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Remembering Mary Oliver in Columbia – 1996

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Mary Oliver – Photo credit Rachel Giese Brown

Before the Columbia Festival of the Arts box office even opened in 1996, tickets for the reading by Mary Oliver were long sold out.

Word had spread like wildfire about her appearance, and the famous Oliver, a quiet soul who didn’t travel much from her home in Massachusetts, read once, and only once, for HoCoPoLitSo. We tried for years to lure her back, but failed. Oliver died January 17, 2019, from lymphoma.

Before that June day in 1996, ninety writers sent in poems for a workshop, which Oliver conducted in the Slayton House dance studio. If you were one of those poets, we want to hear what Oliver said about your work. We hope you kept her notes.

After the workshop, Oliver packed Slayton House’s auditorium with 250 people. The late Lucille Clifton, another poet who is now no longer with us, introduced Oliver, the Pulitzer winner, this way, “To call her a nature poet is like calling Pavarotti a singer.”

Afterwards, Oliver, who is “reclusive, but not shy,” says HoCoPoLitSo founder Ellen Kennedy, chatted over chicken salad and fruit kebabs at the Kennedy home.

“I am trying in my poems to vanish and have the reader be the experiencer. I do not want to be there. It is not even a walk we take together,” Oliver explained about her work.

She’s become an Instagrammable poet, an inspirational poet. She asked her readers, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?” (link to “The Summer Day”)

But her work reaches people because it’s authentic, it’s true. Above all, she is a masterful poet.

Her images – of the grasshopper’s jaws moving sideways to mouth the sugar that Oliver fed her, of the lights going out behind her as journeys away from her home, of the wild geese streaking the sky – remain with me. I am always hoping that I can live like she did, “from day to day from/ one golden page to another.” (link to “Forty Years”)

by Susan Thornton Hobby

HCPLS Recording secretary

 


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