When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
Both my parents read aloud to me and my siblings when we were small, and so my first experiences with poetry included children’s verses with strong rhymes and narrative flow. In high school, theatre classes, oddly enough, sent me to the poetry shelves at our local used bookstore, where I bought Li Po and Millay and Eliot and Neruda (those books are still on my shelves). My subsequent attempted poems were pretentious and angst-ridden, but sincere—I’m trying, still, to look back at that teenage self with tenderness and acceptance.
Later, there was a long period—over a decade—in which I wasn’t writing poems, though I was reading them all along. I can’t isolate the impetus that brought me back to writing poetry—to taking the risks writing poetry entails—much as I wish I could.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I write mainly on weekday mornings, when my son is in school, and on Saturday mornings during the summer vacation. A quick walk first, then tea, which usually cools, forgotten, when I’m having a good writing day. I write drafts longhand, in pencil, on legal pads; notes, depending on the source and purpose, go into one of three notebooks.
I like recording snippets—images, phrases—on walks, but I’m so absent-minded that I tend to leave my notebook behind, and I forget that my phone could serve the purpose. My favorite place to write for an extended period is at my new-to-me desk, or—though my back never thanks me for it—in bed. Someday I’d like to own a chaise lounge, just for writing.
Where do your poems most often “come from”—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
It’s rare for me to get a whole line at once. I pick up “notions” (“idea” is too strong, I think) from new environments or just walks around the neighborhood, odd words I encounter, visual art, and funny things my son says. A phrase here or there, a snippet. Often a poem starts as a title, but it might take a year or two (or more) before the poem that fits the title starts to materialize. I’m not a particularly patient person, so this process can be frustrating. On the other hand, it’s easy to recognize that the poems that come quickly—so rare!—are gifts.
Which writers (living or dead) have influenced you the most?
I’m honored to count poets and writers among my friends; their work and their support mean the world to me.
As far as writers I don’t know personally: Louise Erdrich, Li-Young Lee, Virginia Woolf, John Donne, Ross Gay, Anne Carson, Camille Dungy, Henri Cole, Shakespeare, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Milton . . . I think I should stop there.
What excites you most about your new collection?
Given the personal significance of the poems in this book (which traces an autobiographical arc, including poems on illness, mourning, and motherhood), and how long it took for the collection to find its final form—at least four years—I’m excited that Inside the Storm I Want to Touch the Tremble found the right home at the right time. I’m especially grateful to Matthew Olzmann and to the University of Utah Press for shepherding this collection into the world.
Carolyn Oliver is the author of Inside the Storm I Want to Touch the Tremble (University of Utah Press, 2022), selected for the Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry, and The Alcestis Machine (Acre Books, forthcoming 2024). Her poems appear in three chapbooks and in The Massachusetts Review, Copper Nickel, Poetry Daily, Shenandoah, Beloit Poetry Journal, 32 Poems, Southern Indiana Review, and elsewhere. Her awards include the Goldstein Prize from Michigan Quarterly Review, the E. E. Cummings Prize from the NEPC, and the Writer’s Block Prize in Poetry. She lives with her family in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her website is carolynoliver.net.