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.

The Move (Introduction)

On a bright, cool day in December I packed up all my things and took the fool’s journey into a new cohabitation. The fool will say “it’s different this time,” but the wise fool knows when it’s actually true.

What follows are excerpts from my journal entries written before, during, and after the move.

Saturday 12/10/2011

The dream:

A tent full of women in folding chairs,
a table at the front

a buffet served over beds of ice

Me introducing,
talking about the interplay between dreams/words and reality,
the inner and the outer life

how this very event starts as a dream,
started as words on paper,
and moved through them into reality

how reality and our experience of it
sparks our inner life —> poetry

the experience of a bite of food
or running into a friend by chance
or hearing someone else’s words read aloud

informs our own inner life

the idea of delicious food served over beds of ice
and wildflowers perched in mason jars
and a room full of women — all these beautiful women!
young, old, mothers, crones, fat and skinny, smooth and blemished —
listening and speaking

it’s important that some of the
women have short hair

Olga Broumas: Leda and Her Swan

You have red toenails, chestnut
hair on your calves, oh let
me love you, the fathers
are lingering in the background
nodding assent.

I dream of you
shedding calico from
slow-motion breasts, I dream
of you leaving with
skinny women, I dream you know.

The fathers are nodding like
overdosed lechers, the fathers approve
with authority: Persian emperors, ordering
that the sun shall rise every dawn, set
each dusk. I dream.

White bathroom surfaces
rounded basins you
stand among
loosening
hair, arms, my senses.

The fathers are Dresden figurines
vestigial, anecdotal
small sculptures shaped
by the hands of nuns. Yours

crimson tipped, take no part in that
crude abnegation. Scarlet
liturgies shake our room, amaryllis blooms
in your upper thighs, water lily
on mine, fervent delta

the bed afloat, sheer
linen billowing
on the wind: Nile, Amazon, Mississippi.

— Olga Broumas, from Beginning with O (Yale Series of Younger Poets). Yale University Press, 1977

This poem was posted on the WOM-PO list recently, and reminded me of a few different things in quick succession:

  • Sappho’s Gymnasium, a volume that Olga Broumas wrote with T Begley in the early 1990s (when lesbianism was chic and feminism didn’t involve DIY cocktails, ruffled aprons, or Sarah Palin), and which my fellow Helicon editor Tony Lauren gave to me as a graduation present.
  • Re-appropriation: it worked for the Christians who told and re-told the ancient pagan myths, and it worked for the second-wave feminists who told and re-told the canon of their forefathers. Stories always change, even when the same person tells them. We forgot the plastic nature of storytelling when we started writing things down. And now that we’re moving from print back to digital space, the stories — and the histories — are becoming plastic, relativist, even biased again. The New York Times is making way for blogs and twitter.
  • I’m never going to win the Yale Younger Poets series. Two days ago, as we walked around the Fresh Pond Reservoir, a fellow poet and I discussed the whys and wherefores of writing. Writing as refuge. How can I make writing my refuge and still have ambitions to see my poems in print? Am I willing to do the work? Is it the work I was really put here to do? I guess not, or I’d be doing it right now. And still I harbor the ambition.

Posted at Standing Loud: Loudness and Lovingkindness

A woman named Calliope invited me to join a group blog called “Standing Loud: A place where a loud, proud woman can speak her piece.” On Friday I published my first article on the topic of Loudness and Lovingkindness. Please take a look and comment if you like. Here’s an excerpt:

Which brings me to the subject of loudness — loudness and lovingkindness. Loudness versus silence, that’s something I think I’ve found a happy medium about. But lovingkindness is another alluring, foreign concept that I’m learning — through practice and more practice — to understand and incorporate.

Full article here

Katie Peterson, Sore Throat, Inspiration, the Cycle of Percussion

The Boston Review has been sending me messages on Facebook every day for National Poetry Month (or NaPoWriMo, as the more intarweb-geek among us have been calling it). My initial reaction was just “too much poetry.” It felt like work, especially since I have a very complicated relationship with writers’ community in general. I’ve also been known to focus on the negative instead of the positive. And there was a song about that.

So I was reminded that reading other poets — and looking at art in general — can instigate a cycle of percussion that John Updike once described in a story we read when I was studying 11th grade English with Mr. McWilliams. Updike’s story went something like this: the pianist hits the key, which causes the hammer to hit the string, which sends out a sound wave that travels through the air to hit the eardrum of a listener, which causes a whirl of percussion in the listener’s brain, resulting in the pen hitting the paper, perhaps resulting in a poem or a story that inspires a musician to write down some music, which a pianist then plays…

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I do find the work of others inspiring, in spite of myriad disappointments and roiling resentments. I forget, sometimes, that I could be one of those poets with the long list of publications after their name, if I just did the work–the very very hard work–of putting pen to paper, and revising, and editing, and researching publications, and sending out submissions, and exposing oneself to criticism and rejection but also to acclaim and acceptance.

Katie Peterson says something similar, slightly macabre, about percussion, and memory, and reminders, and tangents, and hopelessness, and returns:

Sick in bed with a sore throat
I can’t get out of my mind
the image of the cat
harpsichord from the 18th century‚
soothing a prince with laughter.

Full poem here: http://bostonreview.net/NPM/katie_peterson.php

National Poetry Month for the Lazy and Persistent

It seems that some writers can just up and form close friendships — whole schools, even — with other writers. I wish this were more often the case with me. If it were, perhaps I’d already be published and successful and happily ever after by now. I alternate between blaming all writers everywhere and blaming myself. But maybe, as with most things, it’s not a black-and-white proposition. And maybe– just maybe — casting blame is not really all that productive. Perhaps I get my gold star just by persisting — in reaching out, making connections, and nurturing writerly friendships — in spite of failures and disappointments.

And now that I think about it, I have had a number of successes. There’s the small group that grew out of connections made at Poetry@Prose which has been meeting regularly. I’m a part of it, but not the owner of it. None of us are. We just keep showing up and plodding away with our careful little poems, shining them, polishing them, picking out the gems and nurturing each other’s work with praise and gentle, gentle suggestions.

Alas, not all interactions go so well. Writers can be a prickly, solitary lot. I know this because I am a writer. About a week ago, I got an email from a poet whom I admire a great deal. She and I also met through Poetry@Prose, but we’ve had much greater difficulty following through on a mutual desire to collaborate — or even to meet up in person. This email asked if I would like to engage in some mutual support around National Poetry Month. (That’s April, the cruellest month, in case you weren’t keeping track.) Being the technically apt person that I am, I saw that she bcc’d me, which implied I wasn’t the only one she’d invited. I replied with a hearty yes, and since the bcc implied it wasn’t a private party, I cc’d the two other members of my writing group, recommending them as kind and generous fellow writers. She replied that she wasn’t up to emailing drafts out to strangers — a sentiment I can certainly understand and identify with. And then the whole email chain just sort of went… downhill.

A quick phone conversation probably could have sorted out the whole thing. But for a variety of reasons, that didn’t happen. And so two well-intentioned writers found themselves smack up against the limitations of written expression. Both of us fell away from the interaction exhausted and disappointed. I can only hope it hasn’t completely poisoned what tenuous connection exists.

One benefit of the whole thing, however, is that it’s gotten me thinking about National Poetry Month (or NaPoWriMo for the more abbreviation- and internet-enabled among us) before the month actually starts. Back in November (aka NaNoWriMo) I attempted a poem-a-day writing challenge that crashed and burned in the ruins of, well, what usually happens in November. But I’d like to try it again. And I’d like to do it lazy and simple — an approach that doesn’t come naturally to me. I’d love, of course, to do it with a group of supportive fellow poets but I’m not sure such a group exists — at least not for me, at this particular dot on the timeline. So I’m going to try my hand at a haiku a day for the month of April. In the spirit of lazy and simple, I’m going to post these haiku only Monday through Friday, and only for the month of April. Feedback is welcome, as long as it’s positive or in the form of haiku itself.

Return of the Prodigal

Facebook has ruined my blogging habit. But there’s more than that going on, of course. I find myself for the first time in years actually submitting my work for review by other publishers. Since self-publishing (without the stigma of its print predecessor) was what first lured me down the path that eventually led to a career in web development, this is a pretty major shift.

When I say that Facebook ruined my blogging habit, I mean it it more ways than one. Facebook, Twitter, and the whole social media phenomenon, made it easier to push out short blasts of speech — snippets that might have formerly gone into the stew of a whole blog post prior. But even more than that is the sense that the Intartubes are a much more crowded place than they used to be. It was easy to sound a barbaric yawp over the empty moorlands of the Web in 1995. The actual chances of it being heard by someone I knew in real life were pretty limited; I was lonely anyhow and needed to find kindred souls — and for some reason, while there were fewer souls on the Web back then, more of them were kindred. And finally, I was in my early 20s with a lot less to lose.

The older one gets, the more twisted and tangled and just… long one’s story becomes, the more one wishes to exercise some control over which portions of it are available to the general public.

All that leads up to less blogging in the public sphere and more writing on paper.

I feel as though I’ve finally begun to make some headway in my recovery as a writer as well. It’s been years in the making and it’s been a slow and unsteady process, but it’s happening. And I’m beginning to see how it dovetails with the other types of healing I’ve had to do. There’s a bit about that here (Facebook link). Perhaps more about that later. Many thanks to Ren Jender, Toni Amato, Jen Hemenway, and Debbie Shore for the parts they’ve all played in this ongoing journey. There are others, but those are the names that come to mind right now.

And it’s time to stop this particular bit of writing and move on to other things.