Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Split This Rock Interview with Sharon Olds

By Danez Smith

This conversation is one in a series of interviews with poets to be featured at the Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, April 19-21, 2018.

The festival is three days at the intersection of the imagination and social change: readings, workshops, panel discussions, youth programming, activism, a book fair, and a party. Celebrating Split This Rock’s 10th anniversary! The poets to be featured are among the most significant and artistically vibrant writing and performing today: Elizabeth Acevedo, Kazim Ali, Ellen Bass, Sherwin Bitsui, Kwame Dawes, Camille Dungy, Ilya Kaminsky, Sharon Olds, Sonia Sanchez, Solmaz Sharif, Terisa Siagatonu, Paul Tran, Javier Zamora.

On-site registration is available every day during the festival at the festival hub: National Housing Center, 1201 15th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005. A sliding scale of fees is available for full registration, beginning at $200. Student registration (with ID) is $75. One day passes are $85. Two-day passes are $170.

Full festival schedule available on the website. The Festival Mobile App is Live! Download the free app  for iOS and Android today for easy access to the schedule, session descriptions, presenter bios, and more! Just search your app store for Split This Rock.

Events Open to the Public

  • Nightly Free Poetry Readings: National Housing Center Auditorium
  • Social Change Bookfair, Saturday, April 21, 10 am-3:30 pm, National Housing Center (Free)
  • Poetry Public Action: Louder Than a Gun – Poem for Our Lives, Friday, April 20, 9-10 am, Lafayette Park (Free)
  • Open Mics, Thursday, April 19 & Friday, April 20, 10 pm-12 am, Busboys and Poets, 5th & K, Cullen Room, 1025 5th St NW, Washington, DC 20001 ($5 at the door)
  • Closing Party, Saturday, April 21, 10 pm-1 am, National Housing Center Auditorium ($10 online and at the door)
Open mics and the closing party are free to festival registrants.

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Image of Sharon Olds in black and white. Sharon is sitting by a window with one arm resting on the windowsill. She rests her head on her hand and looks off into the distance, her mouth open as if she is in the middle of a conversation.

Sharon Olds is most recently the author of Stag’s Leap (2012), recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and the T.S Eliot Prize (UK), and Odes (2017). She teaches in the Graduate Program in Creative Writing at New York University where she helped found the original outreach program at Goldwater Hospital, a 900-bed state hospital for people with physical disabilities. These programs at NYU now include a writing workshop for Veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. She lives in New York City. Photo by Hillary Stone. 

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Danez Smith (DS): In an interview by Michael Laskey for the Academy of American Poets, you said the psalms and hymns of the Bible were your first examples of good vs. bad writing. From those early moments, through a lot of your books and most recently your collection, Odes, you seem to have long understood and been a master of the relationship between language and worship, words and praise, both sanctified and secular. If I may ask you, what do you find yourself praising these days? Also, how has the language of your praise or adoration in poetry changed over time?

Sharon Olds (SO): What a cool question! For so long I thought of myself as a whiner, not a praiser. But of course, I wanted to praise the people I most loved–husband, children, friends.   

These days I sometimes say that I first learned about art when I was inside my mother. I experienced meter, I heard and felt her heartbeat and the rhythms of her breaths. Two meters: one faster, louder, more regular; one slower, softer, more improv. So I started with counterpoint.
Now I want to riff a little! I see myself as someone who has “never understood anything,” and I don’t see myself as a master, so much as as (“as as”!) an amateur.
So I would love to embody, in a poem, with some accuracy – with lots! – what is lovable to me about someone. And what love is, what it feels like. And how it is different from idealization – lord knows, in my heteromania, I have worshipped (swooned over) the beauty of men I have loved. And felt inspired to try to describe the qualities of particular children, a particular child. Love drives us to this!  The life-force desires this. And I’m moved to praise whenever violence is not a part of a child’s life. As if non-violence should be a sort of (godless) sanctified civil right. (Animal right.)
And I want to know what happens to kids afflicted by personal and/or communal destructiveness – so we can know each other and ourselves. (Isn’t that one of the species-survival purposes of art – pleasure and empathy?)
I write so many poems which fail – due to sentimentality, grandstanding, self-pity, cliché . . . I want to praise courage (a single mother, say, dealing with poverty and violence.)  (I have tried to write that, but I don’t know enough about it to help the poem work.)
And I would like to praise myself, insofar as I deserve it – this to counter the inner negative self-image I have, which so many of us have.

DS:  Your poem “Silver Spoon Ode,” which I love, wrestles with legacies both private and intimate before turning to a Miss Lucille (who I believe is Lucille Clifton?) that seems to offer both the speaker’s conscience and the poem’s tone a kind of peace, but offers the speaker guidance. I want to ask you about friendship. What have you learned via your friendships, maybe your friendships with other writers, that has shaped you as a poet?  As a citizen/community member?

SO:  I love this dialogue with you. This question seems to be the size of my life. Joy in friendship! The joy of intimacy, of deep, humorous, grateful, honest knowledge of each other.
Friendships with writers: relishing the intense pleasure, stimulation, and ease of heart of being in their presence. And they like! us, they (may) love us as much as we love them!  And they don’t agree with the negative bullshit we sometimes believe about ourselves – but they know our faults! They don’t idealize us, or us them. They mean the earth to us, they mean our life to us.
And Lucille – so smart, so touching, such a pioneer – I remember once she said something (not mean) about how needy I was – obvious, right? But I hadn’t used that word about myself before. And it wasn’t long after that that some small way came up that I could be of use to her in her own need. The insects is an example. Little did I know, when I was working as a child insect-catcher, that I was in training to serve our sister, our progenitor Lucille of the light!

DS:  I often get approached by white writers nervous to write about race, more accurately their own racial understanding of themselves and their people. I sometimes will just send them your poem “Ode to My Whiteness” (after Evie Shockley’s “ode to my blackness ”). What advice would you offer to white writers about writing whiteness?

SO:  I could offer what Lucille would offer, at Q and A time, in answer to this question. She’d say, in that rich, musical, not high, voice – voice with a lot of warm throat in it –like a contralto, resonant, not actorly or “important,” but sensual and full of meaning, and empty of portentousness –

suddenly as I’m writing this (in my apt in N. Y. C.) I feel so grateful that it came to me, in “Silver Spoon Ode,” to turn to Lucille, and speak a critical truth to myself in her voice. (And as I write this sentence the first Red-tail Hawk I’ve seen in three months just flies from behind a thirty-story building across the street!). I learned so much from Lucille. She pointed out the connection between privilege and sacrifice – my privilege and others’ sacrifice – that those doing the heavy lifting for a society “pay for” the art-making privilege of the writer. There is some kind of see-saw effect between haves and have-nots. (Also, I felt blessed that Lucille called me by my childhood name.)
Her advice to a mostly white audience?  “When you write about me, write about you and me. Then you’ll know something about at least part of what you’re writing about.”

DS:  What have you learned about writing poems from reading them to an audience?  When does the question of audience come into your mind and what do you do with it?

SO:  When I’m giving a reading, I’m listening, and looking. I want to put the poems out there clearly – not seductive, not too needy, not with too much emotion or too little.
And I get a feeling from the room – I read a poem, and I read the room. The company of others helps me recognize some of the baloney in my poems. And sometimes, after I read a poem, I’ll say, Well, that needs work, doesn’t it?! And we laugh. That’s a pleasure. And a debt I owe any hearer for the psychic help with the poem, the vibes I feel when I first put it out in a communal space. I’m often not confident in my poems. But I think art is important, powerful. I think poetry has to do with our species’ chance to last a little longer. So all poems are potentially valuable.
When I’m writing a first draft, I am too focused to be conscious of who besides me might eventually read it. But my unconscious is probably thinking a lot of things while I’m writing! And one could probably tell from reading the draft whether my unconscious image of a possible reader is of someone “smarter” than I or “less smart.”
Does the audience a poet’s first-draft unconscious is addressing have an age, a race, a gender, a gender preference, an E. Q., a dance style? How much tolerance/appetite does the imaginary audience have for overt (traditional) form, how much for “secret” (newer) form?
I think if we look at our poems we can see who they were written “for.” Mine? Not someone with necessarily a lot of school learning, but someone with a high tolerance for wacky words!

DS:  I want to ask you about poetry as a tool to witness. Often times your poetry has been about you being a witness to yourself, but your poems also witness people in your life, people in the larger world. What has writing about yourself taught you about writing about others?  What has being a witness taught you about your own confessions?

SO:  I grew up without newspapers or T.V. On the radio, I heard not news, but music and “Let’s Pretend” and “Queen for a Day.” 

When I was 14 (1956), I happened upon a picket line in front of a Woolworth’s (I “tell” (sing) this story (image) in a poem called “Secondary Boycott Ode”).
When I went to college, the frosh class was shown a documentary about the Holocaust, and my best friend, a Jew, sitting next to me, rushed away out of the auditorium so she could go throw up.  
When I was in graduate school, I slept one night on the cobbles of West 116th Street to protest the mounted police patrols, who were not allowing the community to walk through the Columbia University campus (horses were stepping between our sleeping bags) (“May, 1968”).
Then at 22 I began to build a family with someone who read The New York Times every day. News photos came into the apartment and many of them had a haunting effect on me. They terrified and depressed me. It was years before I decided it was O.K. for me to try to write about photos. After all, no one would ever see the poems. It felt worse not even to try. Gradually a few of the many “public” poems I wrote seemed to me O.K. enough to send out, get back, send out. Then, once my first book was out (1980, age 37), I half agreed with the “crickets” (Phil Levine’s word for them) who were disgusted by the personal quality of my poems about family. It took me ages to understand that family poems are political.
All along I have written “personal” and “political” poems, maybe roughly 2 to 1 (2/3 close family, 1/3 world family – “strangers”). And I know – it’s like “narrative” and “experimental” – both of them are often present in a poem. But I tend to like a higher percentage of my “apparently personal” ones. They seem to me to work better, they are engaged with something I know a bit about.

DS:  What has being a poet taught you about being a citizen? Are the two things related?

SO:  It is very lucky to have enough time to write. For me it’s been an unearned privilege. It’s also lucky to have enough confidence to write – to believe, at least maybe 51%, that you have the right to try to know what you feel and think, and to try to make a little or big song and dance of it, a story, an anti-story, a dream, a paper dollhouse, an antimacassar with a poem embroidered on it.
I am possessed of a lust, a longing, for any poem of mine, any line, any image, to be useful to anyone. If you grow up thinking you are “worse than useless” (i.e. harmful), then having any value to anyone is a HUGE SPARKLING DEAL!!!!!

DS:  I love how you write about any and everything to do with the body. Silly question, is there any weird thing the body does that you really like? What grosses you out?

SO:  Dear Danez!  Thank you for this question! Which worked on me a few days, and then I wrote a grosser than usual poem!  First time I had thought of writing about a recurring childhood nightmare. Thank you, Poet Friend, for keeping me such good company with your great poems and with your kind and relevant energetic questions, so that you pointed me back in time and space to attempt a dis-haunting, and to try for a small new truth.

DS:  What advice would you offer to anyone who is hesitant to allow themselves to show up in their writing?

SO:  I might say to them, to us: we are out here longing for you to show up. We need to know who we/you are. Someone said there is one poet for every 100,000 Americans (i.e. Immigrants). I know it can feel self-indulgent to write – nar-KISS-ass – but why not (“Anal Aria”, new poem) – but it’s also the news we otherwise die for lack of.
I love your poems, Danez Smith. We so need them, and we need the poems of anyone who is reading this. A poem of yours (whoever you are holding me now in hand) is a call to me. Then mine is a response to you, and a call to your next one!
And I’d add my usual advice – take your vitamins, dance, sleep, don’t take any drug or drink too strong for you, take care of your body. It is the temple, the factory, the dance-hall of your art! We love you and we need your poems.

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Additional Links

Olds and all the festival feature poets’ poems in the April 2018 issue of Poetry Magazine

Calvinist Parents” by Sharon Olds (The Quarry)

Sharon Olds Sings the Body Electric, a review of Odes, by Alexandra Schwartz (The New Yorker)

Kaveh Akbar interviews Sharon Olds at Divedapper

Poetry of the In-between, Olds’s TEDxMet talk

Sharon Olds, America’s Brave Poet of the Body” in conversation with John Freeman (Literary Hub)

Episode 38: Sharon Olds from the Commonplace podcast by Rachel Zucker (Commonplace)

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Danez Smith is a Black, queer, poz writer & performer from St. Paul, MN. Danez is the author of Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017) and [insert] boy (YesYes Books, 2014), winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry, and the John C. Zacharis Award from Ploughshares. Danez is also the author of two chapbooks, black movie (2015, Button Poetry), winner of the Button Poetry Prize, and hands on your knees (2013, Penmanship Books). They are the recipient of fellowships from the Poetry Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, and the  National Endowment for the Arts. Danez's work has been featured widely including in Buzzfeed, Blavity, PBS NewsHour, Best American Poetry, Poetry Magazine, and on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. They are a 2-time Individual World Poetry Slam finalist, 3-time Rustbelt Poetry Slam Champion, and a founding member of the Dark Noise Collective. Smith is a member of the Split This Rock Board of Directors. Photo by David Hong.

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