Rest in Peace Adrienne Rich: Fellow Poet, Feminist, Queer Woman, Trail-Blazer

Last week, I was about to board a plan to San Francisco when I saw Adrienne Rich’s obituary on the front page of the New York Times.

It’s hard to describe Adrienne Rich’s impact on my life with grace and brevity. That’s because my relationship to her work mirrors my relationship to the literary establishment as a whole. I first heard of her when I was a junior in high school, young poet full of promise and bereft of friends after the class of 1989 graduated and scattered off to college. A precocious freshman named Deborah, with reddish hair and presumptuous mannerisms, was shocked to learn I hadn’t already read and loved her work. What Deborah didn’t know (and neither did I) was that I’d been raised on the literary canon, comprised then as it is now almost exclusively of men. Five years later I wrote my senior thesis at Vassar on her work and the arc of her life. Seventeen years later, Margalit Fox‘s obituary said it better than I ever could.

Reading Rich’s obituary in the Times last Thursday, I had two startling and humbling realizations: first, that Rich’s life paralleled and sometimes intersected with my own in odd and surprising ways; second, that she too was deeply troubled and even embittered by the literary establishment. From her New York Times obituary:

For Ms. Rich, the getting of literary awards was itself a political act to be reckoned with. On sharing the National Book Award for poetry in 1974 (the other recipient that year was Allen Ginsberg), she declined to accept it on her own behalf. Instead, she appeared onstage with two of that year’s finalists, the poets Audre Lorde and Alice Walker; the three of them accepted the award on behalf of all women.

In 1997, in a widely reported act, Ms. Rich declined the National Medal of Arts, the United States government’s highest award bestowed upon artists. In a letter […] she expressed her dismay, amid the “increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice,” that the government had chosen to honor “a few token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”

Art, Ms. Rich added, “means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.”

In addition to our avocations, the odd parallels between her life and my own have to do with geography and also with love. In college, folks used to refer to me and my girlfriend as Adrienne and Audre. Quick used to go to parties in Boston with Audre Lorde, Rich’s girlfriend. Both Rich and I traveled between the coasts. We both railed against facts of American society that most people seem to take for granted.

The biggest difference, of course, between Ms. Rich’s life and my own is that she succeeded in storming the walls of the literary establishment — the same walls that have rebuffed my own advances.

Five days after her death I stood on the beach in Santa Cruz, the town she died in at the age of 82. I wonder what weird twists of fate wove our lives in parallel to one another, never quite intersecting, and called us both to journey from the placid waters of Long Island Sound to the crashing waves of the Pacific. I never even dared to hope to meet her in person. But that doesn’t stop her from being my ancestress, the one who dove into the wreck before me, found some way to navigate the murky waters, and held up a light for me to follow.

It Gets Better

I got my 10 seconds of Youtube fame in this video put together by the Harvard Medical School community for the It Gets Better project.

Link in case the embed fails: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xOOo7ZtjKBI

Living well is often the best revenge. Every GLBT person who lives through the hell of childhood and adolescence in a homophobic society is a hero in my eyes.

If you have the time, the resources, and the intestinal fortitude, I also encourage you to take more direct action to improve the lives of young people currently living through that hell. Things have gotten better than they were when I was a child and a young woman. And in many places there is still plenty of room for improvement. The Make it Better Project is one way you can make a difference in the lives of GLBT, questioning, and allied youth today.

Dear NOW: This Is Why I’m Not Giving You Any Money

Dear NOW:

I wanted to explain to you why I am not sending a contribution in response to your recent U.S. mail solicitation to me. I have three primary reasons for not wishing to send you my dollars:

1) As a queer woman, I am uneasy about supporting an organization that has a history of marginalizing “the lavendar menace” from the feminist movement.

2) The overt fear-mongering tone of your letter (“Do you want animals and clowns teaching your children about sex?) bore a marked resemblance to the emails I get from the Family Research Council. I believe strongly that hope and compassion conquer fear and loathing. Nixon’s campaign back in the middle of the last century appears to have had far-reaching consequences in the realm of national and local politics. One of the reasons Obama was so refreshing as a candidate, and why people rejoiced in his election, was because he ran on a platform of positive change rather than the fear and paranoia that marked the Bush administration. I expect the organizations I support to deliver the same sort of message.

3) I find that other organizations seem to be doing a better job of working for goals that I care about.

That being said, I am glad to see that you have joined the Web 2.0 revolution (hahaha) and will be following your actions via Facebook, Twitter, and email. I’m open to persuasion. So persuade me that your organization is still relevant and working toward the type of change that is in line with my own values.

The Good, the Bad, and the Roomba

The Good
“Remember how you said that the beef stew was a little thin for your taste? Well, I added some stuff to it and cooked it down, and now it’s nice and thick. Do you want me to save you some?”

“You know, sometimes I think you have the impression I don’t like your cooking. I think you’re a good cook.”

“I know. But it’s not just enough to be good. I’m a perfectionist. It can’t just be good, everything has to be faaaaabulous!”

“Well, you already are fabulous.”

“Awwww! I’m going to eat the last of the stew for lunch.”

The Bad
Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance. My cousin out in California and I had a falling-out because I kept trying to raise his awareness about trans issues. Regardless of what you think about trans genitalia, or whether trans sex is “real sex” (take a wild guess as to where I stand on that issue), I think we can all agree that transfolk have the right to, you know, live. Without being beaten, maimed, or murdered. I think that the ability to walk down the street undisturbed is a basic human right we can all agree on.

More information here: http://gender.org/remember/day/index.html
(and no, visiting the site will not make you queer).

The Roomba
Yet another reason for me to get a Roomba (I need to amass a good amount of them in order to overcome that “but we’re in a recession” voice in the back of my head):

Link in case of embed failure

I can’t imagine my timid kitty would ever actually ride the thing around the room like that. But still, soooo cuuuuuute! Robot friends!

Dear Tony Perkins, Head of the Family Research Council

I can’t get the Family Research Council (a.k.a. family fearmongers’ council) to take me off their damn spam list. What began as a way to keep track of what the other side was up to has turned into a daily dose of hate in my inbox. Faithful America is a nice antidote — a PAC that reclaims religious values from the far right.

I got fed up enough to send a strongly worded response to a particularly egregious email full of lies and half-truths. I’m sure it’s falling on deaf ears over in Tony’s inbox, but maybe it will amuse you, dear Intarwebs.

From a personal appeal for dough from Tony Perkins, President of this “Christian” organization:

I want you to hear something a California pastor said to me recently:

“If we lose, we go to jail.”

It’s just that simple, says Pastor Jim Garlow–if marriage loses in California, religious liberties everywhere will be next. [Funny thing, that: here in Sodom Massachusetts, religious liberties seem to be alive and well for Christians, Muslims, Jews, pagans, and others alike, gays can get married, and marriage as we know it is still intact.]

The fight for marriage in the states is our first priority.

But we can’t take our eye off Washington, D.C. politicians. Your support is vital as we stand up to liberals who want to criminalize your religious speech . . . threaten the religious liberties of employers . . . silence conservative and Christian broadcasting . . . raise taxes . . . and impose taxpayer funding of abortion and embryonic stem cell research.

And my response:

Tony, this is an incredibly offensive letter. Christians have never been sent to jail in this country for practicing the teachings of Christ. Untold numbers of homosexuals, though, have been rounded up by police, beaten, raped, and returned to the street without charges ever being placed. Recognizing a loving, stable union between two people is not an affront to marriage. Preaching hatred and intolerance is, however, an affront to Christ’s teachings. Shame on you, and shame on your organization. Turn off your computer and read your bible.

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.

1 CORINTHIANS 13:1–3 (NASB)