Peninsula Poetry: Rolf Olson


This month’s featured poet is Rolf Olson. After graduating from Colorado College with a degree in philosophy, he apprenticed with a builder of classic wooden boats, then spent 25 years as a craftsperson in wood and metal and as a builder of boats, houses and furniture. Olson was also a longtime resident manager at the Ashbrooke Suites in Egg Harbor before moving to Sturgeon Bay with his wife, Carol. These days, he drives a daily bus route for Sevastopol School and is a volunteer blacksmith who demonstrates his craft several days a week at Sturgeon Bay’s Heritage Village.

Olson has been reading and writing poetry for 20 years and is a member of the Unabridged Poetry Group. His first chapbook, One Glass Eye, was published in 2003, followed by Riot at the Poet’s Café in 2015. His poem “Geronimo” earned first place in the 2013 Hal Prize competition. Olson recently recorded an interview with Nathan Reid as part of the Council for Wisconsin Writers’ Poetry Month Film Series, available on YouTube.

Olson shared the following answers to our questions about his work and poetry in general.

What’s your writing routine?

I do not have a daily routine or a specific writing time of the day. I find myself ambushed by poems. I write when an idea seems interesting or fruitful. 

I generally brainstorm around a central theme, writing down all the words and phrases that I can generate in no particular order. I give it some time to rest – both on the page and in my mind to clear some space – then start to assemble the poem with a general idea about what I want to say. I try to keep a core vision in my mind and an attendant emotion.

Putting it down seems to be a clarifying process, with additions and subtractions, circles and arrows. I like to handwrite all the early drafts in pencil so I don’t lose ideas that I discard early in the process. Notebooks are great, but often I do not have them with me, so scraps of paper will do, stored in my Ziploc filing system. 

When I think it’s ready, I write it up on the computer, print it out and give it time before I revisit it. Is it true to my initial impulse? Is it concise? Does it have impact? Does it have a surprise? Or humor? Is it unique?

What do most poorly written poems have in common? 

They may be too complex and too personal to have a hook for the general public. They tend to wander and have no clear resolution at the end.

What do most well-written poems have in common? 

A clear vision with a point of emotional attachment for the reader.

Is it important to understand the meaning of the poem or for the reader to be able to “solve” it? 

No. The poet’s meaning and the reader’s meaning may or may not be the same. That is why they call it art. Does it engage you or not?

What book are you reading right now?

The Unswept Room by Sharon Olds and The Food Explorer by Daniel Stone.

Drift and Calm

I am lying dark
On water black and smooth
The stars hung resplendent
Waver and dance on the surface
The poplars stir 
In whispered conversation
As wind spills
Over the bank of trees
Here and there
Faint cat’s-paws
Briefly mar the sleek obsidian
Obliterating far-flung galaxies
The vastness of the cosmos
Is painted thin
Over the mystery of the deep
The heavens twist and heave
As the skiff 
Nibbles at the painter
Yard light

It stood as a sentinel
Looking down on the yard
Its circumspect eye blazing

Stretching from the great double doors of the barn
That were always bumping and jostling
Creaking and groaning
In the night winds

To the milk house door 
Where the pump would jolt to a start
With sharp click 
Seemingly on a whim
Labor for a time 
And then shudder to silence

To the bottom step of the veranda
Where the comings and goings
Were announced with the raspy voice
Of the coiled serpent spring
Followed by the resonant wooden slap
Of the patched and battered screen door

To the foot of the great burr oak 
With the rope and plank swing

I would swing out of the dark
Reaching my toes into the light
And watch the air drift and stream
With the summers’ hatch
As they swarm
Under its porcelain shade 

I am in the habit
Of stepping 
Inside the poem
Of dwelling
In and around
A feeling
A thought
A word
I let the sound
Of my voice
Speaking the image
Drive me deeper
The words
Are not consumed
In my mouth
But expand 
And bear fruit

I walk it out loud
Talk it onto the page

Peninsula Poetry is a monthly column curated by the Door County Poets Collective, a 12-member working group that was formed to publish Soundings: Door County in Poetry (Caravaggio Press, 2015) and continues to meet.