When I was in my early 20s, I obsessed over the idea that creativity—more specifically, writing poetry—was synonymous with moral probity. I was convinced that the act of creativity promoted higher self-awareness and sensitivity and so therefore built character. Then I found out the truth: a whole lot of poets were assholes, selfish, narcissistic, often callous louts like Lord Byron. Most troubling of all was my hero, Arthur Rimbaud, who—after his enfant terrible years with Verlaine in Paris—wound up in east Africa as a money-obsessed exporter of ivory and coffee where he was often accused of being hard on his men, hard on his camels, and a poisoner of dogs. This latter accusation still troubles me.
I got over this conundrum in due time, but then, quite recently, I discovered a song called “Le vent nous portera” (The Wind Will Carry Us), which I listen to obsessively, particularly by a Quebecois group called Méa Culpa Jazz.[*] It’s a beautiful, highly moving song, ethereal and wistful. But here’s the deal: one of its composers was none other than Bertrand Cantat, the man who beat his girlfriend Marie Trintignant so severely that she went into a coma and died a few days later. How much he contributed to the song, I don’t know. Maybe a lot, maybe very little. It’s deeply troublesome to me that this is weirdly attached to such a beautiful song. How is this possible? I continue to listen to the song with great enjoyment and many other singers and groups continue to cover it. And despite having this sordid and awful history aligned with it, however tangentially, I’m still in love with this song.
And more confused than ever by the incongruities of violence, beauty, and murder. Does one inform the other? Are all artists tortured by inner conflict? Are they all callous, murderous louts ruining lives while producing spectacular art? Is the connection between virtue and art completely arbitrary, or does it help in some macabre way to acknowledge such dark impulses as part of creativity and try to accept and come into harmony with it before it explodes unpredictably and becomes even more destructive after being pushed into the dark for so long? Are we all werewolves at heart? If you enjoy writing songs and poetry, here’s my advice: if the moon is full, chain yourself to the wall.
—Republished with author’s permission from his blog,
Tillalala Chronicles (24 June 2020)
is the author of nine books of poetry, including most recently these published by Black Widow Press: Dada Budapest (June 2017), Larynx Galaxy (2012), and Backscatter (2008). He is also the author of The Nothing That Is (Ravenna Press, 2010), an autobiographical novel from the second-person point of view, and three novels published by Quale Press: In Advance of the Broken Justy (2016); The Seeing Machine (2012), about French painter Georges Braque; and Souls of Wind (shortlisted for a Believer book of the year award in 2008), in which French poet Arthur Rimbaud visits the United States in the 1880s and meets Billy the Kid while on a paleontological dig in New Mexico.
Born in Minnesota, Olson has lived several decades in Seattle, Washington, and is married to the poet Roberta Olson. His writing notebooks have been exhibited at the University of Washington, and his prose poetry has been published and reviewed in print and online poetry magazines around the world. He was one of eight finalists for the 2012 Arts Innovator Award from Artist Trust, and received a Genius Award for literature in 2004 from Seattle’s alternative weekly newspaper, The Stranger.
Clayton Eshleman (1935–2021), distinguished poet, editor, and translator (noted in particular for his translations of works by César Vallejo), says: “Olson is an original, and that accomplishment is an extraordinary feat at this point in the long history of literature.... He is writing the most outlandish, strange, and inventive prose poetry ever in the history of the prose poem.”
Poetry: John Olson, with an introduction by Joseph Donahue,
in Caesura (22 March 2021)
Featured Author John Olson in Issue 8 of KYSO Flash
Olson’s blog (from which Five Commentaries on Imminent Doom are excerpted in Issue 9 of
Six Prose Poems by Olson in Alligatorzine (Issue 64);
includes “Words and Warts and Puppets With Cleavage” and “Why I
Never Wear Suspenders”
John Olson Interview by Matthew Burnside at BOAAT Press
(18 December 2014); includes this Q&A excerpt:
Burnside: Your writing can be very funny at times. Some of your
titles alone are funnier than most jokes I’ve heard (“Smack 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?
Olson: Very. I’m a closet stand-up comic. I keep my clothes
John Olson: A Poet of Excess and Expansion by Christopher Frizelle
in The Stranger, “Genius Awards” (14 October 2004):
...Olson is a poet of excess and expansion. His best poems are rich, sturdy, absurd,
startling, tightly strung, and scattershot.
...A central theme in [his] 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....