Filming in Gloucester
Charles Olson in conversation for the NET series USA: Poetry
Published with notes by Ralph Maud in Minutes of the Charles Olson Society #39 (December 2000).
Part 1 (of 3)
A transcription titled “Olson in Gloucester 1966” by George Butterick appeared in vol. I of Muthologos (1978). George used (and relied too much on) a previous transcription by Gordon Craig of the Poetry Center, San Francisco State (where the out-takes of the National Educational Television film are deposited). I have worked from the video as well as an audio tape, and have, in Olson’s words, made some “saves.” Strangely, the tapes that were supplied to me end before those that George used, so that this transcription is incomplete at present. For the extra pages and George Butterick’s useful footnotes, see Muthologos.
— Ralph Maud
CHARLES OLSON: . . . You know Frank. I suppose he still is sort of generally just awkward, like.
[Producer] RICHARD MOORE [KQED-TV, San Francisco]: Looks like Mishihito or somebody.
OLSON: You know him too? How fair was he now with you people? . . .
. . . We were going to produce it in a glen in Washington. But, you see, I finally had him invited to Black Mountain, and, Jesus, you know, those sons of bitches, those Black Mountain cats, they got — I mean, there was very hip guys that were most awful good men around there. And Frank was, as I always thought him, was a little sort of slow on that. . . Something, this. . .
. . . I can read you the best poem I ever wrote, “The Librarian.” It’s all Frank Moore, describing him as my brother, the brother that got born misshapen,1 and all that. . .
1 Olson’s parents had a son who had died at birth a year before Olson was born. Frank Moore, I can testify personally, was not at all misshapen in the face, as “The Librarian” and this conversation imply.
. . . It’s one of those beautiful — by the way, I got a beautiful break; New Directions caught a typo. Jesus! And they saved me. Why I called up and said, “That’s one of the greatest saves I’ve had is that.”
MOORE: Where will I find the poem? Is it in The . . . ?
OLSON: It’s right in Distances. I had to get it and put it in my hand yesterday, doing copy. I guess I put it back. Jesus, did I? Of course, I’d love to read it. LeRoi first published this in the most beautiful — did you know LeRoi Jones’s magazine, the magazine he did before he went kooky, before he became professional?
MOORE: Who The Realist calls “a political James Baldwin.”
OLSON: Oh, I know that snide remark. Well, it isn’t good enough, so it’s harder. This thing is so hard, ‘cause, you know, he was called by Malcolm X in those days between Thursday and Sunday, and he had it laid on him. Well, boy, that’s strong enough to make any man go for quite a while. I’d like so much to read it from that fucking very first original printing. It’s so foul, this Grove Press. Thank god, Jas Laughlin still hires people that catch typos.
MOORE: Jim Laughlin himself catch it?
OLSON: No, a guy named Jerry Fried, who must be worth hiring, like they say.2 You know who’s that good! that Jimmy Higgins that married Kitty used to be one of his — started out, as a matter of fact, in that. . . Where is that drink? I don’t even need it . . . Oh, boy. It’s a hard poem to read, because it’s — I guess I hope I can. It’s called “The Librarian.”
2 Jerry Fried was copyeditor at New Directions when I was publishing a book there. I can echo Olson’s high esteem of him. He went to California, as I remember.
[Reads “The Librarian,” which ends: “Who is Frank Moore?”]
Too much! I mean, that guy, isn’t he? I mean, it’s him, you know, all the way through is this damn fucking doppelganger of me. Frank, that son of a gun, it’s so exciting to hear of him. He wrote me — when the Maximus book come out, I had a letter from him asking me if I’d read a text of a play, if he shipped it, and I didn’t answer him, you know, not deliberately, but . . . I don’t know, shit, those — you live with your people as well as your ghosts. You gotta live with them, so it’s more interesting, eh? I don’t know, I still would like — I’m fascinated that you know Frank, even that any of you have seen the fucking. . . .’cause he’s like a part of me that I won’t — I don’t want — I won’t keep acquainted with, you know.
CAROLINE CROSS: Because he’s a strange looking person?
OLSON: Absolutely. I don’t know whether you heard that: “his face twisted at birth,” that lopsided quality. There is something off center about Frank, you know, physically, he’s a — he is desymmetricalized, uh?
CROSS: Very much. Definitely.
OLSON: Interesting, this thing. Very interesting man.
CROSS: I’m trying to think of an animal that he was like. Like a raccoon or something.
OLSON: Yeah, I hear you. But I had somebody the other night here in the bedroom busted up, telling about — as a matter of fact, he caused that girl — that daughter of mine — we almost lost her. We left the house — we let the house, my studio in Washington — I always give — if I left, Frank took it, see. We come back, and — Frank has got dirty toes, I mean, he has got dirty toes. I guess it’s one of those things like other people have scalp trouble or something. And one night, by the way, I kicked him, absolutely just in a terrible rainstorm, like I come back after a Labor Day weekend he was there with Fielding Dawson. . . .
. . . the lines, just like this stuff. We’re on lines all the — but if you — if suddenly you go, you plug, not plug in, but you’re on another line when you make love, right? I mean, it’s a beautiful thing that you have. I mean, you’re not thinking about that at all; that’s not why you make love, no, not to put a plug in a socket, as of that book. But you can go on duty the moment you make love, in that funny way. You don’t even know it till — in fact, some people, I suppose, live their whole lives and never know they’re basically . . . Really. I mean, it’s like who said religion is for those who — ? Oh, that’s Mohammed. No, it’s one of these Muslims, on the basis of the Koran, I think. . . Because most life is, literally, the understanding that you don’t understand; and only the Muslims have sense enough to credit that as being a perfect, I mean, not an in-decent or a put-down, but a . . . Nature, again.
MOORE: There was one of the Patristic Fathers came out with the credo quia absurdum, which is an intellectualized version
OLSON: But that is — yeah, I don’t know. But Heraclitus is even more interesting there: “Man is estranged from that with which he is most familiar,” which is actually a better . . . That’s the best I know, by the way, of the Western thought on this question is that Heraclitus remark.
. . . I mean, imagine that guy Oppen, he — you know, he’s so goddamn good.3 I mean, you make that to where that occurred if somebody said, “What is prayer?” and he said, “Right, I’ll give you one.” Bang, he knocked that thing, just popped that thing out. He really did that. I bet that must have been how it happened. Exactly. And believe you me, I don’t know anything that’s — that is. And I was going along this beach the day that the Supreme Court put that out of schools, and I didn’t even know that that was the day. And for the first time, you know how — this was just a few years ago, fifty. . .
3 Oppen is the name I hear on the tape. It seems a little improbable. I am not aware of any connection between [George] Oppen and the Lord’s Prayer. So perhaps it is misheard. The splintered nature of film production deprives us of the context here. Butterick in Muthologos vol. I p. 174 offers “[Ed Dorn]” in square brackets, but Dorn is introduced into the discussion a paragraph later in such a way that I think it is unlikely that Olson had spoken of him before.
OLSON: No, dear, that’s the other decision; that’s the education decision. The prayer decision is just five years ago. And I thought to myself, because I was raised a Catholic and all that stuff sounds like shit to me, you know, even the Lord’s Prayer is just a lot of mishpocheh. And by god I’d to answer. And, you know, I was reading Dorn’s new book of poems, and that son-of-a-bitch out there in Pocatello he’s got something which says “the only thing I really have got” — it’s a very — it’s so quietly said that you don’t notice it — “is the Lord’s Prayer.” I think it’s the first other man I know that would take this square chance to speak of this dumb thing. ‘Cause I did it the other night, you know; people have tried, but people think you’re just going, well, you’re getting sanctimonious. But we’re talking the place where it counts, which is, I — credo quia absurdum. We’re really going to have a hell of time on that one. It’s so realistic that we don’t believe that the thing is more interesting than we — that we’re more interesting — the way it works out, we’re more interesting — it’s more interesting, that’s all, it is.
MOORE: Well, what was it like at Black Mountain? Because I was never there.
OLSON: No. it was — I mean, you might have been, but you — but you didn’t know. . .
MOORE: I could have, but I didn’t make it.
OLSON: I don’t know. It was a camp. . .
. . . Couldn’t you use the Dorn thing as a piece of this or something?
MOORE: We can use part of it, yeah.
OLSON: Because I could read you a thing, an unusual statement right now by Dorn in this kooky book, this Sullen Art book. I don’t know whether you ever saw it. It’s — they were tapes. Where did. . .? It was here. Gee, I’m, like, tired today. It’s a shame, I really — I over-anticipated you.
MOORE: Let me know if you want to stop.
OLSON: It’s not that; it’s just that I really over-led, I over-led just because of the excitement. It would be fun if I can just not see this one, because — it’s one, two or three sentences. I don’t know if I’m going to hit . . . Yeah, here it is.
“I think the value of being at Black Mountain was that very able people and very alive people were there, back and forth and off and on and through it. And that’s what made it a very important place to be. I don’t see any superstructure that existed there which would relate people and what they subsequently did, although there might be one, and a case could probably be made for it. But I don’t think that it’s so important. It was literally a place, and it was very arbitrary. North Carolina is a very unlikely place, say, for people who were mostly from New York and New England, with a very few from the midwest and possibly another very few from the West Coast. There was no important logic connected with why it should be there, so it was a very impersonal site in which to have this go on. And in many ways ft was a hostile surrounding, which was more subtle than anything else, I think. But it was good — that kind of isolation, and at that time it was good. I think it has to come at a certain time of your life. That sort of isolation would be very distasteful to me now.”
Isn’t that nice? Boy, that’s the nicest statement that I — the answer to that question — that I’ve yet seen is that neat characterization of this early flow.
MOORE: I heard a lot from Bob Creeley about your teaching method and his early relationship to you, you know, which he values immensely. He’s very excited about it.
OLSON: Well, gee, we were talking — you know, he — you know, one night I was aware, as I was holding some., just after Bob came, that he had taken this Cynthia, who was, had been, was Dan Rice’s girlfriend, and he snatched her from him,. Dan was probably — we all played baseball one day, and Creeley doesn’t play baseball, so he was walking Cynthia around the ball park [laughs] on, like, the bases. And anyhow, like, they got together, I guess. And he walked in, he walks in, and they were in the library in the dark, listening. That’s a very nice — I mean, he brought her to hear me. And I don’t think he ever heard me before, because, you know.
MOORE: Well, he wrote to you, didn’t he?
OLSON: Oh, four years we wrote, daily. In fact, I called him up, just to hear his voice, when my wife and I were leaving from New Orleans to — aboard a vessel to the Yucatan. You know, like, in Laconia or Littleton has yet to — you know, clank, clank, clank, quarters going in, way the hell up there in the northern part of the state. Here I’d been here — no, Washington, but — just to see, before I left the continent, just to hear the voice. That was, oh, that was maybe a year or two after we’d been writing only. . .
. . . Well, I don’t know. Jeez, you know who — ? Do you know, by the way, Bill Williams — ? That’s it. Bill Williams wrote we a note and said, “If you have anything that you think is deathless or immortal, there’s a guy editing a little magazine up in Littleton named Creeley, send it to him.” To think it was Bill that said, “If you have anything that you think is immortal,” I think. But Ferrini, by the way, ahead of that, had sent manuscripts of mine. . .
. . . No, I don’t think I can, but it was fun as of that point, because what love — damn it, isn’t it nutty how I — oh, I wish I could find that, really, because it’s just fresh. . . can’t remember where in this last book it’s in . . . find out just the point of what . . . Here it is all right, but I don’t know if I can read it anyhow. “Love is desire just — .” No. “Love is desire just plainly; the rest of it, the rest of love is the same as life. How well it stands up.” Or the, yeah, gee, that’s it. “The rest of love is the same as life. How well it stands up.” And that’s the instance that was thinking of. Jeez, it’s tough, wow. This was written in next: “Girls’ legs are busier right from the street.” It’s like I’m finding out how, you know, Duncan and Dostoevsky they keep notebooks. No, yeah, they do. And I kind of found out I could write it in a notebook. I believed, as you know, so much in mem — . . . in that funny thing, which is a thousand percent activity of the retention and immediate presentation, that kind of dumb. . .
MOORE: Like it’s all happening at once.
OLSON: Yeah, well, if I weren’t alone here, I wouldn’t keep a notebook. It’s only because I’m alone that I keep — finally, I’m trying to find out. And I know I don’t believe in — I don’t believe in being alone; or I don’t even believe, in practice — like Dorn says there: you might once, but I wouldn’t think much of isolation now. Here I’m — I’m isolated, lysolated, like; I’m lysolated now. I’ve been lysolated now recently, and choosing to.