Writers & Company

Sharon Olds on the joy and peril of writing deeply personal poetry

The Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet spoke with Eleanor Wachtel at the Vancouver Writers Festival in 2016. Olds is among the nominees for the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize.
Award-winning American poet Sharon Olds spoke with Eleanor Wachtel in 2016. (CBC, Knopf)

This interview originally aired on Oct. 30, 2016.

American poet Sharon Olds is famous for her intensely personal, emotionally scathing verse. Known for her candour and physicality, Olds is committed to portraying the world from a woman's perspective.

Her 2012 book, Stag's Leap, won both the Pulitzer Prize and England's T.S. Eliot Award — making Olds the first-ever American recipient. It explores the aftermath of a passionate marriage that ended in divorce after more than 30 years. Olds's 2016 collection, Odes, is inspired by Pablo Neruda's famous celebration of everyday objects. That same year, she received the Wallace Stevens Award, worth $100,000 U.S., for her "proven mastery in the art of poetry."  

Olds's new collection, Arias, is a finalist for the 2020 International Griffin Poetry Prize. The winner will be announced on May 19, 2020.

Olds spoke to Eleanor Wachtel on stage at the Vancouver Writers Festival in 2016. 

​Graphic, or accurate?

"I was just reading that someone called me "graphic." So I was thinking, are my poems graphic? I don't know if they are. I want them to be accurate. I want the work of art to be a lot like the lived life behind it. That's different from experimental writers and storytellers, but that's what I want.

I want the work of art to be a lot like the lived life behind it. That's different from experimental writers and storytellers, but that's what I want.

"Maybe I've been too graphic sometimes, just trying to bully my way into the subject because it's hard to get into it, but then those poems don't work so no one sees those poems."

A celebration of the ordinary

"I had read some of Pablo Neruda's Odes to Common Things. I just loved and respected those subjects that he was writing about. And then a few days later, a poem came to me which is called 'Ode to the Tampon.' 

I'm not very good at the general — I'm kind of concrete, nearsighted, up-close.

"Not to any particular tampon, but the tampon in general. I'm not very good at the general — I'm kind of concrete, nearsighted, up-close. So it began an experience for me of speaking to and of abstractions, it seemed to me kind of for the first time.

"It liberated my feelings and opinions. I was in a relationship in which I wanted and needed to write love poems and identity poems. But I didn't want to write in as obviously autobiographical a way as I had done previously. And that's why, really, I ended up going into the more abstract mode.

"But also, I guess I was ready to think in general terms about things I had tended to think about in personal, autobiographical terms. There's a lot of personal story in this book, but I wanted to get away from that."

Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Sharon Olds, on stage with Writers & Company host Eleanor Wachtel at the Vancouver Writers Fest in 2016. (Chris Cameron)

The perils of writing about your family

"I used to avoid saying I was an autobiographical family poet, because I thought it was bad enough for families to be written about without someone going around saying yeah, it's my actual family. So I don't say that. So many things complicate family life. And being a family poet would be one of them.

If I had the choice of being a great writer and a not-so-good mother, or a great mother and a medium-good writer, I would choose the latter.

"Each one of us writers, by trial and error — often error — we find what we're comfortable with, or what the people around us are comfortable with, or what the market will bear.

"If I had the choice of being a great writer and a not-so-good mother, or a great mother and a medium-good writer, I would choose the latter. I mean, first things first. But for those of us who are family writers, I think some of our definitions of what's okay... we squirrel around a bit. At the moment I can't think of something I would change except that I would, from the beginning, have not used names. But I can't think of anything besides the names that I would go back and change."

Sharon Olds' comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the interview: "Life Boat" by Simon Jeffes, performed by Penguin Cafe Orchestra.

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