Mary Oliver once told an interviewer her secret to success. Throughout her life, she says, "I was very careful never to take an interesting job." She explains, adding, "Not an interesting one. I took lots of jobs. But if you have an interesting job you get interested in it." For Oliver, the only worthy interest was writing.
Oliver was born in Maple Heights, Ohio in 1935. Her father, Edward William Oliver, was a teacher; he and her mother (Helen M. V. Oliver) raised their daughter to have a strong connection with her environment. Oliver remembers the town: "It was pastoral, it was nice, it was an extended family." As a child, however, she made her strongest connections with the natural world, ones that would steer the rest of her life. "I don't know why I felt such affinity with the natural world," she says, "except that it was available to me, that's the first thing. It was right there."
When she graduated high school, Oliver began college at The Ohio State University in Columbus, but she only stayed for a year. Next she attended Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, then a women's college. She never graduated, but spent most of this time writing. "To keep writing was always a first priority...." she says. "I worked probably twenty-five years by myself.... Just writing and working, not trying to publish much." When Oliver did publish her poetry, it was with the collection American Primitive, in 1983. The years had paid off-her first published text won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize.
Although she was new to the general public, Oliver had spent many years writing in the academic world. In 1972, she was the chair of the writing department of the Fine Arts Workshop in Provincetown, Massachusetts. A decade later, she was awarded the Mather Visiting Professorship at Case Western Reserve University. By the time she started publishing, Oliver had also already won two fellowships, a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship (1972-1973) and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1980-1981).
Like many of her contemporaries, Oliver led a very solitary life as a writer. But that didn't bother her: "I decided very early that I wanted to write," she says. "But I didn't think of it as a career. I didn't even think of it as a profession.... It was the most exciting thing, the most powerful thing, the most wonderful thing to do with my life. And I didn't question if I should -- I just kept sharpening the pencils!"
Oliver's second collection, House of Light, won 1990's Christopher Award and the L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award; her third, New and Selected Poems, won the National Book Award. New and Selected Poems contains writing from over three decades of work, however, Oliver manages to infuse each poem with a similar voice. She says now that if she were able to start over, she would "just write one book and keep adding to [it]." Right now she has ten volumes of poetry in print, along with three books of prose. Her book-length poem, The Leaf and the Cloud, was divided into two sections to be published in the 1999 and the 2000 Best American Poetry.
After teaching as the "Poet in Residence" at Bucknell University, Oliver taught at Sweet Briar College, and then Bennington College. Despite volumes of writing and numerous awards, she continues to work on her craft. She jokes, "I never have felt yet that I've done it right. This is the marvelous thing about language. It can always be done better." Currently, Oliver lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Bennington, Vermont, where her few public appearances consist of daily walks. Though she believes that too much knowledge about writers can be invasive, she does not let that keep her from gaining inspiration from the world around her. "Walks work for me," she says. "I enter some arena that is neither conscious or unconscious. It's a joke here in town: I take a walk and I'm found standing still somewhere."