William Olsen

recorded in Kalamazoo, MI

with Nancy Eimers

 

William Olsen

I’m William Olsen, I live in Kalamazoo, Michigan.


Nancy Eimers

I’m Nancy Eimers, I also live in Kalamazoo, Michigan.


The Knox Writers’ House

So where are you from originally and what brought you here?


Olsen

Yeah, okay. I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. I was raised in Park Forest, a suburb of Chicago. And what brought me here was employ after an extended and nearly interminable period of education. I was offered a job here, and I stayed on and I’m happy I did because I like Kalamazoo immensely.


Eimers

I was born in Chicago, Illinois and I spent my first six years there and then my family moved out to LA for a year and to Phoenix, Arizona for five years or so. So I feel sort of split between being a Midwesterner and being a Southwesterner, though I’ve spent most of my life in the Midwest. I came to Kalamazoo after teaching for a year at Northern Kentucky, and Bill was here and I was very lucky to be hired here as well. Kalamazoo’s a very comfortable place, it’s a very quiet place where one can get a lot of work done without a lot of distractions.


KWH

Do you think there’s a Midwestern voice in writing?


Eimers

Well, we actually just participated in symposium that’s being conducted by Western’s international literary magazine, Third Coast, about this question, but what ended up happening was that each writer, fiction writers and poets, talked about their Midwest. So I don’t think of there being a Midwestern voice at all. I think of there being a lot of writers who live in the Midwest for whom place is often important. And we each wrote very different things, but, in fact, I quoted Jon Anderson who’s talked about the Midwest in a poem, and he’s not a Midwesterner at all, he’s an Easterner. I think if there were a similarity to Midwestern voices, it might risk regionalism. I think there’s as many different kinds of poetry being written in the Midwest as there are poets in the Midwest. I don’t think of it as a strong regional force, though place is often important to Midwestern poets, as it is to poets from all over, wherever they happen to be from.


Olsen

Ditto [laughs].


KWH

Next question.


Olsen

No, I’ll give it a shot. Maybe Midwestern writers are less urbanized. Maybe Midwestern writers have more of an eye for material at eye level. The Midwest is a construction, I think, rather than a place. If you go out to the Kalamazoo airport, it is built on what is called Indian Field, which is where the last of the Potawatomi tribe was gathered up before all the males were killed and the rest of the tribe was relocated somewhere out west. So nothing about the Midwest is native. Everything about the Midwest, in a sense, is artificial. All you have to do is read Michael Pollan’s beautiful book The Omnivore’s Dilemma to understand that. And the Midwest is pretty much where it’s at for me. I used to revel in taking long drives from Des Moines, Iowa to Oklahoma City at night and think, Here I am in these wide expanses, endless starlit heavens and such. In retrospect, those endless wheatfields and cornfields that reached almost up into heaven were a monoculture. A displacement of native plants and now a radical source of the despoliation of the waters below New Orleans, to the size of the state of, say, Pennsylvania. So even what we think of as the natural world in the Midwest is a human construct. That said, I love the Midwest. I like hearing the crickets and I like all that corny stuff that goes along with the Midwest that keeps me, at least, in some kind of touch with my past and my childhood.


Eimers

Yeah, I think about that sometimes when I’m flying, when I look down and see—or when I’m driving through the country and I see cornfields or from the plane I see the fields divided and they look so beautiful to me. And then I have to remind myself that that is not their natural state and that, you know, I think you used the word displacement, all kinds of natural things have been displaced, the consequences of which we probably don’t yet know, and yet when I’m out in the country, in what I think of as the country, farmland and so on, I think of it as the most natural, beautiful, unspoiled thing there is, and it makes me feel like I’m coming back to something primal, in a way. Sometimes I think about Michigan and how once, it was covered with waters, and once, it was covered with trees, and that’s what it was then and I supposed you could say human beings are part of nature and this is what we’ve done, so this is what we’ve made of it. I agree with Bill. I love how it looks, I love all the orchards up in the Leelanau Peninsula, and all the seasons of fruit. But none of those are native, I assume, right?


Olsen

What?


Eimers

All the orchards and the corn and the asparagus and all.


Olsen

Sure. No, no. Oak trees, here, and prairie. Patches of prairie called oak openings.


Eimers

And actually, both of us were raised in suburbs or suburb-like areas, so, I’ll only speak for myself, but it’s part of the way I think, because the other thing I see when I fly is these neighborhoods that look like dollhouse settlements, or you’ll see new developments out in the country sometimes. That kind of transition, as not good as it is, is really part of what we grew up with, so I don’t know if it’s part of the way we think, but it’s certainly something that we think about. I know I think about it in my poems sometimes.


Olsen

Yeah. Expanse. Nature is defined by the absence of heavy population and I think that’s how I came to view nature, as a child. I just didn’t realize until now. That was my formative definition of an experience of nature—a place where there were no people. And I think maybe there’s some kind of ranginess in materials for Midwestern writers. I’m not sure about that. But we now live in Michigan and we’re near a Great Lake that is, what, 10,000 years old, and we drive to the dunes and the dunes are 3,000 years old—they’re constantly redefining themselves. There are glacial bar lakes that on really hot summer days in northern Michigan you can swim in that are 800 years old. And that, if Michigan is part of the Midwest, seems to be something almost idyllic, to me. And that’s, at least for me, a new approach to nature—the idyll—if an idyll in a pastoral can actually exist. Things are too cold up there right now for the tourist culture to fuck up, basically. And I like that idea of dunes and how they constantly reform and how there’s a built-in instability to what a dune is and it landscapes itself. We take landscape to emblemize something eternal, something that lasts longer than we do. But the source of its eternity, in a sense, is that it’s ever changing, that it’s ever-adaptable—it’s not frozen, say, like a pod of bloated McMansions is. It’s in constant flux. That’s what, ultimately I think is the source of our modern sense of anything approaching to the sublime.


KWH

Do you think landscape by that definition factors into your work?


Olsen

Yeah, absolutely, as subject matter and as means, for me, and Nancy might be different. Until very recently, my eyes were going a little south, but as someone who orients himself to the world visually, I go, at least most recently, with landscapes. Something about…[laughs] Now I’m going to stumble, which is okay. Something about how the landscape reinvents itself suggests to me that poetry, within, say, the space of a poem, the verbal space of the poem, that it can reinvent itself. Syntactically or through images or through image rhymes or through metaphors that reinvent themselves through human qualifications, through modulations of human voices, through anything that isn’t stuck in stasis, I guess.


Eimers

I guess I get obsessed with particular things in nature and in the landscape and whatever surrounds me, so I tend to get obsessed with birds and birdsongs and learning as much as I can about them, and clouds, lately, and shopping malls, and the mannequins in the malls. Those are just examples of things that all speak to me imaginatively, equally, really. So I try to find out as much as I can about them and see how they transform themselves in me, or how I want to transform them. They’re very suggestive. I may tend to see less of a landscape as a whole and I get stuck on the smaller things in the landscape. Those things become metaphorical really soon for me, and once they start becoming metaphors or a kind of language that I can use to talk about other things, that’s when I know something’s happening.

Other Writers in

Rosebud by Jon Anderson

Listen

Listen More