Sunday, March 3, 2013

A Few (Unsolicited) Lessons from Sharon Olds

Sharon Olds Reading 
Columbus College of Art & Design

As some of my fellow poets and friends know, I was fortunate enough to take part in a 5-day workshop with Sharon Olds back in 2005 at the Esalen Institute, a beautiful retreat atop a seaside cliff of northern California in Big Sur country. While one of my fondest memories of that experience is of falling asleep each night with the sound of the Pacific crashing against the rocks at the base of the cliff outside, I also will never forget the amazing workshops with Sharon. She, like her poetry, is honest, introspective, and relentless in tackling her demons—both internal and external. For those of us who love her poetry, this may be the biggest reason why.

The Esalen workshops taught me a lot about my own work, such as how to take chances in my poems, and so again did the evening this past Thursday at Columbus College of Art and Design (CCAD), where Sharon gave a wonderful reading, sandwiching a “conversation” period between two segments of poetry. Walking away from the auditorium—which was packed, by the way—I reflected on some of the notes I’d taken and share them here.

During the first set of poems, she read a gripping piece that tackled the horrific act of the rape (and I suspect murder) of a young girl by a man. After the poem ended, there was an overwhelming silence in the auditorium, and for a few seconds you could tell the audience was in a bit of shock, tension filled the room as we reeled a bit from Ms. Olds’ forthright yet masterful treatment of the subject. There was a pause, as reader and audience stayed silent for a few moments. Then little joke, like a good reader or performer would do, she made a little joke—nothing over the top—and that tension was eased. The small laughs from the audience acted as a reset button, so that she could move on to the next poem without her peers being too distracted by this gripping poem.

At one point during the “middle act,” Sharon answered questions from the audience and addressed one about her process—a question that seems to be mandatory for any featured poet, along with questions about one’s poetic influence(s) and who he/she is currently reading. Her answer included an explanation that she writes all poems by hand—as do I—in the pages of wide-ruled, spiral-bound notebooks using a plain ballpoint pen. But she also described her revising process, noting: “I take away half the adjectives and one-third of the self-pity,” a remark that drew considerable laughter.

For the most part, I would describe Sharon Olds as a very good reader/performer, primarily because she’s open, honest, and uses humor very well, which I think is a key for any featured poet. Nonetheless, I was a bit distracted by the way she periodically checked her wrist watch. Don’t get me wrong, a good reader should have an eye on the clock and keep to the schedule. But it shouldn’t be so obvious. She could have taken her watch off and set it on the podium, giving it an occasional glance. If there was any flaw to her performance, that would be it. Otherwise, she held the audience in the palm of her hand.

Chuck Salmons
OPA Vice President
March 3, 2013