“on a certain seam of invisible universe”: an interview with Ralph Maud

Part One of an interview with Ralph Maud from TCR 3.9 (Fall 2009):

STEPHEN COLLIS, TONY POWER, JASON STARNES / “on a certain seam of invisible universe”: an interview with Ralph Maud


Part One
March 29, 2006

Tony Power: We thought we could talk about the beginnings of your Olson collection and SFU Library’s Contemporary Literature Collection, hear about its origins—shrouded in the mists of time now. It goes back almost to the beginning of the University, was it 1965?

Ralph Maud: Well yes, but it goes back to ’63, when I met Olson in Buffalo—at the State University of New York, formerly the University of Buffalo, which used to be a nice place! I came from Harvard to Buffalo to do the Dylan Thomas notebooks. Buffalo had the best modern poetry collection because the librarian, Charles Abbott, was a Rhodes Scholar at the time that Auden and Spender and C. Day-Lewis were at Oxford, and he got the idea that he would collect manuscripts of these and other living authors. Nobody had thought of that! In the fifties, Yale stole William Carlos Williams away from him. But Abbott got the notes for The Sea and the Mirror from Auden, and many, many interesting things, including Dylan Thomas’s notebooks, for which he paid—well, he wouldn’t normally pay for manuscripts, because he didn’t want people manufacturing them for payment, so he refused to pay—but there came an offer from Bertram Rota in London, and it came through the wires during the war, and they had a big conference and ended up paying for them, £5 a piece for these notebooks. Big decisions involved here! And Dylan Thomas in a letter to somebody said, “I’ve just sold my notebooks for the price of a packet of Players’ cigarettes.” Then something happened in ’63, which was suddenly this nice, private little university that depended on the city of Buffalo…well, one of the duties of the younger faculty, the male faculty, was to accept invitations as the “extra man” at dinner tables downtown at the various houses of the rich of Buffalo, just to go and be extra men and be witty and charming, because the funds for the university depended on you! So this was one of those duties I kind of liked. Then in 1963—it wasn’t even sold to the state, there was nobody to sell it, but it just sort of changed into the State University of New York. Weird. But one of the consequences was that there was suddenly plenty of money, and suddenly all kinds of sharp career people started coming in and changing the atmosphere. But one of the great things that happened was Olson came. As you recall, the summer of ’63 was the conference in Vancouver, which was prepared for by Creeley, who Warren Tallman had got to come to UBC for the whole year preceding that so they could get things organized, and they did a summer school, and they had, as you know, Ginsberg and Duncan and Levertov and a few others, and it changed Canadian poetry forever. All the young poets like Bowering and Kearns and Wah were around and they couldn’t help but be influenced; they’d done TISH before, and Warren Tallman had got the thing going—his university within the university. Now Albert Cook became the new chairman at Buffalo; he knew enough that as soon as he heard about Olson teaching at UBC for a summer he phoned him and said, “I’ve got an offer you can’t refuse, come to Buffalo for one semester”—ten thousand dollars or something. And Olson said gee, my wife is having tooth troubles, I gotta pay for a dentist, so yeah, I’ll accept it. He hadn’t worked since Black Mountain College in ’57. He’d just been in Gloucester, experiencing Gloucester and doing the Maximus Poems and not giving himself out as a teacher. So he was ready—his arrival in Buffalo was full of a tremendous energy. But I wasn’t at all prepared because I was in the academic school of poetry: I’d come up through the “New University Wits” of Britain, Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin and all those people, and I’d come to North America and got in with followers of Robert Frost. There was that anthology that Donald Hall did, New Poets of England and America (1957), which contained none of the poets that Donald Allen had in the New American Poetry (1960). The two anthologies were entirely separate, but I knew the Donald Hall people!

Stephen Collis: Was Allen’s anthology a direct response, do you think, to the Hall anthology? There wasn’t much time between them….

Ralph Maud: Well, as the editor of Don Allen’s letters I can say that it wasn’t really a response. But he was representing a real-life division, and I always remember hearing Robert Frost around that time, visiting Harvard and so on, saying, “I get a lot of poetry books, you know, and if they have regular metres and rhymes and stanzas, I keep ’em; if they’ve got long lines and no rhymes I send them to Carl Sandburg.” And so I was a part of keeping the stanzas and the rhymes.

Stephen Collis: How did you move from the Hall to the Allen?

Ralph Maud: It was an issue of Olson’s personality. You can’t meet a genius without being affected by it. I found this just before you came—a little magazine I edited at Buffalo, for which I got somebody to review Donald Allen’s anthology. John Simon, who of course is a hatchet man, he just made fun of it completely. Right at the end he says: “Oddly enough, there are even a few true, well made poems in the anthology. . . . but as far as the majority of Mr. Allen’s poets, these are kids who took up poetry the way one takes up marijuana, Buddhism, switchblade knives, wife swapping, or riding in boxcars, neither more nor less seriously than other kicks. As poets they are neither born nor made, except possibly by one another.” John Simon became a reviewer in New York, had a career of tearing down things. When I finally met Don Allen, I had the embarrassment of wondering if he’d remembered this review, and I think he did; but he was a very polite guy, he didn’t bring it up. Well, my meeting with Don Allen is interesting—it’s an anecdote which I think sums up a lot. I was still doing my Dylan Thomas work—the notebooks were out from New Directions and they even got reviewed in TIME magazine. I thought I would take a copy out to Olson—I’d met him a couple of times, I was impressed. The first time I was really impressed; somebody came rushing in saying you’ve got to meet this new poet, he knew Woodie Guthrie! That was how Olson came on the scene—he knew Woodie Guthrie. Well, you can see the mindset we were in. I must’ve been ready for a change—that’s been proven. But I was lucky that I was the first person that Olson saw when he arrived on the Buffalo campus. I was driving down onto Main Street in my open Morris Minor, with my pith helmet on. And Olson saw my round face and remembered it. It was a kinship.

Stephen Collis: He had the same kind of helmet, maybe.

Ralph Maud: Or he had the same kind of mother, maybe. Harry Keyishian came down and said to me, “You gotta meet this new poet! He knew Woodie Guthrie!” We were left-wingers; with Woodie Guthrie, there was a real bridge to Olson. And we were fighting the Feinberg Certificate at that time—where you had to sign that you hadn’t been a communist. And if you had been a communist, you told the president of the university about it. Very funny. Some people signed and some didn’t. Four hundred people signed it and five didn’t. And Harry was one of them and I was one of them. And we went up to the Supreme Court—you can look it up, it’s “Keyishian v. the State of New York.” We let Harry’s name be up there because he had the most to lose—he was just starting out. That was the first issue: when I met Olson, I must have given the impression that because he knew Woodie Guthrie, he wouldn’t be signing the Feinberg Certificate. But he went home and typed out three single-spaced pages of answer to me, which he never sent.

Stephen Collis: Have you ever seen the document?

Ralph Maud: Oh yeah, it’s at the University of Connecticut library. I could show you a copy of it.

Stephen Collis: What was his response, then, about the Feinberg thing?

Ralph Maud: What is real political action? he’s asking. That sort of hurt, when I finally read it. Where were you all the years when the Feinberg Act was on the statute books? You’re now protesting it? In 1947 it went on. Are you living in a kind of polis where you’re aware and making it something you can really live in, or are you just responsive to events? And this was quite telling, of course. He accused us of “thin” politics. And in those pages he talked about his own political action. In the letter he did send, there were only two questions: “My dear Ralph, What is a civil liberty? And what is the party of your affiliation?” Ahh. And I didn’t reply for a year.

Tony Power: So not much contact at all?

Ralph Maud: Not much contact. That is, it built up during that year in public appearances. The first meeting where I got the measure of Charles Olson—it follows his own career. He began with Melville, and could’ve become a scholar of Melville if he’d wanted to be. And Lyle Glazier had a student who was doing a Ph.D. on Melville, and Lyle had the idea that the dissertation defense could be a public event where Olson responded to it. And lots of people turned up—sixty or seventy people—and it was a marvelous evening. And the young man, who didn’t know what he was getting into really, told us what his thesis was about, and I can still see it. When Olson was called upon, he stood up near the back of the room and started walking down the aisle and talking about Keats returning from the Christmas party and writing a letter about…

Stephen Collis: …negative capability?

Ralph Maud: Negative capability, right. And Olson got to the stage and I thought, Gee, this is something—making leaps between Keats and Melville.

Stephen Collis: He’d probably already seen Melville’s copy of Keats, no?

Ralph Maud: Right, and he’d also written about it. So it wasn’t as impromptu as it might’ve seemed. But I loved him as an intellectual. He was a great intellectual—he could imagine solutions and astound you with his knowledge. And then he did a few faculty seminars, you know, the crème de la crème kind of thing. So by the time months passed I came to know him, and I’ve forgotten how I replied to the letter but I know I did, eventually.

Stephen Collis: Where was Olson living at the time?

Ralph Maud: Wyoming, New York, which was an hour out of Buffalo. Olson got a very good deal—it was a country house with this little guest cottage. Well, he got the guest cottage—it was a millionaire’s estate. I don’t know…poets know how to live, right? I got there—I didn’t announce my arrival, but I thought, 2:30 in the afternoon on a Sunday would be alright, you know, I’d just go for a ride. It was probably apple cider time—lovely cider mills outside Buffalo—we’d go get some cider, just drop in, casual enough. So Betty was in the kitchen, and Olson was there with Donald Allen, who I didn’t expect, and we met and he just sort of disappeared, not in any bad way, he just seemed to disappear. But there was something a bit strange about it because, well, the fireplace was full of ashes. The fire had just died down. And it dawned on me that, of course, they’d been up all night. This is the way Olson lived—he’d been up all night talking to Don Allen. Later on I did have my own all-night session with Olson. But that was it: I was coming at breakfast time after an all-night session—no wonder Donald Allen disappeared, he couldn’t meet anybody at that point. But Olson had this recuperative power. “Come on, we’ll go for a walk”—and we did, we walked down the field. And that was the occasion on which he stubbed his foot into a ploughed rut—“Indians,” he said, “they’re my people.” The Seneca Indians. And that’s what got me onto Charles Hill-Tout and the Salish people, and all the work I’ve done here. I mean, that’s called teaching—when in a phrase you can just open up a whole world to somebody. So that’s what I mean by “genius.” But I didn’t catch on right away, of course…I was deep in the other world. I was newly married, and so I didn’t stay out all night. Jack Clarke was the one who got close to Olson in Buffalo. Jack was a wonderful person—a Blake scholar. He’d been a jazz pianist in bars in Toledo, Ohio; he’d gone through Bowling Green University on the basis of playing jazz piano. So he’d stay up till 3 or 4 in morning, drive around a bit till 5 just to come down off the high. This is what he and Olson did in Buffalo.

Then I came out to Simon Fraser in 1965. Ron Baker, the academic planner for the whole thing, was marvelous. And he couldn’t find anybody better than himself to be head of the English Department, and in a sense that was true enough. He was marvelous because he made us all feel that if we put our shoulders to the wheel, we could get what we wanted out of this place. Fred Candelaria wanted to edit West Coast Review, and he got to do that. Stanley Cooperman got a chance to show off with these big classes—two hundred, three hundred people…

Tony Power: I was in one of those. English 102 with Stanley Cooperman.

Ralph Maud: Well, there you go! What more could a show-off want than what Stanley got? Well, I got the Contemporary Literature Collection. I said I wanted to record what was happening right now, what I had discovered in Buffalo.

Tony Power: I heard there was at first just a bibliography?

Ralph Maud: Well, once I decided I was going to teach Olson when I got to Simon Fraser, I was reading the Maximus Poems a lot—I didn’t understand them at all—so I bugged Olson two or three times. I was the one asking him specific questions—what did that mean? what did that mean? And he’d come up with the answers! Nobody seems to have done that—they were all too scared to indicate that they didn’t know what the poems meant, I guess, or they thought it was beneath his dignity to answer simple questions. But he liked it. And when he knew that I was coming out west and I would make a detour to Berkeley, for the Berkeley conference in July ’65, he said, “Do you want to be my scholar?” Each of the principal people performing at Berkeley were given an extra ticket for somebody; in other words, they could each bring a scholar. Well, I was Olson’s official scholar.

Stephen Collis: Don’t leave home without your scholar!

Ralph Maud: It’s even down there as Olson’s “Scholar”—I’ve got the ticket somewhere. And, you know, you get in free, and you have a kind of status, and of course it was just another example of Olson…which he did for everybody…he treated them in the way in which they would want to be treated if they were living at their best. I mean, if you’re living at your best, this is the way you would be and this is the way somebody should be treating you, acknowledging who you really are and who you wanted to be. And it’s a real wonderful gift. So he made me his scholar. And here we are. So I did turn up at Berkeley. I heard the “Causal Mythology” lecture and lots of other things; he gave a series of seminars. What I didn’t hear was the long Berkeley reading, and I think I’ll put on record the reason I didn’t—it’s because I had to get to Salt Lake City where my wife and son were. My son was having his fourth birthday party, so I drove all night to get to it. And I guess that was worth it. What it meant was that I had to leave before the big reading, and I didn’t care much about it—I thought, Oh, he’ll just read the poems, you know! But Olson that night I missed did something remarkable. He opened his arms to being a public figure; but he didn’t read so everyone could admire him. He said at one point, “I want to abandon my powers.” He was a very powerful figure. In high school and college he was a master debater. He won all his debates. And he went into politics with Franklin Roosevelt. He was persuasive in political situations, in the back rooms, knocking on doors and everything. A very persuasive, powerful guy, but he knew that was only one part—it was the right hand, and he was interested in the left hand as well. How can somebody this powerful not be powerful, especially before an audience? Well, he proved how to get that other value in, and he sort of fell on his face, as it were. And this is where Dorn and Creeley and a few others, Duncan—well, Duncan left halfway through—Creeley stayed, Dorn stayed, but they were embarrassed and they expressed that, and they fueled Tom Clark’s book with that embarrassment…as if Olson had somehow failed, become a pathetic figure. And I believe that’s because they didn’t understand what he was doing, and in fact listening to that tape, as I’ve done a hundred times, I kind of hold the feeling that there’s a human being who is showing us how to go into the future, where domineering power is not what we’re after anymore.

Stephen Collis: It was more performative—more about the performance?

Ralph Maud: Well, it was revealing parts of the psyche that you keep to one side when you’re in your public persona, but he wanted to bring out everything.

Stephen Collis: So after that July in Berkeley, you’re on your way up to Vancouver, your first semester at SFU…

Tony Power: Did you arrive with the idea of starting a collection of Olson and the New Americans?

Ralph Maud: Sort of! I picked up, at Cody’s Books in Berkeley…Cody’s put out a little pamphlet which contained the books of all the principal poets at the Berkeley conference—a bibliography for the occasion. When I arrived here I went over to UBC and looked in the catalogue and none of them were there. None of them!

Stephen Collis: Even with Warren Tallman there?

Ralph Maud: Well, I went to Warren—I said, “What have you been doing?!” He said, “Oh, I gave up long ago on the librarians…they wouldn’t get these books, so,” he said, “what I did is I got them in my home and made it a lending library for all the young poets in Vancouver who wanted to come be part of this!” And that’s what happened! That’s what I always said—a university within a university, that’s what Warren did. But what an opportunity, in that case—UBC absolutely ignored all these people who were rising. So SFU gave them a chance.

Tony Power: Well, Allen, in his preface to the anthology, talks about how hard to come by, how unpublished these writers were. They were being published in the anthology without being published elsewhere. It sounds like at the time the stuff was just not readily available.

Stephen Collis: Even with Duncan, his first trade paperback book of poetry was coming out at the same time as the anthology. For twenty years he’d been publishing with small presses.

Tony Power: There seems to be such a schism there—on the one hand the “academic” and on the other, whatever you call them, the New Americans. They seem to be on complete opposite poles.

Ralph Maud: Well, this is my particular attribute. I’m a trained Ph.D. at Harvard and I have published widely in academic journals not only in the modern field. So when I take up the “madmen,” then at least I can get away with it a little bit—people say oh, there must be something to it! In other words, I applied the prestige of “academia”…and I was able to command a budget of $10,000 a year—part of the library’s budget just for the CLC—which I spent!

Tony Power: Your starting point was to collect around the New American Poetry anthology, wasn’t it?

Stephen Collis: And around the Berkeley Conference?

Ralph Maud: It was, indeed, but when I told Olson what I was planning to do, in a letter, that I would start a collection with Black Mountain people in it, and so on…he wrote back, again one of those insights: “Ralph, I think you’d be better off sticking with me.” And he was absolutely right—I have been like a two-person machine. I did Dylan Thomas and then I switched to Charles Olson. I have not been an authority in my field—I’ve been a scholar of particular people. And there’s a total difference. Literary criticism requires you to be an authority in your field. Well, sure. That’s one thing. A scholar is somebody who knows everything about a few things. So I took that as permission to just make Olson the centre of this collection.
Part Two was recorded on July 1, 2009.

Photograph of Ralph in his office by Tess Maud.

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