Thursday, May 4, 2017

Charles Olson, Paris Review 1970: "Until I'm beaten, I'm still boss"
 Charles Olson, (1910-1970)

Charles Olson, the six-foot-eight poetic volcano of the Black Mountain school in North Carolina, was not an interviewer's easy subject. He didn't sit still explaining an academic, historical, or linear approach to his creative work, and suffered any interviewer who tried to match fact with idea or theory with practice.  Olson died in January, 1970; his summer, 1970 Paris Review bout is a classic example of Olson's combative ring style with interviewers.

The poet's avoidance of the interview itself was a clue: for three days in April 1969 Olson posted notes on his back door in Annisquam, Massachusetts, offering assurances that the interview would definitely be arranged "if you could afford to see me again." Only a chance meeting on the fourth day ended the game of tag and found the interviewer unprepared. The conversation was an all-nighter, and in the morning the kitchen table was filled with beer cans, ashtrays, and correspondence.

By the end of nine rounds with the poet in top form, Gerard Malaga walks away as dazed as the reader attempting to understand Olson's poetic rope-a-dope replies. Malaga [Warhol associate, painter, and a poet himself] tries to keep punching with a line of academic questions but Olson circles him relentlessly ["God's with this boy" ... "yeah I heard you. Continue without repeating it." ... "that's a dumb sort of block historical question" ... ]. It's a glorious reminder that whatever else poetry may be, Olson made it more than a spectator sport --by the end of the bout there was always the possibility that some blood might be spilled.

It's also a comic masterpiece of creative misdirection. Here's an excerpt :

INTERVIEWER What constitutes a school of poetry? 

OLSON Total change, like the man said; one doesn’t look like boopeedeboop—of course. Carry on, destroy film, take another giant step backwards. Málaga. Take one step backwards. Now, ask me some decent questions. 

INTERVIEWER Is the function of a literary—

OLSON That sounds dirty as hell. Maybe we can take that to the Supreme Court. Yeah, I heard you. Continue without repeating it. 

INTERVIEWER Is the function of a— 

OLSON He’s already conditioned. It’s like a reflex. Atlantis will arise again. Go ahead. God’s with this boy. 

INTERVIEWER Is the function of a literary movement primarily to secure publication of the poets connected with that movement or doesn’t a literary movement or school present a different function or advantage? 

OLSON That’s a dumb sort of block historical question, if I may say so, and typical sort of a Columbia twentieth-century question. 

INTERVIEWER A school is a place where one can learn something. Can a school lose by giving away its knowledge? 

OLSON Oh boy, that’s beautiful. That’s a lovely question. It’s really such a lovely question. Jesus God. I see it. Right through the solar plexus as the pantheon of Black Mountain pharaoh of the exile . . . We all went on to the other fields, other Bull Runs. It’s a marvelous question, though. 

INTERVIEWER Would you say Black Mountain College’s sole existence depended on the part of those artists who took part in the building of it? 

OLSON Oh no. I think, in fact, the man who built it wonderfully enough was not an artist at all, but a man from Charleston—a rare bird.

INTERVIEWER Is a school of poetry necessary in order to gain attention for a group of poets’ work or is it a handicap? 

OLSON I don’t think it’s relevant. 

INTERVIEWER I’m talking about schools of poetry in terms of such as the so-called New York school of poetry, if you’ll pardon the expression. 

OLSON All right, so name them. Poets have no reason to be in the marvelous ITT thing or Inter-World Aviation. 

INTERVIEWER Do you see the prospect of a definitive practical guide in the form of an anthology of the Black Mountain school of poets? 

OLSON Well, I certainly don’t. If the fuckers don’t get along down the trail I’ll kick their fucking asses for them. I’m an old trail man from the woods and if the goddamn stuff doesn’t come down the trail to my satisfaction, until I’m beaten, I’m still boss. ....

No comments: