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Mary Oliver, photo by Molly Malone Cook, ca. 1965-1970, Mary Oliver Papers, Manuscript Division. ©NW Orchard LLC, used with permission of Bill Reichblum.

Mary Oliver, On the Page and in Person: The Same, Generous Soul

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There are so many wonderful aspects to creating book festivals and working on book prizes and putting a spotlight on talented writers that it might seem churlish to even hint at one of the pitfalls of this profession: sometimes you have to be cautious when meeting your idols.

But there’s good news for beloved poet Mary Oliver’s many fans: Bill and Amalie Reichblum, who were close friends with Oliver and her partner Molly Malone Cook, told me recently that Oliver’s poetry—hopeful, open, generous and inviting—is exactly like Oliver herself was. The Reichblums, who are the executors of Oliver’s estate, recently donated the Mary Oliver Papers to the Library of Congress and also established the Mary Oliver Memorial Event Fund for Emerging Poets. There are still a few tickets left for the first emerging poets event on Thursday, April 4 featuring U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón and four emerging poets: Molly McCully Brown, Jake Skeets, Analicia Sotelo and Paul Tran.

“Mary was the rare artist who was exactly the same in her work and in her life,” Bill says. “You couldn’t but help fall in love with the poetry and fall in love with the poet.” Amalie adds that “we quickly became very good friends, on a very deep and personal level. It didn’t have that much to do with her being a poet; we just hit it off and we liked each other.”

Photo of (L-R): Bill Reichblum, Clarissa Reichblum, Mary Oliver, Noah Reichblum, and Amalie Reichblum.
(L-R): Bill Reichblum, Clarissa Reichblum, Mary Oliver, Noah Reichblum, and Amalie Reichblum. Photo courtesy the Reichblum family.

Bill remembers the first time he met Oliver—this was in 1995, just before he became the dean of Bennington College in Vermont. Oliver had already received the National Book Award in 1992 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1984, but she hadn’t yet attained the fame and bestsellerdom we now associate with her. She had shown up at Bennington because Bill and other leaders of the college were changing the way creative writing and other artistic disciplines were taught—by writers and artists instead of academics. They were interested in hiring Oliver to teach there.

“The literature faculty were incredibly condescending to Mary,” Bill recalls. It became one of those meetings you wish you could squirm right out of. “How do you teach students to write?” Bill recalls one of the longtime literature faculty asking Oliver in a demeaning tone. “Mary, as the way she was in the world, didn’t absorb the anger,” Bill says.

“Oh, I can’t teach students how to write but I can help them learn how to rewrite,” Oliver replied to the professor. That’s the moment Bill “fell in love” with Oliver. Oliver and Cook moved into a house in rural Vermont next door to the Reichblums six months later.

Donating Oliver’s papers to the Library is generous but the Reichblums added to that donation by funding the annual event for emerging poets. Why, though? It has to do with Oliver’s personality: The Reichblums say that Oliver and Cook never forgot what their life together was like—the toughness and tenacity an artistic life demands—before Oliver became famous for her poetry. In fact, up until a few months before Oliver received the National Book Award, she and Cook would find dinner in dumpsters behind restaurants. “There is something about artists who remember what it was like to struggle,” Bill says.

“Mary was incredibly kind and generous,” Amalie says. “She was laser focused on her work and other things didn’t matter—possessions, money—but she was always incredibly generous if she felt like an emerging poet who had asked her for advice were a good person, she would help them.”

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  1. Library of Congress notes poet Mary Oliver.

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