Pulitzer Prize-Winner Sharon Olds Talks Poetry, Divorce

04/17/2013 06:26 pm ET | Updated Apr 18, 2013
AP

When Sharon Olds' 32-year marriage ended in the late 1990s, the poet dealt with the loss the best way she knew how: by sitting down with a ballpoint and spiral notebook and chronicling her heartbreak and healing in poetry.

More than a decade later, after her children had grown, Olds published the poems in Stag's Leap, a collection which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry on Monday. The Pulitzer Board called Stag's Leap, a “book of unflinching poems on the author's divorce that examine love, sorrow, and the limits of self-knowledge."

In an interview with The Huffington Post, the 70-year-old said the news left her clutching her phone and struggling to make sense of what she had just heard.

"I was out on the porch, holding the phone, and in some way the words I heard didn't make sense to me, and the light in the yard got both brighter and a little cloudy," Olds said via e-mail. "I think I was in shock. It was beyond unexpected. There are things we think won't happen to us -- that are outside our picture of ourselves."

Considered to be one of America's greatest living poets, Olds has spent more than 30 years writing confessional poetry about sex and love, childbirth and death. Was writing about her divorce any different -- more painful, perhaps -- than her prior works?

"I think not writing is a lot more painful than writing," said Olds, who published 11 poetry collections prior to Stag's Leap. "Working -- though it's really a kind of playing -- to make something that can stand on its own, a small song, that's fun."

In her prizewinning book, Olds grapples with the small and large struggles of divorce -- from steeling yourself before sitting the kids down on the couch to break the news, to silently waiting for an acknowledgement of your suffering from your ex.

Throughout it all, Olds regards her ex with sympathy, as in the title poem, where she writes, "When anyone escapes, my heart / leaps up. Even when it's I who am escaped from, / I am half on the side of the leaver."

Though some readers have suggested that the poems are too soft on the figure of the husband -- that there's not enough judgment or anger -- Olds herself is content with the balance she struck.

"I had to tune each poem, and tune the book, to get the balance of its qualities feeling right to me -- the idealizing, the anger, the self-pity," she said. "I didn't have ideas I wanted to illustrate; I hoped each poem could find its own way from its beginning to end -- that I could 'stay out of its way.' I guess I'm pretty happy with the balance of the book ... But of course it's going to be a different book in each reader's hands!"

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