J P O'Malley

Sharon Olds’ fear and self-loathing

Sharon Olds’ fear and self-loathing
Text settings

Since the publication of her debut collection, Satan Says in 1980, which was awarded the inaugural San Francisco Poetry Center Award, Sharon Olds has become a prominent - and controversial - voice in American poetry.

Olds’ work has been given many unflattering adjectives from her harshest critics: self-indulgent, sensationalist, solipsistic, and pornographic, to name a few.

While her confessional, and overtly autobiographical style, may not be to every critics’ taste, Olds’ candid voice, describing her own troubled childhood; the human body; and a world which very often displays fear, violence, love and kindness, in equal measure, has seen her become one of the most widely read poets of her generation.

Her collection, The Dead and the Living (1984) sold more than 50,000 copies, becoming a best selling volume. The book also won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Olds’ latest book of poems, Stag’s Leap, has been shortlisted for the 2012 T.S. Eliot Prize - her third nomination for this award to date.

The collection sees Olds documenting a painful divorce from her husband of thirty-two years, who left the poet for another woman. With her signature style of striking honesty, and poignant intimacy, Olds brings the reader on a journey of loss and isolation, as she comes to terms with her broken marriage.

Olds spoke to the Spectator about her orthodox Calvinistic upbringing, her ambiguous relationship with her parents, and why she is trying to move away from self-obsession.  

When you say you don’t have an imagination when it comes to writing poetry what do you mean?

I usually know where a poem is going, so the poem itself doesn’t exist yet. But the experience that I’m writing about: the thought, the dream, or whatever, already exists. If I was writing a poem about someone who was wearing a green shirt, I couldn’t make it a blue shirt. That would seem a little dangerous to me. I think that’s because of my early religious training, when time went backwards: where your sin of today was felt 2000 years ago by Jesus on the cross. I have a crush on reality, because time goes forward there, and green shirts are always green.

In the poem ‘Heaven To Be’, from The Unswept Room, you write of death: ‘I think it’s the nothing kind of nothing I think/ we go though the door and vanish together.’ Is death a subject that frightens you?

All my life I have thought about death, not as a neurotic obsession, but in a healthy way. It’s just something that is there. For me it’s simple: I will be gone, and I won’t exist anymore. I had to get over the idea of hell, from my early religious training. So it’s totally worth it to give up heaven, in order to get over hell. And since I wasn’t going to heaven anyway, it’s a fair trade.

What kind of rituals, or beliefs, did your Calvinistic upbringing entail?

Well it was definitely a heavy power structure, this world of religiosity. Hell certainly was the most important thing. Death by torture was a very important part for me also. I’m sure a lot of people who went to church were in the house of someone who loved them, but in my own religion, those negative things were strong. Also, the fact that God could see whatever you were doing, could read your mind, and see your thoughts felt strange to me.

Did these circumstances inspire you to write?

I don’t know why, but I just believed that God couldn’t see what you were writing. Maybe I was thinking: so we are God’s creation, and our thoughts are God’s thoughts, but perhaps our poems are universally our creations. I’m not talking about a real or loving God here, but a really mean figure like Lucifer or Satan.

Is it possible to separate your family life from your public persona as a poet?

I don’t talk about my family in interviews. It’s bad enough to have a family poet, it just doesn’t seem right to talk about them as people when I’m out in the world. I think every writer has a different spectrum of loyalty and betrayal. How we become loyal is that we learn it from those that become loyal to us. My loyalty is not to the generation above, but to my children.

I have some questions about how your family relates to your work, should I not ask them?

I’ll see what I can answer without being too specific.

In the poem ‘I wanted to Be There When My father Died’ from The Father you write: ‘I wanted to watch my father die/because I hated him. Oh I loved him, / my hands cherished him laying him out.’ Could you speak, in some way, about your relationship with him?

When I look at that book, The Father, I see so much love, passion, and sorrow in it. Of course there is anger too: you couldn’t be in a family like mine, without having a lot of anger. Right, but it does say that the speaker in the poem ‘hated’, and then immediately after ‘loved’.

That seems to me to be a fair representation of an ordinary enough relationship, between children and parents in certain kinds of families. I remember after I had finished writing The Father, I felt like I had done something that I was born to do. Like if I hadn’t written that book - in praise of a life, and in mourning for a death - that I would have failed.

Did you make peace with your mother before she died, considering the difficult relationship you had with her when you were a child?

I would look at the collection, One Secret Thing, for the answer to that: there is very much a sense of acceptance of who that mother is in those poems. We can talk about the mother here as a little literary figure. Having said that, the way one treats a human being in poems is not the way one treats someone in real life. It’s hard for me to discuss this any further, since I have this thing about not speaking too directly about the actual people who feature in the poems. I’m wondering also if writers do achieve some balance, by having a place where they can make things in relation to their family. I don’t know what would have happened to me if I didn’t write. I really don’t.

Could you talk about the importance of the physical structure of the body in your poems?

Well I wake up every morning as a physical being. Some people perhaps live a little more in their heads with their ideas, and their thoughts, but I don’t. Partially because I had to empty my mind of thoughts so I could block out that eternal fire that was waiting for me in hell. I learned from childhood to be without thought.

I can see that people might look at my books and think that there is an obsession with the body in my work, but I really just think it’s normal. Since we are born into our bodies, have a whole life so intensely involved with our physical selves, and then we eventually die into them.

Where do you separate the line between your own self-obsessions, catharsis, and what qualifies as art, when you are writing poetry?

I’m trying to move away from self-obsession. Though I do feel that my self-obsession is one about an ordinary person: a woman living in these particular times. So it’s not really as narcissistic as it might seem. I don’t believe that art works very well as therapy. It’s just because so much of us is formed by our early experience. What I am doing is profoundly different from therapy, because when you write poetry, you are trying to make something, rather than working on your actual life.