The Charles Olson Research Collection

Olson at Black Mountain College

("Meeting Charles Olson at Black Mountain," excerpted from Michael Rumaker's Black Mountain Days, Black Mountain Press, 2003. Segment originally appeared in North Carolina Literary Review.)


"He was, I believe, the first total person I’d ever glimpsed, or what I understood to be total at that time anyway. I’d never met anyone like him before, and now, years later, as I write this, I can say I’ve never met anyone quite like him since. He was truly one-of-a-kind, and this in a place such as Black Mountain, as I came to learn, where genius was not exactly scarce.

My first glimpse of him was at supper on the dining porch, with its dozen or so tables lined up single file down the long length of it. Connie Olson invited Mary Ann and me to sit at a table with her and her husband, Charles, and the composer-in-residence, Lou Harrison. Saturday night was also “dress-up” night, we learned, and Lou, his thick dark-brown goatee in sharp contrast, was decked out in a sparkling suit the dazzling shade of vanilla ice cream. Connie was dressed in a subdued blue blouse and skirt of denim with a light, bright, loosely knit shawl thrown over her shoulders, and simple leather sandals, held on her slender feet by thin leather thongs.

But it was Olson, up to that time the tallest man I’d ever laid eyes on, appearing close to seven feet tall, with a large head, who immediately impressed me, and not only because of his size, impressive as the length and width of him was - including an appetite to match, I soon learned as I watched, amazed, as he tore into the platter of chicken. Wearing a long, loose-hanging, brown seersucker jacket, a faded blue workshirt with a shrunk, out-of-shape, nondescript necktie twisted around his extra-large neck, chino work trousers, the cuffs of which came well over the tops of his high-topped worker's boots, Charles was all charm and courtliness, attentive to Mary Ann and me.

I don’t believe that either Mary Ann or I said much during the meal except in monosyllables in response to Charles’s questions (he was graciousness itself), both of us being shy in these unusual surroundings and not yet quite able to figure out what the place was all about or if there was a place for us in it. I felt an immediate pull to Olson. His presence lit up the place for me in a totally new and appealing light. I’d never met anyone before who radiated such healthy animal spirits, such exuberant great humor and enticing charm, who made me feel—as I’m sure he did Mary Ann, too—that in his beaming and affectionately owlish eyes behind thick horn-rimmed glasses, I was a very special person. He awoke a strong desire in me to be in this place and to be near him. I cannot more adequately describe the hope this man inspired in me within only the first few minutes of having met him.

We had no need to be concerned about our shy reticence, however. Except for an occasional quiet and astute comment from Connie, Charles and Lou dominated the conversation (Olson obviously had a high regard and a jocular affection for Lou), entertaining us with rollicking banter. Although a lot of it, consisting mostly of “in” jokes, went over my head, it was bantering that brought grins from the diners at nearby tables who were apparently familiar with these boisterous exchanges. That Olson, whose own merrily booming laugh could be heard quite a distance, obviously enjoyed the witty sparring and company of this out-and-out gay man, and that in their friendly and amusing banter, there was obvious affectionate regard.

Perhaps I had found a safe place—a rare enclave in America of that time for my own queer self.

There were several more seductions to occur that evening to make my surrender complete. What finally clinched it for me was the ride into Asheville after supper with Connie and Charles in Charles’s old blue beat-up Ford convertible, with the leather driver’s seat smashed far back from the wheel by the weight and pressure of his huge frame.

I don’t recall the purpose of our trip into Asheville. Whatever the reason, Mary Ann and I were invited to come along. We were more than pleased to do so since, as I’ve made abundantly clear, we both felt at ease with and were captivated by this incongruous couple: the small-boned, soft spoken, incisively intelligent woman with the delicate, birdlike features; and her towering, big-framed, highly vocal and forceful figure of a husband. But the latter, in spite of his bluff voice and gigantic physical size, which dominated every presence he was in, had, I immediately perceived, a delicate, somewhat “womanly,” and for that reason, very appealing sensitivity.

By chance, there was a full moon that night, and riding in the back-seat of the convertible with the top down, Mary Ann beside me, we drove down into the valley and headed toward Asheville 12 miles away. I was held spellbound by the powerful glow of the moonlight flooding Swannanoa Valley—the light of the moon with a quality and strength, its huge size and closeness, such as I had never seen before. It had just risen above the distant hills as we set off, and all the way into town my eyes stayed riveted, looking out the left side of the car, excited by the prospect of the vast light-golden moon, its wide luminescence silhouetted against the pitch-black hills.

That did it. Mingled with our visit to the Old Kentucky Home in Asheville the day before and my excited memories of Thomas Wolfe's lush and verbose descriptions in Look Homeward, Angel of his mountainous home-country which I'd gotten intoxicated on. Perhaps it was my having grown up in the flat once-under-sea yellow sands of South Jersey that made me yearn to live in this different, hilly, inland terrain. If it was that, it was also combined with the powerfully seductive sense of Charles and Connie, both of whom emanated such vital and attractive energy, although in different ways: Connie the quieter strength, the more pointed intelligence; Charles, I could already sense, with curiosity and enthusiasms sprawling and darting over enormously wide fields. With his flattering attentiveness, 1, despite my habitual guardedness, found him totally irresistible.

But mainly it was the feeling that maybe here I could finally learn to write; equally as important, maybe here I could a find a place to be. It was late when we got back from Asheville, but even so Charles said he'd like to take a look at some of the writing I'd brought down with me.

There’s no doubt, in that spring of 1952 eager as the college was to have more students, that much of Charles’ talk was an artful and seductive sales pitch. But the substance of his talk went well beyond that. The possibilities and vision he expressed about Black Mountain took on the excitement of an adventurous crusade, a sacred vision, that he intimated Mary Ann and I would be privileged to participate in if we would only apply and were accepted to the school—if our potential and our work met the standards. There was also about him that immediate sense of friendliness and openness, that he seemed so in tune with Mary Ann and me and treated us from the first moments of meeting him as intimates and equals. It quite turned my head. Later, after my own struggles with him, I was to learn when Charles liked you there was no escaping him, and as in my case there was no desire to. It was like my chance to have another father at last, a beloved and loving master to serve and learn from. At that moment, I would have done anything to become his loyal and willing apprentice.

He pulled open the screen door [of the Olson apartment] and we entered a large, light, bright-painted room, sparsely furnished with an odd assortment of furniture. The walls were covered with abstract paintings and drawings similar to those we'd seen in the art workroom of the Studies Building. Also on the wall was a broadside on orange paper, one of Olson's poems, “This,” which he proudly pointed out to us, saying it had been printed by one of the students, Nick Cernovich, in the print shop: “Ain’t it a smart job?” I had never before seen a poem printed that way; but not wanting to be constantly giving away my greenness, I nodded my head in agreement, which wasn’t a total untruth: It was an attractive broadside, with a free-form sunburst/sunflower design, and I liked this, to me, novel idea of hanging a poem up on the wall, although glancing cursorily at it, I couldn’t make any sense of it at all.

I felt relaxed and comfortable, sitting in one of the cane-bottom chairs and smiled contentedly and affectionately at Mary Ann seated across from me. In the way she smiled back, I could tell that Charles and the place were also working their magic on her. In spite of the hour, Charles was wide awake and alert, as if the day had just begun. I didn’t know then that, in his nightlife schedule, this was “midday” for him.

I had brought down with me a careful selection of what I thought was my “best” work up ‘til then: a short story about a young woman undergoing an abortion, and several “poems,” dull-rhymed, metrically correct “poems” with the unsurprising lull of a metronome, which Olson zipped through hurriedly, without comment, tossing the pages aside, dishearteningly but, I later realized, justifiably, like so much waste paper.

With the story, though, a different attention came into his eyes; behind the thick lenses they became rounder with interest, his broad brow lifted, and although he also read it hurriedly—I was impressed with the speed of his reading—I could tell by little mutterings and growls and cluckings and shakes of his great head along the way, that the short story was offering him a little more meat than the verse had.

I felt hopeful.

The story, unlike the poems, was, as I remember it, at least based on semi experience. In the swirl and confusion of androgynous adolescence, a young woman whom I'd been going with since my junior year in high school and who lived in the same town in New Jersey where I grew up and with whom I had had my first sexual experience at 17 had, at one point in our relationship, been frightened that she was pregnant. This later proved to be what was then termed “an hysterical pregnancy,” but what I tried to capture in flashbacks in the story were the fear and uncertainty of the teenaged couple as they sought out an illegal abortionist (this was the early 1950s) and the young man’s guilt and fright (I had actually been prepared, at 18, to marry her) .

But in the story the young woman was set to have the abortion in a dingy room in a back street in some city like Philadelphia, and the story consisted mainly of what was going on in her mind and in the room while the back-alley abortionist was preparing to go about his work. No copy of the story, so far as I know, exists, but it must have captured at least a sense of that ugliness and danger with its undercurrent of anger at the sexual ignorance of young people and the proscriptions forced upon them—the sexual silence of the time and the strict laws against abortion—which forced the young woman, like so many other women, to end up in such a shabby, dangerous room from which she might or might not leave alive.

Charles was impressed and told me so with a very serious expression. I can’t imagine the story as having been anything but melodramatic and very badly written, but perhaps he detected the earnestness beneath the clumsy attempt, a hint, anyway, of a possible ability; and perhaps, too, although I hadn’t read him yet, Olson had detected a very vague whiff of Dreiser, particularly An American Tragedy, a writer Olson admired as “authentically American” and, along with Sherwood Anderson, “a real American queery,” and whom he was later to instruct me to “saturate yourself in.”

He said he thought I ought to make application to the school on the basis of the story, that I’d ought to come down and see what I could pick up. I was of course after my contact with him elated by the prospect, but it was then that I brought up my penniless situation, that I wouldn't be able to afford even a fraction of the $1600 a year tuition fee. Charles told me that when 1 got back north to apply formally to Connie, as registrar, for a work scholarship which she’d mentioned in her earlier letter to me, which meant working a minimum of four hours a day, on the farm or in the kitchen or wherever needed, in return for tuition and board. They couldn’t promise anything, but they’d see what could be done and that a decision probably couldn’t be made ’til late August or early September.

It didn’t matter. I felt extremely hopeful now. I told Charles that I would follow his advice. I thanked him for his time and attention and, perhaps to put the seal on my resolve, he walked us back [to our rooms]. The moon was highest now in the topmost arc of the sky and everything was filled with a bright ashy light. I felt very tired but pleasantly elated and, clutching my poor manuscripts as I looked around at the mountains now silvery under the moon, I knew in my bones this was the place I wanted, and needed, to be, more than any other place on earth."


 

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