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2004 Writers' Forum
John Olson

John Olson is the author of Free Stream Velocity (2003), a collection of prose poems, and Echo Regime (2000) a collection of poetry, both from Black Square Editions; Eggs & Mirrors (1999), a chapbook of vignettes & prose poems published by local printer Paul Hunter, at Woodworks Press; and Logo Lagoon (1999), a collection of prose poems, from Paper Brain Press in San Diego. His essays, articles, literary criticism, poetry and short stories have appeared in numerous journals, including New American Writing, Talisman, Sulfur, First Intensity, American Letters & Commentary, the American Book Review, Denver Quarterly, 3rd Bed, 5 Trope, Bird Dog, Monkey Puzzle, The Raven Chronicles, the Seattle Weekly, and The Stranger. "Dylan Goes Magenta," an essay on Bob Dylan's Tarantula, appears online at Titanic Operas. His essay "Inebriate Of Air" appears in the anthology Writing On Air, from M.I.T. Press.
photo credit:
dean wong
Listen to this Interview (MP3)
32:19 / 12.9MB
Conversation with Curator Belle Randall
In this interview, recorded March 5, 2004, John and Belle discuss form, science, the avant-garde, language poetry, performance, writing as propaganda, and more.
JO


[reading of "Morning Arrival":] "I feel a devotion to the story, to the divulgence of faucets and neutrons, the train of sunrise and mathematical milk…"
BR



Thank you. That was John Olsen reading "Morning Arrival." That's one of your major poems I think, John. I really like that. I feel like sort of some human mind just exploded in front of me and all of its associations.
JO

It's a train of words. That's great, I'm glad you found it that way.
BR




That's quite wonderful. I can see looking over the table at what you have, that it is a prose poem. I wouldn't have thought that, I don't think, just listening to it, because it's so musical and its sound is such a part of it. Why are you writing prose poems?
JO


























Prose poems allow me a little more range. They're more supple and adaptable. I also enjoy short stories, and I very much enjoy the essay, personal essay, creative non-fiction. And to me there's a very slight difference when I am involved in these different types of writing. To me they're all forms of exploration. I have great curiosity about things. And so, writing in prose allows me to be a little more encyclopedic than I would be. I'm less confined than if I were writing a more lyrically composed work, when there's more compression. More distillation. And more heavy concentration on the sound values themselves. With a prose poem I can spread my wings creatively and get into different ideas, discursive thought-there's a great quote by Charles Baudelaire, who favored prose poems the latter part of his life and who was in many respects a classicist, he adhered brilliantly to poetic form, but then allowed himself to do some greater range of writing in prose, and he has a wonderful quote about that. This is from a letter he wrote to a person, and he says, "which one of us, in his moments of ambition, has not dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose? Musical, without rhythm and without rhyme. Supple enough and rugged enough to adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul. The undulations of reverie, the jibes of conscience." And I love that phrase, "the undulations of reverie," that's precisely what I enjoy about the prose poem. Undulations.
BR




Yes. To many people, the phrase 'prose poem' sounds like a contradiction in terms because poetry is, you know, defined in the dictionary as language in lines, so do you have a kind of definition, just all the other elements of poetry except that it's in lines are all in play…?
JO
































Yeah, it is an oxymoron, "prose poem" is an oxymoron. And it's rather, it's a hybrid form, it's a rather strange grafting of two different approaches to language. On the one hand discursive thought, it's kind of an encyclopedic range of thinking, and then on the other hand distillation-compression, and that kind of fussiness you find with a lot of poetry. Which I find, with a lot of, with some work, I find somewhat off-putting, when it's evident that the poet's been fussing with the language a lot. One of the things that really appeals to me about the prose aspect of the writing is that it allows you a certain amount of indulgence, to really get into the sounds of language, in a way that, I feel more inhibited when I am constructing a poem, a lineated work when there is far more evident or more deliberate attention to the sound qualities. With prose you can allow for accidents, and the natural... some of the beauties that are just inherent in the language, just come out, just sort of serendipitously pop out when you don't expect them. And to a degree too, I enjoy a certain degree of roughness and ruggedness in the language. We find that in Whitman. Whitman allows for that. Because in his work, he had a great exuberance for the industry and work going on around him. You know, the hammer pounding and steel being forged and that sort of thing. All that industry emerging at the latter part of 19th Century in America. And I enjoy that too. I like that cacophony, that energy, that creative exuberance that you find in Whitman, and I hope to get some of that in my own work as well. And the best way for me to do that-of course Whitman uses very long expansive lines… with me it's somewhat similar, prose allows that same kind of breadth that you find in Whitman. Whereas, say, Emily Dickinson it's the reverse, it's much much more compressed.
BR

And his is very inclusive, it's like he's including the whole world in his-
JO


Exactly. Exactly. He's very inclusive. I'm glad you said that because that is very important to me, being as inclusive as possible.
BR






And I recognize the fussiness I think you're talking about which for free verse poets often focuses on the question of line break and the rationale for the line. And it is useful to look at that, but at some point it will just start to seem really fussy, and I can understand, kind of. I mean, I think you're gonna make me go home and write some prose poems is what's gonna come out of this...
JO
Alright. I've made a convert.
BR






But when I was reading over yours this morning too I was thinking that, at some point, it is a question of length. That is, if you carry these on much longer then they cease to be prose poems and become like experimental novels, or, when Gertrude Stein writes at length, then, she writes novels. And, in fact I don't know if I think that-did Gertrude Stein call what she wrote poetry?
JO










Very good question. I don't know about Gertrude Stein, I do know that another inspiration for me, also another author that concentrated chiefly on the prose poem is Francis Ponge. And he referred to his prose poems as "writings." And I suspect Gertrude Stein felt the same way about her work because there really is little distinction between... her pieces are so long, many of them, that there is very slight difference between her more manifestly poetic work and her more prose work that's more involved strictly with prose like, The Making of Americans, for instance.
BR Just hugely long, I mean...
JO Just giant.
BR Have you read the whole of it?
JO


















Actually, I began—inspired by the example of Mr. John Ashbery, who has decided, he may have been, I suspect he's probably finished with it by now, I don't know, but, several years ago, I think about circa '99, he set out to read the entire book which is a thousand-some pages long, and I was inspired by that, so I decided I would do the same thing. So I'm about maybe a sixteenth of the way through by now. But… it's a mesmerizing work actually. When I first began reading it… it's so egregiously prolific and wordy, that it's really very exaggerated, and it's really kind of funny in a way that she's using so many words that are-she's doing the opposite of what instructors teach in school, she's doing the absolute opposite. They always teach, be concise, concision is everything. And she just tosses that right out the window and does the very opposite, which is to be as wordy as possible. So it's a little hard getting into it at first but after a while I just-you get mesmerized by it, and you walk away feeling 'word intoxicated.
BR


Do you think Beaudelaire, you mentioned his prose poems—was he sort of an originator of this form, or do you think it's always been around?
JO




I believe the first person… he was one of the very earliest, but there's somebody that preceded him… I believe his name was Aloysious Bertrand, if I'm not mistaken, who wrote at the very early part of the 19th Century.
BR Bertrand is a familiar name to me, I think.
JO















Yeah, I think he was the first to be credited with developing that form. But there are so many writers… Laurence Sterne, for instance and Tristram Shandy is a very funny work in that he does not adhere to the traditional or the conventional mold of the novel in terms of its plot development, he does just the opposite. He's somewhat of a maverick like Gertrude Stein in that respect, he throws plot right out the window, and he wrote a book of diversion, of digression. It's a book of one digression after another that meanders, you do not go from point A to point B at all. It meanders like a river. A sinuous river. And it's funny but it's also very, very engaging. And it was popular in its day, too. It was published in serial form in a magazine in the 18th Century, and… it still has freshness and vigor, after several hundred years.
BR



Yes, uh… I remember encountering it as an undergraduate in a survey of the British Novel or something, and it's extraordinary… because it is so experimental and so ahead of its time.
JO



Exactly. So, I think that was probably, that can be considered an early example of the kind of experimentation that goes on with the prose poem, is that joyfulness, that jubilation in language as free expression.
BR

There are prose poems I think in your latest book, which is just out, "Free Stream Velocity."
JO Mm-Hmm.
BR



—And there are poems in there that deal with genetics, and I think I've heard science in some of your other poems. Would you comment on that, are you a close geneticist?
JO



















No, not a geneticist, no. Actually, my father, he may be an influence on my involvement with science because he was an illustrator that first worked at Brown & Bigelow, but then he got a job at Boeing and made a segue into aerospace, and he became an illustrator for aerospace. And he had a very strong interest in science. And, then as an illustrator, more and more while he was doing configurations for lunar landing modules and things like that, it was necessary for him to do some of the engineering, while he was doing the illustration, so he got a degree in engineering. So with my father there was a combination of science and art, so I grew up with a kind of a-it just felt natural to me, natural to blend science and art. And scientists have something in common with artists, which is a great curiosity about things. So in that respect it seems very natural. The methodology of science is of course very, very different than artists who… largely employ their intuitive faculties. With scientists it's much more systematic. But there are things that they have in common.

The genetics came about as a result of a project the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington put on, in which they wanted to bring geneticists and artists together to discuss some of the controversial aspects of the human genome project. One of which has to do with eugenics, the idea that… human beings can be engineered. That they can pinpoint certain genes responsible for, perhaps even types of behavior. Maybe there's a gene for passivity. So… I find that somewhat- there's a very extremely benign side to eugenics which has to do with ridding diseases, congenital diseases, cerebral palsy and terrible things like that. That is a plus. The minus side has to do with this very nefarious idea of engineering behavior. That I find deeply worrisome, and rather offensive. And so I wrote-one of my pieces addressed that in a mocking kind of way. It's called "My Map." And I don't have it with me unfortunately, but it's in the book Free Stream Velocity. Another aspect of genetics that fascinates me has to do with DNA. The DNA molecule, which is helically shaped, but it's a, it is indeed a language, it's a coded, binary language. I found that extremely revelatory to discover that the foundation of all biological systems is a language. We are, walking examples of languages. It was here long ahead of us. So another one of my poems in Free Stream Velocity, which is titled "Alphabet Soup" addresses that, the DNA molecule and the idea of the language underlying all of us.
BR




And it's amazing, too, coming out of genetics, the amount that we have in common, oh, with even a mouse. I heard somebody say it was like 98% of our genes are the same, you know. It gives you a different sense of our relation to other living beings.
JO















That's interesting and-I brought another quote with me because, um, another author that influences me, that has influenced me a great deal is a Roman writer named Lucretius, who was writing circa 50 BC. And, one of the things that fascinated Lucretius, who was influenced by Democritus in his theory of atoms underlying everything, these little particles underlying everything. And Lucretius was fascinated by the idea that there were so many different animals. So many different methods of reproduction. And the fact that nature was constantly in flux, everything was constantly changing, and yet, the underlying material was always the same. And he came out with this wonderful metaphor, and it's a great deal like language, because if you alter letters you come up with different words, and it's an identical process. Should I go ahead?
BR Please, I want to hear it.
JO











He says-and he wrote a very long piece, this comes from a very long piece called "On the Nature of Things." Which is a very long poem exploring these ideas. And he says, "it makes a great deal of difference in these verses of mine in what context and order the letters are arranged. If not all, at least the greater part is alike. But differences in their positions distinguish word from word. Just so with actual objects. When there is a change in the combination, motion, order, position, or shapes of the component matter, there must be a corresponding change in the object composed." I just think that's a wonderful metaphor.
BR




You have written an essay devoted to air. I haven't read it, so I don't know if there's anything scientific in your approach to air, I think it's titled "Inebriative Air" and it appears in an anthology from MIT Press, titled Writing on Air. So did they commission people to write essays on air?
JO Yes, mm hmm.
BR They asked you to...
JO










Well they asked for submissions. This came about because a friend of mine living in New York had met the editor of this publication, which is part of a series called Terra Nova… and he had passed on to this editor my interest in writing about air, and so he contacted me and… then I submitted my work. But every year they put out a call for submissions, because every anthology-it began as a magazine and then morphed into a book, it's really a very beautiful book-but every year they change the theme and they put out a call for submissions, so anybody can submit their work.
BR So, is it like a prose poem, even though it's an essay?
JO





Oh yeah, definitely, oh sure. I bring the same level of fascination with language to the essay form as I do to the prose poem. There is a little less liberty… my prose poems tend to be far more collage like and disjunctive, I try to be a little more coherent in my essays, but I still bring the same level of creativity to it.
BR





Your poems are both entertaining and… might strike someone as difficult if they felt they were obliged to understand them in another way than I think they really are; they are both humorous and avant-garde, and that's really an unusual combination. Does it seem unusual to you?
JO














Well, I've always…. When you say avant-garde I tend to think of the Dadaists, and writers like Alfred Jarry and his work "Ubu Roi" which… all of it is full, and his "Pataphysical Physics," all of which is full of humor. So I tend to associate maybe early avant-gardism with humor and fun. I think a lot of it has become stuffy. I think that a lot of it is so based in literary theory now, that you virtually need a PhD to understand a lot of it, to see what's going on. …Deconstruction, and things like that. Which are actually-theories are interesting, they're very engaging, so I would encourage anybody to go out and read these different books on all these literary theories, and all these different approaches to language. But unfortunately, a lot of the writing does tend to come out as taking itself extremely seriously and being kind of stuffy. So, some of the humor has been lost in some of the work.
BR






Yes. In a magazine that I'm poetry editor for, we're kind of committed to what gets, loosely called 'language poetry' because of its association with theory, and because we publish articles about theory, but, we've gotten kind of bored with the stuffiness of the poetry we receive so, I know what you're talking about. And a kind of sameness, a feeling that it's sort of like wallpaper or something-
JO








Exactly, yeah, I've remarked that it's like… somebody had found a hobby kit at a hobby store, you know, 'language poetry.' "Hey kids, be the first on your block to make a language poem… it all comes right out of a box." Jacques Derrida is recognized as being one of the key figures in this movement, and he is really… he's not buffoonish or clownish or anything, he's a serious guy, but his work is very interesting and fascinating. It is kind of form-related...
BR Derrida.
JO Derrida, right.
BR




Yeah, I can remember uh, well, maybe it was Lacan. But, a friend was my first introduction to reading that stuff years ago, but we ended up just howling with laughter. There was something about the gonads of a pigeon or something, I don't remember, he just...
JO

Right-he could be very droll. He has a very dry wit and he can be very droll and it really is fun to read so I...
BR


At least, a lot of these people we're referring to are French. And I just think French intellectuals just, they go at things in a different way.
JO Oh yes, they do.
BR


I'm sure you're familiar with Auden's remark that, enjoying wordplay is a better index of talent in a budding poet than having something to say.
JO Wow, that's a great quote.
BR Well I would assume you would agree.
JO Yes. That's a great quote, I like that.
BR



What's the relation of performance to your poetry? It is very entertaining, you read very well, and sound is very much a part of it, so is performance as important to you as publication?
JO








Performance is fun. And I enjoy doing it. But it doesn't have quite the same… bear the same kind of importance to me as publication does. Publication's more… I'm a reader. I'm a great reader. I love to read, and the best way for me to absorb a work is when I'm with a book and I'm reading it. But I do enjoy performance, I think it's fun. And for a while I was working with a friend of mine, Frank Youngblood, who is a musician and sang with a rock group back in the sixties, which kind of, which dates us.
BR We're dated, face it.
JO I am extremely dated.
BR

So, what are you working on right now, John? I mean, what's your most recent work?
JO






























Well, I continue to work with prose poems of course, but one of my latest nonfiction projects has been a work on the relationship between creativity and madness. And, Andre Breton, and another artist named Jean Debuffet, both were absolutely convinced that madness was a plus when it comes to creativity, that uh-when you're mad and you are, inherently beyond all convention, you can arrive at originality more easily. I have qualms about that. I've had personal experience with people who've suffered schizophrenia and some serious mental disorders and it's no fun and I can honestly say that it does result in creativity, but there does seem to be some link between madness and genius, between madness and creativity-there does seem to be some kind of-some corresponding link there, and that's what I'm exploring in my work, in my nonfiction project. One of the chapters by the way, has to do with reading, it's called "The Madness of Reading." I had come across a Jesuit Priest named Walter J. Ong, who taught at St. Louis University and passed away just recently… and he wrote a book in the sixties called The Presence of the Word. In which, he made a very compelling argument that reading bears many affinities with schizophrenia. And when I first read that I thought 'no way!' because reading for me has always been very soothing. But what he said made sense because when you're reading you are responding to the voice of someone absent, they're not there. So it is inherently hallucinatory. And also schizophrenics have a certain obsession with organized systems. And language is just that, it's an organized system. And there were a few other arguments he made that just….
BR Mm hmm.
JO








But I got very involved with reading because illiteracy is proving to be a real problem in our country. People are losing the joy of reading. And I don't know why, maybe it's cell-phones or the technology is-I don't know. I had gone online and discovered it was something like only one in five Americans who can read, does read. And I was just shocked when I saw that. Because it's so vital to stay alert politically, I think. And you can only do that through reading.
BR









Well, I'm very taken with the idea, and I'm really not sure who's the source of it, that because when reading we create the images internally-that that creates interior space and it creates a sense of the self. You talk about this deep sense of the self you have, and anyone who has the idea of the unconscious as a vast kind of place. But this idea is now we're in a screen culture, where the images are external and they're already created for you. And this means that people have less a sense of themselves as an interior...
JO





—I think that's true. You're right on there. And people are more susceptible to propaganda because of that. Media and television, for instance. People are immensely influenced by what they see. And… when you cease communing privately with a book, you lose that sense of your interior self.
BR Yes. And I think that's very alarming, to me.
JO


I'm very alarmed by that too. Because people do become far more susceptible to propaganda and this sort of mass thinking, this kind of mob-like thinking...
BR

The mind is like a screen now instead of like a deep place, it's like a flat place.
JO Right, right.
BR


Well on that ominous note… I notice that our time is up, pretty much. Any final words you'd like to say before we terminate our...
JO





Final closing words to some it all up. I should end this on a positive note. Reading is fun! And I am really happy, I'm really pleased that so many children have gotten into these Harry Potter books. I think that's terrific that kids have discovered on their own the joy of reading. I think that's wonderful.
BR



Well, anyone who discovers your work has discovered something to enjoy. A joy, I think, John. So again I'll say the name of your new book: Free Stream Velocity. What's the press?
JO


Black Square Editions. Which is pressed by… founded by another poet, John Yau, who is also an art critic, in New York.
BR

Well, thank you very much. I hope people look for that book. It's been good talking to you today, John.
JO Well it's been a lot of fun talking with you, too.
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