Collection of my correspondence with poet Mary Oliver
Among my greatest treasures collected over the years are the postcards and letters of correspondence I had received from poet Mary Oliver. At the time, they were mostly purposeful in assisting me in my application process for a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing – Mary had agreed to be a reference for me.
Mary Oliver was generous with her students. I had the rare privilege to be among the small group of women she taught at Sweet Briar College in Virginia in the mid-1990’s.
I enrolled in Mary’s first offered workshop at the college – a class on writing metrical poetry. I wasn’t familiar with Mary’s work, but I needed to fulfill an elective credit requirement and it sounded like an interesting option. I was very nervous heading into the classroom for the first time. I loved literature and writing. I wrote poems throughout my adolescent years but I doubted those poems were any good. I lacked confidence in my ability to write and questioned if I belonged in the creative writing classroom.
The classroom was small with only about eight students enrolled – mostly upper class women who were majoring in English and Creative Writing. I was intimidated. Mary came into the classroom like a dove, wings lowered softly, wispy grayish hair that had been tousled by the breeze that flowed through the dell in the center of campus, a gentle and quiet way about her. She passed out a few handouts with famous metrical poems – sonnets by Shakespeare, Petrarch and Elizabeth Barrett Browning; quatrains samples by Coleridge, AE Houseman an Gwendolyn Brooks, a villanelle by Elizabeth Bishop; ballads by Keats and Poe; and more. We discussed form and meter, and did exercises in pencil over the lines of these famous poems to show the five types of meter – iambic, trochaic, spondaic, anapestic, dactylic.
A budding writer studies metrical poetry of the great poets the way an art student copies works of the masters. You learn from copying the greats. And if you stick with it you just might become one of the select few who become masters creating a unique style for future generations to someday copy, too.
I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I signed up for Mary’s metrical poetry workshop. After the first class I realized I was in trouble. Mary’s expectation was that we would complete eight or so finished metrical poems that had to be true to form, meter, rhythm and she pushed us to not be lazy with our words, but to be selective, even obsessive about the words we put to meter – she believed we could all make these poems beautiful.
At the end of the semester, I completed my eight or so poems. For weeks I struggled in my dorm room with my homework of trying to write metrical poetry – far more than I struggled with my homework for my honors chemistry course! It was far more challenging to stick to the formulas of writing metrical poems while being selective with my words and striving to create something beautiful. I ended up putting more time into this one workshop for an elective than any other coursework that semester.
Over the following summer, when I was back home working part-time, I received a letter in the mail from the college. It was a congratulatory letter informing me that my poem – a villanelle I had written in that metrical poetry class – had been awarded first prize in the annual college competition sponsored by the Academy of American Poets. Huh?
Mary had submitted my poem, The Dogwood. I was shocked to learn that my poem had been entered in the contest and dumbfounded that it had actually won! I received a nice letter from the Academy along with a small prize stipend of $500 – I think.
When I returned for fall semester, I enrolled in another poetry workshop with Mary. I wanted to take advantage of her short tenure as writer in residence at the college. As it turned out, I ended up changing my major from Chemistry to English and Creative Writing. Truth be told, something happened while I was working so hard on writing those eight or so poems for Mary’s metrical poetry workshop – the challenging work took over, the obsession with finding the right words defined my intellectual growth as a college student. In the process I had found a voice I never knew was there – the voice of a writer.
I enjoyed all of Mary’s poetry workshops – all that were available before she disappeared and moved on from our campus to teach elsewhere – she went on to teach at Duke University. I kept every version of the poems I submitted for class that came back to me with her signature hand written notes thoughtfully expressed in pencil. Mary always used pencil. You would see her walking meditatively around campus with her notebook and a pencil – that was how she wrote. It was her process.
When it was time for me to graduate from Sweet Briar, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had been encouraged to apply for my MFA in Creative Writing. So, I worked on a handful of applications and was delighted to learn that Mary wanted to be one of my references. I was humbled by her kindness and generosity.
We had exchanged postcards and letters for a short time between my graduation and applying for graduate school. I have those postcards and letters carefully tucked in my signed copies of Mary Oliver’s poetry books, stashed like precious relics on a special bookshelf. Every now and again I open up her books and take out the letters and postcards and reminisce about the first time I attempted to write a metrical poem.
I had lost touch with Mary over the years. I never went to grad school for that MFA – I wasn’t ready. Life took me down a very different path. I landed in Oregon, my dad’s home state, and worked in the wine industry.
On February 5, 2008, Mary came to town via programming scheduled by Portland Literary Arts . I bought a ticket and sat so far up in the nosebleed section it seemed surreal from the days when I got to occupy space with Mary in a tiny classroom with just a handful of other students.
I had written a letter to the director of Literary Arts explaining I was a former student of Mary’s and hoped I could arrange some kind of visit or moment to say hello. At the time, I had taken poetry workshops with local poetry royalty – Kim Stafford, Paulann Petersen and Peter Sears – so, the magic of the universe worked out in my favor and the director invited me to attend the reception following Mary’s reading.
I only had about ten minutes to catch up with Mary. It was lovely to see her again. I was just happy that she still remembered me. She asked if I was still writing – and at the time, I was. I had earned a scholarship to attend Summer Fishtrap where I took a poetry workshop with Peter Sears; and I had enrolled in various other workshops – one at the Sitka Center for Art & Ecology at the Oregon coast with Kim Stafford and one at the Writer’s Dojo in Portland with Paulann Petersen.
Fast forward to the present. I was at the hospital following the birth of my first child on January 15th when I learned Mary had passed away on January 17th. I was so heavy in recovery and painkillers that I could not process the fullness and depth of this sad news. When I got home from the hospital I was in deep with the baby blues. I pulled out a few of my Mary Oliver books, read a few favorite poems, and cried.
I harbor some regret for not seriously pursuing the MFA. I loved the process of writing poems. I don’t write poetry anymore. My life has become consumed with running my own business, making wine, and now caring for a newborn. For years I have been telling myself that when I retire from making wine I would wear my hair in a long, silver braid and dedicate my crone years to writing poetry. And while that seems like a good life goal, there’s an undeniable void for having forsaken my literary dreams. To be honest, a part of me just gave up. It’s difficult to publish work and make a living as a poet. I just didn’t see it as a reliable option.
My big question – I wonder what Mary would say to me about timing, process and revisiting a writer’s life in a later chapter. My gut tells me she’d advise that I get back to writing – if only for myself – to rekindle the love, to stoke the fires of creativity, to pick up where I had left off, to be gentle and kind with the process, allowing it to manifest.
Mary wrote a poem called the Fletcher Oak while teaching at Sweet Briar. This poem is iconic to the Sweet Briar community – mainly for those of us who attended college while the stately Fletcher oak tree was a fixture on campus. Sadly, a few years after I graduated, the Fletcher oak had to be removed because it was diseased. The tree lives on through Mary’s poem.
Fletcher Oak is poignant for me as I consider my studies at Sweet Briar, as I revisit my past as a poet, as I lament the passing of the writer. The following lines hit home:
I don’t know if I will ever write another poem. I don’t know
if I am going to live a long time yet, or even for awhile.
But I am going to spend my life wisely. I’m going to be happy,
and frivolous, and useful.
And there I received my answer.
Photo of Fletcher Oak courtesy of sbc.edu