#77 Richard Olafson
January 26th, 2016
LOCATION: Breezy Bay Bed ‘n’ Breakfast, Saturna Island. After arrival at the Lyall Harbour ferry dock, take the second right onto Payne Road, until you see the Breezy Bay gate on your left.
Officially, Ekstasis Editions was founded by Richard Olafson in 1982 in the basement of the now-defunct Galleries Untitled on Government Street in Victoria, B.C. That’s where he printed his own first book, Blood of the Moon, on a 1250 Multilith Press. It’s also where Olafson met Miles Lowry, who illustrated his book, and 22-year-old gallery owner K.C. Tebbitt who let him sleep on the gallery floor when Olafson hitchhiked to town from Saturna Island.
Equally the birthplace of Ekstasis was the Breezy Bay Bed ‘n’ Breakfast on Saturna Island, still very much in business under the ongoing ownership of the Saturna Island Free School in 2015. With four guestrooms, the renovated, rustic farmhouse is situated on a 50-acre certified organic farm. It was originally built in 1892 by an English farming couple, Gerald and Elizabeth Payne. The caretaker in the early 1970s was Richard Olafson.
“I was living at the time alone in the big house there and doing chores on the farm and renovating the house to pay for my board,” he recalls. “I got offered that job at the Lighthouse Pub. So I split my time between Saturna and Victoria. I did work on books in both places. bill bissett was a frequent visitor at Breezy Bay. It was where he and Martina dropped off their daughter, to be raised on the farm, when they were in difficulty with the law and social services. Colin Brown was another poet who lived there for a time, as well. Saturna is where I bought the printing press and eventually moved it to the Gallery. I laid out the pages of Blood of the Moon on a piano bench in the big old heritage home.”
Richard Olafson is most widely known as the publisher of Ekstasis Editions, a literary press in Victoria that he has owned and operated with his partner Carol Ann Sokoloff, a songwriter, singer and author. The press primarily operated from their first home in Victoria at 1251 Rudlin Street, where they raised their two children. They retained ownership after their moved to another house in Victoria, using the Rudlin location for book storage and an office. The Rudlin Street house was destroyed by fire in March of 2015, following an explosion of propane tanks caused the tenants smoking. The Olafson lost about 40,000 books, mostly backlist titles, and some personal belongings. Around the same time, the BC Arts Council rejected Olafson’s application for funding.
Ekstasis Editions has published over three hundred titles of poetry, fiction, criticism, children’s and metaphysical books–an average of about one hundred books per decade–over more than thirty years of operations. Olafson re-published Blood of the Moon as a 30th anniversary edition dated 2012, with a foreword Carolyn Zonailo [See below].
Olafson previously attended the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics during its second year of operation (in 1977) and was much influenced the following year by taking classes from Warren Tallman at UBC’s English Department. His other literary influences include Francois Vilon, Dante, Jack Gilbert and Artaud. Also a book designer, he has published many chapbooks and books. His collected poems from 1979 to 1986 can be found in Cloud on My Tongue (Ekstasis 1998 $12.95). In his own writing Olafson is primarily concerned with metaphysics, love and nature.
The word ‘Ekstasis’ comes from an ancient Greek word, meaning ‘to stand outside oneself.’ After publishing 328 titles in 28 years, Richard Olafson of Ekstasis Editions reluctantly found himself in a state of ekstasis in 2009 when he received a letter from Canada Council advising him, in his words, that his operations were “not up to the standards of the Canada Council.” Without Council backing, he was forced to pull the plug on his book publishing operations in 2009. “I am one of the few poetry publishers who pays advances to poets,” he lamented. The potential loss of Olafson as a literary linchpin in Victoria was also lamentable. His offshoots have included the Pacific Festival of the Book and the City of Victoria Book Prize. In his spare time he somehow managed to publish the Pacific Rim Review of Books. Having received widespread support from writers during a crisis involving his relations with Canada Council two years before, Olafson was not keen to return to the barricades for another letter writing offensive.
Drawn from a series of chapbooks of writing from a period of residency on Saturna Island, Richard Olafson’s poetry collection Island in the Light celebrates coastal nature.
Director Michel Poulette’s critically acclaimed Quebecois feature film Maina is based on a story that was first published in English by Richard Olafson’s Ekstasis Editions, in 2001. Having outlasted a funding crisis, the 32-year-old literary press in Victoria issued a full slate of new books in 2014 that included a coffee table book on the Komagata Maru Incident and a trilogy of novels by Linda Rogers. She had published volume one, Empress Letters, with Cormorant Editions, but her follow-up volume received only a minimal print run, prompting Olafson to jump into the breech, redesigning covers for the trilogy, re-editing all three books and making them all available in November of 2014.
Blood of the Moon (Ekstasis, 1982; 2012) $22.95 978-1-897430-85-9
The Name of Being
In Arbutus Light
Roses Pearls Ocean Stars
The Ocean And My Body Are One
Ocean of Light, Shore of Shadows.
Cloud of My Tongue (Ekstasis 1998)
Against the Shore: The Best of the Pacific Rim Review of Books (Ekstasis, 2009), anthology co-edited with Trevor Carolan. 978-1-897430-34-7
Island in the Light (Ekstasis 2010) $19.95 978-1-897430-02-6
Along the Rim: Best of Pacific Rim Review of Books (Ekstasis 2014) Anthology co-edited with Trevor Carolan. $22.95 978-1-897430-66-8
[BCBW 2014] “Poetry” “Publishing”
Naming the Baby: A Poem for My Son
Around your cradle we circle
Your namelessness, and seek to prune
A name from the highest branch
Or our family tree, all our family
One body still lit up
Within by the mystery of birth.
A first smile on your still fresh face, I shine
Above the changetable in the bedroom
And a diaper comes off, diaper rash on your skin,
Smarts, a fern in a fossil: a child’s cry is a dark
Geology of the heart. Your fingers grasp my hair
With tiny hand still emergent from the water’s
Source and swim salmon-bred
Towards a genealogical sea.
A name charts the geography of soul
Casting a net into the flowing river
Of consciousness. A forest hides you,
A game we play with our palms
And with my hands I massage
Your feet to calm you
And on the light-spattered branches I
The tang of spring on the leaves
releases a resonance
On the tongue, stuttering your name
in my praise
Charges my breath with hard vowels,
—from There Are Some So Unlikely They Don’t
Even Have Bodies by RichardOlafson (Ekstasis $14.95) 1-894800-18-4
The word ‘ekstasis’ comes from an ancient Greek word meaning ‘to stand outside oneself.’ Richard Olafson is now in a state of ekstasis.
After publishing 328 titles in 28 years, Olafson, who owns and operates Ekstasis Editions of Victoria, has received a letter from Canada Council advising him, in his words, that his operations are “not up to the standards of the Canada Council.” Without Council backing, he is reluctantly pulling the plug. The potential loss of Olafson as a literary lynchpin in Victoria is also lamentable because his offshoots include the Pacific Festival of the Book, the City of Victoria Book Prize and the Pacific Rim Review of Books. Olafson says he is unwilling to mount any counter-offensive, having received widespread support from writers during a crisis involving his relations with Canada Council two years ago.
“I am one of the few poetry publishers who pays advances to poets,” he says, “And it is a slap in the face of the West. There are at least three entities that will expire when I quit.
“First off, what Victoria and Vancouver Island and the province need more than anything is a major book festival and the Pacific Festival of the Book satisfies that goal. It occurred this year because Carol and I financed half of it. We had about 50 local and international authors, brought some Beats up from SF, and had visitors from Europe participating.
“Secondly, the country needs more than ever a publishing house with a purely literary mandate, that is willing to risk the publication of first time authors, and addresses the nature of the modern lyric. Ekstasis Editions is a necessary press. I have already invested in this year, paid advances for books including new poetry by Dennis Reid, current chair of the League of Canadian Poets, as well as a tribute to Victoria with art and poetry by the city’s major figures such as PK Page and Marilyn Bowering, edited by poet laureate Linda Rogers. As well I have signed the contracts for 4 translations, two from Québécois writers, and all these books may never see the light of day. This will affect the careers and incomes of writers and translators, as well as many others including editors, graphic artists, employees and printers.
“Thirdly, with the disappearance of media and especially book coverage in the popular media, it is a necessity that a journal like the Pacific Rim Review of Books exists, a journal devoted to pure critical discourse yet in a familiar and casual style. The PRRB is the perfect journal for Canada right now. Now that Books in Canada no longer exists in paper format it is the only one.”
BIRTH OF A POET: An Introduction by Carolyn Zonailo (2012)
The West Coast of British Columbia is admittedly one of the most beautiful places in the world, as witnessed by the passengers on the numerous cruise ships that go up and down between Vancouver and Alaska. Among this bounty of beauty there are two places that I would single out as being special. The B.C. coastline includes numerous islands. The Haida Gwaii (unofficially called the Queen Charlotte Islands) are more northern and the Gulf Islands are south of Vancouver and Victoria. I single out Haida Gwaii as a “sacred place.” Saturna Island is incredibly beautiful and one of the more isolated Gulf islands. Saturna, in the 1970s and 1980s, was a refuge of creativity for artists, poets, writers, and musicians inspired by the beauty of the landscape, including the amazing sandstone formations on the island. A community supportive to the arts was comprised of the Island’s inhabitants, who were a mixture of locals, city people, and former Americans. There was a permanent population on Saturna Island, it was not only a destination for tourists or summer residents. Those who made Saturna their home bonded into a community, albeit with different cliques.
My involvement with Saturna Island, in the 1970s and 1980s, came about because of a close relationship with the visual artist, Anne Popperwell. Popperwell drew and painted amazing art work bringing the sandstone rock formations onto her canvases. I used a detail from one of her large drawings “rock totems” 4 x 8 graphite on gesso, on the cover of an early chapbook of mine, split rock (Caitlin Press, 1979). I still enjoy the several Popperwell paintings that hang in my home.
It seems to me that it is no coincidence that poet, publisher, and book designer Richard Olafson spent time on Haida Gwaii and lived on Saturna Island. I was giving a poetry reading on Saturna when I first met Olafson. The young poet was in the audience. During my reading I talked about what I was doing in my writing but also the process of founding Caitlin Press in Vancouver in 1977 and what it was like running a literary small press, editing and publishing poetry by other writers. I felt this work with Caitlin Press was part of my vocation as a poet.
Olafson’s Blood of the Moon was originally published in 1982; when I met Richard Olafson, at that Saturna Island reading, he was in the process of putting his first manuscript into book form. I met Olafson at the pivotal point when he was just beginning what has become an enormously creative, prolific, and dedicated career. Richard Olafson has by now published approximately 350 titles with Ekstasis Editions and has continued to write books and chapbooks of his own poetry, at least nine or ten at my last count, including recent titles Cloud on My Tongue and There Are Some So Unlucky They Do Not Even Have Bodies.
Now, as Ekstasis Editions gets ready to celebrate its thirtieth anniversary—a feat in itself for a literary small press that publishes mainly poetry—Blood of the Moon, Olafson’s first book, is being reprinted as a part of the celebration of the press. But the reprinting of Olafson’s first poetry book is not just a milestone for Ekstasis Editions, it also emphasizes the importance of Richard Olafson’s poetry and poetic journey.
During Olafson’s time on Haida Gwaii, he read The White Goddess by Robert Graves, from which the inspiration for the title of his first book came. The title Blood of the Moon was derived from a line in The White Goddess, where Graves writes that the Greek word for blood is also the word for moon and menses, hence, blood of the moon. Olafson says that another Greek word came to him around that point. The word was Ekstasis which is defined as “to stand outside of oneself.” Thus, Olafson’s first book of poetry and his literary press were conceived and came into being at approximately the same stage in the poet’s life, both partly inspired by Olafson’s time spent on Haida Gwaii and Saturna Island. But this poet’s poetic journey did not begin on these beautiful West Coast islands.
It was not just the radiance of the West Coast, or the magic of the Haida Gwaii, or the lifestyle on Saturna Island, that lead to Olafson becoming a poet and publisher. Indeed, the young Richard Olafson took a long route to get to the publication of his first book, Blood of the Moon. Born in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Olafson attended school mostly in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. When Richard Olafson was growing up, his family moved among different rural places in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Once the family reached North Battleford, Olafson’s father abandoned them; what Olafson describes as “my Mom left with a brood of kids in the middle of nowhere.” But “nowhere” was fertile ground for the growing-up Richard Olafson, although life wasn’t easy for the young poet-to-be. Nowhere was the place where Olafson read. He read poetry. He dreamed. He loved poetry. He read and he dreamed and he loved poetry, in contrast to the starkness of his surroundings and his family life.
Richard Olafson, having finished high school, took an incredible step. He enrolled in classes at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Both the Jack Kerouac School and the Naropa University were founded by the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa, and Beat Generation poets Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman. Allen Ginsberg, along with co-director Anne Waldman, decided to name the literary school in honour of Ginsberg’s friend, Jack Kerouac, the famous Beat author of the novels On the Road and Dharma Bums. Thus, the new literary school became the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, located in Boulder, Colorado. The Jack Kerouac School emphasizes innovative approaches to literary arts. All classes are taught by active, publishing writers who are widely anthologized, and perform and lecture internationally. The name of the school is also suggestive of the emphasis on a poetics of spiritual insight and illumination.
Richard Olafson attended the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics during the School’s early years. This was perhaps the most exciting time to be at the Jack Kerouac School. It was when the organization of the school was still in its developmental stage. The mission of the school is “the education of students as knowledgeable practitioners of the literary arts.” This was just what Olafson needed, an amazing jump start to his poetry career that prior to this was still in its formative stages. At the Jack Kerouac School Olafson was mentored by such literary luminaries as Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg. This was heady stuff for a young man born and raised on the Canadian prairies. This was obviously a turning point for Olafson. To be mentored in his writing at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics was when Richard Olafson’s commitment to the life of being a writer in a social milieu of writers became paramount for him.
After being in Colorado, Olafson moved to British Columbia where he studied with Warren Tallman. Tallman was a controversial figure and an American by birth who had moved to Vancouver to teach at the University of British Columbia. Tallman brought with him an extensive knowledge of American poetry and poets, including that of Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and many others who were at the forefront of a rebirth of poetry and poetics in the United States. Warren Tallman was an instrumental influence on young B.C. poets such as George Bowering, Lionel Kearns, and others who went on to be known as the TISH poets.
By the time Olafson had attended the Jack Kerouac School and studied with Warren Tallman, he would have been well informed of contemporary American poetry. When Richard Olafson settled in Victoria, on Vancouver Island, he met English-born Robin Skelton, a poet and professor at the University of Victoria, who had a profound influence on Olafson’s direction in publishing. Robin Skelton, an excellent teacher and flamboyant figure on the Victoria literary scene, would have offered Olafson a different approach to poetry and literary life than what he had encountered from his American teachers and mentors. This was a stark contrast in poetic and cultural identity. Now, the young poet’s education in poetry was complete. Now, Richard Olafson was his own man, with his whole literary career ahead of him, to make of it what he could.
When I first met Olafson on Saturna Island, after my reading there, he was still working on the manuscript for his first poetry collection, Blood of the Moon. This is an extraordinary and fascinating book. It is very rare that one reads poems that allow the vulnerability that Olafson expresses in these poems. Any façade, any pretence, is absent. The poems reveal someone who is intoxicated with his vision and newly discovered voice in poetry. These poems reach an intensity that is exceptional in any poetry. The result is an explosion of words, some exhibiting his youth and inexperience, but many forming themselves as complete poems.
In these poems, Olafson moves between two poles, the masculine and the feminine, but it is the feminine that predominates. This is because Olafson is experiencing the liberating discovery of the anima in the psyche of a young man. The title of the book, Blood of the Moon, is an expression of this quest to re-vision the feminine in the masculine consciousness. Richard Olafson was familiar with the notions of anima and animus as delineated by the Swiss psychiatrist, analyst, and author Carl Gustav Jung. For a man to discover his anima is a point of illumination in which feelings, creativity, and a more sensitive side of a person can be accessed, understood, and expressed. It was healing and energizing for Olafson to find out that he could openly embrace these more feminine elements in himself, without losing his masculine identity.
During the thirty years from when Richard Olafson first published Blood of the Moon and now, having lived in these intervening years a life dedicated to literature that most people would find precarious at best, Olafson has not only survived but thrived. It seems to me that Richard Olafson’s very openness and vulnerability to the Muse, as expressed in these early poems, is also what has protected Olafson on his journey. For Robert Graves, the Muse is the “White Goddess”—symbolized by the moon—which is the psychic energy behind the writing of poetry. It is a curious and amazing passage that Richard Olafson has been on, one for which he deserves to be respected and honoured.
The poems in Blood of the Moon are celebrations of poetry and are significant in that they bring together the masculine and feminine. They are unfiltered, but not unedited, invocations to the White Goddess. As such, the poems betray a youthful exuberance; some of these poems lack a sophistication that I feel, in this case, is secondary to the achievement of the poems. The poems in this volume are written as though in the light of the moon, a light that makes them more diffuse than defined, less emotionally sophisticated than celebratory, and more youthfully ecstatic than critical. If the poet is aware of the shadows cast by the moonlight, he isn’t exploring what lies in the shadows. The poet is overwhelmed by the vision of poetry, not a defined perception, but what lies in the unconscious mind, the archetypal and symbolic level of what C.G. Jung termed the collective unconscious. “To Sappho” deserves to be quoted in full:
I must regret the time
that has passed between us,
the dust of so many centuries
blown through your poems
along country roads and island winds,
sea drowned and disintegrated,
ragged travelers of an age disheveled
by the hostile storm of years, the words
in the erasure of the palimpsest of history.
Olafson’s poems in this collection were written when the poet was in his twenties, poems that were influenced by Hart Crane, Robert Duncan, W.B. Yeats, John Donne, Antonin Artaud, Garcia Lorca, and others. Olafson’s dedication to poetry begins early, before his attendance at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. The poetics at the Jack Kerouac School would have probably been inclusive, post-modern, and derivative of the Beatnik movement. Perhaps this is where Olafson wrote “Love Song of Ariadne,” “Poetry and Naked Women,” and “Mirror of Blood.” His time at the Jack Kerouac School was personally and creatively encouraging. It helped develop in him the lifelong belief that poetry has importance and a place in contemporary society.
All put together, Olafson’s early and solitary reading of poetry, his being a student at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, his time spent on Haida Gwaii and Saturna Island, plus other influences mentioned above—these experiences became the catalyst to Richard Olafson’s birth as a fully grown man and as a poet. It takes a well-read and intelligent young poet to sort through the variety of influences in Blood of the Moon. The poems in this first book belong to that liminal time when the poet transcends from an unformed youth who aspires to write poetry, to a poet learning his craft. I quote the following lines from “Poetry and Naked Women”:
The woman is naked.
She is the moon.
The poet is naked.
And he is howling at the moon.
What a beautiful poetic music Richard Olafson’s howling at the moon has engendered these past thirty years. What an amazing labour of love Olafson has performed by designing and being midwife to over 350 titles by Canadian poets. What an incredible cultural contribution Olafson has made to the landscape of Canadian poetry. We are all the richer for the poetic journey and the years of hard work and commitment to poetry on the part of Richard Olafson. His is the rare combination of mystic and practical, idealist and energetic doer of things in the world. Congratulations to Ekstasis Editions on its thirtieth year anniversary. I wish all the best for this reprinting of Olafson’s first poetry book, Blood of the Moon, as these poems once more make their way to the public.
I would like to thank poet Stephen Morrissey for helping me prepare this Introduction. I also thank him for sharing his ideas, his perceptiveness about poetry, and his extensive knowledge of Canadian and American contemporary poetry.
Carolyn Zonailo, Vancouver/ Montreal, September 2012
French connection gets short shrift
A romantic adventure film, set in Labrador six hundred years ago, made in Quebec, with much of its dialogue in Inuktitut and Innu, ostensibly doesn’t have much to do with British Columbia literature, except for the fact that Maina, the critically acclaimed feature from Michel Poulette, is based on a story that was first published from Victoria’s Ekstasis Editions in 2001. Inside everyone is a frontier waiting to be discovered. That’s the promo line for Poulette’s new feature film Maina, the story of how the daughter of Innu Grand Chief Mishtenapuu (Graham Greene) is captured by the Innuit of the frozen north after venturing into their territory to rescue a young boy from her community. Forced to adapt to a new life with a new clan in igloos, Maina (Roseanne Supernault) learns new customs and finds love. The film was named Best Picture at the American Indian Film Festival and garnered six Canadian Screen Award nominations. The Union Films release has since won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor at the Dreamspeakers Film Festival. Quebecois director Poulette has worked for major Québec and Canadian TV networks, as well as for Showtime and Lifetime. He made his feature-film directorial debut in 1994 with Louis 19, le roi des ondes, which was followed by La Conciergerie (1997). “I did not get any money out of the deal,” recalls Richard Olafson of Ekstasis Editions, “and I only sold about 20 copies when I first published it.” Maïna (Ekstasis $21.95) was originally a young adult novel that marked the debut of Dominique Demers, now recognized as an outstanding author for young readers in Quebec. Having published approximately 350 titles over a 32-year period, Olafson was recently denied any funding by the BC Arts Council, an organization that still refuses to release the names of its jurors upon request (Canada Council does), fails to respond to letters and hires under-qualified staff. Undeterred, Olafson is planning to publish translations of books by ‘Franco-Columbique’ authors who write in French but live in British Columbia, starting with Nicole Dagiere who lives in Surrey. “I am not angry or resentful,” says Olfason, in response to being unsupported by BC Arts Council, “just disappointed.” Ekstasis has previously published Francophone Andre Lamotaigne, who lives in Vancouver, and includes a range of Francophone authors in translation: Claudine Bertrand, André Carpentier, Robert Lalonde, Emile Ollilvier, Annik Perrot-Bishop, Hélène Rioux and Yolande Villemaire. Mona Fertig’s Mother Tongue imprint, having published a critically acclaimed series of books about under-heralded artists of B.C., was also again denied access to BCAC Block Funding for Book Publishers by a BC Arts Council jury. Canada Council supports both presses. 978-1896860572