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KGB Interview - Marc Olmsted

by John Wisniewski

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Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with poet/filmmaker Marc Olmsted (photo left). In our interview we spoke about Marc’s influences, his films, “The Count” and others, as well as filmmaker Kenneth Anger and H.P.Lovecraft. Marc frequently spoke with cohorts William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, and shares some of his stories about his relationships with his fellow artists and authors.

When did you begin writing and do you draw or paint as well?

My dad (Nelson Olmsted) was reading me Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s THE LOST WORLD after we’d seen the 1960 movie and when the book was done, I asked him to write more about Prof. Challenger and his dinosaur plateau.  Dad said, “You write it.” So at age 7 I discovered how great that was, to be able to do that.  I was encouraged to draw, too, so I still draw and paint, but very backseat to writing and poetry in particular. 

What may inpsire your writings?

Basically, my poetry is about observation, whether of outside events, or the mind’s “news feed,” what’s going by.  So that can include recent political events too, what’s weighing on my mind.  Just notation of that, which is the Objectivist lineage of William Carlos Williams through both Kerouac and Ginsberg.  Prose usually has a story line in advance, and then I riff with that, try to be as spontaneous as possible within that form, like hanging a sax improv on a basic skeleton - Kerouac’s influence again.  Beneath this interest in the mind’s movement is a fascination or celebration that “mind” or awareness is so much bigger than rational mind, the way it knows how to work without an agenda.  So there’s a sense of wonder in that movement, a sacredness that is inspiration itself, mind just continually flashing.  But without some grounded quality, like training in choosing image over some editorial non-image phrase like “war is bad” or “I’m in love”, in other words, some mindfulness training as in Buddhist meditation, spontaneity itself can be pretty dull, even incoherent.  You can’t solo on a sax without knowing how to play.  Maybe once in a great while you’d pull something off, but mostly you’d just suck.  That training is mindfulness training.  Learning how to calmly abide so you can see the images that are beneath the static, whether in front of your eyes, or “behind” your eyes.  Great writers can often do that without even learning it.  I am not one of them.

When did you meet Allen Ginsberg? What was your first impression of him? 

I met Ginsberg by giving someone directions to a UC Berkeley lecture hall that turned out to be a talk by Chogyam Trungpa.  I knew that was Ginsberg’s Tibetan Buddhist teacher (this was 1974), so I went.  Ginsberg was there and after the talk (which was great!) I introduced myself.  Ginsberg was exactly as he seemed he would be - that same persona of his poems and interviews - generous, open, smart.  So that warning about “don’t get too close to your heroes” wasn’t true in Allen’s case.

Can you tell us about your film projects-what inspired you to make “The Count”?

I was making little Super 8 narratives after two years of college, now back in L.A. (where I mostly grew up) summer 1974 and just hating L.A.  So I decided to go to film school, and picked San Francisco State, which was fortunately a great choice for a lot of amazing stuff that would go down there, but rationally completely dope addled.  I think things have changed now, but then you might as well have kissed any Hollywood ambition goodbye.

S.F. State had quite the collection of experimental film and I was converted.  Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Bruce Conner...fantastic stuff.  I was particularly affected by Bruce Bailee’s “Mass for the Dakota Sioux” which suggested a new radical style of narrative.

I’d met Ginsberg almost immediately when I moved to S.F. Fall 1974. He took me to Burroughs’ bunker on an NYC visit 1977. “Burroughs on Bowery” was shot then and I finished the film in 1978.  I was still at S.F. State, now in film grad school.  Most of the student body and faculty hated the movie.  They actually voted to keep it out of film finals.  I’d already begun making “American Mutant” and shot the rest that summer 1978 when I visited Naropa Institute for a week.  But 16mm film was VERY expensive.  Poetry pays nothing, but at least it costs nothing.  Plus, I had serious doubts about any audience for my films after that scathing film finals reaction.  So I didn’t make a print of “Mutant” until 1991 and added the current soundtrack around 2010.  They’re both on YouTube.

After I found out how easy digital video was, I made “The Count” with old poet friend Richard Modiano as Dracula.  We’d talked for years about doing something like this and it was a sort of bucket list notion, a feature length project, albeit on the cheap in the spirit of Edgar G. Ulmer after maybe a lot of acid.  It should be on Amazon streaming soon.

“Remembering Neal Cassady” was just shot on the fly as video journalism to capture Beat artist Bob Branaman’s memories.  Also on You Tube.

Are you a fan of horror films and fantasy/horror writing, such as H.P.Lovecraft?

I’ve loved horror films since age 5 when I realized you could change the channel on the TV. I was then in control of my monsters.  Lovecraft I discovered in high school and devoured him.  I don’t really read horror fiction much anymore unless someone gives it to me.  Certainly the Kim Newman “Anno Dracula” series had a big influence on “The Count”.  Clive Barker has had an influence on my mind in general, a sort of “pleasure and pain one taste” charnel ground reality.  Very Tibetan Buddhist, minus the emptiness (which is a big minus). 

Are you interested in magic-Aleister Crowley etc.?

I was a member of the Crowley lodge O.T.O. (the Caliph Hymanaeus Alpha O.T.O - there are many splinter groups.) This was 1978-1985.  I found out Israel Regardie, one of Crowley’s most famous students, was actually in the phone book and lived a mile from where I grew up in L.A.  I met him and corresponded with him and he verified the O.T.O. I’d heard about up in Berkeley.  It was the Main Lodge at that time. 

I am still very sympathetic and Crowley-positive, but ultimately the path seemed too risky for me once I got clean and sober.  That’s just a personal thing, but it was hard to ignore that, historically speaking, a lot of Crowley students had a habit of going nuts.  Still, I’ve met the sane ones too, like Regardie and the Caliph (aka Grady McMurtry). 

There is an interesting story in your book about Kenneth Anger.  Perhaps you could tell us about this?

Back in the early 80s of the last century (I like saying that!) the most popular song in my band The Job’s set list was “Lucifer Rising”, which took its name from Kenneth Anger’s underground film, and included a lyric about “Here comes Mr. Anger/streaming force and fire.” We were putting out a 45 record.  The head of the Aleister Crowley magickal lodge I belonged to, the O.T.O., knew Anger and thought we’d better run it past him.  So I sent him a cassette and Mr. Anger was not happy.  Nobody had used his title yet.  Now you can find several different books and records by that name, but we did not want to magickally piss off Kenneth Anger, to be sure.  It was supposed to be homage, anyway.  The song came out as “Lightbringer” and was now the B-side of the 45.  No “Lucifer Rising” chorus, no mention of Kenneth Anger.  The song suffered for the loss of the refrain, which had a great punch.

Can you tell us about the Allen Ginsberg Memorial celebration? Who was in attendance, and did your band play?

I read at the L.A. Ginsberg memorial which was sold out and was treated like a king until I tried to sneak a friend in.  That went over badly and I was severely demoted on whatever invisible list the promoters had.  I almost didn’t get to read after they flew me in and put me up in a Westwood hotel.  I had never received such star treatment before (or since) and also felt what happened when you fall from grace.  Very L.A..  All very smoke & mirrors.  Why me?  Honestly, it was almost random.  My band The Job had broken up 12 years earlier (this was 1997 now) so chance of us playing.  (A reunion didn’t come until 2013.) One of my most vivid memories was of Johnny Depp backstage and I thought to talk with him about his Kerouac memorabilia but there was such hysteria around him it just seemed like very bad form to bother him.  I had never seen this level of madness.  Absolutely no one was cool.  Even my desire to talk to him seemed uncool. 

Any stories about Peter Orlovsky? Did you get to know him well?

I think I saw a lot of Peter during a relatively drug free period around Trungpa Rinpoche.  Late 1970s.  He was very very warm and fun and nutty in a good way.  I only heard about mental problems and drug abuse later.  He was an incredibly serious Buddhist at this time, in the sense of really putting in the pilot hours of practice.

Can you tell us about your future projects?

Ginsberg said to me all the way back in 1989, “Prepare your manuscripts for death.” I’m very healthy at nearly 61, but since I’ve retired I’ve had the time to begin organizing my archives so if something happened to me, my life’s work is there, which I think may have value after my death as an American Buddhist pilgrim’s progress, warts and all.  Or it may not.  At any rate, there’s a lot that hasn’t been published, or ever gathered into a book if it’s appeared in some zine or anthology.  There’s also the music and the film, too.  And some painting. 

Ginsberg said it as a way to put things in perspective, but it was only when I could SEE death, like the beginning of a sunset, that I really took him in earnest.  It’s very sobering, but very freeing.  If the work has value, it will survive.  So it becomes more about the work than about me, my hurt feelings, or grasping at trying to get someone to publish my novels, etc.  I’ve pushed and self-promoted for nearly 40 years.  I’m tired!  I’ve set a sort of machine in motion, the Marc Olmsted machine, which the web now perpetuates.  So I get contacted by you, or NYC MOMA ("Burroughs on Bowery” will show there Nov. 17, the 16mm print!) so I can let the internet do the work. 

So other than that, I mostly try to write poetry daily, and I have my eye on some fiction that should be finished.  It’s peaceful.  My Buddhist practice is very inspiring, I’ve been married 14 years and my wife Suzi is my best friend. and I have two new kittens!  The kittens are a real big deal!

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Steve Silberman, Ginsberg and Marl Olmsted, San Jose CA, 1988



John Wisniewski is a freelance writer who has written for Paraphilia Magazine, L.A. Review of Books, Toronto Review of Books, Small Press Review, Chiron Review and now KGB Litbar.  He currently resides in West Babylon NY.