Kurt Olsson

Kurt Olsson’s second collection of poems, Burning Down Disneyland (Gunpowder Press, 2017) won the Barry Spacks Poetry Prize, selected by Thomas Lux, who said,
I love the title of this book (though I read it as metaphor!) and I love the innovative mischief of its poems. Let it be known: a true poetic intelligence and imagination lives between its covers.
We are pleased to present here seven poems from Burning Down Disneyland:

Life on a Smaller Planet

One day, you wake up, what the hell,
and unscrew your ears. You wrap them in cellophane
and keep them in the freezer,
just in case you get nostalgic. Such small
things, yet they weigh so much:
you feel strangely buoyant, as if you’d blasted
to another planet and gravity no longer
played such havoc. You miss a lot, sure.
You have to stare at people’s mouths now,
marvel at the Gothic architecture of their teeth,
some upright and polished like
a military salute, others a Lichtenstein of bowling pins
and a word balloon screaming “Pow” or “Bam.”
When someone takes your hand
to help you cross the street, you read the future
in the arid rasp of au revoir of her palm.
The benefits: you come to admire
the attitudes of folding chairs,
their Midwestern manner of never intruding,
even when left alone. Oddly,
lying in bed late is when
you miss the pair most, the weak static they picked up:
the lone insomniac car
daring the interstate, a dog far off
and its philosophic pronouncement of its dogness, the fall wind
tickling the night’s small, golden change from the trees.


You decide
to give up forks.
It isn’t much
of a concession.
You prefer spoons
better anyway.
More dependable,
less likely to
Forks you imagine
knocking at your door
late some night
tipsy and wanting
to sing all the old
you gave up
on knives ages ago.


The scissors serious for a change
wonder what’s with you.

You haven’t played with them for weeks.
They miss the quick runs, the coupons.

They’re sure you’re cheating on them:
you’ve become a ripper,

one of those who folds and refolds the paper,
then scrapes a greasy thumbnail down

the edge. Then the slow, sacerdotal
tearing, as if the paper were precious, immortal,

not bits of blond space they could dice, one
edge tied behind their backs, in ten seconds, max.

Wrestling with the Angel

Why you hitting yourself?
Why you keep hitting yourself?
Stop hitting yourself.

Say uncle. If you say uncle, you won’t have to keep hitting yourself.
Why you want to keep hitting yourself when all you have to say is uncle?
You know what your problem is: you lack faith, the power to believe, which is
     why you must keep hitting yourself.

If you don’t stop hitting yourself, I’m going to have to tell someone.
I’m going to tell someone & then someone is going to hit you one.
You wouldn’t like someone who’s not you hitting you.
Someone not you doing the hitting may not stop.

Tell me, you like hitting yourself?
You like it because there’s nobody else you can hit?
That’s it, just keep hitting yourself.
Keep doing it & someone’s going to come lock you up & throw away the key,
     & there’ll be no someone there to save you from hitting yourself.

Right. You don’t believe you’re hitting yourself.
You think someone else is making you hit yourself.
So typical you can’t assume responsibility for this hitting of yourself.
Well, there’s no one here but you & me, & you would not want to accuse me
     of hitting you, right?
If I made you hit yourself, believe you me, you’d be crying for your mommy,
     & I don’t see your mommy here.

Okay, you done, done hitting yourself?
Good, I’m glad you’re done hitting yourself, this proud nation, even the angels
     in heaven, We Are Glad.

I hope you feel better now you’re done hitting yourself.
Let this be a lesson to you: you may hobble off, you may hide, but you will
     never escape the fact it is you and you alone who cannot stop hitting your
     own self.

There ought to be a law against people like you who can’t stop hitting

When We Were Too Young to be Bad at Anything

they made us change into swimsuits we forgot in gym lockers until they smelled.

Made us wear white gym shorts with P.S. 18 stitched in gold, if we forgot our
If we forgot both, made us wear nothing, no matter what.

Made us swim the crawl, one at a time, two laps, there and back,
while Mr. Barris ragged on our weak strokes.

Made Kenny Powis, thalidomide baby, each finger like a tiny giblet tied to
     the bud of his arm,
made him swim so his fat-ass cheeks bobbled behind him like a parachute.

Made us laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh.


The morning they crucified him they made him wiggle
out of his jeans first, his hips shimmying a little dance
that might have been homoerotic if he hadn’t been bleating
softly, tears slicking the corners of his juvenile mustache.
They realized then they’d forgotten to have him take off his shoes
so they made him squat in the mud and slick grass and unlace
his fresh white Converse, peel off his tube socks. After he obeyed
and stood up, one of them pointed to the moist streak on the back
of his underpants, and they all laughed, and this laughing saved him.
They intuitively understood, in the way of most torturers,
he could be no more naked than in his underpants, saggy,
bleached out and, though none of them would admit
to such knowledge and thus didn’t use it as an opportunity for
further comedy, splotched with the scrim of virgin cum stains.
If you wonder why he didn’t run or scream, it was simple: too many of them,
too few of him. Last to go, the T-shirt, revealing pink baby fat
and a nasty scar under his right nipple. “Breast removal,”
one of them barked. They let him keep his watch, burnished chrome
Timex, as if they wanted him to know the exact longitude of this,
his exquisite humiliation. They’d already taken off their own
belts, and then the biggest of them lifted his dead-feeling, boneless body
(“Don’t get any happy thoughts, faggot”) while two others lashed
his upper arms to the chain-link. A fourth slapped his shaking legs
together to bind his ankles. They finished by simply walking away,
one of them startled out of a quasi-heavy metal funk long enough
to snap his belt once or twice, the way his brother had taught him,
and then slip it back on. They crucified the boy behind the bleachers
in back of the high school, beside the sumac, wild raspberries,
and weed clutter that served as a buffer between public and private,
where stoners drifted on silent paths to miss study hall, linear algebra, auto shop.
By now you must be thinking I know too much about what happened,
I was one of them, maybe even the boy himself, but this is no poem of expiation. Even then, I lacked the courage of conscious cruelty. I simply imagine
this scene whispered behind open lockers for a week or two and then
I too was a freshman that year, circa the Disco era, long enough ago
we compared our principal, with his mustache and Jewish haircut,
to Groucho Marx, the Groucho of “You Bet Your Life,” when most
of the laughs had been shit-kicked out of him. Waiting to be picked last
for pick-up basketball or standing next to each other in a police line-up,
there wouldn’t have been much to differentiate us, except I was shorter,
seemingly a more inviting target for the egg in the hair, the mouth gagged
with Barbasol. Yet, somehow, nobody ever asked me to come with them
to the fourth floor of a three-floor building. The summer before, I had begged
my father to send me to military school instead, but he didn’t.
He said in life there was more to learn than learning. He was right.
Without knowing it, I was starting the long journey to the I you see before     

the one who mastered the back alley mysteries, who learned
in the mad heat of panic what to take and what to leave behind.
Who taught himself the secret power of closing a door without
a soul hearing, stealing small change from the till, that the most powerful form
of invisibility doesn’t come from magic, it’s being seen, if peripheral,
always at the corner of others’ eyes. Maybe, Nadiya, dearest, this is why,
though I handed you the book on rats on the long, boring drive to Annapolis,
knowing in doing so I would unlock your own unconscious desire to own such

     a pet,

your own first tentative step toward adulthood, I still did so.
If this poem isn’t expiation or penance or forgiveness, what it is is what I
     want you
to see for the first time: me, your father, naked, stripped
to my underpants, here in this dark, stinking hole of my own making.
I am the rat of the title, camouflaged by the effluvia of words of a secret yet    
     unavoidable life.


Turn the oven on and set it
as low as the gas can go.

Take the turkey pot pie
paid for
in the hush of the all-night service station,
your forearms still pink
and steaming
from washing other people’s dishes,

and unwrap it gently, as a mother would,
so nothing can break.

Put the pie in the oven.

the important part: do not
the oven door.

Flip on the game
                              or a radio.

Let the smell whisper slowly through
all the seams and creases.

When you’re too famished to eat,
close the oven door.

Kurt Olsson’s first collection of poetry, What Kills What Kills Us (Silverfish Review Press, 2007, won the Gerald Cable Book Award and the Towson University Prize for Literature and was named Best Poetry Book of the year by Peace Corps Writers. He also has three chapbooks to his credit: I Know Your Heart, Hieronymus Bosch; Autobiography of My Hand; and Terra Incognita. His poems have appeared in many journals, including Poetry, FIELD, The New Republic, Alaska Quarterly Review, Southern Review, Antioch Review, Poetry East, Quarterly West, Black Warrior Review, and The Threepenny Review. Twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, he has received several grants from the Maryland State Arts Council.



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