From the second annual Poets Forum, presented by the Academy of American Poets on November 8, 2008, at New York University in New York City. On the fourth panel of the day, Frank Bidart, Sharon Olds, and Gerald Stern answered questions about "The Aesthetic Self, or the Anxiety of I" from poet Timothy Donnelly.
It still kind of makes my heart pound to say it: "Of course my work is autobiographical." I don't have an imagination. I don't! I have an image-ination, but it's not something I have—I have a bottle of water—but the simile has me, in a way. So when I'm focusing and writing, similes could just be coming through the pen, they so little seem to me to be passing through consciousness.
Not metaphors, which are scary to me. It's very important to me to believe that bread is bread and not flesh, that wine is not blood. As a child I worked so hard—with some pretty serious punishment if you got it wrong—to believe that wine was blood. And so metaphor is very scary to me. But simile is not, it just seems to be trying to report what is in the head in a relationship between different things.
So it really didn't—although I wouldn't say, "I don't know that I was afraid of being sued or killed or what." But instead of saying "I can't say," I'm happy now to say. The way I would say it to myself would be (not to you, but to myself): "Duh! I'm an autobiographical poet."
So that's the first "Anxious I" part. And then, as soon as I started saying "I have no imagination," and "Yes, I'm trying to just write things as they are or were," I realized that it was an illusion that I was just writing simple narrations.
It was a comforting illusion; I thought that's what I did. I sat down and I just kind of wrote what happened. Then the similes would come in, as if to rescue me from no art at all. And then I began to be aware that the "I" that I had been writing as was, and is, some kind of fiction—which I don't like at all. I liked thinking it was just "I went to the store; I ate bread; it was not flesh."
So I'm just now beginning to understand that being unconscious of what I was doing has, I feel, been a great help to me as a writer. I don't think I would have been a better writer if I'd known what I was doing; I think I would have been a worse writer.