Advice to Young Poets: Sharon Olds in Conversation
Michael Laskey: What is your earliest poetry memory?
Sharon Olds: When I was eight, we were asked to write a poem, and after I handed mine in the teacher called me to her desk—which was not an unusual experience for me. She said, "Did you write this poem?" And I said, "Yes." She said, "You wrote it?" I said, "Yes, you can tell," pointing to my handwriting. And the poem went something like:
Neither wind nor rain nor gloom nor dark of night can stay these something somethings from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
It's what it says on the post office. It's a love poem to the postal delivery people.
Laskey: Who wrote it?
Olds: I don't know. I'll find out. That was when I learned that to write a poem, you had to make it up. You couldn't just write down what someone else had made up. That's the first memory that popped into my mind.
Laskey: Who are the poets you liked—apart from the man at the post office?
Olds: I would say my early influences for good writing were the Psalms, and for bad writing were the Hymns. Four beats, the quatrains, that form. In high school: Auden, E. E. Cummings, and Whitman. And Shakespeare, always.
Laskey: What happened then with your own poetry?
Olds: Well, I was writing fiction in high school and college.
Laskey: You thought you were a fiction writer?
Olds: I loved writing. I loved writing, and I wrote stories and poems. But then when I moved to New York, I realized that I wasn't comfortable making stuff up. I had had it with angels and demons who (if your faith was strong enough) you believed were in the room with you. I'd had enough of fiction.
You know when you have something that you long to say to someone, and you could never say it to them, to their face? Then here's a place where you could speak.
Laskey: But you didn't give these poems to these people?
Laskey: You kept them to yourself?
Olds: I wouldn't have dared to imagine that I could have a life as a writer. But I look back, and did I always long to speak to other people? Yes.
Laskey: So, your first colleagues...
Olds: I met the poet Hugh Seidman when I was in graduate school in New York, and we became friends. His poetry was mysterious to me. Then I read some George Oppen. And then there was Caterpillar magazine. And then Clayton Eshleman and Gary Snyder.
Laskey: Did you meet Gary Snyder?
Laskey: Or was he published in Caterpillar?
Olds: Yes. So it was very clear to me that Hugh and all the others were real poets. I only noticed years later that they were all men. Then others were added. And then I began to write my own stuff—love poems, mostly.
Then I married. I became pregnant. My first child was born in 1969. In 1968 the Women's Movement in New York City—especially among a lot of women I knew—was very alive. I had these strong ambitions to enter the bourgeoisie if I could. I wasn't a radical at all. But I do remember understanding that I had never questioned that men had all the important jobs. And that was shocking—well, I was twenty years old! I'd never thought, "Oh, where's the woman bus driver?" So there's another subject—which was what it felt like to be a woman in the world.
Laskey: How about actually writing the poems. Has the way you do that changed?
Olds: There was a change, at one point. I've always written in lines, and I didn't know until I was fifty-five that my craft was the craft of the Hymns I had grown up singing. I was writing in a way that felt comfortable to me, except that I had to ride over the end of the line.
Laskey: So that it wasn't like the Hymns?
Olds: That's right. But I didn't know that's why I was doing it—to try to imitate what it feels like to be alive, which is, for me, not end-stopped. What I liked was that then the little phrases like "of the," "and the," "for the," were at the end of the line, like tips of twigs, and the nouns were down the left-hand margin, like a trunk. I liked that.
There's a brat in me who likes doing it my own way, knowing that I'm supposed to be doing it the other way. Let them do it the other way. They're not going to kill me or put me in a permanent fire because I'm doing it this way. Hmmph!
Most of the poets I know accrue. Their poems accrue. They have notebooks. I don't do that. It's all in one motion. Now, the change that happened with me was that, for the first ten years, I wrote in one rush and didn't rewrite.
Laskey: You didn't rewrite at all?
Olds: No. I was afraid I would censor myself. I didn't ever think that I would get to a point where I would write poems I would be willing to send out into the world. In terms of family loyalty, it was clear to me these couldn't go out there.
I went through a period of trying to think of a pseudonym, so they could get out in the world and try their chances. Then I realized I wanted to go out with them. I got less worried about censoring myself and I realized I just don't write first drafts that are good enough. I began to slow down.
You would've seen a first draft, a BIC pen, ShopRite notebook, wide-ruled. I started writing and crossing out, then bringing it back down, getting the right word, a delicate balance, going fast enough that I don't lose the "hmm," not letting the wrong word stand. Because then its music will be calling out for other words that match it.
Laskey: That are wrong? That take the poem off?
Olds: That take the poem in that direction. I've written in the same way for probably twenty or thirty years—taking it down at a rate that is not slow.
Laskey: The language of it?
Olds: I want to not seem "phoney-baloney."
I love odd words. A long time ago I wouldn't use them, because I would like to have readers who have never gone to university or even high school. I don't want them to look at it and, if there's a weird word in the first line, throw it across the room, as I might in the same position. But then I gave in to my love for strange words. There's a charm in that, maybe even literally a charm, like a good luck weirdness.
Before I give a manuscript to my editor, I run a "cliché round-robin" on it. So I go through whatever it is, galleys, proofs, and I begin to circle words that are happening more than once, twice, three times. I go through the whole manuscript. I love this part of putting a book together. I mean, the book is all together. And each poem is edited enough, as far as I'm concerned. But then I find out about these words, and then, I look at each instance of my most used words and see if it will please change. Most of them will not change. Some of them I change, and then in another printing I have to change them back, because it was obvious that someone was doing something literary here in order not to use too many clichés.
Laskey: When you write the poems, do you think of them as a book?
Olds: Oh, no, not at all.
Laskey: But they turn into a book?
Olds: I pick what I think are the best poems, whatever they're about, from the last four or five years. I seek out an order.
Laskey: In terms of your students, what's teachable?
Olds: What we can do is be companions to each other, so that we know what each other has been doing. That's a line I remember from somewhere. It has to do with sexual love. But we know that we've been writing.
Writers get together. We know what we've been doing. We know we're like each other in some way. So these kids, 20-35, form a community. We can give each other that. And then we just start the dialogue—them with each other, me with them.
First, we start by trying to identify what the poem is like. If it's doing, not what we want it to do, but what it seems to want to do. And then later, weeks later, we start offering suggestions. So that we're trying to really get at how different we are, how everyone has a different voice and life.
Then they can teach in outreach programs, some of them, at New York University. There's that. That's big.
Laskey: That's important to you. The Goldwater workshop? You started that.
Olds: I did start one at Goldwater Hospital. But then there are others—for children, for high school students. The children on the oncology ward—who are kids! and who are great—write with our graduate writing students.
Laskey: That's an engaged view of poetry. You think poetry has to get out there?
Olds: Yes, I think that most of the poets I know lack self-confidence. And yet, each one of us knows that we have some kind of gift that we're born with, that has to do with language and making stuff. Something. We owe that to the community. We pass it on. You are given a gift. You give a gift.
Laskey: You only write poetry now?
Olds: I write in my diary. There are many nature descriptions. There's a lot of stuff in it, about the life of my soul and heart. I draw in it.
Laskey: But that's for you.
Laskey: Is it a kind of poem place?
Olds: That's where I write my poems too.
Laskey: So what does it do for you, writing poems?
Olds: I would hate to imagine living without it. It's where I discover what I think and feel and make something of it. I love doing it. And it's physical. It's a ballpoint pen—it doesn't scratch and stick on the paper. I use different colored pens. I put in stickers.
Laskey: Any particular reason?
Olds: This morning, I was having a hard time trying to interpret and record and write about the gulls' cries. I was really in distress from them. I couldn't interpret them—either "I'm hungry," "That's mine," "Get out of here," or "Mommy." I just didn't know what was going on. But I knew that I had a sticker with me of Curious George on a beach with a seagull. And so I put it in my notebook, and I felt much better.
Laskey: Who's Curious George?
Olds: Oh, he's a monkey in a children's book.
Laskey: Oh, right.
Olds: It's something about the visual and the way it sits on the page with space around it. The clarity of that. I grew up looking at stained-glass windows a lot—the outline, and then the pieces of color. There's some way that the visual and the verbal are connected. I love color too, and it lifts my spirits. I don't have low spirits, but when I see color, I get a little hit.
Laskey: Do you have a favorite collection?
Olds: I remember, though it's so long ago, once I finished The Father, I thought, "I won't be so scared to die in a plane crash now." That was something I was meant to do.
Laskey: Advice to young poets? Do you want to give some advice?
Olds: Yes, I do.
Olds: Take your vitamins. Exercise. Just work to love yourself as much as you can—not more than the people around you but not so much less. Love, Sharon.