Charles Olson over the years

A panel discussion at the Charles Olson Festival, Honoring the Life and Work of Charles Olson: Poet, Teacher, Scholar & Community Activist, August 12, 1995, Gloucester City Hall

Transcribed from audiotape by Ralph Maud and published in Minutes of the Charles Olson Society, #10 (November 1995).


Part 1 (of 4)


DAVID McARDLE: . . . I’d like to welcome you. I’m the Director of the Library, David McArdle, and I’m on the Lyceum Committee, which is the programming part of the library. I’d just like to tell you just a moment about what the Lyceum is and why we are honoring Charles Olson today. The Sawyer Free Library has one of the richest literary heritages of any library in this country. In 1830 many many people of Gloucester came together for the purpose of creating a Lyceum, a coming together for people to share ideas, education, learn from one another and celebrate living in Gloucester. Well, two years ago on a very cold winter night — couldn’t be more different than this one — a like-minded group of Gloucester citizens came together for the same purpose. Today, in society, information is all around us and overwhelming. If anything, we’re all information-overloaded. But there’s not a lot of opportunity to come together in a group like this — different people, different interests, different walks of life, different communities — and share something, learn something, discuss something. Of the many programs we’ve done in the last two years, none more closely, more perfectly, fits the intention of the Lyceum Committee members than this festival honoring Charles Olson. Everyone in this room shares something in common: they either loved the man, they loved his words, or they love this city. And for most of us I think it’s a Venn diagram with interlocking circles: that we all share most of those emotions, and the center of the circles is Charles Olson. We’re very fortunate today to have a distinguished panel, all of whom knew Charles, were students of Charles, friends of Charles, or worked with him. But every time there’s a great idea that comes together there’s always a person, or persons, behind it, and that is true for this festival as well. Many many people have worked for months to bring the festival together, to do it properly, and to do it in a way that would honor the spirit of this man. But the idea began not with a committee, not with a larger group, not with the businesses who so generously supported us; the idea started with two people almost a year ago, and without their coming forward, bringing Charles to our attention, reminding us of his 25th anniversary since he has passed away, we would not be here today to pay him the honor that he deserves. I’d like to introduce to you — and they don’t know I’m going to do this — a gentleman by the name of Schuyler Hoffman, and a very close friend of his, Therese Kovach. They are very passionate about Charles, they are very committed to the festival, and I wish you would help me give them a round of applause . . . [Applause].

Thank you. Just one last word, if I may. At 4 o’clock — because this is obviously a warm room on a warm day with many people — we thought the reception would be cooler and calmer and more comfortable if at 4, or whenever Peter concludes the panel discussion, if we all just get up and we go across the street, get some fresh air, and go to the Sawyer Free Library, and there’ll be refreshments and opportunity to meet the panelists at that point in time. We will also have a 12 minute film of Charles down in the Friend Room, which we will run continually for people to have an opportunity to see the vision of this wonderful man.

Now, if I may . . . The moderator today is an old and dear friend of Charles Olson; he is a lifelong native of Gloucester; he has been a teacher; he is an author. His most recent book, although there are several soon to be published, was Maximus to Gloucester, one of the most important and understandable ways to come to terms with Charles and his view of Gloucester. And he is a social activist himself, and plays very many important roles in Gloucester today. So, if I may, I’d like to introduce to you Peter Anastas, our program moderator.

PETER ANASTAS: Thank you very much . . . Charles kept a list that he was fond of showing his friends of the people who had spoken at the Gloucester Lyceum during its heyday. On that list was Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne — Herman Melville came and spoke on Greek and Roman statuary — Horace Greeley, the list goes on and on. I would like to think that we are in that august company and that they would bless us as we undertake to celebrate with all of you the life and the legacy of Charles Olson. We gather here today because Charles Olson, the man and the poet, touched our lives in some important way, as a teacher, a mentor, a friend, or a colleague; or we’re here because we want to know more about this remarkable person.

The panelists I am about to introduce all had a personal relationship with Charles Olson. Although we no longer have the gift of Olson’s magnetic presence, in asking our guests to share with us their living memories of the man they knew, we are asking them to bear witness to his impact on their lives. We’re hoping to make Olson come alive in their words. Your program contains the salient facts about the members of our panel. As I introduce them briefly I’m going to add a more personal note about their connection with Olson or Gloucester or me. I’m going to begin at my right with Robert Creeley. I read my first Creeley poem, “Division,” in Vincent Ferrini’s little magazine Four Winds, published in Gloucester in the summer of 1952. 1 was 15 years old then, and I’ve been reading Robert Creeley’s poetry and prose ever since. I consider Robert’s 1963 novel The Island and his 1965 collection of stories The Gold Diggers, both published by Scribners, to be among the essential narrative acts of our time. They’ve been enormously important for me as a prose writer. I also read my first Olson poem, “Maximus letter #2,” in that same issue of Four Winds, Vincent, so one didn’t have to leave Gloucester to be in touch. Robert Creeley has also lived here, summering on Dennison Street in Annisquam during the late 1960s and early 70s. Let us welcome Robert Creeley back. [Applause]

I’ve known Vincent Ferrini since I was 16 years old when I turned up in his frame shop at 126 East Main Street one afternoon on my way home from high school. I knew from Four Winds that Vincent was a poet, and I wanted to talk about poetry with him. “Who are you reading?” Vincent asked. I began to name some poets we were studying in school, Wordsworth, Keats. “No,” Vincent said. “Who are you reading who’s alive?” I was tongue-tied. “Let’s begin,” Vincent said, taking down off his shelf volumes of Pound and Williams through which he would introduce me to modern poetry. Forty-two years later, the dialogue continues . . . Vincent Ferrini. [Applause]

Some of you may have had the pleasure of reading Ingeborg Lauterstein’s beautiful memoir of her student days under Olson at Black Mountain College in last Thursday’s North Shore magazine. Olson, who had early been sensitized to the tragedy of the holocaust by the Italian painter Corrado Cagli, and whose poems “The Town” and “La Préface,” written in 1945 and 1946 were among the first by Americans to deal with the holocaust, Olson would have been deeply moved by Ingeborg’s Vienna novels, which dramatize the rise of fascism and Europe after the fall of Hitler in ways so accurate and so authentic, because she must have taken Olson’s advice to write about her own experience in the terms of that experience. As Olson once said to me: “The literal, not the literary” . . . Ingeborg Lauterstein. [Applause]

For years Hettie Jones slipped secretly into Gloucester to visit friends. Five years ago, when she published How I Became Hettie Jones, her fantastic memoir, Hettie gave a reading at the Bookstore on Main Street in Gloucester. That reading created an instant following for Hettie here in Gloucester. “I like the way you use language,” Charles Olson told Hettie. We did too. And we’re glad to have Hettie back in town . . . Hettie Jones. [Applause]

Charles Olson was crazy about languages, and he always admired those who studied the most difficult ones. He loved it that Ed Sanders was a student of Egyptian hieroglyphics and Ancient Greek. He also loved it that Sanders was the founder of the neo-Dada rock band The Fugs. Sanders’ work has the kind of sweep that Olson’s had and the same breadth of interest, from his key book on the Manson group, The Family, to his recent verse biography of Chekhov. Along with poetry, Ed Sanders has written plays, novels, stories. It’s a pleasure to welcome Ed Sanders back to Gloucester. [Applause]

I first knew Jean Kaiser as the woman, indeed, one of the first people, who stood up to Charles Olson. In argument or discussion at parties in Jean’s old Victorian house on Pleasant Avenue, at Harry Martin’s studio above the pool room on Main Street, at Gerrit Lansing’s on Main Street or Washington Street, Jean and her friend Harry Martin, native New Yorkers, matched Charles’s, assertion for assertion, especially when the subject was religion, particularly Catholicism. After Harry died and Jean left Gloucester, something seemed gone from the air here, some essential élan, an energy. Jean, we welcome you back. [Applause]

What I’d like to do is begin by asking each one of the panelists to talk a little bit about what did it feel like meeting Charles Olson for the first time, what kind of impact did he have on you? Then we are going to essentially move along, and I’ll be asking the panel some questions. We hope that there’ll be some dialogues, some response. And I would say around 3:30 or so we would love very much to take some questions from you folks who are watching and listening, and people will be able to pass among you with microphones. I’d like to begin — start down here this time with Jean: What did it feel like meeting Olson for the first time? What kind of impact did it have on you?

JEAN KAISER [Laughing] That’s funny. Well, actually I brought my mother to meet Charles Olson, and it was very quick and very abrupt, and we were there about a half hour, and my mother told Charles off like I think very few people ever did. [Laughs] He never got a word in edgewise, and that was my first hello and goodbye to Charles Olson.

ANASTAS: That’s wonderful. What about you, Ed?

ED SANDERS . . . Well, I first read his poetry when I was a teenager at New York University, and then I started putting out a literary magazine, and I wrote him a bunch of letters asking him to submit. Then we had a correspondence for a couple of years. Then I guess I first met him at Buffalo at the Spring Arts Festival in 1965 when John Wieners and myself and Charles gave a poetry reading at the lounge of the Student Union. Remember that, John? We had a good time. And that’s when I met Charles. [Wiener’s comment not audible.] Right. And he asked me to come to his lecture, and then he asked me to give a brief exposition on Topos, Typos, and Tropos, [Laughter] which I’m not prepared to answer thirty years later. [Laughter]

ANASTAS: Hettie, what did it feel like meeting Olson for the first time? What was your . . . ?

HETTIE JONES: Well, I had known his work for a while, I think about two or three years by that time, and I had spent hours typing it on an adjustable-spacing IBM typewriter, and it was very hard to do, especially to make things go up and then down. And then when I met him he was just UP and I was DOWN. But he made me feel so comfortable that that disparity in size just melted away, and we just became instant friends. I hadn’t met an older person who was so comforting and encouraging to me. Tonight at the reading I’m going to read a piece of my book that has to do with that particular scene of when we first met. As I say, he was way bigger than me, but I felt that he honored the fact that I was a human being even though I was half his size and half his age.

ANASTAS: Thanks. Ingeborg, some impressions of Charles when you first met him?

INGEBORG LAUTERSTEIN: Well, I feel that I’ve really said everything that needs to be said in my article, because I spent about two weeks just thinking about him, and he became very vivid all over again. He simply walked into my study at Black Mountain College and said to me: “Why are you reading Sappho, why are you reading George Sand, why are you reading all these women writers?” “Well,” I said, “I want to be a painter, but not many women painters are as well known or as successful as men, but they’ve always been great writers. So I want to know how these women feel and how they lived.” And as I said in my article, Charles just said, “Well, I want you in my class.” And then I found that in his class I did very well, and he was always encouraging and he always felt I was a writer. I felt that all over again when I was writing about him, which was good because I’d had one year without writing.

ANASTAS: And I’m going to come back and ask you about Charles as a teacher. Vincent, what about that first encounter with Olson?

VINCENT FERRINI: . . . When he first came to visit me at my house in 3 Liberty St, Gloucester, I looked at him. I realized something deep inside myself was outside of me. So I said, Something’s going to happen. [Laughter]

ROBERT CREELEY: We had written we figured for about four years before we actually met, and it was Vincent, actually, who put us in touch with one another. Cid Corman, to Vincent, and so on. So there’d been a long correspondence. At one point Charles called up just so we could talk to physically hear each other’s voices. And then the first time, it was very early in the morning or reasonably early in the morning in North Carolina when I had driven down from New Hampshire to New York, stayed with Paul Blackburn, then drove on to Black Mountain, and must have come in about ten or so in the morning, and was directed to Charles and Betty’s place, and then got there, knocked on the door — the door opens, and then there’s this monolithically large man, wrapped simply in a towel, I remember that, saying, “Come in, come in” — this great familial warmth and immediacy. Yeah, I was intimidated by the scale and the vigor and the presence of this extraordinary person. So that’s it for me, yeah.


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