Motherhood & Words

On Monday night, I was one of 1300 people at the Mary Oliver reading at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis. In the sanctuary, we were seated shoulder to shoulder. Two other rooms (also packed) piped Oliver in via video feed. Seriously, 1300 people paid to see a poet read her work. I kept saying to my friend Marge, “I can’t believe this. Look at all these people. I can’t believe this.” I’m sure I sounded like my 98-year old grandfather. (Every Wednesday, Stella and I take him for errands, and every Wednesday when we pass the full parking lots of Target and Baker’s Square, he says, “Look at all those cars. Where do all the people come from?” He harrumphs, then adds, “Well, that’s good. Business is good.”)

Business is obviously good for Oliver—1300 people!—but how many other poets could sell out a place this large? Some, certainly, and I would love it if the packed house were a reflection on poetry in general as the recent Star Tribune article seemed to assert, but I think that it’s more likely just evidence of Mary Oliver’s appeal.

And she is appealing. It was hard for me to see her because the people sitting in the rows in front of me were positioned in such a way that I could only see Oliver through a small triangle of hair if I closed one eye. (I looked ridiculous, but no one seemed to notice.)

Mostly, I didn’t need to see; Oliver’s gravely voice filled the sanctuary. I understand why her poetry is used so frequently in church services; her language and imagery are so calming. I felt myself settle into the pew. I’m not a calm person (something I’m sure you’ve guessed about me by now), and I love those rare moments when I am fully in my body and am open to the world, to possibility (without allowing my mind to sprint ahead).

I love this line: “nobody owns the hearts of birds.”

Oliver was also very funny. She read a couple of poems about her dog, Percy, and I was struck by this. I wondered what would happen if I wrote a poem about a dog. I’m pretty sure that people would laugh at me. This would partly be because I’m not a poet and the poem would be very bad. But I also think that it would, in part, be due to the fact that I’m not a known writer. Is writing about one’s dog something you can do only after you have proved yourself, after you have an established loyal readership? Does anyone out there know of a newly published poet writing about his/her dog?

I must leave you with Oliver’s advice to new writers. She said, “Pay attention and cultivate astonishment.” Hmmm, yes. I couldn’t agree more.

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I have been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years. Reading about other women’s lives and experiences has expanded my world. To be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s for a moment or an hour or a few days, is an incredible gift, providing me with insight into the human experience. It takes courage to write your truths, especially if it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares, as though anyone is listening. Let me tell you: your stories matter, I’m listening, and I’m here to help you find the heart of those truths, to get them down on the page, to craft them, and to send them out into the world. Together, we will change the world, one story at a time.


  1. Sheri on May 9, 2007 at 4:50 pm

    wow, i just have to say i love your blog so far. found you via miriam. lovely.

  2. Bryan on May 13, 2007 at 10:14 am

    Oliver’s remark about cultivating astonishment reminds me of something that a writing instructor once told me, how much writing today suffers from the fact that so many writers today are no longer surprised or shocked by anything, sometimes sincerely and sometimes as an affectation of jadedness. In general, books on motherhood don’t seem to suffer from this malady—your manuscript, Kate, is a perfect example—and I think that’s one of their more appealing strengths.

    Happy Mother’s Day, by the way, to you Kate, and to all you writing and reading mama’s out there.

  3. Beat Blackjack on June 15, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    And on what we shall stop?