Olson, Toby 1937-

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Olson, Toby 1937-

(Merle Theodore Olson)

PERSONAL: Name at birth, Merle Theodore Olson; born August 17, 1937, in Berwyn, IL; son of Merle T. Olson and Elizabeth Olson Potokar (a telephone company supervisor); married Ann Yeomans, September 10, 1963 (divorced, 1965); married Miriam Meltzer (a social worker), November 27, 1966. Education: Occidental College, B.A., 1965; Long Island University, M.A., 1967.

ADDRESSES: Home—Philadelphia, PA. Office—275 S. 19th St., Ste. 7, Philadelphia, PA 19103-5710.

CAREER: Educator and writer. Aspen Writers Workshop, Colorado, associate director, 1964-67; Long Island University, Brooklyn, NY, assistant professor of English, 1966-74; New School, New York, NY, member of the faculty, 1967-75; Friends Seminary, New York, NY, writer-in-residence, 1974-75. Has given poetry readings all over the United States. Military service: U.S. Navy, surgical technician, 1957-61.

MEMBER: Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, Poets and Writers, PEN, Authors Guild.

AWARDS, HONORS: Creative Artists Public Service Program award, New York State Council on the Arts, 1975; Pennsylvania Governor’s Award nomination, 1980; PEN/Faulkner Award, 1983, for Seaview; fellowships from Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, 1983, Yaddo Corporation, 1985, National Endowment for the Arts, 1985, Guggenheim Foundation, 1985, and Rockefeller Foundation, 1987.



The Hawk-Foot Poems, Abraxas Press (Madison, WI), 1968.

Maps, Perishable Press (Mount Horeb, WI), 1969.

Worms into Nails, Perishable Press (Mount Horeb, WI), 1969.

The Brand, Perishable Press (Mount Horeb, WI), 1969.

Pig’s Book, Doctor Generosity Press (New York, NY), 1969.

Cold House, Perishable Press (Mount Horeb, WI), 1970.

Poems, Perishable Press (Mount Horeb, WI), 1970.

Tools, Doctor Generosity Press (New York, NY), 1971.

Shooting Pigeons, Perishable Press (Mount Horeb, WI), 1971.

Home, Wine Press, 1972.

Vectors, Membrane Press (Milwaukee, WI), 1972.

(Contributor) Loves, Etc., edited by Marguerite Harris, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1973.

Fishing, Perishable Press (Mount Horeb, WI), 1974.

A Kind of Psychology, Lionhead, 1974.

The Wrestlers and Other Poems, Barlenmir House (New York, NY), 1974.

City, Membrane Press (Milwaukee, WI), 1974.

Changing Appearance: Poems 1965-1970, Membrane Press (Milwaukee, WI), 1975.

A Moral Proposition, Aviator Press, 1975.

Priorities, Lionhead, 1975.

Seeds, Membrane Press (Milwaukee, WI), 1975.

Standard-4, Aviator Press, 1975.

Home, Membrane Press (Milwaukee, WI), 1976.

Three and One, Perishable Press (Mount Horeb, WI), 1976.

Doctor Miriam, Perishable Press (Mount Horeb, WI), 1977.

The Florence Poems, Permanent Press (Sag Harbor, NY), 1978.

Aesthetics, Membrane Press (Milwaukee, WI), 1978.

Birdsongs, Perishable Press (Mount Horeb, WI), 1980.

Two Standards, Salient Seedling Press (Madison, WI), 1982.

Still/Quiet, Landlocked Press (Madison, WI), 1982.

Sitting in Gusevik, Black Mesa Press (Madison, WI), 1983.

We Are the Fire: A Selection of Poems, New Directions (New York, NY), 1984.

Unfinished Building: Poems, Coffee House Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1993.

Human Nature: Poems, New Directions (New York, NY), 2000.


The Life of Jesus: An Apocryphal Novel, New Directions (New York, NY), 1976.

Seaview (novel), New Directions (New York, NY), 1982, Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts (Portland, OR), 2006.

(Editor, with Muffy E. Siegel) Writing Talks: Views on Teaching Writing from Across the Professions, Boynton Cook (Upper Montclair, NJ), 1983.

We Are in the Fire, New Directions (New York, NY), 1984.

The Woman Who Escaped from Shame (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1986.

Utah (novel), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1987.

Dorit in Lesbos (novel), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1990.

The Pool: From the Novel Dorit in Lesbos, Perishable Press Limited (Mt. Horeb, WI), 1991.

At Sea, Simon and Schuster (New York, NY), 1993.

Write Letter to Billy (novel), Coffee House (Minneapolis, MN), 2000.

The Blond Box (novel), FC2 (Normal, IL), 2003.

The Bitter Half (novel), FC2 (Tuscaloosa, AL), 2006.

Tampico: A Novel, University of Texas Press (Austin, TX), 2008.

Editor of Margins 1976 (anthology). Contributor to anthologies, including Inside Outer Space, edited by Robert Vas Dias, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1970, and Active Anthology, Sumac Press, 1974. Author of introductions to Carl Thayler, Goodrich, Capricorn Books, 1972, Helen Saslow, Arctic Summer, Barlenmir House, 1974, and Annette Hayn, One Armed Flyer, Poets Press, 1976. Also author of numerous poetry broadsides. Contributor of articles, stories, poems, and reviews to more than one hundred journals, including Nation, Darklight, Exeter, England Washington Post, New York Quarterly, Choice, Confrontation, Ohio Review, American Poetry Review, Caterpillar, Temblor, and Ninth Decade, and Shearsman Press.

SIDELIGHTS: Although Toby Olson often writes using a formal, stylized approach, his poetry deals in everyday experience. Writing in the American Book Review, a contributor noted admiration for the speech of Olson’s poems, commenting: “I admire their language, its cadence and self-assured grammatical vigor, its bid for permanence.” The contributor went on to write: “I mean that I admire the meaningfulness of the language.” The critic also wrote that “[when] these things are said in [Olson’s work] is equal in worth to the act of saying them.”

Olson’s unique voice also distinguishes his fiction; the author’s PEN/Faulkner Award-winning Seaview, for example, “is a very inventive work, unlike any other recent American novel in the freshness of its approach and vision,” commented a New York Times Book Review contributor. Seaview is a golf course and the focus of a cross-country journey by Allen, a professional golf hustler, and his wife Melinda, who is dying of cancer and wishes to return to her birthplace in Cape Cod. The couple is being pursued by Richard, a drug dealer who supplies Melinda with her cancer medication and who wants to kill Allen for bungling a cocaine drop; the confrontation between the two men occurs at Seaview in the midst of demonstrators, protestors, nude sunbathers, and a golf tournament. In relating the progress of the journey and of Melinda’s disease, Olson uses passages that “are notable for their restraint, the way they subtly suggest the cancer’s steady wasting effects rather than blatantly emphasize it,” states a New York Times Book Review contributor. “They are, in fact, representative of the method Mr. Olson employs throughout much of the book: a kind of intense indirectness, a concentration not so much on inner life as on externals—gestures, movements, landscapes, interiors—that reveal that life. Some of the loveliest, most affecting moments in the book simply take the form of descriptions of Allen’s careful and tender handling of his wife.”

Tova Reich noted in New Republic that Seaview “is very much a poet’s novel. The images that are captured, the patterns they form, and the ideas they yield are the basic materials, and the final structure stands or falls by them.” The critic remarked, however, that this poetic abundance of detail and description in Olson’s novel occasionally overcomes the story: “While this technique of piling details on top of each other often produces a rich impact, the effect can also be congested and tedious, shallow and forced.” This criticism notwithstanding, Reich wrote that sometimes “Olson’s packing of visual details builds to an effect that is just right.” As a New York Times Book Review contributor related, Olson “creates dreamlike scenes by magnifying the smallest details and actions until they appear unreal and nightmarish.” Despite the power of the author’s descriptions, an American Book Review contributor commented that “it is Olson’s sensitive portrayal of Allen and Melinda’s relationship that makes the novel work as well as it does. He goes beyond the conventional assertion of contemporary fiction that there are unbridgeable spaces between lovers, and defines those spaces, giving them [sharp and clear] contours.” The reviewer continued: “The uncommunicable is expressed as surely as the blatant,” and Olson “creates scenes of powerful beauty.”

In The Woman Who Escaped from Shame, Olson likewise “takes his start right in the middle of the ordinary, as a good writer always will, and worries his material and struggles with it to make it reveal the splendors and austerities our fantasies try to persuade us do proliferate from every common act,” stated New York Times Book Review contributor Robert Kelly. Consisting of various linked episodes, the novel traces the exploits of Paul, a surgical instrument salesman who goes to Mexico to rescue a pair of miniature horses from a pornographer. The result “is an action-adventure story, complete with cliffhangers and chases,” Holly Prado noted in Los Angeles Times Book Review, “but that’s only the beginning. The novel weaves its way through complexities of mythology… [and] philosophical excursions into storytelling itself.” Kelly also found the novel’s “nest of stories” revealing, for while it seems loosely linked, “the nest turns out instead to be a network, meaningfully interconnected, fascinating. We are reading a well-constructed plot where we had imagined only fable.” Richard Peabody, however, believed that in its confrontational climax “the novel falter… [for] the final scenes are—perhaps inevitably—unconvincing.” Nevertheless, the critic commented in Washington Post Book World that The Woman Who Escaped from Shame is “nine-tenths” of a great novel, for “Olson [is] getting better and better.”

Like its predecessors, Olson’s novel Utah “starts off so unassumingly—it seems for a while that the reader is in for a string of anecdotes—that few who pick it up will be prepared for the virtuoso performance that follows,” Bob Halliday maintained in Washington Post Book World. The author “loves to develop ideas by playing them off against subtle variants of themselves,” the critic recounted; in this novel, “Olson uses this method to weave familiar ideas and seemingly familiar plot-strands into an original and bizarrely contemporary parable.” Utah is another story of a journey, this time of David, a masseur in search of his ex-wife and the grave of his dead roommate. Along the way David encounters several old friends, each seeking something lost of their own; the resolutions to all their searches somehow end in Utah. “But the Utah Olson describes is not the one on the map,” Halliday observed. “It is a magical territory where all the novel’s characters can realize gifts and possibilities that have eluded them in the past.” However, New York Times Book Review contributor Charles Johnson felt that “over explanation” and the coincidences bringing all the characters together “strain credibility” and weaken the ending of the novel. Nevertheless, the critic acknowledged that “nothing can detract from Mr. Olson’s ability to conjure gorgeous prose passages that celebrate the healing powers of friendship, the pleasures of love and lovemaking, and the inborn mystery and beauty of things in this world.” Paul Stuewe wrote in his Quill & Quire review that “this subtly nuanced story is almost excruciatingly sensitive and digs far deeper than [most fiction].” Stu-ewe went on to write in the same review: “It is highly recommended to anyone prepared to listen to a distinctive and different literary voice.”

In the novel At Sea, the story centers on Peter Blue, a police officer in Provincetown, Massachusetts. While investigating a rape, he finds himself attracted to the victim, Beth Charters. His feelings for her are not unusual, however, as he openly cheats on his wife. When Beth is attacked a second time and killed, Peter continues his police investigation and meets Beth’s father. The focus of the story becomes twofold: Peter works to solve the crime while the author reveals the inner workings of Peter’s mind. In the New York Times Book Review, D.K. Holm noted that it is “really less a mystery than it is a novel about a man whose life is falling apart. And yet these aspects of the book work against, rather than enrich, each other.”

Olson returned to poetry with his 2000 collection, Human Nature: Poems, which received widespread critical acclaim. For example, Rochelle Owens, writing in World Literature Today, commented that the collection “demonstrates the remarkable achievement of a lyric poet whose dominant concern has always been an intense attention to our seemingly complex existence.” Owens went on to write that Olson is able to “evoke an atmosphere of strangeness and even spirituality, an architecture of music that concords with space and time and that feels at once intricate and natural.”

Olson’s novel Write Letter to Billy features Bill, a former member of the navy, as the narrator. When he discovers he has a teenage daughter, Jennifer, and meets her for the first time, the two take a road trip together to get to know each other. During the course of the trip, he discovers through a letter that he has to go to Florida to claim his dead foster father’s belongings, which are in a storage unit that is to be torn down. Once there, Bill and Jennifer come across various items, including a list that his foster father, Andy, had made of things to do and information on the mysterious drowning of a chambermaid from a local hotel many years earlier. These two items set Bill and Jennifer off to solve the drowning mystery as well as the mysterious “to do” items on the list. In the process, a closer bond forms not only between Bill and Jennifer but also between Bill and his dead parents, whom he hadn’t known that well. William Ferguson, writing in the New York Times Book Review, commented that the “novel has an exuberantly random quality about it.” Library Journal contributor Margee Smith wrote that the author “wrings a satisfying emotional product from his characters.”

The Blond Box was called a “fascinating novel” by Jamey Gallagher in a review on the Newpages.com Web site. The novel revolves around a double murder that has gone unsolved for twenty years and a character who likes to pick random topics and then follow her research to wherever it may take her. Also key to the novel is Marcel Duchamp, whose experimental artwork intrigues several of the characters. As with Olson’s other novels, the mystery is just a setup to take the reader on an intellectual voyage in which the author examines the fallibility of memory and history, the power of art, and the mystery of life itself. In addition to the research-obsessed woman, the novel’s characters include a science fiction writer who wants to use the murder mystery as a subject for his soft-porn detective series. The author also features a science fiction tale as events shift from 1949 all the way to 2069. Writing in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Joseph Dewey noted that the author “reminds his reader how information inevitably recovers ambiguity, how the tidiest sense of remembered history and constructed plot are more journeys into accident and chance, how everyday lives must play out against and amid the luminous, albeit clumsy, mystery of attraction and want.”

In his novel The Bitter Half, Olson places the setting in Depression-era America as Chris Pollard, an eccentric who is also an authority on jail breaks, is requested to track down “The Kid,” who has once again escaped from jail. The Kid and Pollard have formed a strange, obsessive, and erotic attraction over the years as the Kid constantly breaks out of prison. After a final escape, Pollard chases The Kid, who has suffered the dehumanizing times of the Depression as well as prison life, across the country for one last time. Pollard, who is a dandy and obsessive compulsive about his appearance, narrates his own story. The reader learns that Pollard doesn’t chase down escapees for the money since he has inherited money and estate from his father. At one point, Pollard comes down with a case of curable but dehumanizing cancer and must recover at his estate, where readers meet a strange cast of characters and learn even more about the mysterious Pollard. The other half of the book focuses on The Kid, his dog Buck, and their difficult lives. “The special domains that abound in The Bitter Half are various and are strongly defined by class, creating a complex texture that pulls the reader through this compelling tale,” wrote Chris Paddock in the Review of Contemporary Fiction. Bob Williams, writing for Compulsive Reader, called The Bitter Half a “readable and even absorbing book.”



Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 28, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1984.

Polak, Maralyn Lois, The Writer as Celebrity: Intimate Interviews, M. Evans (New York, NY), 1986.


American Book Review, February, 1980, review of Aesthetics, p. 8; November-December, 1982, review of Seaview, p. 22; January 1, 2007, Douglas Messerli, “The Poetics of In and Out,” review of The Bitter Half, p. 20.

Booklist, June 1, 1993, Donna Seaman, review of Unfinished Building: Poems, p. 1773; September 15, 2000, GraceAnn A. DeCandido, review of Write Letter to Billy, p. 218.

Library Journal, August, 1984, review of We Are the Fire: A Selection of Poems, p. 1453; March 1, 1990, Albert E. Wilhelm, review of Dorit in Les-bos, p. 117; July, 1993, review of Unfinished Building, p. 85; September 15, 2000, Margee Smith, review of Write Letter to Billy, p. 114.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 18, 1986, Holly Prado, review of The Woman Who Escaped from Shame, p. 4; June 14, 1987, review of Utah, p. 4. New Republic, July 4, 1983, Tova Reich, review of Sea-view, p. 36.

New York Times Book Review, June 19, 1983, review of Seaview, p. 13; June 1, 1986, Robert Kelly, review of The Woman Who Escaped from Shame, p. 25; August 9, 1987, Charles Johnson, review of Utah, p. 12; April 22, 1990, Sven Birkerts, review of Dorit in Lesbos, p. 38; September 19, 1993, D.K. Holm, review of At Sea, p. 37; November 19, 2000, William Ferguson, review of Write Letter to Billy, p. 74.

Publishers Weekly, July 6, 1984, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of We Are the Fire, p. 59; January 12, 1990, Sybil Steinberg, review of Dorit in Lesbos, p. 48; April 26, 1993, review of Unfinished Building, p. 69; September 11, 2000, review of Write Letter to Billy, p. 67.

Quill & Quire, August, 1987, Paul Stuewe, review of Utah, p. 34.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, summer, 1990, Dennis Barone, review of Dorit in Lesbos, p. 262; summer, 1991, reviews of Dorit in Lesbos, p. 180, and The Life of Jesus: An Apocryphal Novel, p. 180, summer, 1991, Judith Perkins, “Toby Olson’s Life of Jesus,” p. 181, Robert Creeley, “CCommon Places: An Introduction to Toby Olson’s Fiction,” p. 114, Douglas Gunn, “Nostalgia, Luminosity, and Monstrosity: An Interview with Toby Olson,” p. 173, Marc Chenetier, “The Fiction of Toby Olson: A Poet’s Lessons,” p. 164, Teresa Leo, “Toby Olson: A Bibliography,” p. 217; fall, 2003, Joseph Dewey, review of The Blond Box, p. 134; spring, 2007, Chris Paddock, review of The Bitter Half, p. 169.

Tribune Books, March 18, 1990, review of Dorit in Les-bos, p. 6.

Voice Literary Supplement, December, 1984, review of We Are the Fire, p. 7.

Washington Post, May 22, 1983, Curt Suplee, “Seaview Awarded Top Pen-Faulkner Prize,” p. K1; May 23, 1983, Curt Suplee, “Mightier than the Horde: PEN Saves Author from Near Oblivion,” p. Bl; October 27, 2000, Carolyn See, “Caught in a Haze of Smog,” p. 8.

Washington Post Book World, June 29, 1986, Richard Peabody, review of The Woman Who Escaped from Shame, p. 4; August 2, 1987, Bob Halliday, review of Utah, p. 7.

World Literature Today, summer, 2000, Rochelle Owens, review of Human Nature: Poems, p. 599; spring, 2001, George Economou, review of Write Letter to Billy, p. 333.


Compulsive Reader,http://www.compulsivereader.com/ (February 19, 2008), Bob Williams, review of The Bitter Half.

Newpages.com,http://newpages.com/ (February 19, 2008), Jamey Gallagher, review of The Blond Box.