10+ QUESTIONS with Calvin Olsen

by Laurin Macios | May 2017

Calvin Olsen was featured at Mass Poetry's U35 reading in July 2015. // 10+ Questions! is a series in which we catch up with poets who have been featured in our programming.

It's been a while! What's new in life?
What isn’t new in life? I moved down to North Carolina a while ago for my wife to get a second master’s degree, and I got bored and want to keep up so I’m back in school, as well. UNC has a new MA program in Literature, Medicine, and Culture, and I’m embarking now on my thesis, which in its final form will hopefully take the form of an online database on Poetry and Illness. On top of that, my wife and I are expecting a little girl in July (!!!!), and I’m now poetry editor for The Carolina Quarterly, so the changes keep on coming.

What are you working on these days?
I’m doing a lot more translating than I am writing the last little while—I’m constantly trying to strike a balance between the two, and because each informs the other so much I hesitate to dedicate myself entirely to either. Right now my biggest project is a translation of Portuguese poet João Luís Barreto Guimarães’s newest collection, Mediterranean. I’m also sitting on a chapbook called To Hell With the Birds and hoping to turn the corner on the ever-elusive first book of poems which continues to evade me.

Is your poetry different now than it was then, and if so, in what ways?
My poetry isn’t much different, but I’m branching out a bit in terms of content. I’ve had a handful of poems accepted by journals in the last year that were outside the realm of where I would generally place my work—poems that don’t sound like me to me, if that makes sense. One of the good things about living a life that changes dramatically every few years is that my poetry changes right along with it. I have never been able to write about my current situation; only when I leave a place or an era can I really get to the bottom of the experience in my writing.

Who/what are you reading lately?
I had a phenomenal reading list for school this past semester, with highlights being The Book of Colors by Raymond Barfield and The Red Market by Scott Carney. And I’m nearly finished with Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, which I have to read slowly because I want to speak every sentence out loud five times. I’ve always been guilty of reading more fiction than I do poetry, but I’ve recently read and enjoyed Cynthia Zarin’s Orbit, and Bettina Judd’s collection Patient is four or five years old but was a great find for me earlier this year.

Any major publications, readings, etc. we should know about?
Let’s see… Back in October I was part of a fantastic panel on Poetry and Healing at the West End Poetry Festival here in North Carolina, and The London Magazine did me the huge honor of publishing a translation of mine called “Statues Missing Chunks” a month or two ago. On a less conspicuous front, I recently hit a major milestone on my pet project Ten Thousand Haiku. I started a writing one haiku every day while living in Boston, and decided I would do so for 27 years until I had 10,000. Five years later I’m still going strong, and I recently posted number 2,000 on the site. You can find updates every few days at tenthousandhaiku.com.

AND IN THE STYLE OF 2000S EMAIL SURVEYS...

What’s your favorite animal & why?
Turtles, because of growing up on (and never out of) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and because I want to own a giant tortoise when I’m old.

Rain or sun?
Sun if I’m busy, rain if I’m free.

Beach or mountain?
Mountain.

What are your current top 5 favorite books of any genre?

  1. Frankenstein is my first love and will forever top this list.

  2. Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey never ceases to thrill me.

  3. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.

  4. The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

  5. Anything by Cormac McCarthy. Gun to my head: Blood Meridian.

Are you a good dancer?
Heavens no, but that doesn’t stop me.

If you could spend next year living in the setting of any book, TV show, or movie, where would you choose and why?
An island in Puget Sound would be incredible: I love the Pacific Northwest and fishing. So suppose I would live in the setting of Snow Falling on Cedars (by David Guterson).

What’s a word you hate?
Three-way tie—politics, vegan, and thusly.

If you could have a super power, what would it be?
The ability to generate and control magnetic fields (that’s Wikipedia’s description of Magneto’s powers).

What’s the longest you’ve ever waited in line, and what was it for?
I hate lines, but I once called in sick to work in Boston and waited quite a while to get Shaq to sign the six copies of his autobiography I bought. We talked about football, he signed the books, and I jumped up and down in glee for five minutes after we left the bookstore.

Is there a poetic form you feel strongly about? Love, hate?
Prose poetry is of the devil. The name of the form itself is literary sophistry, and the extreme majority of “prose poems” either desperately need line breaks in order to be interesting or fail to be artistic in the first place. That’s not to say there are not a very few in existence worth encountering, but on the whole the very idea exasperates me. Hybridity has its bounds.

What’s your favorite flower?
I finally planted this year’s flowers yesterday, and currently I’m more than a little obsessed with Salvias. I impulse bought some Red Hot Sally 2s, and I love them.

You’re stranded on a desert island but luckily you have these three things with you…
A large piece of flint, a good-sized knife, and … a volleyball?

A New Poem

Pastoral

Women in dresses are frolicking. Over the water, their laughter flits
into the ears of a shepherd boy—turning, he loses the flock a bit.

Now they are scattered throughout the wood, grazing on grass not meant for it.
Fire in the temple reminding them: sacrifice calls for the best of us.

Relatives smatter the atmosphere, larger in number than circumstance.
Maybe they’re done for the afternoon, the plowshare no exemption.

Closer now, flowers the size of a baby’s head wait on the brooklet’s breath:
Ever so slightly it tumbles, born for the ocean eventually.

Hovering over the scenic route, clouds touch the mountain. A little bit
sinister, that rock, worthy of Sisyphus, waits for the wind to blow.


About the Poem

This is one of my more recent creations. It’s an ekphrastic poem, written, hopefully, in conversation with Thomas Cole’s painting “The Course of Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State”. In the paintings, that rock atop the mountain is depicted from various angles and shades of feeling, and I love the way it hovers over Pastoral in particular. I have a poem for each painting in the series, and this one is the farthest along in terms of tone and self-containment.