Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Olson at Kent

Last weekend the University of Kent held a conference commemorating Charles Olson’s centenary. I feel I should get something down right now about this event though it’s difficult so soon after to begin to unravel the threads that ran through it all. Considering that Olson’s poetry writing career spanned a mere twenty-five years it’s worth considering the effects of his work as a kind of delayed explosion. Most educational institutions apart from one as open as Black Mountain simply haven’t been able to package Olson to suit their needs or, more precisely, the needs pressed upon them by funding bodies. This conference was, in its way, a kind of miracle: it offered a model of what learning ought to be. It brought to life concerns linking Olson’s ideas and practices to our own positions. There have been a few conferences prior to this one celebrating the centenary. If they were as good as the University of Kent’s then 2010 is indeed an annus mirabilus.

David Herd and Simon Smith and their organising committee coordinated the conference. Contributors included Ian Brinton, Elaine Feinstein, Allen Fisher, Robert Hampson, Ralph Maud, Anthony Mellors, Peter Middleton, Stephen Fredman, Gavin Selerie, Iain Sinclair, Harriet Tarlo, and Robert Vas Dias among others. It’s hard to figure where to begin in recounting such a crowded weekend. A few thoughts will have to do.

A discussion of Olson and women continued through the weekend complicating the notion that ‘projective verse’ is by definition a masculine project. Women are, of course, notoriously absent from Maximus; at most there is ‘woman’, characterised by Susan Howe as ‘cunt, great mother, cow or whore’. Yet many of Olson’s ideas on the process of writing were developed in his correspondence with Frances Boldereff (he suppressed this in his later and more publicised exchanges with Robert Creeley) together with their concerns for Egyptian and Sumerian culture. Boldereff herself was especially interested in the placement of texts on the page (indeed she had trained as a book designer). The ideas behind ‘projective verse’ were also anticipated by Muriel Rukeyser. And of course subsequently Susan Howe has worked in a manner which owes much to Olson (it would have been impossible without him) while being by no means the product of a ‘male poetic’. Olson’s processes of writing involved clearing ‘the gunk out’ and returning to the ‘literal’ (‘the literal is the same as the numeral to me’). ‘The nouns’, said Ed Dorn, ‘seem to become themselves here’. ‘Muthologos’ may have been the mother of a logos (or a mother-of-a-logos!). Field poetics involved field-work and Olson, coming from ‘the last walking period of man’, anticipates eco-poetics, a far from masculine concern.

TJ Clark’s description of modernism as ‘a ruin’ rescues that moment as one we can go back to as historians. I was reminded of Wyndham Lewis’s statement that his own work and that of his associates had become ‘part of a future that has not materialised’. ‘By the end of this century’, Lewis continued, ‘the movement to which, historically, I belong will be as remote as predynastic Egyptian statuary’. Peter Middleton’s fine lecture observed Olson’s science (and his scientism) as they developed in the immediate postwar period that saw scientific discourse become a model for work in other areas. By the year of Projective Verse’s publication the ‘energy field’ had become a paradigm. The concern with ‘measure’ ties up with all of this. Of course Olson is ‘dated’ by it all, yet we can still return to his work as a ‘great fire source’.

Olson’s reception in Britain (both physical and intellectual) was also addressed. He had indeed conducted archival research for Maximus in Dorchester in 1966 (here I couldn’t help but imagine all six foot seven of him crouching in a village pub). That year, I reflected, a twenty year old Englishman called Kris Hemensley moved to Melbourne, Australia, taking with him word of Olson (The New American Poetry had preceded him but Hemensley was both a practitioner and a persuasive advocate). In 1967 Olson read at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Southbank. His work along with that of others connected with Cid Corman’s journal, Origin, had begun to percolate into the Isles in the 1950s, largely through the work of Gael Turnbull. The notion that ‘I’m going to move on or break it as soon as it happens’ starkly contrasted with the ‘books are crap’ postures of the Movement. It appealed strongly to a number of poets whose work still exists outside the sanctified realm of the TLS and LRB. Gavin Selerie noted that the Scottish poet/playwright Tom McGrath formed a jazz group named after one of Olson’s essays, ‘Proprioception’.

Ralph Maud gave a generous and self-deprecating account of his own contacts with Olson, framing a film featuring the poet reading several pieces including ‘The Librarian’. Iain Sinclair ended the conference with a peroration worthy of the time he spent at Trinity College, Dublin. In this he noted of the film that Olson’s eyebrows appeared like ‘two mice that had swum all night in a sea of ink’. He contrasted the ‘outward’ nature of Olson’s work and influence with the inward (and right-wing) turn of another of Gloucester’s former inhabitants, HP Lovecraft.

Six of us read poems over the Friday and Saturday evenings, if anything showing what a ‘various art’ Olson’s influence has produced. And Simon Smith and Matthew from Manchester University Press kept the bookstall going throughout. I picked up Ralph Maud’s new edition of Muthologos along with Proposals, a new and self-published book by Allen Fisher featuring his remarkable artwork alongside the poems.

Why has Olson slipped off the agenda? This was one of many questions addressed at the conference. I remember how university libraries both here and in Australia were much more receptive to recent American poetry and poetics up until around 1975 or so when the collections ceased to be adventurous. Ian Brinton noted the way the schools have begun to teach poetry, reducing the area to a few select and easily ‘teachable’ texts (Simon Armitage and his ilk) thus smothering the students’ interests while at the same time boosting the school’s reputation for securing grades. The impingement of ‘market forces’ (soon, under the Conservative government, to become an avalanche) was in the air. Australian right-wing commentator, the late Paddy McGuinness, once figured that the humanities were ‘bullshit’ (unlike economics, which was a ‘science’). Britain’s government seems about to put his less than eloquent theory into practice. So there was a slight valedictory feeling about the conference. If there is such a thing as justice this gathering should be a beginning, not an end.

Nancy Gaffield, Ralph Maud and Andre Spears read Apollonius of Tyana.

Outside the threatres. David Herd gestures in middle distance.

Anthony Mellors, Simon Smith and Robert Hampson at the bookstall.

Harriet Tarlo and Juha Virtanen (middle) at the dinner.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Southeastern rant

Back in the Thatcher era somebody had the bright idea of privatising the rail services. The move was made probably with the strange mixture of free market ideology and a remembrance of childhood train sets and their colourful liveries. Though some things are not to be regretted (the Britrail pizza for instance) the shift to private companies has not delivered benefits to anyone much. After the Potters Bar disaster of 2002, Network Rail had to rescue maintenance from private outsourcing. Whoever had been responsible simply didn’t want to spend money with no obvious and immediate return. As for the rail companies themselves, the promised benefits of ‘competition’ were never realised. Since each company operates in a different region it’s hard to see how competition is supposed to work. When an announcement on my train says ‘thank you for travelling with Southeastern’, I wonder what other choice I might have had. Railway fares, already grossly exorbitant, are expected to rise again sharply very soon. My town, Faversham, now has a ‘fast’ service costing some 30 to 50 percent more than the ‘slow train’. It’s convenient for me to get to St Pancras rather than Victoria station but in fact the service is at most only ten minutes faster than the old one. To ensure that there appears to be a difference the ‘slow’ train has been made a little slower through the addition of a couple of stops. The ‘fast’ train has no onboard food and drink service, unlike the ‘slow’ one. But even worse (and I say this as a writer) the fast train has constant announcements, making it virtually impossible to read or to concentrate on anything. How many times to we need to be welcomed aboard? Between Gravesend and Strood, a matter of six or seven minutes, this announcement will often be repeated as much as five or six times. We are told when we are about to arrive somewhere (possibly useful), when we have arrived (possibly not), and what the next stations are. We are informed not to leave our baggage on the train (thanks). Often enough the conductor (sorry, the ‘manager’) repeats the same things. The best announcement though (if ‘best’ is a word that applies here) is the one suggesting that we should ‘make use of the luggage racks to leave room for other passengers’. I imagine nervous besuited business types cramming themselves into the overhead spaces to free the seats below.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010


Last night’s reading at The Lamb, featuring Rachel Lehrman, James Wilkes and Christopher Gutkind, typified the lively and eclectic nature of many of the London readings these days. Rachel Lehrman moved here in 2002 after completing an MFA at the University of Arizona. She launched her first book, Second Waking (in Oystercatcher’s very attractive pamphlet series), then read from works in progress. James Wilkes has done a great deal of collaborative work (often with Holly Pester) but his accompanists this particular evening were a set of radios. These already antiquated objects gave forth a charming mix of voice and static. In the break Harry Gilonis said to me ‘they won’t be able to do this when the conversion to digital is complete. It reminded me of some of the radio collages produced in Germany in the sixties and seventies that I’d listened to back in my media teaching days. Wilkes handles it all with an impressive calm. He also read from Conversations After Dark (Sideline Publications). Chris Gutkind came here from Montreal in the late eighties but didn’t publish a full collection until Inside to Outside (Shearsman) in 2006. He read newer work from Options (Knives Forks and Spoons Press) and Making the World Better (a pamphlet from Kater Murr’s Piraeus series). This poem was a scroll-like reading of another event on another 9/11.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Friday, 5 November 2010

at the Swedenborg

Tuesday evening’s Shearsman reading featured David Sergeant and Ian Davidson, who launched another great collection Partly in Riga. Also on the table was the new Collected Poems of Karin Lessing. It’s a timely gathering. Lessing is a Europen-born American who has been living in Provence since the early sixties. Her work is spare, in the Objectivist tradition. August Kleinzhler put me on to her first volume, The Fountain, when I was visiting San Francisco in 1987. I missed a deal of her work however, so this is a welcome addition to the library.