Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Adrienne Rich: A Few Scattered Memories

I first met Adrienne Rich in 1976, when she was helping to organize a group of poets to protest the editorial policies of the American Poetry Review, which was not yet publishing many poets of color, women, or younger poets. (The editorial policy has changed dramatically at APR since then.) Adrienne hosted a meeting of the organizing group at her apartment on 93rd Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I had never heard her read at that time, though I knew her amazing poems, so even to be in her presence was an exciting but frightening event for a twenty-four-year-old budding poet.

Adrienne welcomed me to her home with warmth and a flashing smile that I hadn’t expected. As we walked from the door, I noticed her limp, a result of the rheumatoid arthritis that eventually caused her recent death. She corrected my pronunciation of her name. She had her own way of saying add-dree-ENN.

During the course of that successful campaign to change the editorial policies of APR, more than one of the better-known poets who supported the effort, and actively participated that night at Adrienne’s, bowed out of any public role in the effort. We all agreed on an open letter to APR challenging their editorial policies. June Jordan, who had initiated the entire campaign, drafted an eloquent text. When the letter was published, some of the celebrated poets who had joined us at first decided not to be public signers of the letter. Adrienne stayed with the effort all the way, risking her own strong ties to APR. That was typical of her committed politics.

In fact I had an odd interaction with Adrienne over just this point. One of the most active members of our group, Jane Cooper, decided that she couldn’t sign the open letter, even though she had meticulously compiled the statistics that helped us make our case, going back over every issue of APR to count all the poets published. At the last minute, though, Jane told Adrienne confidentially she couldn’t sign the letter, since APR had been particularly supportive of her personally, even featuring her work on a recent cover. I volunteered to type up the final version of the letter for circulation. (There were no personal computers back then, it was all typewriters. I had an ancient Underwood manual made of heavy steel with a little medallion on it that read “Speeds the World’s Business.”)

I was living a life at the time very much like the movie Rent, in Bohemian shared apartments in the East Village. One night my roommates introduced me to a controlled substance that had mind-altering effects. I was still recovering from those effects the next morning when one of my roommates came into my room and said, “I think Adrienne Rich is on the phone and wants to talk to you right now.”

That spelled terror for a twenty-four year old male poet. I jumped out of bed and went to the phone. Adrienne was irate that Jane Cooper’s name had appeared on the published version of the open letter. Somehow the message had never been passed to me to omit Jane’s name. The letter went out with Jane’s name among the signers, violating a relationship of trust that Jane had with APR. It took quite a bit of explaining before Adrienne was satisfied that it wasn’t my fault, it was just a miscommunication.

Later I got to hear Adrienne read her poems many times, most recently at the Lunch Poems Reading Series at UC Berkeley on February 6, 2003. Adrienne was by then much weakened physically by her illness. As coordinator of the series, I worked out elaborate preparations for how to get her up on the stage at International House on the Berkeley campus. We tested the backstage elevator to make sure it would get her to the height of the podium. In the end, despite evident pain, Adrienne just marched up the stairs in front of the whole audience. Once onstage, Robert Hass, who was introducing her that day, took her arm. Adrienne’s power as a poet, though, was never diminished by her illness.

One of my favorite poems by Adrienne Rich is “Heroines,” from her great book A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far. It’s an audacious poem from a formal standpoint, using the triadic line that Mayakovsky and William Carlos Williams had innovated. In the poem, Adrienne salutes the women social activists of the nineteenth century, while teasing out the nuances of their class privilege. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Your mind burns
                            not like the harbor beacon
                                                                       but like a fire
of fiercer origin
                         you begin speaking out
and a great gust of freedom
                                             rushes in with your words

Adrienne would not have liked to be compared to those heroines—she shunned any honors that focused on her and not her beliefs—but those lines are so true of her own poetry. I always came away from a reading by Adrienne feeling changed. Her poetry summoned us to do our best and better. Her language was forged by the blaze of her convictions. She was one of those rare human beings whose very presence altered you. I love the great gusts of freedom that rush in with her words.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

3 comments:

  1. Thanks Zack, you made her so vivid. Interesting story about literary politics, too.

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  2. Zack, thank you for sharing this memory of Adrienne with us. And thank you for introducing me to her poetry during my MFA. "Her poetry summoned us to do our best and better." I look forward to reading more of her poetry.

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  3. I appreciate all the feedback I've gotten on my few memories of Adrienne. They speak to how deeply she reached many, many people.

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