Charles Stein and George Quasha in Vancouver
Published in Minutes of the Charles Olson Society #41 (April 2001).
Part 1 (of 4)
At a meeting of the Charles Olson Society in Vancouver on 27 January 2001 the two poets and impresarios Charles Stein and George Quasha led a discussion which was taped and is here substantially transcribed. My introduction gets on to the tape only toward the end of it. I had on the table George Quasha’s Stony Brook 1/2 (1968), the Active Anthology (1974), and America: A Prophecy (1974), testifying to their impact at the time and their lasting usefulness. I also had one of Quasha’s early books of poems, Giving the Lily Back Her Hands (1979) as well as one of the latest, Ainu Dreams (1999). I also showed and referred to Charles Stein’s important book on Olson and Jung, The Secret of the Black Chrysanthemum, published by their Station Hill Press (1987), as well as the items mentioned at the beginning of the tape.
— Ralph Maud
MAUD: . . . I believe you are still the proprietors of Station Hill publishing house?
GEORGE QUASHA: Or it’s the proprietor of us.
MAUD: I have also this magazine Aion which Charles Stein edited in December 1964, which he doesn’t have a copy of, and I just can’t give it to him! There it is. It’s a “Journal of Traditionary Science.”
CHARLES STEIN: It’s a genuine piece of oblivion that you have there.
MAUD: Look, it includes chapter 5 of Robert Duncan’s H.D. Book — and you also published part of the H.D. Book [in Stony Brook 1/2]; and we’ve waited all these years and the H.D. Book is finally available — on the net! You can print it out in toto, if you have a computer (which I don’t).
If you want to know about Charles Stein, the introduction that Richard Grossinger did for this book of poems [Poems and Glyphs, Io #17, 1973] is the best account I know of.
STEIN: I’m a continuously transforming clown in Grossinger’s own fictions. I appear in book after book at various different points as a fall guy when he needs somebody to be smarter than.
MAUD: O.K. This is just one sample of Charles Stein tripping over himself, in Richard Grossinger’s view. No, there’s quite a lot of good biography about the Horace Mann School in the Yonkers, which you went to with Richard Grossinger, along with some other influential people: so this is a good book to have.
Anyway, I’m not going to do any further introduction. There was something circulated by the Kootenay School. I won’t say any more. But I will say that you actually have to tell them what you want to know, because we don’t want to watch these two people try and guess. And I have already put in my bid for just, well, utter gossip is what I want. So I’m going to begin with Charles Stein, who is very good at it . . . You actually went to Gloucester in 1969 and rented a place?
STEIN: The first time I went to Gloucester was to visit a good friend of mine named Jonathan Greene, a poet who eventually founded Gnomon Press, which I think still exists and produces books occasionally out of Kentucky. He was spending the winter basically doing typing for Larry Eigner in Swampscott. It was before Larry became more mobile, as he did in his later years. At that time he was a probably difficult person, with cerebral palsy — he really could hardly talk, but he was writing these amazing poems. We knew about him from a person who’s been important to both of us, who had early published Larry Eigner and published us as teenagers in a little thing called Penny Poems that came out of Yale. They would appear in bookstores like Gotham Book Mart and Grolier, I’m sure, and specifically poetry bookstores. He published Denise Levertov and Larry Eigner and I think David Meltzer and Mary Ponsett and a number of other people that are now sort of present or gone. Anyway, I went to visit Jonathan, and he had been at a party at Ferrini’s, so we went to visit Ferrini, and Ferrini said, “You gotta go see Charles.”
So he gave us the Fort Square address and we went marching up to his door, at about three in the afternoon, and stayed till about two in the morning. It was just this — he saw these young kids coming and wanting to talk about him, really. We knew about him a bit. So that sort of started it. That sort of ended my credible relationship with the fancy prep school I was going to where everybody thought they knew more than anybody else in terms of literature. It was one of those places where you were supposed to be in awe of these guys who were English teachers. They didn’t know about Olson, and suddenly I had been — a transmission or a curse had been laid on me so that I came back to school and nobody could tell me anything. I had met Olson.
I visited him any number of times over the next few years, and in 1969 I rented a couple of rooms in Eastern Point in Gloucester with a friend, and I basically visited him, and Gerrit Lansing, very regularly for that summer. That was the last summer of his life.
MAUD (showing the photographs of Olson in the Jung book): We have these photographs Charles took at the time. Was that your painting on the wall?
STEIN: No, it’s actually Linda’s painting.
I guess I was interested in Jung all that time and had talked to him quite a bit about Jung, so when he died in early 1970 and it was clear his papers were going to the University of Connecticut in Storrs and George Butterick, whom I had met that summer, was going to be the curator and Charles Boer was a professor there, they got me an assistantship, because I was in the process of not being able to finish a master’s degree under John Hollander in the city and I was supposed to be working on Yeats and I just was not having fun. And so Storrs was very nice: they gave me a bye on the master’s and accepted me into the Ph.D. program. I got to hang out with Butterick and spent a lot of time in the Archives before they were put in nice little folders and made to look very — y’know, you take every piece of paper and it has to have its folder and its identification so you can find everything. You totally lose the sense of them. I thought there was a tremendous amount of power in these chaotic boxes of pieces of paper totally scribbled over to a degree of density that defies the mathematics of the continuum to actually look at: amazingly dense, mad writings. As one also later found out was the case of his walls. When I would go to visit him — maybe there were people who got past the kitchen, but — Fort Square was this flat that went out towards the harbor. You came up from the back yard. The first thing you entered was the kitchen, then there was another room and then there was a bedroom. But I never got past the kitchen. It was always sitting in the kitchen. Then he’d run out to the back and bring some book, and he’d never let you see what was in these books. So after he died I had this almost embarrassing sense of invading his library which he had protected with such incredible ferocity, that sense of secrecy, almost like a chemical closure.
GEORGE BOWERING: I guess a lot of those were books he never gave back to the people. . .
STEIN: Yeah. [Laughter.] But mostly it was just he had a definite sense that a hot piece of information or whatever that you had found lost its charge if someone else laid eyes on it before it had released itself into the work. If you have a conversation about something that you’ve just gotten very excited about — he felt that he frittered away his best energy by liking to talk more than to write. Anybody who was really of ear for him, he would just talk you into the — When I was a little older I couldn’t maintain it so much. One time I went to his house and came out with tonsillitis. He sort of finished me.
But, then, also because my friend had lived with him — After she was living with me she moved in with Olson at the end of that summer. Then she continued to live in Fort Square. So over the next couple of years while she was living there I was in his space, and the space was covered with, like all the strips on the side of the windows were covered with writing. Did you see this?
MAUD: You were living with Linda after. . .?
STEIN: We were sort of breaking up that summer, if the truth be told, and she ended up moving in with Olson, and after Olson died we had another round of it about a year or so later. The piece that’s in Active Anthology . . .
QUASHA: She was collaging these sounds. They’re like pieces of paper collaged — just sounds, pieces of words. It’s a powerful thing.
JUDITH COPITHORNE: Linda . . .?
STEIN: Linda Parker. She eventually changed her name to Crane. She in a sense was pushed aside when Olson died by the family because when he was in the hospital he kind of remade contact with his daughter, and it was a little awkward. So she wasn’t around at the very end, although she was still in his house. And it hurt her a lot. There was a month when she was practically speechless, she couldn’t talk at all. And when she began to pull out of the silence, before she was talking, she made these collages which were cut-out letters from different magazines, and those were literally her first utterances on coming out of the shock of Olson’s death. She would read them — before she was really talking she would read them as a kind of sound poetry, just read those texts. Some years later I tried to record her. I actually have a recording of her reading them, but she couldn’t quite do it the same way any more. But it’s an interesting thing because it’s another one in the actual wake of his demise, that piece.
MAUD: But of course one doesn’t remember anything Olson said in these days and nights. It’s very hard to remember any particular thing?
STEIN: Well, you remember some things, particular tendencies and directions, actually, for me. I have views about aspects of his work that I know came from his conversations, but I couldn’t quote them. They tended to come like brrtt! The kind of articulateness was so completely visceral that. . .
QUASHA: Olson’s sense of secrecy extended to not wanting his conversations taped. And Gerrit Lansing has that same disposition, which to me is a big loss. . . .