It’s no secret that at the Catskill Mountain Foundation we’re working to expand our literary programming. This month, our program has grown to include Kirby Olson, poet and professor of philosophy and humanity at SUNY Delhi. I was lucky enough to catch him for a quick interview, in which we discuss several movements of poetry, politics, and the intersection of religion and art. I realize that the title of this interview may not make sense, since we didn’t really talk about post-anything; the idea comes from a review of Kirby’s book by Andrew Tully (which, by the way, you can and should read here). So scroll on, dear reader.
Trust me. He’s an interesting guy.
When did you study with Allen Ginsberg?
Allen Ginsberg had opened a Buddhist poetry college in Boulder, Colorado in 1976. It was called Naropa Institute. I went there in the summer of 1977 and the summer of 1979. Had I been able to finish my Evergreen State College degree there, I would have remained. Although I was from the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania, my guidance counselor at East Stroudsburg University suggested I go to Evergreen State College, which is a non-traditional college in Olympia, Washington. However, while there, I found a catalog for Naropa Institute, in the student lounge. I recognized all the poets in the Naropa Catalog. I wanted to study poetry. That’s about all that I knew at the time. I studied with almost all of the Beat poets and lived in the same housing complex. In addition to Ginsberg, I talked daily with the poet Gregory Corso, and with Philip Whalen, and many others. There were some New York School poets there, too. Kenneth Koch was there, and Kenward Elmslie, for example. I met all of them, and found them all quite fascinating.
How much influence does surrealism and the New York school still have on your work?
While at Evergreen State College, I had begun to read surrealist and Beat and New York School writings, even though none of the professors at that time were poets. I found their work in the library. It was much better to study with the Beats and New York School writers in person. This summer I met the poet Peter Schjeldahl, who was a New York School poet in the 1960s and 1970s, but gave up his poetry in order to write art criticism for The New Yorker. He no longer writes poetry, as he didn’t apparently feel that there was much of an audience for his work. His poems were really good New York School work. He’s like Frank O’Hara, to an extent, but with a more honest feel, a more Lutheran feel. He’s from Fargo, North Dakota, and was raised as a Lutheran. There is a certain honesty in his poems that I feel in general is missing in the New York School poets. I had sent him my poetry book, and he expressed an interest in me, and in a painting I had been trying to show him in a local church. While sitting on his porch, he smiled and said, “There is a New York School aspect to your poems!” I think he meant in particular, “Data from a Doorman,” which appears on page 17. There is an insane rushing breathlessness in that poem. We spoke for a couple of hours, but on many different topics, including the schism between the Sophists and Plato and Socrates, so we didn’t get back to talking about our poetry.
The fact that you’re a Christian poet is interesting considering your roots of surrealism and such. Were you always a Christian poet? What makes you one?
I was raised as a Lutheran in the Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania church on 9th Street. I dropped it when I went to college, as it seemed that no one then was a Christian. Everyone everywhere appeared to be dropping out of Christianity. It was time right after Woodstock, and just after the War in Vietnam. It seemed that America was a hostile, occupying nation, and everyone was smoking dope, and experimenting with new sexual arrangements, and joining up with foreign religions such as Buddhism and Sufi and Gurdjieffian lineages. Naropa Institute was one of the first Buddhist colleges. Today there are about five. I was interested. I participated. I listened to Choygam Trungpa, and read many Buddhist texts. The French surrealists had been raised as Christians. They were mainly Catholic. They, too, were reacting to their empire, and to the national wars they had been fighting. I don’t think any of the major surrealists remained involved with traditional Christianity. They, like the Beat generation, and the New York School poets, moved toward Buddhism in some cases, and toward mysticism along the lines of very far-out things such as Voodoo and whatever it was that Carlos Castaneda was involved in. I studied all that, and was interested in it, but felt lost. I met a Christian woman when I was teaching in Finland. When I met her, and we had a child, I began to talk with the local pastor in Finland. At our daughter Lola’s baptism, I heard the same Lutheran songs I had grown up with. I felt at home in them. I went back into Lutheranism, and began to even become evangelical. My daughter is 17. I date my rebirth in Christianity with her birth. Together, we have been to the Lutheran and to the Episcopalian churches in Delhi. Lola and my wife and I share Christianity. There are three other kids in the family, too. They are all Christians. Our life is Christian. The highwater marks of my life have been in Christian churches. My poems celebrate this, and are grounded in this. When I began to write my first real poems, they all came after this conversion. Before that, I consider myself to have been a postmodernist, but not a convinced one. My convictions came from the overwhelmingly emotional feeling of marriage to my wife, and my link to my children, and to our heritage.
Where do you come from?
Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania is about an hour from New York City. It’s in the Pocono Mountains, which are the same as the Catskills from a geological standpoint. The only difference is the border. They are part of the Appalachian chain. My New York School friends were often Jewish. They were lapsed Jews. I never really understood their cavalier hilarity, or their hipness. I always felt that I was an Appalachian, and a Lutheran, but I loved their sensibility and feel even now like a yokel compared to them. I feel close to the Nordic States, and to Minnesota, and the work ethic of the Protestant Reformation. I like the simple clarity of Lutheran churches. I like the simple aesthetic of straight, clean, white lines. I am a sincere person, and am not joking at five levels at a time like my postmodern Jewish friends. I can do that, but as Bartleby said, I would prefer not to.
If you could punch one “classic” poet in the face, who would it be? Why?
I have never had a fist fight in my life. Not one. I am not physically violent. However, I am intellectually violent. I fight with things like Post-Its. I love poets. I don’t hate any of them. However, I don’t understand why Ginsberg didn’t tell us early on that he was a practicing pedophile. He admits as much in his last book of poems, Death and Fame. I can’t bring myself to retype any part of those awful poems. I wish I could write a Post-It to him, and ask, “Was this what your whole revolution was about, jerk?” I wouldn’t want to punch him in the face, or kill him. I just feel now that the Beat-surrealist tradition is false goods, and that it’s a portable vomitorium. I still accept their style, but the content? No.
What’s your least favorite song?
“What are we fighting for? Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn. Next stop is Vietnam, and it’s one two three…” It’s a song by Country Joe and the Fish, who played at Woodstock. We are fighting for universal human rights, including the right to freedom of inquiry, and a free market, and freedom of religion, all of which are negated in today’s Vietnam. I feel we let down the Vietnamese. We want freedom worldwide, now and forever. The greatness of the Lutheran and Christian ethos should not be narrowly left to the Nordic states. It should be a universal legacy. At any rate, that’s what I’m fighting for – Post-it by Post-it, or poem by poem. We fought for Japan and South Korea, and compared to the nightmare of North Korea, you have the light of the free market, and the light of Jesus Christ, compared to the infamous horror of socialism under Kim Jong-On and his cult of personality, or Ho Chi Minh, and the horror of Vietnamese, or Cambodian communism, and its horrid poster boys, such as Pol Pot. We are fighting for literacy, and freedom of inquiry, and the right to knowledge. It’s an endless fight, and I see the Lutherans as the light of the world, with Jesus Christ as our colors. My favorite song of all time is the Battle Hymn of the Republic, but then I do also love Erik Satie. Music is a minor part of my aesthetic interests. I prefer painting. I like everything from Andy Warhol to Italian Renaissance such as Pietro Lorenzetti. In real life, I love Lutheran hymns, and it’s the only thing I look forward to in music.
Kirby will be reading at the Kaaterskill Fine Arts & Crafts Gallery on Saturday, September 10th, from 1-2PM. This event is free and open to the public, so come on down! For more information visit catskillmtn.org or call 518-263-2063.