Sharon Olds at Clark County Central Library. December 3, 2016.
D.K. Sole has worked at UNLV's Marjorie Barrick Museum since it changed its focus to fine art in 2012. An artist and former resident of Melbourne, Australia, she held her first one-woman Las Vegas show, 'Some Time Ago," in 2015 at Clark County's Winchester Gallery. She was co-manager for the highly praised downtown Las Vegas gallery, Satellite Contemporary. She loves poetry.
By D.K. Sole
"I've always known Vegas was a great poetry town but I feel it this visit," said Sharon Olds, poet, PhD, winner of the Pulitzer and T.S. Eliot Prizes (for her autobiographical 2012 collection, "Stag's Leap"), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award (for her 1984 book, "The Dead and the Living"), former New York poet laureate, as she stood in the Clark County Library on the 3rd of December, speaking to us.
She is kind, I thought, startled.
The glamour shot on the poster made her look resolute and polished, but in person it became clear that she pursued a strategy of indirectness, shifting her position around an idea with a battery of soft probes rather than snatching it up immediately. During the Q&A she answered people by telling them anecdotes until at one point she interrupted herself by adding: "My answer to it as a question is, I don't know. That's my answer to almost all questions. I just don't know things, I don't know things." And because she spoke so clearly and thoughtfully I had the impression that "I don't know things" was an awareness that she had arrived at some time ago by asking herself how much she really knew about things and then coming to the conclusion that she did not know them completely enough; therefore she could not say that she knew them.
Or she did not know them in a way that would have made a short, direct answer seem honest, because thing itself was not that simple, or she could not conceive of it that way. In other words, her sentence, "I don't know things," did not seem to stem from bewilderment, ignorance or avoidance, but from consideration and regard for the truth.
When it came to her own feelings she became forthright; here she established her authority. "That made me so happy to read! That made me so happy!" she told us after reeading "Bathing the New Born" (1984). a poem about her baby son in the bath. The bath happened over forty years ago, she said, so she'd had enough time to revise the poem until it was the way she wanted it. The son is now the actor Gabriel Olds. "Thank you for staying with that for so long," she said after a poem about her mother, "I've never read anything that long to anyone, ever, ever!"
Earlier, as she was being introduced, before she approached the podium, she had been described to us as a writer who chooses her words with exceptional care. To me it appears that she works – in her poems as well as her speech – by the whole anecdote rather than the individual unit of a word. Olds does not select her words so as to test them, or to make the sound of them by consonant or syllable. Her word-games take the shape of playful spurts that come and go. Using the word "left" to describe her ex-husband's actions in "Stag's Leap," she is inspired to continue on with it, usefully:
But when the word "left" comes up again nine lines later it is not positioned so that your memory of the earlier lines will give it extra heft. The poem is written to be read aloud, to an audience that will laugh at the unexpected jump into "left right left" and not expect to have a keen memory of anything that happened nine lines ago; a page-reader, however, can look back.
The long-range sharpnesses of alliteration and rhyme don't appeal to her, as they do to other recent poets such as Paul Muldoon. For more than one reason she does not come up with lines like John Skelton's:
Nor does she place her words under great stress, as Geoffrey Hill, more than any other recent poet, did before he died last June. Like her he often reminded you that the mysteries he would have liked to understand were by their nature beyond him. But Olds was stimulated by the Beats (the publication of Ginsberg's "Howl" in 1956 was a key moment for her, she said). Hill was not. He worked by way of densely-packed, composted thought while she writes transparently, turning the ends of her verse-stories back on themselves as a form of reflective punctuation. One piece of knowledge, though, runs alike through both of them – that one of the side effects of poetry is to give doubt a shape that allows it to compete with certainty.
Poet and educator Heather Lang with poet Sharon Olds.
Above: Stephen Hendee created sculpture for the celebration of 30 years of public art programming in the City of Las Vegas.