Online Interviews with Sharon Olds
Thanks for the tea. Which reminds me that I once read somewhere that you don't smoke or drink coffee, and that you consume very little alcohol. Why is that?
Well, one thing I'm really interested in, when I'm writing, is being accurate. If I am trying to describe something, I'd like to be able to get it right. Of course, what's "right" is different for every person. Sometimes what's accurate might be kind of mysterious. So I don't just mean mathematically accurate. But to get it right according to my vision. I think this is true for all artists. My senses are very important to me. I want to be able to describe accurately what I see and hear and smell. And what they say about those things not being good for one's longevity makes an impression on me also. So I did quit coffee and I did quit smoking. But I haven't managed that with drinking!
So many poets are associated with alcohol and other kinds of excess.
There are some fine books and essays about that. Lewis Hyde has written about alcoholism and poets and the role that society gives its writers -- encouraging them to die [laughs]. And Donald Hall has wonderful, sobering stories about many of these poets. But I don't think anyone believes anymore that drugs and alcohol are good for writing, do they? I'm probably so out of it at my age that I don't know what people think. But I think that exercise and as much good health as one can enjoy is the best thing for writing.
I was even more surprised to read that you don't take a newspaper or watch television.
It's true, but it's kind of a different issue. At one point I took on a new job, and I just didn't have time to do anything but work. [Olds was the Director of the Graduate Creative Writing Program at NYU from 1989-91.] So I figured that for a year, just for the first year of this job, I would not watch TV, I wouldn't read a newspaper, I wouldn't read a book, I wouldn't go hear any music, I wouldn't do any of that kind of thing. Just so I'd have enough time. I was very afraid that I wouldn't be able to do this job well. And the time never came back. But there are problems connected with this -- with keeping informed about what's happening in the world. So I try to look at the front page whenever I'm walking by a newsstand. And people talk about what's happening, so I get a certain amount of information that way. It might be a bad thing, not to know what's going on in the world. I can't say I really approve of it.
Is this paring down an attempt to get back to basic things, in your life as well as your work?
I'm not sure that the benefit -- as a writer and as a citizen -- that I would get from reading at least the front page of the Times every day or every other day would outweigh the depression. Learning about so many things that we can't do anything about. The amount of horror one used to hear about in one village could be quite extreme. But one might not have heard about all the other villages' horrors at the same time. I just don't have a big mind, I don't have a big picture, I am very limited.
Yet didn't some of your earlier, somewhat political poems take their inspiration from things you'd read in newspapers?
Yes, and they still do. I wish I wrote more about the world at more distance from myself. I think that for any of us to be able to imagine another person's life, if we could do that really well, would be wonderful.
There is only one in "The Wellspring," your new book. It's a poem titled "Japanese-American Farmhouse, California, 1942."
Well, "The Wellspring" was written from 1983 to 1986. And it had a section in the beginning that was poems that began from others' experience. But the book just insisted on having this more domestic shape -- against my wishful thinking.
I didn't realize that the "new" poems were so old.
That's why I didn't have time to go to the movies and read the paper and drink coffee [laughs] -- because I'm very far behind in terms of putting books together.
Can you put this new book into place for me, then, in terms of your chronology?
"The Gold Cell" was published in 1987, and the poems in it were written in 1980, 1981 and 1982. Half of "The Father" [published in 1992] was written in '83 and '84. The second half was composed of one or two poems each from 1984, '85, '86, '87, '88, '89. So for "The Wellspring" I went back to where "The Gold Cell" left off, which was work written through 1982. So "The Wellspring" goes through 1986. The book I'm working on now will be made of poems written in '87, '88 and '89. The next one will be from 1990, '91 and '92.
I find that fascinating. Do many poets work that way?
I don't think so. I got behind in putting books together.
How hard is putting a book together? It would seem like the hard part would be writing the poems in the first place.
Well, you just need time. When I quit all these things and said I didn't have any time, I meant I didn't have any time. So the teaching, the writing of first drafts, the traveling, the reading, and whatever else might be in the life -- that was all I had time for. I didn't have time to sit down and look at the work of a year and choose what to type. And then choose, among what gets typed, what to work on. And then among what's worked on what to keep working on until lots of poems become just the ones that seem the best. Or the least worst!
Why do you keep yourself so busy with things that don't pertain directly to writing? Is it because you love these other jobs, or is it because you've had to take them?
It's a combination of both. The teaching is very rewarding, and very time-consuming, and very exhausting. But it's wonderful. The community here at NYU is very precious to me. And the traveling and reading is rewarding in a different way, and it's an honor to be asked. It's hard to say no, when one is asked.
People who know your work well might be surprised to know that you have such a vigorous public life. Because your work is very focused and often kind of quiet. It's hard to imagine the narrator of one of your poems fending off multiple phone calls.
But don't you think that every single one of us is leading a harried life? We're all taking on too much, we're all asking too much of ourselves. We're all wishing we could do more, and therefore just doing more. So I don't think my life is different from anybody else's. Every poet I know -- although there may be some I don't know who lead very different lives, who maybe live in the country and don't teach -- tends to be just like the rest of us: just really busy, really overcommitted. We wouldn't necessarily see it in their poems. Because a poem is not written while running or while answering the phone. It's written in whatever minutes one has. Sometimes you have half an hour.
Can you write a poem in half an hour?
Forty-five minutes is much better [laughs]. Many, many poets whose work I love, they take longer than I do to write a first draft. In a way, it doesn't matter how long it takes, if we can each just find the right way to do it. Everyone is so different. I sometimes wish I wrote in a different way. You know, that feeling of: So-and-so writes slowly, if only I wrote slowly. But it's just the way I work. I feel a very strong wish, when a poem does come to me, to write it and get to the end of it.
So you don't sit down every morning at 9 a.m. and say: Now I'm going to write a poem.
No. I don't know if there are many poets who do that. I think that there are fiction writers for whom that works well. I could never do it. I feel as if, by the time I see that it's a poem, it's almost written in my head somewhere. It's as if there's someone inside of me who perceives order and beauty -- and disorder. And who wants to make little copies. Who wants to put together something that will bear some relationship to the vision or memory or experience or story or idea or dream or whatever. Whatever starts things out.
What did you mean when you once said that your poetry comes out of your lungs?
[Laughs] Well, you know, it's curious where different people think their mind is. I guess a lot of people believe that their mind is in their brain, in their head. To me, the mind seems to be spread out in the whole body -- the senses are part of the brain. I guess they're not where the thinking is done. But poetry is so physical, the music of it and the movement of thought. Maybe we can use a metaphor for it, out of dance. I think for many years I was aware of the need, in dance and in life, to breathe deeply and to take in more air than we usually take in. I find a tendency in myself not to breathe very much. And certainly I have noticed, over the years, when dancing or when running, that ideas will come to my mind with the oxygen. Suddenly you're remembering something that you haven't thought of for years.
Your last book, "The Father," was an unflinching account of your father's -- or at least the narrator's father's -- death from cancer. Your new book deals with more domestic themes, and while it's not lightweight, it doesn't have that sense of darkness that hung over "The Father." Did you find that writing these poems was refreshing, a kind of release?
The decision for me was whether to have "The Father" be a book that told a story -- from the point of view of this speaker, the daughter -- without, as in the earlier books, then having a section on something else and a section on something else. At first I thought it would not be a good idea to have a book all on one theme. I also didn't know if I had enough poems on the subject that I liked well enough to make a book of them. But it turned out that I did. And it just seemed true to make a story that was all of itself. It pleased me to do so, and it still does. I've never had regrets that I went that way with "The Father." The fact that there was a lot of anger and sorrow and a sense of connection to destructive feelings in "The Father" doesn't bother me. For me, the subject kind of makes its demands. And I don't write books. I just write poems. And then I put together books. Many poets write books. They'll tell you: Well, I've got my next book, but there are two poems I need to write, one about x, one about y. This is a wonder to me. But I think in another way I am like these poets: we like to get in the art's way as little as possible.
That's an interesting phrase, not getting in art's way. Is that why you write your poems in a style that's somewhat accessible?
I think that it's a little different from that for me. I think that my work is easy to understand because I am not a thinker, I am not a .... How can I put it? I write the way I perceive, I guess. It's not really simple, I don't think, but it's about ordinary things -- feeling about things, about people. I'm not an intellectual, I'm not an abstract thinker. And I'm interested in ordinary life. So I think that our writing reflects us.
I was recently reading in Des Moines with Yusef Komunyakaa and Philip Levine. You listen to them and you're hearing a world-view, a body-view, you're hearing a spirit of a person, and mind, and heart, and soul. Their work is completely distinctive; you know you're hearing a Komunyakaa poem immediately. And I don't think they are trying to sound one way or another -- it doesn't seem to me to be something that comes from a conscious decision. Their spirits and their visions are embodied in their craft. And so is mine. It's not Jane Saw Puff. But the clarity of Jane Saw Puff is precious to me. What was the other part of your question?
Well, I was wondering what you meant about not getting in art's way.
There are some things that have to do with art that we can't control. This creature of the poem may assemble itself into a being with its own centrifugal force. That's what I'm thinking about when I'm trying to get out of art's way. Not trying to look good, if a poem's about me. Not trying to look bad. Not asking a poem to carry a lot of rocks in its pockets. But just being an ordinary observer and liver and feeler and letting the experience get through you onto the notebook with the pen, through the arm, out of the body, onto the page, without distortion. And there are so many ways I could distort. If I wrote in a sonnet form, I would be distorting. Or if I had some great new idea for line breaks and I used it in a poem, but it's really not right for that poem, but I wanted it, that would be distorting. It's kind of like ego in a way, egotism or narcissism. Where the self is too active.
Your poems often seem, on the surface anyway, somewhat more autobiographical than most -- not that the "I" in your work is necessarily you. Do people try to read your life into them?
I don't know if it would feel accurate to me to say that I put myself into my poems. I don't know if that would describe what was happening in a poem that I wrote and that I liked. Someone is seeing, someone is thinking, dreaming, wondering, and remembering, in everybody's poems. Whether there's a speaker that has an explicit "I" or not, there is some kind of self or spirit or personality. We think of Lucille Clifton's poems, and they don't have to have an "I" in them for the spirit of the poet, a person, to be felt. I wouldn't say she was putting herself in, but the qualities of her being come through. She's not leaving herself, her wisdom and experience and music out. That's partly what craft is, I think. The body of the poem is the spirit of the poem. But I do sometimes make an effort to use the word "I" as little as possible. I would not have chosen to have that word appear so much in my poems. My poems -- I don't even like the sound of that, in a way. Not that anyone else wrote them. But we know that only people who are really close to us care about our personal experience. Art is something else. It has something to do with wanting to be accurate about what we think and feel. To me the difference between the paper world and the flesh world is so great that I don't think we could put ourselves in our poems even if we wanted to.
Do you ever wonder what one of your children will think when he or she reads one of your poems that might be, at least in some small way, about them? Or do you wonder about what insight they will have into their mother's life through your work?
It's a wonderful question, and it's not one I can answer, really. Ten years ago I made a vow not to talk about my life. Obviously, the apparently very personal nature of my writing made this seem to me like maybe a good idea, for both sides of the equation -- both for the muses and for the writer. But it's a wonderful and important question. I think the thing that's most important to me about it is this idea that every writer has to decide these things for themselves, and we learn by making mistakes. We learn by finding out, five years later, what we wish we hadn't done. I've worked out this thing I've called "the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal." Which is also the spectrum of silence and song. And at either end, we're in a dangerous state, either to the self, or to others. We all try to fall in the right place in the middle.
As accessible as your poetry can seem to be, there also seems to be an almost brutally direct emotional quality sometimes. There are some tough images.
I think that I am slowly improving in my ability to not be too melodramatic, to help the images have the right tenor. My first book came out when I was 37, so when I was finally able to speak as a writer my wish to not be silent was, in my early work, extreme. It's like someone, in baseball, who thinks that the ball is being thrown by a very strong arm from the outfield, and so she can't just land on home, she has to try to run way past it, practically into the dugout. Reading some of my earlier work, I get that sense of the need for too big a head of steam to be built up. It seems extreme to me at times, some of the imagery. That's part of why I'm not so sorry I'm a little behind in putting books together, because some of those rather crude images I can now maybe correct. It also might be that maybe I've used an image that is too mild, and I'll correct in the other direction. I don't want to imply that it's always going the other way. But my tendency was to be a little over the mark. And so I just really love now the possibility of getting it right.
Your new book contains several poems that are quite realistic in terms of their descriptions of sex. Is it difficult writing poetry about sex, not to fall into language that might seem cliched?
I don't think that sex has been written about a lot in poetry. And I want to be able to write about any subject. There is a failure rate -- there are subjects that are probably a lot harder to write about than others. I think that love is almost the hardest thing to write about. Not a general state of being in love, but a particular love for a particular person. Just one's taste for that one. And if you look at all the love poetry in our tradition, there isn't much that helps us know why that one. I'm just interested in human stuff like hate, love, sexual love and sex. I don't see why not. It just seems to me if writers can assemble, in language, something that bears any relation to experience -- especially important experience, experience we care about, moving and powerful experience -- then it is worth trying. The opportunities for offense and failure are always aplenty. They lie all around us.
Your poetry isn't necessarily known for its comic aspects. But I'm wondering about your wonderful poem "The Pope's Penis," from "The Gold Cell," where that came from and if it has proven controversial.
Life has a lot of sorrow in it, but also has a lot of funny things in it, so it makes sense to me to have that range. So many poets whose work I love are funny now and then. We're just funny creatures, human beings. But that particular poem -- I am careful where I read it, not wishing to give maximum offense. It's a poem I didn't get for a long time. I didn't ask myself: Why do you feel okay about teasing this stranger? Why do you think that's okay? I was just so startled when I noticed that this particular Pope was also a man. And I thought: Well, that means .... [trails off]. And I just began musing on The Other, in a way.
And I wasn't thinking, "I must not write anything about a religion that is not mine because I have no business doing so." I'm sure there are a lot of people who feel that way, that we can write well only about what we deeply know and have known all our lives -- that we can't write about very different experiences. I don't think that's necessarily always true. I grew up in what I now call a hellfire Episcopalian religion -- I think that phrase communicates the atmosphere -- and I didn't feel light years away from understanding the male hierarchy of power leading up toward the male God. But I didn't understand, until years later, that this poem was kind of a return gesture. This man, the Pope, seemed to feel that he knew a lot about women and could make decisions for us -- various decisions about whether we could be priests or not, and who would decide whether we could have an abortion or not. He had crossed our line so far -- this is according to my outsider's point of view -- that hey, what's a little flirtatious poem that went across his line somewhat?
It looks like a young poem now. It mixes its metaphors. So I don't tend to read that poem, but I don't wish I hadn't written it. I don't want to take it out of the book. And unlike maybe three other poems in that book that I've rewritten -- in the latest printing they are different from what they were -- it's okay enough for me that I don't feel like I have to, or could, rewrite it. If I tried to fix the images it would just fall apart.
Many of the poems in your new book, certainly unlike that poem about the Pope's penis, take their inspiration from very simple domestic things -- a kid blowing bubbles in milk, a pair of blue jeans, a sick child.
Why is it, do you suppose, that you have two people in two different apartments, and they are surrounded by all the same stuff, and one of them will write about blue jeans and bubbles in milk, and the other will write about something less ordinary, or something with more ideas connected to it? How we perceive is just very different.
You published your first book of poems somewhat late, at 37. Can you tell me a bit about why that was?
That sure seemed old then, and it sure seems young to me now. It seemed old because I knew of all these amazing people who had done amazing work in their 20s. Of course, anyone who ever can do anything is lucky. It means that there has been enough education, enough peace, enough time, enough whatever, that somebody can sit down and write. Many lives don't allow that, the good fortune of being able to work at it, and try, and keep trying.
Can you imagine your life if you hadn't become a writer? Do you feel lucky?
No, I certainly can't imagine my life not being a writer. Lucky? Um-hmm. It's hard to believe -- it's like this is a dream. I need to write, and I need to write a lot. And I've been very lucky to be able to make the time, have the time given me, depending on what stage of my life I'm thinking of. Yes, luck. Luck. "Sometimes a crumb falls/ From the tables of joy,/ Sometimes a bone/ Is flung./ To some people/ Love is given,/ To others/ Only heaven." That's Langston Hughes' poem "Luck." It's one of the poems on the subways.
Have you ever learned anything from a review of your work?
Oh sure. Sometimes I feel like warning signs are thrown up. As long as one doesn't get too discouraged.
I haven't seen many -- or any, actually -- negative reviews of your work. Maybe it's because I see so few poetry reviews. But do bad ones get to you?
Yeah. Sure. I think there have been plenty of them [laughs]. You were looking in a different direction. And they have differed a lot from each other in their amount of thoughtfulness, their amount of bad feeling. But we put our boat in the stream. By putting one's work out there, one is asking to be considered as a part of the world. If the world feels very powerfully that this work should not have been written, it will say so. That seems quite fair. But then I think of the great things I have read, great stuff describing other people's work that a critic likes or loves. Criticism can be so enriching, it can add to the pleasure we take in the poetry.
from Salon.com. Page Source.
Afternoon Seminar, January 29, 1998
New York State Writer's Institute
QUESTION: You started writing in earnest as a poet relatively. Your first book was published when you were 37. Did you have a backlog?
OLDS: Not really. I think, in my twenties, for ten years I was trying to write like George Oppen and Gary Snyder. I was
reading Caterpillar magazine and the fact that I didnít understand poetry without the sentence, poetry with the line and the
space around the lines, that I didnít understand it, couldnít do it, was to me at that time, a good sign that I was trying to do real
poetry. But I couldnít figure it out at all. And then when I was 30, I gave up trying to do that. I had kind of a religious
experience. I made a vow to Satan on the steps of Columbia University, probably not the first or the last person to have done
that. I had finished my doctorate degree which had taken me many, many years and a lot of near misses. I was not very good
as a scholar. I loved books, but it took me a long time to figure out the way to talk about them. But I actually had that piece of
paper that I realized, as I left, they could never take away from me. So I didnít have to try to do the right thing according to
someone elseís standards, which I had never been able to understand anyway, not being gifted in the area in which I was a
graduate. I was in a certain way in the wrong field, but in another way I was working with what I loved, which is books. Now I thought it was Satan who I was making this vow to, thatís just what came into my mind. One reason it was so hard for me to get through graduate school is illustrated by the fact that I couldnít think of Faust, I just thought of Satan which really meant that what I wanted was rising up in me. When I was a child, generally what I wanted that would rise up in me was not what I should want. So I said, I will give up all I have learned here if I can just write my own poems and I donít care if theyíre good. I just want to write my own stuff. I hadnít actually learned that much there so it wasnít the most fair bargain. And I was actually, as I realized later, talking to some part of myself. And it was not that I thought that what I could do would be good. It was not from confidence that I was saying my vow. But I think it had something to do with almost all my teachers having been and many of the writers that I had read as a child having been men--that wasnít all of it at all. But I was sort of drenched in experience that wasnít in many of the books I had read while I was coming up. The half generation before me--Muriel Rukeyser, Galway Kinnell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, who am I forgetting--had written about children and a little about the birth room. So it was clear to me that those subjects were a part of poetry.
QUESTION: What was your doctorate about?
OLDS: I can say both my dissertations were on Ralph Waldo Emerson. The first one that was rejected at the last minute, and rightly so, was--they both had the same subject--the prosody of poems 1850. Was it a tone deaf personís prosody or was it new? Was it looking forward to the 20th century? Or was it a poor, bumbling person who tried to belong and couldnít do it. I had done all this stuff with counting, and later someone said to me when something that was being done called structuralism, that that was what I had been doing, in a way. But I didnít have a computer, or I didnít have a calculator. I just made lists. And I was trying to really understand form by just getting inside it. But when my first dissertation was written, my adviser said he was very impressed with it. He had never read a dissertation quite like it. I got all hopeful, I thought, Oh, my God Iíve got something new. It had many metaphors in it and it had no footnotes. I went into my defense and my adviser was not there and I fought for my life. There was a wonderful woman scholar there who, when I left the room and they said, this is an easy one, said, you canít do that. Her adviser is not even here. He never told her that this is not scholarship, that this is some strange creature. Give her a chance. Tell her to give us a new one. So I gave them a new one less than a year. No metaphors, a footnote on every page, and I passed. When I was walking down the stairs, I seem to remember I was carrying a small person on one hip and holding another small person by the hand. But I may have dreamed that. But I know in my backpack I had this PhD and thatís when I made my vows.
QUESTION: I have two questions. I want to ask you what did you find out, what did you decide about Emerson? The second one is could you talk briefly about the MLA a couple of years ago on Muriel Rukeyser? I would love it if you would speak more about that. Iíd be really curious to know what it was like studying with her.
OLDS: Let me start there. I had been writing all the time for about five years after my vow when I realized I was not re-writing and was not re-writing as I wrote. It was like I was afraid to change anything, as if I would probably censor myself. The stuff I was writing was pretty wild stuff. I mean I think there was probably at least one toilet in every poem. I needed help. I just didnít know what I was doing and I could tell that. I called up the "Y" and asked who would be teaching there in the fall. They said Muriel Rukeyser and I applied to the workshop. It was not a workshop actually. There were about 20 of us. We memorized poems, not our own. We read to each other from other peopleís work, not our own. Every few weeks sheíd have each one of us read a poem and weíd say things about each otherís poems and then weíd go on to talk about what poetry is. It was just wonderful. It was remarkable. She was very blunt and very impassioned at the same time. I was afraid of her. I didnít fear any harm from her, but I was so in awe of her. She was so much herself. She wasnít exactly shy though she was clearly deeply reserved and private. She had the most beautiful voice, beautiful low resonant, with a certain kind of New York accent. I was kind of in love with her in a way. I would bring her flowers each week. I knew I was just so lucky. We were all so lucky. We were all very close to each other during that class. It ended up being the last class that she taught. Then I got to have lunch with her a few times. But I was always just so nervous because I was with Muriel Rukeyser, wow. But sheís just remarkable--so much herself.
Emerson, well if I only had a memory I could give you a sense of what I . . . Maybe I could remember just a few lines:
Give all to love;
Obey thy Heart;
Friends, kindred, days,
Plans, credit, and the Muse,-
ĎTis a brave master;
Let it have scope:
Follow it utterly,
Hope beyond hope:
High and more high
And dives into noon,
With wing unspent,
But it is a god
Knows its own path
And the outlets of the sky.
Tíwas never for the mean;
It requireth courage stout,
Souls above doubt,
It will reward,-
They shall return
More than they were,
And ever ascending.
Leave all for love;
Yet, hear me, yet,
One word more of thy heart behoved,
One pulse more of firm endeavor,-
Keep thee today,
Free as an Arab
Of thy beloved.
Cling with life to the maid;
But when the surprise,
First vague shadow of surmise
Flits across her bosom young
Of a joy apart from thee,
Free be she, fancy free;
Nor thou detain her vestureís hem,
Nor the palest rose she flung
from her summer diadem.
Though thou lovest her as thyself
As a self of purer clay,
Though her parting dims the day
Stealing grace from all alive
When half gods go,
The gods arrive.
QUESTION: Did you come to Emerson through the journal?
OLDS: Through that poem. I went to a lecture in New York City when I was like 19, and Leslie Fiedler cited that poem. And Iíd been waiting to hear that poem. I would say that poem to myself so when it came to think of whose work I wanted to look at so close and dwell with--something about him too, something about his life. He just seemed like a fun person.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask you about the process when you wrote the book, The Father. Did you find it--this is a leading question--did you find it healing? Did you find that some forgiveness issues came up? Iím just thinking it must have been a really tough piece to write. Was there some sort of reward beyond what is normal in writing poems?
QUESTION: Do you want to describe the book The Father for those who may not have read it?
OLDS: Well, itís a book of poems. The point of view is a daughter. The subject is a father, who is dying and then who has
died, and then the last third of the book has poems written the ten years or so after that death. So itís kind of like a story. I
have tried writing poems. I have tried not writing poems. And I find not writing poems to be much harder than writing them.
When one is holding something and one doesnít bring it forth, I find that really hard. The other is by comparison fun, fun. I think
art is great fun, joy and pleasure. Itís fun to make something. It just seems to me a kind of amazing thing to be as if one were
free, as if one were allowed to sit down and try to say what really seems true, to describe or to put into words something one
has seen or heard. What an amazing thing, to have time to do that, to have even a half an hour a day to do that. It just strikes
me as amazing, fantastic. It can be painful and all of that. I donít think I knew what I was going to say ever when I would sit down to write. I did not think that I was writing a book. I was just writing a poem on a particular day. There was so much going on in terms of language, experience, vision, point of view, trying to be accurate. Itís sort of gripping, kind of like if we were great basketball players, would we be thinking theory while we were playing? I wouldnít be. Even when I tried to play basketball, it went so slowly that there would have been time to think, but I didnít. So I would say I suppose I have a feeling to try and make a work of art in honor of another person, even if itís kind of tough. Well, I guess, I always thought I wouldnít mind if that would have been about me. So it seems to me itís like recognizing someone and paying attention to them and saying yes, you existed or yes, you mattered. In other words, we write about stuff we care about very much. I think thatís when our writing works a little better. I think Iíve written a lot of stuff that has not cured me or made me understand my life. When I was younger, I thought that I was probably cured and that I probably understood. That doesnít mean that young people think that and older people are right. It just meant that I didnít get it. I think itís possible for some of us to make some kind of art and not see what weíre saying or understand it. In The Father thereís a poem I read now sometimes at readings. Itís about the father paddling this boat across the River Styx. At the end of this poem the speaker is saying when I die, I know this father figure will come pick me up and row me over. This is all the speaker wants, just to spend eternity in some grave with this father. Itís a very sincere poem. I read it and I think, that is really sick, but I believe it. It seemed very sincere. And I donít hate it. But that just came into my mind as an illustration that we write maybe where we are. Is it unhealing not to write when we have a poem inside? I think so. But I want the poem to work. Whether I get well or not is something else. I want the poem to not be false. I want the poem to not have to carry any stones in its pocket for my sake, that are my stones to carry. I want it to be free as it could be.
QUESTION: Just as long as weíre talking about the subject, youíve also written about your children. Youíre one of the few writers as you mentioned, whoís actually constantly devoted your work to your children. And I wonder if you could comment on that.
OLDS: Well, one thing that comes to my mind is when I saw that I was having this good fortune, that I had not expected, of being read, I went back and took the names [of my children, and others] out of the books. I donít know what Iíd been thinking. Well, I hadnít been thinking. People would say, youíre brave. And Iíd think, oh, good, because I know that I am a complete chicken. Later I realized I was kind of a sociopath. It wasnít really brave. It was that I didnít get it about not putting real names in the poems. And the other people who got it were saying, oh, I wish I could do that and Iíd say oh, donít worry, maybe when youíre older. They were moral people. It just took me a little longer to understand these things, so I would not definitely call my own example an ideal. Iíve been much more careful in the last years. At the same time there is a side of me which feels that, as far as I know, no serious or terrible harm has been done. Thereís a part of me that sneakily--this is the sociopath in me--is glad that I didnít know not to, so as to be thorough open, especially in poems with sexuality and children. If I had been scared of myself, I wouldnít have published much. I didnít know to be scared of myself because I didnít have a clear enough vision of those things. I wrote as if free. Iím not totally sorry about that. There are just edges of it that I change, change lines, take things out. So I want to take the chance now to say, itís funny how no one I could hear was saying to me, are you sure this is completely the right thing to do? Before I just heard, this is wonderful, or you are a monster which they didnít say in a way that I could hear.
QUESTION: Could you describe your writing process?
OLDS: I think that I see, that I become aware that I am hearing the tip of the ear of a poem below where I can see. I see this faint triangle or I hear it. So Iíll write it on my hand. [She Ďwritesí on her palm with her finger.] Now Iíll remember that. I write all over again. And they have the same images that are weird images, too. So, ok itís a poem. Then, when itís quiet and Iím alone, which could be on a train or a bus--not a subway, itís too short of a ride--then I start. Maybe with my eyes closed. Actually I guess my eyes are open, but Iím in a state. I donít want to be too critical but I do want to steer it enough the right way that I donít get all the wrong words, all the wrong sounds, and then Iím going to be going on from those sounds to other sounds. So I just try not to be false and not to push. And then, I donít look at it for at the worst, ten years, at the best, a week or two, unless it wonít let me go. Then I think, thatís fake, thatís not fake, and then I go back. I hate to go back, but then I look at it--itís not so good. If I just write it and leave I think, ahhhh, not always but sometimes, then I feel sort of cheerful for the rest of the day and thatís very exciting. So then Iíll type it up and then Iíll try to take outóI figured this out once what I try to take outóself-pity and adjectives. Thereís always too much of those two things in my poems. I also try to make the line breaks for the first four lines. This is something Philip Levine told me. He said, you know, not all of us grew up in that church, Sharon, where it goes da-dah da-dah da-dah da-dah so we donít understand what youíre doing when you start undoing that from the very beginning. Couldnít you just give us the first four lines in da-dah da-dah da-dah da-dah and then once itís established then we could start cutting it up. So I type up not very many of the poems that I write. I mean, I write a lot more than I type up. I read them to see if theyíre worth typing up. So often they arenít. Thatís kind of it. Then Iíll read them. Iíll read always at least one new poem at a reading, sometimes more, and then Iíll see how it sounds. Those books where you can read about peopleís process are so interesting because everyoneís process is so startlingly different. Part of when I was walking down those steps at Columbia had to do with me being tired of feeling that my process, which wasnít just like the ones I heard about, had to be wrong for that reason.
QUESTION: Sharon, you may have just answered this question. But the poem, "The Moment the Two Worlds Meet" I was just curious how that came to be?
OLDS: How does that start?
QUESTION: It starts "Thatís the moment I always think of--when the slick, whole body comes out of me, . . ." If youíd like to read it--
OLDS: Oh, no, no thank you. It sounds over-written to me. Thatís why Iím saying "slick, whole body." Find out who wrote that poem! Probably I thought that thatís the moment I always think of. I just probably thought about life. Do you mean like that? I probably thought of that moment, and then I thought I always think of that moment and then I was probably thinking, when that moment begins youíre in one universe and then when that moment is over weíre all here. What happens between then was a mystery to me a mystery about reality in a way. So I just started meditating on it. To me Ďslick, wholeí sounds, at this point in my life, a little bold. It just sounds so bold. But maybe you donít mean that at all in terms of how I did it?
QUESTION: This is the first time I read it and it just struck me. How did she do this? I mean, I understood. Iím not a mother. I just didnít have the experience, but I understood.
OLDS: Itís weird to me. In a way, that poem implies a gentle reader, doesnít it? Thereís a way in which it just starts talking out of an ordinary life as if to another person who doesnít mind reading it, right? Itís like a confiding in a way. I guess it just would sound totally sentimental to say, well, I thought you were there somewhere? And yet I know that feeling in other peopleís poems. If I were to read a poem of yours and I would feel the connection with it, then you would have been right when you wrote it that there was someone there, which had been me. In other words, we arenít misunderstanding the nature of the human when we think that we want to hear each other, that weíre willing to hear each other, that we need to hear each other, that weíre lonesome. We want to know what experiences we havenít had and what experiences we have had. Or what the source would be of my thinking that I could just sit down and do that. Well, I had given up poetry. I had quit. I wasnít going to do that. I was just going to write my own stuff and I didnít care if it was bad. Iíd had it with that other thing. You know, oneís life always belonging to the others on their terms.
QUESTION: While youíre here, can you just define for yourself what is poetry?
OLDS: I canít. I couldnít for the longest time. All I would say was, no one knows. No generation knows because then the next generation, the next writers come along and itís different from what it was before. So I felt safe in saying, no one knows. But then I began to notice poetry as a spoken art, not as a read art. Obviously itís both, and both are precious. I feel a very strong connection to the hearing, and the seeing seems to take care of itself. We are in such a seeing world. So what is poetry? Maybe it is what happens when someone in our species talks about what most matters to them. Maybe a rhythmic speech begins. Love, death, sex, birth, grief, rage, tribal, individual, whatever. When we utter in whatever language--every group of people has had poetry, thereís never been a group without it--that rhythmical utterance. Now why rhythmical when caring the most? Well, probably itís just in our nature because of the natural rhythms of our heart and our lungs. There are something like seventeen bodily rhythms which we have that we mostly donít notice. But we are rhythmic beings. I think itís because we are rhythmic, and when we care most we utter in rhythm and then when we put it on the page, it comes out in these lines. The rhythm of the ear with a slight stopping or not comes out in shapes on the page.
QUESTION: Can you talk about your experience and what you do in Goldwater Hospital?
OLDS: When I was teaching there, in the beginning, we had many guestsóRobert Stone, and Allen Ginsberg, a different guest every weekóand I would just ask them to talk about becoming a writer. Many of the people in the hospital, before they were paralyzed were musicians or bankers. They did all these other things. Itís a cross-section of New York City people who were doing all kinds of other things beforehand. Now their ability, their capacity for expression in life and in art has been severely limited and so poetry and memoir and fiction are often ways of expressing that. Thereís no difference really in the workshop except for the mechanics of the communication--the laser beam wand on the forehead, the typewriter, the cardboard alphabet card. I as the helper, the scribe, hold the alphabet card and point to the letters until the writer raises her eyes to show me that thatís the letter, the first letter of the first word, of the first line, of the poem. Thatís when the computers are down, which is most of the time. There are also those who type with mouth sticks. But for me the experience of transcribing for someone who touches a large alphabet card with a toe to spell, or does eyes up, or one of those other methods of hitting a word on a board, was a big powerful experience. Itís like the chase. Itís like going hunting together. Itís so powerful and so unnerving because I wasnít so good at. But it wasnít something that was worth me apologizing for every three seconds because it was not as if we had enough time for that. Taking it on as a new task was hard to do. The writers there were very patient. Once I got better at it, Iíd be able to guess part way ahead in a word when weíd have a few of the letters. It was just extremely exciting and wonderful. There is a difference between that workshop and others that Iíve been in. There is no self-pity in the writing at Goldwater which is almost eerie in a way. There is honesty about what itís like, but thereís no excess. Thereís no complaining even though thereís directness. I began to think of self-pity in my own writing, for instance, as kind of a luxury that just means that someone is not in extremely hard times. That was very startling to me. Iíve learned so much from being there and now that the writers from NYU go there. They come back on Tuesdays and the whole creative writing program is just excited. People are saying, how was it? Or someone is saying, Jody wrote this poem! People who arenít involved in it are excited so the connection in the community is very important and wonderful. These are the things that come to mind.
QUESTION: I wonder if you could talk a little about your conception of the voice, your construction of the point of view. I mean you were talking a few minutes ago about The Father and about the father and the daughter in there.
OLDS: I say Ďapparently personalí as much for the sake of the writers that Iím working with at Goldwater and at NYU or the places where I go and do intensive weekend teaching so that we will all feel as free as possible to write the poems that come to us. Say we were writing together, say we gathered every week and read each other a poem. If we all were absolutely convinced and couldnít have our minds changed that anything that anyone in this room brought in that had an ĎIí in it was absolutely autobiography, that everything in it purely happened to them, I think it wouldnít be as good. I think we wouldnít feel as free to bring in things that were on an edge, or things that were over the edge. If we acknowledge that, we can talk about the speaker of the poem, and not say, we know this isnít true. That is, we are saying we donít know that this is literally true every single moment. Now if Iím going into a high school and someone is saying should I write about what I experienced and I really care about, or should I make stuff up? Well, when Iím there then I will say, it sounds to me like it would be stronger to write about something you really care about instead of making stuff up. And Iíll say to them, unfortunately, Iíve taken a vow to not talk about this part of my own work. So I canít actually come out and say, I write about what I care about the most and I donít make things up. I canít say that because Iíve taken a vow to try and separate a little. But then I think of what Muriel Rukeyser said, write about what they tell you to forget; write about what they tell you to forget, write about what they tell you to forget. Those are three lines from her poem. Now how is each one of us going to work that out in relation to courage and sociopathy protection of others, and loyalty and singing and freedom and not too much freedom? Well, this is one of the huge tasks of every writerís life-- trial and error, error and trial--and thereís not one answer thatís right. I like the phrase Ďapparently personalí because it says, when you read me your poem, I am not going to assume that every word in it is literally true. And Iím going to talk about my poems in the same way. Iím going to say, the speaker, because then I feel free in what I do. I wish for the writers whom I know to be free, to feel free within that world because I think they will also be taking care. Most people take much better care of their muses than I have, so Iím not so worried about that. Itís a part of the world of art, I think. The imagination, the imaginary imagination.
QUESTION: I do want to ask you something and you can tell me if you feel this may be too personal an issue. You had brought this up yourself in a conversation we had had. It shocked me. You had said that some people had reacted to your poetry as pornographic.
OLDS: Oh, right. I have been told that there are critics who have called my work pornographic. These things happen. But when you and I were talking, something made me realize that Iíd taken that more to heart than I realized. When I first heard that I was shocked and then I was just too shocked to even think about it. I didnít think about it for a year. Then I thought I should at least think what is pornography? So I thought pornography is stuff written about sex, or whatever, thatís meant to be arousing, thatís it. And perhaps itís also meant to be sold for the purposes of being arousing and then the gain of the arousal goes to the pornography creator who can then out and buy, say, chocolates. You see where my eros is located this afternoon. And I thought oh, well this is just not pornography. But then I thought well, maybe it is for some people and not for others. Isnít the purpose of my writing to shock? I have never felt that, but then when I heard "slick, whole," it sounded too bold to me so I think my writings probably had a flaw--excessive boldness, counterphobic boldness, I would say. And therefore itís been just a little over the edge. But when youíre writing pornography, are you thinking about the stranger having their experience of what youíre writing? Well, in that case no. Itís not even an erotic experience for me to write love poems, that are sexual love poems. Is that safe to say? Itís an experience, itís probably a great erotic weakness for me, but I think itís an experience that has to do with art. What if everything about life, even those things which in the church in which I was raised were despised, could be made into art? What if art could be for anything? Hey, thatís a thought. So then I decided I wasnít going to be that upset. But then when you and I spoke, I guess I felt as if being looked at that way had placed me as a kind of permanent outlaw.
QUESTION: Do you still teach at the Omega Institute and what is that like?
OLDS: I do four things a year besides NYU and Goldwater. One is Omega Institute which is a beautiful place that used to be a Yiddish summer camp for New York City with these wonderful bungalows on stilts and fantastic food. We gather together and write brand new first drafts. In a weekend we do three. When I work that way, I am happy because weíre all in the same boat. Weíre writing first drafts together; weíre not working on revision, which of course at NYU is what we do a lot. Weíre just doing this new stuff and hearing each other. In the wilderness, thereís no Xerox machine and in fact I now work at Omega and Esalen with no Xerox machine. The poems are read by the poet and then the copies are passed around. Itís very dear to me to hear for the first time the voice of a poet rather than hear and read at the same time, which to me is a mumbling of senses. For me itís the all doing it together and all influencing each other like mad and inspiring each other to leap ahead and do things that we havenít tried before with our promise being that we will not criticize each other during that time. Whatever anyone goes for weíll be there for. Even if weíre scared because we usually are, but weíre all in it together. There we are. Thank you.
Question & Answer following Reading, January 29, 1998
Question: Is there a point in your writing where you decide that a section for a book is done?
OLDS: The Wellspring has that patterning of a kind of chronology of a life. Was there a point in writing it when I decided to make it that way? Unlike most poets I donít write books. I write individual poems. I donít think about books. And then when I look at a year, two years, three years, work, I try to see what I think the best poems are. Whatever theyíre about I try to put the best ones in a book, and if it ends up having no theme, thatís too bad. Thatís just the way I work. With these things itís so individual. My first book ended up with obvious themes. Well, the way that happened was I tried to disguise those themes, (this was a long time ago). I wanted it not to seem like a womanís book, as if that, at that time, seemed to me like something less than a manís book. But I had been raised in the Middle Ages so we can understand how I was so confused. But then someone said to me, why not make the sections as they are. Look at these poems: woman, mother, daughter. Why not do it? And I was very excited. So rather than hiding what the themes are, I let it show--the same with all the other books. I like order, but I donít try to write on things. I think itís true for many of us that we write the poems that we are going to like the best on the subjects that we care about the most strongly. Some of those poems donít work at all. We care so strongly the art canít handle it. But thatís how it works for me. I look and see. I take the best and then I see what I have. Do I have a form here? Chronology, being such a kind of direct form, is always a favorite with me. I look in wonder at the work of those who donít organize in a clear way. So many magnificent poets donít. They donít think that way. So I guess the secret is just to bear it, that weíre going to be different from each other and that oneís own way is what one has, and one should follow that.
Question: Iím curious about the story that was mentioned in the introduction, about your pact with Satan. Could you tell it?
OLDS: Yes. My first book was called Satan Says. This was long before the new wave of Satanism came in about fifteen years ago. Of course that isnít going to mean a lot to some of you, to say the new wave came in fifteen years ago. But when I was growing up, Satan had to do with going to church, warnings about sin, and the fear of hell. There was nothing like recreational Satanism or whatever you might call it. It was not that way. So I had a certain confusion about what the voice was I would hear in my mind which would be against pure virtue. Was it the voice I was raised to think of, the voice of Satan tempting me to sin? (It may very well have been when I look back and think about it). So, when I had been writing poems for a long time, and I was thirty, and I had finished my graduate work, I suddenly felt free. I was leaving graduate school with an actual degree, the piece of paper in my backpack and it came to me to call up Satan, which really meant myself, a certain part of my own mind. But I didnít know psychology then. So I said to Satan, I will give up all Iíve learned at graduate school, not really letting on how much that was, if I can just write my own poems even if theyíre bad. And it wasnít because I thought theyíd be good either. I had gotten the idea after thirty years that there was such a thing as human freedom, that there was such a thing as one life given to each of us to use in some unique way. Iíd just been trying to get along, get by, hope I wouldnít go to hell, and act normal so I could have friends. And so that was my pact. The first part of it worked. I donít remember anything that I learned at Columbia. But I look on it now like how we feel when we have responsibility for another person. You know someone says, will you hold my baby, Iím about to fall over the side of the boat or something. This is very serious when we say yes, and we try to do that. Well, what if we had a responsibility toward our self which was like that? To try and be whoever it was we could be, wanted to be, if it wouldnít really hurt anyone else. So thatís my story about the day I spoke with Satan.
Question: What poets influenced you and how long did it take you to get your first poem published?
OLDS: Muriel Rukeyser told me that she could have papered the inside and outside of a wastebasket and a whole bathroom with rejection slips if she wanted to. You know those slips that come back saying this is not appropriate for our needs at this time. (I saved some that said things you wouldnít believe.) I could probably do a living room too. So I donít remember in years but I remember in stamps. A guy I knew had a son in another country who collected stamps. So every time I sent out my poems and the rejection slip envelope, I would put pretty stamps on it. So Iíd get my rejection back and Iíd take the stamps to this guy and he would send them to his son. So every time I got rejected there was a gift involved to a child. So I felt I was just fooling them completely.
So many poets come to my mind. I mean when I think of all the poets who have done what Jane Cooper is doing--Audre [Lorde] and Stanley [Kunitz] and the whole list [New York State Poet awardees]. Muriel Rukeyeser has a very special place for me. I took a poetry appreciation class with her where we read aloud to each other--just a wonderful class. So many living poets. The poets at Goldwater Hospital, the poets at NYU whom I work with, the poets whom I read, the Through the Dark Light poets--Janine and Angelo and Kevin. I guess Iíd by now have to say everyone in a way--having thought of Muriel and Gwendolyn Brooks and Ruth Stone--thatís a particular generation that for me was just so powerful and important.
from Writer's Online Volume 2, No. 3 (Summer 1998)
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