The celebrated American poet on her abusive childhood, the end of her marriage and writing about pain
Sharon Olds has the wrong surname. At 70, you can see the young woman in Olds – in the sweep of her long hair and her gentle voice. Even her seed pearl necklace seems right, as if about to grow into something else. Suppleness – and a sense of mutability – is in her writing, too. She is one of America's best loved poets – her readings attract huge audiences – but she is still under-recognised in this country. In the US, she has won the San Francisco Poetry Centre award, the Lamont poetry prize and the National Book Critics Circle award. And she has won the TS Eliot prize over here and may be about to secure it for a second time with Stag's Leap, the most remarkable collection of her career.
She is a poet who has always written about her life and never stalled at writing about its most intimate details but when, at 55, her marriage ended, she told her grown-up children she would not publish anything about the divorce for 10 years. It was "bad enough for them having a family poet in the house" (a charming phrase, as if a poet were an inconvenient pet) without stealing time they needed to adjust to a crisis that affected them too.
In the end, it was 15 years before Stag's Leap was published. She knew when to publish when she realised that what she was writing was valedictory – a last poem. The collection is an extraordinary record of what it is to lose your other half and it traces a gradual change of heart. But what the poems have in common is that they are kind. Olds, who comes across as warm, dreamy, unequivocally American, says: "In life, we want to be kind. Always. If we can be." There is not a trace of bitterness in her.
Did you write Stag's Leap in the white heat of the moment or are these emotions recollected in tranquillity?
I have always written when the feeling is high. I'd find it hard to recollect extreme emotion in tranquillity.
Were any poems too personal to include?
The only thing that made me leave out poems was the feeling they weren't good enough. I wrote hundreds – most didn't work.
Did you show your ex-husband the collection before publication?
When I was married, I passed everything on for approval. But I no longer felt that was required for honour. Some people might feel it was. This is not a fair or a balanced book. It is written from the left wife's point of view, so it is limited.
Auden warned that personal poetry was using up "capital". I see it as capital in the bank. When I started writing, women's lives were not much written about much; I felt poems were about making rather than using something up.
Does writing about pain distance it or bring it closer? Does poetry, once finished, become about someone else?
A poem doesn't intensify experience, it adds to it. And it is not about a different person, is it? It is the same person who has made a song.
Inanimate objects come to life in your poems…
I love to describe things and have a companionable feeling about objects. And people who grow up with some degree of violence in the home – in my case not sexual but physical violence – know what it is like to feel like a thing. They look at other kids, try to see how it would be to feel fully like a person.
Can you say more about your childhood?
I grew up in a Calvinist, punitive atmosphere – hell featured in the future, punishment in the present. It is a lifelong labour trying to turn away from lies such as that one is worthless. One has to turn towards the truth of our good fortune in being here with one another.
Did you reinvent yourself after your divorce?
I was 55. I would not have known how. What I had to do was persevere. I have always had the blessing of many intensely close friends. I didn't have to reinvent myself for them.
Joyce Carol Oates describes you as "fearless".
From Joyce, that is amazing. I think she is fearless. I can respond by quoting Adrienne Rich: "I am afraid of everything." But my desire is often stronger than my fear. I wish to write about my life partly as stories representative of any ordinary woman.
Can you describe a typical working day?
It is morning, you have a spiral notebook from the grocery store – wide-ruled – and a medium ballpoint pen and you are looking out of the window. If you are in New Hampshire, you see a pond and sky and woods and in New York City you see the Hudson river. You may be describing what you are looking at. Or writing a diary. I do drawings and put stickers in: birds, reptiles and dinosaurs. The sky. Orion. All that.
What do you want most from poetry?
I want a poem to be useful.
What was the most challenging thing about Stag's Leap?
The title. I am told when stags mate they don't leap, they creep softly…
Stag's Creep would have been an awful title.
I agree [laughs].
And is there a new man in your life now?
There is. I live with him in New Hampshire and New York City. I have a job at New York University.
Has publication felt like the end of a chapter?
Something did shift. Definitely, yes – there was a sense of completion.
The winner of the TS Eliot prize will be announced on 14 January