Stella Thomas is an intern at the NYS Writers Institute for the Fall 2019 semester. She is a senior with an English major and Business Administration minor. She loves to both read and write, and is inspired by seeing so many published authors visit our campus. She is proudly from Manhattan.
A woman truly free to be herself
By Stella Thomas
Having known very little about famous poet Sharon Olds prior to her event at the New York State Writers Institute in October, I was blown away by her conversation. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to her speak. She was both endearing and enchanting, but also wise and filled with knowledge about all different parts of life.
The audience, throughout the talk, was captivated by the wisdom she shared, both laughing and listening intently with deep appreciation. As both a poet and a teacher, she happily described some of her teaching methods, such as not giving criticism in workshops until halfway through, or teaching a workshop in the woods for women writers.
They were such unique styles of teaching, yet she spoke about them as if they were the only ways that possibly made sense. I thought I would quite like to have Olds as a professor.
One of her students was Ocean Vuong, who was supposed to attend the event with Olds, but cancelled hours before it began. Olds had no problem representing him in her own voice. She paid homage to her former student, reading one of his poems with grace and eloquence.
As she read, I could feel her strong connection to Vuong's words, and that she truly found his work to be beautiful. It was a very pure experience to hear her share her thoughts on Vuong’s poems, how he got his start in her class, and how proud she was of him. There was no superiority complex, no sense of seniority coming from her as the mentor. She was genuinely in awe of what Voung was able to create and gushed over him like a proud mother.
Olds’ energy captivated the audience. Any good poet can speak in poetic terms, and she was able to masterfully execute this concept when she spoke. Everything she said came with a story, and it was obvious that it was completely honest and heartfelt. One of the most captivating moments for me was when a woman who was a nurse in the 1980’s told a story about how one of Olds’ poems spoke to her and helped her through the AIDS epidemic. The poem she spoke of was “The Glass,” which is about Olds’ father’s battle with cancer, yet is able to mold itself into various contexts in order to provide others with hope.
A few lines stood out to me when I read it on my own:
“the wonder to me is that it did not disgust me,
that glass of phlegm that stood there all day and
filled slowly with the compound globes.”
It was so beautiful to hear, and you could feel that both she and Olds were deeply touched. Olds said in response, “That’s what artists are supposed to do, give a gift,” and her words that resonated with me. It was a very pure, genuine moment of the true beauty of art and its effect on the reader.
My favorite quote from her talk was: “I stopped trying to be normal at some point, especially in my art.” I felt that this was true not only in her art, but in her entire personality and being. She has such a free spirit and I very much admired how in touch with herself she seemed to feel. It’s a state of being that I think some of us can only dream to reach one day, and it was amazing to hear Olds speak about it.
A quote from a previous Olds interview on this topic stuck out to me as well, “I was a late bloomer. But anyone who blooms at all, ever, is very lucky.” Most of us will spend huge portions, if not all, of their lives struggling to come to terms with who they truly are, and end up suppressing the parts they believe stand out as strange or weird. She realized that she was, and still is, weird, and that there it is nothing to be ashamed of.
Sharon Olds gave me inspiration to write more poetry, and always strive to be the truest self you possibly can.