Last night I found myself in bed with Sharon Olds. Laid flat, the sheet sat neatly between my left arm, over my chest, between my right arm. Her lilting voice told me of her first memory of writing poetry:
Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
Borrowed from an inscription of a motto on the New York postal service building, the line sits well as a tight epigram. Aged just eight, Olds handed the line to her teacher as a found poem, an early sign of her acuteness for the musicality of language. It comforted me that more than fifty years on, her memory held on tight to the rhythm of those words and their meaning. And the more she spoke, the more I felt her speaking voice carry its own kind of poetry, softened but not sombre with age.
Olds leans upon image as a device to articulate the intricacies of transformation thought. Not only does she see the ends of her lines as the tips of twigs, her diary is full of stickers that encapsulate moments, felt by her or witnessed. She admits that she never redrafted her early poems, pointing to a stubborn reluctance to be censored, even by herself. Today she edits her work with, as she says, a conscious effort to please change. With each word that falls from her mouth I wonder if she even thinks in poems.
This conversation - a podcast - found me at just the right time. To have one of America’s foremost living poets remind you that all writers share an innate lack of confidence helps to soothe that niggling something that keeps crackling in my head. Nestled in the crook of her arms, Olds tells me to just work to love yourself as much as you can. Not more than the people around you…but not so much less.
Suddenly the dark of my room seemed somehow less black. Her best advice for budding poets? Take your vitamins.