In celebration of National Poetry Month, members of the Guilford Poets Guild were invited to share their thoughts about poetry and the life of a poet. Here’s what poet Sharon Olson had to say.
How did you come to being a poet?
I used to write rhymed poems and epics as a teenager, but wrote my first “serious” poems at age 30. I was in a “serious” relationship with a man who was a poet. I used to type up his manuscripts to send to the annual Yale Younger Poet contest, but he never won. My poems started to flow as we began to break up.
Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote?
I don’t know if this is the first poem (in the above series), but it certainly is a very early poem:
The oven repairman
said he’d return next week
with a new dial; meanwhile,
up for low, down for high
I told him that wouldn’t be
difficult, people do
that to me all the time
What else do you write besides poetry? Do you have other creative pursuits?
I love traveling and taking photographs, and have filled up many notebooks. I also have become a “certified” (as in obsessive…) genealogist. With a co-author I have written nine articles about the history of a New Jersey family for the Genealogical Magazine of New Jersey.
What has been the defining moment in your life as a poet/writer?
Defining moment number one: taking a poetry workshop from Frances Mayes in Palo Alto, California in 1979. Defining moment number two: a chapbook of my poems won a contest judged by Carolyn Forché and was published in 1987. Defining moment number three: my full-length book of poetry was accepted by Sixteen Rivers Press of San Francisco in 2004.
How long have you been a member of the Guilford Poets Guild and what’s that like?
I joined the Guild in 2008 after arriving in Guilford with my husband, an adventurous cross-country move we made from the Bay Area of California to the East Coast. This group always made me feel at home, gave great critiques, and seems to have forgiven me even though I abandoned them when we moved to Lawrenceville, New Jersey in 2012. I am still a “virtual” member.
What inspires your writing today?
Inspiration usually either comes from a memory from the past, or people or events I have recently read about, and often all of those things get combined. Many of my poems are ekphrastic (written as a response to a piece of art). I was an art history major in college, and studied at a campus in Florence, Italy.
Describe your poem-writing process.
I don’t know. The poem just sort of lets me know it’s coming. I have to be ready.
Where do you like to write? With what?
Because I don’t control the process (see question above), I’m not sitting at a desk like a typical poet. One of the oddest things that has happened to me many times is that a poem will come to me when I am at a classical music concert. So I write with a pen all over the program. If we are sitting in the front row I always worry the musicians will think I am a reviewer.
Who are your favorite poets and authors?
Probably the people that influenced me most were the ones that I was lucky to work with as a young poet. These include Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, Carolyn Forché, Bob Hass, and William Stafford. Poets I have learned to love later in life include August Kleinzahler, Robert Pinsky, Seamus Heaney and Adam Zagajewski.
What book are you currently reading? (poetry or not)
I read novels more than poetry. The last book I read that I really recommend is Richard Powers’ The Overstory.
Poem in Your Pocket Day is celebrated during National Poetry Month in April. What’s your favorite poem to carry about or share with others?
This poem almost doesn’t fit in one’s pocket, Adam Zagajewski’s “Lullaby.”
No sleep, not tonight. The window blazes.
Over the city, fireworks soar and explode.
No sleep: too much has gone on.
Rows of books stand vigil above you.
You’ll brood on what’s happened
and what hasn’t. No sleep, not tonight.
Your inflamed eyelids will rebel,
your fiery eyes sting,
your heart swell with remembrance.
No sleep. The encyclopedias will open
and poets, dressed carefully,
bundled for winter, will stroll out one by one.
Memory will open, with a sudden hiss
like a parachute’s. Memory will open,
you won’t sleep,
rocked slowly through clouds,
an easy target in the firework’s glow.
No sleep: so much has gone on,
so much been revealed.
You know each drop of blood
could compose its own scarlet Iliad,
each dawn author
a dark diary.
under the thick blanket of roofs, attics,
and chimneys casting out handfuls of ash.
Pale nights row noiselessly into the sky,
their oars silk stockings delicately rustling.
You’ll go out to the park, and tree limbs
will amiably thump your shoulder, making
sure, confirming your fidelity. No sleep.
You’ll race through the uninhabited park,
a shadow facing more shadows.
You’ll think of someone who’s no more
and of someone else living so fully
that her life at its edges changes
to love. Light, more light
gathers in the room. No sleep, not tonight.
Any last words?
Let’s call them further thoughts, rather than last words…! Because of the current coronavirus epidemic, I had a delightful email interaction with one of my great-nieces who lives in Arlington, Virginia. She had been assigned to write a paper on Emily Dickinson’s “There’s a Certain Slant of Light.” Through back-and-forth discussions, I think I helped her see how there could be various interpretations of the poem, and also how the poet herself might have approached writing it. She commented that often in the classroom students get the idea there is only one way. After talking with me she realizes there are many roads into a poem, and how the poet might actually be encouraging different meanings to emerge, and how this is one important way poetry is different from writing in prose.
The Scriven Arts Colony in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, asked Sharon (a summer resident there) to do a 10-minute reading from her work “to help get us all through this long and frightening quarantine.” CLICK HERE to watch the video now.
Sharon Olson‘s book Will There Be Music came out in early 2019 from Cherry Grove. Her previous book The Long Night of Flying was published by Sixteen Rivers Press in 2006. A retired librarian from California, she currently lives in Lawrenceville, New Jersey where since 2015 she has been a member of Cool Women Poets critique and performance group. She has also been a member of the Guilford Poets Guild since 2008. You can see more of her writing on her blog Slopoet Tells All.