It was my first time seeing Olds in person, and I was stuck by how young she looks. Although she has a head of thick, long gray hair, her frame is slender, bird like, and her skin is smooth, taut, and fresh. I sound like I wanted to put her on a plate like a scone, don’t I?
She read from her latest book, One Secret Thing, which she explained is not the norm for most poets, that usually they read a variety of poems, some from the collection, but others that might be currently published in various literary magazines.
Olds stood behind a plexiglass podium, in front of ten-foot long plaques describing the young writing life of Margaret Mitchell. Poet Thomas Lux, who has a large following in his own right, introduced Sharon Olds as one of those rare poets who has readers in the thousands, which he attributed to her “fearlessness, clarity, passion, intensity, and drive to tell the truth.”
Olds skipped around in the book, started with a poem that had us laughing, went back to the beginning of the book with poems about war, and then read poems about her mother’s illness and death.
We fell out of our seats laughing from her poem, Self Portrait, Rear View in which she describes her aging bootie as seen in a wall mirror in a hotel bathroom.
She was very humble, and admitted to writing sentimental lines that were cut only when a friend read them and made a funny drawing next to them to tease her. She said “I write lots of poems, and few I rarely show to anyone.” She even mocked her own reading of a line right after she said it, saying, no I sounded like a teenager. This is how I meant it, and then repeated the line. I loved that she was so self-effacing, unstuffy, both serious and lighthearted in turns.
After reading twelve to fourteen poems, Olds took questions from the crowd. Even though she had created an atmosphere of intimacy and trust, as an audience we were shy. I mean, this was Sharon Olds! One of the best questions came from a high school student, who asked her who the “I” was in her poems.
After a ten-minute reply that turned philosophical, Olds turned to the girl and said, “Was that a long enough answer for you?”
But what she said was very interesting. She explained how she never would say whether or not her poems were autobiographical, had actually made a vow never to reveal her personal life or answer interview questions about whether her poems came from actual life, but that one day in an interview she changed her mind. She went on to say that the “I” in her poems is Sharon Olds, but that this “I”represents only one aspect of her psyche, that the persona or narrator of her poems is far bolder than she is in actual life, that she as a person is far more fearful.
She also said to the young people present to write about anything they want to, that they shouldn’t let the old people tell them what poetry is. “I do not know what poetry is,” she said, “I think it changes.”
To top off the evening she asked that the cameras be turned off, and then read to us a poem she had written that very morning! She had written it in honor of a person she had met in Atlanta. And it blew me away. I was floored with the moment she created, the truth of her words, and her generosity of spirit to share her brand new poem with us.
So, can you tell I liked the reading? I also got to see my new BFF Collin Kelley, an Atlanta poet who does amazing work for the political and the literary community. Stay tuned–I’m going to write about his latest doings tomorrow.
Collin Kelley has written a thoughtful review of One Secret Thing and Sharon Old’s reading, full of behind the scenes tidbits and his unique perspective as an established Atlanta poet.