A Conversation with Sharon Olds

Sharon Olds. 2002

Sharon Olds is the author of fifteen books of poetry, most recently Arias. She has been the recipient of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award, and the first San Francisco Poetry Center Award in 1980. She teaches creative writing at New York University.

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CONVERSATION BETWEEN SHARON OLDS and ALAN FOX

November 15, 2001
New York, New York

FOX: When did you first consider yourself a poet?

OLDS: Last year.

FOX: Tell me about that.

OLDS: Well, I figured, a plumber is a plumber. You don’t have to be a great plumber to call yourself a plumber, if you are a plumber each day. But what the word poet meant to me when I was a kid, those faces in the little portholes of the Oscar Williams anthology that I carried around with me—those creatures, those beings, were so special, they are so special, they are kind of like angels in some way, whose power of speech extended over time, who were helping us long after they had gone, and delighting us. So I didn’t feel comfortable using that word for myself. But then I figured, that’s what I do, that’s what I do, so that’s what I’m going to call myself. But if I’m ever asked, like, on an airplane or something, what do you do, I always say I’m a teacher.

FOX: Because?

OLDS: I’m a teacher! [Fox laughs] And it’s an identity, I don’t know. That’s a good question. Maybe I’m more confident in myself as a teacher than as a poet. I haven’t worked harder on teaching than on poetry, it’s no easier to do, and it’s nothing less important to me. When I was a kid growing up, my teachers sort of saved my life.

FOX: What is the most important thing you can teach your students?

OLDS: One of the most important things that I can do, I think, is keep them company as a fellow writer. Remind them that I do not speak as an authority, that we’re all in deep and anxious hope of the next day’s poem [Fox laughs, murmurs agreement], may it come to us from wherever it comes. We know that hard work won’t do it; though we work very hard, hard work won’t do it. So I’m in the grip of magic and hope and prayer, and I love to have companionship along the way. That’s not really answering what can I teach them, but it’s more like the atmosphere that I feel is accompanying us. In the classroom, it’s my job to try to see that we take good care of each other. It’s nobody else’s job but mine, and they are so smart, and they are so sweet, and they are so gifted—what can I teach them. I love them. Is that a form of learning? Does that make sense to you, Alan, what I’m saying?

FOX: Definitely, yes. How do you feel your reputation affects your students?

OLDS: [laughs] Do you have those things in the interview where you say “wild laughter.” [still laughing]

FOX: Well, there is laughter and there’s more loud laughter.

OLDS: Well, I can’t laugh louder. [both voices blur in laughter]

Well, I figured, a plumber is a plumber. You don’t have to be a great plumber to call yourself a plumber, if you are a plumber each day.

OLDS: I don’t know, I have no idea. When I used to, if I were fortunate enough to be asked to give a reading and I’d arrive at an airport, the people who were going to pick me up would never pick me, and then when I would finally say, “Are you looking for me?” they would look a little startled. [Fox chuckles] So I finally learned to say, “You know, when you pick me up, I’m tall, I wear glasses and I look like a school librarian.” [more laughter from Fox] And they came for me in a moment! So that made me feel as if they had thought I would look ferocious, furious, fire-breathing. Reputation. Each one of us, in whatever our sphere of life is, has many different reputations. We’re thought of one way by one person and one way by another. I don’t know what my students will have heard about me, who they will have read. There are poets I respect deeply who don’t respect my work. They may have read them. That’s okay. I’m a teacher. Because I am, along with them, a first-draft writer, that’s our main vocation. Our good fortune, our gift, our passion. I can speak from that perspective to them as fellow first-draft writers and revisers. So in a way, it’s doesn’t matter what we’ve heard of each other before we gather. They don’t tell me, and I don’t ask them. So, I just don’t know. There was so much anger in my early work, and I wasn’t really aware of how much there was. What I’m like as a person, which is not very angry, alas [laughs] … I’m trying to develop it in my later life! But reputation, reputation—we’re going to be working together, and by the time we’ve been doing it for a month we’re going to start to know each other, and trust each other, and so, as you can see, it isn’t a question that I’ve really thought of. It’s an interesting question.

FOX: What satisfies you the most when you elicit it from your students?

OLDS: I guess what I love is when they are listening to each other so closely that they can describe so accurately to each other and usefully what it is they feel they’re hearing and seeing. There’s nothing like that. And, of course, they bring in these new poems that are just astonishing, and so that’s thrilling, but I think it’s that concentration, the listening. In my class we don’t look at the poem until we’ve heard it twice. I’m big on ears! So that attentiveness, and the development of more articulateness about what it is we feel and think, and what happens to us when we hear this line of the poem or that word of the poem—developing those skills, which I want to do along with them, is what I think helps us as writers.

FOX: So you find, I imagine, when you teach you also learn.

OLDS: Oh yeah, oh yeah, we keep each other company. And I’m there to take care of the room, to try to make sure that nothing goes on that’s going to harm anybody. And then I listen, and then they tell me how we’re doing and then the conferences, the one-on-one, is a huge part of the work, too. I’m blessed to be at NYU, a creative writing program led by a director who is just the smartest, the sweetest, and most sensitive person. Do you know Melissa Hammerle?

FOX: No.

OLDS: She used to be at the Y. She’s now our heart and soul. So I know that there are a lot of other people around, the other teachers and Melissa and everybody; we’re all in the work together of receiving the honor of our students wanting to come and work with us.

FOX: How do you know when a poem is finished?

OLDS: Well, what I say about that is a little odd. This is how I put it to myself, that it lets go of me. What does that really mean? That I’m done, that I feel I can’t help it. The way I experience this is that I can leave the notebook closed. If a poem doesn’t feel finished to me, I know it doesn’t feel finished by my going to the notebook and opening it. I think, uh-uh, no, no, or I think, ah, maybe, mmm, it almost always has to do with the ending3always, I would say, has to do with the ending of a first draft. So it won’t let me go because it’s not finished yet. It’s lying, not that poems can’t lie—there are brilliant lies in poetry. But for me, there’s a certain kind of falseness that just wrecks a poem, especially at the end, as if I had been forcing it to arrive at some place of my choice. The poem didn’t want to go there. It wasn’t heading there at all, but I had had it in mind that it should arrive there [Fox chuckles] Then the poem just, it calls me back, and then once it’s done, it’s a relief. Once I feel that I have gone with it as far as I can, and not into false territory, okay. Then maybe a day later, a week later, a month, a year, or ten years later, I will type it up, and then I see its faults in a fairly objective way. Ah, I mean what I think are its faults. Usually I don’t get to the faults that some other people see as faults. I think, no, I’ve got to go with this, I’ve got to go with this. I don’t know if it’s a fault or not, but this is it, how it’s going to be. And then once I type—I write by hand with a pen, a ballpoint on grocery-store notebooks, and I type on a Lettera 22 portable manual that I carry on my back. I’ve been using these crafts of writing and typing since I was, I don’t know, seven or so. It’s a long time by now. I’m used to that method.

FOX: Could you talk about falseness in a poem?

OLDS: Yes [sigh], it’s interesting, isn’t it? I think it would mean different things to different people.

FOX: What does it mean to you?

OLDS: Wishful thinking [pause], salvation addiction, especially in the last line, idealization of my characters, my stuffed animals, my muses, these poor people I write about—not seeing what you’re seeing, your brain not daring to see what your eye is seeing, or your heart is seeing, or your pen not able to write what you know you’re seeing or what you don’t know you’re seeing [laughs]. I think for me, I think that would be it, trying to look good, that’s a kind of sentimentality, idealization and lying, whatever good means, it means different things different days probably.

FOX: Then do you have to write without thought of the audience or how others will react?

OLDS: Yes, oh, I would think so. Another kind of falseness for me would be wrong language, too elevated, too de-elevated. Like my will wanting to choose instead of letting the poem choose. You know, it sounds so weird and mystical, but I really think it could be studied electrically with brain waves, when you get to certain levels of concentration other connections blossom that are more, a little more unconscious. So when I say letting the poem do it, I don’t really necessarily believe Allen Ginsberg’s “first thought best thought,” and I revise a lot, a lot, but I suppose choice of vocabulary does have something to do with imaginary audience. Because if there are lots of difficult words that seem difficult; I’m not comfortable with that—as he says on TV, who’s that guy, he says, “I’m not comfortable with that.” [Fox laughs] I love that guy [laughing], oh, oh, I feel I’m looking at myself when I see him—you know the guy I mean?

FOX: No [laughing].

… it’s as if there’s something to be true to, and it isn’t I, and it isn’t any particular reader—it’s as if it’s to be true to the poem. And what is the poem?

OLDS: He plays a lawyer on Ally McBeal, or he plays a shrink, maybe, on Ally McBeal. Anyway, now we’ve got my cultural level established. [Fox laughs loudly] I like clarity in poems I read, but there are a hundred kinds of clarity for every hundred poets. I don’t mean accessible. If I go back and see that there’s what I would consider too high a diction in a first draft, or the second or the fifteenth, I will bring it down, and if it’s too, oh, curse-wordy or anti, what is it called, counterphobically crude, I don’t know what I’m comparing it to, an ideal self of the poem. I don’t understand these things at all; it’s as if there’s something to be true to, and it isn’t I, and it isn’t any particular reader—it’s as if it’s to be true to the poem. And what is the poem? Often, in my case, it has a story, of some ordinary thing in life, and so maybe I partly mean, like, say that painting, it’s not photorealism, it’s emotionally evocative. Whatever I want a poem to be, I want it to be true to some kind of combination of experience and feeling and thought. I want it to be dancing to its own music.

FOX: You were talking to me about magic. Can you elaborate on that in terms of your own writing or thought processes?

OLDS: Oh, we’re in the grip of magic!

FOX: Yes, exactly.

OLDS: Maybe sometimes I feel that the best of what we do is the least in our control. Like metaphor, we can’t go to the icebox and pull out the ingredients and make a metaphor. We’re helpless. If we focus a certain way, and give ourselves in a certain way to the writing of poems, they happen, they seem to just happen, they spring up out of the earth of the brain. Who has ever made one up by force of will. They seem like a gift from the unconscious or whatever—that kind of magic is what I mean. Again, I bet we could measure it in electricity! They could map it. I’ve been reading Oliver Sacks’ book about the postencephalotic Parkinsonian disease that he treated, Awakenings, and at the end he shows electrical graphs of states of emotion—so it’s not really magic, but I guess what I mean is something you don’t have control over. You can, if you want to make metaphors, you can behave in a way that might make them more likely to arrive. I think of it sometimes like putting little dishes of food on the sill if you wish a dog to visit you, or bird-feeders like the feeders in Central Park. When you want to see some new species, you say, “Let’s go to the feeders,” and you go and there are these amazing thistle-socks and all these great things that bird lovers have put up, and the birds will come or they won’t, but you have more of a chance for them to come if you put the feeders up. I would say, to extend that metaphor, that I believe in things like exercise and sleep and sobriety—not, in my case, perpetual and uninterrupted sobriety, but most of the time, and always when writing—to take good care of oneself, physically and spiritually or emotionally, whatever. To me that’s like the preparation for writing as well as we can.

FOX: How does your inner life of writing intersect with your real life in the world?

OLDS: I have no idea. [Fox laughs] I mean, which is our real life? I can’t even remember. I don’t really know. Ask me again, Alan. Can you say that in a slightly different way? Or tell me how that works for you. How does your inner life intersect with your work life?

FOX: For me, in a more pragmatic way. Most of my real life, much of it is business and real estate, so I will have a fantasy of how things should be and then try to impose that on the real world to make it happen, so it’s sort of a goal-oriented thing.

OLDS: Cool. Is that a good way in your work to make it happen?

FOX: Yes.

OLDS: Yeah, it’s almost the opposite of what I’m saying, isn’t it?

FOX: Right, exactly.

OLDS: Yeah, isn’t that funny.

FOX: I don’t think it would work that way with what you do.

OLDS: In a way—as a teacher, I can’t be passive in the way that I am as a writer, not that I’m very passive as a writer, but I try to be enough, passive enough, so that it’s an inspiration, so that the metaphors might come. I don’t know how it intersects. I like to live in the moment. Someone told me recently that they could tell, a month ago, that an experience we were having was going to become a poem of mine. I was zero thinking of poetry, zero, because I zero think about poetry when I’m living—like would this be a poem? No, for me that would be strange. But someone who knows me well knew that, and it was true, it was quite true, the poem was actually forming as the experiences were happening and I wasn’t aware of it. Then, when I was alone on a bus or an airplane, then I saw a poem, or “a poem came to me,” as I put it. So many poets work in notebooks, and gather, I think maybe most poets work that way, but for me it’s noticing that there is a poem there and then writing it out, just finishing it right then. And then, as I said before, working on it later.

FOX: For the first draft of the poem, does the poem follow some inspiration or does inspiration follow from the work of doing it? [Olds laughs] For me, I can’t sit down and say, okay, I’m going to write a poem now, and just do it. I have to say, oh, wow, this poem is coming, I’d better put everything aside and write it.

OLDS: Me too, totally, exactly, exactly. I think it’s maybe more fiction writers who sit down every day, from what I can tell from my friends. In my case if it isn’t something I care a lot about, a LOT, and if it isn’t free in some way, it won’t come to me. It just won’t, it will not do it. There’s no way I can make it do it. But then sometimes a poem will come to me when I have to be out of the house in 25 minutes, ooo-ooooh!

FOX: [laughs] What do you do then?

OLDS: Oh, then I’m late. [Fox chuckles] I’m usually an on-time person, and if it’s something I can’t be late for, which it often is, like teaching, or a conference, mainly what happens is, most of the time I can’t be late, so I’ll try to make a few notes, brief enough that they don’t start the whole thing going, which if you do that, it wants to reach its end fiercely and it’s a mess, because I’m only going to have one chance at actually writing it.

FOX: What kind of impact do you want your work to have?

OLDS: [laughs] Hmm, we could call this heh-heh laughter [both laugh more].

FOX: If the questions were easy, I’d answer them myself.

OLDS: [still laughing] Ah-ha!

FOX: I do the easy part, you do the hard part.

OLDS: They’re good questions, Alan. They’re great questions—of course, I’ve managed to totally block it out because it was such a scary question.

FOX: What kind of an impact would you like your work to have?

OLDS: I wouldn’t like anyone to be harmed because of it, that’s for sure. That’s the first thing that comes into my mind, first thought best thought—first do no harm, primum non nocere. That’s what the doctors say. It doesn’t look in my early work as if I’m avowing that. When I wrote my younger poems, I never thought anyone would read them. Who was ever going to see them in a million years? And then I had good fortune. That’s the first thing that comes into my mind. Muriel Rukeyser used to say poets think their families will die if they read the family poems. She said it’s like being gay. You think that if your parents find out, they’ll die. But they don’t. We’ve tried to think of cases where people have been harmed by poems. I cannot think of one at the moment. It’s a very negative answer to what impact you would like to have. That’s my answer, maybe. That’s kind of consuming for me, the idea of what impact you would like it not to have.

FOX: It seems to me, your answer is consistent with the view that you seem to have an affinity with the art of writing itself and that’s more important to you than what happens later. Would that be accurate?

OLDS: You mean its fate out in the world, when I am done revising? Yes. If I could only have one or the other, absolutely! Oh, oh, that’s a feeling like [deep inhale] such a good feeling, a kind of a balance, a very intense focus, a freedom from being yourself almost, freedom like you get in hard work and other things. But the sending out and getting back, the offering—Muriel said, stop saying “submit.” [Fox laughs loudly]. “Offer, offer.” Offering and receiving back, I think many of us feel ambivalent about that. The world life, the worldly life, like when you’re about to give a reading, fear, anxiety, unease, excitement, worry, and you really want, you thought you really wanted to do it but now it’s time [laughter], yes.

FOX: So if you have a reading three months from now that’s wonderful and if it’s two hours from now it’s not so wonderful?

OLDS: Two hours is still not as bad as it’s going to get; it’s three seconds, you know, three minutes, oh, God! That’s just nerves, that’s nerves. But it’s not a pure pleasure. It has all the anxiety, energy, excitement of a performance. And the writing itself is not like that. No one’s there, nobody’s there. Of course, every poet you’ve ever read is there—they’re like a tureen to be drunk from, for refreshment and elation, as we’re trying to do whatever it is that can be done with our pen.

FOX: When you’re doing a reading, does your anxiety persist throughout or dissipate once you’ve gotten into it?

There’s not a bad poet in first grade.

OLDS: Once I’m almost done, and nothing bad has happened, I’m very relieved! And it’s much better than it used to be. I used to always have nightmares and I used to be really quite sick before I got up there. My mouth remains dry and my hands shake and my knees shake, those just seem perpetual, but I’m thinking about the audience more than I used to. I’m not thinking so much about how am I doing or how badly am I going to fail. And I feel close, in theory, to most of the people there, because most of them are writers. I’m having my turn, and next week it’ll be their turn, and my heart will go out to them for the fears that come over us when we’re separated from our group—often not a very safe position to be in in our species. But then the older I get, the younger they get, and I’m not as afraid of people younger than me as I am of people older than me, although if there are cool high school kids sitting in the front row at a reading, my heart will absolutely sink at first, but then—it’s a phobia, and a desire to see if I can make contact with other people whether I know them or not. It makes me so nervous to think about readings. Let’s not think about readings anymore. [Fox laughs loudly] I’m getting that anxiety as I talk about it, I’m starting to feel it! Can I read you something?

FOX: Yes, please.

OLDS: I read this and wrote it down; it’s in the deli window downstairs. “September 12, 2001: Dear New York City: We are shocked to hear this news. I hope you are all right. I am sorry if someone died. Here is a poem: You are as sweet as a hart / we have met your soll / you are very nice / Love, Michael Bodker.” Heart is spelled h-a-r-t, soul is s-o-l-l. He wrote this letter to New York City and it came to the Del Monaco Deli and it’s up in their window.

FOX: Hmm. [long pause] You know, in Rattle, we focus on a group of authors, like poetry editors, Pulitzer Prize winners, inmates in prison, and one of my favorites was when we published school children, kindergarten through twelve.

OLDS: There’s not a bad poet in first grade.

FOX: Yes.

OLDS: None of them are anything but fresh and original. Why am I saying that? Surely, they sometimes just write “roses are red, violets are blue,” but when I’ve done a little in schools, they aren’t old enough yet to know that they’re supposed to be worried. I mean, we’re all so worried about what other people think of us, this is just a part of being a human being, awfully rare to not feel that. But in first grade, it’s different, it’s not so big as it will become. So I think, they don’t know how to avoid being original. They will learn. [Fox chuckles] We all have learned.

FOX: It seems to me that you may be talking about self-consciousness and you’re saying that when you write you are not self-conscious and when you approach a reading you are. Is that …?

OLDS: Probably so. I mean, I can’t really say I’m not self-conscious when I’m writing, but I want to enter a state that is as little self-conscious as possible, that is focused on some kind of image, or feeling, or story, with some kind of truthfulness and accuracy, and then the language, the whole language, is available to me! born the year I was, [Fox laughs] and I can use any word, from that whole place, in a poem. There’s so much going on that if I’m really concentrating there kind of isn’t room for being self-conscious. And then there’s the physical deep pleasure of the ball-point nib flowing across the grocery-store notebook which has—I think they’ve got more plastic and less paper, less fiber, more glass, less trees, now, and it makes it sail, you just sail, the medium point with the octagonal handle. I don’t find that the round ones sail quite as well. Remember in Wordsworth’s poem where they’re skating at night, whush, whush, whush, such a pleasure physically to write. I love to draw, so writing is a little like that. Yes, so I’m having physical pleasure from writing and seeing the homemade cursive coming out. And that’s why when I type it up—a lot of great poets, Lucille Clifton herself, types first drafts! But for me, to have the flow and the shapeliness and the kind of animal/vegetable/ floral/faunal shapes of the letters, rather than striking a key and having it God—knows—how appear… I don’t really understand how the ink comes out of the pen [Fox chuckles] instead of all falling out. Oh—ballpoint! Yeah—there’s some little ball bearing in there. I guess that’s how it works, isn’t it?

FOX: Yes.

OLDS: Cool.

FOX: Well, it seems that what you’re saying is that for you the act of writing is really an all-encompassing process; it’s physical and visceral and mental and emotional and all of that.

OLDS: Yes, and then whatever I’m seeing, while I’m writing, might get in the poem, which might be a good idea and might not be. I write on airplanes a lot, and so I’m seeing the ground, and clouds, and my study window sees a park, so I might see a hawk hunting. So what I’m actually seeing is—each one of us tries over the years to find the setting or settings—right?—that will limit us the least. Well, I think it’s a great joy to do anything with one’s whole being rather than, as is so often the case, being divided. Right now, the sirens [heard in the background], before September 11, they affected us differently. I wouldn’t have noticed them much, or I would have played with them like when you’re dancing and then someone puts on another radio with another kind of music on and then you try to dance actually to both of them at once? But now I hear sirens and I’m …

FOX: Yes.

OLDS: There—they’ve stopped [deep breath].

FOX: You seem to be very sensitive to your environment. Is that true for you, what’s going on around you?

OLDS: Don’t you, I think we are that way, you know, writers. Don’t you feel that?

FOX: Yes.

OLDS: Yeah, I don’t know if it’s one reason that we become writers, a gift, a burden, high maintenance. Yikes, oh my god—vigilance, that’s what it’s called, vigilance. Yes, not the most appealing human quality, but many of our friends in the forest have sharp senses.

FOX: You talked about truth. Can you talk about the most important truths that inhabit you or your work?

OLDS: Hmm… I almost feel as if with each of our poems there’s a different truth, and it’s local and different from the day before. It’s funny, I think of it as not lying—accuracy—that’s really my favorite word, whether it’s accuracy of imaginative vision or of an actual fact, either way. My truth is someone else’s lie. Truth, truth, truth, I don’t know. I don’t think there are any ideas in my poems, they seem perfectly innocent of ideas to me, anyway, but then I wouldn’t know how to find an idea. Anyway, I don’t really think in terms of ideas. I’m not very strong on abstractions, so I don’t know. If my poems had a voice, what would they say? [laughs] Probably different books would say different things, some of the earlier ones would have to say something about not understanding things and being afraid and angry, and so the book could say, “I’m pretty pissed off, but I love this life, I love these people.” And then maybe The Father would say, “How are we going to do this, both hate and love someone, and lose and not lose, and age and grow and try to understand and remain ignorant.” These aren’t truths that I’m saying, they’re more like conditions: bafflement, joy. But then, when I think of someone else’s work, then it gets interesting, because then you could talk about the truths, like in Lucille’s work, and, in a different way, Brenda Hillman’s work, and Yusef’s work, oo-oh-oh, what could you say? [Fox laughs] You’d just have to fly around the room, filling it with flowers here and there. My God, amazing, amazing. So I don’t think I have any truths. But I think I would love for the—not the evil to be sufficient for the day thereof—but the accuracy to be sufficient. That would be great, but then there are all these things that pull one away from that. It’s impossible, you know, we can’t, we wish we could be really good.

FOX: What pulls you away from accuracy?

OLDS: Um, habit, maybe, like habitual line breaks. I mean, something that’s new and then next week it’s not new and you’re still doing it. I’m getting tired here! Your view is so beautiful out here, Alan. The Citibank is almost all silver now. It’s like this pale, pale, celadon stripes and there’s a big rose-colored finger, rosy-fingered sunset, rosy-fingered [Fox laughs] evening, vespers, what’s the opposite of dawn, day, night, dawn, dusk, rosy-fingered dusk. So much for ideas.

FOX: Stealing from Shakespeare, but that’s okay.

OLDS: Oh, [laughing] did he do rosy-fingered dusk?

FOX: Rosy-fingered dawn, I think, [murmur]…

OLDS: Oh, right, right.

FOX: You talked about your early work coming out of anger and that it has dissipated. What’s replaced it, if anything?

OLDS: I don’t think it has dissipated. It may have concentrated, but become a little more conscious, somewhat more conscious—it has to be more conscious than it was then! I don’t know what I thought I was doing. It was some kind of accuracy, I guess, at that time.

FOX: It seems that you’re saying then that it was an unconscious accuracy because you weren’t aware of the anger …

OLDS: Not how much, not how striking it was. What might there be more of now? It’s easier to think about this in terms of other people’s poems, but trying to think of mine, more of? Irony! Slight irony! Two instances of slight irony in the last couple of years. I never had one ounce of it. I didn’t even know what it was. I had to look it up every time I heard the word. I could not even hold the definition in my mind. There’s not a lot of it, but there’s more than there was.

FOX: You’ve talked about other people’s work. Who are some of your favorite poets to read?

OLDS: The people that I tend to immediately think of are the people about a generation older than I am. Stanley Kunitz, Gwendolyn Brooks, Muriel Rukeyser, and Ruth Stone—these are parents, parents of mine. Going further back, I’ve been reading some Arabic women poets from the 7th century, beautiful, touching, strong—funny! And I was looking at John Donne’s “Elegy to His Mistress on Going to Bed.” I felt better sharing with Mr. Donne a desire to write about sexual love. It’s hard to do and it’s easy to do it badly, and I certainly trip up in that regard, but I felt very at home reading that poem of his. I’ve always loved the metaphysical poets. And then I was reading some Navajo religious chants, we call them poems, they’re not poems in the same way that maybe Donne’s poems are—I don’t even think in the same way Herbert’s are—well, getting too close to ideas there. [Fox laughs loudly]

FOX: When did you start writing?

OLDS: My first poem, I am proud to say, is inscribed in stone on the main Post Office here in New York City. When I heard that people wrote poems, I didn’t know that you had to make them up. I thought you just wrote them down, so my poem went, “Nor rain nor snow nor sleet nor gloom of night delays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” But then I was told that you couldn’t say you had written a poem unless you had invented it as well as written it out. Then I wrote some fiction, from about ten or eleven through high school, and lots of poems, and then there was college, poems and stories, and then there was a period of ten years where I was trying to write like George Oppen. I do love grammar, but I don’t have any ability to be abstract, and yet that is who I wanted to write like, Oppen and Gary Snyder. And then when I was 30 I started just writing my own stuff. What were you saying before, Alan, what was the question—I got away from it.

FOX: It was when you first started writing.

OLDS: Right, when I first started writing. So, actually, at 7 I started copying other people’s stuff and then at 30 I stopped copying. There are all those writers in the half generation above mine who started to write about children and family. It was clearly what part of the landscape, part of what could be done. I didn’t know how recently that had arrived, because I’d read Whitman and Dickinson, and it seemed poetry had always been very personal, intimate.

FOX: Is poetry for you a means of being intimate with others?

OLDS: Huh, I never thought of that. Probably, yeah, yeah. But it doesn’t really feel like a means, it feels like a great place that we go to, that we visit. I know that probably that place is in the human soul, it must be, but I think of things, I tend to think of things in outward terms, so to me it’s like a safe house for the whole world, for anyone writing now or whoever wrote or ever will, anywhere. And then all of us can go there and read what they’ve written. So I tend to think of it like a holy place, secular / holy, profane / holy, but definitely a place of creation, not destruction, and so it’s a little almost too big to be a means? In a certain way, but I’m sure it’s true, that one of my loves of it is that it isn’t just about trying to build a little edifice that won’t be full, where the floors will hold, the doors will close to the jambs. A few people, Liz Brooks, Seamus Heaney, for people who make poems that ring like bells, every board is true. Then there’s a lot of poems with more rough edges. In a way there’s a truth to rough edges, also. It isn’t only the wish to make something, to create something, but it’s a gift that you want to give someone, true. You don’t really think about that while you’re making it, but surely that’s one of its great beauties. It’s a social art, we’re a social species, poor us, God help us. [Fox laughs] You know, you wouldn’t know it, but you would, because social means murder and passion and the whole thing, unfortunately.

FOX: Yes, they’re all there.

OLDS: ghuuuuuh [harsh expulsion of breath] How do you do that noise? [repeats sound several times] Growl. [both laugh] [transcriptionist tears out handfuls of hair]

FOX: What pushed you toward poetry as opposed to fiction or some other kind of writing?

OLDS: Oh, my fiction was such trash. I mean, my poetry has its trashy side, but my fiction was, it was just lying. It was lying. It was, oh, there would be a heroine in a story who would receive much anguish, discomfort, and somehow in the end would either triumph or die. It would all be very, oooh. But I found that when I got to poetry the line and the line breaks and the rhythm, the mixture of troches and iambs and anapests and dactyls, the big mix, but a lot of trochees, I don’t mean I tried to write in trochees, just if I look I see that I’m doing that. There was something almost a moral force that form and craft in poetry exerted so I was less inclined to bullshit. Was it that I was afraid? Something was slowing me down and also I can’t make anything up. I don’t have any imagination. Not that I’m saying that my work is autobiographical, of course, I’m not saying that. Why would I ever say that? ’Cause I’ve never said that. [Fox laughs continually through this statement] But there are people with imagination. I know a bunch of fiction writers and it just astonishes me. And of course, many, many, many, many poets are extremely inventive and imaginative, most, but I couldn’t do that. It just showed what I was trying to do. Also the description or the adjectives, I deeply did not understand the form, profoundly didn’t understand fiction. When you read it, you go into that world, oh, it’s terrifying, actually, it’s very frightening. Like, I’m in the middle of Desperate Characters and the cat bite is getting worse and worse and worse and I’m partly anxious because of that. Sophie’s cat bite in Paula Fox’s novel is swelling as the novel goes on. I’m halfway through and, is she going to die? I mean, I’m longing for her to get some penicillin. The rabies shots, I don’t know. It’s as if my best friend is sick. It’s not really as if my best friend is sick, it’s really much less than that, but it’s very, very powerful. What was I trying to talk about?

FOX: Actually, we were talking about when you first started writing …

OLDS: … write fiction, right. Can’t do it. Can’t do it.

FOX: So it sounds to me like what’s you’re saying is that as a writer you’ve stuck with sharing your personal truths rather than making stuff up or inventing…

OLDS: Well, I don’t dare say that because I believe so passionately in invention, and I’m always, since I’m always using this word truth, I always want to say, whether I’m at NYU or at Goldwater Hospital or visiting a high school, that we can lie all we want in our art. I love the imagination. I love it. It comes to me in metaphor, so I don’t know how I could put that—Ah! I could say that one of the things I love best about poetry is that it has the sentence, not all of it does, some of it does, mine does, what I’m used to does, it has the sentence, and it has the lie. Oh! So it has in the air, a shapely stopping and starting that is not water flowing into the channel that is a set channel. It’s water gurgling over ground that is dry and wet and porous and not making it some shape, and that is precious to me a lot because of dance, because I love to dance. And so it makes a shape on the page like a body, to me, an amoeba’s body or who knows whose body, but that mirror of an irregular shape that I see when I see a poem on the page, or mirror of regular shape, Brandenburg Concerto shape, that kind of, whuuu, excitement within stringent beautiful laws. So maybe that was my thing about fiction, maybe the line controlled me away from being a big liar. I was a big liar as a kid. And I quit lying when I was, I forget when, eighteen, I think. I think I quit lying when I was eighteen. Also I write in formal stanzas of four-beat lines in four-line quatrains, however disguised this is, however little I knew I was doing it until a few years ago. That is the rhythm of the church hymns that I grew up with in the fundamentalist; there are very few fundamentalist Episcopalian churches. [both laugh] I don’t quite know how it worked. I think it was a combination of what was said in church and how it was interpreted at home. So being a formal writer, I didn’t think I was, but I turned out to be, I didn’t want to be, I am. And having it be the church’s form, maybe that’s that moral force, fear of hell, that the liar feels when writing that helps me try to be accurate. At least it works, don’t you think? [laughing] I’m just making that up. I never thought of that. I have no idea if that has a grain of truth in it. I think it has a grain, but I’m not sure if it has two grains.

FOX: Why did you decide at 18 to stop lying?

Like everyone else, I’m in kind of a state of constant prayer, now. Oh, what’s going to happen to the earth, and its people?

OLDS: Because one night when I was going to sleep I was remembering something, and I suddenly thought, did that happen or did I just wish it had happened? And it scared, what is the bejesus? What form does the bejesus take? Does the bejesus wear a long white robe? It scared somethin’ out of me. It truly frightened me. The way drugs frighten me. I was taking something something, oh, God, so young, my brain not even formed, and I wasn’t able to write. I couldn’t write my name for like about a week. So I quit lying at eighteen, and I quit drugs around the same time. Not that I’d been doing a lot of them, but in the place where I was and in those days, it was not unusual for us idiots to be destroying our brains left and right. And I don’t want to not be able to write a sentence. And I don’t want to not know whether something actually happened to me or I just thought it happened. I want to be able to speak and understand at least one language. American English is such a great language.

FOX: Yes, yes.

OLDS: Ain’t it a beauty.

FOX: Absolutely, yes. Do you find any gender differences in the writing of poetry?

OLDS: That’s so interesting. It’s so hard to tell. There’s so many genders, first of all. And then there’s so many other circumstances that are leaning on all the various genders in one way or another. How would we know? Do you have any instinct about that? Do you think that it is or isn’t a powerful factor in craft and tone and all kind of things like that, besides subject?

FOX: Well, I believe there’s an essential difference between the male energy and the female energy. However, I also believe that females can carry a lot of male energy or males can carry a lot of female energy. The male is more striving toward stuff and the female to me is more gathering in somehow, nurturing.

OLDS: Hmm. It’s so interesting to think about that in terms of poems. I guess that I would be 50/50 male and female as a poet. That drive. So then I wonder is it human drive that in some women predominates and some men, see now, there are women who are born men. I just can’t keep up with it. I think there’s a bisexual, I’m saying human bisexual. I would have to say, looking at my writing and at how I feel about it, that I feel like 50/50, in terms of the definition in that way. I guess I’m more—I feel I’m on slightly more secure ground to think about human drive and human gathering, since we’re going to find guys with more gathering, gals with more drive. And then we’re going just find people in whom it is so mysterious, we just have to bow down and kiss the earth. We don’t know what else to do with ourselves.

FOX: Do you have any clue as to how your work might change in the future, for the rest of your career or life?

OLDS: Well, is this wood? [knocking sound] Yeah. [Fox laughs] Like everyone else, I’m in kind of a state of constant prayer, now. Oh, what’s going to happen to the earth, and its people? I know that when I started at Goldwater Hospital and there were people who could not move and could not speak, the possibility of writing poems with them, learning the methods, eyes up for yes, to spell out letter by letter the words for the first line of a poem, I want that for more people all over the earth. It’s funny, I couldn’t be more in love with New York City, I couldn’t. I was in love with it from the first moment I heard of it, and I love it with a huge tender love, as we all do, but I’ve become like a citizen of the earth much more than before. At the same time, I love my precious town, village, the neighborhood, the neighborhood. And all the unfairness here, all the kids in the city who can’t write their poems, mmph. So I tend to want more people to be able to write more poems, that’s kind of—I totally forget the question.

FOX: That’s okay. How would you encourage more people to write poems?

OLDS: I would think that if each of us who’s sending out poems spends as much as time on some neighborhood project with poetry as we’re spending on sending out our poems. I think every poet is a potential, many, many poets are potential teachers and just teachers in the sense of keeping company with other people who would like to write poems. And not going about receiving those poems with mostly a critical air, but with mostly a joyous air. I know a lot of poets think so differently about this, but this is how I think, this is how I feel about it. Any hospital, any prison, any grammar school, any high school, any hospice, any ward. NYU now has a writing program on a children’s cancer ward in a hospital, an oncological ward, and a lot of the kids don’t make it. They write poems with their parents, and our graduate writing students are the teachers there. At a women’s prison, at a high school for the, what do you call them, challenged by being gifted, at the hospital. I was just crazy when I was New York State Poet Laureate for those two years, crazy to try to set up a national program of every creative writing program being given bunches of money to have outreach programs. Now a lot of the programs wouldn’t want that because they don’t believe that poetry is some kind of birthright that everybody out to have the chance at. And I respect these varying views of our arts, because I don’t know what it is. I just know what my feeling is about, what I would like to help do with it. So I guess those are the things I think of, that kind of grass roots, and any one of us who has ever been in any group where poems were being shared could go start another such group. That’s what I think. And then look at this, Michael Bodker’s poem here in the deli window, here’s a poem, “you are as sweet as a hart / we have met your soll / you are very nice.”

FOX: That’s great, and that’s a good place to stop.

from Rattle #17, Summer 2002