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
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
Mary Oliver: Well, I think because with words, I could build a world I could live in. I had a very dysfunctional family, and a very hard childhood. So I made a world out of words. And it was my salvation.
Maria Shriver: Do you have a favorite word?
Mary Oliver: A few [laughs]. Love, mirth, praise, constancy...
Maria Shriver: What about a favorite poet?
Mary Oliver: I suppose it would have to be Whitman, unless it's Rumi or Hafiz. And I do love Emerson's poetry. And of course I named my dog Percy after Shelley. And how could anybody not love Keats.
Maria Shriver: I love Rumi.
Mary Oliver: Absolutely. And it is what I love—to contain both the spiritual life and the life in this world—that he does so beautifully.
Maria Shriver: Do you think it's possible to contain the spiritual world and also be of the "real world" in 2011?
Mary Oliver: I definitely believe that. And I think if you skimp on one or the other, you're not getting the whole show. You have to be in the world to understand what the spiritual is about, and you have to be spiritual in order to truly be able to accept what the world is about.
Maria Shriver: When you talk of the spiritual, though, you're not talking about organized religion.
Mary Oliver: I'm not, though I do think ceremony is beautiful and powerful. But I've also met some people in organized religion who aren't so hot. I've written before that God has "so many names." To me, it's all right if you look at a tree, as the Hindus do, and say the tree has a spirit. It's a mystery, and mysteries don't compromise themselves—we're never gonna know. I think about the spiritual a great deal. I like to think of myself as a praise poet.
Maria Shriver: What does that mean?
Mary Oliver: That I acknowledge my feeling and gratitude for life by praising the world and whoever made all these things.
Maria Shriver: Is that the poet's goal? Or is the goal to make people look at nature in a different way? Is it to touch their soul? Is it for them to feel delight?
Mary Oliver: All of those things. I am not very hopeful about the Earth remaining as it was when I was a child. It's already greatly changed. But I think when we lose the connection with the natural world, we tend to forget that we're animals, that we need the Earth. And that can be devastating. Wendell Berry is a wonderful poet, and he talks about this coming devastation a great deal. I just happen to think you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. So I try to do more of the "Have you noticed this wonderful thing? Do you remember this?"
Maria Shriver: You try to praise.
Mary Oliver: Yes, I try to praise. If I have any lasting worth, it will be because I have tried to make people remember what the Earth is meant to look like.
Maria Shriver: You were talking earlier about how you felt happy writing and being in nature, so you moved toward happiness. So many people think that poets are tortured souls.
Mary Oliver: Well, we went through a whole period of confessional poets. And I think a lot of people—certainly Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton—got therapy mixed up with the work they were doing, and that's a shame. I may be wrong, but it seems like they felt they could heal themselves through writing, and it didn't work. I don't usually mess around with what makes me unhappy when I'm writing. I want to write poems that will comfort, maybe amuse, enliven other people. I don't mean that the world is all great and wonderful. But I'm careful to—I try to keep the emphasis on the good and the hopeful.
Next: Oliver reveals a dark secret from her past and how she dealt with losing her life partner
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
Mary Oliver: Yes. Kind of late, but it has happened.
Maria Shriver: You told me when we were walking that you've never been happier.
Mary Oliver: It's true.
Maria Shriver: We live in a society where people think they're too old at 55 or 60 to do anything else. And you're 75! I find it fascinating that you've become happier, you're braver, you're more excited, you're healed from the early trauma of sexual abuse.
Mary Oliver: I'm also something else I never was—I'm funny! [Laughs.]
Maria Shriver: How did winning the Pulitzer [in 1984] change your life?
Mary Oliver: Well, they say that in 1941, the question everybody was asking was, "Where's Pearl Harbor?" After I won the Pulitzer, everyone was saying, "Who is Mary Oliver?" I'd already written my fifth book, and I don't think I'd ever given a reading. I was washing the dishes when the phone rang [laughs].
Maria Shriver: And what did you think?
Mary Oliver: Well, when the local TV station called and asked if they could come up, I said no. I was at that time—boy, you have really got me talking now—at the time I was shingling our house, if you can believe it. I went to the dump to gather up old shingles, my usual routine, and one fellow who saw me said, "Didn't I see you on television last night?" I wasn't on television myself, but they'd shown a picture of me. And then another friend came by, a painter, and she said, "Ha-ha, what are you doing, looking for your old manuscripts?" [Laughs.] That was Provincetown—it was wonderful. My life didn't change, except that I started to get more work published, and I started to do readings.
Maria Shriver: Are you ever amazed when you walk out onto the stage that there are several thousand people sitting there just to hear you read your poems?
Mary Oliver: I think, "These people are all hoping they're not going to be put to sleep. They hope they're going to hear something that means something to them."
Maria Shriver: That's a lot of pressure! You always say, though, that poems are meant to be read.
Mary Oliver: Oh, they are. They're meant to be read and heard.
Maria Shriver: It's different if I hear you speak "The Journey" than if I read it.
Mary Oliver: Yes, it is different, but not too different if I've done a good job with the poem, with the words I use, the line breaks. Poets these days don't seem to know much about mechanics. Donald Hall says a poem has two lives—there is the statement that you're making, and there is the poem's sensual body. The words you use, the layout... I'm fascinated by that.
Maria Shriver: Do you have a favorite poem?
Mary Oliver: That I wrote? Not yet. You're supposed to love all your children [laughs]. Actually, my favorite poem is always the one I'm working on.
Maria Shriver: And what's the one you're working on now?
Mary Oliver: Several. I've got about 15 or 18.
Maria Shriver: Is there a brave one in there?
Mary Oliver: It's not typed up yet, but yeah, there is a brave one [laughs].
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