Writer, poet and professor Kirby Olson talks about his books and Gregory Corso's eventful life

"Corso loved jazz music. He grew up in a milieu where a parallel search for individual freedom was going on in the jazz world."

Kirby Olson: The Beat of Silence

Kirby Olson studied poetry at Naropa Institute with Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg from 1977 to 1979. He taught English and American Literature at a Finnish university for several years and currently makes his living as professor of philosophy and literature and creative writing at SUNY-Delhi.

Delhi is not in India but is a village about 100 miles from New York City in the western Catskill Mountains of New York State.

He is married to a Finnish photographer named Riikka Olson, and they are the parents of four children.

Olson is the author of Comedy After Postmodernism (Texas Tech, 2001), Andrei Codrescu and The Myth of America (McFarland 2005), Gregory Corso: Doubting Thomist (Southern Illinois U. Press, 2002), Temping: A Novel (Black Heron Press, 2006) and Waiting for the Rapture: Poems (Persistencia Press, 2006). Olson is a member of the Immanuel Lutheran Church of Delhi, New York.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Literature, music, philosophy and mythology can confront the “prison” of the spirit and mind?

Corso’s writings did implicitly and explicitly confront the prison of the mind. His poems for instance bring in zoos, prisons, and people who are stuck in various ways.  But he too was stuck in various ways. He was a drug addict, and addicted to other kinds of risky behavior.  He said that poetry was “risked and fevered thinking.”  Sometimes calm can also be a way out of the prison of risky behavior. One can instead find one’s center, and realize that risk and throwing oneself about in dramatic motion are a waste of time.

What characterizes the philosophy of Kirby Olson? How do you describe your works and projects?

Originally I was drawn to surrealism in my teens and late teens.  I saw the Beat writers as surrealists. I went to meet and study with them.  Kerouac was dead and Brautigan was not approachable, but some of the Beats were professors at Naropa Institute.  I had been raised as a Lutheran but I thought of it as a kind of prison that didn’t allow for much and I wanted to have a Falstaffian period.  Lutheranism told you how to live, instead of encouraging you to live. These days my movement Lutheran Surrealism is an attempt to integrate the two.  I am also quite intrigued by firm clear laws such as the Ten Commandments.  I like to think of what Kant calls “moral axioms.” Kant was a Lutheran.  My mother was from a small farm in Iowa. She used to say phrases such as “Work first, then play.” This axiom drove me crazy as a kid because it seemed we never got past work.  With the Beats on the other hand, everything was play.   These days I am trying to rediscover my conservative self.

                                                              Allen Ginsberg © by Alex M. Bustillo

Which is the most interesting period in your life?

I think there are two such periods. One is when I worked with the Beats at Naropa University in the late 1970s.  Every day was a marvelous adventure as I went to a bar with Corso, or spoke with William Burroughs, or talked with Allen Ginsberg, or wrote my first good poems with a poet named Larry Fagin. 

The other period is when I lived in Finland from 1995 to 2000.  This was a period characterized by its relationship to the Lutheran church, which I encountered in Europe.  Europe for many young American writers is a sacred place.  I had been to Paris many times, but since it is Catholic it didn’t mean as much to me.   I find their churches fascinating but the clean pure lines of Lutheran churches are holy.  To find a European country that was also Lutheran lit me.  I rediscovered my familial religious faith and through it I began to write my first poems since I had been with the Beats twenty years before. I felt at home in Finland, but it was also poetic.  The people looked different (like albino Koreans), and the cleanliness and honesty of the people reminded me of my family. 

An interesting time isn’t always the best time. These days I have very quiet days living in a small village with my Finnish wife and four children in upstate New York. It is a time to write, and to play with the kids, and have dinner together.  Maybe it is not the most exciting time, but it has been in every way the best.  I publish poems in Lutheran and Christian journals now.

How important was the music in your life? How does the music affect your mood and inspiration?

I avoid music. I prefer silence. The only time I like music is when we are singing hymns in church.  I especially like the rises and falls that accompany the singing of the psalms.  I find rock music too frenetic, and classical music is only nice when I am driving alone in a blizzard. Otherwise I deeply resent the intrusion of music into my moods.  I also like conversation.  Music is loud. 

Why did you think that Gregory Corso continues to generate such a devoted following?

He took the American line that William Carlos Williams had developed out of Imagism and “married” it to the longer loopier lines of the surrealists.  He also set this on top of his familial Catholicism combined with the traditions of the Bohemian seekers.  It’s a fascinating blend of cultures that one finds in his writings.  Corso has no natural group. In American culture the ecological people have Gary Snyder, (or he has them), and the gay groups align with Allen Ginsberg, and the drug addicts like William S. Burroughs.  Corso has no natural group, but everyone feels drawn to his humor. Corso defies groups, and group orientation. He is one who expresses a need for individualism. This aligns him with American individualism and people who feel like individuals relate to him.  He is also very popular in Europe, where the socialist impulse is stronger, but where there is also a natural affinity for Bohemian individualism going back many centuries.  Corso offers a blend of Dionysos and Jesus. In his own life it was mostly Dionysian pleasure, but in his writing we also see how much of childhood Christianity was retained.  Reading him one takes a communion wafer that unites readers with the entire history of the Bohemian individualism.  You can become a cat while you are reading Corso.  Corso is becoming a cat in many of his writings.

(Photo from Olson's book by Allen Ginsberg and shows Corso gesturing up to Christ to come down and talk with them. The picture was taken at a grotto in Lowell, Massachusetts.)

Do you know why the blues / jazz are connected to Corso and what characterizes the sound of Corso’s poems?

Corso loved jazz music.  He grew up in a milieu where a parallel search for individual freedom was going on in the jazz world.  I never knew that world and don’t like the poems where he references jazz. I grew up in a small town where important musicians had never lived (it’s in the Pocono Mountains about two hours’ drive from New York City).  Corso knew jazz musicians and loved them.  I never knew them, and although I listened to all the important rock and blues people, I hate jazz. It has its own lingo but it seems forced. There is however in Corso a search for authenticity. To me jazz is a kind of forced spontaneity.  I would rather find a fixed form.  This is certainly found in the blues, but is also found in classical music, all of which are referenced in Corso’s poems.  What can’t be found in Corso’s poems is love toward rock music.  Corso looked down on rock musicians. He explicitly denounced Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan for being false poets.  He didn’t accept that them and was furious that they had eclipsed poetry. He hated Donovan.  Ginsberg accepted Dylan, and Morrison, and rock singers as poets.  Corso rejected them.  Corso increasingly came to hate music.  At one point Corso smashed all of Allen Ginsberg’s jazz records from the fifties. He told Allen that jazz music was a prison for him, and he needed to liberate Allen. This was in 1977 at Naropa Institute. I don’t think Allen felt liberated, but Corso really did feel he had helped Allen. 

                                                               Gregory Corso © by Alex M. Bustillo

Are there any memories from your interviews and meetings for your book “Doubting Thomist” which you’d like to share with us?

A scenario that haunts me is talking with one of his friends Roger Richards or Richard Rogers, a bookseller that Corso lived with.  This man (I can never keep his name straight because both names are first names) was very high on heroin.  He didn’t make sense. He told me that even on his deathbed Corso used heroin.  Since the publication of my book on Corso many of Corso’s friends have sent very short anecdotes.  These are in an online blog called Corso Biogaphy. I have only put up about a tenth of these, as I am lazy. It’s amazing how many friends he had, and how many people loved him. These were mostly drug-addicted poets.  One that I personally like is the poet Michael Andre. We have argued and corresponded for many years. He’s a liberal and I am an arch-conservative. I am what is called a classical liberal.  Most of Corso’s friends were socialists or Marxists.  Most of them think Cuba is cool. I see Cuba as a military dictatorship. The penalty for being gay is four years in prison. The penalty for opening the internet is four years in prison.  But people think that because it’s a state controlled economy that equality of income it’s a good thing. Everyone in Cuba makes one hundred dollars a year.  Corso has a poem “Upon My Refusal to Herald Cuba,” which I think links him to the classical liberal tradition. He defied the general trend toward equality. He thought some poems were better, and some people were better, and that he was the best. Like me, he saw equality as evil. He liked capitalism, but not always capitalists. He thought some of what’s sold was shoddy goods. He thought much of poetry and art was lousy.  He thought good poetry should make money.  He liked to get paid. He thought he had a beautiful profession. I’m also proud of my profession. I like to make money on poems.  I see poetry as work for a community and that the community should pay.  I also like working and helping young people with their poems and what I like best is when someone pays them!  Roger Richards died from drug abuse a few years ago.  Drug use reminds me of the world of the Lotus Eaters in the Odyssey.   It’s a waste of time, and time is living money.

What do you miss most nowadays from Gregory Corso’s life? What is your favorite Corso motto?

I didn’t actually like Gregory Corso. He was too crazy. His wife was crazy. His girlfriends were crazy.  I like his definition of poetry as “risked and fevered thinking.”  He said to me, when in doubt between two things, “choose both.” I think this is funny.  It’s a way to cut the Gordion Knot of indecision.  He was confused and smelled bad. Ginsberg had more sensible mottoes.  He said for example, “Discretion is the better part of valor,” which I think comes from Shakespeare’s Falstaff.  Ginsberg also had initiative and follow-through.  Corso was rarely sober.   He was shy and insecure and used drugs to fuel himself up for contact with others.  So he was a mess in real life. He wrote only when he was completely sober.  He told me he couldn’t write otherwise. So when we’re reading Corso we’re reading the sane and quiet man, not the public drunk. Ginsberg used drugs to write later on and his later writing was horrible. But he kept himself off drugs when meeting the public. So he was sane in public and that was his valuable part. 

How did Andrei Codrescu and the Myth of America (2005), and Gregory Corso: Doubting Thomist (2002) come about?

I was interested in the surrealist movement. I had known Corso as an undergraduate, and had written for Codrescu’s journal Exquisite Corpse for decades.  When I lived in Finland I had two years to myself after my three-year stint there as a professor ended. I had money from the Finnish state to work for two whole years.  I wanted to write two or three books to get tenure at an American College. In fact I wrote about five but there are still several in the drawer. I’m too lazy to send them out.  I wrote both books during that time.  I had a wife who went to work and we had no children. I walked in the wintry forests for most of the afternoon after an early morning writing session, and then had the evenings with a young and very pretty and intellectually gifted wife.  It was ideal.  I also wrote my novel Temping (Black Heron Press, 2006) during that time.  In addition I finished a book called Comedy after Postmodernism. This is the only time in my life I have ever had the luxury of time and a good relationship. It is thanks to Finnish socialism. 

Have you had the chance to meet Gregory Corso, do you remember something from this meeting? 

I met Corso probably hundreds of times at Naropa Institute. He lived across from me in a townhouse complex in Boulder, Colorado.  I saw him every day for two whole summers.  Much of this ended up in my book on him in the early chapters.  Every once in a while Corso was sober. He read my poems and told me which ones were best. He was unerringly correct.  Corso had taste.  If you saw him early enough in the morning he would make sense and he was spot on genius.  By late afternoon he was a lunatic. By evening he was a full-on cyclone.  He had hundreds of girlfriends.  Most said he did things like ask them to jump on a bed with him then he would fall asleep and snore.  He was fifty years old at the time.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Homer with Percy Bysshe Shelley and continue to Corso?

Corso is a classical poet.  He took the classics seriously and understood them. He could quote entire poems by Shelley even when he was completely stoned.  He could recite his poems. He could even quote entire poems of minor poets such as John Suckling or John Cleveland (Cavalier poets from the 1600s). He knew Frank O’Hara’s poems by heart. He had been to Harvard and was the favorite of now forgotten poets such as Archibald McLeish, who was a very famous poet in about 1970, and a full professor at Harvard.  Randall Jarrell loved Corso.  Jarrell was a big poet in 1970.  Corso was almost certainly the most brilliant man I have met within the poetic milieu.  His mind was so powerful that it was eerie.  Half drunk and in a stupor he would begin to discuss a poem by Edgar Poe and relate it to algebraic equations.  He wasn’t trying to impress anybody. These were his natural thoughts.  I’ve never met anyone who could make strong clear synthetic connections such as he could so simply and easily but he was lonely because no one really understood what he was saying.  He would talk about hieroglyphics and jazz.  Or about the pyramids on the backs of dollar bills, and about haloes and smoke rings.  Because he had no backup in terms of family, I think he felt profoundly insecure, but had learned to talk to himself.  He was lost and without drugs he would have to hide in a solipsistic realm.  So when he came out of his house he looked so often like a fool.  We had a guy in America who killed all kinds of people named Ted Kaczinsky. He was called the Unabomber because he blew up university academics with bombs.  He got sent to prison for life. He had an IQ of about 190 but had all his own ideas, and wrote terrific papers in his youth but no friends.  I think Corso and he would have had terrific conversations about math.  The two of them would have understood one another. I never understood Corso. I wrote the book to try to piece together what on earth he had been saying.

                                                                                           Captain Beefheart

How you would spend a day with Zeus, Peter Sellers, Captain Beefheart and Gregory Corso?

I am not a fan of Zeus, and would prefer Hermes. Zeus was so full of himself! Hermes was the messenger god. Corso often put Hermes into his poems and thought of the poet as the “nuncio,” which apparently means “messenger” in Italian. It was also his middle name. Let’s leave Zeus out.  I imagine that Corso would shun Sellers and Beefheart.  He had no respect for rock so I doubt he would accept him.  Did Sellers write well?  If Corso didn’t like you, he didn’t even look at you. I don’t think Corso accepted actors.  He did accept painters.  Many of his poems reference paintings and I think he had painters as friends.  He threw a fit when he met other poets especially if he felt they were fraudulent.  Some of this was jealousy.  Some of it was contempt. He hated Anne Waldman’s poems, but she was beautiful so he accepted her. Waldman’s poems weren’t his thing. He was a classicist.  He liked classically beautiful women even if they were stupid (Waldman was not stupid, but I’m not sure he understood her more prosaic aesthetic).  I was embarrassed by how he dismissed people. He hated Larry Fagin. He hated rock musicians. And his hate was not something he tried to hide.  If he didn’t think you were beautiful or deep he would not even look at you but would scream curses at you and tell you to drop dead in a million different ways. He was a snob who looked and smelled like a bum who lived in a dumpster. He liked Bohemian men, and if you had some kind of poetry in you, he accepted you, but could turn on you any second. He thought he was better than everyone even with no teeth and vomit on his sweater.  He hated me at times and terrified me after two hours of conversation. He kept yelling at me, “Stop asking why! ” 

I asked, “Why?”

He laughed and then would slam out of my apartment knocking over my bookshelf as he left and spitting on the floor.

I do think he was cleverly analytical. He read poems well, and understood art. He could talk well. He also saw an easy mark either in a woman or in someone with money.

What mattered in life to Corso?

I think women, drugs, poetry mattered to him.  Humor mattered.  Remember that in his poem “I Threw Out” it is humor that he is last to toss.  When he was young he was not on drugs and everybody liked him.  As he got older he began to disintegrate.   He saw the Beat label as a meal ticket.  He saw his fame as a meal ticket. He saw that people could be used. He was shameless but underneath that was a ferocious shame. He was totally ashamed of his childhood and how his mother had rejected him.  He drank to overcome the shame, and the shame of his self-taught background.  Most people don’t know what a poet is in America, and so he lived in a remarkably small world here – Greenwich Village, San Francisco, and college campuses.  Within those places, he lived and breathed literature and art.  He could only swim in that rarefied aquarium.  But if he liked you, and was in a sane moment (earlier in the day), he was a congenial and an incorruptible human being. 

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