An Interview with Sharon Olds 

Mary Block, with assistance from Jakki Kerubo, Issue 30

I had the pleasure to interview the acclaimed poet Sharon Olds, whose latest book, Stag’s Leap, is forthcoming from Knopf in September 2012. Among her many published works, Ms. Olds is the author of Satan Says, The Dead and The Living, and The Father, the latter two of which were short-listed for the TS Eliot Prize. She won the inaugural San Francisco Poetry Center Award for Satan Says, and the Lamont Poetry Prize and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for The Dead and The Living. I am currently a student of Ms. Olds’s, so any allusion in the interview to “class” refers to her graduate workshop in poetry at NYU. I am grateful, as always, to Ms. Olds for her candor, her humor, and her guidance.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: In a 2008 interview with The Guardian, you mentioned, “What I’m nervous about is making explicit and part of the record connections between poems and actual people.” And you said also that you never talked about actual biography, because it seemed like the right thing to do, considering the poems that you write. Do you still feel this way, or has this changed at all?

SHARON OLDS: Now, I haven’t looked at that interview since 2008, but what you probably saw was that, a week later, I had an exchange of emails with Marianne Macdonald, the poet who had done the interview. And in the emails I essentially said to her that I don’t make up the material in my poems, that I’m an autobiographical writer...

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Right, which was a big revelation. 

SHARON OLDS: That was a big step for me. Actually I think it was Garrison Keillor who said, “We knew, Sharon.”

 WASHINGTON SQUARE: Yes, it was kind of an open secret.

 SHARON OLDS: Yeah. And that was fine. I wasn’t trying to hide the fact. I just didn’t want to talk about it. Because I wasn’t comfortable saying . . . you know, it’s like in class. We don’t want say to someone, “your sister in your poem.” No. That is not . . . accurate for a lot of people. I think most writers use their imaginations. Much more than I do.

And I’m still not comfortable talking much about my actual family. It seems bad enough to have an autobiographical poet in the family, without having them talk about you, your actual self, in public as well! But I’ve found that it’s been a relief for me to say that, because I never wanted people to think that I made up stuff. But I just didn’t want to talk about it. My first book came out in 1980, and at that time, I felt it would have been easy for people—if they wanted to talk about my poems at all—to talk about their subject matter, and not their style, or craft, or voice. And to me, what I was interested in was the line, and whether the strong position in the line was the beginning or the middle or the end—in terms of the kind of important words, like the nouns. That was very interesting to me; and off-rhyme and enjambment and end-stops and rhythm and all of that was very interesting to me, in every- body’s poems. So that’s why I had kept that to myself.

 I’m glad I did it. I felt that it allowed me to send out the family poems as if I wasn’t telling the home stories in public—which I was, and I wanted to. And I examined my morals about that pretty often, and I knew that it was a chancey kind of thing that I was doing. It wasn’t something I felt I could say, “This is something right for me and for everyone else to do.” There was a price paid by someone—perhaps the subject of the poem, more than myself— for that kind of intimate writing. So I felt that that kind of secrecy served its purpose, and when I came out as a biographical poet, I was happy to do that. I was old enough that it was more important to me to say, “Yes, this kind of poem, in this instance, has been written not as a persona, but as an ‘I’ trying to be accurate.” In someone else’s situation, writing perhaps very similar poems, it might be all invented or all more or less a fiction. I was talking to someone, I think maybe out in Minnesota, and I was saying, for instance, if I was writing a poem and someone had been wearing a yellow jacket, I could not make that jacket blue in a poem. I just couldn’t.

 WASHINGTON SQUARE: Really? Why?

 SHARON OLDS: I don’t know. It would just kind of scare me. I would feel as if the poem or I were losing contact with reality. I think there’s some kind of primitive sense in me of wanting to make a work of art that is a copy of life. And I absolutely know that other poets do that. Probably everyone makes those changes, to good effect. I don’t think I’ve ever done that, though.

 It’s kind of weird, kind of superstitious in a way. And I know it relates to religion, and to the idea when I was a kid that the earth was somehow imaginary or illusory. Or at least not real the way heaven and hell were real, not permanent. And not good. So now I think that I have some kind of loyalty to “things as they are not things as other people tell us they are.”

 WASHINGTON SQUARE: A sort of reaction against that narrative about heaven and hell?

 SHARON OLDS: Right, and also a sense that it’s very hard to know what’s true. It’s very hard to know what’s real. It’s very hard to know what another per- son is like or what oneself is like. And maybe that’s always been hard for me as a writer—to try to get it, and to see it, in some way that’s not false. And that kind of streams down to the small details as well.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: That’s fascinating to me.

SHARON OLDS: Would you do that, Mary? In a poem of yours would you, as it were, make a yellow jacket blue?

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Sure. Often, I think, I embellish things. Like, the poem I brought in last week to class. There were a lot of elements of it were true, but a lot of the secondary story was compressed and embellished. I definitely take small liberties.

 SHARON OLDS: I think that is what an artist does. And I think, from my impressions over the years, I think I’m pretty odd, and it has to do with. . .you know, I was a big liar when I was a kid. And not a smart liar. And I also was very imaginative, and I liked to make up things that were obviously made up. So as a reformed liar, I think it’s especially important to me to try and get things right. I think what you’re describing in your poem is what I hear and read about every artist, every poet I can think of. And so, yeah, I think that’s just a peculiar thing about me.

 WASHINGTON SQUARE: I remember once you mentioned to me that you consider yourself a formal poet, which I think might surprise people.

 SHARON OLDS: Well, I hope so! It’s like a joke, but not exactly a joke. It’s a simile of a joke. Because I didn’t know I was one until I was about fifty. Since I had been writing all along in a form that copied and riffed on the church hymn form, I felt I was being freed, and that I was kicking over the traces of that form. I was not writing in quatrains with end-stopped, rhymed lines. But that was, and is, definitely the model behind the thing that I do, which is a kind of disguised four-beat line, a disguised quatrain. So that’s what I mean by formal.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: That’s really interesting to me, because I’d heard you mention that the 4-beat and the hymn were a kind of backbone of the work, but I hadn’t realized that it was such a prominent feature.

SHARON OLDS: When I was thirty, which is when I started writing a lot, the enjambed, four-beat, accentual line seemed natural to me, and I didn’t exam- ine the way the poems were coming out onto the page. I didn’t realize there were four accents in each line—or, occasionally, five or three. I didn’t realize that I was running over the end of the line with a kind of glee. It was like saying, “Oh you think I’m going to stop here? I don’t think so! I’m free! I’m free verse and I’m going over the end-stopped line!” So there’s a kind of play between the integrity of the line and the enjambment. But all I knew was that the poems were pouring onto the page.

And in the early days, I had more stanzas or breaks. They weren’t all in one clump, as they’ve been for ten years, fifteen years. Very rarely now do I have a break in a poem. Maybe once every two books or something. I think there’s one in Stag’s Leap, the book that’s coming out in September. It’s a poem that turned out to be in two parts, the break about two-thirds of the way down, because of the subject. Something related to September 11th came into that poem. So the space was like a pause, where the form is saying to the reader, “Let’s take off our hats here. We’re now stepping over a line. I want to show that I know that this isn’t really mine to speak of, but I’m going to do so, but, there’s this sense of space.” For a reason like that, there will be a space.

I like the look of the big clump—with different length lines. They make a kind of tallish shape on the page. I don’t know if I’ve talked about it at an interview, but I have this . . . when I look at a poem of mine, after I’ve typed it up, the left-hand margin is like a pine tree trunk, and the right hand margin has little dribbley things. It’s like a cedar, maybe. So the ends of the line are where the little new green shoots and the little cones and all that are kind of dribbling down. That the strong place is the first word in the line, and the end of the line is where the words like “of the,” “for the,” “about the,” “with the,” go.

And then I also have this feeling that . . . this isn’t in any real sense, or any mystical sense, or any literal sense, but there’s some way in which it’s as if there’s something, unseen, on the left-hand side of the left-hand margin. Something that’s like the, I don’t know, the spirit-body of the poem, if the poem itself is the matter-body. I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s the invisible half of the full Rohrschach that a poem and its shadow would form. It sounds so weird. It’s like an honorary place for what’s unsingable in the poem. And if you were to turn the poem ninety degrees, over to the side, the left-hand margin could be like the earth, and the lines that are standing up are branches, and the lines that are going down are the roots of the tree. Crazy, to talk like this! But I know it has something to do with my feeling that though a poem is not a living being, it’s the speech of a living being, of an identity—a unique identity, or representative enough. So my mind plays with that image of a tree to try to describe something about my feeling about the life of a poem. Ok, that’s enough wacko talk!

WASHINGTON SQUARE: You’ve alluded to the new book. Is there anything that you can share with us prior to its release? About its subject matter, or about the title, or things that you’re excited about or nervous about within it?

SHARON OLDS: Well, the title comes from a poem in the book. And in the poem, called “Stag’s Leap,” there’s a portrait that takes off from the label of Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon wine—from the vineyard in Northern California. So that’s the title. I call it “an end of long marriage book,” a book of loss and mourning and healing. And what I’m hoping for the cover is that we get the right color of blackish red, representing the Cabernet Sauvignon. 

WASHINGTON SQUARE: And Stag’s Leap, the winery, did they give you permission to use their name?

SHARON OLDS: We had a nice back and forth, and they just wanted to be sure that their brand was mentioned in the acknowledgements. So we’re gratefully acknowledging the use of their brand.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: It’s a good promotion for them.

SHARON OLDS: I hope that they’ll see it that way, yeah.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: I think that the book’s subject matter will resonate with quite a few people.

SHARON OLDS: I have found that, even when I have a very young audience, say high school, I can read some of the poems of loss. People in high school understand the trials and tribulations of romantic love! So even though I might have thought it would be too old for them, I came to feel that there’s enough universality in the subject of the book. I hope it’ll find its readers! Anyone to whom it could be of any use, for the pleasure and whatever else. And I’m a storyteller. There’s a story in the book—perhaps more clearly than any book of mine, maybe except The Father, which had a story of a father’ s illness and death, and some years after that.  

WASHINGTON SQUARE: That’s interesting to me, because I wanted to talk to you about narrative within your work. How do you see the role of narrative perhaps changing within the work of your students, or poetry that you’re reading? Or how is it not changing? How does it remain important or central to the work that a poet does? Because often, there’s such a strong sense of the story being told in your work, which is not always so evidently the case in poetry.

SHARON OLDS: When I was starting to write, the idea of a woman’s narrative poems about her ordinary experiences was hardly considered poetry at all. At that time, it felt new. Such narrative felt that it ran counter to an establishment that might not think it was valuable, but it had for me the energy of being something new. It was exciting and thrilling, really, to be writing the only thing I was suited to writing anyway! I was following the inspiration of poets a generation or half a generation above mine. I was following the inspiration of some of my elders—Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Muriel Rukeyser, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sylvia Plath—while doing something different from what many in the generation or two before mine had been doing.

 WASHINGTON SQUARE: Which was roughly the high modernist period?

SHARON OLDS: Yes. And maybe a woman’s narrative had for me then some of the same energy that, now, more mysterious, anti-narrative poems have—sometimes impressionistic, sometimes more musical than anything else—certainly with floating pronouns! It’s a profoundly different enterprise.

And how could it not be? The world that people were born into in, say, 1992 was so profoundly different from the world I was born into in 1942. It’s almost like two generations’ difference. And of course writers who are ten and twenty years younger than I am have been writing poems that are more mysterious, less narrative, than mine. I’m thinking of C. D. Wright’s One with Others, and Anne Carson’s Nox, as well as their other books, work that’s precious to me, that I love.  

I would say that work like mine is very simplified compared to what many of the younger poets are doing now. Sometimes I wonder if some of the shift away from narrative toward more subtlety is connected to all the bullshit that the young generation has had to listen to, as the world is being degraded and harmed, in the public sphere. I can see how that might inspire an anti-simple truth-telling.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: You began writing and recording events at a very exciting period in our history.

SHARON OLDS: It was! I was twenty years old in 1962. It was exciting to be alive and to be an optimist. And I was an optimist anyway, and what it seemed was happening was that finally, at last, and permanently, we were seeing an end to racism, sexism, classism. And, of course, it turned out that these –isms were much stronger than we thought. But it was a time of energy and hope, and, for me, not a lot of irony—which hasn’t been my strong point anyway!

WASHINGTON SQUARE: We were talking the other night about the show Mad Men. We talked about how, as somebody who was born in 1983, I can watch it and have a sort of aesthetic removal from it. But for someone who was born in the ‘40s, those issues raised in the show were all-too-real anxieties that one had to deal with.

SHARON OLDS: When I was twenty, I believed I had entirely opted out of the “square” world. And most of the people who represented that world in my eyes would have been not twenty years old, but thirty or forty. So I was amazed when you said that (the current season) was supposed to depict 1966. Remember I said, “Maybe 1956?” Because I was already, you know, so, so anti-establishment. On the surface! Underneath it I was a bourgeoise at heart. 

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Isn’t that interesting, when you sort of face the reality about yourself? I often feel the same way.

SHARON OLDS: Well, I was aspiring upward to the bourgeoisie, to the normal! You know, I longed for a stable life. I wanted to be able to see myself as an iconoclast and have a stable life at the same time.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Which I think is such an important tension in a lot of your poetry. I come from a family that’s very highly normative in its values and outlook, and I’ve always felt like a kind of weird, artsy interloper in a way. In that way your work has always been very important and interesting to me because it seems like the artsy interloper’s perspective on this highly normative existence. Does that make sense?

SHARON OLDS: Oh yeah! I think for the happy mother and housewife of many of the poems, to be writing a poem at all is not normative.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Exactly! Yes.

SHARON OLDS: And then there’s the conflict between the desire for safety and the desire for—not danger, but freedom of expression. I can see how that conflict would show in my poems.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: That’s always been really important and interesting to me.

SHARON OLDS: Well that’s so cool, Mary. Thank you. No one’s ever said that to me. I really like that. 

WASHINGTON SQUARE: So, let me talk about the 2005 invitation to the National Book
Festival. This was really important to a lot of people, I think—that you were given this platform to openly resist and refuse. You replied to Laura Bush’s invitation and said, “So many Americans who had felt pride in our country now feel anguish and shame for the current regime of blood, wounds, and fire. I think of the clean linens at your table, the shining knives, and the flames of your candles, and I could not stomach it.” It was certainly very brave and representative of a lot of people’s feelings at the time. So what was going through your head? How did you decide to respond in that way? And how did you decide to publish this letter in The Nation? What was your thought process while all of this was going on?

SHARON OLDS: Right. I knew that I would not be effective if I went there and tried to say something there. I thought of Eartha Kitt, who had been able to speak up—but she was a great artist, she was the star, she was their dinner guest. And she also was able to act, right in the presence of power, where I would be flustered. I would not be effective, so it was better for me to write a letter. And also, writing a letter, I could talk to her as a librarian, as someone to whom reading and writing were very important, and who wanted children to have a better chance at things. And by being married to this guy, she was associated—fairly—with his policies. I mean, we know she didn’t have any power to make anything different, but yet she was at his side. So I wrote and rewrote and rewrote this thing, and sent it to her and The Nation. So I knew I couldn’t go, and I knew I couldn’t just pretend she hadn’t asked me. And I was pretty scared of authority. I wasn’t paranoid that there was danger to me, but it was not easy, at the same time, to publicly say “no” to a figure of power. But I knew I was fortunate to have, as you say, a platform. 

WASHINGTON SQUARE: To express, I think, how a lot of people might have been feeling at that time. Or would have felt in your position.

SHARON OLDS: Well, two years later, I think, is when we started hearing about extraordinary rendition more. I had heard only the first intimations of that when I wrote the letter. As time went on, you know, on TV shows, a huge amount came out about torture. That wasn’t really in the public discourse openly very much yet, but the way that people treat other people has always been a subject that has gripped me. And especially at those absolutely scary extremes. So that made it not possible for me to eat with her.

Also, of course, part of the reason the letter is as long as it is, is that I wanted her to keep reading, and so I wanted to be polite. And I wanted to show some courtesy toward her and show her that we were similar in some ways, like, about the Goldwater Program*, how important outreach is. And also that I would have loved to go! To hawk one’s wares and sign your books, I mean, how cool is that?! So I wanted to write to her about all of that—and then I definitely swerved into absolute rage at the end.  

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Do you still believe in Satan? And do you still converse with Satan? And what did Satan mean to you when you were writing, when you made that promise to yourself and to Satan to write your own poetry, versus now?

SHARON OLDS: I look back now on the “God” of my childhood: that was a fairly satanic figure, having to do with hell, punishment, damnation. And I certainly was not one of the elect! So I think what I meant when I made that vow—I think I was really talking to my own ego. Not my super-ego, not exactly my id. Where exactly does art come from? Somewhere between the id and the ego. And because of the way I’d been raised, it seemed sinful to speak up in one’s own voice, to make one’s own music, to speak from one’s own point of view. So that’s why it was Satan. And also, Mary, it occurs to me that I was very angry about some stuff when I was a kid, and I didn’t realize how angry I was. I mean, in my unconscious—really, really angry. So I think the image of Satan was a strong image that carried the shininess and the strength of that anger. It was a good image for being furious.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Do you still think about that binary relationship between God and Satan? And does that affect your work and the way that you think of your work, or less so?

SHARON OLDS: That character, that figure, named God in some of my poems, I’m really talking about that character and figure from when I was a child. So I suppose, in a way, having had a strongly religious background, one is probably in recovery for the rest of one’s life. If it is a negative religious background. And I often realize now, with gratefulness, that at the same time that I believed all that stuff in fear—and you know, it was terrible stuff to believe. But if you didn’t believe it, and they found out that you didn’t believe it, you know, what would they do to you then?! But, at the same time, I was a pagan. My relationship to flowers was very clear. It had to do with love and beauty and pleasure. And with trees, and birds, and the sky, clouds, and the earth. So I didn’t have just one religion. I don’t mean that my paganism was formal, nor is it now. But I sure think in terms of the life force, which doesn’t have capital letters, and, you know, trying to take good care of ourselves, and everyone we love.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Do you think that being in New Hampshire has made that paganistic inclination more prominent within your work, being “in nature” more?

SHARON OLDS: Oh yes, although even in the city, what I tend to start from is the river, and the trees down in Riverside Park, and the sky and the birds. Wherever I go . . . if I stay in a hotel, I say, “If you’d put me in a room where I’d be able to see a tree. I would love to see a tree.” So living (in New Hamp- shire) has given me so much beauty to commune with and be aware of. And also Carl’s life with plants, and the ground—I have a very different, just a much deeper understanding of our relationship to the land. We saw a cool movie last night called YERT: Your Environmental Road Trip. It’s about three young people who visited many states in the union, carrying all of their garbage with them for a year! They were looking into various projects having to do with sustainability, trying to answer the question, “Can our species survive?” It’s a very cool movie. You see all kinds of small, hopeful, new things.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: What advice do you have for young poets? It can be general or specific, theoretical or practical.

SHARON OLDS: Right. Well I’ve given the same bit of advice for about twenty years, which is: Take your vitamins! Take good care of your body. Get enough sleep. Don’t forget to dance and walk. Don’t drink too much. Don’t do drugs—your brain is so, so precious and alive, especially when it’s young. And so, kindness toward the self psychologically, physically, I think that’s the most important thing. All the other stuff depends on what one’s habit is, you know—when we write, what we read, all of that. And then, secondarily, I think it would be great to get involved with the world in some kind of outreach program. I think being a teacher, especially being a teacher with people who wouldn’t necessarily have a teacher otherwise, like at the Goldwater Program and all the other NYU outreach programs. That, I think, would be good for anybody. It gives us a perspective about the place of poetry and fiction and memoir, and all of the written arts. Our place in bringing writing to people who might not be exposed to it otherwise, in learning from them, and being each others’ audience with them.

* The Goldwater Hospital Writing Workshop Fellowship at NYU is a teaching fellowship for graduate students in Creative Writing, in partnership with Goldwater Hospital, a public facility for the severely physically challenged. The Goldwater Writing Project was founded in 1986 by Jean Kennedy Smith, Rose Styron, and Sharon Olds.