This should be so easy to write, because I feel so full of, well, feeling. But how? How do you write about meeting someone who has moved you in ways that you might not even be able to explain to yourself. I guess I'll start at the beginning, or as close to it as possible.
Tonight I went to see Sharon Olds give a reading at Yale. I heard her read at the University four years ago and was pretty blown away. In fact, I barely got out of the auditorium before I got all teary after she autographed my book last time, which may seem silly, but whatever, everyone knows I'm super sensitive. Tonight was different. Different room, different crowd, different vibe altogether. For one thing, I've never seen so many people at a poetry reading. Seriously, there were at least a hundred people in there, all ages, all walks of life. And the one thing we had in common was that we're all totally enamored of this woman. The excitement in that room, when she walked in and people realized it was her, was electric. As soon as she took the podium and started her remarks, I was teary. I know what you're thinking, "Are we talking about a POETRY reading here?" Yes, yes we are.
Sharon Olds doesn't act the way you'd think someone who was the Poet Laureate of New York would act. She's an amazing writer, but she's still a person, someone's mom, someone's daughter, someone's teacher. She is who she is and that's it. No diva attitude, no entourage, no crazy demands. She brought her own bottle of water, carried her own case. When the guy introducing her had trouble with the microphone, she helped him figure it out. The first poem she read was not her own, but one in which she had found comfort after September 11. And her poems...they're just good. (you can read one here) Some are funny, some are dark, some are sexual, some are heartbreaking, but they are all simple and beautiful in their own way.
She read some of her older work and some stuff she's working on for her new book. She took a break from reading in the middle to do some question and answer stuff, or "have some conversation," as she put it. She was so gracious in answering and seemed to be enjoying that part of the reading most of all. She was really into it, which is important, because who wants to hear someone read poetry if they aren't even excited about their own work. Imagine going to see your favorite musician and being all psyched and the band just sort of phones it in...no good right? Sharon Olds is right there with the audience the whole time. She read one of her favorite poems, Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden, and when she finished, she looked so happy to have shared it with us. I recognized the poem as soon as she read the first line. I had read the poem in college and in that moment, I felt so grateful to have had that opportunity. It was like coming full circle in a way, because college was where I first read Sharon Olds.
She wraps things up and thanks us all for "your lovely company." There's thunderous applause. Now, of course, people are going up to her to meet her and say hello and have something signed, and I'm in line too. I'm super nervous and emotional because I'm going to ask her to sign my copy of The Father, the book of poems about a woman dealing with her father's illness and death. Yeah, I know. So, I'm standing there, waiting my turn and thinking about what to say and how much this book has meant to me in the last few years. This naturally leads to dry mouth and the beginning of a lump in my throat. I let the mother-daughter combo standing diagonally across from me go first, since they have three books to sign. Sharon turns to me and says "You have such nice manners!" "Well, yes," I'm thinking to myself, "but I also need to stall so that I don't blubber all over you". Finally, she turns to me and thanks me for coming (I think, it gets blurry here). I smile, probably shyly, probably weirdly, and hand her the book. She says (to the book), "Ah, my old friend." and I start to say "This one got me through a hard time," but I get choked up and my voice drifts off and, if it wasn't for all the people in the room, I would have just let go, because she makes me feel like I could if I needed to. She pats me on the shoulder and tells me that the colors on the cover of the book are based on a handkerchief (dark grey with maroon stripe). The publisher wanted to make the cover glossy, but she insisted that it be something softer, something you could rub against your cheek (she demonstrates). She asks to whom she should sign it and I tell her my name. She loves my name by the way. "I haven't signed a book to anyone with that name in a long time," she says. "Maybe since the last time you were here?" I ask. She smiles, "I think so!" and she draws a little moon and stars in the book for me. I thank her for her work, especially this book and ask if I can hug her. She gives me a hug. She's a good hugger. And then I leave. I walk part of the way with two other women who had been at the reading, and all three of us are gushing about how great Sharon is, what a wonderful soul. We totally have girl crushes on her and we are not ashamed. I'm on my own for the last few blocks, trying to keep from crying. I don't know why I cry whenever I see her. Maybe I do, but I can't explain it. Wait, yes I can:
When I get home, Mike asks how it went. "Imagine getting to meet Jimi Hendrix and you'll understand how I'm feeling right now." It's enough to make a girl start writing poems again, or at least start trying to get the old ones published somewhere. Now, where's that old notebook?