Maria Shriver: Mary, you've told me that for you, poetry is and always was a calling. How do you know when something is a calling?
Mary Oliver: When you can't help but go there. We all have a hungry heart, and one of the things we hunger for is happiness. So as much as I possibly could, I stayed where I was happy. I spent a great deal of time in my younger years just writing and reading, walking around the woods in Ohio, where I grew up. I often say if you could lay out all the writing I did in those years, it would go to the moon and back. It was bad, it was derivative. But when you love what you're doing, honestly, you can get better.
Maria Shriver: When you would wander in the woods and write, did people ever think you were crazy?
Mary Oliver: My parents didn't care very much what I did, and that was probably a blessing. But in Provincetown now, there's a little story that is sweet. They say if Mary is taking a walk, and she begins to walk slower and slower, and finally she's standing still scribbling, you know it was a successful walk.
Maria Shriver: Because you always walk with a notepad.
Mary Oliver: Yes, always. It's very important to write things down instantly, or you can lose the way you were thinking out a line. I have a rule that if I wake up at 3 in the morning and think of something, I write it down. I can't wait until morning—it'll be gone.
Maria Shriver: What does it mean to you to be a poet?
Mary Oliver: I consider myself kind of a reporter—one who uses words that are more like music and that have a choreography. I never think of myself as a poet; I just get up and write. For most of my life, I haven't had the structure of an actual job. When I was very young and decided I wanted to try to write as well as I could, I made a great list of all the things I would never have.
Maria Shriver: Wouldn't have?
Mary Oliver: Would not have, because I thought poets never made any money. A house, a good car, I couldn't go out and buy fancy clothes or go to good restaurants. I had the necessities. Not that I didn't take some teaching jobs over the years—I just never took any interesting ones, because I didn't want to get interested. That's when I began to get up so early in the morning—you know I'm a 5 A.M. riser—so I could write for a couple of hours and then give my employer my very best second-rate energy [laughs].
Maria Shriver: Did you ever ask yourself, "Why am I doing this? Should I change course and maybe try to get some of the things on that list?"
Mary Oliver: Never. I've always wanted to write poems and nothing else. There were times over the years when life was not easy, but if you're working a few hours a day and you've got a good book to read, and you can go outside to the beach and dig for clams, you're okay.
Maria Shriver: So many kids and people feel "different," and they think they're the only ones who feel that way.
Mary Oliver: It wasn't that I wished I could be like everybody else. I very much wished not to be noticed, and to be left alone, and I sort of succeeded.
Maria Shriver: Sort of succeeded? You're one of the best-known writers around.
Mary Oliver: But that's the public person. Apparently, I've been considered a recluse.
Maria Shriver: Yes, I was going to ask you about that.
Mary Oliver: I didn't know I was a recluse. I mean, I know many people in Provincetown—fishermen, Portuguese people, young people. If the plumber says, "How's your work goin'?" I'm very easy with that. But if somebody I don't know comes to town and calls me up and says, "I love your work. I'm here for three days, could I take you to lunch?"—well, that is something I can't do. It's hard to meet a stranger—you give of yourself—and if I did that, I'd want to do it well. I'd have to leave my desk, or the woods, and I don't want to.
Maria Shriver: Are you happiest sitting at the desk or walking in the woods?
Mary Oliver: Probably walking in the woods, because I do feel like I vanish and become part of the natural world, which for whatever reason has always felt safe to me. But my mind is more invested when I'm working on a poem at my desk, and that's fun. In order to be good, you have to really love the work of it.
Next: Oliver reveals why she first turned to creative art, as well as who her favorite poets are
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