Literature : Interview

On the eve of the release of Stag’s Leap, Sarah V. Schweig speaks with Sharon Olds about ideas, idealization, and murder mysteries.


Sharon Olds. Photo by Brett Hall Jones.

“If I pass a mirror, I turn away,” Sharon Olds writes in her latest book, “I do not want to look at her, / and she does not want to be seen.” Stag’s Leap, her tenth collection, looks at a common experience—divorce—with a keen eye. Seeking to zoom in on the smallest intricacies of this particular kind of loss, Olds recollects and records the act of recollecting, ultimately aiming to accept imperfection—of people, of the world, of what’s happened. “I guess that’s how people go on,” Olds writes, “without/ knowing how.”

I met Olds on an evening in mid-August on the Upper West Side. In her apartment, which she has called home for over thirty years, a sequence of hallways and little rooms lead back to a large semi-circular room lined with windows, some shuttered, some open. At the periphery of the room are stacks of cardboard file boxes, on top of which more papers and notebooks are piled, presumably on overflow, and in one corner sits a TV-shaped object with a floral scarf draped over it. We sat around a glass coffee table where there were tea roses in a vase beside a heavy book on the Lascaux caves.

Every so often, as the sun lowered and gradually grew weaker over the Hudson, Olds would rise and open more and more of the small interior shutters painted white. At one point, standing by the window, she described a small plane that had passed by earlier that afternoon spelling out a word in its wake across the sky: SPECTACULAR, it said. We joked about this image during breaks in my questions—“It didn’t say ‘Surrender Dorothy!’” Olds said at one point—and by the end of the night we decided that, for all our marveling, it was likely selling something.

Sarah V. Schweig In Stag’s Leap, the act of seeing, or recollecting image, seems very central. Throughout the book you write “I let myself:” “I let myself picture him/ a moment,” for example and “I let myself/ go back.” In what way do you see poetry as permission to remember, record, or even relive each intimacy and detail of what’s been lost? To what degree do you see this recording of what once existed as poetry’s very mission? Do you think poetry has a mission or series of intentions that is somehow inherent?

Sharon Olds When you’re missing someone, you can’t go around all day thinking about them. It’s about keeping sane. I like what you say about seeing. If I were a less visual person, and if I were more of an intellectual the poems would be more about ideas—but I love looking at things. I like your word ‘mission.’ I suppose the mission of every poem would be to be a better poem than I am capable of writing. I wrote a lot of poems—and this book is a small percentage of what I wrote. I suppose the mission would be: Let this poem not suck in the way my poems that suck suck. But also, you’re making something. So it preoccupies you for a while, and you can respect yourself for making something that’s okay—but it’s fine to make things that aren’t okay—see those boxes?

SVS Story is very important in your work—and in this book there are the stories told both within the poems and across the poems. Even the sections move across passing seasons, suggesting an overarching narrative that works throughout the whole book. What was the process of writing this book like?

SO I did say to my grown children at the time, “I won’t put together a book about this for ten years.” Can you imagine? You have a mother who is a family poet—what a drag! So I didn’t want them to think that, in the midst of all that was going on, they also had a mother who was a writer. So whenever a poem would come to me I would write it, knowing that no one would ever see it. And I was living alone for the first time in 32 years. And there was this new subject matter, and the transformation of all the objects in the apartment and in the world.

SVS You’ve said that metaphor scares you—can you talk a bit about the ethics of using a metaphor? What is questionable or scary about saying one thing is something else?

SO As a child I was a very successful liar, and so I was probably twenty when I thought, Alright no more lies, because I couldn’t tell the difference—for myself—what was true and what wasn’t. And I wanted to be sane, and to have a sensible mind, and metaphor is not about having a sensible mind. Similes are okay—that’s how I perceive things. I don’t know if our most metaphoric poets are those with the strongest grasp on the literal and so can afford to go out there, but I’m not one of them.

My first drafts are not stream of consciousness; they aren’t free-writing in any way; they aren’t prose—a lot of poets start with prose, but I don’t. For me, they’re mostly four beat lines. If I start and I go wrong, I start writing it over. And if I go wrong again, I start again. I try on the first draft to stay fairly true to the feeling and the sound. And I go back if it sounds fake or labored or like a person couldn’t think it.

I’ve been thinking recently about: how do we fetter our imaginations? If a first thought comes to us and it seems to weird, do we ever turn it down without even knowing it in exchange for the next thought that isn’t too weird? I want to not censor my unconscious before my pen has even reached the paper.

SVS Has your writing process changed over the years? How?

SO There were some changes earlier on—like no sections in the poems anymore, except one is in this book. This is maybe the only one in any of the last of eight books that has a break in it. It’s when the speaker turns to the thought of September 11th. That break is to say, “I know I have no business stepping here.” It’s like a sacred space.

SVS While your work is often concerned with the intensely personal, your letter to Laura Bush refusing her invitation to the National Book Festival in 2005 suggests you take a high stake in the political, and suggests that you believe even one individual’s actions are of the political realm—how do you see a poetry of the self representing or reconciling the political life? Do you think that writing such intensely personal poems is a political act?

SO I think in my early poems I didn’t really think of family as political, but since then I’ve understood that it is. Certainly race and gender and class I thought of as political, and there would be more of that in my work than there is if I had more skill to do that writing. Those subjects come up over and over but it’s just too hard for me to feel I’ve done a good enough job to let anyone else see. So, there hadn’t been many opportunities for me to make what was in that letter public, so that was a chance to talk about that—not just over here in art.

SVS Marjorie Perloff, in a recent essay in the Boston Review, wrote, “the sheer number of poets now plying their craft inevitably ensures moderation and safety. The national (or even transnational) demand for a certain kind of prize-winning, ‘well-crafted’ poem . . . has produced an extraordinary uniformity.” You’ve taught for a long time—at NYU’s MFA program; you’ve likely grappled with this issue, as an artist yourself, and as a teacher. And indeed, your poems sometimes take risks that wouldn’t fly through a workshop. What are your thoughts on the idea of a “moderate and safe poem”?

SO What I read is my students work at NYU in the graduate writing program. It’s not uniform, it’s daring, it’s terrifically moving, it’s experimental or it’s apparently personal, or it’s over somewhere else from either of those. I don’t have that same perception. If a nation of people, if one percent of those people are spending two years helping each other write more powerfully—everyone seems to have the idea, which I totally believe, if someone next to you writes better, you will write better, and I don’t mean like them, I mean like yourself. I’ve been teaching for 35 years. My first class was in this living room—that would have been 35 years ago that I taught my first workshop. I love the companionship of it, and the youth of the companionship of it—the multigenerational part; there are poets now that are only twenty years younger than I am, who I taught. This is a social art.

None of us is in danger of being too weird. We’re in danger of being moderate. And I love to try to describe—and I love to ask the poets around the table to describe—not judge, not suggest—to describe what stands out in a poem, and there’s often huge agreement at what is the most distinctive, and not for the sake of being weird—

SVS It has to bring a truth—

SO We have those senses for the survival of species—that sense of truth—should we follow this person down this path?

I read a neat thing in Poets & Writers newsletter, I think, by someone teaching at the Fortune Society, which is a place where people out of prison can go to work on their GED, practice job interviews, to work on the thing that is so hard, which is getting into the wage-earning club. And what he described was someone who wrote something about his own experience in being beaten up. And then afterwards this young writer was sobbing because he was thinking of the person that he had beaten up and realizing that they had felt how he had felt. This is writing; this is politics; this is soul-making.

SVS People have considered you an inheritor of the confessional tradition, though you have pointed to influences outside that school—like Galway Kinnell and Gwendolyn Brooks. How does this kind of labeling affect your approach to your work? How much do you think considerations of ‘schools’ of aesthetics should inform artists? Should they fall in line with their labels? Should they fight to contradict them through producing art that contradicts them? Should they not pay attention?

SO When I was first called pornographic, I looked up the definition of the roots of the word, and I think it meant technically, writing about women sex workers, and I thought, well, no I haven’t really done a lot of that. And it was interesting to me—either it meant I was sexually excited by my own writing, which I was not—I’m writing—or I was trying to sexually excite other people so they’ll buy it—well no, I wanted to make art. And I did not want to be limited in the art I made by some puritan subject matter problem. Of course writing about sexuality is harder to do for some of us because of the potential flaws and excesses—but worth it? Totally worth it to me.

I guess I just illustrated my answer—I grapple with these terms. I don’t know that it’s that rational. When a word is shouted at you, different people have ways of dealing with it. My first really vicious review I believe I cried, threw up, slept, woke up, and started writing again. But I took the hit. Someone wanted me to stop doing what I was doing, but it didn’t work.

SVS Do you ever get stuck, and nothing is happening? And if so, are there certain artists—poets, novelists, essayists, filmmakers, visual artists, musicians—you go back to so as to help you get unstuck?

SO It’s always good to read other poets. One is so grateful for the companionship. And I also love reading novels. I also read detective fiction and murder mysteries.

SVS What about the mystery form especially feeds your mind?

SO I think it was Auden who said that people who read murder mysteries are interested in guilt and blame. And we’re drawn to crime because we’re quite fearful, or we thought when we were younger someone was going to kill us or something like that—but when you’re reading a book . . . I mean, it’s kind of horrible because it’s that schadenfreude thing, but it’s only a book, and it really has no bearing on actual horrible things that happen, which are in a whole different realm, so you’re able to confront the fear of being murdered without any danger. Armchair experience: it’s make-believe, but it reflects things that happen in life.

SVS And it organizes those things.

SO Yes, it’s a story. And it has some kind of happy ending usually, so your heart isn’t going to get just torn apart. It’s a comedy—it’s a tragedy while it’s going on—but it ends well: the person gets caught.

SVS At your readings, you get some laughs, and indeed your poems often contain moments of comedy—your recent odes especially. Often comedy seems to be a hook through which you enter an otherwise unexplored subject—the hymen, the tampon—to ultimately analyze its presence in our culture. What is the role of humor in your writing?

SO I think what actually happened when I was writing them was the depth of some of my feelings about these subjects began to flower up. I didn’t know that was going to happen. I love to laugh, but then I had a mixture of feelings. So many of the odes ended up being female point of view subjects, and I didn’t plan that.

SVS Is it something you’ve ever felt at odds with given the gravity of some of your subjects?

SO I kind of never feel at odds with comedy. That’s kind of my deep identity—not planned, just born. So I think that I was also at a point where writing intimately about apparently my own life—because whatever we write, autobiographic or not, is an invention of art—but I had come to the end of some kind of intimate relationship with writing with my inner life. And also I think one thing that happens in a divorce where the responsibility is shared—I say in a poem it’s “50/50”—you get to know your own character a little better than you want to. And I thought a little more, too, about how creepy it could be to be intimately associated with a writer—especially an apparently personal writer. So I think the odes first came out of an encounter with Pablo Neruda’s odes—I just never knew you could write like that—and the first one I wrote was a time I hadn’t been writing for a few weeks, which is kind of a long time for me to not be writing, and I’d had this book for a few weeks, and it’s like the abstract side of my brain woke up a little.

In the case of Stag’s Leap, I have a lot of gratitude for all that had been good in that marriage, and a better understanding of who I had been, and that no one ever said that something you pretend is ideal will last forever. There’s one line in there that says, “They say now that it doesn’t work unless you are equal.” I think I hadn’t known how to feel equal to anyone. So maybe the odes were a little bit a stepping forward as if I had a right—which obviously the speaker in these poems feels she has—to say anything. But not because I know something, not because I’m smart, but for my ordinariness as one of us—as a woman, or a human being, or a child—just whatever the us-ness is.

SVS Well, for someone who says they have no ideas, you have a lot of ideas.

SO But you know what I mean? I think of an idea as, “The world is round!”

SVS That’s more a statement of fact.

SO What’s an idea?

SVS Well . . . now I don’t even know.

SO “Green is better than blue!”

SVS That’s a value judgment.

SO Maybe there are no ideas but in things!

SVS So just as a last thing, to bring an old Olds back into the room, in the BOMB interview Amy Hempel conducted with you in 1996, I was struck by what you said about poetry, daily life, and its role for the reader in the quotidian—you said: “It has always seemed so obvious and powerfully true that art and life are incredibly different from each other. Flesh is flesh. A poem is breath in the air. Or it’s ink and paper. It’s standing for a heart and a mind. And I go to people’s poems to learn about the heart and the mind, and to be less lonely as a human being, and to have fun. And maybe people go to poetry partly to find out what we’re really like, to find out how bad we really are, how essential it is that we change while there’s still time, maybe, to change. But a day in a life and a poem about that day, there’s something profoundly different.” . . . See, that’s an idea!

SO That’s an opinion.

SVS But that we go to poetry for those reasons—that’s an idea.

SO Phew!

SVS Considering what you say about change here, how do you think your work has changed since then? Do you still hold the same beliefs about poetry as those expressed here? How have they evolved?

SO I couldn’t argue with any of that. So much of my life during the years these poems in Stag’s Leap were being written, was writing. I mean, I’d see my kids, and friends, but I spent a lot of time alone, a lot of time writing. There was probably more change during that time—which makes sense because you live one way for 32 years and then you live another way—and also seeing the role that the speaker in the poem (who is a lot like me!) that she has had in this relationship, mostly, I think, having to do with idealization: seeing if one could move beyond the idealization of other people, slowly, slowly getting the idea that idealization is not like a form of praise, but is a lie—it’s not realization; it’s not seeing a person with all their good and bad qualities, who’s a real person. You don’t think you’re doing this—you think you adore them—but in some way you’re holding them to some less-than-human, less-than-complete version, and then you wake up.

Sarah V. Schweig is the author of the chapbook S. Her writing has appeared in BOMB Magazine, Boston Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Publishers Weekly, Western Humanities Review, and Verse Daily, among others. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia and Columbia University, where her manuscript was the recipient of the David Craig Austen Memorial Award for poetry. She lives in Brooklyn.

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