My brother Timothy turned me on to Mary Oliver about ten years ago. He thought I'd like her poems because she's such an independent woman, and he was right. Her work is uplifting and full of courage—it's about the natural world, but also about larger themes like love, survival, gratitude, joy—and it spoke to me. I started quoting her in speeches, and even put one poem, "The Journey," on my desk, where I still read it often.
The more I learned about Mary, the more there was to admire: not just her words but the unconventional life she lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts, with her partner, the photographer Molly Malone Cook, who died of cancer in 2005. And I was overjoyed when—after politely declining my invitations for six straight years—Mary finally agreed to read at my annual Women's Conference in California last fall, joining speakers like Michelle Obama and Eve Ensler. Though she's a Pulitzer Prize winner and America's best-selling poet, Mary almost never gives interviews, and you could have heard a pin drop when she took the stage. (Her fans are everywhere; Laura Bush is one, Martha Beck another.)
Mary was gracious enough to see me again in December, to talk about herself and her work for this special issue of O. As we spoke, I was thrilled to hear her describe herself as a "reporter," since my daughter has called my own poems "reporter poetry" (as opposed to real poetry). Suddenly, I had a bond with one of my heroes!
As the afternoon unfolded, Mary opened up about spirituality, life callings, and how, at 75, she's finally come to terms with loss and her troubled childhood—and has never felt happier.
Start reading Maria Shriver's interview with Mary Oliver