Singapore Writers Festival: Two Pulitzer Prize-winning poets share about silence and speaking up

Pulitzer Prize-winning American poets Sharon Olds during a virtual dialogue at the Singapore Writers Festival. PHOTO: SINGAPORE WRITERS FESTIVAL

SINGAPORE - "I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that poetry has kept me sane during this time of immense pressure," said former United States poet laureate Tracy K. Smith.

Speaking in a virtual dialogue at the Singapore Writers Festival last Saturday (Oct 31), she said time has felt different in the last six months during the pandemic.

"Looking at my calendar almost gives me a panic attack. I can't bear to see how much time has gone by. I feel that a veil has been pulled back on the cosmic reality of time."

This is where poetry comes in, she added, because it can manipulate time. "Poetry has always been good at saying, 'We must leap out of this moment and into this other moment. We're doing a space-time transfer in this poem.'"

Smith, 48, is one of two Pulitzer Prize-winning American poets headlining the festival's 23rd edition, which is organised by the National Arts Council and runs until Sunday (Nov 8) in its first fully digital edition with more than 200 programmes.

The other is Sharon Olds, 77, whose work over decades has been lauded for its frank exploration of the female body and sexuality.

"All of my writing is a response to silence about everything, which is the tradition I grew up in," Olds told moderator Cyril Wong in a virtual dialogue last Sunday (Nov 1).

Olds was raised in a strictly religious Calvinist household and published her first collection, Satan Says, when she was 37. "It was not the usual thing then to be so - " she gave a small scream " - loud and mad."

People looked askance at how she would write poems about her love for her children, for instance, or other domestic matters.

"A lot of people, when I was first writing, really disliked what I was doing... In the very beginning, it didn't look as if it was going to all go well."

Smith often incorporates silence into her work, sometimes in the form of erasure in poems like Declaration, in which she blacks out parts of the United States Declaration of Independence to draw attention to how slavery is erased from the nation's founding narrative.

"Much of what we take for granted is riddled with omission and erasures," she told moderator Lawrence Lacambra Ypil. "Listening in the right way can help us understand why what is missing has been removed."

Both poets spoke at length about their writing process and form, Olds saying that she likes to play with long and short lines such that her poems, when turned on their side, look like city skylines.

Olds has written about childhood abuse and divorce. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Stag's Leap (2012) draws on how her husband left her after more than 30 years of marriage for another woman.

In the past, she said, she would have been coy about whether the poems were autobiographical. "I would say, 'I am sorry, I have taken a vow to not to speak about my actual family in public. I'm not in the poems.' And then I would weep because it seemed so clear that it was 100 per cent for me.

"In the old days, women were the people who were asked most about whether their poems were autobiographical. And I wanted to talk about similes and endings of lines.

"But then as I got older, I realised it was important for each of us to tell our truth, if we could, about how our poems are made, and I don't see any distance between me and the speaker, ever. I was just saying that to protect the innocent. Now, it's very freeing for me to be able to say that I'm trying to speak absolutely as myself."

Smith spoke of the "shift of allegiance" that has recently occurred in her poetry. "I feel that my work right now is coming out of a strong allegiance to a community of blackness that I belong to, and that's the space into which I'm writing.

"Even when my poems sometimes move around to address others, I'm doing that in service of this group I have pledged allegiance to."

Her poems straddle the intimate and the cosmic, as in her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Life On Mars (2011), which takes its title from her favourite David Bowie song and serves as an elegy for her father, a scientist who worked on the Hubble telescope.

Looking at things on a cosmic scale helps her make better sense of the setbacks that humanity keeps witnessing, she said.

"I have come to understand that every movement for justice, which I have always thought of as discrete and distinct with a beginning and an end, is actually just one single wave, the end of which is something that might be so far off in the distance as to not even concern us, even though we find ourselves participating.

"We're part of a movement for change that may only result in success in a thousand years. But to me, we belong to a single diverse body with a unified aim."

  • BOOK IT/TRACY K. SMITH: THE BODY OF DESIRE IN POETRY

  • WHERE: Sistic Live

    WHEN: Available on video-on-demand until Nov 8.

    ADMISSION: Festival pass, $20 from Sistic

    BOOK IT/SHARON OLDS: AN INTIMATE LIFE IN POETRY

    WHERE: Sistic Live

    WHEN: Available on video-on-demand until Nov 8; live Q&A on Nov 6, 9.30 to 10pm

    Books by Olds, Smith and other speakers are available at the online festival bookstore at swfbooks.com. For more details, go to the Singapore Writers Festival website

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