Sharon Olds

The poet talks about breathing, the Pope's penis, and the necessity of getting out of art's way.


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Dwight Garner
July 1, 1996 7:00pm (UTC)

Domesticity, death, erotic love -- the stark simplicity of Sharon
Olds' subjects, and of her plain-spoken language, can sometimes make her
seem like the brooding Earth Mother of American poetry. ("I have learned to
get pleasure," Olds wrote in her last book, "from speaking of pain.") In
photographs she tends to look somewhat dark and remote, too; there's a
sense of brewing drama. She seems a natural heir to such melancholy talents as Ann Sexton and Sylvia Plath.
It's a happy surprise, then, to discover that the 54-year-old Olds is anything but withdrawn and more-serious-than-thou. In
fact, she comes across as a bundle of nervous energy, slightly neurotic,
a bit like an intellectual Julie Haggerty. It's the end of the
semester at New York University, where Olds has taught in the Graduate
Creative Writing Program for the last 12 years, and the atmosphere
outside her small office is chaotic. Olds herself arrives a few minutes
late, looking slightly harried, and apologizes profusely while pulling two
paper cups of tea from a brown bag -- one for herself, one for a visitor.
It's hard to blame her for seeming a little breathless. In addition to
her multiple duties at NYU, Olds runs the poetry workshop she founded in
1984 at New York's Goldwater Hospital for the severely disabled, and she
reads at numerous speaking engagements. What's more, she claims to have
such a backlog of poetry that when she does find the time to issue a new
book -- such as "The Wellspring" (Knopf), published earlier this year -- it
is generally made up of work written more than a decade earlier.
Born in San Francisco and educated at Stanford and Columbia, Olds
arrived as a poet somewhat late: her first collection, "Satan Says," was
published when she was 37. Over the course of five books, however, she has
quickly become one of America's most highly regarded poets; her readings
attract overflow audiences, and her volume "The Dead and the Living" won
the 1983 National Book Critics Circle Award.
Olds' new book, which follows on the heels of "The Father" (1992), a
harrowing series of poems about the death of the narrator's alcoholic
father, is comprised largely of poems on somewhat more accessible themes --
family life, parenthood, romantic love. But as Olds' many readers have
learned over the years, her work's apparent simplicity can't hide the
scalding honesty of her observations. As Michael Ondaatje put it recently,
her poems "are pure fire in the hands." Like each of her previous books,
"The Wellspring" leaves an emotional afterburn.
Olds spoke with Salon for nearly two hours, on topics ranging from
poetic inspiration and bad reviews to the problem with reading the morning's
New York Times.

Read "My Son the Man" from "The Wellspring"

Read "My Son the Man" from "The Wellspring"

Thanks for the tea. Which reminds me that I once read somewhere that
you don't smoke or drink coffee, and that you consume very little alcohol.
Why is that?

Well, one thing I'm really interested in, when I'm writing, is being
accurate. If I am trying to describe something, I'd like to be able to get
it right. Of course, what's "right" is different for every person.
Sometimes what's accurate might be kind of mysterious. So I don't just mean
mathematically accurate. But to get it right according to my vision. I
think this is true for all artists. My senses are very important to me. I
want to be able to describe accurately what I see and hear and smell. And
what they say about those things not being good for one's longevity makes
an impression on me also. So I did quit coffee and I did quit smoking. But
I haven't managed that with drinking!
So many poets are associated with alcohol and other kinds of
excess.

There are some fine books and essays about that. Lewis Hyde has
written about alcoholism and poets and the role that society gives its
writers -- encouraging them to die [laughs]. And Donald Hall has wonderful,
sobering stories about many of these poets. But I don't think anyone
believes anymore that drugs and alcohol are good for writing, do they? I'm
probably so out of it at my age that I don't know what people think. But I
think that exercise and as much good health as one can enjoy is the best
thing for writing.
I was even more surprised to read that you don't take a newspaper or
watch television.

It's true, but it's kind of a different issue. At one point I took on
a new job, and I just didn't have time to do anything but work. [Olds was
the Director of the Graduate Creative Writing Program at NYU from 1989-91.]
So I figured that for a year, just for the first
year of this job, I would not watch TV, I wouldn't read a newspaper, I
wouldn't read a book, I wouldn't go hear any music, I wouldn't do any of
that kind of thing. Just so I'd have enough time. I was very afraid that I
wouldn't be able to do this job well. And the time never came back. But
there are problems connected with this -- with keeping informed about
what's happening in the world. So I try to look at the front page whenever
I'm walking by a newsstand. And people talk about what's happening, so I
get a certain amount of information that way. It might be a bad thing, not
to know what's going on in the world. I can't say I really approve of it.
Is this paring down an attempt to get back to basic things, in your
life as well as your work?

I'm not sure that the benefit -- as a writer and as a citizen -- that
I would get from reading at least the front page of the Times every day or
every other day would outweigh the depression. Learning about so many
things that we can't do anything about. The amount of horror one used to
hear about in one village could be quite extreme. But one might not have
heard about all the other villages' horrors at the same time. I just don't
have a big mind, I don't have a big picture, I am very limited.
Yet didn't some of your earlier, somewhat political poems take their
inspiration from things you'd read in newspapers?

Yes, and they still do. I wish I wrote more about the world at more
distance from myself. I think that for any of us to be able to imagine
another person's life, if we could do that really well, would be wonderful.
There is only one in "The Wellspring," your new book. It's a poem
titled "Japanese-American Farmhouse, California, 1942."

Well, "The Wellspring" was written from 1983 to 1986. And it had a
section in the beginning that was poems that began from others'
experience. But the book just insisted on having this more domestic shape
-- against my wishful thinking.
I didn't realize that the "new" poems were so old.
That's why I didn't have time to go to the movies and read the paper
and drink coffee [laughs] -- because I'm very far behind in terms of
putting books together.
Can you put this new book into place for me, then, in terms of your
chronology?

"The Gold Cell" was published in 1987, and the poems in it were
written in 1980, 1981 and 1982. Half of "The Father" [published in 1992]
was written in '83 and '84. The second half was composed of one or two
poems each from 1984, '85, '86, '87, '88, '89. So for "The Wellspring" I
went back to where "The Gold Cell" left off, which was work written through
1982. So "The Wellspring" goes through 1986. The book I'm working on now
will be made of poems written in '87, '88 and '89. The next one will be
from 1990, '91 and '92.
I find that fascinating. Do many poets work that way?
I don't think so. I got behind in putting books together.
How hard is putting a book together? It would seem like the hard
part would be writing the poems in the first place.

Well, you just need time. When I quit all these things and said I
didn't have any time, I meant I didn't have any time. So the teaching,
the writing of first drafts, the traveling, the reading, and whatever else
might be in the life -- that was all I had time for. I didn't have time to
sit down and look at the work of a year and choose what to type. And then
choose, among what gets typed, what to work on. And then among what's
worked on what to keep working on until lots of poems become just the
ones that seem the best. Or the least worst!
Why do you keep yourself so busy with things that don't pertain
directly to writing? Is it because you love these other jobs, or is it
because you've had to take them?

It's a combination of both. The teaching is very rewarding, and very
time-consuming, and very exhausting. But it's wonderful. The community here
at NYU is very precious to me. And the traveling and reading is rewarding
in a different way, and it's an honor to be asked. It's hard to say no,
when one is asked.
People who know your work well might be surprised to know that you
have such a vigorous public life. Because your work is very focused and
often kind of quiet. It's hard to imagine the narrator of one of your poems
fending off multiple phone calls.

But don't you think that every single one of us is leading a harried
life? We're all taking on too much, we're all asking too much of ourselves.
We're all wishing we could do more, and therefore just doing more. So I
don't think my life is different from anybody else's. Every poet I know --
although there may be some I don't know who lead very different lives, who
maybe live in the country and don't teach -- tends to be just like the rest
of us: just really busy, really overcommitted. We wouldn't necessarily see
it in their poems. Because a poem is not written while running or while
answering the phone. It's written in whatever minutes one has. Sometimes
you have half an hour.
Can you write a poem in half an hour?
Forty-five minutes is much better [laughs]. Many, many poets whose
work I love, they take longer than I do to write a first draft. In a way,
it doesn't matter how long it takes, if we can each just find the right way
to do it. Everyone is so different. I sometimes wish I wrote in a different
way. You know, that feeling of: So-and-so writes slowly, if only I wrote
slowly. But it's just the way I work. I feel a very strong wish, when a
poem does come to me, to write it and get to the end of it.
So you don't sit down every morning at 9 a.m. and say: Now I'm going
to write a poem.

No. I don't know if there are many poets who do that. I think that
there are fiction writers for whom that works well. I could never do it. I
feel as if, by the time I see that it's a poem, it's almost written in my
head somewhere. It's as if there's someone inside of me who perceives order
and beauty -- and disorder. And who wants to make little copies. Who wants
to put together something that will bear some relationship to the vision or
memory or experience or story or idea or dream or whatever. Whatever starts
things out.
What did you mean when you once said that your poetry comes out of
your lungs?

[Laughs] Well, you know, it's curious where different people think
their mind is. I guess a lot of people believe that their mind is in their
brain, in their head. To me, the mind seems to be spread out in the whole
body -- the senses are part of the brain. I guess they're not where the
thinking is done. But poetry is so physical, the music of it and the
movement of thought. Maybe we can use a metaphor for it, out of dance. I
think for many years I was aware of the need, in dance and in life, to
breathe deeply and to take in more air than we usually take in. I find a
tendency in myself not to breathe very much. And certainly I have noticed,
over the years, when dancing or when running, that ideas will come to my
mind with the oxygen. Suddenly you're remembering something that you
haven't thought of for years.
Your last book, "The Father," was an unflinching account of your
father's -- or at least the narrator's father's -- death from cancer. Your
new book deals with more domestic themes, and while it's not lightweight,
it doesn't have that sense of darkness that hung over "The Father." Did you
find that writing these poems was refreshing, a kind of release?

The decision for me was whether to have "The Father" be a book that
told a story -- from the point of view of this speaker, the daughter --
without, as in the earlier books, then having a section on something else
and a section on something else. At first I thought it would not be a good
idea to have a book all on one theme. I also didn't know if I had enough
poems on the subject that I liked well enough to make a book of them. But
it turned out that I did. And it just seemed true to make a story that was
all of itself. It pleased me to do so, and it still does. I've never had
regrets that I went that way with "The Father." The fact that there was a
lot of anger and sorrow and a sense of connection to destructive feelings
in "The Father" doesn't bother me. For me, the subject kind of makes its
demands. And I don't write books. I just write poems. And then I put
together books. Many poets write books. They'll tell you: Well, I've got my
next book, but there are two poems I need to write, one about x, one about
y. This is a wonder to me. But I think in another way I am like these
poets: we like to get in the art's way as little as possible.
That's an interesting phrase, not getting in art's way. Is that why
you write your poems in a style that's somewhat accessible?

I think that it's a little different from that for me. I think that
my work is easy to understand because I am not a thinker, I am not a ....
How can I put it? I write the way I perceive, I guess. It's not really
simple, I don't think, but it's about ordinary things -- feeling about
things, about people. I'm not an intellectual, I'm not an abstract thinker.
And I'm interested in ordinary life. So I think that our writing reflects
us.
I was recently reading in Des Moines with Yusef Komunyakaa and Philip
Levine. You listen to them and you're hearing a world-view, a body-view,
you're hearing a spirit of a person, and mind, and heart, and soul. Their
work is completely distinctive; you know you're hearing a Komunyakaa poem
immediately. And I don't think they are trying to sound one way or another
-- it doesn't seem to me to be something that comes from a conscious
decision. Their spirits and their visions are embodied in their craft. And
so is mine. It's not Jane Saw Puff. But the clarity of Jane Saw Puff is
precious to me. What was the other part of your question?
Well, I was wondering what you meant about not getting in art's way.
There are some things that have to do with art that we can't control.
This creature of the poem may assemble itself into a being with its own
centrifugal force. That's what I'm thinking about when I'm trying to get
out of art's way. Not trying to look good, if a poem's about me. Not trying
to look bad. Not asking a poem to carry a lot of rocks in its pockets. But
just being an ordinary observer and liver and feeler and letting the
experience get through you onto the notebook with the pen, through the arm,
out of the body, onto the page, without distortion. And there are so many
ways I could distort. If I wrote in a sonnet form, I would be distorting.
Or if I had some great new idea for line breaks and I used it in a poem,
but it's really not right for that poem, but I wanted it, that would be
distorting. It's kind of like ego in a way, egotism or narcissism. Where
the self is too active.
Your poems often seem, on the surface anyway, somewhat more
autobiographical than most -- not that the "I" in your work is necessarily
you. Do people try to read your life into them?

I don't know if it would feel accurate to me to say that I put myself
into my poems. I don't know if that would describe what was happening in a
poem that I wrote and that I liked. Someone is seeing, someone is thinking,
dreaming, wondering, and remembering, in everybody's poems. Whether there's
a speaker that has an explicit "I" or not, there is some kind of self or
spirit or personality. We think of Lucille Clifton's poems, and they don't
have to have an "I" in them for the spirit of the poet, a person, to be
felt. I wouldn't say she was putting herself in, but the qualities of her
being come through. She's not leaving herself, her wisdom and experience
and music out. That's partly what craft is, I think. The body of the poem
is the spirit of the poem. But I do sometimes make an effort to use the
word "I" as little as possible. I would not have chosen to have that word
appear so much in my poems. My poems -- I don't even like the sound of
that, in a way. Not that anyone else wrote them. But we know that only
people who are really close to us care about our personal experience. Art
is something else. It has something to do with wanting to be accurate about
what we think and feel. To me the difference between the paper world and
the flesh world is so great that I don't think we could put ourselves in
our poems even if we wanted to.
Do you ever wonder what one of your children will think when he or
she reads one of your poems that might be, at least in some small way,
about them? Or do you wonder about what insight they will have into their
mother's life through your work?

It's a wonderful question, and it's not one I can answer, really. Ten
years ago I made a vow not to talk about my life. Obviously, the apparently
very personal nature of my writing made this seem to me like maybe a good
idea, for both sides of the equation -- both for the muses and for the
writer. But it's a wonderful and important question. I think the thing
that's most important to me about it is this idea that every writer has to
decide these things for themselves, and we learn by making mistakes. We
learn by finding out, five years later, what we wish we hadn't done. I've
worked out this thing I've called "the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal."
Which is also the spectrum of silence and song. And at either end, we're in
a dangerous state, either to the self, or to others. We all try to fall in
the right place in the middle.
As accessible as your poetry can seem to be, there also seems to be
an almost brutally direct emotional quality sometimes. There are some tough
images.

I think that I am slowly improving in my ability to not be too
melodramatic, to help the images have the right tenor. My first book came
out when I was 37, so when I was finally able to speak as a writer my wish
to not be silent was, in my early work, extreme. It's like someone, in
baseball, who thinks that the ball is being thrown by a very strong arm
from the outfield, and so she can't just land on home, she has to try to
run way past it, practically into the dugout. Reading some of my earlier
work, I get that sense of the need for too big a head of steam to be built
up. It seems extreme to me at times, some of the imagery. That's part of
why I'm not so sorry I'm a little behind in putting books together, because
some of those rather crude images I can now maybe correct. It also might be
that maybe I've used an image that is too mild, and I'll correct in the
other direction. I don't want to imply that it's always going the other
way. But my tendency was to be a little over the mark. And so I just really
love now the possibility of getting it right.
Your new book contains several poems that are quite realistic in
terms of their descriptions of sex. Is it difficult writing poetry about
sex, not to fall into language that might seem cliched?

I don't think that sex has been written about a lot in poetry. And I
want to be able to write about any subject. There is a failure rate --
there are subjects that are probably a lot harder to write about than
others. I think that love is almost the hardest thing to write about. Not a
general state of being in love, but a particular love for a particular
person. Just one's taste for that one. And if you look at all the love
poetry in our tradition, there isn't much that helps us know why that one.
I'm just interested in human stuff like hate, love, sexual love and sex. I
don't see why not. It just seems to me if writers can assemble, in
language, something that bears any relation to experience -- especially
important experience, experience we care about, moving and powerful
experience -- then it is worth trying. The opportunities for offense and
failure are always aplenty. They lie all around us.
Your poetry isn't necessarily known for its comic aspects. But I'm
wondering about your wonderful poem "The Pope's Penis," from "The Gold
Cell," where that came from and if it has proven controversial.

Life has a lot of sorrow in it, but also has a lot of funny things in
it, so it makes sense to me to have that range. So many poets whose work I
love are funny now and then. We're just funny creatures, human beings. But
that particular poem -- I am careful where I read it, not wishing to give
maximum offense. It's a poem I didn't get for a long time. I didn't ask
myself: Why do you feel okay about teasing this stranger? Why do you think
that's okay? I was just so startled when I noticed that this particular
Pope was also a man. And I thought: Well, that means .... [trails off]. And
I just began musing on The Other, in a way.
And I wasn't thinking, "I must
not write anything about a religion that is not mine because I have no
business doing so." I'm sure there are a lot of people who feel that way,
that we can write well only about what we deeply know and have known all
our lives -- that we can't write about very different experiences. I don't
think that's necessarily always true. I grew up in what I now call a
hellfire Episcopalian religion -- I think that phrase communicates the
atmosphere -- and I didn't feel light years away from understanding the
male hierarchy of power leading up toward the male God. But I didn't
understand, until years later, that this poem was kind of a return gesture.
This man, the Pope, seemed to feel that he knew a lot about women and could
make decisions for us -- various decisions about whether we could be
priests or not, and who would decide whether we could have an abortion or
not. He had crossed our line so far -- this is according to my outsider's
point of view -- that hey, what's a little flirtatious poem that went
across his line somewhat?
It looks like a young poem now. It mixes its
metaphors. So I don't tend to read that poem, but I don't wish I hadn't
written it. I don't want to take it out of the book. And unlike maybe three
other poems in that book that I've rewritten -- in the latest printing they
are different from what they were -- it's okay enough for me that I don't
feel like I have to, or could, rewrite it. If I tried to fix the images it
would just fall apart.
Many of the poems in your new book, certainly unlike that poem about
the Pope's penis, take their inspiration from very simple domestic things
-- a kid blowing bubbles in milk, a pair of blue jeans, a sick child.

Why is it, do you suppose, that you have two people in two different
apartments, and they are surrounded by all the same stuff, and one of them
will write about blue jeans and bubbles in milk, and the other will write
about something less ordinary, or something with more ideas connected to
it? How we perceive is just very different.
You published your first book of poems somewhat late, at 37. Can you
tell me a bit about why that was?

That sure seemed old then, and it sure seems young to me now. It
seemed old because I knew of all these amazing people who had done amazing
work in their 20s. Of course, anyone who ever can do anything is lucky. It
means that there has been enough education, enough peace, enough time,
enough whatever, that somebody can sit down and write. Many lives don't
allow that, the good fortune of being able to work at it, and try, and keep
trying.
Can you imagine your life if you hadn't become a writer? Do you feel
lucky?

No, I certainly can't imagine my life not being a writer. Lucky?
Um-hmm. It's hard to believe -- it's like this is a dream. I need to write,
and I need to write a lot. And I've been very lucky to be able to make the
time, have the time given me, depending on what stage of my life I'm
thinking of. Yes, luck. Luck. "Sometimes a crumb falls/ From the tables of
joy,/ Sometimes a bone/ Is flung./ To some people/ Love is given,/ To
others/ Only heaven." That's Langston Hughes' poem "Luck." It's one of the
poems on the subways.
Have you ever learned anything from a review of your work?
Oh sure. Sometimes I feel like warning signs are thrown up. As long
as one doesn't get too discouraged.
I haven't seen many -- or any, actually -- negative reviews of your
work. Maybe it's because I see so few poetry reviews. But do bad ones get
to you?

Yeah. Sure. I think there have been plenty of them [laughs]. You were
looking in a different direction. And they have differed a lot from each
other in their amount of thoughtfulness, their amount of bad feeling. But
we put our boat in the stream. By putting one's work out there, one is
asking to be considered as a part of the world. If the world feels very
powerfully that this work should not have been written, it will say so.
That seems quite fair. But then I think of the great things I have read,
great stuff describing other people's work that a critic likes or loves.
Criticism can be so enriching, it can add to the pleasure we take in the
poetry.

Domesticity, death, erotic love -- the stark simplicity of Sharon
Olds' subjects, and of her plain-spoken language, can sometimes make her
seem like the brooding Earth Mother of American poetry. ("I have learned to
get pleasure," Olds wrote in her last book, "from speaking of pain.") In
photographs she tends to look somewhat dark and remote, too; there's a
sense of brewing drama. She seems a natural heir to such melancholy talents as Ann Sexton and Sylvia Plath.
It's a happy surprise, then, to discover that the 54-year-old Olds is anything but withdrawn and more-serious-than-thou. In
fact, she comes across as a bundle of nervous energy, slightly neurotic,
a bit like an intellectual Julie Haggerty. It's the end of the
semester at New York University, where Olds has taught in the Graduate
Creative Writing Program for the last 12 years, and the atmosphere
outside her small office is chaotic. Olds herself arrives a few minutes
late, looking slightly harried, and apologizes profusely while pulling two
paper cups of tea from a brown bag -- one for herself, one for a visitor.
It's hard to blame her for seeming a little breathless. In addition to
her multiple duties at NYU, Olds runs the poetry workshop she founded in
1984 at New York's Goldwater Hospital for the severely disabled, and she
reads at numerous speaking engagements. What's more, she claims to have
such a backlog of poetry that when she does find the time to issue a new
book -- such as "The Wellspring" (Knopf), published earlier this year -- it
is generally made up of work written more than a decade earlier.
Born in San Francisco and educated at Stanford and Columbia, Olds
arrived as a poet somewhat late: her first collection, "Satan Says," was
published when she was 37. Over the course of five books, however, she has
quickly become one of America's most highly regarded poets; her readings
attract overflow audiences, and her volume "The Dead and the Living" won
the 1983 National Book Critics Circle Award.
Olds' new book, which follows on the heels of "The Father" (1992), a
harrowing series of poems about the death of the narrator's alcoholic
father, is comprised largely of poems on somewhat more accessible themes --
family life, parenthood, romantic love. But as Olds' many readers have
learned over the years, her work's apparent simplicity can't hide the
scalding honesty of her observations. As Michael Ondaatje put it recently,
her poems "are pure fire in the hands." Like each of her previous books,
"The Wellspring" leaves an emotional afterburn.
Olds spoke with Salon for nearly two hours, on topics ranging from
poetic inspiration and bad reviews to the problem with reading the morning's
New York Times.

Read "My Son the Man" from "The Wellspring"

Read "My Son the Man" from "The Wellspring"

Thanks for the tea. Which reminds me that I once read somewhere that
you don't smoke or drink coffee, and that you consume very little alcohol.
Why is that?

Well, one thing I'm really interested in, when I'm writing, is being
accurate. If I am trying to describe something, I'd like to be able to get
it right. Of course, what's "right" is different for every person.
Sometimes what's accurate might be kind of mysterious. So I don't just mean
mathematically accurate. But to get it right according to my vision. I
think this is true for all artists. My senses are very important to me. I
want to be able to describe accurately what I see and hear and smell. And
what they say about those things not being good for one's longevity makes
an impression on me also. So I did quit coffee and I did quit smoking. But
I haven't managed that with drinking!
So many poets are associated with alcohol and other kinds of
excess.

There are some fine books and essays about that. Lewis Hyde has
written about alcoholism and poets and the role that society gives its
writers -- encouraging them to die [laughs]. And Donald Hall has wonderful,
sobering stories about many of these poets. But I don't think anyone
believes anymore that drugs and alcohol are good for writing, do they? I'm
probably so out of it at my age that I don't know what people think. But I
think that exercise and as much good health as one can enjoy is the best
thing for writing.
I was even more surprised to read that you don't take a newspaper or
watch television.

It's true, but it's kind of a different issue. At one point I took on
a new job, and I just didn't have time to do anything but work. [Olds was
the Director of the Graduate Creative Writing Program at NYU from 1989-91.]
So I figured that for a year, just for the first
year of this job, I would not watch TV, I wouldn't read a newspaper, I
wouldn't read a book, I wouldn't go hear any music, I wouldn't do any of
that kind of thing. Just so I'd have enough time. I was very afraid that I
wouldn't be able to do this job well. And the time never came back. But
there are problems connected with this -- with keeping informed about
what's happening in the world. So I try to look at the front page whenever
I'm walking by a newsstand. And people talk about what's happening, so I
get a certain amount of information that way. It might be a bad thing, not
to know what's going on in the world. I can't say I really approve of it.
Is this paring down an attempt to get back to basic things, in your
life as well as your work?

I'm not sure that the benefit -- as a writer and as a citizen -- that
I would get from reading at least the front page of the Times every day or
every other day would outweigh the depression. Learning about so many
things that we can't do anything about. The amount of horror one used to
hear about in one village could be quite extreme. But one might not have
heard about all the other villages' horrors at the same time. I just don't
have a big mind, I don't have a big picture, I am very limited.
Yet didn't some of your earlier, somewhat political poems take their
inspiration from things you'd read in newspapers?

Yes, and they still do. I wish I wrote more about the world at more
distance from myself. I think that for any of us to be able to imagine
another person's life, if we could do that really well, would be wonderful.
There is only one in "The Wellspring," your new book. It's a poem
titled "Japanese-American Farmhouse, California, 1942."

Well, "The Wellspring" was written from 1983 to 1986. And it had a
section in the beginning that was poems that began from others'
experience. But the book just insisted on having this more domestic shape
-- against my wishful thinking.
I didn't realize that the "new" poems were so old.
That's why I didn't have time to go to the movies and read the paper
and drink coffee [laughs] -- because I'm very far behind in terms of
putting books together.
Can you put this new book into place for me, then, in terms of your
chronology?

"The Gold Cell" was published in 1987, and the poems in it were
written in 1980, 1981 and 1982. Half of "The Father" [published in 1992]
was written in '83 and '84. The second half was composed of one or two
poems each from 1984, '85, '86, '87, '88, '89. So for "The Wellspring" I
went back to where "The Gold Cell" left off, which was work written through
1982. So "The Wellspring" goes through 1986. The book I'm working on now
will be made of poems written in '87, '88 and '89. The next one will be
from 1990, '91 and '92.
I find that fascinating. Do many poets work that way?
I don't think so. I got behind in putting books together.
How hard is putting a book together? It would seem like the hard
part would be writing the poems in the first place.

Well, you just need time. When I quit all these things and said I
didn't have any time, I meant I didn't have any time. So the teaching,
the writing of first drafts, the traveling, the reading, and whatever else
might be in the life -- that was all I had time for. I didn't have time to
sit down and look at the work of a year and choose what to type. And then
choose, among what gets typed, what to work on. And then among what's
worked on what to keep working on until lots of poems become just the
ones that seem the best. Or the least worst!
Why do you keep yourself so busy with things that don't pertain
directly to writing? Is it because you love these other jobs, or is it
because you've had to take them?

It's a combination of both. The teaching is very rewarding, and very
time-consuming, and very exhausting. But it's wonderful. The community here
at NYU is very precious to me. And the traveling and reading is rewarding
in a different way, and it's an honor to be asked. It's hard to say no,
when one is asked.
People who know your work well might be surprised to know that you
have such a vigorous public life. Because your work is very focused and
often kind of quiet. It's hard to imagine the narrator of one of your poems
fending off multiple phone calls.

But don't you think that every single one of us is leading a harried
life? We're all taking on too much, we're all asking too much of ourselves.
We're all wishing we could do more, and therefore just doing more. So I
don't think my life is different from anybody else's. Every poet I know --
although there may be some I don't know who lead very different lives, who
maybe live in the country and don't teach -- tends to be just like the rest
of us: just really busy, really overcommitted. We wouldn't necessarily see
it in their poems. Because a poem is not written while running or while
answering the phone. It's written in whatever minutes one has. Sometimes
you have half an hour.
Can you write a poem in half an hour?
Forty-five minutes is much better [laughs]. Many, many poets whose
work I love, they take longer than I do to write a first draft. In a way,
it doesn't matter how long it takes, if we can each just find the right way
to do it. Everyone is so different. I sometimes wish I wrote in a different
way. You know, that feeling of: So-and-so writes slowly, if only I wrote
slowly. But it's just the way I work. I feel a very strong wish, when a
poem does come to me, to write it and get to the end of it.
So you don't sit down every morning at 9 a.m. and say: Now I'm going
to write a poem.

No. I don't know if there are many poets who do that. I think that
there are fiction writers for whom that works well. I could never do it. I
feel as if, by the time I see that it's a poem, it's almost written in my
head somewhere. It's as if there's someone inside of me who perceives order
and beauty -- and disorder. And who wants to make little copies. Who wants
to put together something that will bear some relationship to the vision or
memory or experience or story or idea or dream or whatever. Whatever starts
things out.
What did you mean when you once said that your poetry comes out of
your lungs?

[Laughs] Well, you know, it's curious where different people think
their mind is. I guess a lot of people believe that their mind is in their
brain, in their head. To me, the mind seems to be spread out in the whole
body -- the senses are part of the brain. I guess they're not where the
thinking is done. But poetry is so physical, the music of it and the
movement of thought. Maybe we can use a metaphor for it, out of dance. I
think for many years I was aware of the need, in dance and in life, to
breathe deeply and to take in more air than we usually take in. I find a
tendency in myself not to breathe very much. And certainly I have noticed,
over the years, when dancing or when running, that ideas will come to my
mind with the oxygen. Suddenly you're remembering something that you
haven't thought of for years.
Your last book, "The Father," was an unflinching account of your
father's -- or at least the narrator's father's -- death from cancer. Your
new book deals with more domestic themes, and while it's not lightweight,
it doesn't have that sense of darkness that hung over "The Father." Did you
find that writing these poems was refreshing, a kind of release?

The decision for me was whether to have "The Father" be a book that
told a story -- from the point of view of this speaker, the daughter --
without, as in the earlier books, then having a section on something else
and a section on something else. At first I thought it would not be a good
idea to have a book all on one theme. I also didn't know if I had enough
poems on the subject that I liked well enough to make a book of them. But
it turned out that I did. And it just seemed true to make a story that was
all of itself. It pleased me to do so, and it still does. I've never had
regrets that I went that way with "The Father." The fact that there was a
lot of anger and sorrow and a sense of connection to destructive feelings
in "The Father" doesn't bother me. For me, the subject kind of makes its
demands. And I don't write books. I just write poems. And then I put
together books. Many poets write books. They'll tell you: Well, I've got my
next book, but there are two poems I need to write, one about x, one about
y. This is a wonder to me. But I think in another way I am like these
poets: we like to get in the art's way as little as possible.
That's an interesting phrase, not getting in art's way. Is that why
you write your poems in a style that's somewhat accessible?

I think that it's a little different from that for me. I think that
my work is easy to understand because I am not a thinker, I am not a ....
How can I put it? I write the way I perceive, I guess. It's not really
simple, I don't think, but it's about ordinary things -- feeling about
things, about people. I'm not an intellectual, I'm not an abstract thinker.
And I'm interested in ordinary life. So I think that our writing reflects
us.
I was recently reading in Des Moines with Yusef Komunyakaa and Philip
Levine. You listen to them and you're hearing a world-view, a body-view,
you're hearing a spirit of a person, and mind, and heart, and soul. Their
work is completely distinctive; you know you're hearing a Komunyakaa poem
immediately. And I don't think they are trying to sound one way or another
-- it doesn't seem to me to be something that comes from a conscious
decision. Their spirits and their visions are embodied in their craft. And
so is mine. It's not Jane Saw Puff. But the clarity of Jane Saw Puff is
precious to me. What was the other part of your question?
Well, I was wondering what you meant about not getting in art's way.
There are some things that have to do with art that we can't control.
This creature of the poem may assemble itself into a being with its own
centrifugal force. That's what I'm thinking about when I'm trying to get
out of art's way. Not trying to look good, if a poem's about me. Not trying
to look bad. Not asking a poem to carry a lot of rocks in its pockets. But
just being an ordinary observer and liver and feeler and letting the
experience get through you onto the notebook with the pen, through the arm,
out of the body, onto the page, without distortion. And there are so many
ways I could distort. If I wrote in a sonnet form, I would be distorting.
Or if I had some great new idea for line breaks and I used it in a poem,
but it's really not right for that poem, but I wanted it, that would be
distorting. It's kind of like ego in a way, egotism or narcissism. Where
the self is too active.
Your poems often seem, on the surface anyway, somewhat more
autobiographical than most -- not that the "I" in your work is necessarily
you. Do people try to read your life into them?

I don't know if it would feel accurate to me to say that I put myself
into my poems. I don't know if that would describe what was happening in a
poem that I wrote and that I liked. Someone is seeing, someone is thinking,
dreaming, wondering, and remembering, in everybody's poems. Whether there's
a speaker that has an explicit "I" or not, there is some kind of self or
spirit or personality. We think of Lucille Clifton's poems, and they don't
have to have an "I" in them for the spirit of the poet, a person, to be
felt. I wouldn't say she was putting herself in, but the qualities of her
being come through. She's not leaving herself, her wisdom and experience
and music out. That's partly what craft is, I think. The body of the poem
is the spirit of the poem. But I do sometimes make an effort to use the
word "I" as little as possible. I would not have chosen to have that word
appear so much in my poems. My poems -- I don't even like the sound of
that, in a way. Not that anyone else wrote them. But we know that only
people who are really close to us care about our personal experience. Art
is something else. It has something to do with wanting to be accurate about
what we think and feel. To me the difference between the paper world and
the flesh world is so great that I don't think we could put ourselves in
our poems even if we wanted to.
Do you ever wonder what one of your children will think when he or
she reads one of your poems that might be, at least in some small way,
about them? Or do you wonder about what insight they will have into their
mother's life through your work?

It's a wonderful question, and it's not one I can answer, really. Ten
years ago I made a vow not to talk about my life. Obviously, the apparently
very personal nature of my writing made this seem to me like maybe a good
idea, for both sides of the equation -- both for the muses and for the
writer. But it's a wonderful and important question. I think the thing
that's most important to me about it is this idea that every writer has to
decide these things for themselves, and we learn by making mistakes. We
learn by finding out, five years later, what we wish we hadn't done. I've
worked out this thing I've called "the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal."
Which is also the spectrum of silence and song. And at either end, we're in
a dangerous state, either to the self, or to others. We all try to fall in
the right place in the middle.
As accessible as your poetry can seem to be, there also seems to be
an almost brutally direct emotional quality sometimes. There are some tough
images.

I think that I am slowly improving in my ability to not be too
melodramatic, to help the images have the right tenor. My first book came
out when I was 37, so when I was finally able to speak as a writer my wish
to not be silent was, in my early work, extreme. It's like someone, in
baseball, who thinks that the ball is being thrown by a very strong arm
from the outfield, and so she can't just land on home, she has to try to
run way past it, practically into the dugout. Reading some of my earlier
work, I get that sense of the need for too big a head of steam to be built
up. It seems extreme to me at times, some of the imagery. That's part of
why I'm not so sorry I'm a little behind in putting books together, because
some of those rather crude images I can now maybe correct. It also might be
that maybe I've used an image that is too mild, and I'll correct in the
other direction. I don't want to imply that it's always going the other
way. But my tendency was to be a little over the mark. And so I just really
love now the possibility of getting it right.
Your new book contains several poems that are quite realistic in
terms of their descriptions of sex. Is it difficult writing poetry about
sex, not to fall into language that might seem cliched?

I don't think that sex has been written about a lot in poetry. And I
want to be able to write about any subject. There is a failure rate --
there are subjects that are probably a lot harder to write about than
others. I think that love is almost the hardest thing to write about. Not a
general state of being in love, but a particular love for a particular
person. Just one's taste for that one. And if you look at all the love
poetry in our tradition, there isn't much that helps us know why that one.
I'm just interested in human stuff like hate, love, sexual love and sex. I
don't see why not. It just seems to me if writers can assemble, in
language, something that bears any relation to experience -- especially
important experience, experience we care about, moving and powerful
experience -- then it is worth trying. The opportunities for offense and
failure are always aplenty. They lie all around us.
Your poetry isn't necessarily known for its comic aspects. But I'm
wondering about your wonderful poem "The Pope's Penis," from "The Gold
Cell," where that came from and if it has proven controversial.

Life has a lot of sorrow in it, but also has a lot of funny things in
it, so it makes sense to me to have that range. So many poets whose work I
love are funny now and then. We're just funny creatures, human beings. But
that particular poem -- I am careful where I read it, not wishing to give
maximum offense. It's a poem I didn't get for a long time. I didn't ask
myself: Why do you feel okay about teasing this stranger? Why do you think
that's okay? I was just so startled when I noticed that this particular
Pope was also a man. And I thought: Well, that means .... [trails off]. And
I just began musing on The Other, in a way.
And I wasn't thinking, "I must
not write anything about a religion that is not mine because I have no
business doing so." I'm sure there are a lot of people who feel that way,
that we can write well only about what we deeply know and have known all
our lives -- that we can't write about very different experiences. I don't
think that's necessarily always true. I grew up in what I now call a
hellfire Episcopalian religion -- I think that phrase communicates the
atmosphere -- and I didn't feel light years away from understanding the
male hierarchy of power leading up toward the male God. But I didn't
understand, until years later, that this poem was kind of a return gesture.
This man, the Pope, seemed to feel that he knew a lot about women and could
make decisions for us -- various decisions about whether we could be
priests or not, and who would decide whether we could have an abortion or
not. He had crossed our line so far -- this is according to my outsider's
point of view -- that hey, what's a little flirtatious poem that went
across his line somewhat?
It looks like a young poem now. It mixes its
metaphors. So I don't tend to read that poem, but I don't wish I hadn't
written it. I don't want to take it out of the book. And unlike maybe three
other poems in that book that I've rewritten -- in the latest printing they
are different from what they were -- it's okay enough for me that I don't
feel like I have to, or could, rewrite it. If I tried to fix the images it
would just fall apart.
Many of the poems in your new book, certainly unlike that poem about
the Pope's penis, take their inspiration from very simple domestic things
-- a kid blowing bubbles in milk, a pair of blue jeans, a sick child.

Why is it, do you suppose, that you have two people in two different
apartments, and they are surrounded by all the same stuff, and one of them
will write about blue jeans and bubbles in milk, and the other will write
about something less ordinary, or something with more ideas connected to
it? How we perceive is just very different.
You published your first book of poems somewhat late, at 37. Can you
tell me a bit about why that was?

That sure seemed old then, and it sure seems young to me now. It
seemed old because I knew of all these amazing people who had done amazing
work in their 20s. Of course, anyone who ever can do anything is lucky. It
means that there has been enough education, enough peace, enough time,
enough whatever, that somebody can sit down and write. Many lives don't
allow that, the good fortune of being able to work at it, and try, and keep
trying.
Can you imagine your life if you hadn't become a writer? Do you feel
lucky?

No, I certainly can't imagine my life not being a writer. Lucky?
Um-hmm. It's hard to believe -- it's like this is a dream. I need to write,
and I need to write a lot. And I've been very lucky to be able to make the
time, have the time given me, depending on what stage of my life I'm
thinking of. Yes, luck. Luck. "Sometimes a crumb falls/ From the tables of
joy,/ Sometimes a bone/ Is flung./ To some people/ Love is given,/ To
others/ Only heaven." That's Langston Hughes' poem "Luck." It's one of the
poems on the subways.
Have you ever learned anything from a review of your work?
Oh sure. Sometimes I feel like warning signs are thrown up. As long
as one doesn't get too discouraged.
I haven't seen many -- or any, actually -- negative reviews of your
work. Maybe it's because I see so few poetry reviews. But do bad ones get
to you?

Yeah. Sure. I think there have been plenty of them [laughs]. You were
looking in a different direction. And they have differed a lot from each
other in their amount of thoughtfulness, their amount of bad feeling. But
we put our boat in the stream. By putting one's work out there, one is
asking to be considered as a part of the world. If the world feels very
powerfully that this work should not have been written, it will say so.
That seems quite fair. But then I think of the great things I have read,
great stuff describing other people's work that a critic likes or loves.
Criticism can be so enriching, it can add to the pleasure we take in the
poetry.


Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

MORE FROM Dwight Garner

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