An Interview with Mary Oliver
Renee Olander | September 1994
In a publishing career now spanning thirty years, Mary Oliver has published nine volumes of poetry, including two chapbooks. Her tenth volume of poems, White Pine, is forthcoming this year. Her book on the craft of writing poetry, A Poetry Handbook, was published by Harcourt Brace last spring. In 1992, Oliver's New and Selected Poems won the National Book Award; House of Light won both the Christopher Award and the L. L. Winship Award in 1991; a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry followed the publication of American Primitive in 1984. Among other awards, Oliver has been the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (1972), a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (1980), and an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Achievement Award in 1983. Oliver currently serves as Banister Writer-in-Residence at Sweet Briar College in Virginia.
Renée Olander: In another interview, published in the Bloomsbury Review, you explained why you gave so few interviews. You said you thought that interviewers often did not ask the important questions, like why does a writer write, and why does he or she choose a particular style or subject matter among all the other possibilities. But then the interviewer didn't ask you those questions.
Mary Oliver: Well, I may have made her a little hesitant, because I think they wanted to do a more personal interview, and I like to talk about work. But she missed the tip, you're quite right.
Because I've been teaching, I've thought a lot about the writing process lately, trying to see what works or what is likely to work. One of the first things I do with students, for example, is ask them to write a schedule and to keep it for the length of time that they work with me. Because the process of writing is not fully understood—we don't know what part of ourselves we use to write, from what part of ourselves the writing comes—it's important to nourish whatever part of ourselves that is the writer, to let that part of ourselves know that the conscious self is a reliable partner to the act of writing a poem. So if you say, "Look, I want to do this, and I'll give it a good try from eight to nine A.M. five days a week," the shyer, less known part of ourselves hears this and says, "Okay, I'll be there."
If the conscious writer, the pretender to the poem, reliably comes and sits at the table, then the part of ourselves that is the writer—very humble, very shy—will also come there, to the table, willing and hopefully able to see through the writing of the poem. That's the reason for discipline. People are always saying, "You must have discipline," but they don't explain why. Indeed it is true, and I believe that's why it's true.
For many years, I worked with a schedule—although not a tight hour-to-hour schedule, because I wrote more than I did anything else. I worked every day. I worked in the morning, as I still do, because the morning hours are my more wakeful hours. But actually, after so many years of writing you become a verbal person, and so the schedule is less important. You have all those years behind you, and it's almost impossible not to begin to make poems, to verbalize one's experience and one's feelings.
Olander: In your discussion of the conscious writer connecting with the subconscious writer, you remind me of Janet McNew's suggestion in "Mary Oliver and the Tradition of Romantic Nature Poetry" that women, in their poems, go back and forth across the boundaries of consciousness more readily, or with less anxiety, than many men.
Oliver: Well I think probably she's talking about subject matter.
Olander: She is—
Oliver: But I'm talking about the parts of the writer, all those parts that must come together in order to proceed—and so I see those as two separate things.
Olander: They are. But they also seem analogous—that poems come from those meetings of consciousnesses within the writer, and that the poems themselves, in their subject matter, embrace those meetings.
Oliver: Yes. There's a certain situation which I have set up in my work, and that is the question of gender. I've tried very hard in my writing not to speak from a specific gender. I've done that on purpose. There are perhaps four or five poems in which the speaker is defined as a woman—and no more than that—which is amazing.
And yet, many younger female critics, especially those who work with feminist precepts—they critique me from a feminist point of view, and I don't always have a lot of patience with it. I don't know the answer to this, and I guess you're fair game once you publish.
Olander: McNew addresses that issue, too—that feminists have criticized you for not being a more overt feminist, and she goes on to say that your poems are fundamentally feminist in their outlook, in the connections with nature, in—
Oliver: But it's her word, not my word. It's something that she thinks, from her point of view, is good, but from my point of view perhaps doesn't exist.
Olander: Actually, the sort of universal transparency of the voice is one aspect of your work that I have always admired; it does seem to be very particular and yet ungendered—a clear spirit.
Oliver: I never had any other notion than that the eye/I of the poem should be not the writer of the poem but the reader of the poem, and that was the point; it's not that I care whether I'm a male voice speaking or a female voice speaking—or anything on a this-world basis—it's that I believe very much and always have that readers want poems that will bring them news of their lives, not news of the poet's life. And this comes past all the traditions of Plath and Lowell and Sexton and et cetera, which I don't find nourishing work. I find it technically brilliant and about as impressive as a hurricane, but it certainly doesn't bring me much information about myself, and I'm not so sure how reliable it is about the self that's speaking.
So that's been a disappointment to me in terms of criticism over the years. I've found what people have said about my work technically interesting, good and bad, but very few female critics can resist defining a work except by what they find to be its feminist point of view. You know, you put a bunch of moons in your poem, and it's a feminine cycle, whether you, the writer, meant for it to attach to gender or not. Some funny things can come out.
Olander: You definitely do have a lot of female imagery in your poems. "Sleeping in the Forest" seems characteristic to me in the female embodiment of the earth.
Oliver: But I must go back and say: What makes you think that the earth is a feminist emblem? A single feminine image doesn't make it so.
Olander: But the poem begins, "I thought the earth remembered me / she took me back—"
Oliver: Yes, but I would also say, "The sun, he..." I'm simply using the gender which is traditional in the English language for such emblematic and mythological entities. We give them gender in order to tell their stories—which are shared stories. But, listen, I receive letters from men, other poets, and strangers and critics, who respond because it's their imagery too, not because it is feminist perception. And it's a little as though feminists say, "This is what I want to find, and so I am going to find it. Behold! I have found it!"
Olander: And probably any critic or reader is likely to find in a text what she or he expects or wants to find.
Oliver: Well, there's the whole business now of deconstruction, too. It gives you a total leeway to find whatever you find. And so I could become, finally, altogether disattached from my own purposes. It's funny—in the making of the poem, gender is the last thing I think about, I mean in the way that you mean. In the poem, which is very often not even a narrative, but a felt effect, sometimes a female point of view, sometimes a male, sometimes neither, seems best for the poem. That is, I use what works. I am thinking about the poem; I use what the poem needs.
Olander: In terms of your process, you said that you can be less strictly disciplined now.
Oliver: I can proceed with less external discipline securing my life because my life is nothing much but doing what I want to do, which is write. The only thing that I've had to do is alter my time a little bit with the responsibilities that come, now, with teaching.
Olander: How do you do that? Do you write as much during the semesters that you teach?
Oliver: I get up earlier! That's been my answer my whole life! They're very helpful at Sweet Briar, and they want me and expect me to continue writing. I'm teaching one class and a couple of independent studies each semester—not much more than that. Also, I see other students who write—that is, who aren't at the moment taking a class with me. These are the responsibilities I signed up for. I write every day, maybe not as long, because I have a lot of their poems to read!
Olander: How much composing of your poems do you do silently, when you are not at a writing table or with paper in front of you—or do you do that?
Oliver: I don't think I do any of it silently. I have a notebook with me all the time, and I begin scribbling a few words. I love the line of Flaubert about observing things very intensely, and I think our duty—a somber word—as writers begins not with our own feelings, but with the powers of observing, and so I may get some words which describe, though I don't know at the time where they're going to move from that. Many of my poems utilize such a format; I see something, later in the poem it strives to be emblematic, not just an instance.
Olander: I picture you climbing on rocks and walking through forests and doing all sorts of things with a little notebook in your pocket.
Oliver: I do have a little notebook, and Provincetown is where I live really privately, and where I walk a lot. When things are going well, you know, the walk does not get rapid or get anywhere; I finally just stop, and write. That's a successful walk!
Once I was in the woods and I had no pen, so later I went around and hid pencils in some of the trees. That's the first thing—to have writing equipment with you! I use the same method now. I go out walking, then I work from the notebooks. Poems themselves will go through maybe seventy drafts. You can be lucky and finish something in two to three weeks, but probably it's going to be two to three months before the final adjustments are made.
I work pretty much alone. I never worked in a workshop; I came along just before that period of time. And by no means do I think that's a lot of bouncing fun—it's really hard to lay stuff out there into the public when you know it's not done.
It is also quite a responsibility to teach and to help without interfering. I have some students with whom I don't, or don't any longer, indicate how something should be fixed, in my opinion—only that I think something's wrong—let them choose their way to fix it. After a workshop, students should have knowledge and options—one must let them fix their work their way.
Olander: Is there anything in particular you like about teaching at Sweet Briar?
Oliver: I went to Sweet Briar for an odd reason, but it worked out very well. My friend, Molly Malone Cook, with whom I live, is doing some writing and research, and she wanted to come to the area that's around Sweet Briar and work in some of the old courthouses, and I wanted to do some teaching for awhile and write a handbook. But her work selected the place where we decided we would like to be. We came down and I read—Michael Waters was there at the time. Later we said, "Well, how would we live down there and do this research?" and then thought of Sweet Briar, and everything just fell into good place. We've been there for two years; I'm the Banister Writer-in-Residence. I'll be here for another three years at least.
Olander: Because the sounds of your poems are so fine, I wonder how much you read aloud as you draft, and whether you read others' poems aloud—do you memorize?
Oliver: I believe that poetry is meant to be heard and is heard by the reading ear. I may not mouth the words, but I actually am picking them up in terms of their sonority, as well as their meaning, certainly.
When I teach I begin with the alphabet, I begin with the question: "What is the difference between a rock and a stone?" I talk a lot about the aspirates, the mute consonants, using Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Just a little time looking at language shows students what great differences there are in sound, how sound changes the tone, the weight of the statement. Students study and think about this, about sound, and they write better. I mean, without consciously placing rich sound in the poem, it appears there. When I first began I did that. I thought about language, consciously, and found myself using it better, unconsciously.
Olander: So you find surprises in your poems?
Oliver: I do, and what I have explored I have found very useful. Sometimes, at a reading, there would be certain passages where a truly deep silence would fall over the audience, it was amazing, and I would go home after the reading and look at the passage and say, "Why? What is happening in this passage that holds the audience so fiercely?" And I'd find something in the sound of it, the construction of it, usually, as well as the sense of it.
This is all the kind of thing which is in A Poetry Handbook, which is a more or less orderly discussion of things which, over the years, I have found to be useful, and interesting. Including sound, but a lot more too, of course—the line, turning the line, diction, and so forth.
Olander: Did you have poems read to you when you were a child?
Oliver: I suppose I did when I was very little. But what captivated me was reading the poems myself and realizing that there was a world without material substance which was nevertheless as alive as any other—the world of the imagination—into which one could go, and stay. And then, as we do, I wanted to make a poem. I was a serious thirteen-year-old and wanted to write. But I don't think precocious, just stubborn. I did a lot of other things, too.
Olander: Did you get positive reinforcement at that age for your own poems?
Oliver: I suppose I did. I'll tell you something about this. I was thirteen—that's over forty years ago. Not to diminish the good things in my life, but I don't talk about my childhood because it's time we all get a new subject.
Olander: I have found that when I bring the same poems into groups of elementary and middle school children as I bring into my college classrooms, the younger ones often connect more freshly, and more courageously, with the poems than my college students.
Oliver: The problem is that the older one gets, the more one protects oneself and one's response. I worked for a week some years ago at a school—classes from kindergarten on up—and the little ones came and sat around me and moved like grass in the wind, their eyes wide, listening—they loved it. And as the grades went up, the students got more and more closed into themselves. In the sixth grade there was still eye contact. The high-school classes were stiff little faces—they could be wrong, best to show nothing. And yet, you have to toss it out, the poem, the lines, like little leaves of fire, and somebody will catch hold of something and go home, where they won't be seen, and rejoice.
Olander: Do you believe we all have the poet in us?
Oliver: Yes. The poem isn't finished to me until it is read. It's important that it reach readers, that people realize the poet as well as the poem within themselves. It hardly matters who wrote it and who's reading it, as long as it gets the whole trip.
Olander: In terms of helping students make poems—what do you do? In your Bloomsbury Review interview you referred to assigning exercises.
Oliver: I do exercises for two reasons. First, so that students will practice whatever technique we're talking about—it's one thing to have an understanding of a technique and it's another to employ it. Also, I find that exercises help to give a class cohesion—the students are always interested in what everybody else is doing, when all of them are to do the same thing.
Olander: Do you find that your students have read much poetry? Do you assign poems for them to read?
Oliver: I do assign poems for them to read, but I don't assign by poet. I'll give them models of the various techniques we're discussing. Their tastes range widely and they're pretty resistant, not to reading but to reading carefully, to memorizing, to reading as writers. Which almost tells you the division between those who might become writers and those who will not. Those who might become writers can't get enough, and those who will never become writers just let it slip away as fast as they can.
Olander: What do you read—how much contemporary poetry, science, fiction?
Oliver: I read quite a bit of science. I bought James Gleick's book Chaos recently—that's going to be tough. I also just finished reading a couple Virginia Woolf books—of course not for the first time! I read Mrs. Dalloway to get through a long airplane ride, and then, lo and behold, I had another airplane ride, and I took To the Lighthouse.
Olander: That's such a great book!
Oliver: It's a wonder. I've read it before, and I like to return to books such as that. I'm not partial to biography, but I found a book—I have to cut the pages of this copy as I go along—a wonderful book, in a second hand bookshop, by a man named Horace Trauble. Twice a day he visited Whitman in Camden—I mean, at 10 o'clock in the morning and seven at night he's having his visit with Whitman, it's absolutely amazing.
I pretty much read poetry as people send me books or someone I know or admired has a new book out. All sorts of reasons send me to particular books, of course. I do a fair amount of work as a judge on panels, for example.
Olander: What favorite books of poems do you return to?
Oliver: Whitman, certainly. Whitman a lot, Blake a lot. Hmmm. I also this year read all of Keats's letters, and then I read the Amy Lowell biography—I've read the Ward before—and that of course sent me back to Keats's work, which of course I read with fair frequency anyway. But those always: Keats, Blake, and Whitman. Over and over.
Olander: Of your own books, do you have a favorite?
Oliver: I like what I'm doing now. I think House of Light worked well. I'm happy when I get to reading from that book. But—a kind of sweet thing happened: I had never written any prose poems, but after so much concentration on the line and the musicality of the line, I've been giving, as a final exercise in the workshops, the writing of a prose poem—and then I said, "Well, I've never written a prose poem!" So I began. A few have been published. White Pine will be subtitled Poems and Prose Poems.
Olander: What do you think of Lewis Turco's opinion that poems which are not metered are in fact prose poems—that "free verse" is a misnomer?
Oliver: There are almost no good or useful or wise discussions of the function of design—which primarily depends upon the intent and the construction of the line and the line-turn—in free verse. Why do you turn the line where you turn it? What are the various effects which result from the way you turn it? What can happen if you break it this way or you break it that way? The careful and understanding prosody of the free-verse poem remains to be written—and until it is, free verse will be considered a form more without meter than with its own engineered design.
Olander: I imagine you are a music lover.
Oliver: Oh, yes. I'm very fond of the art song, Schumann and Schubert and Brahms and Mahler. In the last few years, I've preferred chamber music to the full orchestra. Always, of course, the human voice, song and opera.
Olander: Could we move to the big questions: What do you dream to write? And why do you write?
Oliver: I'm not sure they're answerable. Certainly I am, now, more enthralled than ever with what language can do. And I can't wait to try something new, all the time. I have less athleticism than I had twenty-five years ago, but no less desire. I think I'm a little more inventive than I was; it takes a writer so long to get over the honest and diligent and necessary imitation.
So, you know, part of it is, I do it because I like to do it. Also, now, I do it because I can do it. I mean, what if I woke up tomorrow and decided I wanted to be a musician? I don't have it in me to go back and learn how to do something new; I don't have the patience or the time or the equipment. I'm equipped to write.
As for what or why I write, I do think that art is necessary to our lives—to an intelligent and civilized life.
Olander: Not the frosting, but the cake.
Oliver: Yes, we can live without it, but not well. And it can make a real difference in a person's life. The Rilke poem, the poem that ends, "You must change your life," this is the important news of every poem.
Olander: So many of your poems directly point to the reader, and tell the reader something about how to live. Having first read, years ago, "Sleeping in the Forest," and "Mussels," and then going to find your books—
Oliver: You must have been reading Robert Bly's book News of the Universe.
Olander: Yes, and how did you like that book, your classification in it?
Oliver: I liked it fine. I admire Bly a lot. Someone said, "Read everything he says, take 70% away, and you've got pure gold." His enthusiasm, they meant, can sometimes obscure the gold, but it's there.
Olander: The year he came to Old Dominion University's Literary Festival he gave a reading in which he wore masks and told legends as well as poems—he's such a great performer. I've heard him read a couple of times, and he tends to repeat poems during the reading, particularly short poems that go by very quickly; I have rarely been to a reading where a poet did that and I think that, because of the compression, it's a good idea—listeners really appreciate the repetition. Have you ever done that?
Oliver: I've thought about it. Someday I'd like to give a reading of the same six poems over and over. I was at a concert a couple weeks ago and a faculty member at Sweet Briar—Allen Huszti, of the Music Department—sang like an angel and the audience clapped for an encore and he sang a song again which he had sung in the program, which was the smartest thing—to let us hear it again, just gorgeous to hear it the second time.
Olander: I'd like you to talk about the poem "Ghosts."
Oliver: In "Ghosts" I tried to walk around the subject, tried to break the continuity of the narrative, have a narrative flow in and out of it. I was able to move from a very journalistic passage to a very rhetorical passage to a very lyrical passage. And I also learned a lot about placement on the page at that time.
Olander: Also the insistency of the voice in that poem, the "Have you noticed?" especially in the sixth section, is very powerful.
Oliver: Hopefully, one thinks the poem is over at that point. So that the final section is a surprise.
Olander: It forces the reader to keep at the whole poem in a way that is difficult, keeps the poem from clicking shut. It would be easier if the poem closed after the last, "Have you noticed?"
Oliver: The last section reinvolves the reader in the poem, in a hopeless wish. It spreads culpability beyond what happened to the buffalo, to what has happened to our own chances for a decent and happy and nondestructive history.
Olander: Your poems are intensely spiritual, in that they imbue what is around us with various kinds of consciousness that much of what we read and are taught would deny.
Oliver: Maybe that's why I like Robert Bly's book so much. The way he just says, this is what it's about: consciousness is not exclusive. I certainly don't think that consciousness is exclusive! A theme that I tackle over and over and over again is the consciousness and status and, if you will, holiness of the other creatures in this world. Not to speak of wood and stone and water!
You know, there's a problem—I tried to write about it in the Handbook—so many people now are more familiar with cities, or with urban settings—and all the same, the world of nature is the great warehouse of our figurative language. And it will never be any other way—those figures have to involve a felt experience—the felt experience I mean, with the natural world. Romeo says, "It is the east, and Juliet is the sun," and if you've never been up at dawn in the radiant countryside, you can't know what that's all about. That's something that students are kind of resistant to. Because they have to go out and do it—that's another part of the work.
Do you know the story of Flaubert and the weekend of work? Apocryphal, perhaps, but. . . . Friends stopped by and said to him, "Come with us, we're going down to Italy for the weekend, we'll have a good time." And Flaubert said, "I can't, I'm working, I have a lot to do this weekend." And the friends tried to persuade him, but, no, he insisted he had to work. "Come back and tell me about it," he said. So they did, they went to Italy and they came back and said, "We had a wonderful time; we hope you got a lot of work done to have missed it." And Flaubert said, "I did, I really worked. I'm glad I stayed and worked. On Saturday, I took out a semicolon. And on Sunday, I put it back."
That's the process. That's how it is. As slow and wonderful as that. I'm sure Flaubert felt fine. One can go to Italy, after all, any time.
Renée Olander teaches literature and creative writing at Old Dominion University. Her poetry has appeared in numerous magazines.