Friday, January 16, 2009

Dogtown/Charles Olson

Last night I was reading through a catalog of summer and fall titles forthcoming from Free Press. A September title caught my eye: Dogtown - Death and Enchantment in an Island Ghost Town. What little I know of Dogtown comes from reading Charles Olson's Maximus poems (and listening to Folkways recordings of him reading them) and follow up readings of Ferrini and Anastas, with a side path looking at Marsden Hartley - and an Olson pilgrimage to Gloucester) so, yes, I was interested. The second paragraph of the book blurb "Dogtown has inspired various people...the Modernist painter Marsden Hartley, whom Dogtown saved from a crippling depression; the drug-addled poet Charles Olson, a coven of witches..."
OK - "the drug-addled poet Charles Olson"? Charles Olson, one of the major figures of 20th century poetry, listed here as "drug addled poet" - I find this to be more than insulting, more than just stupid and lazy, but with that I not only do not want to carry the book at our store, but I wonder why anyone else would want to trust what the author Elyssa East (who has an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University's School of the Arts and lives in NYC) has to say?
The nice thing about owning your own bookstore is that you are free to carry the books that interest you, and free to skip over the ones that don't. I would still like to read a book about Dogtown, but certainly not one identifying Charles Olson only as a "drug addled poet". (but they do praise her luminous, insightful prose...)

Part Two
Two days after posting part one of this message, and I have heard from several people who all doubt that the author would represent her book in this way. The author herself wrote that she "just wanted to clarify that Olson is not characterized as a drug addled poet in my book. I think it may be in the catalogue copy, but it is most definitely not in the text and will not be on the flap copy.
The majority of my very brief Olson chapter focuses on how passionately he loved Gloucester, and Dogtown's role in helping expand the Maximus poems."
In these days of cutbacks at the publishing houses, independent bookstores like ours rarely see book reps anymore. We get catalogs in the mail (or some, now, only online) and perhaps a phone call from a phone sales rep, but in many cases the catalog copy is the only source of advance information on a particular book, and many of us don't spend a lot of time pondering each title. When we see someone we respect being characterized as a "drug addled poet" that quickly colors our perception of the book and the author's point of view, and makes an ordering decision that much easier. Free Press should be reminded of this fact, and the importance of catalog copy should be emphasized.
We look forward to reading this book, and hope that others will read it also.
Thanks to Elyssa East for her prompt clarification.


Blogger Gary Lawless and Beth Leonard said...

js, in response, writes: "Are you sure it isn't just a stupid blurb writer making the mistake, rather than the author? I suspect the writer of that blurb is about 22 years old, mistaking Charles Olson for someone else."

7:15 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I am the author of the forthcoming book that you reference above, Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in an Island Ghost Town. Thank you for your interest and mention of this title. I can assure you that the description of Charles Olson that you read in the catalogue copy was an oversight and is not at all how Olson is characterized in my book, which I have been researching and working on for almost ten years.

You obviously share my love and respect for Charles Olson and his poetry. I have researched Olson’s Dogtown materials first-hand at the University of Connecticut’s Charles Olson Archive while on a fellowship provided by the university’s Dodd Research Center. I have also spent many hours speaking with Vincent Ferrini, Peter Anastas, Gerrit Lansing, Ammiel Alcalay, Peter Parsons, Stephen Scotti, Henry Ferrini, Thorpe Feidt and others who knew or were connected to Olson. From these materials and people who were incredibly generous with their time and insights into Charles Olson’s work and character, I learned a great deal. Olson remains a fascinating, complicated figure who is very difficulty to characterize in the short strokes that drive the world of marketing, much of which as you might surmise, is beyond an author’s control.

My book's chapter on Olson aims to capture his poetic range, accomplishments, and undying influence; Dogtown's role in the Maximus Poems; and Olson’s passion for Gloucester. There is very little mention about substance use, but for Olson’s Timothy Leary connections—one of Olson’s Dogtown poems was published in the Psychedelic Review—and the heavy drinking Olson engaged in after he left Gloucester, which Charles Boer recounts in Charles Olson in Connecticut.

I trust that you will eventually find that my book and its portrayal of Olson and his relation to Dogtown to be far more complex and nuanced than that of the advertising copy. Likewise, I would be most honored if you would be willing to carry this title in your store.

-- Elyssa East

12:40 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

As I first time author I find the amendment to this post to be especially edifying. Free Press has been a tremendous advocate for this work—I am ever grateful that they were willing to take on such a complicated project from a new writer, particularly in today’s publishing climate.

While it is my hope that this book will have broad appeal, I have long felt that independent booksellers like you with a more curatorial approach to book selling would especially welcome it. Likewise, I am certain that Free Press will welcome this constructive feedback.

-Elyssa East

3:05 PM  
Blogger Curtis Faville said...

While I'm sympathetic to the need for respect regarding Olson's reputation, and the importance of treating his legacy with a seriousness that at least approaches the nature of his contribution to post-Modernist literary theory and poetry, I think it would be a mistake to mischaracterize him. Olson was known to be an alcoholic, who was as enthusiastic about the potential inspirations of chemical enhancement as Ginsberg or Leary were. Calling Olson, for example, a drug-crazed hippy would obviously be nonsense. On the other hand, let's call a spade a spade: Olson experimented all kinds of drugs.

3:21 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Charles Boer hardly recounts "heavy drinking". Are there other sources detailing his alcohol use during that time period?

1:07 PM  
Blogger David Horgan said...

If anyone is interested in learning more about the Smithsonian Folkways album of Charles Olson reading his poetry, please visit:

CD versions and digital downloads are available for purchase from the non-profit record label. Liner notes are also available as a free download in PDF format.


David Horgan
Smithsonian Folkways

7:58 AM  

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