Sunday, October 14, 2012
notes on sharon olds at the twin cities book festival
Here is Eric Lorberer of Rain Taxi, introducing Sharon Olds. (Thank you, thank you, Rain Taxi.)
This year, it took place in a drafty building on the State Fair Ground. The reading rooms were separated by heavy curtains and the book fair itself was in the center, a great mumbling of noise. Sharon Olds spoke of the "communal and underwatery feeling [of this reading]." She tested poems out with the noise, unsure if the balance was quite right. In a quieter theatre, maybe she would have read something different.
I jotted down lines that made me stop and shiver:
the stern of the death canoe
the room was backing away around me
the tears came out like juice, I'm sure they're from the fruit
like any identical twins (from "Poem for the Breasts")
I hope, I must add, that I haven't misquoted her here, or later in this post. I tried so hard to get it down in her words, but everything moves so fast, and my head was buzzy from just being there, able to listen to her. You must remember that as a stay-at-home mama, I get little chance to actually focus on laundry, let alone poetry, so not only was the experience of not having to pull a toddler down from great heights foreign to me, but being in a room with like-minded poetry folks and listening to the person I often think of as The Poet, or My Poet, is quite jarring, and in the very best of ways. Needless to say, after, when my husband drove us to Duluth for the rest of the weekend, I took a nap in the car. But only after Maya finally settled down too.
Here, she's saying we are there in solidarity with the LGBT panel just a room-corner away.
When she read "Self Portrait, Rear View" (which you can see her read on Def Poetry Jam and read here), she explained that she was once asked if she thought this was a feminist poem. She said, "I certainly hope so. We don't choose our subjects; our subjects choose us."
She was asked at this reading, how do you write about "the personal and the body?" Her response: "One, I couldn't resist, and two, I'm a bit of a sociopath." She said it so sweetly, the audience couldn't help but laugh. She asked, "How is it that there isn't an aria to the diaphragm? I mean, there might be for singing, but--" (Did she read this soon after? She has a poem she read called "Douche bag," which is not, in fact about jerks, but about her mothers literal douche bag.) She told us, "Nobody every chooses to be in a family with a family poet."
I had to laugh at this; I've so long been wondering if Maya (and the tadpole inside me) will grow up to resent my using her as a subject. My parents, Ryan, they have both resignedly accepted it, though the only poem that gets a tad negative about my marriage is actually a total falsehood (we did not, in fact, fight for one moment on our honeymoon, nor do we often fight, but rather stew silently at one another when we are cross, which generally doesn't lead to fireworks-like poetry but instead, that kind of quiet love that is old and comfortable). I grew up in a very literary household, and I think, growing up with authors as heroes, my immediate family always gave the message that an artist uses what an artist uses. This might be a regretful proposition at this point, but I've always been supported by my parents, and I really admire that, especially when I know the stark, honest look I give certain memories can be traumatic in the reading as much as the experiencing.
Olds spoke of that, of family members reacting, and she said, roughly, "I am looking for the story of where the telling has actually harmed [the family members.] Not annoyed or upset, but actually harmed. Maybe it's self sewing..."
Sharon Olds famously rejected the notion that the "I" in her poems is herself, and since she is my earliest and most continuous favorite model of poetry, I had taken this seriously, though any persona poem that might be mistaken for me has been altered. (Here's an example of a poem I wrote that I think no one would mistake for my own: "Traver K Sutton Writes Letters to His Wife.")
She said she didn't want to talk about the autobiography of the poem, but would rather talk about the craft of it. She's not trying to write through persona (though we are all personas, in a sense) but instead is trying to write as close to the the truth and actual moments of life.
She said she writes a lot and sends out little. She started writing poems at age thirty, and her first book came out at age thirty-seven. She used to get many poems about children returned, as if this weren't a valid subject. It has, of course, become more accepted, but, as I've observed, it's still one of those taboo subjects, like the whisperings against confession and narrative.
She said her older poems' boldness surprises her now.
She was asked about her poem "The Girl," which is taken from an article in a magazine that haunted her. She told us of how she has written many poems of witness, but none (or so few) are out in the world because she feels she cannot be successful, cannot find a way to put herself in. This made me curious, and I found this interview with Amy Hempl in Bomb, that speaks to the public and private subject.
She was asked by an audience member about how she goes about reading meter and feet. She said to the woman, "I love that you are starting with the heart of the poetry, which is the music and its rhythms." Above is her counting the beats out in one of her own poems.
And finally, you must understand how shy I am about sharing this photo and how silly I know that makes me, but after being encouraged by an old friend, I did show Sharon Olds my tattoo (I think I'll resurrect an old post about the tattoo, which I am far less shy about sharing, later this week) and she said, "Oh, you're the one..." She thinks Dorianne Laux might have sent a photograph of it to her. I wasn't sure--I remembered at BreadLoaf, how Jane Hirschfield said if it were her poem as a tattoo, she'd want to see it, so I think that gave me courage too. I would feel awkward--my words, on your flesh forever, and writ so large? I suppose when you've written so many beautiful books and so many people have idolized you, you get used to the surprising things they will do to honor you. I just hope she sees it as honoring the importance of her, how I fell in love at sixteen, and here I am, twice that age, and it means so much. Sometimes I forget it's there, but I don't forget the why of my doing it, the "do what you are going to do and I will tell about it" of the poem. It's there to remind me to not stop writing (again). So far, I haven't.