Interview with John Olson by Giorgia Pavlidou

John Olson (born August 23, 1947 in Minneapolis, Minnesota) is an American poet and novelist. Olson has lived for many years in Seattle, Washington. He has published nine collections of poetry and three novels, including Souls of Wind, nominated for the 2008 Believer Book Award.[1] In 2004, Seattle’s weekly newspaper, The Stranger, for whom he has written occasional essays, gave Olson one of its annual “genius awards.”[2] His writing notebooks have been exhibited at the University of Washington.[3] Olson’s prose poetry has been reviewed in print and online poetry magazines.[4][5][6] The poet Philip Lamantia said that Olson was “extraordinary…the greatest prose poetry [i’ve] ever read.”[7] and Clayton Eshleman said “he is writing the most outlandish, strange, and inventive prose poetry ever in the history of the prose poem.”[8]

John Olson

John Olson

Giorgia Pavlidou

Originally trained in clinical psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, Giorgia Pavlidou is an American writer and painter intermittently living in Greece and the US. She received her MA in Urdu literature from Lucknow University, India and her MFA in Fiction from MMU Manchester, UK, (though her meetings with visionary LA poet-philosopher Will Alexander are exceedingly more impactful). Her work has recently appeared in such places as Caesura, Lotus-Eater, Zoetic Press, Maintenant Dada Journal, Puerto del Sol and Entropy. She’s the main English language editor of SULΦUR literary magazine. Additionally, Ireland-based Strukturiss Magazine selected her as the main visual artist of their January 2022 issue 3.1, and Trainwreck Press (trainwreckpress.com) launched her chapbook inside the black hornet’s mind-tunnel in 2021. Before devoting herself full-time to painting and writing, she worked as a clinical psychotherapist for about ten years. She can be contacted at giorgia.dewitte@gmail.com

Interview with John Olson by Giorgia Pavlidou

1. I’m a huge fan of your writing, but I also find it intimidating because of its size. Dada Budapest is almost 400 pages. Your latest book, Weave of the Dream King, counts more than 600 pages. How do you do it? Are these prose poems products of constant muttering in the back of your head?

Everything I write will have a different impetus or history behind its genesis. Generally, I try to write every day, but each time I set out to write, say, a prose poem, the set of conditions will vary. I tend not to write from emotion – I write to get away from emotion – but if I’m feeling, as I sometimes do, a great blooming of creative energy, which comes packaged in giddiness and a mischievously subversive feeling, that’s a great way to begin. I will often use different techniques in my writing, or come at it from a new perspective. I will sometimes use Burroughs’s cut-up technique, which helps in the creation of bizarre and sometimes jarring combinations of words and images. And then there are those wonderful occasions in which I get an idea for a theme to pursue and the words come effortlessly, as if I’m just a channel through which some linguistic energy is expressing itself. In this instance, Kerouac’s method of “bop spontaneity” comes to the fore and I try to be as spontaneous and honest and open as I can.

2. Your rich essay on Clayton Eshleman inspired me to explore his 2002 Companion Spider. I feel particularly drawn to his idea of poetry being a form of linguistic alchemy. Would you say that this idea is a keystone of your writing practice? 

I’m not sure I’d call alchemy a keystone of my work, but I love the analogy. I see creative writing as essentially a combinative art in which the final product will be much more astonishing than anything I could predict. The alchemist’s referred to an entity called the “philosopher’s stone,” which was essentially a substance with the capability of turning base metals into gold. This process, interpreted metaphorically, as did the psychologist Carl Jung, who viewed alchemy as a chemical process with a parallel mystical component, the philosopher’s stone can be seen as an agent of transformation involved in a process of sublimation, converting base matter – the prima materia, the fundamental chaos that is life – into a life force or transformative energy that converts the drabness and burdensome conditions of everyday living into noumenal gold, ‘noumenal’ meaning the world of things as they really are. You could say that it’s a form of enlightenment, or satori. The alchemists mixed chemicals – a process that did eventually lead to modern chemistry – and poets mix words, combining, blending, mingling, until an amalgam attains a startling degree of heat and light, a phantasmagoria of clashing colors and wildly original images. As the Cubist poet Pierre Reverdy observed, “the more distant and distinct the relationship between two realities that are brought together, the more powerful the image.”

3. I know you’re well acquainted with Philip Lamantia’s work. Would you say that Philip fits Clayton’s vision of the poet as alchemist? 

Absolutely. Philip was an alchemist of the first degree. I can’t remember the precise date or place in which I first encountered his work – I’m guessing it was the Don Allen anthology New American Poetry – but I discovered it very early, sometime in my twenties, which would’ve been the late 60s, 67 or 68. I associated Philip with Jack Kerouac (they were close friends) so I was very intrigued with Philip’s more surreal imagery and orientation, since Kerouac’s work tended to be centered more in the so-called “real world,” the empirical world of trains and canneries and the rumble of trucks in the Rockies. Philip’s work was more openly mystical, it had a Blakean, visionary energy, words as stellar emanations, angels pointing toward multiple worlds, multiple realities. Both Kerouac and Philip had strong Catholic roots and the same mystical yearning. Kerouac leaned more toward eastern philosophy, Zen Buddhism, but there remained a religious impulse still largely imbued with Catholic incense, cathedrals and stained windows. Unabashedly devotional. Same with Philip, but Philip’s Catholicism was as broad and versatile as the actual core meaning of the word ‘catholic,’ “including a wide variety of things; all-embracing.” Philip had an intellectual appetite and a voracious hunger for knowledge, for the transmundane, for the exotic and extraordinary, Breton’s sense of the marvelous, which I continue to find inspirational and highly appealing.

4. You pointed out in your essay that for Clayton the occult and the transmutational were very different, and that he was mainly interested in the latter. Where in this opposition does Philip Lamantia’s oeuvre fit? 

The occult has supernatural underpinnings which I find a little spooky and off-putting. I’m far more drawn toward science than the supernatural. Clayton’s passions were akin to mine in that we were drawn to the primordial, the earthier sediments of loam and worm and hellgrammite, the pungency of nature in its rawest condition. We enjoyed a weirdly incongruous appetite for primary experience coupled with a weirdly incongruous appetite for transformation and the transmundane. Clayton’s knowledge of ice age cave art, for instance, was a way to explore the very origins of the artistic impulse, which were sacred and shamanistic. Philip’s orientation was more orphic, more oracular, more in the tradition of Rilke, who once confessed “I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone.”

5. Roberta and you spent a lovely afternoon with Philip Lamantia in 2001. Tell us about it:

Yes, Roberta and I enjoyed a very pleasant afternoon with Philip in San Francisco circa 2001. I remember that trip as being a few days after my dad passed away. We waited for Philip at City Lights bookstore. Lawrence Ferlinghetti walked by and I was tempted to say hi but too shy and so the moment, which lasted a second or two, passed. Philip’s wife Nancy Peters was then still manager of the bookstore. Philip arrived and we began our afternoon with a tour of Saint Francis of Assisi Church in North Beach with which Philip was somehow connected. He introduced us to Brother Bob, a tall Franciscan priest, who told us about the new leading of the stained glass windows. Philip also led us to the reliquary containing bone fragments of Saint Francis and Saint Clare, who was born into a wealthy Italian family but left her luxurious home to embrace a life of piety and poverty. She joined Saint Francis and began her own religious order which continued to promulgate the tenets of Saint Francis.

Philip led us around North Beach and showed us a couple of places where he and Jack Kerouac used to drink – one of which had become an architect’s office – and Gino and Carlo’s bar on Green Street where Jack Spicer held court. Then he led us to his home, an upstairs apartment in a Victorian house on Union Street, and made us some tea. It might’ve been oolong. Or maybe I just like the word ‘oolong.’ We talked a lot about Edgar Allan Poe’s essay about hypnogogic and hypnopompic states of consciousness, which are ideal for the propagation of poetry. In these states (hypnogogic is the state just before falling asleep and hypnopompic – my personal favorite – is the state just before awakening) one’s sense of logic and reason are relaxed and words and images drift in the mind with nothing to connect them in any rational way, and where “the confines of the waking world blend with those of the world of dreams.” Poe goes on to say that “these ‘fancies’ have in them a pleasurable ecstasy, as far beyond the most pleasurable of the world of wakefulness, or of dreams, as the heaven of the Northman theology is beyond its Hell.”

6. I know that various poetry schools influence your work: the Beats, the New York school, the Surrealists. Which school is closest to your heart?  

Which school is closest to my heart? That could depend on the day of the week, what’s going on in my life, and a whole lot of other contingencies.  Some days I lean more toward the surrealists, Breton and Tzara and Benjamin Peret, and some days the Beats – Kerouac especially – will be a more prominent influence. And, too, the New York School – John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan, et al., – is often in my background, although I’ve never lived in New York. Frank O’Hara is a huge influence. I really like the chattiness of the New York Poets and their focus on the quotidian. James Schuyler amazes me with his ability to find beauty and great curiosity in the quotidian, and the means to describe it with stunning eloquence and detail.  Lewis Warsh is another big influence. His work is sharp, exquisitely detailed and with a lot of human warmth underlying the mystery and sadness of Being. There is also a great deal of wit and humor, and a genius for collage, for creating aggregates of multiple reciprocity.

7. Tell us a bit about the writing scene in Seattle:

I’m not sure at this point. Covid has devastated so much community. A lot of the city – mainly small businesses – is still boarded up. Graffiti adorns their cadavers. Public venues sympathetic to staging poetry events have dried up. It’s sad. There was a time, just five years or so, when there many readings going on about town. For several decades, the 80s and 90s, the writing scene was really rich and vibrant. There were three reading series, Subtext, Red Sky Poetry Theatre and Splab, that were particularly exciting and varied. Bumbershoot, an annual international arts and music festival that occurred every Labor Day weekend, provided a huge venue for literary events, including a pretty extensive bookfair. It was a ton of fun. Then – as inevitably happens – it grew increasingly corporate and expensive. The book fair disappeared. Jazz and classical music disappeared. And now the entire enterprise is gone. There has been talk of revamping it and bringing it back to the way it was when it first started. That would be wonderful. Another key development has been Splab – an organization founded in 1993 by poet Paul Nelson which described itself as “an intergenerational performance, resource, and outreach center dedicated to poetry, storytelling, conversation, debate, consciousness and building community through shared experience of the spoken word and written word” – and which has recently morphed into the Cascadia Poetics Lab, a vessel for all waters that describes itself as “a vibrant community whose workshops, festivals, and opportunities for connection can open the door to transformative experiences.” I look forward to seeing how that develops. Paul Nelson remains at the helm.

8. Do you feel place matters when one is called to writing?

No, not at all. That said, I can’t really speak for other people, especially those for whom place – city, region, neighborhood, orbit –  is inspirational. Poets like Theodore Roethke – who lived many years in the northwest and devoted much of his attention to the rain and mushrooms and ferns which characterize this region – come to mind. In his poem “The Rose,” which he read to an audience at the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962, he writes “There are those to whom place is unimportant, / But this place, where sea and fresh water meet, / Is important.” One’s environment can be hugely stimulating. And even if regionality is of little importance to one’s overall practice, one way or another it will find itself in your work. Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems, for example, are heavily focused on Gloucester, Massachusetts, its history and community, but were more directly inspired by Pound’s Cantos, and could’ve been produced in any region. He liked giving everything what he liked to call a “saturation job.” I like the portability of that aesthetic. Most of my influences come from other sources and have more to do with various approaches to language as the primary medium of poetry: early French modernists such as Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars and writers such as Charles Baudelaire, Stephane Mallarmé and Arthur Rimbaud who were its primary influencers, the Dada and Surrealist writers such as André Breton, Benjamin Peret and Tristan Tzara, and writers such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Samuel Beckett. Gertrude Stein, especially, has been a huge influence on me. She lived in Paris for decades, yet it doesn’t predominate in her work. Language predominates in her work. Maybe you could call language a region. English is deeply polyvalent, polyglottal and tropical. It’s a wilderness of howls, millipedes and funky trails leading to enchanted wells.

9. Suppose due to mysterious reasons you wouldn’t be able to write, what other occupation would attract you?

Music. I have serious regrets about not learning a musical instrument earlier in life. I love music. I listen to music a lot, virtually all day. Especially when I’m writing. I love watching YouTube videos that analyze music. And some years ago I was spellbound by Leonard Bernstein’s Norton Lectures at Harvard University in 1971, which I viewed on videotape some years back. His presentation was extremely varied and broad. He stated at the beginning that “the best way to ‘know’ a thing is in the context of another discipline.” He related the universality of musical language to linguistics, aesthetic philosophy and acoustics. I also really enjoy YouTube musical analysis videos by Fil of Wings of Pegasus, Rick Beato and the Professor of Rock.

10. Do you think that poets make good novelists, novelists good poets?

Wow, great question. For which I have to struggle to give a coherent answer. I think a lot depends on what you expect form a novel. If it’s simply a good story, a poet might not make the best author. Poets are, not surprisingly, completely obsessed by language. Novels by poets tend to be very word-intoxicated affairs, but – beginning with Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, they can be amusement parks of linguistic fun. Kerouac’s novels are poetry through and through. So are those of Virginia Woolf – her short story “A Mark On The Wall” is a brilliant piece of free association, the mark on the wall instigating a beautiful, wonderful flow of thought and language. Bob Dylan’s Tarantula was originally presented as a novel. There was no overarching theme at all; it’s basically a series of prose poems. Then there’s Hemingway: my response to him is very strange because he was both a great storyteller – brilliant as pacing and character development – and a wizard at producing lush detail in a very few words, thrilling distillations of pure clean prose – but I have no interest whatever in fishing or hunting and other “manly” pursuits. I see bullfights as arenas of cruel animal torture. My favorite Hemingway work is the autobiographical A Movable Feast, which is essentially a valentine to Paris written in a poesis of beautiful simplicity. I see a lot of Gertrude Stein’s influence on him. Did he ever write poetry? I don’t know. It’s a little hard to imagine what the poetry would be like. Gary Snyder’s poetry comes to mind: it’s elegant simplicity and exquisite detail, its reverence for tools and labor, the great outdoors.

Richard Brautigan is another novelist with a strong poetic drive. I love Trout Fishing In America. Brautigan’s poetry I liked for its simplicity and eccentricity. His poems have an easy rhythm, a nice droll pungency. He liked presenting wildly crazy situations and metaphors in a quietly understated composition.

I wish Gregory Corso had written a novel. It’d be spectacular. Maybe he did. Maybe it’s awaiting discovery, like that Neal Cassady letter that turned up recently, the Joan Anderson Letter, considered to be the Holy Grail of the Beat Generation.

11. If you had kids and one of them wanted to become a writer or artist, what would you advise them?

Learn a marketable skillset. It pains me to say that. But this is a different world – a late stage capitalist hellhole dominated by cruel neoliberal economics, the disasters of which are everyday evident in the homeless encampments and disease-spreading wet markets and deaths of despair. The world got very ugly after Reagan and Thatcher were elected president and prime minister.

When I started out as a poet, Ginsberg was virtually a household name. Poetry wasn’t as severed from the mainstream. An eccentric book like Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America sold millions of copies; it was the Harry Potter of its day. Apartments, including the south bay area before it became Silicon Valley, were extremely cheap. You could work a funky parttime job and easily make rent and groceries and have enough left over for pot, wine and vinyl records. You still had mobility. College in California was virtually free. You could graduate with a PhD and not be burdened with debt.

A marketable skillset leaves you free to evolve your art in total freedom. That is, of course, if you can find the time. Philip Lamantia seemed puzzled by my late appearance on the scene. That was largely due to holding down a lot of shit jobs. My job history reads a lot like Lew Welch’s, a poet I admire very much. One day in 1971 he walked into the woods of Nevada County and disappeared. His body still hasn’t been found.

There is, of course, the possibility of making a career in education, teaching creative writing at a university. I’m not sure I could recommend that now that the universities have been so engulfed by money and an atmosphere of political correctness that has grown increasingly asphyxiating and Stalinist.

And then there’s podcasts. I think if I was a young man I’d like to people like Joe Rogan as inspirational career model. He started out as a standup comedian. In reference to your question about what other career I might choose if, for some mysterious reason, the literary life was unavailable, I’d consider becoming a standup comedian. I admire comics like George Carlin, Dave Chappelle, Maria Bamford and Bill Hicks as much as a lot of the writers and poets I admire.

12. Last question: are you working on something new?

I’m always working on something new. That’s the driving force behind all my words. I have continual fascination with putting one word after another to see what might happen, evolve, grow, boil, explode. It’s a lot like chemistry, mixing different ingredients to arrive at a new chemical. The analogy to alchemy is even more apt: the quest for a philosopher’s stone, a.k.a. the “tincture” or “powder,” a legendary substance with the ability to turn metal ores into gold, i.e. any transformative energy with the ability to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. Poetry is a way for me to go around defamiliarizing everything. Innovation becomes a natural way of life. Perception itself becomes an ongoing exercise in creativity

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