Columbia Festival of the Arts organizers weren't surprised when today's Dave Brubeck jazz concert sold out before the 10-day event began. But they were taken aback when poet Mary Oliver's workshop and reading did the same before the festival opened June 14.
The Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet will lead a workshop for 90 writers and a reading for an audience of 240 this afternoon at Slayton House in Columbia, in cooperation with the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo).
At past festivals, the society has helped present Garrison Keillor and poets Roland Flint and Lucille Clifton.
HoCoPoLitSo Executive Director Ellen Kennedy sees the quick response to the Oliver workshop and reading as a sign of the society's growing stature. "We have regional importance -- and so does the festival," Kennedy said.
Festival patrons attending Oliver's workshop and reading will hear works described as genuine and moving by the New York Times.
"She's a wonderful poet -- one of the great poets in this country," said Clifton, former Maryland Poet Laureate and board member of HoCoPoLitSo. Clifton served on the juries that selected Oliver for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
Oliver is "much more than a nature poet. She uses the natural world to illuminate the whole world," Clifton said. "To call her a nature poet is like calling Pavarotti a singer."
A Provincetown, Mass., resident, Oliver was born in Ohio in 1935 and attended Ohio State University and Vassar College. She has published eight books of poems, from "No Voyage and Other Poems" in 1965 to "White Pine" in 1994.
She has received several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for "American Primitive" and the National Book Award in 1992 for "New and Selected Poems."
Of the 90 writers from Virginia to Pennsylvania attending the Oliver workshop, 43 submitted a sample of their work for Oliver to evaluate. She will discuss eight of those poems during the two-hour workshop.
Natalie Lobe, a real estate agent from Columbia, is one of those who got a berth in the workshop. A member of HoCoPoLitSo, the Baltimore Writers Alliance and the Wineglass Court Writers group, she finds relief in creative writing from the business of real estate.
Over the past five to six years, Lobe has written about 50 poems. Her poem "Pineapple Love Song" recently was published in the George Washington University Literary Review.
Lobe finds that her use of nature themes gives her something in common with Oliver, who uses nature in her poetry to comment on broader issues.
Oliver's poem "Blue Heron," for example, from the "White Pine" collection, moves from a heron feeding itself, to the world feeding itself, returning to the heron:
Like a pin
of blue lightning
among the pads,
frogs, flipping them
in mid-air, so that they
the long throat.
I don't know
but didn't Jesus say:
"This is my body,"
meaning, the bread --
and meaning also,
the things of this world?
This isn't really
It is the hard
and terrible truth
we live with,
Oliver prefers to let her poems do the talking -- no video- or audiotape of today's appearance will be made. She spurns the limelight and rarely grants interviews, preferring to keep the focus on her writing.
"I believe it is invasive of the work when you know too much about the writer, and almost anything is too much," Oliver told the Bloomsbury Review in 1990. "I am trying in my poems to vanish and have the reader be the experiencer. I do not want to be there. It is not even a walk we take together."
Pub Date: 6/23/96