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19 February 2023

Sharon Olds’ Q&A: “I wished I could travel back to take Keats penicillin”

The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet on the Obamas, Aretha Franklin and the death of the Amazon.

By New Statesman

Sharon Olds was born in San Francisco in 1942. She is the winner of both the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the 2012 TS Eliot Prize, for her collection Stag’s Leap. She teaches at New York University.

What’s your earliest memory?

I am lying on my back in an old, deep baby crib with bars (handed down from my elder sister), and a woman is singing.

Who are your heroes?

I don’t think I had a childhood hero. There were a couple of girls in my school (Lyn Hall and Elizabeth Ewer) who were nice to everyone in a direct way: I looked up to them and loved them. Heroes as an adult? Gwendolyn Brooks. George Oppen. Muriel Rukeyser. Lucille Clifton. CD Wright. Patricia Smith. Danez Smith. 

What book last changed your thinking?

Zadie Smith, NW. Peter Carey, A Long Way from Home. The poems of Toi Derricotte, Joy Harjo, Forrest Gander, Camille Dungy, Chase Twichell, Claudia Rankine, Matthew Zapruder, Ada Limón.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Barack and Michelle Obama. And Raphael Warnock!

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What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

Someone told me once that I use more metaphors having to do with sewing and mending than most poets.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I choose here and now. Though I’d like to go back and give better answers to questions my kids asked me when they were young – answers based more, and more explicitly, on self-acceptance and self-care. And I used to spend time hating that I could not travel further back, and take Keats some penicillin.

What TV show could you not live without?

NBA play-offs, March Madness.

Who would paint your portrait?

Sam Messer, who did the American cover for Balladz.

What’s your theme tune?

I used to try to dance (what was called, then, dirty rock ’n’ roll) to two pieces of music at once, boom boxes on either side of the room – one of them a late Beethoven, one Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“Be yourself.” They didn’t mean it, but they said it. And what a good thing to hear, when you’re eight or ten or 12, and eccentric, a junior artist. I think that when I’m writing – by hand, in a wide-ruled, grocery-store notebook – I can play with what it might mean to be oneself. Since no one will ever see what I’m writing – unless I type it up, revise it, send it out into the world – I feel OK to indulge my impulsive nature, fool around, let some high jinks pull me.

What’s currently bugging you?

The oncoming death of the Amazon rainforest.

What single thing would make your life better?

If a daily art period – drawing, poems, dance, music – were to be part of the curriculum of every school everywhere.

When were you happiest?

Two times – life with the kids, and when I realised Carl (1944-2020) and I loved each other equally.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Childcare – drawing with, dancing with, talking with children.

Are we all doomed?

If we could do it, we might doom ourselves to protect the Earth. How?! You first! OK, I’ll go first: how?

“Balladz” by Sharon Olds is published by Jonathan Cape

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This article appears in the 22 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Undoing of Nicola Sturgeon