Sharon Olds

Sharon Olds

Past Event: Sunday, April 18, 2010

At Benaroya Hall — Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall

Poetry Icon


Sharon Olds was born in 1942 in San Francisco and was raised in Berkeley, California, as a “hellfire Calivinist.” She attended Stanford University and later earned a Ph.D. in literature at Columbia University. The author of nine collections of poetry, her work has appeared in over 100 anthologies and collections and won critical acclaim and a loyal following of readers.

Her poetry is remarkable for its honest chronicling of the everyday, for its unflinching depictions of relationships, and its continuous celebration of humans—as flawed, natural, pushing and pulling beings. Fittingly, her language has a physicality to it that cannot be denied, and her lines seem to move, drawing readers down the page with an unstoppable power.

“I’ve tried to make sense of my life,” Olds says, “…make a small embodiment of ordinary life, from a daughter’s, wife’s, mother’s point of view.” It is only recently that she has admitted as much. For years she maintained that her poetry and her life were separate and refused to speak publicly about the seemingly autobiographical nature of her work. Now, she has devised her own phrase, “apparently personal poetry,” preferring it to the more commonly used “confessional” designation. Nonetheless, her work returns often to the same themes, poems and images building on one another to create a layered understanding of a woman’s life. Religion and secularism return often, as does a troubled relationship between the “I” of the poems and her parents.

From her first book, Satan Says (1980), Olds has displayed a resolve to write like herself and has done so to consistent and outstanding acclaim. Her second collection, The Dead & the Living, was the Lamont Poetry Selection of 1983 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Other volumes include Strike Sparks: Selected PoemsThe Unswept RoomBlood, Tin, StrawThe Gold CellThe Wellspring; and The Father, shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her most recent collection is One Secret Thing, which explores her relationship with her mother and depicts her mother’s death. It was named as a finalist for the Forward Poetry Prize for Best Collection, a prestigious U.K. poetry award.

She currently teaches poetry at New York University’s Graduate Creative Writing Program. She divides her time between Manhattan and New Hampshire.


They tell you it won’t make much sense, at first,
you will have to learn the terrain. They tell you this
at thirty, and fifty, and some are late
beginners, at last lying down and walking
the old earth of the breasts—the small,
cobbled, plowed field of one,
with a listening walking, and then the other—
fingertip-stepping, divining, north
to south, east to west, sectioning
the little fallen hills, sweeping
for mines. And the matter feels primordial,
cystic, phthistic, each breast like the innards
of a cell, its contents shifting and changing,
steambed gravel under walking feet, it
seems almost unpicturable, not
immemorial, but nearly un-
memorizable, but one marches,
slowly, through grave or fatal danger,
or no danger, one feels around in the
two tack-room drawers, ribs and
knots like leather bridles and plaited
harnesses and bits and reins,
one runs one’s hands through the mortal tackle
in a jumble, in the dark, indoors. Outside—
night, in which these glossy ones were
ridden to a froth of starlight, bareback.

At Night

At night my mother tucked me in, with a
jamming motion—her fingertips
against the swag of sheets and blankets
hanging down, where the acme angle of the
Sealy Posturepedic met
the zenith angle of the box spring—she shoved,
stuffing, doubling the layers, suddenly
tightening the bed, racking it one notch
smaller, so the sheets pressed me like a fierce
restraint. I was my mother’s squeeze,
my mother was made of desire leashed.
And my sister and I shared a room—
my mother tucked me in like a pinch,
with a shriek, then wedged my big sister in, with a
softer eek, we were like the parts of a
sexual part, squeaky and sweet,
the room full of girls was her blossom, the house was my
mother’s bashed, pretty ship, she
battened us down, this was our home,
she fastened us down in it, in her sight,
as a part of herself, and she had welcomed that part—
embraced it, nursed it, tucked it in, turned out the light.

Selected Work
One Secret Thing (2008)
The Father (1992)
The Dead & the Living (1983), Lamont Poetry Selection, National Book Critics Circle Award
Satan Says (1980)

Sharon Olds on
“The Beetle,” in The Paris Review
Interview with Olds in The Guardian

Event Details

Benaroya Hall — Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall

200 University Street
Seattle, WA 98101

View directions.

Transportation & Parking

This event will be held in the Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall. The Recital Hall is located on the upper level of Benaroya Hall, up the stairs to the left side of the Box Office. Benaroya Hall is located at 200 University Street, directly across Second Avenue from the Seattle Art Museum. The public entrance to Benaroya Hall is along Third Avenue.

By Car

  • From Southbound I-5
    Take the Union Street exit (#165B). Continue onto Union Street and proceed approximately five blocks to Second Avenue. Turn left onto Second Avenue. The Benaroya Hall parking garage will be on your immediate left. The garage entrance is on Second Avenue, just south of Union Street.
  • From Northbound I-5
    Exit left onto Seneca Street (exit #165). Proceed two blocks and turn right onto Fourth Avenue. Continue two blocks. Turn left onto Union Street. Continue two blocks. Turn left onto Second Avenue. The Benaroya Hall parking garage will be on your immediate left. The garage entrance is on Second Avenue, just south of Union Street.
  • From Northbound Highway 99 (Aurora Avenue)
    Take the Seneca Street exit and move into the left lane. Turn left onto First Avenue and proceed one block. Take the next right (at the Hammering Man sculpture) onto University Street. Continue up the hill two blocks to Third Avenue. Turn left onto Third Avenue. Continue to the next block and turn left onto Union Street. Make the next left onto Second Avenue. The Benaroya Hall parking garage will be on your immediate left. The garage entrance is on Second Avenue, just south of Union Street.
  • From Southbound Highway 99 (Aurora Avenue)
    Take the Denny Way/Downtown exit. Keep right and cross over Denny Way onto Wall Street. Proceed approximately five blocks and turn left onto Second Avenue. Continue south on Second Avenue approximately eight blocks. The Benaroya Hall parking garage will be on your left. The garage entrance is on Second Avenue, just south of Union Street.

By Public Transit (Bus & Light Rail)

Benaroya Hall is served by numerous bus routes. Digital reader boards along Third Avenue display real-time bus arrival information. For details and trip planning tools, call Metro Rider Information at 206.553.3000 (voice) or 206.684.1739 (TDD), or visit Metro online. The Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, served by light rail, has a stop just below the Hall (University Street Station).

The 430-car underground garage at Benaroya Hall provides direct access from the enclosed parking area into the Hall via elevators leading to The Boeing Company Gallery. Enter the garage on Second Avenue, just south of Union Street. Maximum vehicle height is 6’8″. Blink charging stations are available for electric vehicles. The event rate is $16.

Parking is also available at:

  • The Cobb Building (enter on University Street between Third and Fourth Avenues).
  • The Russell Investments Center (enter on Union Street between First and Second Avenues).
  • There are many other garages within a one-block radius of Benaroya Hall, along with numerous on-street parking options.


SAL is for everyone. We want all audience members to be able to experience our lectures and readings regardless of accessibility concerns. Accessibility services at our venues are provided at no cost to ticket holders. If you find you need to sit closer to the stage to accommodate your needs but find the cost of a Patron ticket prohibitive, then please contact us—we will seat you where you need to be, regardless of cost.

Open Captioning occurs at every event that takes place at Benaroya Hall. It is also always available upon request for all events in our other halls, with a two-week minimum notice. To make a request for Open Captioning services, please contact us at or 206.621.2230×10.

Assisted Listening Devices, including Hearing Loop Assisted Listening Systems, are available at all of our venues, with the exception of Broadway Performance Hall. If you would like more information, please contact us at or 206.621.2230×10.

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For any further questions or requests, or to offer Seattle Arts & Lectures feedback on how we can be more accessible and inclusive, please reach out to our Patron Services Manager at or 206.621.2230×10.