Maria Shriver: Mary, you've told me that for you, poetry is
and always was a calling. How do you know when something is a
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
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 morningit'll be gone.
Maria Shriver: What does it mean to you to be a
Mary Oliver: I consider myself kind of a reporterone 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
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 yearsI 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
morningyou know I'm a 5 A.M. riserso 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
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
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 Provincetownfishermen, 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 strangeryou give of yourselfand 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
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.
Maria Shriver: Why did you first turn to a creative art?
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
Maria Shriver: Do you have a favorite word?
Mary Oliver: A few [laughs]. Love, mirth, praise,
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 loveto contain
both the spiritual life and the life in this worldthat he does so
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
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 themselveswe're never gonna
know. I think about the spiritual a great deal. I like to think of myself as a
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
~ ~ ~
Read the entire interview here:
There are many of Mary Oliver's poems in the Nonduality
Highlights. Find them by using our search engine:
Or visit this 2004 issue of the Highlights featuring her
poetry and a more in depth interview with her: