Drawing the Line: Toby Olson & Philadelphia, 1992
Toby Olson stood up and drew a line on the chalkboard. When a teacher who doesn’t write on the board, or even walk around in class stands up, you pay attention. This is especially true when he was Toby Olson. Olson was a tall man, like a tree, or at least as tall as the door frame. He wore a full beard, his eyes were warm and watchful, and his Yankee face was stoical, almost classical. Toby Olson published his poems and novels with New Directions. He had a powerful reserve, but he was never restrained in anything I ever witnessed him say or do.
The workshop was an introduction to creative writing poetry at Temple University. The semester, I believe, was the spring of 1992. In a deliberate gesture Toby made a mark down the middle of the board. The blackboard was green; the sound of the chalk was sharp, muted, and
clean. Toby said, “In life you have to draw the line.” He paused and remained standing. He mentioned Paul Goodman and his essay “Drawing the Line.” He told us that Goodman was a poet too, and that he wrote an intelligent piece on anarchism as well. As aside he mentioned that his copy of Goodman's book was red.
Line by line Toby continued to draw and talk. Each line was striking: one, and then another, and several more. The lines began to take the shape of an irregular box; they looked like an asymmetrical Giacometti, or at least a tangled-up rectangle, certainly a rectangle.
Toby said whether we know it or not we were always drawing lines. So, he continued, it's best to do it as knowingly as possible, "because over time the lines we draw become the person who we are.”
Toby stood at the board for a good minute. He placed the piece of chalk down. He walked back to his chair and sat. Other poets sitting in the class and circle included Frank Sherlock, Heather Wendt, Chris McCreary, and Jenn DiGuglielmo McCreary.
Published in LUNGFULL! Magazine, issue 18, spring 2010