Why I like Sharon Olds
Tucson in Autumn
Summer Solstice during Autumn in Tucson
During fall 1989, I was an undergraduate student at the University of Arizona, in Tucson. The school bookstore was crowded and the titles were arranged by the subject and professor. Econ 101 was over on the upper left shelf, behind the sweatshirts with large As on them or Puma like creatures wearing Derbies and growling. MLA handbooks, key chains shaped like cactus, pencils and pens led the way downstairs to the Modern Languages area which meant English as well as a plethora of other phrases whose meaning I wasn't sure of and wasn't curious enough to find out. I was an English major - or would declare it in a few semesters, hopefully before I graduated. It was always nice to see the row of Penguin classics and the Norton Critical editions with their scholarly essays in the back.
I came across the section for the Creative Writing courses - that was actually a major at one time. You could go to college to pursue a degree in poetry or fiction writing or even creative non-fiction writing and eventually find a career as a professor teaching at a college yourself. (I pictured myself somewhere in the mid-west, Wyoming perhaps, wearing a tweed jacket, offering night classes, smoking cigarettes with my head stuck out of my office window). This was the late 1980s and early 1990s. Before the internet and email. Books were very alive then and people actually read them. If you wanted to send mail to someone, you had to go to the post office. If you wanted to talk to them on the phone, you had to go home or find a pay phone and make sure you had enough quarters in your pocket. Creative Writing was a real major and there were graduate schools that offered an MFA (Master's in Fine Arts) - perhaps ten, maybe a dozen in the entire country, at this time.
New York City
At this time, I had only been to New York City once as a child - and the only memory I had was of a taxi cab that had paused to give us the right of way to cross the street. "You see", my mother said, "in America they wait for you. This would not happen in other countries". Even so, I appreciated the magnificence of the name of largest city in the United States and the third largest in the world: the images of the tall buildings, the noise of urban sounds, hot dog vendors and yellow taxi cabs and the rain in Central Park.
Flying into Tucson from the Bay Area was a fascination to me as I lifted up gently from the foggy, urban landscape of Oakland or SFO and landed into the red brick, dusty plains of the desert city. I liked the idea of travel and the community of airports with passengers having conversations and quickly exiting. The convenience stores that sold clothing, books and magazines, food and other items which were not necessities, but somehow reassuring just by their mere presence. I carried a book called Prince of the City, which was set in New York because the cover of the book showed a well lit building at night and made me think of the magnificence of NYC. In a way, it was my security blanket.
I saw the copy of the Gold Cell under the listing of Poetry 309. This would be a third semester creative writing seminar. A workshop as it was often called, where future Ferlinghetti's would churn out volumes of literature and have it evaluated by their fellow students. I had never heard of Sharon Olds - this was 1989 and it would be twenty years or so before she would be awarded the Pulitzer. The book was a maroon like color and had the image of a snake curling up upon itself and the title The Gold Cell, in magnificent yellow like color.
San Francisco - from an airplane
the Tucson skyline
I held up the copy of The Gold Cell, and looked it over, flipped through the pages and watched the text move by in a cinematic pace, catching phrases that stood out "Pope's Penis", "Sex Change Doctor", "Alcatraz" and "San Francisco". The last two caught my attention in particular because I was from the Bay Area and just about a month or two ago had walked down Broadway in the Alcatraz penitentiary. I was immediately curious and looked up her biography and saw Old's association with the city by the bay. I had been fascinated by the Beats and read some of Ferlinghetti's work. I even ventured over to the City Lights Bookstore, half expecting to see him there, holding a worn notebook and jotting down notes in it. I walked by the bookstore when in San Francisco, but was afraid to go in.
I was immediately taken away by the first poem in the book, "Summer Solstice, New York City". It jumped right into an immediate action that seemed almost cliche' yet appropriate if that makes sense. A man was stepping out over the edge of a building and telling the people around him - I don't know how they got there, but they were in the scene - "if they came a step closer that was it". The poem came alive, like the city did and even though it was well punctuated, the poem's sentences read like one long word that you cannot stop reading because the phrases move into a stream of consciousness that is one single thought that you cannot stop thinking even to pause for a minute, to catch your breath or reach out for that glass of water there in the center of the table even though you are jogging on a trail in the middle of the woods and that table with the glass of water on it has no business outside of a department store in the city, underneath the skylights covered with rain. That's sort of what it was like, but not quite.
I liked the brash omniscience of the author and how all the characters appeared and were almost mystical in their grandeur and how the city came alive to work all together for this one man's life and how at the end there was an almost holy feeling when "they all lit cigarettes, and the red, glowing ends burned like the tiny campfires we lit at night back at the beginning of the world" and even though I knew smoking was bad for you and you wouldn't light up in the middle of bookstore, I wanted to smoke. Incidentally, at this time in 1989, it was the first semester they removed the smoking rooms from the University library. Previous to this period, if you wished, you could find a study room on the fourth floor and enjoy a Chesterfield while reading your Walt Whitman.
Sharon Olds in the 1980s
Satan Says Some Things About the Dead and the Living
I ended up buying this book, right then and there, even though it was designed for Poetry 309, a seminar/workshop class that I had not yet qualified for. This was upper division stuff, something on the top staircase that you had to get to holding a railing. There were no elevators in that building. Her style was refreshing, her imagery bold and crisp, the subjects in her writing were penned with an honesty, a flair. Nothing seemed out of bounds with her, abusive parents, her first sex, Marilyn Monroe. She was open without being vulgar and lacked the vanity and melodrama I had seen in so many other young writers who tried to tackle the mundane.
I went on to discover two more of her earlier books: Satan Says, and The Dead and the Living. I became quite obsessed with her writing for awhile, wanting to emulate her style and find the everyday things to write about. I walked down city streets during San Francisco summers, wondering what made her write the poem "Alcatraz" and sometimes hoping to run into her in one of the sidewalk cafes, or along the boulevard with the ringing of the trolly cars and the sparks of the electric buses I wanted to go to the San Francisco Poetry Center, but at that age was terribly intimidated by anyone whose writing had made its way into print.
I finally wrote her a letter - actually sent one to her publisher and was surprised to get a handwritten letter back from her directly. I wanted her to sign my books - and this was to me at the time the sign of a true fan. I didn't go to rock concerts much nor did i really have that much appreciation for popular music. Writers however, they were a different story. I packed my books up and sent along some return envelopes with sufficient postage to cover the cost of mailing the parcels. A week or so later, during spring break, close to my birthday, I received the books back in my student mailbox. They were signed and personalized, one of them even said "Cheers!".
Signed: "Sharon Olds, New York City".