Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Natalie Easton reads “Sex Without Love” by Sharon Olds.
I’m such a Sharon Olds fan, I’m excited you picked her. Before we get into the great poem you recorded for us, can you tell us a little about your first Olds experience?
Natalie Easton: Picking her was almost unavoidable, for me. She’s always the first to spring to mind when I think about whose work I’ve enjoyed wholeheartedly. I knew of her, of course, but my first real introduction to her came after you visited my house in May 2014 and left Satan Says behind. (I still have it–sorry, you’ll get it back, promise.) I loved her accessibility, her lack of frivolity, her poetic narrative full of truth and completely lacking in pretense. I loved the way her poetry made me cringe; her descriptions of our bodies, of her sense of family, of conflicting emotions so tightly entwined that betrayal and love become almost indistinguishable. She makes it easy to believe that this dynamic is the norm. She implies–more than explains–how these feelings came to mesh in her mind, but manages to completely avoid sentimentality.
My love cemented further in June of that same year when I devoured Strike Sparks on a camping trip, her book in one hand and a drink in the other.
Sundress: I think what strikes me most about “Sex Without Love” is how she first compares two people having sex without love as “beautiful as dancers” and “gliding over each other like ice skaters,” then as pros, “the great runners, alone with the road surface” and how these ideas feel so contradictory, and yet, both are imbued with a sense of wonderment and admiration by Olds. What strikes you most?
Natalie Easton: What strikes me most about the acts you mentioned is obvious, of course: the physicality involved. These are sports she’s talking about, where there are goals achieved and medals given. Of course, those things can just be done for pleasure, but nonetheless there is a competitive nature there.
What grabs me in general about the poem is her desperation to separate herself emotionally from the act, and how she even subtly hints at the pain involved when one cannot do that: “wet as the / children at birth whose mothers are going to / give them away.” She envies these lovers, but never has to state it; we come to conclusions about her emotional state of mind through what she doesn’t say.
Sundress: I agree, it is a lot about “What she doesn’t say.” Okay, for a minute, let’s say “Sex Without Love” is a lesson—what does it teach?
Natalie Easton: In terms of interpretation, I think perhaps it could teach us to look closer at how even the supposedly pleasurable is something to be worked toward. (Her work always teaches us about the failings of our humanity.) Common, everyday occurrences get parsed endlessly by people with high emotional intelligence, which I think certainly describes Olds. One person may experience something and walk away feeling strangely discontent, but an artist like Olds brings those muddled feelings to light and identifies them.
In terms of formatting, when I read this poem aloud I tried my best to capture the breathlessness of it–the running, the gasping for air: the passion in those line breaks. I’m not sure how well I got that across, but that was one thing that, for me, reading the poem aloud revealed. The other thing I notice in this poem is the imagery: first we have ice skaters, but then red steak and wine and wet babies and runners. Mixing images like this is something I’m wary of doing in my own poetry because it can easily become distracting and inefficient, but she makes it flow; there is a logic in her associations.
Also: no stanza breaks. She shows us with these poems that they aren’t always necessary, but again, this poem is all about breath; in this instance, the reader should feel close to running out.
Sundress: Having read the entirety of Strike Sparks, how would you say “Sex Without Love,” from her second book, compares to her newer work? What is essential Olds?
Natalie Easton: What the poems of Strike Sparks, her collected works, have in common is the gut punch. This is something she has always been capable of, but I feel that her more recent work has seen her style become more polished, her descriptions more keen. There’s that constant kernel of truth that makes you want to barrel on ahead recklessly, sucking in your breath the whole time. Of course, there is no questioning that she’s always been pretty fantastic.
Essential Olds is, I would say, about getting to the uncomfortable, and then living there so comfortably that we all squirm to read it but are unable to look away; who would want to, when what she has to say is so human and interesting? I marvel at her ability to discuss intimacy in the way she does, and how her own fractured relationships have led her to long for things in a way that never seems requited. Sadly. Maybe that’s partly the temperament of artists in general–a driving factor.
Sundress: How has Olds influenced your own writing?
Natalie Easton: I don’t know that my answer to this question will be anything but banal. I think what every artist does, in the face of work they admire, is try to learn by osmosis. There’s a certain helplessness there, as well: the idea that I will never do this. But we try to take elements of what we love so much, and then put our own spin on it. For me it’s the way Olds describes things…I feel the same way when reading Ted Hughes’ work: “How did she/he get to this description, to this thing I feel all the time, and put it into words?” Everything is so clear; even what we haven’t experienced feels like truth in their experienced hands. They make it all look so easy. It’s anything but. That’s the level I’d love to reach one day.
Sundress: Who else “makes it all look so easy?” Other than Olds, who would you recommend?
Natalie Easton: I love Mark Doty, always, though I can’t say he always makes it look easy; at times he gets quite cerebral. I enjoy it, but can’t emulate that. Ellen Bryant Voigt is fantastic; I particularly enjoyed her book Shadow of Heaven. I frequently recommend C.D. Wright’s “Deepstep Come Shining,” which was suggested to me by the poet Russel Swensen, who reminds me of a poetic Bret Easton Ellis. He’s a Black Lawrence Press poet, and they always put out good stuff, so give him a go. Michael Bazzett is another one; You Must Remember This is worth a read. I also have a slew of books I acquired while at Bread Loaf that I haven’t managed to get through yet, so when I’m done with those I’ll have a lot more to recommend, no doubt.
Natalie Easton’s poems have appeared in such publications as Jet Fuel Review, Superstition Review, and Sweet. She was nominated for a Pushcart in 2014, and was a contributor at Bread Loaf in 2015. Later that year she went to Firefly Farms in Knoxville, Tennessee, for a week-long SAFTA residency.
Rhiannon Thorne‘s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Midwest Quarterly, and The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, among others. She is the Managing Editor of cahoodaloodaling and an associate interviewer and a book reviewer at Up the Staircase Quarterly.