Mary Oliver was born in Maple Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, in 1935. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984, for her collection American Primitive (1983), and has since become one of the best-selling American poets. Among her many honors, she has received an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Achievement Award and the National Book Award for New and Selected Poems (2004). Her collection A Thousand Mornings (2012) came out last year, and her upcoming book, Dog Songs (2013), will be released next month. She recently took the time to speak to us from her home in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
You have a new collection called Dog Songs being released next month. I couldn’t help but notice that both you and our recent guest host, Billy Collins, have new books out in October — and both feature an illustration of a dog on the cover. Will you tell us about your new book?
Yes, there are a lot of books about dogs being written and published. I look forward to Billy’s. I don’t know of any other dog book, however, that is as conversational as mine is. All my dogs talked, and so they talk in the book.
I’ve always had a dog, usually two — once four, which was one too many. Three could find me on the couch, one in my lap and one to either side. The fourth dog was an abandoned soul — we literally found her in the dust and soon found her a good home with a loving lap of her own to jump into.
And your book A Thousand Mornings came out around this time just last year. Could you talk a bit about your daily work routine? Do you write every day?
I’ve always liked working in the morning, and still do. I scribble, do the cleaning work later, in a different sort of work mood. This is still how I arrange the day. And yes, I scribble a little almost every day.
Do you ever look back on your earlier work for orientation before starting a new draft? How do you feel you’ve changed over the years?
No, I don’t look back for anything. And sure I have changed, in many ways, which no doubt is apparent in the poems.
You once said, “My work is loving the world.” What does loving the world mean to you?
Loving the world means giving it attention, which draws one to devotion, which means one is concerned with its condition, how it is being treated.
You were 17 years old when you visited the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay’s home in upper New York state. You became fast friends with Norma, the poet’s sister, and ended up living there for the next six or seven years. Can you speak about your time there a bit? What led you to make a pilgrimage to Millay’s home at such a young age?
I wrote an essay called “Steepletop,” which is in the book titled Blue Pastures and speaks of that time. As for when and why I went there so young, I apparently wanted badly to leave where I was.
Edna St. Vincent Millay reportedly built a barn from a Sears Roebuck kit on the property. How was it holding up while you were there? Still standing?
The barn at Steepletop was fine. Used by the Jersey cows who gave incredible cream and butter. Swallows nested on the beams, and Jack, the last old workhorse, was there.
You are often described as a deeply private person — a bit of a recluse even — yet your poems are filled with observations that require a sincere and gregarious engagement with the outside world. Yours hardly seems to be a life of seclusion. Do you think we unfairly associate writers who focus on the natural world as being more reclusive than their urban counterparts?
I have never been shy with the out-of-doors. As Shelley wrote in “On Life”: “… in solitude, or in that deserted state when we are surrounded by human beings and yet they sympathize not with us, we love the flowers, the grass and the waters and the sky. In the motion of the very leaves of spring in the blue air there is then found a secret correspondence with our heart.”
About being accused of being reclusive, a lot of poets and prose writers too are so accused. But why should it be an “accusation? There are lots of poets; the world of each one is different.
You lived for a brief time in Greenwich Village. Did you enjoy that experience?
I loved Greenwich Village. I only lived there for a couple of years though.
You are not a poet that writes about your personal life a great deal, but many of your contemporaries were poets that became synonymous with confessional poetry — poets like W.D. Snodgrass, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. How do you feel about using autobiographical material in your poems? Can very personal material ever serve to strengthen a poem?
I think the poets you speak of, who use the personal life as material, were in terms of time pretty much ahead of me. My first poets, my influences, speaking only of poets in my own country and language, were Robert Bly, Donald Hall, Merwin, Hugo, Levertov, Bishop and on and on, a different group from the so called confessional poets. And, sure, very personal material can strengthen a poem. Any subject or attitude can do that, if you can do it.
Do you like hearing your work read aloud by others?
I like a lot the way Garrison Keillor reads my poems, and all poems. Other from that, I don’t hear much of it; I don’t attend much to radio, except music. I do sometimes get irritated when people don’t read correctly. Even at myself if I fumble.
You’ve said that you like to think of yourself as a praise poet, one who expresses gratitude for the good and the hopeful. Is it safe to say you don’t have a secret stash of angry poems kept hidden in the attic?
If I have any secret stash of poems, anywhere, it might be about love, not anger.
Any words of wisdom for aspiring poets in this age of rampant technology and Twitter?
Yes. Write first with a pen. It’s too easy on the computer to change a word, then forget what it was. Also, don’t get too social. Write for whatever holy thing you believe in, not for your poetry workshop fellows. And dare once in a while to throw a poem away. The main thing is to know that your craving to write is the big thing and will continue, and is more valuable than the finished poem. I do this myself, plenty.
Interview by Joy Biles