Sunday, February 22, 2004




I got an e-mail this past week from the Bontasaurus over at Via Negativa; he noted that "it sounds like you've defined your project(s) in such a way that almost anything you do is research - good planning!" I laughed when I read it because it is such an apt and true description of where I've ended up. I still laugh at my good fortune, more good fortune than good planning.

As a young man I'd hoped to make my way in the world as a "writer," a poet and journalist; yet I have this constitutional inability to make any money at writing. (In fact, I may have a constitutional inability to make much money at anything. "If it starts to look successful, you'll abandon it," my wife notes. I do know that if you're using money to keep score, we didn't even get a score card.) We had daughters to feed and clothe back then, so I took a job in a printing plant where I worked until "retiring" at age 55 in October, 2002. Though I couldn't get going as a writer at the other end of my working career, I was determined to try it at this end.

I reassured my wife that we could "learn to live poor." Her reply: "You mean 'poorer'."

Fortunately, I do have Mary's support in this undertaking. Although I did have to sign a "retirement agreement" that gave me added responsibilities in the way of cooking, cleaning, laundry, shopping, etc. (By far, I'm the best at cooking, the worst at cleaning, admittedly.) "Signing an agreement" is metaophorical here, by the way - it's not really written, and every once in a while we have a discussion about responsibilities that look to me like they were added after the fact. I don't usually argue for long, however, because I soon enough remember how good I've got it. Mary keeps up payments on our medical insurance, she keeps us in groceries, she keeps the wolf away from the door. She continues going to work every day while I get to stay home and write, I get to head out to my Vagabond "focus communities" for a week or two every month. I have to make sure it doesn't look like I'm having too much fun.

And so if Mary takes up cross country skiing with a passion (she has) and I point out the intensity of her interest, she'll tell me "you have your obsessions, it's about time I have a few of my own."

"Almost everything you do is research...." That's the beauty of it. Poems and essays come out of this mysterious, inky reservoir and you're never sure what you're going to pull out when you reach into it. What's important is that I keep putting stuff into it (and pulling stuff out). I've got to keep having interesting experiences, meeting new people and revisiting old friends, seeing the middle west in all its weathers and seasons and scapes. That's harder to do if you're working a 45-hour week in some printing plant, even a place as good as Ripon Community Printers where I worked for twenty-four years. It's a question of what we have energy for, what we have to push off the table to do what we want to do.

Now everything I do belongs to what I'm doing. The other day I left a comment at Hoarded Ordinaries, then realized half an hour later that what I said might be a poem, I had to go retrieve it:

O, to listen so well
We hear the mountain speak.

Today is Sunday, February 22. I am heading up to L'Anse, Michigan, as you read this, there at the base of the Keweenaw Peninsula on the bottom edge of Lake Superior in the Land of 200 Inches of Snow. I get to walk and talk and poke about and see what I see. When I go off, I never know what I'll find, but I always find something.

I'm so fortunate that I've ended up where almost anything I do is research, it fits, it's part of the wholecloth of my life and work. Sometimes, yes, I'm like a happy wandering monk, a little goofy, but getting to live and learn and live some more. I am witness to the universe. My promise to myself is that I will write down what I find as faithfully and accurately as any human can.

I know - it's a tough job - but somebody's got to do it.



Yes, Mary and I went shopping yesterday for cross-country skiing equipment. Turns out we couldn't find shoes for me that would work with the old-fashioned bindings on the old skis we already had. We ended up buying new skis, bindings, and shoes for each of us, at dinged-up, end of the season prices. We got home with enough light left that we could try them out in the hay field behind her mother's house at the edge of Fairwater.

I suppose you don't know that I've never skied before, cross-country or otherwise. It was a Zen experience. Like a good German Iowa farm boy, I wanted to be in control. Well, you can't be in control. You go where you're going and if you don't think about it, you get there. If you think about it, you fall down. I fell down three times. Mary tried to make me feel better: she said the snow conditions were not very good for cross-country skiing; she fell down a couple times herself. I told her that if I was paying her $3500 for the experience I was having, I'd really complain. She said that if I was paying $3500 for the experience, we'd be skiing someplace a lot nicer than that hayfield.

I knew I was in trouble the other day when I heard her bemoaning the fact that the snow was melting. I can pretty well figure where we'll be after our good March blizzard comes through. Mary is the reason I learned to swim at age 52: so I could scuba dive. Now - cross-country skiing. What we do for love, huh?



There has been a discussion going on at Ivy Is Here about poets inserting stories or explanations or other extraneous material before poems when reading them in public. Indeed, the discussion prompted Ivy to take a critical look at a recent reading she'd attended, given by poets Kerry Hardie and Joan McBreen at Poetry Ireland. Dave from Via Negativa weighed in on the topic and as usual had something interesting to say. Hannah at Awake at Dawn on Someone's Couch takes the discussion to another level by asking about the relationship between the poem and the prose we want to use to expand or explain the poetry. Ivy wonders if poetry is a distilled form of prose.

I got involved in the discussion, too, writing: "Well, I suppose some musicians do talk between songs in live shows. They don't get to talk between songs on the radio. The song is still the song. I think the talking between poems is part of the poet's attempt to establish a relationship with the audience. Do comics talk to the audience between bits? Or are their bits their talking? How hard can you push the audience before losing them?"

"Perhaps the argument I'll buy for inserting stories/preambles between poems," I added later, arguing the other side of my native position, "is that it helps to avoid the non-stop intensity of poem after poem. The alternative to the story/preamble would be a long pause, what a rest is in music. Well-timed pauses can relieve the intensity, I just don't know how many audiences are prepared for them."

On the relationship between poetry and prose, I said: "Poetry is not a distilled form of prose, in my experience. Poetry and prose are like maple syrup and dish soap. You don't get maple syrup from dish soap. Further, prose is linear, poetry leaps. Where prose explains, poetry points. Where prose needs the reassurance of the sentence, poetry brings the image."

Not that any of this would matter one bit to the fellows who have coffee at Bud's in West Point, Nebraska, every weekday morning - should you wish to sit down with them and talk about it. Yet it raises the question of poetry's place in the world, and how it inhabits that place. About how we connect poetry to the lives around us. Has the poem become like opera, a kind of relict from a previous age attracting only a small, precious, and fragile audience? Has the poem - at least the poem in English - lost its shamanistic qualities, its power to transform the world?

Dave at Via Negativa holds the opinion that: "Poets in particular can (must?) recapture to some extent the ancient intuition that language is more than mere sign and symbol - that it is in some way *alive*. This is almost a universal concept, lost only in Western Europe since the so-called Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. Go to Latin America, go even among African-Americans or other minority communities in this country and one immediately encounters vastly more reverance for the poetic word than among contemporary Anglo-Germanic folks. We've lost a LOT."

As I say, this is not a discussion they would have over coffee at Bud's in West Point, nor should they; but it is a discussion we as poets should continue. Given the world as we've got it - where politicians think if they say it's so that makes it so - what is the role of poetry? Poetry's language should be where saying it's so makes it so. How do we reclaim that power?


FEBRUARY 19, 1998

A great web connects all things. Our season is the world's season. It may not be that the butterfly flapping its wings in the Central American jungle actually alters our weather, yet apparently warm water in the Pacific does. Some other time, it may be a polar bear's breath caught in the jet stream, changing our smiles to hard-faced shivering.

Still, today, this grey mildness. The plow banks continue to shrink. There is an April dirtiness to the snow: all the reasons you might have to run away reveal themselves. A layer of mud at the edge of things, as if we are unfit to play with others. The snow retreats.

In Ripon, at the corner of the house where the dog had tramped a circle in the snow, there is a circle in the grass. Some things are permanent. Some things are ugly to the bone.



by Don Olsen
Cross+Roads Press (PO Box 33, Ellison Bay, WI 54210), 2003, $10.00

Don't consider this in any sense a usual book review. The book I urge on you is not in any way a usual book. Nor was Don Olsen a usual man; even his short biographical note in the book gives that away: "I was born in 1931," he wrote. "Suddenly, another war was over and I was in college on the G.I. Bill and then came marriage and children and more school and 24 years a librarian at universities in Minnesota and Wisconsin and then a delicious early retirement to an abandoned dairy farm smack dab in the middle of the woods in north central Minnesota and now there are lazy winters on the Texas Gulf coast and never enough time to do nothing."

I don't use the term "saint" loosely. Yet I have to say that if a holy man lived among us, it was Don Olsen. His book is purportedly a reminiscence on his Ox Head Press "& Remarks on How its Demise Begins with Anguish & Grief that Rise from the Bewildering Complexities of a Suicide & other Ensuing Losses," but the subtext is about living the holy life.

Olsen kicks us in the gut right off in the "Prelude" of the book, speaking of the suicide: "No one is left untouched when there is a suicide in the family. Everything changes. I seem to go on, but I'm not sure of anything.... The loss is made worse by the awareness that we knew it was a possibility. Several months later we find a note in one of his books, a book about near-death experiences. After expressing love and gratitude for his life to us, and to his siblings and to Phoebe, his cat, Jon concluded with the statement, 'This is nobody's fault.'" The note was dated two years before the actual suicide.

"Albert Camus wrote that there is but one fundamental question: is life worth living or not?" Olsen said. "It is. It is good to be alive, but sometimes there is anguish that is more than a person should ever have to bear."

The rest of the book may look like it's about a man's devotion to words and to letterpress printing: that's only a metaphor for being a good man in today's world. You can read almost any passage and see and feel and taste the integrity of the man, the intensity of his passions, the purity of his pursuit.

No, I don't use the term "saint" lightly. I use it in reference to Don Olsen, however; I have to: he was a good man.

Sad to say, I believe that even before I got my copy of A Butterfly Sleeps on the Temple Bell in hand, Don had already gone too soon to that Great Pressroom in the Sky where every copy coming off his Adana Horizontal Platen Press is a perfect copy.

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