Sharon Olds
New York, NY
2020 USA Fellow

This award was generously supported by Helen Zell.

Sharon Olds is the author of twelve books of poetry, including most recently Odes (2016) and Stag’s Leap (2012), winner of the Pulitzer Prize and England’s T. S. Eliot Prize. Olds’ other honors include the inaugural San Francisco Poetry Center Award for her first book, Satan Says (1980), and the National Book Critics Circle Award for her second, The Dead and the Living (1983), which was also the Lamont Poetry Selection for 1983. The Father (1992) was short-listed for the T. S. Eliot Prize in England, and The Unswept Room (2002) was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. She teaches in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at New York University and helped to found the NYU workshop program for residents of Coler-Goldwater Hospital on Roosevelt Island, and for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Her next collection, Arias, was published by Knopf in October 2019. Olds lives in New York City.

Portrait photo by Hillery Stone.


Looking South at Lower Manhattan, Where the Towers Had Been, 2019

If we see harm approaching someone⁠—
if you see me starting to talk about
something I know nothing about,
like the death of someone who’s a stranger to me,
step between me and language. This morning,
I am seeing it more clearly, that song
can be harmful, in its ignorance
which does not know itself as ignorance.
I have crossed the line, as the line was crossed
with me. I need to apologize
to the letters of the alphabet,
to the elements of the periodic
table, to O, and C, and H,
oxygen, carbon, hydrogen,
which make up most of a human body—
body which breaks down, in fire,
to the elements it was composed of, and all that is
left is ashes, sacred ashes
of strangers, carbon and nitrogen,
and the rest departs as carbon dioxide and is
breathed in, by those nearby,
the living who knew us and the living who did not
know us. I apologize
to nitrogen, to calcium with the
pretty box-shape of its crystal structure,
I apologize to phosphorus,
and potassium, that raw bright metal
we contain, and to sodium and sulphur, and to
the trace amounts which are in us somewhere like the
stars in the night⁠—copper, zinc,
cobalt, iron, arsenic, lead,
I am singing, I am singing against myself, as if
rushing toward someone my song might be approaching,
to shield them from it.