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in conversation with
Noah Eli Gordon
The following interview was conducted via email in late 2007–early 2008. It was originally published in The Denver Quarterly (Volume 43, Number 3:2009).
Noah Eli Gordon: This year saw the release, on Black Widow Press, of Backscatter, your new and selected poems. The press itself, which is relatively new, has been busy reprinting historical Surrealist texts along with contemporary work with a strong Surrealist affinity. Would you talk a little about your relationship to Surrealism?
John Olson: It begins with drugs. More specifically, an essay by Aldous Huxley titled “Drugs That Shape Men’s Minds” that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post October 18th, 1958. I discovered it circa 1963, at age 15. Our high-school English class had been assigned Huxley’s Brave New World, and in the process of doing a book report I came across that essay. I cannot exaggerate the effect that essay had on me. A frontier opened before my eyes, though technically the frontier was behind my eyes. The frontier was that sprawling ineffable thing in our skulls called a mind and I wanted to be Daniel Boone. In his essay, Huxley talks about a kind of feeling or intuition, a sense that the divine is not an abstract deity ensconced in the heavens but that it exists within us: ecstasy, rapture, a sense of oneness with all things. He remarks that ordinary waking consciousness is very useful, but that it is by no means the only form of consciousness. I could not wait to get around to experimenting with drugs. Around the time I turned 18 I spent a short period of about six months experimenting primarily with amphetamines and LSD. It was ultimately unsatisfying, and my last acid trip was horrific; I believed that I had lost all corporeality and was just a cloud of molecules walking around, somewhat like those episodes on Star Trek when the transporter breaks the crew members up into glittering atoms and beams them through space. When my feet touched earth again, that was it. I put an abrupt halt to my experimentation with hallucinogens. I remained in agreement with Huxley’s quixotic ambition to improve society by expanding consciousness, but I could now clearly see that there were dangers and limits in attributing such change to drugs. Furthermore, I did not like the idea of taking something to heighten my awareness. It seemed materialistic, an aspect of consumer society. Hence, I moved toward poetry. I discovered among poets such as Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, and Allen Ginsberg ample support for the idea that poetry contained a dynamic in and of itself conducive to states of reverie and rapture. In an interview that appeared in the Paris Review in 1966, Ginsberg wondered if “certain combinations of words and rhythms actually had an electrochemical reaction on the body, which could catalyze specific states of consciousness.” There were numerous others such as Whitman and Blake that led in this direction, but it was Rimbaud with whom I connected most strongly. “The Drunken Boat” blew my mind. The language heaved with antinomian force. It had color, turbulence, intensity. I thought wow, this is it, this is what I want to write. But how? How do I achieve that level of delirium on paper, with ink instead of absinthe, syllables instead of psilocybin? I found my answer in Surrealism. The Surrealists had developed writing techniques that helped you attain the same delirium, the same sense of the marvelous, by incorporating chance and spontaneity into poetic construction. It was hugely liberating. Suddenly nonsense ceased to be simple nonsense and acquired the status of revelation.
NEG: Is the original revolutionary thrust of Surrealist philosophy—the notion of changing the world through conjuring paradox and cracking open the possible—something you subscribe to?
JO: Yes, absolutely. Poetry is the antithesis of dogma. It is the opposite of absolutes. It is a mode of inquiry. It puts words into semantic collision, contagious dispersal, and the less sure it is of its results, the more it tends to approach a state of ecstasy, a glorious agitation. But this duality is misleading. Hui-Neng, the Sixth Patriach of Zen Buddhism, remarks, “As long as there is a dualistic way of looking at things there is no emancipation.” Poetry delights in paradox because its primary attraction is toward the ineffable. In a world so given over to commerce, this is a very subversive energy. Poetry is the ultimate anti-commodity. Art’s power is in its negativity. It stands in opposition to the actual, which suppresses it. It is a possibility impelled by its own impossibility.
NEG: I consider your work to be aligned with what Andrew Joron calls Neo-Surrealism, which is to say that although it’s informed by the original Surrealist struggle it employs aesthetic techniques that mark it as forward thinking rather than dogmatic. Here, I’m thinking especially of textual materiality, abstraction, negation, and speed. And yet, the critical reception thus far of your work, especially when it attempts any sort of historical positioning, seems so preposterously off the mark. Why do you think reviewers have such difficulty talking about what you do?
JO: Good question. I have no idea why. Well, I have some idea. Some critics see it as a species of Surrealism, which it is, but only in the way that a kinkajou and a lama are both mammals. I’ve argued with one critic about parataxis; he maintained that parataxis is over and done with, he’s tired of it, end of story. Some people have called me original, but my writing is the opposite of originality. It is a conglomerate, a heterogeneous mass of Surrealism, Modernism, Constructivism, Deconstructionism, Hedonism, Egoism, Synergism, Sillyism and Dada held together by a cementing matrix of syntax. You mentioned textual materiality, which is a crucial matter for me. I love the way certain writers such as Gertrude Stein, Clark Coolidge and Jackson MacLow are able to foreground the thing-ness of words. It is pertinent to mention that I wrote the entry on Jackson MacLow for the 20-century volume of the Encyclopedia of American Poetry. This is an affinity I would like to emphasize because MacLow is not associated with Surrealism, perhaps because there is a certain funny pragmatism to his experiments with language. His fascinations, like mine, have more to do with the radical empiricism of William James, with identifying strangeness in sensible realities, words as they are directly experienced, which is inherently experimental. How do thoughts become words? How do words become thoughts? How does ice become steam? How does steam become ice? You also mentioned my resistance toward the dogmatic. Absolutes make me feel claustrophobic. Religious fundamentalism is one of the things destroying our culture. Dragging it into the Dark Ages. Everything, all experience, should be in a state of suspense, a mode of constant questioning. Otherwise you’re really not living. You’re sleeping.
NEG: For me, one of the most striking aspects of your writing is its speed, the way your poems seem to steamroll their own subjectivity, allowing in what might initially feel tangential, and yet in the end giving one a palpable sense of inevitability—a smooth road of winding thought. Would you talk about your conception of consciousness as it relates to speed?
JO: I love speed. Charles Olson characterized the poem as a “high energy construct,” which I think is perfect. How do you build a high energy construct? He states it very simply: “one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception . . .keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen. And if you also set up as a poet, use use use the process at all points, in any given poem always, always one perception must must must move, instanter, on another!” Add to this another formula, by Pierre Reverdy, that “the more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be—the greater its emotional power and poetic reality,” and you’re on your way. This might not be everybody’s cup of tea. A lot depends on one’s attitude toward amusement parks. The lights, the crowds, the energy, the weirdness. The wonderful discordancy of gears and machinery in play for no other purpose than to create screams and excitement. That picture of me on the back of Backscatter was taken by Alice Wheeler at the Seattle Center Fun Forest. The Fun Forest is a small amusement park. It’s about to disappear, alas. One of my ambitions is to one day do a coffee table book on amusement park rides. Remember Ferlinghetti’s book of poetry A Coney Island of the Mind ? That’s exactly what poetry is. Whirls, twirls, bumps and collisions. Sudden shifts, accelerations, dizzying velocities. I should also mention rock ‘n roll. It has been a profound influence on my life. Bo Diddley doing “Who Do You Love,” or Koko Taylor doing “Wang Dang Doodle,“ is an approximation of the sublime for me. High octane. Something must also be said for the reader, or listener, of poetry. Poetry is AC/DC. It is an alternating current. Without someone to respond to what is written on the page or uttered into the air you do not have a complete circuit. This is why work that is too deeply rooted in the subjective, or too labored and virtuosic, feels so dead. So stale. The dance of the intellect requires a partner. Someone, ideally, not so full of themselves that they step on your toes. Or too self-conscious to get up and make a fool of themselves.
NEG: Your work started really speeding up when, after Echo Regime, you apparently abandoned the use of verse in favor of prose. Was the line holding you back?
JO: My first response is to say no, because I delight in lines. The line is a convenient framing device; it allows the reader to focus on an idea or image before moving on to the next, and creates the possibility of surprise, of frustrating expectations and introducing an unanticipated idea or element in the next line. George Oppen and Michael Palmer are supremely good at this. But the truth is, yes, the line was channeling energies that wanted to go elsewhere. My objectives changed. I needed a broader form. I began reading Proust pretty heavily, and L’invisible et l’invisible by Merleau-Ponty. I became increasingly fascinated by the nature of consciousness and perception, particularly the interphase between language and the external world. That space between the subjective and objective. That’s an extremely volatile junction. Language is a bridge. But words and syntax are notoriously unstable. Poets and politicians exploit that instability. The prose poem is a better tool for exposition than lineated poetry, which leans more toward lyrical effects, constructing a verbal artifact whose form contributes to its significance. The prose poem is a departure in poetry from the tyranny of the lyric “I.” Without the artifice of verse, of outward form, the prose poem opens language to the flux of consciousness in its more actual condition. Baudelaire states it beautifully: “Which one of us, in their moments of ambition, has not dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical, without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and knocked about enough to adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the turbulence of consciousness?”
NEG: Are your prose poems then a closer approximation of consciousness, a kind of map of the thinking that they display?
JO: Yes, but as much as I love maps (I can stare at a map all day), I like to compare them to clouds. The philosopher Karl Popper once said, “life is not a clock, it is a cloud.” Clocks are predictable: mechanical, orderly, and rational. Clouds are capricious. Their being is circumstantial. Clouds are the products of multiple events: temperature, humidity, wind direction, altitude. No two clouds will ever be alike. It is the same with experience. Experience is always interactive. The prose poem is most obviously the best vehicle for simulating life and consciousness as they are experienced. There is a very fine line between the prose poem and the novel or short story. My reading lately leans more toward prose than poetry. The novels I enjoy are fascinated by consciousness and perception. Proust, for instance, or Claude Simon. Virginia Woolf has a story about a mark on a wall. She notices a mark, a stain, a blotch, and in the process of trying to identify what it might actually be, her mind wanders and sprawls marvelously taking in and presenting a large swath of association. Words burst and burble in incessant association. This is how consciousness feels. The beauty of Stein’s Tender Buttonsis her ability to present language itself as an exquisite sensation. “The constant surprise,” as Wittgenstein puts it, “at the new tricks language plays on us when we get into a new field.” The disruption of syntax is similar to what happens in a thunder cloud. Lightning and thunder are products of volatility and friction. Conflict brings everything alive. This is something I found vital to feed into my novel Souls of Wind. Because here it was a matter of story-telling, not disrupting syntax. The focus tended to be a bit more on people
rather than words, although words were still an important part of the project.
NEG: Was there for you something inevitable in the move from verse to prose poem to novel?
JO: I’m not sure I’d say inevitable, certainly not in any predestined way, but it was deliberate. I’m a word-oholic. The more I write, the more I need to write. It’s addictive. I sometimes envy poets like Claude Royet-Journoud and those highly condensed pieces of his in The Notion of Obstacle and Theory of Prepositions. Mathieu Bénézet calls it a “language within language.” The words are so evocative; they contain quantum realities. Ghostly particles changing flavor even as you read them. I’m astonished at how powerful just a handful of words can be. Radium of the word, as Mina Loy put it. For whatever reason, I tend to go in the opposite direction. Slather words all over the page. The writer I tend to identify with the most is Lawrence Sterne, Tristram Shandy in particular. The prodigality of that book, the way it meanders and delights so unabashedly in its verbosity, is magnificent. Lush and equatorial. Maybe some day I’ll turn around and go in the other direction. Distillation, rather than dilation, will be my primary ambition.
NEG: Because your prose poems embody a wide formal range, from essay-like linearity (such as “The Mystery of Grocery Carts”) to flat-out explosive parataxis, did you find the writing of a novel to be at all limiting? Were there moments when you felt formally constrained?
JO: Yes. I felt constrained the entire time. I found the writing of fiction, a novel especially, to be extremely difficult. Inventing and developing characters, pacing, maintaining a sense of conflict and drama, are all very difficult. Maybe it comes naturally to some people. Not me. I felt ill-at-ease. Awkward. Ham-handed. But in time I became more adept at it. It’s a learned skill, like any other. Like carpentry, or surgery. What happened, in fact, is rather ironic. It had not occurred to me to write a novel. I was happy doing prose poems and a little flash fiction. Then, in 2002, I attended the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference. I had been invited to monitor a panel on poetry. The year before, I had managed to get an agent, who represented a non-fiction project; this was a long monograph on the subject of air. Everything to do with air: tornados, hurricanes, winds, the discovery of oxygen, thunder, lightning, etc. It didn’t sell. This was a huge disappointment because I had put an immense amount of work into that project. So, a year later I am sitting at a table in an immense room at the Hilton Seattle Airport and Conference Center participating in the autograph party. Sitting to my immediate left was a man in his early 30s. I asked to look at one of his books, which was titled How to Write a Great Query Letter.He was a literary agent named Noah Lukeman. This was one of his books. He asked to see one of my books, so I handed him Eggs & Mirrors,which was an early collection of my prose poems. He loved it. He said I had a great style. He asked if I had written a novel. I said no. He said, well, if you ever do, get in touch with me. So I thought holy cow, this is it, my big, long-awaited “in.” I began writing my novel a few days later. I finished the first draft in about six months and wrote a query letter to Mr. Lukeman. Apparently, it wasn’t a very “great query letter.” Or he wasn’t interested in Rimbaud, the American West, or Billy the Kid. A few weeks later I got an envelope with a tiny slip of paper and a formulaic phrase saying he wasn’t interested. No note. No signature. Nothing. I almost gave up. But I kept at it. And here is the irony: the book I found most helpful in learning the craft of fiction was a book titled The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life, by Noah Lukeman. It was an enormously helpful book.
NEG: Okay, a novel about Rimbaud, the American West, and Billy the Kid! Do tell!
JO: It’s 1880. Rimbaud has just left his job working in a rock quarry on Mt. Troodos in Cyprus and, rather than head for Aden as he did in reality, he travels to America by ship. He arrives in New York and has a tough time of it, but manages, after a time, to get a job as a waiter at Delmonico’s and save enough money to head west to St. Louis. He goes by train where he has his first encounter with Billy the Kid. There is a hint of the supernatural about this encounter. Arthur arrives in St. Louis, finds a room in a boarding house, and gets a job at a brick factory. On his day off, he visits a museum of wonders (modeled after the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles) where he meets an eccentric paleontologist and his daughter who loves reading Nietzsche. The paleontologist is planning an expedition to New Mexico to dig for Pleistocene fossils. He hires Rimbaud to come along. They travel to New Mexico by train, rent a wagon and some horses, and head out to the plains near Clovis (which actually is full of Pleistocene fossils). On the way, they pass through Fort Sumner, where Rimbaud has his second encounter with Billy the Kid. He also meets a curious fellow named Alias (Bob Dylan) whom I borrowed from Peckinpah’s movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
NEG: There are echoes there of your own prose poem “Arthur Rimbaud on Horseback.” I wonder, in this novel and in your other work, how important any sense of continuity might be, continuity in both form and content; which is to say, do you ever find yourself rejecting some of the things you write as not being “John Olson” enough?
JO: I’m always trying to get away from John Olson. Not that he’s a bad person or anything, but writing has always been a way to vacation from myself. I really like something T.S. Eliot said regarding selfhood and language, “that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career. What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” Eliot’s use of the word “past” might seem a little dry, but if I think of language itself as a living ocean containing both fossils and living organisms, it becomes a little more interesting. I’m frequently amused by the notion of originality. It is impossible for anyone to achieve actual originality, and yet the word has become such a positive modifier for anything intensely creative. Yet, what could be less original than making art out of a language that has been around for over a thousand years? If somebody were truly earnest about originality, they would first have to invent their own language. Then ears and eyes and tongues and hands. Ptarmigans, bees, and hermaphrodite brigs. Then cells. Then DNA. Then molecules. And so on.
NEG: Would you talk about your actual process. How do your poems begin? How much revision do they go through? Do you have any rituals you do to warm up?
JO: My work is always ongoing because I got into the habit a long time ago of keeping journals. I generally keep about two notebooks going; one for diaristic purposes (a spiral-bound diarium), and another for word play, creative exercises similar to the ones the surrealists, oulipians, and writers like Ted Berrigan and Bernadette Mayer have mapped out. The journals provide the raw material: If I go blank, there is always something to draw from. And it’s a good way to avoid the terror of a blank sheet of paper. The poems begin any number of ways. Sometimes a sentence I have overheard or run across in my reading will take seed and begin to flourish and sometimes an idea will simply crave expression on paper. It helps to be arrogant and opinionated. Revision varies a great deal. Some work requires no revision, and some work will never seem fully realized. It would not be unusual for me to sit down at the computer just before going to bed to read something I had written earlier in the day only to find myself working at it obsessively for the next several hours. As for rituals to warm up, the essential for me is coffee. My brain is like a dead car battery when I get up in the morning. It needs a charge. Once those electrons get humming, I like to focus on some reading for about an hour, usually something philosophical and French. I think learning a foreign language is crucial. It reveals the marvels and perplexities of language in general and helps to defamiliarize one’s mother tongue. We’ve all had that experience of having a simple word pop into our heads for no apparent reason and let it hang there in our mind pondering the strangeness of it. That’s the point at which poetry begins.
NEG: I’m curious about your relationship to publishing. It’s clear from what you’ve said that you’ve been writing for much of your adult life, and yet—correct me if I’m wrong here—it’s only within the last ten years or so that you’ve been actively publishing. Was this a calculated move on your part? Was it just a matter of letting things marinate?
JO: I began to submit work earnestly around 1989. A number of things culminated at that point. My life reached critical mass. I had gone through a second divorce, had become clinically depressed and alcoholic, and as I approached the middle of my life I realized I had to do something. Either change, or continue in a downward spiral. The poetry I had written until that point did not seem strong enough to me to put forth for public regard. It wasn’t bad or horrible, but I wasn’t entirely pleased with it. Nor did I complete anything. I continued to rework the same poem for weeks on end. During that dark time in the late eighties I wasn’t even writing anymore. I was living with a piano tuner and she left me. I moved to another apartment. I became what I like to call an urban Thoreau. I quit drinking and smoking and began a regime of running a minimum of five miles every day, usually before the sun rose. Except for my job, I pretty much lived in solitude. My apartment became a hermitage. Then, just as it had when I was eighteen, poetry began exploding in me. It felt like a renaissance. A Phoenix rising out of the ashes sort of thing. As you suggested, I do believe a lot of things had been marinating in me. I was literally pickled. Pickled in booze and bile. But things were happening. Gestating. Even when I drank I never stopped reading. I hung on to my passion for reading. So it was there. The words were there. The passion was intact. I just needed to get sober. Booze and cigarettes turned my brain to fog. Once I was rid of those things I discovered I had a lot more time and energy on my hands than I had ever had before. Writing poetry became a substitute addiction. I had to write in order to get that buzz. That waterfront euphoria. And I began sending the work out. Searching for the appropriate journal, writing cover letters, going to the post office, and checking the mail every day with a mixture of dread and excitement. I still remember my first acceptance, in Joe Soap’s Canoe. This was an English publication that had published Kenneth Koch and Ron Padgett. I was ecstatic.
NEG: In his essay “Poetry and Abstract Thought,” Paul Valéry writes about the connection between walking and writing, how one discovers a rhythm within the body, which can later be harnessed when facing the page. It’s interesting to me that you’re a runner, as we’ve already talked about the speed with which your writing moves. Is there a link for you between what’s done with (or to) the body and the subsequent shape of the work you’re producing? Which is to say if you’d taken up fishing, or bowling, or building scale models, do you think the trajectory of your writing would have been markedly different?
JO: Absolutely. I’ll have to look into that Paul Valéry essay. That sounds interesting. I feel a strong affinity with the Italian futurists, Marinetti in particular, with the very definite exception of their political ideology. It’s their aesthetics that turns me on, not their fascism. It’s hard for me to believe those guys knew what they were talking about. Fascists tend to go for kitsch. Dogs playing poker. Tea towels displaying the Mona Lisa. Freckle-faced kids in Norman Rockwell paintings. Milan Kundera defined kitsch as “the absolute denial of shit.” Kitsch functions by excluding from view everything that people find difficult to come to terms with, offering instead a sanitized view of the world in which “all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions.” Kitsch is intimately linked with totalitarianism. It gives people a nice, self-congratulatory feeling that they are ennobling themselves by attending a so-called cultural event, even if all they are experiencing has been pre-digested and purged of anything too provocative or contradictory; anything, especially, that might cause them to question their reality. True art is inherently subversive; Kant’s paradoxical formulation, for instance, that what is beautiful is purposive without a purpose. That goes completely against the grain of industry and labor under capitalism. The Protestant Work Ethic. None of these things appear to have occurred to the Futurists, who went gaga over big machines and sweat and molten steel. I admit that some of those things can be pretty cool. But when Marinetti says things like “We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap. We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace,” I know exactly what he means. That stuff gets me really excited. I’m not sure that bowling or fishing would have had the same impact on my writing as dada, the Blonde on Blonde Dylan, or Marinetti’s manifestos, but it’s an interesting notion. Another strong influence is laziness. Spacing out. Gazing out the window.
NEG: Since we’ve covered poetry and the body, what about where that actual body is located? I sometimes wonder if there’s such a thing as the regional in writing anymore. We’ve bumped into each other a few times on your home turf in Seattle, where there seem to be all sorts of active micro-communities (Subtext, the wonderful Open Books, Wave Books, etc.). Does place play a role in your work?
JO: Sometimes. Place is crucial in Souls of Wind.New York, St. Louis, and New Mexico all have prominent roles. New Mexico especially. New Mexico functions like another character. I’ve only been there once, but I loved it. It made a big impact on me. I strongly believe that there is such a thing as genius loci. I have felt it. Different places make me feel differently, give me different outlooks, perceptions, moods, appetites. Weather obviously has a lot to do with it; as you no doubt noticed on your visits to Seattle, it can get pretty gloomy here. Most of the time the sky is overcast and the humidity is high, which makes the cold feel colder. But there are things more substantial than weather, or geography. There is, of course, a social dimension. Different places each have their own set of amenities; as you mentioned, here in Seattle we have Subtext, which is one of the finest reading series I have ever participated in, and Open Books (the only other bookstore specializing exclusively in poetry is Grolier’s in Boston), and Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe on the Seattle waterfront at Pier 54. There you will find Sylvester the Mummy, an array of shrunken heads, a stuffed jackalope, and a double-tusked narwhal skull, among a thousand other oddities. This place serves as the incarnation of the old Seattle, the goofy, disheveled, eccentric Seattle, the Seattle I grew up in. Today’s Seattle is full of Hummers, bloated mansions, and glitzy nail salons. It’s unrecognizable. It’s former middle class is either living in tents, or cars, or commuting sixty miles every day from the outlying towns. Music, I find, is often a good barometer for the spirit of a place. Seattle’s grunge movement, for instance, really captured its tattered, dissident, exultant angst, a sumptuous anguish so enmeshed with dripping, moss-laden eaves and frayed jeans and nihilistic flirtations it is downright sensual. Weirdly jubilant. Nirvana is a good example. Drone Rock, a.k.a. Doom Rock, was also born here, and is flourishing in the music of one of its more notable innovators, Dylan Carlson. There is a world-weary sublimity in his music. And I don’t just say that because he’s my nephew-in-law. I hear the soul of Seattle in his long, pensive, plangent chords. A few years ago I met another musician, Ellen Fullman, originally from Tennessee, who produced a similar music—long sustained tones—using her long string instrument. This is a massive harp-like instrument with approximately 100 strings suspended at waist-height for 90 feet and attached to a soundboard. It is played by walking its length and bowing its strings with rosin-coated fingers. It was tuned with C-clamps. I don’t know where she moved, Texas maybe, but for a while she lived in Seattle. She refers to her music as “various angles of pitch location illuminat[ing] complexly ambiguous harmonic spaces.” That’s a pretty good description of Seattle. Complexly ambiguous, definitely. Harmonic, I’m not so sure.
NEG: Does ambiguity have a place in poetry? What’s your evaluative take on it?
JO: Ambiguity is a seduction. It lures us into the glide and glimmer of the poem like a svelte Mata Hari. There are poets who tell us what they think, and there are poets who reveal how we think. I’m far more interested in the latter. I have a preference for poets like John Ashbery who possess the magnificent ability to show us the play of consciousness as it blends among the materials of linguistic representation. I would go further than ambiguity and emphasize nonsense—delirium, absurdity, illogicality—as being an essential component of poetry. Nonsense is a quantum jump, an abrupt, exponentially enlarged disruption of one kind of information—the linear and utilitarian—to one of enchantment. The semantic play of the poem shifts its condition away from being a container of meaning to being an exponent of meaning. Ashbery presents us with the process of writing itself rather than its completion in a central, totalizing idea. It is a preference for movement rather than contents. Donald Revell talks about “writing into the accidents,” (“the trick is to write as far into the accidents as one can before collapsing into statement”), and in music there is the term ‘accidentals’ to describe the sharped or flatted notes that appear in the course of a piece without belonging to a prevailing key. I see a correspondence there between the chromaticism of music and the play of ambiguity in poetry. The in-between or borderline tones add an important dimension to music, and it is the same in poetry, where an appetite for ambiguity represents a preference for ceaseless modulation.
NEG: For several years it seemed that every time I’d pick up some small press journal, whether it was stapled and photocopied or lavishly produced, I’d inevitably encounter a review or essay you’d written. I know doing such work is often time-consuming and thankless, so what’s kept you going? What’s your take on reviewing?
JO: Poetry receives such little attention from the rest of the literary community that I feel it’s of vital importance to take some time to review books of poetry, although I intensely dislike doing it. It’s like being back in high school and having to do a book report. You can’t just sit back and relax with the work, you feel that constricting weight of having to evaluate it. This is a position I’m intensely uncomfortable with. Poets should not review poetry. Critics should review poetry. But apart from critics such as Marjorie Perloff and Charles Altieri, there are very few available to take poetry on. It’s shameful the way our society ignores it. Hegel said poetry was art at its “highest phase.” “Poetry is . . . the universal art of the mind, which has become essentially free, and which is not fettered in its realization to an externally sensuous material, but which is creatively active in the space and time belonging to the inner world of ideas and emotion. Yet it is precisely in this its highest phase, that art terminates, by transcending itself: it is just here that it deserts the medium of harmonious presentation of mind in sensuous shape and passes from the poetry of imaginative idea into the prose of thought.” This is a stunning statement. It explains so many things, including the reason poetry is so sadly ignored. Poetry is the least passive of the arts; it requires the most effort. You can’t just plug it into a wall and sit back and dig the action. You’ve got to put your hardhat on and enter into the construction and do some work. It’s a give and take. How many people are willing to do that anymore? Hardly anyone. People have been turned into consumers; they want to be plugged into some supercomputer like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix and learn kung fu and string theory with minimal effort. So I do reviews. I’ve tried to stop doing them at different times because that’s all I found myself doing. It was taking time away from my other projects. So I cut back. I wouldn’t do them at all anymore, but who else is going to do them? Very few people I’m afraid. Another motivating factor is that I know how painful it is to be ignored. That’s worse than getting a bad review.
John Olson’s poetry, essays, articles and stories have appeared in numerous journals over the years, including Sulfur, New American Writing, The Raven Chronicles, First Intensity, Talisman, Dusie, Absinthe Literary Review, Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics, House Organ and American Poetry Review. He has authored eight books of poetry and prose poetry, including Backscatter: New and Selected Poems (2008), The Night I Dropped Shakespeare on the Cat (2006), Oxbow Kazoo (2005), Free Stream Velocity (2003), Echo Regime (2000), Eggs and Mirrors (1999), Logo Lagoon (1999), Swarm of Edges (1996), and a novel, Souls of Wind (2008), about the exploits of Arthur Rimbaud in the American West where he meets Billy the Kid, digs for Pleistocene fossils, and discusses anthropological linguistics with Hopi Indians. Olson has twice received the Fund for Poetry Award and in 2004 received the Genius Award for Literature from Seattle’s popular weekly The Stranger.
Noah Eli Gordon is the author of several collections, including Novel Pictorial Noise(Harper Perennial, 2007), which was selected by John Ashbery for the National Poetry Series, and subsequently chosen for the San Francisco State University Poetry Center Book Award. He is an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder.