Forty years after a literary magazine dismissed Sharon Olds' poems about her children, she has become the first American woman to win the TS Eliot prize, for her exploration of an equally domestic theme – the breakup of her marriage
When Sharon Olds, who has just become the first American woman to win the TS Eliot prize for poetry, first submitted her work to a magazine in the early 70s, she was rejected with a condescending putdown. "They told me: 'This is a literary magazine. If you wish to write about this sort of subject, may we suggest the Ladies' Home Journal. The true subjects of poetry are ... male subjects, not your children.'"
Olds was undeterred. "I was desperate to copy life, to make some record, to give it some form." Over 40 years (she is now 70), she has built up an extraordinary body of work – deeply intimate, confessional poetry embedded in the physical and the domestic, about her own abusive childhood, her parents, her husband, her sexuality, her kids.
Her latest volume, Stag's Leap, which has won the award, is an arc of poems, an almanac of grief, written in the days, weeks and months after her husband, a doctor to whom she had been married for 32 years, left her for a colleague. Here is the moment he told her ("his navel, and the cindery lichen / skin between the male breasts"), the last time they slept together ("he put his palm / on my back, between the shoulder blades"), the telling of her mother ("I bought her / a doughnut and a hairnet"), pain and shock and yearning hunkered down into everyday objects, into washing machines, clocks, clothes.
"There is an expression – the devil is in the detail," she says. "I think the earth is in the detail. I am quite myopic. I wear glasses. I am not good at big abstracts. I focus on things up close to me. Some poets have better imaginations than I have. They write about ideas that come out of experience, not ordinary life itself."
She is talking on the phone from a cabin in a wood in New Hampshire where she spends half her time (the other half, she spends in an apartment in New York). She has a soft, lilting voice and speaks slowly, like the teacher she also is, often rephrasing an inquiry or sending it back ("So here is a question to put to both of us …"). Outside her window, she says, is a pond covered with ice, and she is gazing at it as we talk. Occasionally, she posts an update: "Oh, there is a cloud reflected on the pond. No, it is the shadow of a plane tree." She is jetlagged and a little shell-shocked from the recent flurry of attention: "It has always been obvious to anyone that my poems were autobiographical, but I used to think I would go to the grave without actually saying it. Then one day – I was talking to a young poet – I thought maybe, as long as one didn't refer to actual people, it might be helpful. But this last week …" She pauses. "I've felt like going back into the woodwork."
Her reticence comes as a surprise after her candour in print. For Oprah Winfrey's website, she compiled a guide to recovering from heartbreak, "Six Ways to Pull Yourself Back Up", and the tips – "small, tangible things" – are delightfully grounded, from the importance, in denial, of telling people – "I crept from apartment to apartment … a Typhoid Mary, a Divorce Shary" – to the value of creation. "Writing or making anything – a poem, a bird-feeder, a chocolate cake – has self-respect in it." If she feels restraint, she says it for others, predominantly her children (a son and daughter, now adult). "It was bad enough growing up with a poet in the house without me talking about them." She waited 15 years before publishing Stag's Leap – "They thought the marriage was permanent, they had their own adjustments to make" – and has never shown any of the poems she wrote during their adolescence ("I'm saving those"). She is respectful, too, of her ex-husband. She sent him the poems. What did he say about them? "I can't talk about it."
She has described her long hair as being "like a shawl, a protection", and says she has only recently acquired the confidence to disagree with colleagues at work (Oprah tip five: "Holding Your Own"). This lack of confidence comes from the upbringing she wrote about in her early poetry. "When you grow up with a lot of harsh judgments … I found it a lifetime's work to get on the other side of those."
She was brought up in San Francisco in a starkly religious household, fraught with repression and fear. During our conversation she refers to various things she had to learn for herself. Loyalty: "One picks it up by imitation and if, as in my case, you are never shown it as a child, you can have difficulties learning it." Motherhood: "I understood so little about it. In expressing, we slowly come to understand a little more." Anger: "If you grow up thinking anger is a danger to the soul, that it is not an option, it takes a while to know how to get appropriately angry, to respect your own emotions."
Reviewers have noted the absence of anger in Stag's Leap; it is there, but diverted, rarely overt, only occasionally surfacing. "I let him go, I lay and stretched on love's / fucking stretcher." She says she did feel anger – there is a poem that talks about "the whole car / of my anger" – but that it came after other emotions: disbelief, horror, loss. She came to understand, too, her own part in the success and failure of her marriage: "We were not so well suited to each other any more. He just realised it long before me … Then I didn't feel like a victim but more like an equal" (Oprah tip six: "Claim Your 50 percent"). Composition is itself a form of healing. "I focus so hard on the line, like a gladiator in the arena with the lions, just trying to be accurate, not being gloomy about your condition, but making something which may prove to be good."
She breaks off again. "It has only just occurred to me that the paradigm people have been using when they talk about the lack of anger is the cliche of the wife discovering the affair with a younger woman." So, that didn't happen to her? "If that had been the case, it would have been a whole different book. That would have been really different.
"You know, I have just made a change to a poem. I should tell the publisher. In Running Into You, the speaker describes the ex-husband as being covered with the new partner, 'like a child working with glue / who's young to be working with glue'. One critic pointed out this was the only nasty line in the collection ... I take criticism very seriously. And I looked at it again and thought, 'Oh my God, that is true.' It wasn't exact enough. I've added the line, 'or was I the one playing with glue?' I was the one having trouble getting unstuck from him."
Olds' life is joyful now. Friendship has been a great solace. As has singing and dancing. "Did you know there was a time when singing and dancing was one word, because they were always done at the same time?" She looks after herself. She doesn't wear makeup ("My own form of vanity"), but one of her first acts on winning the £15,000 prize money was to buy a cashmere cardigan. This morning, she has been reading the dictionary. "Frangipane: I am in love with the English language." She has another love in her life too – Carl, a retired cattle breeder. He was the one who found the cabins in the New Hampshire woods and refurbished them. They rent the others out. "We are even planning conferences."
She has a rich working life – teaching creative writing at New York University every other year, the rest of the time, writing and travelling and running workshops. She has set up various outreach programmes in hospitals and prisons, her latest for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Does she have grandchildren? "You would have to ask the person concerned." Which is itself an answer, I say. She gives a hoot of laughter.
Then she sighs – or I think it is a sigh; it could be a deep breath.
"It is interesting how much of an ordinary enough life can be a poem and have its own kind of beauty and be useful to other people. I guess I am someone who likes to push to the edge of what it is OK to have in a poem. That is my mischievous side, to teeter on the edge of good taste, on what is permissible."
• Stag's Leap is published by Jonathan Cape for £10. To order a copy for £8 with free UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop, or call 0330 333 6846