After the Escape: Sharon Olds on Stag’s Leap

As readers of Sharon Olds’s poetry, we’re used to knowing, or feeling that we know, what’s going on in Olds’s life. The “I” in Olds’s poems is meant to be one who is close to or identical to the Olds that lives, breathes, chronicles, and discovers what she thinks by writing about it.

Indeed, since her first book, Satan Says, came out in 1980, Olds has made her career as a poet of the personal, forging a language of intimate detail that includes subjects as private as douching and ovaries, as well as tackling sex, love, marriage, and her struggles with her parents. Now, in Stag’s Leap, her latest book of poetry, Olds records the months before and after the dissolution of her thirty-year marriage.

Sometimes, when recording things as small as the movement of her gaze, her poems feel immediate. They capture the kind of upending moments that make divorce surreal — like the moment when furniture leaves a house or the moment when the person being left actually comforts the person who is leaving. But even as these poems feel immediate, they have been delayed by time. Olds has waited fifteen years — half as long as her marriage existed — to put the book together.

Olds, who teaches in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at NYU, and who helped found NYU’s writing workshops for veterans at Goldwater Hospital, spoke with me by telephone about how she composed her new collection and what consolation art can offer in the face of loss. —Tess Taylor

The Barnes & Noble Review: These poems intimately trace the year after a divorce, season by season, in close detail, but then end with a sequence that moves quite far away, a kind of zooming out that lets the reader know that the construction of the book has been years in the making. How did the actual book come together? How did you craft this work?

Sharon Olds: Well, when I put a book together, I look for what I think are the best poems; I guess I ask them to tell me, when I spread them out on the dining room floor, what their order is, how I should make an outer organization to reflect them. I wrote many many poems about the parting, and so, much later, when I began to think of making a book of those poems, I found a lot from that first year. I suppose the construction of the book felt like an approximation of a chronology. First, I went month by month, and then I wanted to pull the lens back and go season by season, moving from shock to grief, and then pulling out to years after. Some of those poems were written just a few years ago, but most of them were within the few years following.

BNR: Indeed, you’ve been gathering these poems for some time. How long has it been?

SO: I said to our kids — our grown children — that I wouldn’t put a book together for ten years; I thought it’s weird enough having a parent that’s a family poet! So I told them it won’t be for ten years, and it turned out to be longer than that. It’s been fifteen years, and these poems were written over the fifteen years, in a spirit of slow learning.

It takes a while to get over thirty years! When a poem came to me, I would write it in terms of itself, not thinking about whether or not it would eventually be in a book. And when that last poem came along, that poem of release, I didn’t know it would be the last poem in the book. But later, when I began to put Stag’s Leap together, I saw it should be the last one.

BNR: You just mentioned your considerations for your kids. I wonder also about your considerations for your ex-husband. For instance, your title, Stag’s Leap. Were you at all worried that it would seem like a jab at him, that he would seem somehow old?

SO: I don’t think the picture on the wine bottle is old! I don’t think of stags as old. The title seemed to me to fit — but I asked people in different walks of life about it. Most people said the title made them think of a deer getting away. I guess I thought of the male deer leaping, of the male deer as a beautiful leaper. In the dictionary, I don’t find an age for “stag.” It is an ageless male — a grown one, surely, but not an old one.

If I hadn’t written that poem, “Stag’s Leap,” and it hadn’t appeared in The New Yorker, and the owner of the winery hadn’t sent me a big bottle of Stags’ Leap Cabernet Sauvignon — who knows?! As it was it just felt like the right title and title poem. It contains a line “When anyone escapes, my heart / leaps up. Even when it’s I who am escaped from…”

All the poems, of course, are from the point of view of the speaker in the poems — the “I.” But I didn’t want the book to be too lopsided, I wanted it to reflect some understanding of — I wanted it to sing, insofar as it could, both members of the former couple.

BNR: In Stag’s Leap you’re sharing personal moments, but you’ve always been a poet of the personal — all the way from Satan Says to One Secret Thing. But divorce is so intimate. In this book, you write that you fear you’ve angered the god of love, that you’ve failed at love — and you experience moments of seeming self-incrimination. “I did not know him / and I did not work not to lose him / and I’ve lost him” you write in one poem. Were these poems more terrifying than others to write?

SO: Well, as to blaming myself: I think a marriage is fifty-fifty. When it doesn’t work we must look to each person for half the cause.

As for it being scary: I find writing much more pleasurable than scary. And when we are trying to write truthfully, true to the poem — whether literally, or an imaginative truth — we aren’t writing to look good.

What’s thrilling is when we can write a line — whether it’s good or bad about the self — with some truth to it. This is beyond looking good, it’s kind of the opposite of that. Instead it’s about something else, you’re about something else. In a way it’s not personal at all. When you’re writing you’re not exactly in control and you have a story you want to tell and music you’re hearing — it’s almost a different level beyond the self.

In my poems, the qualities that I have to work against are self-pity, sentimentality, and too many adjectives! When I’m rewriting, I’m on guard against those. But no, this wasn’t more scary than the others. And to me, woe over imperfections doesn’t overwhelm the feeling that perhaps I’ve written a line that is true.

BNR: It sounds like this truth is a kind of consolation. What does art offer a grieving process like the one you’ve been through? At one point you write, “but from within my illusion of him. I could not see him, or know him…” and later you write “I did not have the art / or there’s no art/ to find the mind’s construction in the face.” Does art actually help us see something as messy as a divorce more clearly?

SO: I don’t know. In ways, in moments. You do want to make something that might have some value, some usefulness. It’s a social art. And, for us narrative poets, it’s a kind of record, a vision record. I guess when I’m writing, or talking to a close friend, insights can emerge. But while I’m writing a first draft, I’m pretty much completely focused on the emerging poem, the making. Each of those poems reflects some understanding, or some reading of an understanding. But equally or more important is music, rhythm, shape.

I don’t know what art does — though in our NYU outreach writing workshop programs in hospitals, schools, a prison, I have seen again and again that making a work of art is extremely valuable to communities, to selves.

But how do you know what art does? You write. Over years you get stronger. Your living shows you things, your writing also shows you things. You’re lucky to be well and alive and writing. And you go on.