America's 'greatest living poet' after winning the TS Eliot prize on writing the story of her divorce, why she doesn't make anything up and how unwitting literary fame might affect her ex-husband...
Sharon Olds wrote 'the book of her career'
For all the experimentation with form and subject in the books on the TS Eliot shortlist this year - from Sean Borodale's documentary poems about bee keeping to Simon Armitage's translation of a 15th century poem - in the end, it was poet with a style so familiar to us that won.
Yet Sharon Olds, becoming the first American since 1995 to win the biggest poetry prize in Britain at the age of 70, didn't feel like a safe or a sentimental choice but simply the right one.
She was nominated for 'Stag's Leap', a collection dealing with the circumstances and aftermath of the breakdown of her marriage that crowns a lifetime as the world's leading exponent of confessional poetry. As Carol Ann Duffy, this year's chair of the judging panel said: "This was the book of her career".
Yet taking to the podium on Monday night to accept the prize at London's Wallace Collection museum, Olds seems nervous and a little shocked. I ask her afterwards, as a women frequently described America's greatest living poet, whether awards like this one can really still come as a surprise.
"Here's the thing - writers are not confident people," she tells me. "We work and we hope and we doubt ourselves. And for women of my age, who grew up in very patriarchal times - even more so than it is now - I think the pleasure is in just being able to be writers as the world changes around us. You don't wake up in the morning feeling 'acclaimed'. We try to acclaim ourselves a little bit every day, but not too much. Just some..."
One of the most surprising things about Stag's Leap is how Olds portrays the man who left her for another woman with such kindness. Her manner in person - warm and generous, talking in sweeping circles around a theme or an idea before honing in - seems to fit the voice in the poems. Even still, it must have been an incredibly painful book to work on?
"I like writing," she says. "I like the feeling of the ballpoint pen going over the grocery story notebook (wide-ruled, so I don't feel clipped)."
"Was it a painful time in life? Oh yes. It's hard work, coming out of a marriage. You have to figure out who you really are, who they really are. You have to get through the time and do a lot of mourning, and at the same time, do your job as a human.
"But the times when I was writing were among the better times, like the times I spent with friends or with my kids. There was always plenty of good feeling, but also, in each day, sorrow and hard work to be done."
Whether its writing about her childhood, her children or her marriage, Olds has been ducking one question throughout her career. In poems that appear so personal, how much of what we read is actually real? Is it all as autobiographical as it feels?
"For 30 years I've been asked that, and until recently I had vowed not to talk about my life. It's obvious why I did that when my kids were still young and my parents were still alive. But also, I've always longed to have my work talked about as art, as images, as lines with voices... instead all I got at the start was 'Oh! Did this really happen to you?!'"
"But a few years ago I was being interviewed by this wonderful young poet, and she asked me the question. When I told her I wouldn't talk about it, she looked so sad. I was old enough by then - and she was young enough - for me to think: wait a minute, do I still have to do this? What's so bad about admitting I don't make anything up? So I started admitting that. Now I am happy to talk about how, for me, unlike most poets, the imagination is not very active."
Having confirmed what fans of her poetry have hoped all along - that she is speaking to them from a shared experience - Olds has begun to reflect on why she was drawn to confessional writing in the first place.
Born in 1942 in San Francisco to unhappy and pious parents, she says she recently made the connection between the 'punitive atmosphere' of her formative year and her devotion to depicting real events at all costs.
"It's never been good for me to make things up in poems, because I was born into a Calvinist, puritan life. I was told that bad children go to hell - and I was definitely a bad child. I am happy to say that now, thought I wasn't happy then."
Having emerged from a suffocating childhood, Olds then came of age in an era of female suppression. At that time, just telling the truth felt extraordinary enough.
"When I started writing poems, I wanted to tell the true story. I was an ordinary woman and a full-time mother at a time when women were just beginning to try and be ourselves more. Writing was the closest I could come to the telling truth."
While she is prepared to say that the female character in 'Stag's Leap' is her, and as honest a depiction about her feelings and experiences she could write, she draws the line at revealing how her ex-husband reacted to the publication of such intimate memories.
"It seems to me bad enough to be in the family of an autobiographical poet. No one would sign up for that. It's bad enough without me actually talking about it," she says.
"But I can say I don't regret anything I put in the book, except one line that I am going to change. I read it as if from his point of view, and it seemed a horrible thing to be written about in public. It's not quite true, not quite fair. Being in art is not something all people like."
There is a poem towards the end of Stag's Leap in which the two characters are reunited for a walk that is almost unbearably poignant. It's a depiction of the end of one of life's hardest journeys, through the relentless siren of heartache to the other end, when the feelings of hurt and loss have faded, if not quite vanished.
In a rare moment, the narrator says she is still waiting for her ex to thank her for 'how well she took it'; all the pain and rejection. It's rare because the voice in the poems is so gracious, so dignified, so without self-interest up until this point, the line feels important. Is it?
"The character of the left wife wishes for the husband to express regret for her suffering, which was a necessary accompaniment to him improving his life," she agrees.
"And someone said something to me, after reading it, about the deep importance of apology between humans. How precious it is if someone says they're sorry."
Whether Olds got the apology her character craves isn't something she'd choose to talk about, even if she is now comfortable with her tag as America's great 'confessional poet'. But after articulating a universal pain with such clarity and beauty, she is likely to hear the words 'thank you' fairly often from now on.
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