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UB hosts "Olson at the Century: A Symposium"

"An American is a complex of occasions, themselves a geometry of spatial nature," wrote Charles Olson in "Letter 27 [withheld]," of The Maximus Poems, enlarging on a theme he first introduced in Call Me Ishmael, his book-length study of Melville: "I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy."

Now, as we approach the centenary of Olson's birth (on Dec. 27), scholars and critics of 20th century American poetry around the world are gathering to reassess what this cartographer of the imagination and self-described "archeologist of morning" left us in his work and thought that informs our contemporary poetics and remains useful as a moral project.

Although it's been four decades since his death in January 1970, anyone searching for evidence of Olson's continuing influence on contemporary American poetry in general, and the Buffalo literary community in particular, will find it in abundance here this weekend as the University at Buffalo presents "Olson at the Century: A Symposium" that brings Olson scholars and enthusiasts together to examine the legacy of the towering (6 foot, 8 inch) author of The Maximus Poems through the lens of his brief (1963-1965) but momentous appointment to the University at Buffalo's English Department.

The hiring established Buffalo (both the university and the city) as a beachhead for innovative writing, postmodern thinking, and a spirit of collaboration and experimentalism between and across the arts.  Just as he had been a decade earlier as rector of Black Mountain College in North Carolina, in Buffalo, Olson became a catalyst for transformation whose best known line "What does not change/ is the will to change" could be read as his personal credo.

Olson's principal contribution to 20th century American poetics (aside from his own larger-than-life persona) was the introduction of what he called "Projective Verse" -- an "open" form of composition in which lines are determined by measures of breath rather than metrical units, and the poet engages the creative space in terms of a principle known as "composition by field."

As a writer known principally for his sense of expansiveness rather than brevity, he was fortunate to have as his colleague and longtime correspondent Robert Creeley, who put it more concisely: "Form is never more than an extension of content." 

For writers of the "New American Poetry" of the 1960s onward, Olson became not only a "bridge figure" to the modernisms of the early 20th century, but also a poet whose re-inscription of the ethos of classical Greek democracy onto the fishing communities of northern New England -- notably, his own adopted hometown of Gloucester, Mass. -- made it possible to rethink the project of American democracy in powerfully historic terms unavailable even in the language of the Founders.

Olson at the Century began Thursday night with a reading by poet Tom Raworth -- a key figure in the British Poetry Revival of the 1960s and 70s that in many respects paralleled the innovations of the New American Poetry, and an early publisher of Olson's work in the U.K. -- at the Western New York Book Arts Center.

On Friday, the symposium moved to the Poetry Collection at 420 Capen Hall of UB's North Campus for short presentations by five Olson scholars.  They were in order of appearance:

--Kenneth Warren, author of Charles Olson's Grail of Intuition, reading "Anima Vox Cock: Frances Boldereff and the Rise of Charles Olson's "Projective Verse'."

--Michael Boughn, University of Toronto scholar and author, most recently of Cosmographia: a post-Lucretian faux micro-epic (Book Thug, 2010): "Picking up Injuns: Poetics as Transformation."

--Richard Owens, editor of Punch Press and the literary magazine Damn the Caesars:"Olson, Prynne, and An Image of Man."

--Chris Sylvester, a Ph.D. candidate at UB: "Equal, That Is, to the Topological." 

--Dennis Tedlock, UB Distinguished Professor, McNulty Chair Professor of English, and research professor of Anthropology, discussing "Olson and the Maya."

Following lunch, there was a Round Table Discussion featuring Tom Raworth, Bruce Jackson, the James Agee Professor of American Culture at UB, and Steve McCaffery, Canadian avant-garde poet/critic and the David Gray Professor of Poetry and Letters at UB.

Afternoon panelists and presentations included:

--Critical theorist Carla Billiteri, author of Charles Olson: The American Cratylus (Palgrave McMillan, 2009), speaking on "Diversional Events: Singularity and Multiplicity in Olson's Poetics"

--Kaplan Harris, Associate Professor of English at St. Bonaventure University and co-editor of the forthcoming The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley (University of California Press): "The Unpublished Correspondences of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley."

--Margaret Konkol, UB based scholar and Ph.D. candidate, whose work traces the parallel emergence of environmental thinking in popular and avant-garde discourse from 1921 to 1964: " 'Get Rid of the Housekeeper,' An Archival Exploration of [Olson's] 'December 18'. " 

--Don Byrd, poet, sound artist, and SUNY/Albany based scholar: "Reading the Olson Archive."

At 8 tonight, the venue shifts back to the Western New York Book Arts Center at 468 Washington St. for a screening of Henry Ferrini's critically-acclaimed film Polis Is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place, a documentary that has been called, with some justification, "the best film about an American poet ever made."

The symposium concludes on Saturday with a marathon reading of Olson's The Maximus Poems (all three volumes originally published in 1960, 1968, and 1975, respectively) at the Karpeles Manuscript Museum, 453 Porter Ave. in Buffalo.  The reading will begin at 11 a.m. and run through at least 4 p.m.  All with an interest in Olson's life and work, from casual readers to professional scholars are invited to attend, listen, and participate in the reading.  Like all the events in Olson at the Century: A Symposium, the reading is free and open to the public.

--R.D. Pohl

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