Maria Shriver Interviews the Famously Private Poet Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver: Well, looking back, I'm shocked to see that I wrote that. Because I was always very private about my life, and yet the poems in Dream Work  are not so private as I thought. I'm glad I wrote them, and I'm doing a little more of that now—using personal material. I want to be braver and more honest about my life. When you're sexually abused, there's a lot of damage—that's the first time I've ever said that out loud.
Maria Shriver: You were sexually abused as a child?
Mary Oliver: I was very little. But I had recurring nightmares; there's damage.
Maria Shriver: Can you tell me about that?
Mary Oliver: Well, that's why I wanted to be invisible, I'm sure. And it certainly made it hard to trust. But with the help of a few real good people, I finally feel healed—kind of late in life. I've been working with a wonderful guy for the past five years or so.
Maria Shriver: A therapist in Provincetown?
Mary Oliver: Yes. I'm now able to understand, one, that it happened, which a child fights and doesn't want to acknowledge, and two, that it affected certain things in my behavior. It was probably the reason I left home the day after I graduated from high school—I couldn't wait a minute. And why I was needy a great deal of my life, because I didn't get sufficient mother-love and protection. That can make people very—well, there are millions of people walking around the world who had insufficient childhoods, and I just happen to be one of them.
Maria Shriver: Why is now the time to write more personally? Has age made you braver?
Mary Oliver: I think what's made me braver are the forerunners who have dared to tell. At your conference, I was very moved by Eve Ensler's courage. I now know it is a subject or theme I will not be avoiding. There will always be birds, but I'm gonna broaden out a little bit, or maybe a lot. I don't know.
Maria Shriver: Does the thought of broadening out excite you, scare you, relieve you?
Mary Oliver: It excites me. I mean, it feels like a freedom.
Maria Shriver: One line of yours I often quote is, "What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" What do you think you have done with your one wild and precious life?
Mary Oliver: I used up a lot of pencils.
Maria Shriver: [Laughs.]
Mary Oliver: What I have done is learn to love and learn to be loved. That didn't come easy. And I learned to consider my life an amazing gift. Those are the things.
Maria Shriver: You have lived a very unique life, a life really individual and fearless.
Mary Oliver: Well, it was never a temptation to be swayed from what I wanted to do and how I wanted to live. Even when Molly got ill, I knew what to do. They wanted to take her off to a nursing home, and I said, "Absolutely not." I took her home. That kind of thing is not easy. I used to go out at night with a flashlight and sit on a little bench right outside the house to scribble poems, because I was too busy taking care of her during the day to walk in the woods.
Maria Shriver: You had a 40-year relationship with Molly. How did her death change your life?
Mary Oliver: I was very, very lonely.
Maria Shriver: You've written in your work that you rarely spent any time apart. How did you avoid being crushed by losing her?
Mary Oliver: I had decided I would do one of two things when she died. I would buy a little cabin in the woods, and go inside with all my books and shut the door. Or I would unlock all the doors—we had always kept them locked; Molly liked that sense of safety—and see who I could meet in the world. And that's what I did. I haven't locked the door for five years. I have wonderful new friends. And I have more time to be by myself. It was a very steadfast, loving relationship, but often there is a dominant partner, and I was very quiet for 40 years, just happy doing my work. I'm different now.
Next: Oliver on winning the Pulitzer and why poems are meant to be read and heard