Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Muthologos: Charles Olson and the Paris Review interviews

For many days now, social networkers have been applauding Lorin Stein and the new regime of The Paris Review for making all of the famed PR interviews, generated by previous incarnations of the journal, available for free online.  I imagine most people realize the way in which these interviews were constructed; they are not straightforward sit-down, real-time interviews. As Mr. Stein recently explained the process:

"In the first place, the method is slow. My interview with Jonathan Lethem took a couple of weeks, with reading assignments before each session. Joshua Pashman's interview with Norman Rush, coming out in the September issue, took three years, eight sessions, and 500 pages of transcript. (Later boiled down to 33 pages in print.)

In the second place, the interviews are collaborative. After our interns type up the transcripts, the interviewer and subject sit down and edit them—together. Often they rewrite the questions and answers completely. When Frederick Seidel interviewed Robert Lowell, the tape recorder didn't work: Fred wrote up the whole thing from memory, then gave it to Lowell to revise."

The interviews are terrific, as far as such things go (see here for my reservations about interviews, generally) but I suppose we're obliged to take them with a few grains of salt.  Mr. Stein explains that "When writers have total control, George [Plimpton] realized, they feel safe. And when they feel safe they open up."  But there's another, fascinating, side of that coin.

Talonbooks has just issued a new and completely revised edition of Charles Olson's Muthologos: Lectures and Interviews, edited by famed Olson scholar, Ralph Maud - picking up where the book's standard-setting earlier editor, George Butterick, left off.  The book includes Olson's extremely peculiar Paris Review interview, conducted by Gerard Malanga, which can be read in its first-published form here.  As it appeared in the magazine, it makes for uncomfortable reading.  But here's what Maud says of it in a note to the version he prints in the new collection:

"It was very gratifying to be able to get a proper version of this interview, or kitchen discussion, into print in Muthologos.  The original attempt published in the Paris Review 40 (1970) was totally unsatisfactory (there is nothing at all to recommend it).  Unfortunately, that version with all its flaws has been included in the Paris Review omnibus volume, Beat Writers at Work (Modern Library, 1999), extending to a new readership this old defamation of the poet.

The [original] Muthologos version was made possible by my receiving four tapes through the good offices of Jeremy Prynne.  Two of the participants, Harvey Brown and Gerrit Lansing, listened through the tapes with me and elucidated many difficulties.  Many remained, and the Muthologos version chose to pass them silently by rather than burden the reader with too many uncertainties.  More digging has been done since then over the years, so the present transcription is much augmented.  In addition, in 1992, Charles Watts of the Simon Fraser Contemporary Literation [sic] Collection became alerted to the fact that a fifth tape had been deposited by Malanga at Texas; he made a trip there and transcribed the tale for the Minutes of the Charles Olson Society 2 (June 1993).  His text appears [in this new edition of Muthologos] edited to conform to the format of the rest of the volume."

The interview - more a long chat session - as transcribed in Muthologos remains a strange and challenging read.  But we can be thankful for the editorial work done here to make restorations and corrections to the transcript.  This new edition is lovely, essential for anybody interested in Olson; and especially revealing to read in juxtaposition with the Paris Review interviews now available online.


MALANGA: You can't want to see the future on this tape.

OLSON: Oh yes, I can, because I can talk right to the tape right now, because, like that sleeper, I'm very fresh, I just woke up.

[snippet of deleted part of interview]

Pictured: Olson's Poetry magazine author photo, ca. 1962


Shelley said...

As a writer, I love the idea of the interviewer and the writer sitting down to be sure the interview conveys the truth. It's just too dicey to try to talk spontaneously in permanent prose.

New regime at Paris Review?

fullness said...

I think that the Olson Paris review interview is better attempted after having read a large portion of his work, maximus poems or not. I have always seen his responses as an intentional attempt at an unconditioned yet directed, in some manner, flow of phrases - much like his poetry.

"He’s already conditioned. It’s like a reflex. Atlantis will arise again. Go ahead. God’s with this boy."

Regardless, If Malanga was not familiar with Olson or in on some avant garde jab, I imagine he found the interview interesting.