Books by Toby Olson


Vectors, 1972; City, 1974; Changing Appearance 1975; Home, 1976; Aesthetics, 1978.

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Books by Toby Olson


Although I have avoided involvement with movements in poetry, I was strongly influenced by the pluralistic milieu of poets who read in coffee houses and bars on Manhattan's lower east side in the 1960s. To the extent that my publishing, editing and organizing had a model, this scene seemed the perfect alternative to movements and dogmas. This was probably the most diverse group ever to appear together in the U.S., and perhaps in the world. They included members of what came to be identified as Black Mountain, Beat, Umbra, Deep Image, Fluxus, Ethnopoetics, and New York Schools. But there were threads that ran through different sub-groups, and I informally referred to one, including Paul Blackburn, George Economou, Toby Olson, and Joel Oppenheimer, as the Gotham Troubadours. It's no slight to Toby that the one I first wanted to publish among these was Blackburn, though we couldn't arrange for a book before his final illness became apparent, and he began quietly and courteously closing doors. The opportunity to do a book of Toby's presented itself just before Paul's death, and that book, Vectors, was one of my apprentice works in learning to print on an offset press. This I produced at Ed Wolkenheim's Wisconsin Speed Press, the last printer I worked for before setting up my own shop. I set the type using a venerable and cranky Verityper, and decided that the book should be nearly square to match the blocks of type on the pages. I had not yet learned much about book binding, and this one was simply side-stitched.

Toby was at the time writing what seemed to me some of the cleanest poetry in the U.S.: no affectations of any sort, no poses, no pointless cleverness or melodrama, no bragging or complaining about trivia. His verse kept a traditional iambic pulse, but variation in line length and shifts in emphasis made the old metric take on new life. As one of the Gotham Troubadours, he did not go to French or Italian medieval sources, but rather the basic rhythms of poetry and speech from the time Chaucer moved away from Old English to the present. What he had to say remained just as basic, and whether he worked from observations of what was going on in his neighborhood or meditations on the nature of dying or the puzzles of identity, he projected a sense of quiet fascination in the processes of human interaction.

At readings, his presence and delivery retained the directness of the verse. Unlike the poets closest to him in the Manhattan scene, he did not concentrate on the Black Mountain style of measured breath. Nor did he play with tempo and enjambment in the manner those most obviously influenced by jazz assumed, despite the fact that he was a jazz aficionado, and had picked up some of his phrasing from Miles Davis and Jerry Mulligan. Many poets of the time preached a doctrine of "ordinary speech" but often wrote and delivered their poems in a highly stilted manner. No one else at the time came closer to catching the tone and inflections of contemplative statement. In reading his poetry, as in writing it, he avoided affectation and sought its opposite: gaining an easy and comfortable rapport with his audience. Reading slowly and distinctly helped him resume eye contact with audience members first established before he began reading a poem. The eye contact didn't have the quality of a stare, but seemed as though he was trying to make sure the individual audience members understood what he read. At times this also acted as an acknowledgment when someone laughed or made a sound or gesture of approval. A device he picked up from other poets worked particularly well for him: After reading a poem, he sometimes waited a few moments, asked the audience if they would mind hearing it again, and then proceeded to reread it in precisely the same way. His poems usually had a strong narrative base. In the first reading, the audience could follow the "plot" or sequencing nature of the poem; in the second, they could concentrate more on individual lines. Like Blackburn, Toby made recordings of other poets reading. I'm sure he learned a great deal about reading from these tapes as well as his attentiveness to the way people responded to "ordinary speech" as a reality rather than an artistic ideology or affectation which sought to hide affectations.

In 1973 or 74, after I set up shop in my home and had done a number of books there, Toby and I agreed to publish Changing Appearance, a complete collection of his out of print books published up to that time. This was not a small list, since Walter Hamady had regularly published exquisite books in minuscule editions for years. At 136 pages, this was the largest book I had done so far. Type setting and proofing took almost a year. Given my financial limitations and the size of the book, I printed it in stages as money and time allowed.

While working on it, another book more or less generated itself in 1974. Susan was going to spend Thanksgiving with her parents. I took her to the bus station the day before the holiday and went from there to the post office. The ms. for a small book of Toby's, City, was in my P.O. box. I read it in the car. While running errands, the cadences and the sense of the urban possibilities and losses it conveyed stayed with me, seeming to add something missing from Changing Appearance. I thought it might be fun as well as a relief from the slow progress of the larger volume to do City as a one-day book.

I called Toby when I got home, but received no answer. I assumed he'd agree to my printing the book, and decided I could set the type that evening and still consider it a one-day book if I did all the press work the next day. I went to the house where Tom Montag's parents-in-law had given him and his wife and daughter not only a place to live but generous quarters for the offices of Margins. This is where I set the type for my books for a number of years. Unfortunately, no one was home, and even the door to the basement, almost always left open for me, since I usually used the type setter after everyone had gone to bed, was locked. I tried prying open one of the basement windows, but they had been bolted in such a way that prevented anything but breaking the glass from working. We had an electric typewriter whose one face was set up for proportional rather than unit spacing at The Water Street Arts Center, so I decided to use that. As I typed pages, I handed them to people who were in the building to proof. This became something like the Twelve Days of Christmas song, in that every new proof reader I could button-hole had more pages to read. This small book may have had as many as a dozen proof readers. When I got home, I was able to reach Toby on the phone. He was surprised but enthused by the project.

I printed the book on Thanksgiving Day, calling Toby and his wife, Miriam, at regular intervals to let them know how the work was progressing, and to keep up the project's festive atmosphere. Fate and the Lower East Side had a surprise in store for us. Ted Wilentz put copies of the book out on the counter next to the cash register of his 8th Street Bookstore during the month leading up to Christmas and sold several hundred copies, ordering more as he saw how well they moved. This little book turned out to be a best seller by alternative press standards.

Toby and Miriam planed to stay with us for a few days before the next Christmas. I had hoped to get Changing Appearance done by the time they got here. As the date for their arrival drew near, I didn't think I'd make it, and only got the first copies bound the day before by a bit of manic energy and good luck. Diane Wakoski drove Toby and Miriam from Madison to Milwaukee in a new car, I believe an Audi, of which she was enormously proud. During the fussing over the car in front of the house, and the ride Diane insisted she give Susan and me, I surreptitiously handed a copy to Miriam, and asked her to put it on the coffee table at some time after we got back, and when Toby wasn't looking so he would find it by accident. If City was a small Christmas present, Changing Appearance was a successor on a larger scale, and we got to celebrate the holiday along with the publishing party.

In 1976, Toby received a CAPS (Creative Artists Public Service) grant from New York State. Part of this award included a program for buying 700 copies of a book the author published during the year in which he or she received the grant. The program distributed the books throughout the state library system. To me, this was one of the best public funding moves any government organization had devised. A sale of that size would pay for an edition, almost guarantee that a book would be published, and it would get copies distributed to a wide range of readers. Thus it not only supported the poet, it also supported the publisher in a better way than any other grants known to me. Financing books in such a way as to get them in circulation rather than gathering mildew in publishers' basements seemed as close to an ideal system as any heretofore offered.

I had never applied for a grant as a poet or for my press, though I had been co-signator on applications such as those for the second phase of Water Street Arts Center and other group efforts. One of my reasons for avoiding public funding was problems created by the unfortunate impact a grant had had in establishing St. Marks. Before this, a major pluralistic scene had taken care of itself without help from outsiders. By simply throwing a sum of money into the picture, bureaucrats had started a process of belligerent clique formation and wars of dominance that still hasn't ended. One of my slogans was "the American revolution wasn't financed by a grant from the British crown." This was not simply part of the rhetoric of the time. Although I had no interest in the armed revolutions that had torn huge gashes in the fabric of all life during the 20th century, I did see my cottage industry for producing books at home and the distribution system of The Water Street Arts Center as part of a general process of moving away from both Marxist and Capitalist models. Despite my ranting about grants, this one sought me out through indirect means, and worked better than any for which I could have applied.

In part because Home was his next book, and in part as a means of thanking me for the previous books, Toby had me in mind as the book's publisher when he applied for the grant. I had hoped to get the book done during the early spring, but several other events got in the way. I had a gig teaching experimental writing at Indiana State U. in June. Jerry and Diane Rothenberg had generously lent us their summer home in Jeffersonville, New York, for the time between the end of classes and October. We planned to go on to Jeffersonville from Bloomington. Whatever didn't get done before we left wouldn't get done until autumn. I had to bring in enough money to support us over the summer and leave a nest egg when we got back. Things to do mounted up as the departure date drew nearer. As nature or trickster spirits often arrange it, the problems I had had with First Book of Omens, a book I had started the previous winter and could not complete then, resolved themselves three weeks before departure time. Since I was in a manic phase and couldn't keep myself from trying to do everything, I couldn't resist dropping my other projects to finish the text and print the book. This set back binding on Home. I spent most of the last week getting this and several commercial books bound and shipped. Each day that passed left me less time for sleep, and I got none during the last three days of virtual non-stop binding.

During the summer, we made several side trips outside our regular rhythm of spending a week or so in Jeffersonville and an equal amount of time in New York City. One was to Toby and Miriam's summer cottage on Cape Cod. Toby had built a small studio behind the cottage. If the cottage wasn't serene enough, the studio was more so: quiet, surrounded by sand dunes, a little, well-ordered world unto itself. Toby had a license to take clams from the area. George Economou, who had a cottage up the Cape with his wife, Rochelle Owens, had a permit to take oysters. The two licenses allowed a diet of plentiful shellfish, and let us engage in the leisurely and almost meditative process of hunting for them. Miriam set a truly elegant table, whether for a modest meal or something more elaborate. I remember particularly eating clams outside at evening, when the blues, grays, and purples of the setting sun matched the dishes she got out for the occasion. The serenity, courtesy, and pleasant leisure of this place suggests the home source for some of the qualities most salient in Toby's poetry, and how he could bring it into the hypercharged and at times raucous environments of the lower east side cafes or the midwestern venues I set up for his readings.

In 1973, Toby had visited me in Milwaukee with the ms. of his first novel. He had a contract for its publication through New Directions. He was in the final polishing stages of work on the book, and we took turns reading most of it aloud to each other, carrying some of the sense of cooperative reading and peer commentary of the 1960s lower east side milieu into the process. Toby became more interested and more dedicated to fiction during the next five years. I published Aesthetics, the last completed volume of his poems of this period, in 1978. For a number of years after this, he occasionally added to his Standards series, but had no new books for me to do while I still ran the press in Milwaukee. Some of his work reappeared at my sites on the web in the 90s.

Alternative publishing has always included difficulties. Producing and selling Toby's books was not free of them. Still, this run of titles remains for me a model of how book production can be most pleasant.

Click here to return to Some Volumes of Poetry, Part 1

Click here to go to excerpts from Home
Click here to go to the complete Aesthetics