” and the spiraling “My beloved Father . . . ,” as well as the curling rose of “Migration in fact . . .” (The latter is printed in facsimile in The Maximus Poems, the former are diplomatically transcribed, except for three pages that apparently resisted transcription—leaving their trace in the ellipses at the end of “My beloved Father . . .”) Olson’s spirals lead me, of course, to Smithson’s spirals and, finally, to a consideration of other makers who have taken writing off the page and into the landscape. A pdf of this section of the dissertation (about 14 pages) is posted with the documents for Olson Now.

Olson is in Dogtown. Flying over the coast a few weeks ago, at night, I was struck by the darkness of the land just north of Gloucester—Dogtown. Apparently undeveloped to this day. Many of the strongest sections of The Maximus Poems come from Olson’s Dogtown wanderings—where, one might argue Olson retreated and where one might also argue he most significantly advanced his “mappemude.” I understand Olson’s attraction to neglected (“wild” or “protogonic”) open space, as a place of creative and compositional fertility. In this sense—and not just because he pioneered “composition by field” and “open form”—Olson may rank among our greatest poets of open spaces, in a lineage that passes through Whitman. (Patrick Barron has done useful work here, in a chapter on “Spaces of Representation in The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson,” in his 2004 dissertation, The construction of place-based spatial knowledge in destructive poetics: An analysis of the work of Charles Olson, Andrea Zanzotto, Edward Dorn, and Gianni Celati based on the thought of Henri Lefebvre.) As I continue to discover in discussions with my students, Olson is everywhere that our increasingly contested (and threatened) open spaces come under scrutiny. If you have a Dogtown, where you reach the “watered rock” of your own person and process, wherever and whatever it be, you walk with Olson under that open air.

Philadelphia, 11 November, 2005

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


A photograph of Cancun under hurricane deep in “standing water” in the NY Times a week or so ago brought to mind Olson’s Mayan Letters and my own trips to the Yucatan in the 90’s following La Ruta Maya. Also a young friend called who had been in Chiapas recently, met Subcommandante Marcos and attended a conference that went on for several weekends with many groups (from outside, as well) presenting economic and cultural agendas. There was also discussion/analysis of the current Mexican leadership with elections coming up, and Jason my friend said the Zapatista consensus was not going to endorse anyone, at this point. I thought of the question of Olson and Now, and wondered what his take would be on the empowered Zapatista Maya, and on the breakthroughs with the Glyphs…

Maya – one of the few civilizations where artists attached names to their works…

Where books were “screen folded” of fig bark and bound with deer hide…

Olson thought that a culture, in order to survive must have a mythological dimension, and through this dimension the individual would participate in a greater inter-connected universe. He wanted to extend his own reach backward “ to fill mythological space”.

The ancient gods were “not all inventions, but disclosures of human possibilities, in other words, human necessities.” This was the backbone of “Human Universe”.

Studying the glyphs would right the balance that the bad habits of discourse & Logos kept us locked in. Too many abstractions!

“Logos, or discourse, for example, has in that time (since 450 B.C.) so worked abstractions into our concept and use of language that language and language’s other function, speech, seems so in need of restoration that several of us got back to hieroglyphs or to ideograms…”

He advocated for the “Post-logical, as is the order of any created thing…”

How uncomplicated his time in Lerma sounds although a challenge with few amenities…like running water, toilet etc.

He jostles with the Maya on the buses -

“When I am rocked by the roads against any of them—kids, women, men—their flesh is the most gentle, is granted, touch is in no sense anything but the natural law of flesh, there is none of that pull-away which, in the States, causes a man for all the years of his life the deepest sort of questioning of the rights of himself to the wild reachings of his own organism. The admission these people give me and one another is direct, and the individual who peers out from that flesh is precisely himself, is a curious wandering animal like me—it is so very beautiful how animal human eyes are when the flesh is not worn so close it chokes, how human and individuated the look comes out of the human eye when the house of it is not exaggerated”

I love that sense of the human eye. Do you see it in Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld, Rove, Scooter Libby?

One can’t but think of the torture the world continually comes to, acceptingly. when people turn a “deaf” eye. The brutal murders of Maya campesinos, the unmitigated horrors in El Salvador, the current situation in another war against darker skin and strange heathen praxes…

Sacking the museums & libraries of Baghdad… Bishop Landa burned how many Mayan “codices”? 37?

Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo. Where is the human universe now? We are certainly in a post-logical universe. My stepdaughter Althea is convinced that the world is truly going to end by the Maya calculation of 2012.