I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
This interview is featured, along with thirty-four others, in our anthology BOMB: The Author Interviews.
“I have learned to get pleasure from speaking of pain”—Sharon Olds could as easily substitute “give” for “get” in this line from a poem in The Father. In five collections, including The Wellspring, out this month from Knopf, she has written without embarrassment or apology, with remarkable passion and savagery and nerve, poems about family and family pathology, early erotic fascination, and sexual life inside marriage. Poet William Matthews compares her to Nabokov in that “he, too, was a deeply, aggressively private person who wrote of erotic compulsion at the core of human personality.”
There are no high flown odes to art objects here, “no poems about fountains in Italy written on a Guggenheim year,” as another poet put it. Often called an heir to Lowell, Plath and Sexton, Olds says her poems are not “confessional” but personal. They are sometimes stories of public and private cruelties that Olds transcends, or translates, into morally witnessed terms, in a process she has called “singing while trying to dispose of wastes of the heart.” With a genius for metaphor, she mediates through emotions, and standing-room crowds greet her at readings across the country. She has taught for the past twelve years in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at NYU; and, in 1984, started a poetry workshop with Very Special Arts at Goldwater Hospital for the severely disabled on Roosevelt Island.
When I first began to write, my teacher gave me a copy of The Dead and the Living, Olds’ second book (which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was the Lamont Poetry Selection in 1983). He said, “You can learn from this.” He meant: learn about language, and also about a kind of honesty that anyone but Olds herself would call bravery.
Amy Hempel All of the poems in your last book had to do with the death of an alcoholic father—approaching his death, the fact of it, and the aftermath. Richard Howard said that you’ve never lost sight of the narrative of feelings: “Very few poets understand this, that feelings do not just exist, but have a trajectory of their own.” In the father poems, the trajectory of feelings runs from the early angry ones to the more compassionate. In your new book, the father is nearly absent. Have you said everything you can say about that father?
Sharon Olds No, no. In the last year I’ve written fewer father poems than in the year before that but I guess each one of us has a handful of subjects we go back to over and over. We don’t choose who our muses are.
AH In “The Swimming Race” from The Wellspring, a father is smiling at his daughter who is coming in last in the race, and I got a twinge because his smile, you write, is “almost without meanness.”
SO Funny what we don’t think of, we’re just going on writing! Does it seem self-pitying? No? I like to be accurate — “almost without meanness.” It seems true. As we get older, we see the old things in a new light, don’t you think? I expect I will be writing about the same things all my life.
AH In addition to The Wellspring, you’ve been assembling a collection of World War II poems. What prompts you to move from “private” poems to public—you wrote once about Christa MacAuliffe in the shuttle Challenger, and you’ve written other poems about things you weren’t a part of, but that moved you.
SO Right. I wish I could do that better. I wish I did that more. I love and respect work that can do that. The number of poems I write that are what I call apparently very personal—more of them seem to me to work as poems. I write a lot of poems that aren’t personal, but they aren’t free to play in the same way—maybe because I’m in awe of lives that aren’t mine, I can’t be playful, maybe I get frozen in wonder, and ignorance.
AH How would one of your “public” poems start?
SO Once on a front page I saw a picture of a child, a girl of about eight, smiling, with buck teeth, and next to her a picture of her diary in a fireman’s blackened glove. I went home and cursed. Then maybe I made supper and was still cursing. And the next day, a sentence began to take shape about how they shouldn’t publish her diary on the front page of the paper when she died in a fire, and maybe the next day I realized that over and over I was saying the same sentence to myself, and the day after that I realized it might be a first line. In the old days, I would’ve said, You stay away from her—you have no right to talk about her, you don’t know her.
AH And her suffering isn’t available to you?
SO Some imagined sense of it is. But I ask myself, as with the World War II poems: How strong does your craft have to be to handle things that are none of your business? I was very bold with other people’s business when I was getting started as a writer. I didn’t seem to think that I had no right to just clomp in wherever I wanted to go. I thought that I could make my own rules.
AH What changed that?
SO I don’t know how it happened, I began to see myself as a bit of a sociopath that way. But in the writing of The Wellspring, I learned an awful lot about where I could step and where, maybe, I shouldn’t step. I look with alarm at this writer I was who was just not going to stop for anyone or anything.
AH But don’t you think that’s necessary at the start, that chutzpah, or blithe spirit?
SO Well, when our subjects are much younger than we are, we have a responsibility to protect them. And, you know, when people would say, Oh, you’re so brave! I would think: Oh, goody—I’m brave! And then later I thought, It’s not brave, it’s just that I wasn’t loyal.
AH That makes me think of your famous “Spectrum of Loyalty and Betrayal,” of the consequences of going too much in one direction or in the other.
SO Right. How does that go?—it’s almost like a spectrum of identity, who one is in relation to other people. Let’s just use us at this table. If what you write about me is only what I would want you to write, what would agree with my picture of myself, I’d be comfortable with that, but then you’re not very free as a writer. Of course, in certain kinds of Christian thought, thoughts are actions, so if you even think something about your subject that they wouldn’t want you to, you’re disloyal. And if you are ultimately purely loyal to your subject, you’re silent. And it’s almost like a form of suicide, certainly for a writer. There’s loyalty to the other and none to the self. But then, at the other end, if you tell secrets, and names, then other people are in danger the way you’re in danger if you have to be silent. It could be a kind of spiritual murder. I mean—where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
AH And you would place yourself—
SO I’ve moved. People used to ask me, “How can you do this?” And I’d think to myself, “I like doing this.” (laughter) But then I realized that people who have a passionate sense of loyalties learned it; they learned loyalty. They don’t want to break certain taboos because it would hurt their heart to imagine how it might make someone else feel… And you’re alone when you’re writing, and at that point, hopefully, you’re not thinking, What would someone think of me for doing this? Strong forces are at work, like if you’re on a raft, and you’re rowing, and the river is rushing, and you need to get to the other side, and you’re being pulled under a bridge; you’re feeling a shadow crossing, you’re not really thinking, What is playing on the radio on shore? You are, to an extent, in extremis.
AH Have you held something back from publication that you thought was a successful poem?
SO All the time!
AH I want to quote from a friend and fan of yours, the religious historian Elaine Pagels. She calls it “a great moral discipline,” your willingness to stay and see the things most of us would instinctively turn away from.
SO I might say I’m compelled. It seems to follow need and pleasure and compulsion more than moral discipline.
AH Well, it ties into the bravery question, and you don’t think what you do is so brave.
SO To me, being brave means that you do something that you don’t want to do, because you have to—for someone else, probably.
AH I read an interview you gave in England where you said that your poems form in your lungs?
SO I’m pretty mixed up about how everything works. I have primitive notions about science and the body. I don’t think of a thought as being in my head. I find that idea really distressing—my head is too small! I feel as if my mind occurs in the space as far as my eye can see. My mind stretches to California if I think of someone I love, and it goes uptown and crosstown, so my mind is also my heart. But I don’t really have a mind, I don’t really think. Do you ever sit down and think thoughts?
AH Can’t say I do. And yet you have degrees from Stanford and Columbia, a Ph.D. in American Literature, you’ve been Director of the Creative Writing Program at NYU—these are all very brainy things, but what’s moving your poems is not in your head, it doesn’t seem. Not to say they don’t get ideas across, but that’s not where they start.
SO They’re not in the front part of the brain. They’re more in the body. And the senses, and imagery, and the story. Many poets are storytellers as well as singers, who want to preserve, record, create, put together (where we can see it) a little version of something human.
AH You’ve said that, “Writing poems moves us past where we were when we sat down to write them.” Sounds like you’re talking about catharsis. Is that valuable to the poet? The reader?
SO Well, when I read someone’s poem where that’s happening, it’s very valuable to me, it tells me about another life, it expands my experience.
AH You also said one purpose of a poem is to cause another poem to be written. Does that work for you and for somebody reading your work?
SO I would think so. I often write poems after I’ve read poems. What I was thinking was that if you have a story all ready to be written and you don’t write it, maybe the next one won’t come down the chute. Was it Bill Matthews who said that we need to write our bad poems, because if we don’t write them, how will we get to the next one, which might be a good one? But of course, what you say is also true, that we inspire each other.
AH One of your former students told me that the most valuable thing she got from your teaching was your ability to point out “poems that stop just where they should begin.”
SO I learned this from Galway Kinnell. In his craft lecture one year, he pointed out that the last line of many poems is the best one. But what happens is, we’re so relieved to have got to something that we think it’s the end, and we stop. But if we would keep going from there…
AH You teach at Squaw Valley most summers, and I heard you also teach writing on canoe trips?
SO Yes, week-long poetry workshops for women in the wilderness—in canoes. Beverly Antaeus, in Santa Fe, runs trips all over the world. June ’96 will be my fourth year. People write new poems, and—depending on how many times we move camp—we have a workshop about every two days. And we’re completely alone, in the wilderness.
AH Do you find canoeing and poetry compatible?
SO Learning about craft on the river, and in camp, and in poetry, works together—I also find the challenge and the fear of being in the wilderness very stimulating! I was a bow in the beginning because I didn’t know how to paddle. It’s like the Girl Scouts, like “flying up.” Also the chance to hear all the other voices moves one forward.
AH This goes back to your visceral sense of where poems form. The first time we met, you did something I’ll never forget. You looked out of the window of the restaurant at an ordinary brick building and described the building like scansion—how the strong beat was the window, and if you ignored the air conditioners, you’d have: wall WÍN(dow), wall WÍN(dow), wall WÍN(dow)… you saw iambic apartments! And you said that you felt your poems had to be graffiti across that row of windows—“handwritten, grounded, less organized, more like an ordinary human being talking to another.” Do you still feel you’re fighting the order of a lot of poetry?
SO Well, I wouldn’t say “fighting.” I see strong principles of order in my craft—in everyone’s. I grew up hearing rhythms. I mean, I’m not going to do it again, but look at the fans.
AH Do it again! (We look up at the six ceiling fans.)
SO I could sit here happily for an hour and try to figure out which ones are going at the same speed, and what it means. There’s a bit of compulsiveness in thinking that everything is going to mean something, but when you’re raised in the church that I was raised in—
AH The Episcopal church.
SO The church I went to was 1940’s middle-class white Episcopalian, but the religion that I experienced was Calvinism. So I call it Hellfire Episcopalian. A male God had made and now owned every object and being, and everything meant something. Matter was God’s speech. If this pillar is a message, what does it mean? And it’s a message from someone who has Hell waiting there, ready, at every moment.
AH That’s a terrifying thought for a young person.
SO A horrible way to live. A naturalist would be able to just look at the fans.
AH It’s an interesting leap, to go from ceiling fans to a vision of hell. Back to the safety of craft, you’re a master at finding a small way into a large subject. I’ve never taught a fiction writing class where I didn’t use a poem from your new book—“The Ladybug.” A ladybug flies into a window where a woman has just learned that her daughter has gotten into college and will be leaving. You tell the whole story of loving, raising and letting go through the ladybug. And that poem where breaking the cow butter dish is the end of motherhood. You find an ordinary thing…
SO Or it finds you, maybe. The ladybug flies in the window. And then you remember, “Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home, Your house is on fire and your children are gone.” So you start to write, and then the place of the will for the next half hour is not very certain. Or the cow butter dish is broken. And you sit and look at it. And you start to describe it, and it all seems so ordinary.
AH Are there poems that have eluded you, that you can’t quite write?
SO I think that, sadly, that’s not true of me.
AH Why “sadly”?
SO “Sadly” meaning I have a great admiration for people who are true to mysteriousness. True to the mysteriousness of perception, being, feeling. But my subjects—it’s all simple, you know what I mean?
AH I think that what you call “simple,” a reader finds accessible. We know what you’re talking about, for starters…, do you have to get yourself in the mood to write, or are you always “receiving?”
SO Well, if I’m depressed, probably a ladybug could fly in the window and I wouldn’t focus on it. But there are things that help me to remain as little out of tune as possible. I did weight-lifting for a number of years. That got me ready for the ladybugs. And what else helps the imagination? No drugs, as little alcohol as possible, no smoking, no coffee…
AH This sounds very ascetic.
SO I dance most days—not so ascetic. But as little sugar as possible (sometimes that’s a lot of sugar!), and no TV. I stopped the newspaper and TV and drinking when I took the job as Director of the Creative Writing Program because I was so scared I would not be able to do that job. And I thought: Okay, I’m going to go into training, and cut off interference like a dedicated athlete. And then I didn’t go back.
AH You’ve alluded to having had a vivid and literal sense of things as a child. So your image-making faculties didn’t develop until later?
SO When I was two, it was explained to me, “This is how we will be eating now,” and I was shown a book of ration stamps—I ate the book of ration stamps. I mean, plenty of things were sort of bizarre already. So this was food.
AH Paul Rudnick, writing about high culture a few years back, said, “Without poetry, high school girls in corduroy jumpers and black leotards might have to make some friends.” All teenagers are sensitive and misunderstood, but did you feel more than usually so?
SO I’m not sure what that means—that poetry was born as a substitute for friendship? I thought the rhythms of poetry had to do with the rhythms of intense feeling about the most moving mortal experiences: birth, love, sex, death, grief, rage, joy. I thought that every group of people who ever existed have had poetry because passionate human life couldn’t be led without it. As for teenagers, I see us at that age as people who are not able yet, some of us, to pretend not to be feeling what we’re feeling. We forget what it’s like to turn from a child into an adult. It felt to me almost like changing species. When we feel powerful feelings, we tend to speak in rhythm; we speak in more repetitive, forceful rhythm when we’re upset. You hear people having a fight, it’s not prose. People don’t fight in prose: And if yóu do óne móre thing…
AH Writing about anger, and about sex—I also spoke to your friend Toi Derricotte—
SO Oh! It’s like a surprise party!
AH She said you say an important thing about love in your poems, that it is possible to totally love a man and not be co-opted.
SO I’m thinking of how long it took us all to write about sexuality. I remember the night in Muriel Rukeyser’s poetry appreciation course when, instead of reciting memorized poems to each other, we each read a poem of our own. And I read a love poem, and it had the word “creamy” in it twice and the word “milky” several times. And after I read it, someone said to Muriel, “I don’t know, I don’t know, it’s too, too, it’s too—” and Muriel said, “Too dairy?” (laughter) And we all laughed, and she said, “Yes, these words are too much from the same palette.” But don’t you think that most love poems, whether they’re men to men, women to women, or other—I’m thinking of sexual poems—have equalness in them? Surely there is powerful, erotic work that is precisely about unevenness, that’s a big theme in our culture. For some it’s a part of the erotic, being equal, and for others it’s a part of the erotic that it be extremely not equal.
AH One last thing. There is the famous T.S. Eliot precedent of “emotion which has its life in the poem, not in the history of the poet.” Now, Galway Kinnell calls what you do in many of your poems, “going into the center of the intimate experience of a life, not just telling the story of a life.” He says that to be daring in that area is to “open yourself to interpretation of the poems as expositions of your personal life.” Does that come up anymore? Do readers still ask if a poem about a father is about your father?
SO Yes. But 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. Now, when I was a child, the bread was the flesh of Christ. I ate the ration stamps, I ate the communion wafer. And now, when I go to poems, I am hoping to be changed, to learn something about sexual love, or birth, or the joy or rage of some particular person or group—maybe very different from me or mine—while at the same time I am experiencing the physical pleasure of the beat, tone, music, shape, the whole intricate body of the poem and spirit of the speaker. So that, while one is still alive, one can feel, and know, as much as possible, so as to be fully alive.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee