Sharon Olds is one of contemporary poetry’s leading voices. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award, Olds is known for writing intensely personal, emotionally scathing poetry which graphically depicts family life as well as global political events.
Olds’s candor has led to both high praise and condemnation. Her work is often built out of intimate details concerning her children, her fraught relationship with her parents and, most controversially, her sex life.
Olds’s latest book, Stag’s Leap (2012), includes poems that explore details of her recent divorce, and the book won both the Pulitzer Prize and Britain’s T.S. Eliot prize. In awarding the latter, Carol Ann Duffy, chair of the final judging panel, said: “This was the book of her career. There is a grace and chivalry in her grief that marks her out as being a world-class poet. I always say that poetry is the music of being human, and in this book she is really singing. Her journey from grief to healing is so beautifully executed.”
Olds has won numerous awards for her work, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Widely anthologized, her work has also been published in a number of journals and magazines. She was New York State Poet from 1998 to 2000, and currently teaches in the graduate writing program at New York University.
Which book most influenced you when growing up?
The Bible — the Psalms and Song of Solomon.
Describe your writing space – what’s in it and why?
Window overlooking water, trees, sky (city or country); train, bus (window seat); any window overlooking anything.
Who or what had the biggest impact on your writing life?
4/4 time of church hymnal; music — classical and rock & roll; stories to tell.
The word I most think of while reading your poetry is fearless. What are you afraid of?
Everything. (I’m copying Adrienne Rich!)
Do you have a word or phrase that you most overuse?
Golden sweet amber bright etc.!!
So many reviewers compare your work to music. How do you perceive the relationship between words and sound?
I didn’t know that — I’m happy! I guess I perceive the relationship with my ears, body (dancing, walking), breathing, and eyes.
Is there a book you were supposed to love but didn’t? Or one you expected to hate and fell for?
Supposed to but: the book of child martyrs I won as a choir prize (loudest voice).
What’s your view on the future of poetry?
Do you have a guilty reading pleasure?
For essential escape from my own mind, for mental travel, for emotion, for the study of guilt and fear and (someone else’s) (imaginary) danger, I read detective stories and murder mysteries (no horror).
Your legacy will be both poetry and poets – what do you learn from teaching?
How to listen, how to pay attention to 12 people at once, how to describe, what life is like now for the young, how poetry changes with the changing world.
Which work has impressed you most this year?
The advances the younger poets have made away from sentimentality and self-pity.
In a parallel universe, what job would you be doing?
If it’s right beside us, a mirror opposite, I would be writing poems backwards.
Would you share a line from a review you liked?
May I share a poem which contains a line from a review?