“People hit me if I don’t read ‘Wild Geese,’” joked nature poet Mary Oliver last Saturday at UCSB’s Campbell Hall, “and I don’t want to get hit!” And so read it she did, along with several other old favorites, recent pieces, and brand new poems for 50 minutes, followed by a short question answer period, and to the delight of her fans that nearly filled up Campbell Hall, a book signing.
UCSB’s Arts & Lectures series, supported by the Orfalea Foundation and Alma Rosa Winery, brought the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet back after her immensely popular sold-out 2007 appearance. And though Saturday’s engagement was not completely sold out, the lecture hall was almost entirely full and the audience clearly consisted of devoted Oliver fans. To poems such as “Tecumseh,” “Red,” and “Sun” they murmured in agreement, to the new poems they listened in rapt attention, to old favorites such as “Swan” they whispered along, and to her lighthearted, love-filled “Percy poems,” written to the succession of dogs she’s had named Percy, they laughed and smiled. “I always told him I would make him famous,” Oliver said in regards to the series of poems and dogs which bear the name one of her favorite poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Following the reading Oliver answered a few questions from the crowd, among them one from a self-proclaimed “math and science person,” who asked her to explain, “What is poetry and why does it matter?” To this she answered that poetry is the “warehouse of the world with all its metaphors,” and that “there are no nations in poetry, [but it] unfortunately still has very little power in congress.” In response to a question seeking tips for the aspiring writer, she said she learned her trade by “staying poor and writing” and also to be disciplined in working everyday. Some questions reflected the depth that her work had touched readers in times of trouble and confusion, and questioned her as to where she drew her solace. She answered that she read the same poets in times of grief and joy; Shelley, Kabir, and Rumi were all mentioned as constants. As the evening drew to a close, Oliver reflected on her new home in Florida. For a poet such as she, one so famously connected to the nature surrounding her former home in Massachusetts, one would imagine that the change would be troublesome, but the sprightly 76-year-old said that she is “learning to love the palm trees and the alligators.” After all was said and done, the line for the book signing stretched out the doors of Campbell Hall. Luckily, I had my hardbound copy of Red Bird with me.