Lyric Essentials: Mike Hackney Reads Sharon Olds

For this installment of Lyric Essentials, we’re joined by Mike Hackney, who shares a poem by Sharon Olds. Mike shares how his desire to learn from challenging poetry led him to choosing Olds’ work for this series, along with his admiration for her work and her refusal to compromise her principles. Thanks for reading!


Riley Steiner: Why did you choose this poem to read for Lyric Essentials?

Mike Hackney: I selected “I Go Back To May 1937” because it was a sort of confession that I related to, an ars poetica of sorts, and I am always interested in poems about the writing process or about being a writer. Plus, it is fairly accessible, and I think a lot of people can relate to it. Mainly, I chose a poem by Sharon Olds because I am wrestling with her right now and want to gain some clarity, some understanding of her through this interview process. This piece resonated with me, while other poems by Olds have not. However, I am getting closer to gaining a complete admiration and respect for her work.

Mike Hackney reads “I Go Back to 1937” by Sharon Olds

RS: What do you admire about Sharon Olds’ poetry in general?

MH: She shares her pain on the page for everyone to see. I appreciate the bravery it takes to do such things. But, to answer this question fully, let me begin with a story: When I was an undergraduate in creative writing, my final project one year was to write a thirty-page paper on a poet of my choice. I considered Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and William Carlos Williams, all fine poets in their own right. I finally settled on Ezra Pound because he seemed the most complex and difficult to understand at the time; I wanted to really challenge myself and ultimately learn something through the writing process. It would have been easy to select one of the others, but I guess I chose the road less traveled by (to quote a phrase by Frost himself). My admiration for Pound came through my learned understanding of him and how he worked. Incidentally, I got an A on the paper but failed the final exam that term because I managed to tie every essay question back to Ezra Pound, even when there was no relation. My professor at the time, noting my obsession, allowed me to take the exam over, and I managed to answer the questions the second time without referring to Pound. I got an A in the class… 

In my spare time, I read a lot of poetry criticism, book reviews, and essays on poets and poetry. Sharon Olds has popped up a couple times in my reading. She controversial and quite popular in certain circles, and at first I didn’t understand what all the hype was about. I always felt as if I were reading highly stylized Grimms’ fairy tales when I read her poems. There seemed to be a mock tone, an insincerity about her at times, as if she capitalized on situations that were embellished. I felt that she paled in comparison to, say, Sylvia Plath. I chose Sharon Olds because I felt I had something to learn here. It seemed, most often, I would miss the point of her greatness and talent. But the more I read of her, the more I admire her for what she is. She seems to lack technique in many ways, but she makes up for it with raw emotion.

I also admire Olds a lot for the stance she took in 2005 when invited to a White House luncheon by Laura Bush. Olds declined the invitation, stating, in essence, that she could not break bread with the current administration because she didn’t believe in the war with Iraq, and she felt that the administration was making decisions counter to the wants and needs of the American people. I appreciate Olds for that. She would have garnered a lot of attention and possibly sold a lot of books by attending. She declined on principle. She was heroic in that instance. I have the letter in a nightstand drawer. It is easily accessible online. I hope that answers the question.

RS: I noticed there is a sort of “ticking” sound in the background of your reading, sort of like a metronome. Was this something you used to accompany your reading? If so, what is your purpose for using it?

MH: So, I just learned how to use the recording equipment that is available online. It is all very new to me. The program I chose just happened to have this ticking noise that I could not get rid of—an effect that would not go away. Eventually, after several recordings of the poem, I decided that I rather liked the dissonance in the background. I came to view it as part of the overall presentation. I think it adds something to the reading. Although I’m not sure exactly what.

RS: Do you have any current writing projects (poetry or otherwise) that you’d like to tell us about?

MH: I am in the midst of finishing a book-length manuscript of poems, which I hope to have published by the end of 2020. I think it might be my strongest work yet. It will be my first full-length publication since 2012.


Sharon Olds graduated with degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University. She is the author of more than ten books of poetry and the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. From 1998 to 2000, she served as New York state’s poet laureate. She currently teaches at New York University.

Further reading:

Purchase Olds’ most recent book, Stag’s Leap
Read an NPR book review of Stag’s Leap
Read a conversation with Olds in Lit Hub

The author of multiple poetry collections and a novel, Mike Hackney studied Creative Writing at Bowling Green University and earned his MLS from the University of Toledo. He is the recipient of grants and awards from the Toledo Arts Commission and the Ohio Arts Council. His poetry has been published in a wide range of literary journals, including Prairie Margins, The Insider, and the Cornfed Angel.

Further reading:

Purchase Mike’s book Mid-Western Shoes: Your Poetic Self All Over Again
Read Mike’s poem “How to Write a Poem” in THEthe Poetry
Visit Mike’s Facebook page

Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. She’s published her creative work in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.

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