Last night I had dinner with two of my girlfriends at a local Thai place. It had been a chilly, drizzly day here and the idea of warm soup and hot curry kept me going during the long day of student conferences. That and coffee, of course.
Well, that and coffee and, maybe most importantly, girlfriend time. The idea was to eat and drink a bottle of champagne (last leg of the birthday celebration), and then go up to campus to hear Sharon Olds read her poetry. But I felt pretty ambivalent about going for a number of reasons, among them the fact that her poetry is not especially important to me anymore. And I say “anymore” because there was a time when the opposite was quite true. There was a time when her poetry influenced me more than perhaps any other poet’s ever had. And I had yet to even read a word of it.
My dad died three weeks before the start of my senior year of college, plunging me into a shattering depression. I was an honors student and my advisor was someone who believed very strongly in the power of language–poetry, in particular–to heal the psyche. He guided me toward a thesis project that I sometimes can’t believe I ever managed to pull off: a chapbook of poems about the very visceral, very (too) recent events of my father’s dying days. At some point during the process of writing, I found myself at a Barnes & Noble or someplace like that, perusing the poetry titles. Slim pickings, as always, but in my scan of the spines, I came to a book that stopped me and inspired instant panic. The Father, by Sharon Olds.
All I could see was the ecru-colored cover and the title in contrasting bloody-rust. I stared at it. I didn’t know who she was. I certainly didn’t know the poems inside. But I knew enough about myself to back away leave it on the shelf. I was 21 years old and a sponge for despair. I was made of grief and I consumed whatever grief I could find. I’m not saying I was in a healthy place. But leaving the book alone was a healthy thing to do. I knew that if I read it while trying to write my own savage little poems, I would paralyze myself. So I promised myself I would ignore Sharon Olds until I had finished my chapbook.
For the rest of the year, I would go to the bookstore and visit The Father. First I’d just allow my eyes to scan past it on the shelf. Then, I’d take it down and hold it. The cover was rough and slubby, had the feeling of handmade paper. I turned it over in my hands. Put it back on the shelf. Went home. Wrote.
I finished my thesis and graduated and sometime in the months that followed, finally bought the book. I remember reading it in one sitting and feeling relieved that I had left it alone for as long as I had. No, the poems were not my poems, but yes, they would surely have marked them. This is, of course, how poetry works. And usually I embrace the residue of another poet’s influence on my own poems. There’s no way around it really, assuming one reads widely. No point in fighting it. But I guess I did fight it that one time and I’m glad I did. I think back to those months and remember them as ones of lawless emotion over which I had no control. Poetry helped me reign it in a little. Ignoring Sharon Olds helped me do that, too.
Later, I wrote the poet a letter–the only time I’ve ever written to a “famous” person–and told her the above story. I told her that her book had influenced me perhaps more than any other book ever had, and even before I had read it. I remember thinking I’d like to get a letter like that if I were a “famous” poet. I never heard back from her.
But that’s not why I skipped your reading, Sharon Olds. I skipped it because I hardly ever get to spend time with my girlfriends, drinking champagne and eating green curry and fighting over what were the best bands of the 80s and 90s. (I’m still right about the Smiths, by the way.)
I skipped because though the cannolis at Wegmans afterwards weren’t especially great, the laughing with my ladies really was.