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2004 Writers' Forum
Roberta Olson

Roberta Olson is the author of the chapbook All These Fair and Flagrant Things, published by etherdome press in Oakland, CA. Her poetry has also appeared in numerous publications including Talisman, Untitled, Facture, Bird Dog and Monkey Puzzle. Her work has been anthologized in Cross Cut Anthology and Steaming Light, a Raven Chronicles supplementary issue. In March 2004 she has been invited to appear in "The Imaginal in the Present and the Future: a Weekend of Surrealism," at Beyond Baroque in Los Angeles.
photo credit:
roberta olson
Conversation with Curator Belle Randall
In this interview, recorded March 5, 2004, Roberta and Belle discuss collage, composition, influences, form, performance, visual art, sound sense, inspiration, and more.
Listen to this Interview (MP3)
21:40 / 8.6 MB
RO "Three Piece Scissor Set"
[reading follows]
BR



Thank you. That was Roberta Olsen reading "Three Piece Scissor Set." Roberta, when you talk about poetry I've heard you use the term 'third mind.' What's meant by the 'third mind?'
RO










Well 'third mind' is a phrase coined by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, they have a book called Third Mind in fact. Burroughs was quite interested in juxtapositions and how energy's put together. He was constantly making scrapbooks… create a third energy, and so, a lot of my work being in collage, I put the rough material that I use and my—it's hard, you can't get yourself out of your work, it's almost impossible I think to write anonymously-so, I put myself with the various source materials I use, they come together and they create their own energy, they almost create another being.
BR




The way I remember for Burroughs, the cut-ups were associated with synchronicity, and even sometimes, almost something like séance, with getting in touch with Brion Gysin. Does it have that kind of connection for you?
RO






For me, I don't think I'm that much involved in… that seems to have an occult meaning to it, and I'm not that involved in that aspect of it. I do it more for using the basic materiality of language, meeting with me, and just seeing the surprising object that comes up without my own critical faculties influencing it overly much. And just seeing… that's where you get the surprise.
BR

The juxtaposition of the two things… yeah, I thought your poem was full of surprises.
RO




Yeah, I'm constantly trying to override my own critical faculties because I feel that they get into the way, it's too much of the conscious mind, and then you take control and you don't have anything very exciting when you do that I think.
BR



People associate collage with the visual arts, mainly. And some visual artists I have known have actually had, you know, collections of… various pieces of garbage, really, they collected on the streets...
RO Found objects.
BR

Found objects. And, um, do you really have a collection of phrases and things that you…?
RO










I collect phrases and things, I like to collect from pretty prosaic sources. Sometimes people say things that catch my ear, and most of the time I like to work in ordinary things, like things we see everyday; newspapers, and things on television, movies, a lot of things from advertising and magazines. And I do collect them, I write them down, in what they call a 'folding' which is an eight-part… a paper folded in eight parts, that you write on, it's like a double blind technique, you don't know what the last phrase was that you wrote. And you don't know what you're going to get until you complete these hundreds of phrases on these panels.
BR


That's very interesting. I wish you could show us that sometime. Can you show us just where a phrase came from in the poem you just read?
RO









Yeah. "Ted dropped his toothpick." I subscribe to a cooking magazine, and every issue they have that, they say 'Ted dropped his toothpick and if you find his toothpick you may win a small prize,' so that's where I got that phrase. "Flip-top-box "was from a Robert Rauschenberg painting that was at the Seattle Art Museum, when they had one of their, their just recently departed show of the expressionist, abstract expressionists, et cetera. And one of his paintings had an actual box that said "flip-top-box" on it, another collage artist.
BR


You've mentioned William Burroughs, but also I've heard you talk about Andre Breton and Jean Arp. And they're both influences on your work?
RO














Yes, very much so. I had my first poetic epiphany when I read the first surrealist manifesto from Breton. It's one of the few books that I read in one straight read, I am kind of a slow reader, but I just couldn't put it down, it just opened my mind to the possibilities of the unconscious, and that there is so much more than our own systems. And, Jean Arp and his writing, and his sculpture just put me into a state of sheer rapture, I really have a connection with him… he writes a lot about working with lowered eyelids, which I think is a lovely phrase. Lowered eyelids-you're not, as a, for sculpture I can see how that could work and there must be, there's, well there's certainly a poetical side to that-that you work and it's coming from something really natural and organic and, again, you're not trying to control. That's what it's all about for me.
BR It's hard to give up control.
RO



It is, it's a discipline. It's a form of discipline to-I have to do it all the time. You know I… a lot of times I say, this doesn't sound right but I have to let it go, it's just, letting go is very hard, you want to control so much, it's ingrained somehow.
BR

You've brought something with you by Jean Arp, isn't that right?
RO






Yes I have. I have, uh… it's from a book called Documents of Twentieth Century Art, and it has a lot of his writings on sculpture and painting and the Dada movement. And I wanted to… I think I'll read just this short piece just to show how he wrote. He was circa the early part of the twentieth century, and this piece is called-it's an excerpt called "From One Bird in Three."
[reading]
BR





Thank you. I often find when I teach, I have a few exercises to get people to kind of write without thinking or somehow put them in a position when they don't have time to think and, very often, in fact those poems will come out to be the best poems they write, by my lights, because they are more surprising.
RO











Yeah. And I should say that trying not to control is not an end. Because, you never get around your own taste, you know you can't annihilate self, it's not about that. It's not taking yourself out, but to try to give up the control, to try and use that discipline, it opens it up, it opens the work up quite a bit, I think there is always going to be-when I hear a word, or when I hear a phrase or a word, you hear millions a day, but you're picking the ones that appeal to your ear, there's always that, so there's always quite a bit of room for individuality in this type of work, you know. You can't get away from being an individual. And it's not about erasing the individual from the work.
BR

Well, your poems seem very finely honed. I mean, it's not about just being spontaneous and not revising.
RO





No-yeah, it's not just spontaneity, there's a-there's also a second part that goes into it after the folding, you don't just go and dictate right off of the folding, there is some composition involved, most definitely. And… it's not just a matter of opening up your eight columns and just copying down everything you wrote. That's just the beginning.
BR





There are so many words bombarding us all day long and, you know, you say you use prosaic source materials, there are lots of prosaic phrases around and it does seem that it would at least make sitting in a dentist's office looking at a magazine a lot more interesting… to be looking at it in this way...
RO Yeah, that's true.
BR


Getting material for your poems… The poems you're reading aren't prose poems, but I've seen some of your poems I think are...
RO

Yeah, some of them do lend themselves more to prose poems.
BR What goes into making that decision?
RO










A lot of that is rhythms. Some of the work, as it evolves, the prose poem gives it a smoother rhythm. Some of them… and also, depending on how disjunctive the work is… the more disjunctive work does tend to lend itself more to being delineated, than the others and… it's sort of what this beast the folding gives you to work with. Or this big piece of clay-it's like, it is very much like sculpture, the folding gives you the big piece of clay and all sculptors they look at that and see what it's going to become, and so I think that it's the same process, as to whether it's going to be a delineated poem or a prose poem.
BR

Working in reciprocity with the material. Back and forth. Discovering the poem.
RO Yeah, it is very much like sculpture, it's a good analogy.
BR



I feel that about writing and that occurs to me. But do you ever invent whole passages, or something, as part of this, or are you pretty severe with yourself about sticking to found phrases?
RO













—No, I'm not. Sometimes… I will have some things I created. There was a funny blurb on the back of one of John Ashbery's most recent books. It was something someone said to him and it was so funny he decided to put it on the back of one of his books, and it said something like, "Do you get your material from somewhere, or do you just think it up?" I always have that in my mind I think. It's a little bit of a combination of both. I can really get on a roll, like-these phrases that I pick up, they wake my mind up into going into it... you know-so it does enhance my creativity. So I do start getting more and more creative as I read these phrases and there are places where I come in, and also I use my journal, I do a lot of journaling and I use my journal a lot for some phrases, 'cause, you know…
BR


Well your-the sound of the poems is clearly important to you so.… Do you enjoy performing them, I mean, is that when they're most realized, when they're embodied in a voice?
RO







Let me think. I think I do enjoy performing them, when they really work, if it's just a gas to get up and read them, I really do enjoy that. But I think that, also… even just to read them on the page, the reader has time to look at all of these various things and then they become maybe the "fourth mind." They start to get their own picture going with it—I think that they, coming back and reading the pieces quietly, you know—they're short, not like a novel.…
BR But that's an important part of them too. On the page, too.
RO






Yeah, the sound sense is definitely very important to me. I just, I really love the sounds of words and that's one of the reasons a phrase will appeal to me in the first place, is because of their sound sense, you know. Like, another thing that was in the Rauschenberg collage was 'crystal plastic vials,' and I just wrote that down because I love the way it sounded, you know.
BR

I noticed that, too, when you said 'flip-top-box,' I mean it was very expressive.
RO






Yeah. And one thing I've found by using advertising as source material is how many hyphenated phrases are creeping into our language because of advertisers. Because I find a lot of my pieces have these hyphenated words, and it must be a way for them to put as much information as possible into one word, you know. But it's very fascinating. And some of them are very catchy.
BR


I don't know how long you've been writing, Roberta, but were your earlier writings more conventional, more referential to… an experience outside of the language?
RO








I've always been attracted to the more avant-garde writing. But, I think I did start out with writing from personal experience more, maybe. With my very early work I did have that Romantic notion of the poet with the quill pen waiting for inspiration, and that just was so painful to me, because inspiration doesn't come from the clouds, you know. It comes from working. So now I'm a lot happier in my writing because I rarely worry about writer's block, there's always something out there to be worked with.
BR A phrase like "flip-top-box."
RO


Yeah, there's always a great phrase to keep you enlivened and keep you involved in the language. So I feel a lot more relaxed now with my work, than when I was just starting out.
BR


I was looking at Burroughs this morning and he calls the old-fashioned referential kind of poetry, I think he called it, 'cows standing in the field poetry,' after that kind of painting.
RO Yeah.
BR


I know your husband is a poet also. And what's that like having two poets in the same household? Is it comfortable, do you encourage one another, are you rivals? What is it like?
RO









We're not rivals. I think it's very beneficial, in the most part. The one danger is to let your partner, who is the other poet, read your work too early. But once you've settled yourself that 'I accept this,' then you can give it to them, you know, and then if they have a critique you can be influenced or you can't be. But, it's very beneficial. We're both sort of in the same school of poetry of things and avant-garde, and so we do a lot of writing together, we do come up with a lot of schemes to keep each other writing and we get a lot of good critique from each other, so it's a very beneficial thing-
BR

I know I certainly rely on the few friends I have who are good at critiquing for me.
RO

Yeah, and it's a good thing that we're both, of the same mind as far as poetry.
BR You're both of the same "third mind…"
RO

Of the same "third mind," yeah. The "third mind" is the child we never had.
BR

So what are you working on now Roberta, what is your most recent work?
RO







Most recent… I did have a piece that I just wrote the other day but unfortunately I didn't bring it. I'm starting to get the shape of a manuscript now for maybe a chapbook for these latest pieces because they have a lot in common as far as what I've decided to do with them, and they have sort of a common scheme. So I'm just right now continuing to write things, and… yes, I did have a brand new piece that I liked that I unfortunately didn't bring.
BR

Well we look forward to hearing it or reading it at some time or place in the future.
RO Okay.
BR It's been a real pleasure talking to you today.
RO Oh thank you. I enjoyed it too.
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