"Sometimes I'll hear somebody say something on a bus or on the radio or I'll read a sentence in a catalog of paints, and that will start things off," John Olson says. We're sitting in his condo on Queen Anne Hill. A miserable morning rain is ruining things outside. Olson has already been for a run--he went early to beat the downpour--because when he doesn't run he feels "stir-crazy." Sometime between the run and now he changed into khakis, a collared shirt, a brown cardigan, and sneakers, which is basically what he's worn every time I've ever seen him anywhere. His eyes are bright and the condo is cozy and clean. There's coffee on the stove and yellow Gatorade in the fridge. "Sometimes I'll get a sentence from National Geographic," he says.
We're talking about the beginnings of poems, and about influence. Like Olson's writing, Olson's condo is a collection of associations. He is sitting in front of a large print of Matisse's The Sadness of the King--on other walls are prints of paintings by Magritte, Van Gogh, and Man Ray--and across the room from a stack of CDs: the Doors, Cocteau Twins, Bob Dylan, Gillian Welch, Death in Vegas, the Kills, stuff like that. The bookcases are crammed with skinny paperbacks. Poetry, mostly: Wallace Stevens, James Schuyler, William Carlos Williams, W. B. Yeats, Gertrude Stein. The computer is old, the TV is new, and there's something vaguely Native American about the bedroom.
We have the condo to ourselves because Olson's wife, the poet Roberta Olson, works at Larry's Market on Friday mornings, decorating cakes. There was a time when Olson wasn't so domestic. In 1965, he graduated from Highline High School in Burien, discovered Bob Dylan, and hitchhiked to California ("I wanted to be where it was all happening, I wanted to be at the center of the action"). At San Jose City College, a professor turned him on to Rimbaud. "Rimbaud had a kind of wild, mercurial feeling to his sound," Olson says. "That's how Dylan described it, and I know exactly what he means, because it's exactly what I wanted to do." In the '60s and '70s, Olson was drinking and reading nonstop--Roland Barthes, Edward Sapir, Benjamin Whorf, Rimbaud, the Beats; then he went through a brief medieval-balladry phase ("Leotards and the whole bit," he says); then a lasting New York School phase (John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett)--and writing daily, but he could never find a way to match the energy of the music he was listening to, and, frustrated, he didn't publish anything.
He didn't publish anything, really, until the early '90s. ("It's an odd thing that I find hard to explain. I wrote all during the '60s and '70s and '80s, but I didn't feel confident about the writing," he says.) He got married and divorced in the early '70s, and in 1975 moved back to Seattle, where he worked for years for the UW hospital, driving around blood and frozen eyeballs. In the '80s he got married and divorced again--"My first wife had some interest in poetry but it was pretty superficial; my second wife despised it"--and read a lot of Marcel Duchamp. In the early '90s, he gave up drinking, underwent what he calls "a personal renaissance," moved to Queen Anne, married Roberta, and started writing aggressively. Since then he has published three chapbooks--Swarm of Edges, Eggs & Mirrors, and Logo Lagoon--and two books: Echo Regime and Free Stream Velocity.
Olson is a poet of excess and expansion. His best poems are rich, sturdy, absurd, startling, tightly strung, and scattershot. The second poem in 1996's Swarm of Edges begins: "It sounds funny but an orange/is not a television//so much as the imagination/of a limb." From 1999's Eggs & Mirrors: "Which do you prefer, a/barn that looks like a barn or a barn/that is not a barn but the essence of a barn//in bundles of brown & blue?" It is easy to read these lines without the breaks at all, which is maybe why Olson eventually did away with them. From 2004's Free Stream Velocity: "Everybody has thoughts but what are they? It is life out of control, beyond limits. The chiseled rocks and northern lights of the arctic regions. Socks and cupboards, electricity and clay. It is the ability to think of a border..."
"Everything he does is clearly a kind of foray for him," says Paul Hunter, publisher of Wood Works, which released Eggs & Mirrors. "There are a lot of people who take language experimentation too seriously. They don't sense that language is a squirming, alive thing--and John does. He's distinctive in that regard."
"It's wild, and it's like music," says the poet and publisher John Yau, whose Black Square Editions published Echo Regime and Free Stream Velocity. "He's not like anyone else."
In another sense, Olson is like everyone else--a rush of literary history. It's easy to find surrealist influences in Olson's work ("The caribou are unfolding from the day like a hill"), as well as the influence of Beat poetry ("We allow ourselves to become intimate with the idea of intimacy"), language poetry ("the man was a tube of armor ejaculating metal at the idea of blood"), Gertrude Stein ("Computers and airplanes have made our city wealthy and it is full of coffeehouses")--you can comb his poems for literary derivatives, if that's your thing. There is something athletic and ruthless about the way Olson does so many things at once, as well as something strangely at ease. His writing is fully experimental and full of experience. It has range and urgency and poise. In every sense, it's wild.
A central theme in Olson's work is dislocation--usually the dislocation between feeling and science, or feeling and neutrality, or the extreme agility and awful futility of language--and there is a way in which Olson seems dislocated in time and space. His presence seems implausible. He knows this. "There's a phrase in one of Dylan's songs: 'walking antique.' Do you know that song?" He reaches for a book of Dylan lyrics. (He is a major Dylan fan: He also has Dylan's book of prose poems, Tarantula, in English and in French; it's one of his favorite books.) He reads from the lyrics to "She Belongs to Me": "She wears an Egyptian ring/That sparkles before she speaks/She's a hypnotist collector/You are a walking antique..."
He closes the book. "I feel like that," he says. "Some days I feel like an extraterrestrial. I feel like I'm from Mars."
GENIUS DATA SHEET
BIRTH DATE: August 23, 1947.
BIRTHPLACE: Minneapolis, Minnesota.
TURN-ONS: Movies, my wife's cooking, French poetry, contemporary art, late '60s blues and rock 'n' roll, animals.
TURN-OFFS: Neocons, George W. Bush, war, SUVs, poetry slams.
CITIES I HAVE CALLED HOME: Seattle, San Jose.
FIVE THINGS BESIDE MY BED: A clock radio, a print of Man Ray's Pechage, Rimbaud's Poésies Complètes, a hand-carved bookcase, Toby (the cat).