Body And Soul: In Conversation With Poet Sharon Olds


Photo: Hillery Stone

Sharon Olds

“Odes”, the latest book of poetry by Sharon Olds is full of eye-catching titles, including: "Ode of Broken Loyalty;" "Hip Replacement Ode;" "Ode to the Last Thirty-Eight Trees in New York City Visible From This Window;" and "Ode to the Composting Toilet."

FROM DESERT COMPANION: "Ode to My Sister": A poem by Sharon Olds

Sharon Olds will be in Las Vegas this Friday and Saturday as part of the Poets of National Stature series under the auspices of the Clark County Poet Laureate, Bruce Isaacson.

Olds is a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine. In 2013, she received the Pulitzer Prize for her book, "Stag's Leap."

In advance of her Las Vegas visit, Sharon Olds talks with us from her home in New York.


Did your ability to be direct and personal come easily in your journey as a poet?

No, I would not have the courage to be as impersonal as so many people are, because then for me it would be as if I hadn’t lived.

To me to be apparently personal – and as I say I don’t go around thinking people care about my life and want to hear about my life – a poem is only useful if it is representative of the people who are hearing. Or if it communicates something human about lives that are different from ours.

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You write about the human body and its decline:

It’s realization. Definitely we could say ‘decline’ but if we really want to live to 80, then we are really lucky that we experience the changes after 50 or 60. And they’re very interesting and they’re not all bad. And if it weren’t for mortality, there wouldn’t be any sex or birth. There wouldn’t be any new people.

 Why did you choose poetry over writing a novel?

I tried to write stories. I did write stories. It took me until I was 50 –maybe- to understand that the reason my poems in my 20s and 30s were less bad than my fiction was because there is some line, there is something about the look of the poem on the page, there is something about the stopping and starting again and the shapeliness that causes me to come out with less nonsense.

Do you learn something about your poems when the audience is reacting to them?

Always! They don’t laugh when I thought they might. Then I think ‘this is a more serious group. Don’t be too outrageous.’ Or they do laugh when I hadn’t realized there some kind of appealing humor, but mostly I’m pretty aware of the humor in my poems.

I will learn from myself also. I will say a line and I think, ‘well, that’s a corny word in there and then I’ll re-write it.’

What advice do you give poets who are starting out talking about self-revelation and about how to be open about their person viewpoints or their personal lives?

A lot of poets don’t want to be so I wouldn’t give them any advice about it because only each poet knows what they are really drawn to write about. I think we write our best about what we care about the most.

But there is advice that I give to all writers, young and old, and that is: take your vitamins, exercise, take care of your physical instrument of writing, which is your mind and your body. Don’t take dope, don’t drink too much, dance, look at birds, go running – if you can run, breathe and speak more kindly to yourself than has been your habit. Be kind to yourself.

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