Interview: Poet Carolyn Oliver

About the Poet

Today, I’m thrilled to welcome to the blog, poet Carolyn Oliver! Carolyn has three new books out this year, including one full-length poetry collection and two chapbooks.

Carolyn Oliver’s poems appear in The Massachusetts Review, Indiana Review, Cincinnati Review, Radar Poetry, Shenandoah, Beloit Poetry Journal, 32 Poems, Southern Indiana Review, Cherry Tree, Plume, DIALOGIST, The National Poetry Review, and in many other journals. Carolyn is the winner of the E. E. Cummings Prize from the NEPC, the Goldstein Prize from Michigan Quarterly Review, the Writer’s Block Prize in Poetry, and the Frank O’Hara Prize from The Worcester Review. She lives in Massachusetts with her family.

The Interview

A.B. As I mentioned in my introduction above, you have three publications out this year, including two chapbooks and one full-length manuscript. What would you like readers to know about these three books before buying or reading them?

C.O. First, thank you so much for taking the time to ask these questions, Adam! So glad to have the chance to talk with you.

To your question: I hope readers know that I’m grateful to them for engaging with the poems! And I should note that the three books are quite different from each other—I don’t think I have settled into one particular style or subject (maybe I never will). Mirror Factory is composed entirely of persona poems; Dearling is a book about motherhood and the threat of loss; Inside the Storm I Want to Touch the Tremble is tricky to summarize (like many first collections, it follows a rough autobiographical arc); I suppose at its core it is about the ways love and grief are interconnected.

A.B. As a poet who is experiencing a successful publication year, is there anything that has surprised you about the writing or publication process(es)?

C.O. I think I was surprised, once it sunk in that the full-length manuscript really would be out in the world, at how vulnerable I felt (and still feel). While almost all the poems have appeared in journals or anthologies, it’s a different experience to have such them contained in one volume.

A.B. Can you tell us a little about your writing process? Your thoughts on things like solitude versus community? Social media and its influence on writing poetry?

C.O. I am a scattered and slow writer; if I can finish a poem in a week, that’s a good week. A phrase or a subject or a title (I rarely get a whole line at once) usually needs to percolate for a long time (a month, a year, two, three) before it bubbles up into a draft. Flash fiction feels looser, more playful; that tends to come faster. Longer fiction takes eons. I’m largely a solitary writer, by inclination and circumstance, though I cherish my writer friends and enjoy listening to or reading craft talks. Zoom readings have been such a gift (especially now that they can be captioned). And I’m glad for the experience and insight that editing a literary magazine (The Worcester Review) has provided.

Social media seems necessary, if one (a) is not already famous and (b) wishes to reach a wider audience than one’s acquaintances; and for me it’s intensely energy-sapping. I’m grateful to and admire writers who have the ability to build community on social media.

A.B. You and I “met” through book blogging many, many years ago. What are your thoughts on book blogging as a medium, now? Do you still write a blog? Read blogs? Was blogging an effective pathway to creative writing, for you, or is that something you were always doing anyway?

C.O. I started a book blog (many, many years ago, as you say) as a way to keep myself tethered to books and reading and fellow readers when early motherhood was slowly unspooling my ideas about myself and my life. I’m immensely grateful for the kind people I met and the books I read. I don’t write a blog anymore, because I need to guard my writing hours and energy. But I’ve been trying to write a book review or two every year (I agonize over them; it takes forever). And I do still keep an eye on the blogs of those who’ve stuck with it, like you and Rebecca at Bookish Beck and Eleanor at Elle Reads.

A.B. In addition to poetry, you also write prose, and have successfully published fiction and creative non-fiction. What are your thoughts about writing in multiple genres? Is this something that came naturally to you, or is it a struggle to move back and forth? Do you prefer one genre over another?

C.O. I’ve really only dipped a toe into the CNF pool, so I’ll limit my answer to fiction and poetry. When I started writing with the intention of sending work out into the world, I split my writing hours about 50-50 between fiction and poetry. That balance has shifted over time, and I’m still fine-tuning it.

I know some multi-genre writers find they work better in one genre during a certain season or a certain time of day; I wish I had that kind of system. Right now the balance has shifted toward poetry, with a bit of flash fiction or hybrid work. I have some longer fiction projects I’d like to return to, but finding a writing rhythm that will allow me to reliably drop into those projects has eluded me.

A.B. The perennial question, but one I’m always interested in as a writing teacher, is, what advice would you give for early/novice writers? If you could go back and say something to yourself when you were just getting started, what would it be?

C.O. What my earlier self would grumble at, and believe: Cultivate patience! With yourself, mostly. Also drafts—let them breathe a little before you send them out.* What my earlier self would grumble at, and not believe: Someday you will be grateful for the editors who declined work that wasn’t ready for publication.

*Still working on patience, in both respects.

A.B. What is your writing environment or atmosphere like? Do you have a dedicated space where you do your writing? Your editing and revision? Do you listen to music, or prefer silence? Is it important for you to control your writing space, or can you write anywhere?

C.O. I can read anywhere, take notes anywhere, but to write I do need relative silence and a block of what I know (or at least, believe) will be uninterrupted time. Focus, given my particular kind of neurodivergence, is tricky to come by.

When I started out, in an apartment inhabited by a lovable toddler impervious to sleep and no guestroom, my “office” was a wobbly table in the dining room, or the orange-now-yellow velvet chair that my friend J gave me before she moved out of state.

Now I write in an upstairs bedroom, which by square footage is roughly 40% guestroom, 30% library, 30% office. I’d like to be a minimalist, but I’m not, so the walls and shelves are covered with art and photos and postcards and various items of personal significance. I have a surprising number of rocks.

I write longhand drafts at a wonderful old desk I recently found on a neighborhood site (I don’t know anything about furniture, but I think it might be a student desk? The angled top lifts up and the sides are shelves. Heaven, all the storage). Once I switch to typed drafts, I write in the chair my dad gave me when I moved to Boston, with my laptop perched on the plastic lap desk I got for college 20 years ago (still has my dorm name on the back). I try not to stare out the window too much. Sometimes I succeed.

About the Book

Inside this debut collection, girlhood’s dangers echo, transmuted, in the poet’s fears for her son. A body just discovering the vastness of “want’s new acreage” is humbled by chronic illness. Epithalamion turns elegy. But this world that so often seems capricious in its cruelty also shelters apple orchards, glass museums, schoolchildren, century-old sharks; “there’s no accounting for / all we want to save, no names.” Oliver’s polyphonic gathering of speakers includes lovers and saints, painters and dead poets, a hawk and a mother. In varied forms (ghazals and prose poems, dialogues and erasures, bref double and Golden Shovel, among others) these poems bear witness to and seek reprieve from disasters at once commonplace and terrifying. “I can’t surface for every scalpel slice, / I need a dreamy estuary present,” she writes. Stumbling toward joy across time and space, these poems hum with fear and desire, bewildering loss, and love’s lush possibilities.

Buy the Book

University of Utah Press. IndieBound.

Your local independent bookstore! Some of Carolyn’s favorites:

Praise for Inside the Storm I Want to Touch the Tremble

“Inside the Storm I Want to Touch the Tremble is a marvelous book. It is at once both personal and political, searing and tender. On one page, these poems might skillfully speak to (and through) art and artists across centuries; next, they might tell a new story of Eve, contemplate the complications of America, or deftly chart the mysteries of the human spirit. Through it all, each poem is an event, and each event feels timeless and timely.” —Matthew Olzmann, author of Contradictions of Design

“In her marvelous debut collection, Carolyn Oliver brings the reader to the garden—the literal garden stalked by wasps, the metaphorical garden where Szymborska’s Polish consonants are ‘bunched like root vegetables’—a lush space of sweetness and growth but also danger. Oliver gives us the textures of a life, and the precariousness: the tremble, the crush, the dissolve, the fizzle. These are poems of the body and poems of the earth. What did I do when I finished this book? I immediately began it again.” —Maggie Smith, author of Goldenrod and Good Bones

“Wunderkammer and honey-laden hive, Carolyn Oliver’s Inside the Storm I Want to Touch the Tremble is a spectacular feat of craft and wonder. Within the finely articulated fury of each poem, we feel ‘time turn nimbus’ and, dizzied, delight in the strange splendors offered here: the body—tender, desirous, wracked with pain, pulsed with pleasure, undone and born again through time—and its threats of memory and grave knowledge; the promise and peril of beloved others intimate, familiar, strange, and lost, perhaps regained; doubt, failure, and the exercise of faith, the poems their own forms of query and prayer. Oliver’s is a voice we’ve been waiting to hear, her music tuned to worlds we suspect, perhaps sound, but never quite touch. What else to call this music but alchemy? O, how these poems gleam—bright gems!—with skies ‘of beaten gold.'” —Julie Phillips Brown, author of The Adjacent Possible

Other Books by Carolyn Oliver

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