The Boston Phoenix
June 1999


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A rich life

Adrienne Rich on poetry, politics, and personal revelation

by Michael Klein

Adrienne Rich Adrienne Rich is one of the major American poets of the last half of this century. Now 70, she's published more than 16 volumes of poetry and four books of nonfiction, and has been the recipient of nearly every major literary award, including the National Book Award, the Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Dorothea Tanning Prize for mastery in the art of poetry given by the Academy of American Poets, and the MacArthur "genius" grant. In 1997, she made headlines when she refused the National Medal for the Arts -- which is awarded by the White House and the president. In a letter published by the New York Times, Rich wrote to Jane Alexander, then-head of the National Endowment for the Arts: "I cannot accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration."

Rich's career took flight in 1951, when W.H. Auden selected the 21-year-old's first collection of poetry for inclusion in the Yale Younger Poets series. Her early work echoed the voices of the major poets of the first half of this century, including Auden, but by the 1960s (particularly with the publication of Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law) it reflected more-personal explorations. By the late 1960s, her focus on the personal had broadened. Concentrating on the societal status of women in general and lesbians in particular, her poetry had evolved into the passionately political force for moral good that it is today. Her latest volume of poems, Midnight Salvage: Poems 1995-1998, continues in that tradition.

One in Ten recently spoke with Rich.

Q: With The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977, your poems became more political and more far-reaching. Coming out felt less about disclosure and more about pure revolution. There was an incredible sense of how that choice affected other people apart from yourself. How can lesbian poets today, who for the most part are already out with their first book, become part of American intellectual life the way that you have?

A: The dilemma for a 21-year-old lesbian poet who is already out may well be that so much is already acknowledged and written about and published. How do you enter those conversations that are already taking place, and the even wider conversations about justice, power, or what it means to be a citizen? There has to be a kind of resistance to the already offered clichés, and I think that that's something every good poet has to make up for herself or himself -- how to do that.

I came out first as a political poet, even before The Dream of a Common Language, under the taboo against so-called political poetry in the US, which was comparable to the taboo against homosexuality. In other words, it wasn't done. And this is, of course, the only country in the world where that has been true. Go to Latin America, to the Middle East, to Asia, to Africa, to Europe, and you find the political poet and a poetry that addresses public affairs and public discourse, conflict, oppression, and resistance. That poetry is seen as normal. And it is honored.

Rich reads

So what does a feminist-lesbian icon read during her down time? Check out Adrienne Rich's summer reading list below:

* Contents Dream: Essays 1975-1984, by Charles Bernstein

* Panoramas, by Victor Hernandez Cruz

* Wherever You Lay Your Head, by Jane Miller (poems)

* The Origin of Capitalism, by Ellen Meiksins Wood

Q: A keen political awareness enabled you to come out sexually. Do poets, gay or not, have to come out in a certain way?

A: You do, in terms of how do you connect with the world, and what are you defining as the world that you want to be connected to. The connections I was making with the world by coming out -- as having any kind of sexuality -- had to do with the fact that early on, I was critiquing the conventional male-female identities on which so much of Western poetry has been based, and the ideas about public and private spaces, [and the fact] that never the twain shall meet -- woman defined as the private sphere, man as the public sphere.

Q: One realization I had after reading your essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" was that there are gay men who are also part of the patriarchy. In fact, they could be patriarchy's best agents.

A: I think AIDS transformed a lot of gay men, and many lesbians came to the bedsides of their friends with AIDS. I think about the possibilities for empathy, for mutual solidarity among gay men and lesbians, not simply as people who suffer under homophobia, but as people who are also extremely creative, active, and have a particular understanding of the human condition.

Q: Identity derived from a fierce kind of knowing has always informed your work. An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991 may be a book about knowing's dilemma: not wanting to know. You say about the shooting of two lesbians on the Appalachian trail: "I don't want to know how he tracked them/along the Appalachian Trial, hid close/by their tent," -- which, of course, is also a disclosure. You don't want to know what you, yourself, are about to tell us. You don't want to know what you already know.

A: I keep on not wanting to know what I know -- Matthew Shepard, James Byrd Jr., the schoolyard massacres. There keep being things I absolutely don't want to know, and must know -- and we as a society must know. I explore the whole idea in a poem in Midnight Salvage called "Camino Real," while driving this road to Los Angeles, thinking about [accounts of] abuses that I had been reading by people who actually went back to where they had their human rights violated. And how that coexists in the poem with what is for me a journey of happiness.

Q: Midnight Salvage's epigraph quotes from George Oppen: "I don't know how to measure happiness."

A: And what he's talking about there is really what Hannah Arendt talks about in one of her essays -- public happiness. A happiness of true participation in society, which would be possible for everyone.

Q: One of your societies for many years has been California, after many years of living and writing on the East Coast. There is a strong sense that those vastly different landscapes have greatly influenced you internally as well -- what Muriel Rukeyser may have meant when she said: "There are roads to take, when you think of your country."

A: Well, you know, California is the most bizarre place to be, in a certain sense. It's so laden with contradictions. It is, in some ways, almost flaunting of them. I think it flaunts more than any other part of the country, in the visual sense: the extraordinary visual degradation, the extraordinary beauty. There are still these vast tracts of wilderness. There is this amazing ocean. You're constantly living in a kind of cognitive dissonance here.

Q: Cognitive dissonance might be a good way to talk about your book Dark Fields of the Republic, which deals, in part, with government and art. In "Six: Edgelit," a section from the long poem "Inscriptions," you say, "In my sixty-fifth year I know something about language/it can eat or be eaten by experience/Medbh, poetry means refusing/the choice to kill or die//but this life of continuing is for the sane mad/and the bravest monsters." What has being one of the sane mad or one of the bravest monsters taught you about language?

A: In the poem, I was answering Medbh McGuckian, who is a poet I tremendously admire, and she's writing from Belfast and the war, and I'm responding on the level of what it means to be working in language in a time or a situation when it feels that language can do so little. And hence, this life of continuing, because you keep going with it. But you have to be sane mad.

Q: If you're an artist.

A: Exactly. It's very illogical being a writer.

Q: And yet everyone wants to be one, to be a star.

A: Poetry has gotten to be very "in," in a way, and I've seen something I would never have imagined, which is that poetry is being commoditized. And I thought it was un-commodifiable, because so few people really believed that it worked. But I think some people believe now that, at least, you can market it.

There's a lot of what I would call comfortable poetry around. And I would have to say that some of that comfortable poetry is being written by gay and lesbian poets. I think you can probably find poets from any group who would come under the rubric of "diversity" who are writing comfortable poetry nowadays. But then there is all this other stuff going on -- which is wilder, which is bristling; it's juicier, it's everything that you would want. And it's not comfortable. That's the kind of poetry that interests me -- a field of energy. It's intellectual and moral and political and sexual and sensual -- all of that fermenting together. It can speak to people who have themselves felt like monsters and say: you are not alone, this is not monstrous. It can disturb and enrapture.

Poetry can add its grain to an accumulation of consciousness against the idea that there is no alternative -- that we're now just in the great flow of capitalism and it can never be any different -- [that] this is human destiny, this is human nature. A poem can add its grain to all the other grains and that is, I think, a rather important thing to do.

Q: But also, there's a poetry being written that feels like it's corroborating, rather than resisting, the idea that there is no alternative.

A: Exactly -- it's reflecting the "what is" rather than asking what could be.

Q: Which is what Midnight Salvage is constantly doing in those long poems. How do you keep a poem alive for that long?

A: Well, maybe in the same way that a novelist keeps a novel alive. You have to be in there for the long haul. But if I have a long poem in the works, it's a context that can include diverse and unexpected things. When I was writing An Atlas of the Difficult World, the Gulf War became part of that poem, but only because the poem was already there, and open to it.

Q: In "Letters to a Young Poet," you say: I wanted to go somewhere/the brain had not yet gone/I wanted not to be/there so alone." This incredible, restless intelligence and a loneliness from being in that position is really how your poems seem to come to us. Am I being accurate here?

A: I think my work comes out of both an intense desire for connection and what it means to feel isolated. There's always going to be a kind of tidal movement back and forth between the two. Art and literature have given so many people the relief of feeling connected -- pulled us out of isolation. It has let us know that somebody else breathed and dreamed and had sex and loved and raged and knew loneliness the way we do.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Poems. And sometimes making notes for essays. I'm not really up for writing them yet. I feel this mistrust of there being an audience for the kind of essay I'd like to write, which is, again, not short and not comfortable. And maybe somewhat demanding.

Q: Critical?

A: Critical, political, or cultural. One of the things I have to say about this demon of the personal -- and I have to take responsibility for my part in helping create this demon, as part of a women's movement in which we celebrated personal experience and personal feelings -- is that it has become a horribly commoditized version of humanity. It's almost as though the personal life has been taken hostage in some way, and I'm shying away more and more from anything that would contribute to that.

Q: Midnight Salvage, I think, is a contribution about happiness, which of course means unhappiness as well.

A: I have a poem from the '60s that begins: "Difficult, ordinary happiness, no one nowadays believes in you." And, yes -- it always goes with unhappiness. It's that thing that is glinting at the bottom of the stream that you're reaching for all the time -- your hand often not being able to grasp it, even though your eye can see it. n

Michael Klein, author of 1990 (Provincetown Poets Series) and Track Conditions: A Memoir (Ballantine Books), teaches in the MFA Program at Goddard College in Vermont and is on the faculty at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He is working on a new nonfiction work called The End of Being Known.

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