An interview with Sharon Olds, Pittsfield’s Pulitzer-winning poet
Poet Sharon Olds (Concord Monitor photo/Ken Williams) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
On Monday Sharon Olds was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for Stag’s Leap, her 12th collection of poems. Three weeks ago, after the book won the Eliot Prize in England, I interviewed Olds at Graylag Cabins in Pittsfield. She lives there much of the time her partner Carl Wallman, an environmentalist who started a collaborative with like-minded landowners in the area.
This is an edited transcript of the interview.
When Carol Ann Duffy, the poet laureate of the United Kingdom, announced that you had won the Eliot Prize, she called it the crowning moment of your career. What did you think of that?
We’re metaphor makers as poets, but no, I didn’t feel anything on my head. For many of us, whatever walk of life we’re in, it’s hard sometimes to take in praise, so I tried to not to close the doors but to open them up and take it as energy and pleasure.
Stag’s Leap is about a difficult time in your life – the end of a marriage of 32 years. How and when did you write about it?
I wrote these poems the way I always write, which is immediately. I have to write a poem the moment it comes to me, or sometimes half an hour later, or the next day if I’m in the middle of something. Only then do I have the feeling that is so full in me that it feels the need to spill over into an expression of itself. The poems were written in 1997, 1998 and 1999, and then maybe one in 2000 and one in 2002 and one poem may be written in 2006. But 90 percent of them were written right at the time.
In terms of this book being difficult, I really enjoy writing. I can’t sit down and just write a poem. I have to wait for it to come to me, and I’m grateful when it does, and I do the best I can with it. But it’s a pleasure – particularly the poems in this book – to take something painful and real and educational and try to make some kind of pleasure out of it – musical pleasure, or imagery pleasure, for myself, for the reader. That is fun.
So you were writing these poems as you were living the events they recount?
True, true. I never think about poetry when I’m living. I never think of it. I’m living. But sometimes the next day or the next week, something will start to take shape into this form. That’s my way of reacting to life. It isn’t like something I do because I can. I need to do it. The experience really starts forming for me into a shape and a music that asks to be let out onto the paper.
You promised your grown children you wouldn’t publish a book about your divorce for at least 10 years after it happened. Why?
I realized that it would be a bit of a weight off their shoulders if they knew from the beginning that I wouldn’t be putting together a book on this subject and sending it out into the world anytime soon. So I said 10 years. It’s enough to absorb changes like that in a family.
It’s enough to be in the family of a family poet. No ever asks for that. I’d so grateful to them for the humor with which they’ve been able to absorb my being a family writer.
How much did you revise these poems during the years between writing and publication?
None of these poems were revised a lot. The mistakes I tend to make in my first draft are too many adjectives. When I type it up and look at it, I try to take out half the adjectives and a third of the self-pity. I’m joking, but I’m also not joking. There’s a certain amount of moral revision, where I can see things like self-pity, or any kind of lying, including the lying of idealizing.
When I began reading the book, knowing its subject, I expected bitterness and anger. There was anger, but it surprised me that the book’s main topic seemed to be love.
To me, one of the important themes of the book is the difficulty some people have in being angry in self-defense. There are three or four poems in which I’m talking to myself about not idealizing. In the early poems in the book there’s a lot of idealizing, which is really not love, as we know. It’s not the love of the actual person, but kind of seeing that person as higher or better or more beautiful than he is.
So for me, I like what you say, but for me it would be the interweaving of healthy anger and the recovery from idealization. Now it may not be angry enough to look like anger to anyone else, but there is a poem that says, “Since you cannot harm him, wound him.” There’s a kind of natural self-defense anger that this narrator doesn’t seem to have at the beginning of the book – it seems more balanced at the end.
There’s also the question in “The Worst Thing”: Have we harmed love – a huge ideal with a capital “L” – with our failure at being successful at it, as we had hoped we would be for a lifetime.
But when a marriage has worked for a long time, there’s a lot that’s positive. And when a marriage has children, that makes it so positive. The love of one’s children is an inspiration in trying to have a balanced view. Marriage is 50-50, divorce is 50-50, however that works out. I didn’t want it to feel like a victim book.
Your poetry is full of metaphor, beginning in the first poem with the two wilting tulips leaning away from each other in a vase. Is metaphor helpful in thinking about a painful personal situation?
I don’t know that metaphor helps understanding as much as it is a release into a different realm of one’s understanding.
Metaphors come to me – similes most of all. This is even if I’m just writing an ordinary poem – I mean a poem that isn’t about death or love. When I focus on an idea or a thing, similes arise in my mind. They feel to me as if they come out of the end of my pen. I have no power to bring them on – except by sitting down and writing, but then it’s up to them. It really does feel to me as though they’re coming out of the pen as a result of this attention.
I can’t quite see them as an enhancement in an educational way or even in a way about wisdom. I think there’s a way that my brain wants to play while it’s working and wants to escape the present but then it escapes by running off and playing. And then it brings back what it has found in play, which has some kind of beauty to it – intellectual, visual very often with me. Without that I wouldn’t be a poet.
Since bringing out Stag’s Leap, have you heard from others who have survived divorce?
Yes. This also happened when my book, The Father, came out. People who had lost their fathers or their mothers spoke with me.
Sometime in the early years of reading these poems of Stag’s Leap aloud, someone came up to me and said her husband had died and they were in love throughout their lives, together, but something in these poems was comforting to her. The loss was absolutely different, but the conveying of how much was felt to be lost she felt comfortable with.
And of course this is for a poet – any kind of writer – this is what we hope for. We can’t think of it too much while we’re writing, but for anything we’ve done to be of use to anyone is a wonderful thing. It makes you feel better about your life.
Even a number of men have said they were immersed in the book. I guess it’s kind of a sexist thing to say, but I grew up in such a sexist time – such a patriarchal time – that it feels like a book written by a woman to me. Young people coming along now are able to read things without so much reference to that.
It made me happy that it wasn’t a book for one gender only but that it had something to offer to some readers of all genders, the many genders that we have.
Has your former husband read the book?
I’m sorry, but I won’t talk about that. I can’t talk about family.
Did the long period between the events and the publication force you to live with the experience in a way that troubles you in some way?
No. I think I’m focusing on it so much as art. I may have a bit more division between art and life than other people have. All along, when I’ve gotten up and read apparently very personal poems, if it’s a poem, I don’t feel exposed by it.
If there was some very important part of my biographical experience that didn’t make a good poem, it couldn’t be in the book. It’s whether they seem to me to be alive enough to be able to stand on their own, like a genie on his or her own big toe.
These are such a tiny percent of the poems that are written. I write lots of bad poems – lots of poems that fail in one way or another, and so I only wanted what I thought were the best ones even though that makes it not cover all the bases.
How do you choose the keepers?
If I wrote one of these poems and thought, hmmm, I might like this one, then I wouldn’t type it up the next day because, what if I didn’t like it? And I was so cheerful. So I might wait a week, a month, six months, type it up and then if I like it enough, read it at a reading.
That’s definitely part of the process. I don’t know if some of us poets have the feeling that we’re a little bit psychic at a reading, and when we come to the end of a poem, we can feel what all who were there think of it – probably we’re just projecting. But that would be part of it – a validation or lack of validation coming from that.
And then sending them out to magazines and seeing which ones come back really fast and which ones the magazine would like to publish.
In the end, did writing about the divorce change the way you saw it?
There are horrible experiences that human beings go through – I’m not sure that every divorce is one. Painful, but so educational. You know where you really are. You know the truth. You know the other person and learn many truths about yourself. So it’s not like a death. It’s not like a sudden calamity. I know it can feel that way, but I don’t think it’s always that way.
One strain of coverage in the British press to your winning the Eliot Prize might be summed up in the headline: “Sweet Revenge.” What did you think of that?
It’s very unfair the power that a publishing writer has to characterize experience. They’re only giving it from their point of view. I can understand people saying that, but I would never say that because that would harm the work. If our motives are to have revenge, we’re going to be writing bad poems.
All I can do is write poems. I teach, and I write poems. Anything that I write is unrepresentative of any view but mine. In that way the revenge headline seems unfair. People would ask me about that – and I would say no – but sometimes questions with the quotes around it would get into the interview. It wasn’t something I had said or believed.
What will your next book be?
The next book will have odes in it. I have been writing a lot of odes. It sounds like a strange word, and the more you say it, the stranger it gets. Odes. It sounds like I can’t pronounce my own name – Sharon Odes.
These are poems I started writing maybe six years ago. Like all the other poems, they just come to me. I could never sit down and say, “All right, yesterday must have had something interesting in it, let’s write a poem about it. I wouldn’t be able to do that.
And the odes also just came to me after reading Pablo Neruda’s Odes to Common Things. I found that my common things were distinctly female. That book is going to have a partly humorous but also very serious feminist joy to it. I’m of the old school where the word feminist had no bad connotations. I just mean equality for all genders.
They’re all written, although if another comes to me, I’m here. I don’t know when it might come out as a book. What I tend to want to do is write new poems. So I am pretty far behind in organizing them.
Do you write here at Graylag?
Wherever I am is where I do my writing. I write in New York when I’m teaching. I write sitting mostly at a window overlooking the Hudson River. When I’m here, I write at a window overlooking Wild Goose Pond. Trees and birds and water and sky have always been what I’ve been looking at when I’m writing.
In New York, that’s being on the seventh floor of an apartment building on a hill over a park over the river. And here, just down the slope is this beautiful pond, and the ducks and everything else – the hawks and the trees and the water and the light on the water – so I write about whatever is around me. In the city sometimes what I see out the window, sometimes people. I write about my mother and father more than anything else. Any scene can call them up.
But here at Graylag, Carl’s passion for the natural world teaches me a lot about the individual relationship to the land and the group relationship to the land. The place has had a profound effect on me. Out the window in New York, what you’re looking at belongs to no one you know. Here we see the Boy Scouts across, but also there’s the sense of personal inspiration for the habitats of animals and the invasive plants as opposed to the native plants. All of these are issues I knew very little about before I came here.
How much longer you expect to teach?
There’s the question. What the teaching means to me is usefulness first of all, community. I’ve been at NYU for 25-30 years.
The students keep getting younger – or they stay the same age – and I keep getting older, so it keeps me in touch with the slow, or sometimes not so slow, shifting of styles. Not just styles, but the heart and soul of what poetry means to the young people – the changing meaning. That, I feel, has kept me – not young – but it’s given me a perspective that has some freshness to it. I cannot yet imagine being apart from that.
The outreach programs at NYU are among my passions. Our graduate creative writing program is not just a program for people to come together and meet each other but also to reach out into the community. The oldest program now is 27, 28 years old. It’s for severely physically challenged people at a local hospital. Another is a 900-bed state hospital. That writing project is taught by fiction and poetry students in the NYU program.
Most recently we’ve done a similar program for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s in its third year.
That has been a way in which poetry and fiction – writing – can go to some of the people who can use it and can be good at it and get pleasure out of it, people who couldn’t come to it.
(Mike Pride is the former editor of the Monitor.)