The Charles Olson Festival

Honoring the Life and Work of Charles Olson:

Poet, Teacher, scholar & Community Activist

August 12, 1995

Gloucester City Hall, Gloucester, Mass.

A Report

by Loss Pequeño Glazier

[Special thanks to the Poetry Project Newsletter, where this report was first printed.]


THIS FESTIVAL, which seemed to me under-advertised, certainly had no lack of attendance. The grand City Council Chamber of the Gloucester City Hall was packed from its main floor to its balcony curving around three quarters of the high-ceiling hall, despite nearly unbearable heat (and David McArdle pointed out that the heat was not inappropriate: Olson himself had stood in this same room to argue for the preservation of Gloucester on some equally sultry nights). The hall bore a festival banner beneath a colorful mural of historic Gloucester emblazoned with the words, "Build Not For Today But For Tomorrow As Well" (to which Creeley during his comments added, "and for yesterday") and enormous prints of Lynn Swigart's photographs from Olson's Gloucester (Louisiana State University Press). Though some of the attendees had traveled some distance to the conference-getting there however possible-what struck me most about this festival was its local presence.

Many of the 350 persons attending were people from the community, many of them older; my thought was that there was at least a 50% attendance by the local community, probably considerably more. Some of these people I spoke to had shown up because they remembered Olson or they had seen the Festival announced in the local paper. One fisherman I spoke to felt it was a necessary civic act. A woman I met on the harbor ferry came because "my son used to play with Charlie's son." Another man, dressed in work clothes and entering the hall just as Gerrit Lansing was reading from Olson's letters to The Gloucester Daily Times (Ten Pound Island) would say no more, when asked, than "It's respects I have to pay."


MODEST IN SCALE BUT GRAND in sentiment, qualities of words, and the vista of Gloucester harbor from the stairway windows of City Hall, the Charles Olson Festival, presented by the Gloucester Lyceum and Sawyer Free Library, consisted of three events in one day to celebrate Olson's life and work twenty-five years after his death: an afternoon panel discussion, a reception at the library across the street, and a reading of Olson's works the same night.

The panel, consisting of Robert Creeley, Vincent Ferrini, Hettie Jones, Jean Kaiser, Ingeborg Lauterstein, Edward Sanders and ably and enthusiastically moderated by Peter Anastas, undertook a number of appreciative recollections and questions in the spirit of a homage. The panelists all knew Olson personally, whether as student, friend, or peer. Following an opening welcome by David McArdle, director of the Gloucester library (a place where being "the librarian" resonates more than in most places), questions such as the panelists' impressions upon first meeting Olson, thoughts about his work as a teacher, activist, and political poet were entertained, with Anastas (who cited Olson's advice, "Just live, the writing will take care of itself" as having been crucial to him personally) raising questions and querying panelists one by one.

Creeley, generously offering much thoughtful information, spoke eloquently on many issues. Given his extensive written contact with Olson and the number of Olson's works he has edited, his insights added a specific literary and personal grounding to the event.

One important issue raised by the panel was the context of Olson as an activist. Ed Sanders, given his own relevant activities in this area, was the first to elaborate on this issue. Creeley addressed the vast imagination of Olson's civic commitment (whether or not this could be considered "political" poetry was not investigated at length by the panel), noting Olson's distinction between "epicene poets-poets who do not enter the society" and the kind of poetic Olson engaged in Gloucester.

Vincent Ferrini, wearing a broad-brimmed hat and dark glasses, provided numerous opinionated comments, quirky at times, and read a poem written for the occasion. He also noted good-naturedly his contention with Olson about "who had Gloucester" for poetry. Hettie Jones was warm, kind, and provided personal and valuable reflections about Olson and his engagement with Yugen (a distinctly supportive little magazine-with Hettie providing a crucial role-for Olson when most valuable to him).

And size, yes, about Olson's size. (The best comment on this point was Ferrini's, who stated quite succinctly, "he lived his body as a poem".)

Ingeborg Lauterstein, a successful novelist who started out as an artist at Black Mountain until she became one of Olson's students, and Jean Kaiser, the sister of Olson's late wife, Betty, both provided important details and recollections about Olson. Ed Sanders, who seemed hesitant at times about such a panel format, never lacked in eloquence or opinion when prompted. Somewhat thorny, though bypassed for the most part, was Olson's relation to women. Of course the context was personal here in large part, and in this regard, women on the panel spoke from their own interactions with Olson. The point probably was not any resolution but some tangible public fact. (It was similar when the issue of Olson's "readability" came up, especially given the local character of his work. It was a question I had also asked of some Gloucester residents. Those that had tried to read his work had not had much success.)

What counted, in terms of the festival, were the contributions that Olson made to the community. Though many of the ecologically important locations Olson argued for have now been paved over or filled in and covered with condos, his efforts were specific; he intensively argued issues crucial to Gloucester. Gloucester was his polis and he lived his commitment to it, both in writing and in action. The panel served to commemorate a remarkable contribution to this commitment. In Ed Sander's words, "He was imperfect but he was generous." It's safe to say, I think, that almost everyone there, panelists and audience (local and visiting), were motivated by that sense of generosity as detailed in the panel.

The question period was an event in itself and consisted of a number of unanticipated spontaneous individual testimonials about other personal (and life-changing) encounters with Olson.

The panel was followed by a reception at the library, featuring wild blueberries from Dogtown, a showing of a 1966 KQED/National Educational Television film on Olson, and greetings from the city by the Mayor, Bruce H. Tobey.


THE HEAT ONLY SEEMED TO INTENSIFY BY EVENING but the main floor and balcony of City Hall were full again. The evening event, introduced by Schuyler Hoffman, was a reading of works by and about Olson, delivered by Gerrit Lansing, Hettie Jones, Robert Creeley, and Edward Sanders. Lansing read from Olson's letters to the Gloucester Daily Times (Maximus to Gloucester; The Letter and Poems of Charles Olson to the Gloucester Times, 1962 - 1969, Ten Pound Island), reflecting on Olson's method of working: that he might start writing a letter and it would turn into a poem, and end up an essay (or something to that effect). Indeed, the letters read by Lansing were so intensely poetic at times, they must be considered part of Olson's poetic oeuvre. Hettie Jones read sections from her memoirs reflecting on Olson's visit to her (and her then husband LeRoi Jones) and their household in New York. Her warm and deeply personal account of the visit included interesting observations about her production labors in trying to prepare Olson's manuscripts for Yugen.

Creeley read some of Olson's work he had selected for Olson's Selected Poems (California) with great acumen and feeling. With both Lansing and Creeley's readings, what was most emphasized were the words themselves, Olson's words, and in those cases there was a particular pleasure in hearing them in the venue of the Gloucester City Hall.

Ed Sanders concluded the evening with his own compositions, poems by Olson set to music by Sanders. Plucking a stringed instrument, the arrangement alternated between sections of sung text, reminiscent to me of Ginsberg doing Blake (and in fact I believe it was Sanders who made a point of placing Olson's work on a scale with Blake's) and brief interludes or bridges of spoken words. This careful interpretation provided an apt and festive conclusion to what was perhaps the most articulate segment of the Festival, the word itself. A word still there.


BACK OUTSIDE IN THE NIGHT, a few parting words, then groups of attendees began to disperse. Mostly to cars or just in directions that seemed natural for them. This was my first visit to Gloucester and as such continually offered a new sight around every corner. I had, in fact, never even been to New England before. The event seemed unusual compared to a lot of literary events because of its strength of location and because of the participation by the people who lived there. And of course, for them, once it was over, they went home. Gloucester was home. For me, any direction would do. But I walked towards the harbor.