“You were very enthusiastic about writing poetry,” she says, as I hand her my copy of her latest book to sign. “You are a good poet!” “So are you!” I reply, pretty boldly I admit, but on this Pulitzer and I agree. I’ve been listening to Sharon Olds for over twenty years now, and each time, her work has grown, spurred on by her commitment to recording her truth.
I had the great good fortune of participating in not one, but two workshops with Olds in the early 2000s at the Omega Institute. My schedule was limited, so I was only free to do the weekend editions, but my employment at the time did make paying the impressive tuition easy. Money well spent. There was no work there, just a group of us who’d passed the application process, who’d demonstrated a commitment to poetry. She wrote along with us too, shared her rough drafts, offered comments on ours. She established a protocol of respect in those workshops which I’ve tried to emulate in my own attempts to lead my own workshops.
She is a delight in person, playful and wise all at once. For many years she hid her truth behind a firm assertion that the Speaker in her poem could not necessarily be assumed to be the Poet herself. She still does so today, but with a wink, acknowledging what we have known all along. Age and circumstance have always informed her work, as well as a thorough habit of observation I envy. She likens worms dug from the ground, in shape and color, to penises. She is not shy either of sharing intimate moments, odes to her breasts and clitoris. She writes about these things not for the shock value, but because they are precious parts of her body’s family. She gives them their due.
After the workshops, I had the pleasure of hearing Olds read at the old Dodge Poetry Festival, usually under the big colored lights of the Main Tent, her words transcribed by a frantic typist to the big running sign for those seated in the back. Crossing paths with her on the grounds, she was always gracious, always gave the impression that she recalled our time in the workshop. It’s happened so often I may begin to believe it soon. In recent years, she has slowed down somewhat. For a time, she divided herself between Manhattan and New Hampshire, in what must have been a schizophrenic lifestyle. It seems she is securely settled back down in the City full-time for now. A trip to Albany was probably one she knew well, from her days as our state Poet Laureate. I’m glad she made the journey again last night.
Olds' newest collection, Arias, was published a week ago, and of course I got it. I have never been disappointed by her books, and Arias is perhaps the richest example of her art. There’s a depth, a self-reflection in it, as it dashes forward and back, that is deeply satisfying to me. Old friends are mentioned, other poets, the many poets she’d been close to who’ve passed, and she looks towards her own ending, too. I’m only halfway through, but I’m glad I have the day off to plow through the rest. Plowing is a good thing, especially in material this nutritious.
There is something about seeing her older, a cane, hearing less sharp than before, that isn’t sad so much as a firm sign of how long I’ve been observing her. She is aging, I am aging, and the world around us seems to be on fire, again. It has survived before, even as empires thought to be immortal did not. Olds signed my book, and I told her how beautiful she was. Her long hair is almost white now, clipped haphazardly away from her face, and her face is smooth and free of paint. I asked her, hesitantly, if I could hug her, and she agreed. I thanked her for coming, pressing close for a moment. What I really meant was, thank you for being.