This article was originally published at BrazosBookstore.com on 11/8/16
It’s hard to intimidate me. But give the universe a dare, and it will call your bluff. This past week, I drove Andrés Neuman to the airport and spoke on the phone with Sharon Olds. Can anxiety be measured? In my car, the memory of Neuman digging in his fanny pack for his glasses to help with directions; at the bookstore, hiding behind a case pack of alkaline water in the back office while the line connects Texas to New York.
If there is a living poet canon, Olds has always been on that list for me. Not because she herself demands it, but because the people who read her talk about her work the way I babble about The Swell Season.
Earlier this year, I made a pact with WHISPER HOLLOW author Chris Cander: I would read STAG’S LEAP if she would read MY FEELINGS by Nick Flynn. (We were sold out of SOME ETHER at the time.) Before this, the only poem I’d ever read by Olds was “Crazy,” as part of a poetry anthology assigned in my freshman year poetry workshop.
I read STAG’S LEAP in one night and cried for hours. Months later, when the phone interview with Olds was finalized, I imagined it would be like my fantasy of seeing Amy Hempel read in person. I would stand there in silence then leave afterward without meeting her because I would have nothing good to say. Alas—walking away is more difficult on the telephone.
When she answers, Olds says, “Hello, this is Sharon Olds,” and she is so chipper that all I can do is laugh. “How are you?” she says, and I confess I’m nervous. I’m nervous, and I can’t even see her. Then it’s her turn to laugh at me, and what she says is “Oh, you should see me. I’m sitting here in ten year old pajamas, full of holes.” She says, “I’m just a person, like you,” and I don’t know how to tell her that is exactly the thing that scares me, not her CV. It’s that she is a person I could meet at the grocery store, and not have any idea the talent she contains.
For those who don’t know, STAG’S LEAP illustrates the death of a thirty year marriage. Olds shows the marriage and the undoing, from talking about his affair to him telling her that he has since married his (now former) mistress. Olds does not pretend, at any point, even in the epilogue when she sees her ex-husband and he tells her the news and she does not hate him. They agree that it was not the other woman but a slow split at the root, a slow tear until a back broke.
Still, I don’t think I could write another book after that—at least not one that I would want to publish. What else is there to say, after? Olds, though, says that by the time STAG’S LEAP had been published, “half the poems or three quarters of the poems in ODES had already been written.”
ODES, published in September this year (four years after STAG’S LEAP), is just that, odes on everything from her sister to her whiteness, from tampons to the penis. In other words, the opposite of STAG’S LEAP, but is it a joke?
“The way it works for me, which is not the way it works for every poet, is that I don’t write books,” Olds says, “I write poems.” She writes them all in “a grocery store notebook” with a ballpoint pen, wide lines. She writes them all out, one at a time, by hand because ink is “not percussive like hitting piano keys, like typing is,” and “my thumbs are too big to dance on that little screen, on my phone.”
After five years, give or take, she goes through the “collection” she’s created, to see if it is enough or if any threads emerge. During the writing process, she might type some of them up, but not all of them, and even that step is more of a thinking-through. The transition from page to screen is not just transcription, but an editing process.
“Once I type it up, I change it for the better, I hope,” she says. In the case of STAG’S LEAP, she “tried to rewrite each one to get it right.” When arranged in chronological order of events, the poems told a story, and that story became the book.
“I write poems,” she says. “That’s what I do.”
We talk for a minute about her teaching, but after that, she wants to know if there’s anything else I’d like to ask about, any subject. And it’s hard because I do have one question, but it’s not one I think is smart or even fair to ask. It’s a question I have for her not as a faux journalist or fellow poet but as a human being. Olds waves her hand at me with her voice and says that I am free to ask her anything; it’s her choice whether or not she would like to answer.
Again, I did not think that this moment would ever materialize so when it does, the words come out like a postcard she might receive from an elementary school student: “Are you still sad?” She pauses for a moment, intrigued that I think of STAG’S LEAP as a sad book, then offers this: “It seems to me that each of us in a lifetime has some real mourning to do.”
Already, she goes on to say, “Children have things to mourn!” but I am so moved by her first answer, this idea that grief is not a punishment but a task that each of us completes, a thing that no one escapes. Somehow, it makes it smaller and larger, at the same time. “Citizens of this country are in a time of fear and mourning,” she says, “and fear of future mourning.”
If STAG’S LEAP has a thesis, it is this: “Sadness and anger are just as important as joy and happiness.” When she says it, it’s so simple, and not a concept that I think anyone would dispute, but Olds wrote it out regardless, in a book that is not meek, maudlin, or morose. It captures a time, this ugly awful time, and paints it as just that: layered. It says, “You are allowed,” the way that Olds says to me now despite the distance between us, in years and miles.
For ODES, Olds says, “There isn’t a test. There isn’t a correct amount of humor to respond to.” Instead, “it’s meant to be a gift.” Not a free one, of course—“that’s how I can afford to pay my rent,” she says—but “what I care about is that you have whatever experience is right for you about the book. We want each other to get whatever each of us can get out of what we give each other in a work of art.”
I was promised fifteen minutes with Olds but she gave me twenty. Before I had even dialed the number, I knew that her other callers slated for her afternoon may well be The New Yorker or The Atlantic, somewhere—someone—more worthy. However, she uses our last minute to ask if there is one more, anything else that I would regret not saying if she were to hang up now, and that kindness and generosity is so pure that I can only say no and thank her for taking the time that she did. She says she is looking forward to meeting me, we say goodbye, and here come the tears.