KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 10: Fall 2018
Essay: 519 words [R]

All I Want to Do Is Root

by John Olson

There is a peculiarity of poetry, that when it becomes a habit of mind, it converts everything to poetry. Space, gyroscopes, tire tread. Somewhere there must be a poetry of tire tread. There is much to be said about tread. Tread is all about traction. Traction doesn’t come easy. The grooves are essential. The grooves are designed to expel water and keep the car from hydroplaning when it rains heavily on the freeway. Grooves are ingenious. Poetry is a groove. Grooves are a groove. Most poetry isn’t even a matter of invention, it’s a matter of discovery. Observation. Traction comes with practice. Traction is a force. It has to be rolled on the road to get the scope of its grip.

Society wants us ground down so that we’re easy to deal with. Society doesn’t want complicated people, testy people; it wants easy people, obedient people. Productive people. People who render a service. Who agree. Who offer tangible goods.

Poets are the fools who tilt toward asymmetry and piccolos. What is this but saying that the task of the piccolo doesn’t end until the drums create the foundational rhythm we require to scale the walls of heaven?

The kind of traction poetry cultivates is designed to get us on the mountain roads, the rough roads, the roads where ice and ruts form. The tough roads lead us up and then they give out and we’re left with lichen and rock. Society’s smoke and hullabaloo are out of earshot.

But don’t get me wrong, friction is useful. Friction produces heat. The molecules rub the surface and get hotter and hotter until words resist the orthodoxy and spit fat hot moons of transcendent possibility at the zeitgeist eating its own progeny.

Poetry consists in its process, not its material. The material is immaterial. The process is unprocessed perception. The mess of living, which is a blessing, and an enigma. Anyone who can see interrelation in the unrelated is capable of producing works that grip the road like stigma.

Think of it as energy conservation in a harmonic oscillator, sinusoidal oscillations about the equilibrium point with a constant amplitude and a constant frequency. The leaky bucket on the way to the barn, the trembling of strings on a Stradivarius.

It is the not the words themselves that form poetry but the smell of New Mexico in turquoise or the appearance of angels on the brim of a sombrero. It is the trembling in the atmosphere of the most distant stars, the digestive organs of worms, or the shawl of a single bacillus hunched over on its way to an important disease. The disease of living, which is a terrible disease, as it leads to more and living, and spontaneity, and loons.

I never set out to prove anything. I never set out to persuade anyone. All I want to do is root around in the earth looking for truffles. And then give it to you: a dark fungal lump of ineffable pungency crammed with the fragrance of death and earth and the secrets of Lascaux.


—Reprinted with author’s permission from his blog, Tillalala Chronicles (1 March 2018)

John Olson
Issue 10, Fall 2018

is the author of nine books of poetry, including most recently these published by Black Widow Press: Dada Budapest (June 2017), Larynx Galaxy (2012), and Backscatter (2008). He is also the author of The Nothing That Is (Ravenna Press, 2010), an autobiographical novel from the second-person point of view, and three novels published by Quale Press: In Advance of the Broken Justy (2016); The Seeing Machine (2012), about French painter Georges Braque; and Souls of Wind (shortlisted for a Believer book of the year award in 2008), in which French poet Arthur Rimbaud visits the United States in the 1880s and meets Billy the Kid while on a paleontological dig in New Mexico.

Born in Minnesota, Olson has lived several decades in Seattle, Washington, and is married to the poet Roberta Olson. His writing notebooks have been exhibited at the University of Washington, and his prose poetry has been published and reviewed in print and online poetry magazines around the world. He was one of eight finalists for the 2012 Arts Innovator Award from Artist Trust, and received a Genius Award for literature in 2004 from Seattle’s alternative weekly newspaper, The Stranger.

Clayton Eshleman, distinguished poet, editor, and translator (noted in particular for his translations of works by César Vallejo), says: “Olson is an original, and that accomplishment is an extraordinary feat at this point in the long history of literature.... He is writing the most outlandish, strange, and inventive prose poetry ever in the history of the prose poem.”

More on the Web: By, About, and Beyond

Featured Author John Olson in Issue 8 of KYSO Flash

Tillalala Chronicles, Olson’s blog (from which Five Commentaries on Imminent Doom are excerpted in Issue 9 of KYSO Flash)

Six Prose Poems by Olson in Alligatorzine (Issue 64); includes “Words and Warts and Puppets With Cleavage” and “Why I Never Wear Suspenders”

John Olson Interview by Matthew Burnside at BOAAT Press (18 December 2014); includes this Q&A excerpt:

Burnside: Your writing can be very funny at times. Some of your titles alone are funnier than most jokes I’ve heard (“Smack That Pickle Against the Ribs” + “All Labial and Hard from Jackhammer Drool” + “Bubbles Yell in the Louvre” + “Words and Warts and Puppets with Cleavage” + “Fuck Daylight”). How important is comedy in poetry?

Olson: Very. I’m a closet stand-up comic. I keep my clothes in stitches.

John Olson: A Poet of Excess and Expansion by Christopher Frizelle in The Stranger, “Genius Awards” (14 October 2004):

...Olson is a poet of excess and expansion. His best poems are rich, sturdy, absurd, startling, tightly strung, and scattershot.

...A central theme in [his] work is dislocation—usually the dislocation between feeling and science, or feeling and neutrality, or the extreme agility and awful futility of language—and there is a way in which Olson seems dislocated in time and space. His presence seems implausible. He knows this....

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