MATTHEW BURNSIDE: For the readers out there, John Olson is the author of nine books of poetry and three novels. His prose-poetic masterpiece (in my humble opinion) Larynx Galaxy has a prominent place on my bookshelf, and on any given day I can take it down, open it to any page, and feel instantly energized to write. I’ve written quite a few Olson knock-off prose poems under the influence of his work.
John, thanks for letting me interview you. I’d like to start with a question about surrealism, because for me it’s the defining quality of your work. What is the value of surrealism in a world unceasingly obsessed with material wealth and power?
I would say art in general runs counter to materialistic and imperialistic tendencies. The primary drive to create an object or phenomenon whose hold on our perceptions is essentially one of enchantment runs counter to the utilitarian and mundane. The surrealists in particular were enraptured by the marvelous. They wanted to re-enchant a dis-enchanted world. This didn’t start with the surrealists; one only has to marvel at the ice age cave paintings and handprints in grottos such as Lascaux and Altamira to witness how sacred and magical were the origins of art. What distinguishes surrealism from other literary styles and movements is its singular fascination with the oneiric and strange, with a sense of otherness. They loved phantasmagoria. Hallucination. Intoxication. Delirium. The perverse. Baudelaire’s prose poem about drunkenness comes to mind: “One should always be drunk…With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you please. But get drunk.” Baudelaire was flouting the burdensome, soul-killing pragmatism of the mercantile class, the bourgeoisie. What today we might call “yuppies.” People obsessed with status and property. Gustave Flaubert also hit when he proclaimed “Quelle atroce invention que celle du bourgeois, n'est-ce pas?” “What a horrible invention, the bourgeois, don't you think?”
Surrealism emerged from Dada, and Dada was largely a response to the meaningless slaughter of World War I. War is the ultimate expression of the mercantile class, those, in particular, who profiteer from death. Dada had a destructive, nihilistic side completely missing from surrealism, but which I find strangely nourishing. Dada was a stick of dynamite in the museum of the linear.
As a writer of prose, I’ve often been taught the purpose of language is to render efficiently, economically, and elegantly a clear image for my readers. With your writing, it seems you’re constantly bombarding the reader with an excess of impossible images. Do you enjoy complicating the experience of your readers? What should a writer’s relationship to their reader be?
There is nothing efficient about poetry. Efficiency is for cars and can openers. Economy is sometimes a value; the Japanese haiku, for instance. I love writing haikus, which are all about economy: raw, direct perception bereft of metaphor. That said, I do enjoy prose that is well-crafted, direct and unvarnished. I love Cormac McCarthy’s writing, which is extremely economical. In other words, there’s a lot of work I admire that is very different from what I do, which is, as you observed, full of excess. Excess is linked with delirium and that’s where my tendencies seem to have their source. It became even more noticeable when I stopped drinking. I began getting drunk in language. Shakespeare reveled in superfluity. Remember King Lear’s outrage when his daughters, Goneril and Regan, suggest that he get rid of his retinue: “O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous. / Allow not nature more than nature needs, /Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s.”
Do you see writing as an act of rebellion?
It can be. Rebellion has a long history in writing: the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, Karl Marx, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal. Les Chants de Maldoror by the Comte de Lautréamont (nom de plume of the Uruguayan-born French writer Isidore Ducasse) is especially incendiary; he begins his book with a warning: “May it please Heaven that the reader, emboldened and become of a sudden momentarily ferocious like what he is reading, may trace in safety his pathway through the desolate morass of these gloomy and poisonous pages. For unless he is able to bring to his reading a rigorous logic and a spiritual tension equal at least to this distrust, the deadly emanations of this book will imbibe his soul as sugar absorbs water.”
Anyone whose immediate impulse is to create something regardless of its commercial value is committing an act of sedition in our capitalistic society. Can one say that about writers like J.K. Rowling, E.L. James or Suzanne Collins who have made sizable fortunes with their writing? I don’t know. I mean, if one sits down to write out of the sheer enjoyment of writing and one’s literary output leads to an unimaginable fortune, what the hell, that’s great. I can’t imagine sitting down to write and thinking that it might be my ticket to a nice big house and invitations to appear on Conan O’Brien or Jimmy Fallon. It would be so inhibiting, so utterly contrary to the impulse to create. But it’s there. I was raised in a country in which one’s popularity and success are gauged according to the size of one’s income. To run contrary to that impulse is pretty crazy, but it’s also highly rewarding from a spiritual and psychological standpoint.
I was really lucky to come of age in the late sixties when one was so amply lauded for being anti-materialistic. My role models were people like Allen Ginsberg, Philip Lamantia and Michael McClure. They still are. The first time I heard Howl was galvanizing: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, / angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…” That’s so fucking great! I understood that pain and frustration right away, even at the ripe old age of nineteen. I’d had enough soul-killing jobs and schooling by that time to know that the American Dream is, in fact, a nightmare. An “air-conditioned nightmare,” to quote Henry Miller.
In 1884 France the writer Joris-Karl Huysman produced a novel titled À rebours, which translates as Against Nature or Against the Grain. Right there, I was drawn to the book. Anything against the grain is a keen attraction for me. The novel concerns the tastes, ideas, and inner life of a reclusive, eccentric man named Jean des Esseintes. He’s cultured, highly refined, and loathes the bourgeois. I would cite this book as a primary example of the contrarian mode I’m mostly comfortable with. That, and anything coming out of Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Stylistically, the book makes a break from the naturalistic literature that was popular at the time, and continues to dominate the mainstream publishing world. That conservatism has become much worse as the profit-motive as completely taken over the publishing business. There is no way on earth Joyce’s Ulysses would be published today in the United States. I’ve spent a lot of time in Paris bookstores and the same thing doesn’t appear to be happening there. You see a lot more idiosyncratic, eccentric titles on the shelves and display tables. I can’t even stand to go into an American bookstore anymore. They’re too much like those airport bookstores where you see stacks and stacks of Dan Brown and Harry Potter, or pick up a New Yorker and find yet more highly polished but otherwise completely lifeless prose.
There’s something alchemical about your writing: something is always transforming into something else. It’s a little bit Proustian in that way. Do you think language is as close to magic as we can get?
That’s a great question, but hard for me to answer. I have to disagree with myself. My initial answer would be yes, and would agree with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s statement that “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Consequently, to create an unstable verbal environment propelled by a mind-bending, protean dynamic is to enlarge one’s perspective as much as possible, but at the risk of collapsing any and all meaning. What I mean by meaning is fixed meaning, meaning upon which everyone agrees. What attracts me to philosophers such as Jacques Derrida and deconstructionism is the disruption of settled meaning; I want to blow the dust off words and re-invent their broadest capability as signifiers. I look for polysemy, for diversity, for multiplicity. The stranger the metaphor the bigger the world becomes. The alchemists were attempting to transmute lead into gold, and that’s definitely a route to which I heartily subscribe. I’m glad I’m just working with words though and not dangerous chemicals. Even household cleansers make me nervous.
There is another side of me, however, that resists the idea that perception is so strongly linked with language. Whenever I try to imagine consciousness without words I don’t get very far. But I know intuitively, primordially, instinctively, that consciousness does not require language. What if I’d been raised by wolves in the wild? Such things have happened. There’s that fascinating movie by François Truffaut, L'Enfant sauvage (The Wild Child), about a ten or eleven year old boy discovered naked, one summer day in 1798, in a forest in the district of Aveyron in southern France. It’s a true story. The child was taken by Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, a young physician, who named the child Victor and devised procedures to teach him language. One has to wonder, what was it like to roam the forest looking for food and shelter without the benefit of words? What passed through his mind when he sat idly in the forest daydreaming? Does one see the world more clearly, more immediately without the filtering mechanism of language? Or is one’s perceptions impoverished by the lack of the imaginal powers of language?
Every semester in the creative writing courses I teach, I always have my students read a piece of yours and then write their own nonsense poem, the only rule being that it can’t make sense. It’s always without a doubt the most difficult exercise for them. Do you have any advice for my students who find it difficult to delight in nonsense?
Sure. One of my favorite anthologies was The Nonsense Anthology, edited by Carolyn Wells. It includes masters in the medium such as Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Who doesn’t love Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky”? What perfect nonsense! Nonsense - apart from being fun and hilarious - has the wonderful feature of liberating the mind from the dictates of logic, of the narrowing limits of orthodoxy and linearity. Nonsense, to be without sense, is to be liberated from established sense, from authority. The human mind trembles under the weight of causality. It yearns for transcendent knowledge. The illogic of Zen koans is intended to induce a state of enlightenment.
One of the profitable outcomes of attempting nonsense is the discovery that rather than cancel meaning via nonsense, meaning dilates. Unanchored, it proliferates. Pollinates. Bees communicate position and location by dancing. Poetry performs very much the same miracle.
I would also recommend the work of Christopher Smart, in particular his wonderful poem “Jubilate Agno,” dedicated to his cat Jeoffry, which is sublimely eccentric with an undercurrent of humor and what Smart considered to be truly sacred. It’s what Socrates and the ancient Greeks would call “divine madness,” reverence disguised as nonsense, inspiration arising from the intervention of the gods, of the holy.
Also, Nietzsche’s essay “The Birth of Tragedy,” in which he discusses the value of the Dionysian, is a key to understanding the oppositional forces of the Apollonian and Dionysian and how both nourish creativity with that delicious tension.
What are you reading these days?
À la recherché du temps perdu, by Marcel Proust, for the second time. L’amour fou, by André Breton. Philosophie Magazine, which I get from France. Lapham’s Quarterly. I continue to pick up Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake from time to time. Pound’s Cantos. The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen. The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan. Shakespeare, constantly. I’ve usually got one of his plays going in our Bluetooth radio at night, plays I’ve downloaded on my tablet from the public library, though recently we’ve been listening to an audiobook reading of Jim Harrison’s The Legends of the Fall which I downloaded from the library.
Just last week I was watching Jodorowky’s The Holy Mountain and Eraserhead. Do you have any favorite surrealist films? Do you have any favorite films that inform your writing in particular?
Orpheus, by Jean Cocteau. I love the scene in which Orpheus (Jean Marais) sits in his car receiving bizarre one-liners over the radio, things that resemble the kind of coded messages that would come out of a radio during the French resistance in WWII.
I saw The Holy Mountain when it came out, in 1973, in downtown San José. I really liked it even though it shook me up. I was pretty disturbed by the violence in the movie. I haven’t seen it since then. I don’t dare to. I remember one of my friends leaving the movie theatre outraged. The movie must’ve pressed a button in that guy. He was really pissed. I certainly didn’t feel outrage, but the movie did rattle my cage a lot.
I lost count of how many times I’ve seen The Big Lebowski, or Sideways, by Alexander Payne. I love that scene in which Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Maya (Virginia Madsen) exchange their views about wine and why they like pinot noir so much. The scene is charged with intimacy and poetry and I love how they communicate their reverence for wine-making in such lush detail without a trace of pontificating or trying to impress one another. It’s two souls coming together.
I also really enjoyed the Deadwood series. The writing of that series was breathtakingly good, mostly done by women, which I found ironic, since the women in Deadwood are treated so abominably, especially by the “villain,” Ian McShane, the owner of the Gem, a combination saloon and brothel. The language exchanged by the people in this series struck me as historically accurate, because educated or uneducated there was an evident push to make one’s speech as rich and colorful as possible, often absurdly ornate and laced with unbelievable profanities. I have a feeling people really talked like that in 19th century America. It’s evident in their letters. I began reading the scripts online and enjoyed it as much as watching the show.
What about music? What bands live in your CD player/record player/computer?
I mostly listen to music on my tablet. I’ve got the Pandora app, which has broadened my musical knowledge, and enjoy the “shuffle” feature in which I can listen randomly to all the musicians I’ve got listed, so that one minute I’ll be listening to Eric Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies and that will be followed by, say, Credence Clearwater or Chuck Berry, followed by Terry Riley, followed by Etta James, followed by Bach, followed by Miles Davis, and so on.
I never tire of the music I grew up with, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan’s three albums (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde) were a seminal influence. It is through Bob Dylan that I discovered Dada, Gertrude Stein, Larry Brown and Honoré de Balzac.
I’ve been listening a great deal to a French rock group called Indochine, in particular a recent album called Black City Parade. I also really like The Pixies and the recent albums by Dylan Carlson of Earth such as The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull. Dylan is also my nephew-in-law, which is a happy coincidence.
Mozart always sounds fresh. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik knocks me out every time I hear it. There is so much joy and clarity in Mozart’s music. So much energy. It’s invigorating.
Your writing can be very funny at times. Some of your titles alone are funnier than most jokes I’ve heard (“Smash That Pickle Against the Ribs” + “All Labial and Hard from Jackhammer Drool” + “Bubbles Yell in the Louvre” + “Words and Warts and Puppets with Cleavage” + “Fuck Daylight”). How important is comedy in poetry?
Very. I’m a closet stand-up comic. I keep my clothes in stitches.
I’m also a fan of your Facebook statuses, which are little prose poems unto themselves. What do you think about social media? Do you think it’s making us better or worse people? Do you think it’s going to be the death of us all?
I’m ambivalent toward Facebook. It obviously can’t be a substitute for an actual friendship, but for some people I think that’s what happens, which is really sad. And there are many times in which I say things or post things that make me cringe later. I always feel a little creepy about posting my creative work. It’s so unabashedly self-promoting. That said, I think Facebook is a great outlet for people who’re feeling lonely or going through a tough time and just want some evidence or sign that someone out there is aware of them and might even offer some helpful advice. It has also helped introduce me to people I would never have met without Facebook, people in foreign countries for example. I have Facebook friends living in France and England. All in all, I’d have to say Facebook is primarily a nice distraction when I want a brief diversion. A lot of the videos are good for a laugh.
If social media isn't going to be the death of us all, what is?
Environmental collapse. Economic collapse. A culture of cruelty and open criminality. Too much reliance on technology. Narcissism. Apathy. Unequal wealth distribution. Expulsion of low income residents from gentrification in areas such as Seattle and Silicon Valley. There’s something really offensive in the way these people in the computer and high tech communities lay waste to neighborhoods, drain them of color and character and put glitzy, off-putting chrome and glass buildings in their place, and privatize modes of transport. You see a lot of that in Seattle lately. Glitzy, unaffordable buildings for an elite class of people in which you are apt to see the homeless crowding into loading zones and whatever else shelter they can find. Neo-liberal capitalism can be every bit as ruthless and brutal as the Third Reich.
I’ve just been reading the article in the January, 2015 Harper’s about the singularity movement in Silicon Valley, “Power and Paranoia in Silicon Valley,” by Sam Frank. These libertarian technocrats that he meets and interviews are so toxic and manic about artificial intelligence it left me feeling very disheartened. They make the bubonic plague look benign by comparison. It is Blake’s Urizen as a world dominating force finally come to full fruition and blocking out the human imagination entirely. It’s not surprising that they long to fuse with their computers. They despise community, despise politics, and proudly proclaim themselves advocates of just about everything Ayn Rand vomited on humanity. And weirdly, inexplicably, they’re all into Harry Potter. I get the feeling they’re not fully developed adults. One of these wackos actually said “housing is not a right. Only programmers matter.” I used to live in San José. It makes me sick.
Do you have any unusual hobbies?
I don’t believe in hobbies. Hobbies are superficial. That said, I do enjoy running long distances. I don’t think of it as a hobby. I think of it as something I need to do to keep sane. I gotta have those endorphins. And sometimes I just need to be outside, literally and metaphorically.
Would you be willing to complete a few sentences for me?
As a child, I spent most of my time playing ________.
As an adult, I spend most of my time________.
The most beautiful word in the English language is ________.
The ugliest word in the English language is ________.
God is __________.