“I write as much crap as anyone.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
We can start by talking about when you began writing. You didn't publish Satan Says until you were in your mid-thirties, is that right?
Right, I was thirty-seven when my first book came out.
I think that's pretty late in life, certainly by today's standards.
Yeah, and back then, too. Adrienne Rich's first book had come out when she was maybe twenty-one or twenty-two, so I was aware — I felt that I was old, but it just hadn't been at all possible in any way before that. I just wasn't ready and I wasn't writing what anybody would want to read. I was about thirty when I started really writing all the time, though I'd been writing all my life, but something happened, and at thirty my work, to me, is recognizable from then on. Those were the poems that went into Satan Says.
What do you mean by “recognizable”?
To me, it's that the sentences ran over the ends of the lines, and that the lines ended with prepositions and articles rather than with nouns. The rhyme was internal and off, mostly. And there's just this sense of impetus. I wasn't trying for it, but it’s how it happened. From the beginning of the poem to the end, there's a certain sense of momentum. As I say, I didn't set out to do that, but it was recognizable to me later that that's what I was doing.
Sure. I think that all of those things are definitely distinct characteristics of those early poems. You've talked about how some of the early influences on your writing were scriptural, the Psalms and the hymns, and that's something that I feel throughout your whole body of work, that language.
I didn't grow up going to poetry readings, or movies, or museums. I went to the zoo, and I went to church, and I went to school. There was no TV, so church was my theater. The hymns were so tedious and badly written, but the harmony of singing them was a pleasure. You know, the hymns were so slow and they approached the rhyming word so tediously. It was all so horrible — vaguely horrible, since there was Hell involved as well.
But the Psalms were gorgeous. I did hear classical music on records when I was a kid, so that was glorious because I got to hear symphonies and some operas, too. Symphonies, operas, chamber music. And then in junior high, rock and roll began. I think Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill" came out when I was about fourteen, and the kids at my junior high in Berkley, California started to dance. And so dance became an art that was very precious to me. And I'd always liked to draw. So these were sort of like the arts.
But with the boring, pompous, tedious, sorrowful hymns, and then the gorgeous Psalms, it was like I had good art and bad art in this sort of primary home of art.
That's fascinating. It's like a mixture of high and low art in a way, but it's all sort of fastened to this scriptural backbone.
Right. And, to me, the low blow was Hell. Of course, the Psalms are Old Testament, and there's a lot of rage and all kinds of terror, and of course there's a male God. There are a lot of problems, but it's gorgeous and passionate. The Song of Solomon was the most important one to me. I was named from The Bible and from that song. The "rose of Sharon," is where they found my name, so I guess I felt a little bit of a connection.
Yeah, or maybe a little proprietary.
No, no, no. I could get in so much trouble for that. No. Connection. A modest and humble secret connection to something good. Maybe my unconscious felt proprietary, but I don't know. That word seems a little dangerous.
Sure. Connection is maybe a better word. I think some of the rhetorical constructions in your work are very scriptural. "And love said to me, / 'What if I myself asked you / to love him less?'"
Where did I say that?
It's in Stag's Leap, “The Red Sea.”
Oh, it's in Stag's Leap, I see. It's kind of mentally healthy.
Well, an unrequited love or an unreturned commitment can go on for years, and it's not really good for someone's life to stay stuck. I like that line, I just didn’t remember it. I don’t have a very good memory for my work.
You've said that you wrote hundreds of poems for Stag's Leap, but most of them weren't good enough.
Yeah, that's right. I always do that. I write a lot of poems, always. And most of them, no one ever sees. My average is a little better now than it was twenty years ago.
I was trying things out a lot. I was making a lot of mistakes and I was making egregious errors of taste, which are some of my favorite errors. I couldn’t tell if a poem I was writing would come to anything or not until the last line was there. That's always been my method. I may have revised less than some other poets, but I think I write as much crap as anyone.
That's refreshing to know. It would be easy to get disheartened by the idea that long ago some angel blew their trumpet in your ear and all of the sudden you could just write these sublime poems.
Haha, good. I was not accused of being sublime very much in my early years. There were plenty of people who didn't just not like my work, but hated it and wrote me enraged rejection slips. My students now, they don't know about that. When we get older, we can seem like we've been successful forever, but people really hated my love of writing about sexual love and sexuality, and my drive to write about family in a way that was not very courteous.
And a lot of people probably still hate it. Anyway, that rage was communicated to me quite clearly. I am pretty stubborn and so people pointing out what was so wrong, especially in a contemptuous and snobby way, only made me work harder and keep trying.
I’m glad it did. I've seen some of the invective levied against you and it tends to be weirdly obsessed with the body. Tony Hoagland wrote a really great essay —
He wrote such a sweet essay.
He attacked your attackers and took the last word away from them. It was a terrific essay. You talk about getting rejections, and thinking about 2015 Sharon Olds getting rejections is—
Well, I still get them! It's a business where, in order for an editor to take a poem, they have to really like it. They don't have to just think, "Oh, this is from someone we've heard of and it's not too bad, so we'll do it." They are practicing an art, and so they exercise their judgment. And I also learn things. When I get a poem rejected, I always look at it with my pen in hand, looking for what's wrong with it.
And if I can't find anything that I think is wrong, okay. But very often, knowing that it's come back, I'm inspired to see how I could maybe make it less worse if I agree that it has problems.
I love that phrase "less worse."
Haha. Yes, that's my goal!
Well, we're in real trouble if we're thinking that we want to make our poems "even better."
I don't know. Maybe that's mental health, actually. But for a Calvinist and a Puritan that just seems very dangerous.
Haha, absolutely. I think you receiving a rejection with pen in hand and thinking about the poems being "less worse" speaks to the sort of great humility people feel in your poems. You know, not mistaking humility for weakness. The speaker in a lot of these poems is at once humble and self-deprecating, but also not a pushover. It's just cool to hear Sharon Olds, the human person, aligning with the mythological Sharon Olds from the poems.
Hah. Yeah, well, I know who I live with. It's very important to me that I feel that I'm an ordinary enough person—I know that I am— ordinary enough that if an experience or a feeling is germane to me, or important to me, there is some chance that, if I write about it well enough, and I don't screw up, it could resonate with someone else. I feel I'm ordinary enough and my experience is common enough. And also, to some extent, women's, and men's, and all other genders’ experience has got a lot of common notes in it, though each of us is so different from everybody else. Still, it's enough longing, love, sorrow, grief, mourning, anger, joy. We're in the same species, after all.
I think one hopes one can nod towards that in their art, toward highlighting that amongness.
Right. I've had an issue with that in the past about my vocabulary, because I've had the privilege of having a very good education. I didn't remember anything I'd learned, so it isn't really that I know a lot, but I was at least in classrooms, and I was learning, to some degree, how to think. I've worried that my vocabulary is so much that of a highly educated person, mostly a person that's just been reading like crazy all my life, reading Shakespeare more than anyone else.
As a teenager, I was just crazy for Shakespeare; crazy for that vocabulary, and grammar, and for leaving out the verb. It just drove me wild. It was so thrilling. And I have thought, “Yeah, I say that I want to be read by the fellow shoppers in the grocery line, but my poems might seem to say to them, ‘this is not for you because you don't know some of these words.’” So I've gone through periods of worrying about that.
So what do you do?
Oh, I just gave up. I gave up. I'll go to Hell. I have to use crazy words. It's love. It's just infatuation, and obsession, and insanity. So I lose some credibility with some readers, but it's too bad, I'm out of my mind.
You have the poem, "The Unswept." It's the last poem in your Selected—
And it's got the word "rhyparographer."
Haha. Isn't that cool? How could you resist such a word? Rhyparographer. Oh my god.
I'm such a word nerd, too, but I feel that same anxiety that you describe. Growing up, my mom would get these SAT vocabulary preparation books from the public library. She would teach the words to herself and then—
Oh, and use them in conversation?
Yeah, and just deliberately pepper them into conversation.
Oh, that's so cute.
Isn’t it? And so, since I was two years old, I've been spoken to with this consciously elevated vernacular. I went through a period of being deeply self-conscious about it because I didn't want people to think I was being showy. And to make matters worse, all I've ever wanted to do is read, not unlike what you're talking about with Shakespeare. And so this is a low-level anxiety at any point in my life when I'm in conversation with anyone.
Right. Now did your being born in Iran have anything to do with her wanting to help you with SAT vocabulary in English?
Oh, that's interesting. My mom is American and my dad's Iranian. I basically spent two years in Iran speaking Farsi and kind of being spoken to in English, but when we moved to America we spoke exclusively English in the house because they were dead-set on Americanizing me.
I haven't talked to my mom much about it, but that might've been part of it. I think it was mainly to give me an academic advantage.
Sure. If I had thought of that, I might have done it too! That's sweet and probably kind of maddening. But oh my, parents—we just want so much to do whatever we can.
Hah. I’m sure I’ll find out eventually. To bring it back around to the poems, you've got another poem in Stag's Leap, "The Easel," where you say, "What if someone had told me, thirty / years ago: If you give up, now, / wanting to be an artist, he might / love you all your life–" And this is one of my favorite sentiments in the whole book. You say, "I didn’t even have an art, / it would come from out of our family’s life– / what could I have said: nothing will stop me." So the family is what gave you access to what you would later alchemize into the art.
Well, it's what I lived that was beautiful and that had not been sung very much, especially not from the primary caregiver's point of view.
I read somewhere that your first rejection was something to the effect of "If you're going to write about this sort of thing, you have to send it to Ladies Home Journal ."
Well, that is actually one of the nicer rejections that I had. But yes, this person didn't understand what art is and what it was in the process of becoming. I was part of something that continues to change and change.
Now you're one of the major figures of the canon who's sort of guided the way that poems about family are written, showing they don’t have to be these saccharine, sentimental odes. You can write about someone you love in a way that is not flattering.
And art is a place where our species struggles with seeing the truth about ourselves and about the people around us, and the truths that we have learned about parenting and how to help children be strong and how to try not to harm them. Part of the use of art, I think, is moral.
Art is moral, not a platform, but we're telling human stories and not for no reason at all. Not that we're trying to be moralists, because then we won't write well, but it has something to do with why our species isn't dead yet. We've had art to scare ourselves with. And to have pleasure with.
Yeah, I think it saves us in both ways. It gives us pleasure, but also guides us.
Yes, that's true. I teach in the graduate program in NYU, and this fall, for some reason even more than ever, I'm just so dazzled by how good my students are, how beautiful and powerful their writing is. I've felt that way for a long time at NYU. Now it's truer than ever.
I was at Bread Loaf this past year and Garrett Hongo was speaking about how there are now more people alive than there have ever been alive before. More people alive now than there are dead in the earth.
Oh dear. Really?
Yeah, I think it has to do with exponential population growth. But the literary conclusion that we can draw from it is that there are also more writers living than there have ever been before. It would make sense that with the proliferation of writers, and access to time and space for writing, the quality of writing in a program like NYU’s would continue to improve.
Right, also we've always had wonderful directors in the NYU Graduate Program. Our current director, who is a very good poet, a really interesting, daring poet, she has worked with NYU to make more fellowship money available to people. Most of them work full time, NYU’s not elite in the sense of privilege. She's made it possible for more of the people we want to work with the most to be able to afford to come.
You're talking about Deborah Landau, right?
I am! I am! Do you know her writing?
I do. I know it well. I loved her new book, The Uses of the Body, and I've loved her work in the past.
Yeah. I don't want to keep you for too long, but I do want to loop back around to an idea we were kind of talking about, which is the usefulness of this enterprise. Your detractors can say many things, or levy whatever claims they will, but I don't think I've ever heard anyone call your poems frivolous.
Frivolous. Oh dear, no. I think I have failed to hit that note. I hope I don't just start trying for the next few weeks to be as frivolous as possible. I like humor a lot, and I like silliness, actually, as a respite from seriousness. But I guess,'frivolous'—where does that come from? Frivolity, probably meaning not useful.
Yeah, sort of the opposite of useful.
Melodramatic? Yes. Self-Pitying? Certainly. All kinds of flaws. But frivolous? Not one of mine!
I think that comes out of the sense that you seem to sincerely believe that what you're doing matters and that there are stakes.
Yeah, but you know as a writer — you're certainly talking as a writer. I believe you're a writer.
Right, I am.
Okay, so you know as a writer that we don't believe in ourselves very consistently. If we're lucky we believe in our art, and we share it with everyone enough that we can theoretically overcome our self-doubt, and recognize a poem when it comes to us and sit down, maybe even with pleasure, to write. But I don't think we can really feel that any writer knows a lot about whether their work is good. But you have to act as if it is. You have to protect yourself from people who treat it as if it isn't, or who try to stop you in some way. I just think that a lack of self-confidence is a huge problem for most writers.
Yeah, but you nod to the way we so often overcome that. Even if you lack self-confidence, you have confidence in our collective ability.
That's it. You value it in others.
These days, I'm especially interested in the differences that some of us sometimes perceive between the confidence of men and women in the arts. I'd always been writing all my life, but to imagine that I could actually be a writer? I had too much respect for the idea of that, and not enough confidence in myself, though I did have a lot of drive, a lot of ambition, a lot of energy. But I do feel that what a lot of young writers need to work on is self-protection, and self-praise, and self-confidence, and recognizing threats from outside, and taking care of their fellow writers as well as of themselves.
As I say, it's not only women—but you know, this world! We're in a troubled time. I mean, we always are, but if you just look at the shoes people are wearing. It's terrifying!
And if I were young enough, I'd probably be wearing those impossible ridiculous shoes! If you don't have to actually put them on, or walk in them, there's something just wildly crazy and appealing about them but, in terms of function, it's quite deadly.
We always worry. All of us about all of this.
You just said so much that I really love and this seems like a good note to wrap things up on. Are you working on anything right now that you want to talk about before we draw things to a close?
Well, the next book of mine will come out in September 2016.
It's called Odes. It's funny because you were saying something about an ode earlier, like family poems don’t have to be saccharine odes.
These are odes that are not very saccharine.
That's great. I'll be waiting impatiently in the interim between now and then.
Haha. Thank you. I don't know how to characterize this book, but it's a wild book, I think. I shouldn’t say that because I didn't say that about any other book of mine, but it has a lot to do with love, and sex, and gender, and nature. And it's a book of about fifty odes.
Haha, well, it’s so nice to talk to you. It’s been a pleasure.
Interview Posted: December 28, 2015
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