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Paul J. Willis

My Date with Mary Oliver

A memorable evening in Santa Barbara.

So. The poet Mary Oliver was coming to town—or to the local university, rather—and the head of their arts and lectures series, Roman Baratiak, called me up and asked if I would introduce her at the reading. Would I ever. An honor, I told him. Her lithe and lovely stanzas of encounter with the natural world, stair-stepping down the page, were among my very favorite moments as a reader, moments in which I often forgot to envy her skill and simply sank into the words—words which made me more of the kind of grateful and attentive person I wanted to be. And that's what a good poem is for, right?

Roman told me to arrive a half hour early so that Mary Oliver and I could chat a bit before she went on. "To establish some rapport," he said. So I got to the lecture hall by 7:30 p.m., intro in hand, eager for my little chat. But the stage manager came out and told me that our guest poet was still at dinner, would get here soon—that I should have a seat in the house and someone would get me when she arrived. So I took a seat near the front as the large hall began to fill.

At a quarter of eight she still hadn't shown. Then ten to eight. Then five to eight. The lecture hall was full by now, ripe with the noise of expectation, and no one had yet come for me. What, in that moment, was I to do with my one wild and precious life? What I did, sans summons, was get out of my seat and find my way backstage to the green room, which was brightly lit but entirely empty. Eight o'clock now. I could still hear the buzz of the crowd. In the huge mirror that crossed one side of the room I practiced my three-minute introduction, punching the laugh lines, slowing down for the passages of earnest appreciation.

At five after eight, Roman Baratiak and Mary Oliver came sweeping through the back door from the parking lot. Roman graciously introduced us, and Mary was particularly warm and personable in the way she took my hand. This was a relief to me, for when I had first heard her read in this very hall four years before, she had been out of sorts—quirky, grumpy, and aloof. With a shapeless stocking cap pulled all the way down to her eyes, she had communicated in almost every way that she did not want to be there. I believe her partner had just died; to be on the road and reading in public must have held little joy. Now, however, her thick gray hair was swept back like the wings of an angel.

Noting the lateness of the time, Roman made light of it. "We're fine," he said. "We're just fine."

"So," said Mary Oliver. "I've got time for a cigarette, right?"

Roman was clearly not counting on this response, but he said that would be okay, except she would have to go outside. "Not in here," he said.

So the two of us slipped out the door into the dark parking lot, where Mary Oliver calmly lit a cigarette and gave me a rundown on her day. Her plane from San Francisco had been two hours late, so she had gone directly from the airport to a class, and directly from the class to dinner, and directly from dinner to here, with no chance to check in or freshen up at the hotel.

"Are you feeling frazzled?" I asked.

"Nah," she said, and waved her hand dismissively. "I save that for later."

"You really are a pro," I said. And she laughed.

She explained that this was the fourth of five readings. The last would be the next day, in San Luis Obispo. She wanted to know how to pronounce Obispo, and I told her: "O-bis-po."

She tried the word after me and said she liked the sound of it. "What does it mean?" she asked.

I didn't know.

She said there was a priest from the mission there who would be here tonight. And then she talked about a certain bishop of Massachusetts who had her take part in a service. "I take part," she said, "but I never preach. That's my rule—I never preach."

Good rule, I thought. The one time I had ever been asked to preach a sermon, an entire week of preparation had produced only ten minutes of material. When I got to the church, the water pipes had burst, so we had to hold the service out on the patio. But a fire was raging some miles away, and the blistering air was thick with smoke. So the elders came to me and said, "We're awfully sorry, but given the conditions, it might be best if you could keep your sermon to just ten minutes."

"I think I can manage that," I said. After all, poetry is the art of compression.

But I didn't tell this story to Mary Oliver, even though she was just starting to ask me about my own work as a poet in our community. For at that moment Roman appeared from inside and said we really should get going—that Mary Oliver did not have time to finish her cigarette after all.

By now it was maybe a quarter after. Roman ushered us into the wings, from which we could see a brightly lit podium on the stage. On the far side of the podium were a coffee table and two soft chairs. I wondered whom they were for.

"Okay," said Roman. "I'll go out and welcome everyone and introduce you, Paul. Then you come out and introduce Mary. Then, Mary, you come out and read for fifty minutes. Then, Paul, you come back up to the stage and sit with her at the coffee table and just converse, using the two boom mikes, while I collect question cards from the audience. After about ten minutes, I'll hand you the cards, and then you can ask her some of those questions for another ten minutes. You got my message about doing this interview part, right?"

I had not. And I was suddenly conscious of the 700 people out there, a packed house, at $35 a head. But I swallowed and said, "Sounds great, Roman." What I felt like saying was, "So I've got time for a cigarette, right?"

So Roman introduced me, and I introduced Mary, and Mary gave me a great big kiss and then gave everyone a marvelous reading. The audience was hair-trigger with appreciation. They were a sort of wave that any surfer could ride—even someone like me who had never really been surfing before, who had never before interviewed a well-known poet.

During the reading the house lights were completely dark. By the pale glow of my wristwatch I scratched out a few notes and questions and then, during the lengthy applause, found my way back onstage and plopped down into one of the chairs by the coffee table while Mary Oliver took the other. To my surprise, she looked a bit nervous. She had carried the reading with warmth and poise, but by now, I think, she needed another cigarette. But somehow, her evident nervousness made me calm. It would be a complete waste of time for me to be nervous as well. It was my job to put her at ease. To ride the wave. So after the stagehands wrestled the podium into the wings, we began. I asked her about her time as a young woman on the farm of Edna St. Vincent Millay, about what Millay meant to her as a poet. This, for her, was an easy ramble. She had simply written a letter to Edna St. Vincent Millay's surviving sister and asked to help out on the farm—and she ended up helping out with Millay's many manuscripts. This is what she did instead of going to college—for her, a perfect education.

I asked her about her frequent use of multipart poems in her reading, about what these structures allow her to do. They allow her to change voices, she said. I told her that each part sometimes felt like a bird flying into a plate-glass window, then backing up and flying into the window again. She repeated the simile aloud and said that she liked it. I said it seemed to me that we keep trying to enter the ineffable without quite getting there—though a good many of her poems were in fact fairly "effable."

I asked her whether she had seen an increase in public interest in poetry during her lifetime.

"Yes," she said—"except Congress still doesn't like poetry."

"You are not," I asked, "an unacknowledged legislator of the world?"

"No," she said.

"So," I said. "Poetry makes nothing happen."

"POETRY SAVES LIVES!" shouted someone from the audience.

Mary Oliver smiled and said, "Yes, we would die without it."

It was about this time that I noticed, as I sat with my legs crossed, that the change in my pocket was slowly shifting. If I sat back any further—indeed, if I moved at all—a cavalcade of quarters and nickels would soon be hitting the floor.

But turning my mind to matters at hand, I then asked her about her ten years of teaching and, given her rather caustic comment during her reading that some of her students had actually learned to write a sentence, I asked in particular if she had been displeased with her students. Not with her students really, she said. It was just that she would give certain things away to her students in flashes of discovery that she could no longer give to a poem. "You can only give something away once," she said, "and if it's given to the students it's no longer available for the poems."

Then the index cards with questions arrived, and I took a deep breath, straightened up, and felt my change roll firmly back into the proper depths of my pocket. And in response to these questions in hand we did find out, among other things, that Shelley's "To a Sky-Lark" ranks among her favorite poems, and that "It is the east, and Juliet is the sun" is among her favorite lines—"the naked power of metaphor," as she put it.

To Mary Oliver's relief, I ended our conversation when, by the glow of my trusty wristwatch, twenty minutes had elapsed. To my surprise, I did not regret a single fumbling word I'd said. And, to my un-surprise, I treasured each and every word that Mary Oliver had uttered. Afterward, people told me, "You looked so spontaneous up there!"

Well, duh.

And I still haven't washed the smoke from my jacket.

Paul J. Willis is professor of English at Westmont College. His most recent book of poems is Say This Prayer into the Past (Cascade).

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