"I should like to say that the title, The Sullen Art, has no pejorative connotations. It is taken from a well known poem by Dylan Thomas and seemed right to me for the reason that 'sullen' comes from the Latin 'solus' - alone. These poets, and all poets, despite their contacts with the world are ultimately alone. One creates, after all, by one's self".
- David Ossman, 1962
David Ossman was born 12/6/36, a Sagittarius, in Santa Monica, CA, and is the poet of THE FIRESIGN THEATRE. He was raised in Northern CA, Mexico City, San Francisco, and in LA for his Jr. and Sr. High School years. David started his long career in radio by broadcasting a self scripted "WASHINGTON'S BIRTHDAY" special on his Jr. high closed circuit radio station. Ossman also started writing and publishing short science fiction stories in the school paper, and shortly thereafter, poetry. In high school Ossman self published his first book of poetry, "an offering... without incense" and was included in a compilation of LA school children's writings, and won awards for his fiction. He continued his involvement with school publications and became the editor of his high school newspaper. Ossman did his first humorous writing for Pomona College's Sagehen, and had his poetry and prose published in many literary magazines at college and throughout America, and Mexico
Before achieving his degree in Dramatic Literature from Columbia University in NYC, David appeared in about a dozen plays through his college years, including "The Young Elizabeth" with Richard Chamberlin, at Pomona College. Though he didn't write original plays, Ossman translated Garcia Lorca's "Blood Wedding" from the Spanish, and "Orpheus Pompeii" by Jean Cocteau, from the French.
Ossman then worked a year for Newsweek magazine in the editorial make up department, and became a FM pioneer broadcaster at NY's WBAI in 1959. He was one of the first documentors of the poetry of the Beat Movement, interviewing Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth, LeRoi Jones, Robert Creely, Ed Dorn, Denise Levertov, among some 50 others, on his "THE SULLEN ART" program series, and having many of them read their poems over the air for his 1/2 hour program, "THE POET IN NEW YORK". A published version of the interview series was put out by Corinth Books in 1963 as "THE SULLEN ART" and has provided an enduring resource for anyone studying the movement. WBAI, part of the Pacifica network, enabled David to transfer to KPFK in LA becoming it's Literature and Arts director, a position later held by Phil Austin, producing and participating in literally hundreds of programs, many of which survive in the Pacifica Archives and his own collection.. He also became poetry editor of the LA Oracle, a psychedelic weekly, and taught at the Free University of LA.
David left KPFK in 1966 to work for ABC as Assistant to Harv Bennit, the Vice President of Television Programming, West Coast, for over a year, but continued to help with fund raising programs and appearances on "RADIO FREE OZ" leading to his joining with his fellow broadcasters in forming THE FIRESIGN THEATRE. Ossman's concise writing style, and the ability to plot and move characters forward with the poetic aspect, his surrealistic sensibilities and his superb radio voice, professional appeal, and acting ability added greatly to the organizational mix of the other 3 members to form the classic Firesign material featured on the Columbia albums.
Ossman recorded his first commercial solo audio piece, "HOW TIME FLYS" as a science fiction Lp that was as much a homage to Ray Bradbury, as it was to the genre. He used the other members of THE FIRESIGN THEATRE and the late Wolfman Jack, to tell the story of an astronaut who makes the first alien contact, and brings his information back to a futuristic earth that has gone on without him, while he traveled through space in suspended animation.
When Proctor and Bergman coupled and went on tour, Ossman partnered with Phil Austin and presented several shows, including "DR. FIRESIGN'S THEATRE OF MYSTERY TOUR", and "RADIO LAFFS OF 1940" that combined Nick Danger with Ossman's alter ego George Leroy Tirebiter, examples of which have recently re-surfaced on the current releases "David Ossman's TIME CAPSULES" and "THE FIRESIGN THEATRE'S PINK HOTEL BURNS DOWN". David further developed his Tirebiter persona that first surfaced on THE FIRESIGN THEATRE's monumental "DON'T CRUSH THAT DWARF, HAND ME THE PLIERS" album, creating an entire lifetime history for the aging Hollywood movie, radio actor and director, to even mounting a Vice Presidential campaign for the 1976 election and Virtual President for 1996, hiding under the National Surrealist Party platform. By the way, he lost, but continued on in taped offerings, hosting radio productions and now in the pages of projected novels and Firezine. Tirebiter seems as real as anything to come out of Hollywood and Ossman is sometimes hilariously interviewed in character. As Ossman ages he continues to meld with the character, and has created a permanent niche in THE FIRESIGN world, along with his other characterizations of Catherwood, the butler from "NICK DANGER", and Ben Bland, the incredibly boring TV all-day matinee movie host.
Ossman curbed his FIRESIGN THEATRE involvement in the early 1980s to meet his financial obligations, and move back to the East Coast. This time to Washington, DC, working for National Public Radio as an Executive Producer and designer of his own Peabody Award winning 5 hour weekly program "THE SUNDAY SHOW", broadcast from WETA. Ossman was terminated after several months for a controversial presentation for a John Cage 70th Birthday Tribute. In less than a year he had moved to Santa Fe, NM. He continued his association with Public Radio however, and hosted several music and interview shows over the decade. David produced a series called "RADIO MOVIES", using the microphone as movie camera to record versions of "THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE" and many others. David spent some time in Boston, MA, working out of WGBH in radio and television productions adding his voice to many programs, among others, NOVA. During these projects Ossman met and married his current wife radio producer Judith Walcutt, and together they formed Other World Media and concentrated on making high quality, high profile audio theater pieces, beginning with the award winning 50th Anniversary version of "WAR OF THE WORLDS", starring Jason Robards, also featuring Phil Proctor. This activity continues through the 90's with more awards for audio versions of "EMPIRE OF THE AIR", distributed concurrently with Ken Burns' video documentary, and with an all star cast, for a new production of Norman Corwin's "WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS", in honor of the 200th Anniversary of the signing of the Bill Of Rights. Raymond Chandler's "GOLDFISH", featuring the character Philip Marlow, is one of the Otherworld's more recent releases and it demonstrates the fine quality and attention to detail that mark Ossman's directing style and radio production technique.
David Ossman also spent his time crisscrossing the country conducting dozens of seminars and workshops in radio theater arts, script writing, play production, and writing poetry. Best known to FIRESIGN fanciers, are a series of books, collectively called "RADIO POEMS", lovingly published by Turkey Press of CA. The design of the broadsides, pamphlets, booklets, and such were very interesting and tastefully done. "THE RAINBOW CAFE" was printed as an old time diner plastic covered menu, and "THE HOPI SET" as a series of postcards. David kept writing in other fields as well, including radio, and for a couple of his own one man shows, all through the 80s.
Ossman edited a collection of radio plays for the Midwest Radio Theatre Workshop which contains a "PRIMER" on audio drama. He directed the recording of some books on tape for Simon and Schuster, and has produced his own tapes and videos for Otherworld Media, LodeStone, Sparks Media, etc. These programs and productions have won many critical and endowment awards for David, over the years.
Ossman has come to a point in his life where he once again shifted gears for a career change, and is scoping out his immense creative output over a long successfully diverse career. He has always carefully archived and saved most of his work, including mountainous reams of paper and miles and miles of tape going back 35 years. The David Ossman Collection including many live radio broadcasts is being converted to DAT and is going to be eventually sent to The Museum of Television and Radio, in NYC, and LA.
David Ossman has currently finished up his first novel in the fictional career of George Tirebiter, "THE RONALD REAGAN MURDER CASE" now to be called "THE HOLLYWOOD MADHOUSE MURDER CASE" that involves an old unsolved tinseltown murder and takes place at a 1940s radio broadcast . Outlined for the future are a series of Tirebiter murder mystery novels marching through the decades, "THE FLYING SAUCER MURDER CASE", for the 50s, "THE LOVE-IN MURDER CASE" that involves THE FIRESIGN THEATRE in the '60s, "THE BICENTENNIAL MURDER CASE" for the 70s, and on and on...
David Ossman is a very personable, openhearted, highly perceptive man who adds a touch of poetry, and class to his announcer voice, and our lives. When conversing with him one feels that they are being written in for a play and lead into a direction of concise plots and the next question. But throw a few characters in his direction and he adds them to the dialogue with improvisational and surprising conclusions, like poems. David is very happy with his current family, Judith, Orson and Preston and that shines through the conversations and outer sounds. David has involved his wife and sons in his appearances and productions. He was interviewed by phone from his Whidbey, Island home in Washington, State.
FIREZINE: You've always had an interest in poetry, and writing?
David Ossman: I always identified myself as a poet. That was my understanding of myself. That was the niche that I gave myself, as a writer, beginning when I was in high school. It was a constant in my life, certainly throughout when I was in high school all the way through my 20s up to the point of my writing and collaborating with THE FIRESIGN THEATRE. I actually started in High school. I published my first book when I was a senior in high school. Like so many poets, you have to do it yourself. From then on I had some things published in College. And from then on in countless little magazines, 'Nomad', 'Between Worlds', and on into the 60's, 'Rock Bottom', 'Something', endless little magazines. The little magazine culture was quite something, and it still is out there. I know that world is still there for writers and artists, who are in their teens and their 20's and it's a very valuable and wonderful culture to be engaged in. It lasts you for a long time and it encourages you to write. It makes it possible for you to join with other people. It's very hard for young artists to find other people, especially if you live in an isolated area, even if you live in NYC. I was very fortunate in meeting some writers who gave me a lot of room and a lot of time. Denise Lebertoff, and Robert Kelly, and Paul Blackburn, who introduced me to everybody who came into town, and made sure that I was there at readings, and things like that, so that I could catch up with what was going on.
I got started in radio in 1959 in NYC. So I had before the whole FIRESIGN got together late in 1966 and really in 1967, I'd been working for all of that time in radio at first commercial station that later became one of the early public stations WBAI in NY and later in Los Angeles at KPFK. Then in those days FM was a fairly experimental kind of medium, really. I got my first radio job at WBAI, which was commercial FM. I'm sort of an FM pioneer, I discovered later, you now, a pioneer broadcaster. It was an extremely eclectic station at that time, that I was working for. You know in those days if you decided to do a radio program about any God damn thing, you could do it. I mean anything. You didn't have to apply for a grant. You'd say, "Ah gee that's a great idea, I'll do a program on that." It wouldn't cost any more money than my salary which wasn't very much, and I was working 6 - 7 days a week anyway, so it was an extremely rich and productive time for the documentation of literature and the Arts. That utterly disappeared, in the '80s, and now, it's gone from radio.
It was very free form, the stations allowed the staff to produce any sorts of programs that we wanted to and I started out at the beginning in NY in those late 50s early 60s days doing a series of interviews with the hottest contemporary poets on the scene. Poetry was a very big thing then, as I think it is now. These things have a cycle of course, 30 years or something like a generation. And so I was talking to the likes of Alan Ginsberg and the Beat poets around that period of time. And then producing programs of music, public affairs, drama, literature, all kinds of things. It was a very active wonderful busy time.
I was just Post-Beat. Age wise I was maybe 10 years younger then the genuine Beat people. 10 or 15 years younger. Really what I came in on was the 'NY Poetry Renaissance', which was reflected also in the 'San Francisco Poetry Renaissance'. And I think that the 'Summer of Love', as it were, the Hippie movement that developed in San Francisco, was almost a clean segue out of the Beatnik movement. We're talking, there was the Beats, and then there was the Beatniks. I had a poetry teacher at Columbia named Leoni Adams, and she said, "Your poems are interesting, you might want to read this person Jack Keroac, he has this book out. And so I read this book and said, "Wow, this is it!" And that was '57, '58. The people that I met, some of them were older then Ginsberg, but it was that era.
I was one of the first documentors on radio, or any other place for that matter, of the Beat movement. For me it a was a real door to a new kind of writing. It was very important to me at that time, in that I had a job that I could use to document at that time. There were the NY people, that and the San Franciscans were really 2 different poetry renaissances that came together in that very famous anthology, "The New American Poetry". Donald Addams put it together, it was a Grove Press book, and came out around 1960. That was my bible for tracing these people down. When anybody in that book came to town I had an in with various people who would know that they were in town and would get them to come onto my radio show.
I had done a tremendous amount of programs in NY. All of those tapes, there's about 50 tapes in my "THE SULLEN ART" interview series, and 20 or 25 in another series I did called "THE POET IN NEW YORK", that were not interviews, but readings that I produced. All of those are in the University of Ohio in Toledo Ohio. I sold this archive years ago, much to my regret today, that I let this valuable archive of tapes go.
That station was given to the Pacifica Foundation in the beginning of 1960, and I was practically the only staff member that was kept on from the old commercial station to the new non-commercial station. I worked there for another year or so and transferred back to LA. I say back, in that I had my kind of Jr. High and High school years in LA. I had to go back to the West Coast from NY, and so I asked them if they'd hire me at KPFK, out in LA if I would transfer and move from NY. They agreed that they would do that, so I moved out of NY and back to LA. It was a big, big transition in my life. God only knows what would have happened if I had stayed in NYC. I often think that I really should have, rather than coming back to the indolent West Coast, and the easy life.
Then after I left NY to come to Los Angeles, I found the poetry movement in LA to be very flabby. And I discontinued "THE SULLEN ART" show after half a dozen interviews. I thought there just isn't anybody here, they're all up in San Francisco. Up there is really where the writers were, the Philip Waylins, the Ferlingettis, and all of that. I couldn't get up there, and there was a radio show up there anyway, that was interviewing those people.
FZ: Were you guys looking toward San Francisco then?
DO: No, no, I'd say that we felt where it was happening was Los Angeles. I was in San Francisco, deliberately was there, not for the first 'Be-In', but for the 'Summer Solstice' in 67. That was after the first 'Love-In', that was Easter, and so for the summer solstice I went up there and listened to Big Brother playing on the tailgate of some truck, that kind of thing.
I think we felt that Los Angeles had finally come into it's own, and we were very much a part of doing that. I was actually a pretty well known media person, during the time that I was working for KPFK. I felt tapped into everything that was happening in LA, and certainly "RADIO FREE OZ" was tapped into it. We felt that we were part of the energy that was circulating all of this. Whereas San Francisco was separate. You grow up in Los Angeles and San Francisco, "that's where the jazz was man". It was all happening in San Francisco. You know? You get tired hearing of that after a while. And I think that this was the first time that I felt that anything was really happening in Los Angeles, was the Hippie movement in LA. It really made a lot of sense in Los Angeles. The timing was right. That was how we felt in general about those early days of THE FIRESIGN THEATRE, was that the timing was really right for everything that we wanted to do.
The poetry, just to kind of finish that story... I was always writing, but I kept involved in the poetry scene right up until the end of the '60's. In '69 I was a reader in Oakland at the women's college, Mill's College. It was a big poetry reading. I was on the bill and it was very flattering. I went to a party afterwards, and everybody was kind of drunk. In comparison with the Hippies, let alone the hip, I thought these people were completely in left field. I just didn't like them at all. Then Michael McClure tried to pick a fight with me, drunkenly.
I don't know how they felt. They were basically academic, and most of them had gone into teaching jobs, of one kind or another. And the ones who weren't, either I didn't feel were really relevant to what I thought was going on, or I just didn't like their writing very much. I thought it was self indulgent, and not to the point. I just didn't like the scene man, you know. And so I got out of the scene after that. I signed off on the world of poetry, and I had spent the whole decade very much engaged, right from 1959, '60 forward. I really walked away from it, really had nothing to do with that scene again. It wasn't what I thought was happening.
What I thought was happening was what we were doing. It was very much happening in Los Angeles, because it was Media central, and it could move on radio, movies, and all that stuff.
Just before that I had written and had a number of things published. I had been writing around the time THE FIRESIGN was first broadcasting, particularly around "THE RADIO FREE OZ" time and then later, around "JUST FOLKS". And so a lot of what I was writing, some of it, was then collected in those books from Turkey Press, "THE RAINBOW CAFE'", and "THE MOON SIGN BOOK". Those were written during those late '60s, early '70s, and they were really part of the texture of my contribution to the radio shows. I always read poetry, or I would be deferred to, "David has a poem." Sometimes, somebody else, Phil Austin, or Phil Proctor, or Peter would bring in a poem. My feeling was it was always because I wrote poems, that they also wrote poems. That was very elevating, and it brought up the tone of the show quite a bit. We were all reading our poems, and I really liked that, and it was an important part of those early broadcasts all through that 5 year period that we all were on the air together. There are no poems on the "DEAR FRIENDS" album, but there are in the series, even in the ones that were edited for broadcast. There are a lot of poems in there. So, one of the things that I used to say at the time was, "Well if you can write a good poem, you can write a good commercial." They're roughly the same length and the same information. You know, startle me, do something to make me laugh in a short period of space.
In a way that was my access into individual comedy writing, was to be able to turn what I could do into comedy. And I always loved found materials, and I had been working with found poems, with found stuff from newspapers, and that kind of thing, around that same time, and really began to collect that kind of material, the huge collage of the 70s that I still have. I have all of those. I was just looking up this evening "THE DEAR FRIENDS" notebooks, which is all my clippings which were at that time.
Well now I am returning to it. I went through this kind of long period from... When I'm working hard and doing other kinds of things I found I tend to drift away from it. Writing every poem that you write, you think is going to be your last. Its like, "Well I may never write another poem. I may never have sex again. You know? This might be the end." But it always comes back, and in fact I've been working and putting together the book which comes out of, and I've actually sub-titled it, "THE POEMS FROM MY 40S", so that would be from the mid-70s to the mid-80s. I've just put that together at the same time that I did the little "UNWANTED POEMS", flier, it's also called "AMERICAN PARTS", and its all so red, white and blue, things all about America. I talked to my publishers at Turkey Press about that. They're not really doing that kind of book anymore. I talked to them about various ways I could play with the material and so forth, when I was down in Santa Barbara.
But I suppose I would not identify myself now as a poet, because I've done too many other things inclusive. You know, it's something that Judith and I have in common. She too has always been a poet, and everything that she writes comes away from that. So we have that as a common ground, and she's beginning to write poems again, as am I, as we lay back from a lot of other writing, and it takes up all of that time.
FZ: So you are still currently writing poems?
DO: I'm both writing poetry and finding it. I have a new little book of poetry and its all in strange languages. Literally xeroxes that I've found on the floor. One of the kinds of poetry that I tend to write, I don't write, I find. And I call it found poetry. It can be things out of newspapers, or sometimes just pieces of paper I find on the floor. I like to find those kinds of things. Poetry is really everywhere. Often I'll put together little xerox booklets of these and pass them around at poetry readings, that kind of thing.
FZ: You said something interesting, that you thought radio commercials were like poems. Could you elaborate?
DO: Well it's short form writing. Most poems, certainly the kind of poetry that I write, generally tends to be short forms. Commercials have a condensed message. They have a drama of their own, they're like small plays really. But it's the heightened word imagery that reminds me of poetry. When I started doing satire of commercials with FIRESIGN, why, my history of writing poems really was very helpful in getting the form of the commercials right. Also of course, like poetry, commercials are meant to be read aloud. Radio commercials are meant to be spoken and I think poetry is as well. I've written poems in the forms of commercials and commercials in the form of poems and have done them as humor over the years and that's kind of a regular part of my performance.
FZ: Do you prefer doing short poems then?
DO: Well I do, I tend to write short poems, highly condensed imagery. Occasionally over the years I've done more extended pieces. More like little short stories or things like that, but I'm not an epic writer.
FZ: Do you find those things randomly?
DO: Well no. Although I'm a great fan of the composer John Cage who wrote according to rules of chance, generally speaking, that's not the way I do it. There are things that I just collect over a period of time and finally it comes the moment to roll them all together, and I do that. Some things are observational. I put these things together in books and I publish quite a few, though none in the last 10, or 15 years.
FZ: Could you tell us a little bit about the booklet for FIREZINE?
DO: You said that you wanted something unique and original and I thought that this was that. The poems have never been published before except for that one spread in the newspaper, which I thought we should take advantage of, because nobody's seen that except people who lived in Santa Fe in 1984. I thought I'd use it because the pieces are dedicated to FIRESIGN people, and because it was out of the 1933 World's Fair which was the "BOZOS" source material, that it was more Firesigny than not. I would have liked to use a color xerox (for the cover) but that's way too expensive, because the actual cover of "THE BOOK OF THE FAIR" is quite nice. The original cover is white paper printed in red, yellow and green. I actually pulled the colors for this that were as close to the colors of the original cover as possible. My style of these things is to generally not have a title page, and to sign them on the back. I always xerox them because that's part of the cheap aesthetic of them.
FZ: I really enjoyed the reading you gave on my WEPM program last July and I would hope that you would put out a tape of you reading your poetry.
DO: Oh, thank you. I'll be recording this reading that I'm doing at The Raven Cafe' here in WA, and so perhaps I will release that.
FZ: You've been performing in a lot of plays locally lately. Is that another direction that you would like to move towards?
DO: This past year has been a real return to theater. Before I did the show this past February, I hadn't done anybody else's play since college. So that definitely is a kind of coming around, yeah. I've enjoyed it thoroughly. I'm having a wonderful time. I would love to do more theater, doing other people's works. I've always personally wanted the FIRESIGN to be much more theatrical in recent years, to be much more theatrical in the presentations of both of the recent shows that we did. In particular, I see "ANYTHYNGE YOU WANT TO" as being a major theatrical piece, whereas I think for example Proctor, would be very content to see it done as a minimalist piece, and Austin too. Not exactly as a reading but as a "Heater Little Theater" kind of thing, a little theater presentation. And I don't see it that way at all. I've always seen it as, you know, the sets, the costumes, the props, you know? I wanted to move the FIRESIGN toward that for a long time but the difficulty of that has always been the lack of any investment in the show. We've always, right from the beginning, have had to pull any theatrical thing we've done together with no investment. And what I like about the theater is that there is an investment in it. What I've enjoyed about doing the "e. e. cummings" was not so much that we had stage sets or anything, but that it was completely theatrical in its look, the lighting and the whole way that it was done. I just got tired, at a certain point, of pulling everything out of a theatrical trunk. My idea of, and I felt always that the FIRESIGN THEATRE should grow toward, was a full scale theatrical show, something that could play off-Broadway and could have a sustained run. That's my vision of what the FIRESIGN THEATRE on stage ought to be and I think that I am alone on that. So I'm satisfying myself by doing quote "real theater", unquote, that is other people's plays. It's always been important to me to keep that performance aspect of what I do alive. There's writing and there's performance and there's teaching. As teaching has for the moment kind of receded into the background, because the teaching that I did in the 80s was sort of funded by the Corporation For Public Broadcasting, and the Endowment. When that funding disappeared out of the system, why, the teaching in radio really went completely over to news, and has really kind of disappeared entirely. So there's very little opportunity to do that. I'm looking into other kinds of teaching opportunities, colleges and that kind of thing, that would allow me to sort of keep the educational aspect. I've always tried to keep those 3 things going, the writing , the performing, and the teaching, ever since I started teaching which was way back in the 70s sometime.
FZ: Well you've certainly done a wonderful job combining all three, and with your poetry as well.
DO: So to keep that alive and going, I always try to have a couple of publications of some kind or another a year or to mark special occasions as "THE BOOK OF THE FAIR" is.