Passing the laurel: Nevada County celebrates new poet laureate (LISTEN)
KNOW & GO
What: Truckee Philosophy event hosted by the Poetry Crashers
When: June 12 at 6:30 p.m.
Where: 10412 Donner Pass Road, Truckee
What: Poetry Crashers event with Chris Olander
When: June 26 at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Wild Eyed Pub in Grass Valley
What: Chris Olander featured poet at Woodstock Reunion
When: July 20, all day
Where: Pioneer Park
When Eliza Tudor first suggested Chris Olander be the county poet laureate, he didn’t want the title.
Olander, a Nevada County poet who has taught with the California Poets in the Schools for over three decades, was adverse to such self-promotion. The nature-bound performance poet who tries to strike a balance between the mundane and overly gritty, said he doesn’t publish his work much nor use social media.
But Tudor, executive director of the Nevada County Arts Council, said her organization would do publicity for him. Olander subsequently accepted the position.
On April 27, he became Nevada County’s second poet laureate after Molly Fisk.
The award came with a $1,000 stipend (of which Olander said he’s spent half teaching poetry), and the expectation that the awardee will expose others in the community to poetry.
Olander was selected by the arts council with approval from the county’s board of supervisors, said Tudor. She said the poet laureate title was used in ancient Greece, and hopes — in modern times — the laureate will represent the art council’s values.
“Our poet laureate program,” said Tudor, “we want it to be more than just a label, more than just tokenism.”
The new poet laureate will also be helping the previous laureate with her American Poet Laureate Fellowship project.
“(Olander) is a wonderful performance poet,” said Fisk, “a staunch supporter of poetry through running reading series and his public readings, and he’s done incredible good for the children of this county since he began teaching here in 1984.”
Olander plans to continue teaching with the California Poets in the Schools, become more engaged in community events and connect Truckee’s art scene with that of Nevada City and Grass Valley.
The role of poetry, said Olander, is important as a poet provides an honest interpreter for what is happening in society.
“You study the poets because they will tell you everything you need to know about a culture,” he said.
LIFE IS YOURS TO MAKE
In high school, Olander was almost removed from class by his teacher for claiming poet Samuel Coleridge, known for his poem “Kubla Khan,” regularly used opium.
It was this myopia from his teachers, and their sometimes violent reactions (his friend’s arm was almost broken for having shot spit balls in class), he said, that kept his school performance low.
“I was a horrible student in school,” he said.
But it was not as if Olander didn’t enjoy learning.
The now-poet became interested in Christianity, and graduated from Saint Martin’s University with honors. He read the bible several times, wanting to know how Catholics thought, he said, as they controlled Western literary culture for 1,500 years until the Enlightenment Period, from Aristotle to the Catholic church.
“They were the only ones who really had control of literature.”
At 23, Olander continued reading philosophy, receiving his masters in creative writing from California State University-Sacramento. He veered down a few professional tracks, eventually landing in poetry.
“I was going to be a psychologist and I was going to be a drama student, and all of that was important to me and my career becoming a poet because it taught me how to get up in front of people,” he said. “It allowed me to read people better and form character.”
For Olander, poetry came to represent life, which, as he views it, is what people choose to perceive, and the meaning they derive from such perception. Formulaically, his interpretation looks like this:
Life equals inputs to consciousness plus meaning.
His biblical readings taught him that meaning doesn’t lie in heaven, but, rather, here on Earth.
“What you do right here is what really matters,” he said. “Don’t worry about what’s going to happen later. I really believe our spirituality is right here. We’re in our church every day. It’s here — what do we do?”
LEARNING TO IMAGINE
Since graduate school, Olander’s learning became less structured, but his creative thinking continued to grow.
In the 80s, he began working in construction, sales and landscaping (which he still does) to earn a stable living while writing and teaching poetry.
For a while he lived in a Nevada City cabin without lighting, running water or electricity. The isolation was good for him, he said, allowing for undisturbed thinking. When writing, Olander situated three lamps around his desk, and partook in one vice, which he said is idiosyncratic of most writers.
“I’d take my glass of whiskey” and begin writing, he said. “It was a classic scene, you know.”
Olander also wrote lyrics for music albums and played guitar in his cabin, enabling him to develop a rhythm with words and uncover powerful pauses, giving the audience time to digest his poetry. This is when he developed a penchant for performing poetry.
“Listening to the word spoken out loud was really what made the poem for me,” he said, referencing the work of E. E. Cummings. “He really just opened up the world with (his) phrases.”
In 1985, Olander said he got involved with California Poets in the Schools, teaching in Sierra, El Dorado and Nevada Counties. His teaching and public speaking abilities grew alongside his writing. Kids, he said, helped him understand younger generations and more easily interpret what made good poetry: action, because action develops character.
These interweaving experiences led him to realize the importance of imagination.
“Education is about giving everything to students and letting them play with it, or as Jean Piaget said, ‘you got to have an enriched environment,’ and that’s how you learn.
“There’s so much evidence now that shows that the arts are conducive to imaginative learning and also advancing your own abilities.”
LEssons from animals
Since early adulthood, Olander felt connected to the environment.
In 1972, he was living in Lake Tahoe, he said, when he first witnessed environmental degradation, watching a yellowish stream beginning near an automotive repair shop leak into the Truckee River. The attendant at the auto repair shop told him it was anti-freeze, which is potentially dangerous to plants and animals.
The event made him more aware of the natural world, what it had to offer and how humans were harming it. He also began gravitating toward animals.
Olander has had self-described mystical experiences with animals such as birds, bears and snakes. He recalled hiking in the Tahoe mountains, stumbling onto sage-grouses eating in a circle.
“I sat down and said, ‘well, they’re having lunch so I’ll have lunch too.’”
He was arms length, nonverablly communicating with them while they clucked. Animals, he said, have taught humans how to eat, dance, what to wear and how to perform different characters. We can still learn from them, he said, if our relationship refrains from exploitation.
“(Animals) know what we’re doing, and we can know what they’re doing if we want to explore that area (as long as) we don’t have anything we want to take from them.”
NEAR LIFE EXPERIENCES
Encounters with animals provided Olander obstacles, but he said those experiences were important, teaching him lessons about life’s sanctity and implicit meaning.
Between 1964-85, Olander went backpacking for weeks at a time. Once, he found himself at Hell Hole reservoir in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, he said. Camping out, he picked up some wood to build a fire and found a rattlesnake hanging there. With equanimity, Olander put the wood down and watched the snake slither away. He began learning how to dignify animals and coexist with them.
“I knew that my vibration was in the right place,” he said, “and I had a great respect for a lot of other animals.”
The environment provided more dangers and lessons, he said, especially once while climbing around Desolation Wilderness in the Eldorado National Forest.
Looking west, the poet had to descend a 2,000-foot ice cliff in order to set up camp.
“I got to get down there off this (thing) because I’m going to die up on this ridge,” he had said to himself.
Olander slid down the side of the ridge, using an axe to ease his descent. But his adventure wasn’t yet over.
With the sun setting and the temperatures dropping, he began to set up his tent when a 60 miles per hour wind lifted it from the ground, Olander barely snagging it before it drifted away into the cold darkness.
“I just laid there for five minutes spread eagle on (the tent) saying, ‘oh my god, what would I do if this hadn’t happened?’”
To this day, Olander has frostbite on his toe from the climb. He recalls his faith keeping him alive in those dark moments.
“Because I just believed that I was supposed to be there — you know, you get this sense of a providence, that something’s watching out for you.”
Despite its dangers, Olander said he’s felt safe exploring the natural world because if you inject life with meaning, and act with positive intentions, God, spirits — something — will protect you.
He summed up his philosophy in one sentence.
“If you want to do good in this life, life’s going to take care of you.”
Contact Sam Corey at 530-477-4219 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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