It's hard to say who Adrienne Rich has more inspired over the past 50 years: poets, feminists, or those yearning to hear an unapologetically liberal-socialist

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Poetic Conversation

Adrienne Rich and Linda Bierds talk poetry, persona, and politics.

It's hard to say who Adrienne Rich has more inspired over the past 50 years: poets, feminists, or those yearning to hear an unapologetically liberal-socialist voice speak out against America's conservative capitalism. A few hours before her Seattle Arts & Lectures event last month, the 69-year-old poet sat down with Weekly senior editor Bruce Barcott and Seattle-based poet Linda Bierds for a wide-ranging conversation. Bierds, the director of the University of Washington's creative writing program, counts herself among the many poets inspired by Rich's work. She and Rich are also recipients of prestigious MacArthur Fellowships, the so-called "genius grants." The conversation, which took place at the Alexis Hotel, began with Bierds and Rich—a retired Stanford professor who lives in Santa Cruz—discussing the growing "professionalism" of poetry students. Adrienne Rich: That's a very sad thing. I was lecturing UCSanta Cruz students the other day, and the question would come up: What do you think about publishing? When should one publish? And I really tried to turn that around and say: This should not be your major concern. You are at a very precious point where you are an apprentice. This idea gets pushed on them. You see it in Poets & Writers magazine, everything is about how to get published, how to get an agent. There's very little about the life of engaged artists determined to do their work irrespective of everything. That time of apprenticeship is when you are allowed to imitate, make mistakes, do rash things. Linda Bierds: I see this at the writing program at the UW. I tell students when they come in that they will have a dip into slight depression after the first year [of the two-year program]. I've seen it happen over and over. They're half-done and they say, "I thought I'd be farther along now. At least I'd have a few poems published." It's very sad, because they feel tremendous pressure at a time when they should feel the opposite, a release from that, they've got two years on this kind of island where everyone supports their choice to write poetry. Bruce Barcott: What does that apprenticeship involve? Rich: It involves seeing yourself as a newcomer to a great tradition, to an ancient and historical art. And I see it as study—as trying to find out by whom and how poetry has been written. Immersing oneself to whatever extent possible in whatever is going to nourish your poetry. Make that the priority. Instead there's this pressure to deliver the commodity. Barcott (to Rich): You have a wonderful line in What Is Found There [a collection of essays about poetry and politics]: For poets, "to inherit wealth is to inherit time." What has the MacArthur Fellowship meant to your work? Has it given you that inherited time? Rich: Oh, that's such a hard question. I was hoping nobody would ask it. When I retired from Stanford, I really didn't know what was next because my health then was worse than it had been. I didn't want to commute, and I didn't want to teach. I thought I could go on traveling to some extent. But the putting-bread-on-the-table future was a little unclear. And then the MacArthur came along and it felt like this enormous validation. When you have money, you can make choices. That someone without the money couldn't make. That for me has been . . . it has allowed me to travel and write. Bierds: I've only had two checks so far, so I can only speak in terms of the emotional response, which was total incredulity. I'm still—I absolutely did not believe that was happening, so much so that I had to take notes as I spoke with [MacArthur officials]. I kept them by my bed so I really could believe it had happened. I don't know what it will mean for me. I came into this tenured position [as a professor and director of the UW's creative writing program] very late in life. Before that I always worked half-time in affirmative action and at the UW Women's Information Center, so I had no retirement set aside. I can't retire with the MacArthur, because I have 15 years of work ahead. But I will take a year off before every new book is complete. It's that last year that's the most significant for me when I'm putting together a collection. I have an overall vision of the book from the outset, but that vision becomes more defined as the book progresses. The momentum speeds up and it's tremendously exciting. I'm creating new poems, writing maybe up to half the book in that last year. Rich: I'm quite a bit older than you are, Linda, and we're all so acutely conscious of that old age which has to be provided for. We're certainly not going to be provided for in any other way. When, as quite regularly occurs, I'm conscious of the fact of the MacArthur, I do think about the difference if we all lived with some of the measure of relief from anxiety that five years of such a fellowship entails. What if we were living in a society where people were less driven by fear of illness, fear of destitution, fear of sliding over the edge, less driven by just the necessity to pay the rent? So many of the older poets that I know are driven in that way. They feel that they have to go on teaching long after they'd like to retire, or do all kinds of gigs that they'd really prefer not to do. Of course that goes far beyond the world of poetry and poets. I think we find it very hard here, in this place and time, to even imagine what life would be like under any kind of socialism, if there were a social safety net for everyone. I've spent some time in Canada recently, and been acutely aware of how different it is there. Although their system has been whittled away there too. There seems to be so much less a driven sense in the population at large. Barcott (to Rich): Could you tell us a little about your new collection, Midnight Salvage; are these poems a continuation of earlier work, or are you heading in a new direction? Rich: I feel as if they're very connected to my last two books, Dark Fields of the Republic and An Atlas of the Difficult World. Beginning in Atlas, I've been working more and more with what I think of as a "theater of voices," working away from the restricted "I" poem, the poem that begins and ends at the poet's consciousness. I'm trying to create fictional characters in my poems, go back to historical figures, and try to bring their voices into this theater. Bierds: I'd like to ask you about this because of how it affects my own work. The theater of voices contained here and elsewhere is the accumulation of the actual words of others, rather than the use of persona. In your earlier work there was the occasional persona poem, [as in] the Mary Jane Colter poem in "Turning the Wheel" [written in 1981]. And thereafter it stopped. Rich: Maybe a single poem is too small a sphere in which to try to explore a whole personality, a whole time. When you say "persona poem," you're thinking of where the persona is a person who actually existed, like Mary Jane Colter. I think I was interested in recuperating these women of the past whose work, at the time I was writing the poems at least, was little known. To imagine myself into the skin of another woman artist. But . . . it began to seem like something . . . almost tricky. You know what I'm talking about. You've done that kind of thing very, very well. Bierds: I think the difference is that when I'm speaking as Dorothy Wordsworth or any other person, I'm not doing it in the tradition of the dramatic monologue—to reveal character attributes—but to advance a philosophical or spiritual inquiry. Rich: That's something I admire about your poetry, you see. You may be feeling it as a defect, but I admire it very much. Bierds: Thank you. It's a way that I'm able to get outside the self, and be transported, and try to empathize with another. But not to the extent I think that I could claim that person's personality. The context of the individual poem would be far too short to do that. It has to advance a greater vision. And that is a kind of appropriation, and I do find myself [wondering about that] and thinking, Is that the right thing to do? Barcott (to Bierds): How much research will you do into a person's life before you feel confident enough to write a poem about it? Bierds: There will be a triggering factor in that life that I've read about somewhere, or heard about. And the metaphoric significance of that factor probably is the germ of the poem. Then I need enough background to bring that truthfully to the reader. But I may not spend a month with biographies—just enough to make certain I'm truthful. Rich: It's interesting, actually, you're making me aware of something that I was quite unaware of, which is that the "Modotti" poem [in Midnight Salvage] could have been a persona poem, but it isn't. Barcott: ["Modotti" is a poem about the photographer and political activist Tina Modotti (1896-1942).] What was it about her life that captured you? Rich: It was a coming together of a lot of things. I'd known about her for a long time, and had seen reproductions of some of her photographs. And then a friend sent me a postcard of the photograph that I allude to in the poem of the typewriter of her lover, who was a revolutionary. Rolled into the typewriter there's a piece of paper upon which is typed in Spanish something about the relationship between art and politics. The thing about Modotti is, her photographs are very consciously staged. She may have walked the streets and found her subjects, but many of them are totally staged, as is this one. But the combination of the beauty of the photograph itself, and the image of the typewriter, which for me is crucial (and remains crucial even though I now use a laptop for most things), and the whole art and politics question, made me feel a kind of attraction to this material. And I read a biography of her which I found in a secondhand bookshop.You know it's this serendipitous chance: Someone sends you the photograph, then you see the book in the secondhand bookshop, you take it home, the thing begins to stew and simmer. I was also fascinated by the fact that she was a very, very beautiful woman who totally eschewed, through the latter part of her life, all of the possible roles or paths that might have been available to her as a very beautiful woman. Her background is Italian, dark-haired—really gorgeous. She was Edward Weston's lover at one point. He has many photographs of her, which are typical Edward Weston photographs; she's like a gorgeous nude flower lying on the tiles. And then she goes to Mexico, she meets this Cuban revolutionary, and she's leading from then on a very dangerous, very difficult, very gritty life working as a photographer. She's traveling around, she's framed for his murder, she's brought up on charges, she's working for the Communist Party, she's got no real home, no real mooring. I wanted to convey that in the poem. You're sort of having to follow her wherever she goes, because you won't find her just there. Barcott (to Rich): Two years ago you were awarded a National Medal for the Arts, which you very publicly refused, saying that "art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage." What made you decide to do that? Rich: I didn't sit down and make a decision about it. I got this call from the White House, and I said, "No, I couldn't accept it." Then I thought strategically. You don't want to simply refuse this. It's an opportunity to be heard and to make some statements in a very public way. So I told this man I was going to write to Jane Alexander, who was then the head of the National Endowment for the Arts. I got her address, and then I hung up. And I thought, This is a tremendous opportunity. Very few poets get a chance like this. So I faxed my agent a copy of the letter to Jane Alexander, and she called The New York Times and the wire services. I tried to make clear that this wasn't about party politics. It was about the sense of a shrinking democratic system and a government which is in the hands of the wealthy few. It seemed to me that the arts have something to say in all this. I do think that the relationship between art and justice is not a simple one, but it seemed to me that everything my work has stood for, stood against, stood about, is essentially dishonored by a government that is dishonoring so many of its citizens. Barcott: How have people responded? Rich: It's actually sort of amazing to me. I got a lot of mail; it gave me a sense that a lot is going on here. People have been waiting for a certain kind of silence to be broken. I mean, of course it's been broken, but given the nature of most of the media, very few of the voices breaking it get heard. Many people are standing up and saying many things, but they are not visible on television, they're not on CNN, they're not on the front page.

 
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