Poetry Friday: In Which I Ask Poet Mary Oliver My Pressing Question

"How can a poet serve the poor and powerless?" I asked.

"Man does not live by bread alone," answered Mary Oliver, one of my favorite living poets. She hesitated, then: "These days, different voices are speaking of their own cultures in poetry, and comfort is given by listening to them."

Lest you think we were having coffee somewhere on the Cape, just the two of us, let me set the scene: a packed chapel on the Wellesley campus, stuffed with Oliver fans (who tend to be mainly white, silver-haired, upper-middle-class women).

After reading a few of her poems, Ms. Oliver was taking a few questions written on cards by members of the audience. Mine was one, and I'm grateful it was presented because it's one of my struggles as a writer—the time taken in solitude, crafting words and stories, is time that could be given in service to the poor or spent fighting for justice.

Any answers or thoughts from my fire escape visitors? As you mull over the question, here are some other quotes from Mary Oliver, scribbled in my journal at the event:
Flipping through a stack of books to find a poem: "I should have one of those iPads—I've seen them."

On disciplined appointments of writing: "If you're having a romance with someone and don't show up ..."

Q. What is your place in the world? "A beast given the gift of imagination."

Q. What do you do when you cannot write? "Walk."

Q. What's your favorite word? "Adjectives are worth nickels. Verbs are worth fifty cents."

Telling a story about Flaubert and work, who skipped a weekend of play with his friends to write: "'Was it worth it?' his friends asked upon returning. 'Oh, yes,' answered Flaubert. 'On Saturday I took out a semi-colon. And on Sunday, I put it back.'"