From the Time Machine: Notes from a Talk with Poet Mary Oliver (April 2008)

With the recent death of Mary Oliver, here's a blog post I did in 2008 about a small lecture I attended with Mary Oliver at Pacific Lutheran University...


Finally, my notes from the Mary Oliver talk and reading on April 22nd, 2008 at Pacific Lutheran University.

The Talk-- Mary Oliver & The Writer's Story--

First, Mary Oliver's talk was fantastic. It wasn't really advertised to the public and so there were only 40 of us in the room. Mostly students, some alumni, some professors, but there were more empty chairs than not.

If you remember, only a few months ago the Mary Oliver in Seattle was sold out and people were asking if they could come dressed as a tree and stand in back. Oh, if only these people had Google alert or were on the Mary Oliver mailing list because, well, they missed out...again.

The talk was an audience participation Q&A. It started out with crickets (no one wanting to talk and the pressure of the first question), but once it started rolling, questions were asked for about an hour and Mary thoughtfully answered them.

Here are what notes I have from the talk--

First question "How did you come into writing poetry?"

The answer was that her life wasn't perfect and "I needed another world than what I was living in...the world of nature, the world of poetry...and I cherished the top that I could do something myself."

She said it was her 3rd book where she felt she had finally achiever her own voice.

The problem with poets? "They think of it as a profession instead of a takes a long time to get a voice."

How she feels about changing the facts in poems or writing things that aren't true--

"Since gender didn't matter, I changed "sister" to "brother" in one of my poems and I don't have a brother, but the imaginary fiction served the poem."

Her said, "Your own story really isn't so important." (What's important is the story of the poem.)

Other quotes--

"Poetry is politics, too."

"There is a connection with holiness because when you are alone with nature, you're with something greater than yourself."

"There's a part of us that is beyond the material."


She is awake every morning. She said, "I missed one day this year of sunrise--I want to see the sun come up."

* * *

I asked her about what her writing schedule was and if she wrote every day.

She said, "I believe very much in discipline." She also believes in the scheduling of writing and keeping a notebook. She says as poets we must be "attentive to everything in this world." "The more attentive we are, the more alive we are."

* * *

When someone asked "Why should we read or write poetry since it's not read by many?"

Mary Oliver replied, "Why breathe, why laugh, why love?"

"There is something in us poems give comfort, healing to. They give a way to praise. It is an enrichment to one's life and perhaps [by reading and writing poetry] we'll get kinder."

"I try to write poems that give comfort. I try to write very accessible so more people can understand them, feel it as their own experience."

"Poetry has an absolute intellectual & spiritual effect on people."

To the question "Why write poems?" -- "What else are we going to do?"

* *

When asked how to be a better poet she said, "read it [your poem] as if you haven't written it. Read the poem as if you haven't seen it before."

* *

To what is your revision process--

"I write quicker and cleaner now than I ever did, but I still throw things out. . .I go through 40 drafts of a poem."

She said she uses a computer last because "A computer makes it look too good before it is done."

She said, "Know your process." And "I kill adjectives and commas--I want it to work faster. Adjectives are egotistical, they want to be noticed. Study what you've done to see if it works or not."

* *

When asked about who she reads she said that "Whitman was the finest poet this country's had." Also reads Keats, Shelley, Blake, Yeats, Robert Bly, Neruda, Galway Kinnell, and others.

* * *

Question: What is your definition of a great poem?

Her answer "One that has endured."

* * *

On her book "Thirst" she said, "I was trying to voice my won quest for the feeling and the wanting."

She said, "I think there are many divine sense that we get things from."

* * *

Question: As a poet, what's your biggest regret?

Answer "I don't' have any." She said she is very happy with her life as a poet and living with her art. She said, "Art is an essential hallway into a spiritual life."

* * *

Question: What did you have to give up?

Mary Oliver: "I never looked or thought I'd get material things. I had a $100 car I used to stop by hitting a brick was a wonderful life."

(BTW, that wasn't said sarcastically, she loved her life as a young poet.)

* * *

Many many more people came for the reading which filled their theatre. We had tickets for the "overflow" room, where we watched her live on a giant screen (no fooling-- we referred to it "smell-o-vision"). She answered questions after the reading to the audience, but they were more likely to be short answers and nothing as thoughtful as she gave to the students.

While the reading was lovely, I found her talk absolutely incredible and inspiring to me as writer. I left feeling full and satisfied (and it wasn't just from the delicious Italian restaurant we ate at or the Tiramisu). A fantastic night and I was thankful to have my three wonderful friends there to share it with me.

A joyous ride home in the rain and the question to all,

"Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life..."

~ Kells