Charles Stein and George Quasha in Vancouver

[Part 2]


MAUD: Well, George, tell us about when you went up.

QUASHA: You’re going to be disappointed. My meeting with Olson wasn’t in Gloucester. I went to Gloucester and tried to meet him. He was in one of his dark periods. He was there, and I knocked on the door and called him on the phone many times. He’d unplugged his phone. He wouldn’t answer his door or any of those things. It was subsequent to that I met him in London for the first time. There was a big poetry conference in London, in the Albert Hall. Everybody was there, Neruda was there, I mean, poets from all over the world. It was incredible, a young poet’s dream to be able to go there and hear all there people in the course of a few days. Some how I got invited to Panna Grady’s party. Panna Grady at that point was Olson’s lover, right? It was a party where Mick Jagger had just gotten out of jail, so he was there talking about what they had done to him in jail, busted on pot. Olson was just not hanging out with that group. He was over in a corner, and I got to go over and sit down with him, and he was happy to have somebody who wasn’t interested in talking about getting busted by the police. So we got to talk for about an hour or so. It was at that point I could ask him for manuscripts for Stony Brook magazine. I had in mind the idea that I was going to edit something. I was at Stony Brook, teaching. In those days you could get a job — I was twenty-three — if you’d just say you were going to get your Ph.D. — which I hadn’t any intention of getting, but in order to keep a state job you had to pretend. So I took courses, and for five years I got away with pretending I was academic. But the school was a new school. It was Rockefeller time in New York, so the state system had unbelievable amounts of money, and we could invite poets. Duncan would come for a week every year. We had a Stony Brook festival, the manifesto for which is in the back of there that Ginsberg put out, signed by everybody who was there practically. Olson was away, or wouldn’t come, or something. I don’t know. But he responded to being in the magazine and submitted a poem. And actually the most valuable thing I can say to you about Olson is the relationship I had with him about that poem that’s published in Stony Brook. He submitted it, and then he called me up and said, “What happened to my manuscript?” And I said, “Oh, did you want this back?” It came to me on pieces of paper pasted together that was like that cheap carbon that you put in as your second sheet so you don’t dent the wheel. So it’s not real paper, really the stuff is meant to disappear in fifteen minutes. I was, like, holding it so that it wouldn’t come apart. If it came apart you might never quite get it together again. And you could see how he composed. Antin’s claim that it was collage had a kind of authenticity in the actual method Olson used in sticking these pieces of paper together. I said, “Well, I didn’t know you wanted it back so soon.” He says, “Yeah, I’ve got to have it back. Also, I’m not sure it’s right.” I said, “Well, you don’t have a copy at all?” He said, “No, I don’t have a copy. . . Read it to me.” I said, “Well, we’re going to press. We’re typesetting it right now. There wouldn’t be time for it to go back to you to make changes.” “Well, read it to me.” So I was reading his poem to him all on the telephone. He said, “Wait a minute. What did you just say? What was that? What was that? Read that again.” And I’d read the line again. “I didn’t say that, did I?” [Laughter] So we’d go a little further down, and he says, “Nah, you can’t say that. Go back and read that first paragraph up the top, up the top. You can’t say that up there if you’re saying this down here. . . Change that word. I’m going to change the one up there.” He went on like that, and so — actually I was scared stiff. Here’s this guy revising his poem in my head: the theater of Olson’s possibility.

STEIN: Did he keep the revisions? Is the version in here the same as the version that he would have given to Butterick?

QUASHA: Well, I never actually checked it against Butterick’s version. I mean, I had my experience. That was fine with me.

But let me say what it meant to me, because it actually changed my life, that experience. You never get to experience what goes on inside another poet’s process, and most of the time you don’t really need to know that. It’s not important. But Olson was important to me, and so to be able to hear that as something happening right there inside your time, the poem’s time becomes your time, and it’s his time, and he can’t have that time unless you read to him, so you’re involved, and you feel oddly responsible for something if you — you had no power, you’re just responsible. So it was very very anxious, but at the same time I got to hear how he thought. I actually felt I touched the way that he wrote poems, and what was interesting to him, how his ear would pick up at the bottom of the page what had resonance for something that had happened at the beginning of the poem — if this was here, you couldn’t do that there. So I actually got to hear by field. I got to hear what a field meant. It was a total auditorially accessible living reality that he was inside of, inside the poem, and was listening for. And because he had to externalize it to hear his poem back through my mouth, something that never gets externalized was momentarily out there, happening; and I got to be there to have it happening inside me, and it just changed something inside me. I heard poems totally differently as a result of that.

MAUD: Was there spontaneity there? What word would you use to describe it?

QUASHA: It was spontaneous, but was rising to the occasion. The point was that there was a sense of responsibility that Olson had to something I couldn’t see, and I couldn’t hear it — I could hear it because he said so. Being responsible to the total field, it was as though Olson had made a mistake because he hadn’t listened well enough to the total field when he stuck these things together — because that’s a visual method: this has got to go there, this has got to go here — and so, unless you read it over and over to yourself or hear the whole thing, you might miss something. So another thing is the rigor of the method. It’s very hard to establish that. If you are writing about an Olson poem, you might be tempted to use language and methods of analysis that apply to poems in general to explain what’s happening, and it was quite clear to me that that was completely wrong, that he was listening to something that had a different reality altogether from how poems usually went together. It’s not that it didn’t have many of the elements; it’s what held them together was different, that that was the magic substance that you couldn’t put your finger on, and it was all in how you heard that total field.

MAUD: It would be in a sense “objective.”

QUASHA: It was extremely objective. That’s the other thing about it. It was like there was an object there in the sense that you could point to it and you could be responsible to it.

STEIN: He would also feel his way into other people’s poems sometimes. This again is a memory not of something he said but something he did. One day that summer he was visiting where I was and we were talking about different things, and he was talking about, really, zero-point voice, about what the real proper voicing of a poem would be, and he took a little Blaser poem that was in the Don Allen anthology, “When I pay death’s duty,” and he just read that as a demonstration of something about what he meant by the natural voice. It’s completely vivid in my ear. I know what that is from that event, and it was like just allowing the voice to sink in to the field of the poem and also obviously that he had a feeling that Blaser had achieved it there. You see it in Olson’s prose writing about particularly Shakespeare, where he locates in King Lear or in The Tempest and those late plays that he really loved; he goes for these kinds of cadences, the phrase structure of the lines rather than the metrical structure of the lines, and he just articulates them, goes to the places where he can hear that Shakespeare is doing the things he wanted to do.

TED BYRNE: What’s a “zero-point voice”?

QUASHA: “Zero-point”: just it’s a little theory, right? Zero-point voice, if you can imagine the way we speak, is, I mean physiologically, your vocal cords are relaxed, then when you go to speak you tighten them, so there’s a tension comes up, and in a song that tension is held and distinctions are made by releasing it in varying degrees. So there is an absolute distinction physiologically between speech and song in how the vocal cords are held. Poetry tends toward song in that the voice will be held, especially if you have somebody like Dylan Thomas where there’s kind of a base sound that holds the vocal cords in their active position. What you get with Olson is a real change in the understanding of how that is. You get a sense that the actual power of the precise moment, the concrete instant, what is truly most powerfully manifested at that moment, requires that the voice be itself, completely, individually. The physiology of that, in my view, is that it has the capacity to let go of its song and let go of what its conceptual hold is. So that it returns to zero, and zero point is the actual source of the poem. I have this theory which is that there is an “undertime” to the poem. I don’t know how this completely fits with Olson’s theory of things, but I think it’s fine.

STEIN: I think that relaxing of the voice is what’s required, so that other aspects of the physiology get projected. So, like, the concern of proprioception, or what I claim about Jung — Olson’s ideas about Jung were a kind of heresy, that the archetypes aren’t quasi-neoplatonic forms, they are the organs themselves; so that the heart or the liver, these things, function as the same as the archetype because they are both universal and completely concrete. Everybody’s got a heart, but you’ve got your heart. But to allow the heart and the liver and the lungs to enter the voice with their necessities, the voice has to stop trying to produce a particular form. And I don’t know that he was able to do it all the time in his reading. I feel that it’s present in the record we were talking about, in the Folkways record that that voice was there. I may be wrong now, but my recollection of the TV thing that he did where he reads “The Librarian,” that it wasn’t there. . .

MAUD: I would say the other way round.

STEIN: O.K., so it’s very hard, for sure, to locate this thing, but. . .

QUASHA: It doesn’t matter about any particular instance, except to show us, or get in touch with, what it means for something willing to come from zero point, actually willing to relax down. You have to go to zero point to get the connection with the invisibly rising energy that’s coming up underneath, from what I call “undertime” but which you can call anything you like, unconscious or anything. I don’t know that they’re all the same thing, but there is a time of the poem that is non-temporal. I think “Projective Verse” discovered, for the first time consciously, that there’s a source of the power, the time of the poem that is in contact with something that is non-temporal but is outside time because of its capacity to start anywhere and generate its next move without having to be responsible in a predictable way or in a patterned way from what came before. What I heard in Olson’s voice I’m sure was the transmission of this possibility, on the telephone that day, as I think about it this moment. I’ve never had this particular thought before but I feel sure that I heard him access “undertime.” He said, “Dammit, that’s not it. Let me — ! Be quiet, don’t say anything. Let me listen to this. Say that line again. Wait a minute, don’t say anything.” Then he said, “O.K.” It was almost as if I could feel his mind go all the way down and pull something up from this invisible possibility. And I would say I’ve been looking in my own work, my own thinking, or whatever it is, I’ve been looking for that access ever since. And finding it elsewhere too, and I could tell millions of stories about how I was able to go further with that. But it really started with that possibility.

So zero point voice, which is something you can imagine in many different ways, this is not a stylistic issue, it’s not a poetic topology kind of issue; it’s something that is always there. The tendency of most poetry is to get the thing going and to keep it going. I mean, you have the Lawrencean drive that you get in Olson also, Duncan too, in their early work, that keeps that momentum going. I think Lawrence taught that it’s possible to dig down deep enough and have the poem come up fully manifest, and start a process that will go all the way to apocalypse. That’s what you get in “A New Heaven and a New Earth” and “The Ship of Death” and those kinds of big long great apocalyptic driving-force poems, where the thing actually sheds skin and the being comes out new at the other end. But as Olson’s work develops, and as Duncan’s work develops, you start to get a break in that momentum, and you start moving toward forms — the “Passages” of Duncan would be the best example of it or the later Maximus Poems — where it is continually going back to the zero point. It’s stopping dead: this is how much there was, full stop. Then it goes again. It’s like there’s something else being accessed. It’s almost as though you could never access it in such a way that would be definitive, so you have to keep going back and checking and making sure.

At the root of Olson’s view, the way it ought to be on earth, the integrity that we discover through the poem ought to be applicable to discourse at large, and so we ought to be able to integrate it with our projection into the world altogether. So if someone achieves something like what you would previously have called a master, that is, they are in possession of their own reality in such a way that everything they do bespeaks that vision, that reality, they are living the vision, it’s really happening all the time, if you could imagine such a person every word that came from their mouth would be interesting. And it is. It certainly is with Duncan; it certainly is with Olson. I never heard anything that wasn’t interesting.

STEIN: I think the letter question is interesting just in terms of the way the Maximus Poems evolved, because what you get is — I mean, that’s the initial concept of the poem. It’s going to be this simple address of this figure to his city: so you’ve got a clear conception. And then the material starts to break that; and not only that, something about the condition of possibility of that scale of the speaker to Gloucester becomes less viable as an actual political projection. The politics of the Maximus stops being that literal and becomes a politics of the possible. And it moves further and further in. I had this quarrel with Don Byrd perennially, and with a lot of people who feel that the later Maximus Poems is this withdrawal. I think we have to be careful not to miss a very important point about our history that the poem is tracking, which is, Olson goes into deep despair over what the initial conditions were. The initial condition was that he was actually going to create some kind of paradigm through this corrected relationship of the individual mind, the individual person, this individual possibility, with a reasonably scaled collective. After all, the decision to do Gloucester was made consciously as not making the mistake that Williams made. Paterson was too big, you couldn’t really do it, so the thing became sprawled. You had to have old man Paterson, a mythical invention, rather than drawing the mythical power out of the actual concrete circumstances. And the reason for that was that the scale was wrong. So Olson thought that Maximus’s relation with Gloucester was a corrected scale. And then something failed in that. Not that the poems failed, but that what he was trying to do no longer held that. You know, the poem: “the people had walked away.” He’s looking at the Maximus figures; they’re not just as heroes now, they’ve been abandoned by their own constituency. So there is a passage of withdrawal from actually being a guy in the Administration, to doing it in this local way, and then that is no longer possible. But it’s still political. The projection, to “create an actual earth of value,” what’s that about? All the issues that are raised in Special View of History, really about history and intensive, those matters are continually interesting in a political sense. And it’s also an important sense of the psychological; the “inner preserve” that he talks about, the “inner lake” that he’s just sort of staking out the territory of that feels so incredibly internal, is still about a source of holding a space for something that’s possible. . .

MAUD: It would be interesting to see the point at which this despair is actually registered. Maybe not just one point, though.

STEIN: No, certainly the Winthrop poem, “the country had walked away”: that’s not just history there. There’s some sense of what is possible for the single probity.


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