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Adrienne Rich: Online Interviews

from "The Possibilities of an Engaged Art: An Interview with Adrienne Rich"
by Ruth E. C. Prince

What have been the strongest influences upon your political beliefs?
Different in different periods. Growing up in segregated Baltimore, before and during World War II. Sensing the ill-faith, the sheeted silences, of that apart-life long before I had a language for it. Being at college in a politically contentious period (1947­51). Meeting other students who were, variously, G.I. Bill vets, refugees from the Holocaust, participants in NAACP and SDA [Students for Democratic Action]. Taking poetry courses from F. O. Matthiessen, a self-described socialist. I was pretty apolitical myself at Radcliffe, so there's hope for undergraduates who are just watching, as I was, what goes on.

In my thirties, the Civil Rights movement in the South, the writings of James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., the violence of the opposition to the black struggle for justice and dignity. I began to grasp how racism deforms the racist, turns one into a person who will kill or persecute out of fear, or permit killing and persecution to be done in one's name while leading a genteel life. That movement showed many white Americans what our society looked like from the perspective of its second-class citizens.

It also modeled the spirit of active participation in social change, infusing in turn the anti-war movement, the women's movement, the lesbian/gay movement. That participatory spirit, critical and activist, is linked to artistic creation in ways I later described (in What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics)--both require the radical imagination of the not-yet, the what-if. In these movements, and from people I knew then, I learned the possibilities of an engaged art.

From 1980 on, as Reaganomics opened the way to out-of-control corporate power, I began turning to history and to Marx's writings for a different grasp on events. At a time when Marx was considered a dead letter, I was finding his words very much alive. The sixties were declared buried, the women's movement pronounced dead, then the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain were hailed as the ultimate victory of democracy. Yet I saw democracy--in the sense of that participatory spirit, which to survive must always become more inclusive--shrinking visibly here in the US: the richest becoming richer and the poor poorer, access to resources accumulating in fewer and fewer hands. This has influenced how I see both my art and my life.

The arts, a crucial human resource, are hated and mistrusted by capital unless they can be commoditized. The past two decades have been a hostile, demoralizing time in this country for anyone who wants to participate in building a more inclusive and hopeful social order, an artistic life fueled by anything but money. These, too, have been important political lessons.

Does poetry play a role in social change?
Yes, where poetry is liberative language, connecting the fragments within us, connecting us to others like and unlike ourselves, replenishing our desire. It's potentially catalytic speech because it's more than speech: it is associative, metaphoric, dialectical, visual, musical; in poetry words can say more than they mean and mean more than they say. In a time of frontal assaults both on language and on human solidarity, poetry can remind us of all we are in danger of losing--disturb us, embolden us out of resignation.

How has your refusal of the National Medal for the Arts had an impact on your life and work?
My refusal of the arts medal was immediate and instinctive. My life and work had impact on the decision more than the other way around. If you are living a certain kind of life, trying to do certain kinds of work, feeling connected with certain kinds of people, certain traditions, a decision like that flows naturally from your own premises.

from Radcliffe Quarterly (Fall 1998). Online Source

Michael Klein
from "A Rich Life: Adrienne Rich on Poetry,
Politics, and Personal Revelation"
Boston Pheonix (June 1999)

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.

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.

Copyright © 1999 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group.Online Source

Paulo da Costa
from "Interview with Adrienne Rich"

Paulo da Costa: In our technological, violent, apathetical world, why does poetry matter?

Adrienne Rich: You start with a small question. (Laughs.) Poetry has always mattered, through human history, through all kinds of cultures, all kinds of violence and human desolation, as well as periods of great human affirmation. It's been associated with the power of the word, with the sacred, with magic and transformation, with the oral narratives that help a people cohere. In this disintegrative, technologically-manic time, when public language is so debased, poetry continues to matter because it's the art that reintegrates words, speech, voice, breath, music, bodily tempo, and the powers of the imagination.

Poetry reaches into places in us that we are supposed to ignore or mistrust, that are perceived as subversive or non-useful, in what is fast becoming known as global culture. "Global culture" is of course not a culture: it's the global marketing and imposing of commodities and images for the interests of the few at the expense of the many.

In 1945, just at the end of World War II, the American poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote a remarkable book called The Life of Poetry. In it she says that on any particular day in the world, if poetry ceased to exist, it would immediately be reinvented on that same day.

PC: You mention this global world, this global culture. At the filling Station we receive a lot of poetry that is painfully self-absorbed, painfully private. It appears that many poets are retreating into the private world. The personal does not appear to be political any longer. What do you see happening here?

AR: I can only speak for what I see in the States. There has been, compared to the Sixties and Seventies, a huge retrenchment --not just in poetry-- into the personal. A withdrawal from thinking in terms of social and collective values, needs and solutions. The consciousness raising groups of the women's movement, for instance, becoming "support-groups" or therapy groups. The therapeutic solution ties in very well with our whole ethos of individualism, individual self-reliance in a so called pioneer country, the belief that every immigrant who came somehow made it on their own. Of course they didn't. They made it in communities and, where possible, by gaining political power as a group.

It's not that I rule out the psychological perspective. We've learned a lot from the great psychologists. Wilhelm Reich wrote about the relationship between fascism and sexual repression. Freud rediscovered the underworld of consciousness that European rationalism had denied. But when you have a nation of people in therapy and counseling, "support" groups for every kind of human condition, where, in the clichés of that milieu, people "share" and "heal," the question, "What for?", "What now?" is no longer asked. Can individual psychic wounds really heal in an abusive and fragmented society? Audre Lorde has a poem which begins, "What do we want from each other/ after we have told our stories?" Where do we go to explore our stake with others in such a society?

PC: Do you see many poets caught in the labyrinth of self, not reaching the people?

AR: I think many poets have settled for one level of possibility. The linear narrative, the restricted I, the historical poem. There's been real hostility toward political poetry in the U.S., hostility or, at best, incomprehension. I'm speaking of those who have institutional power over what gets published, over grants and prizes and reviewing. Most of them, though not all, are white and male. But even as American society is unraveling, becoming more violent and punitive, wonderful political poets have been emerging. I think of some younger poets like: Kimiko Hahn, Marilyn Chin, Martin Espada, Juan Felipe Herrera, Fanny Howe, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Linda McCarriston. So different in their poetics, their sensibilities--yet each connecting the private and public.

It's difficult for poets like these to get published, to be discussed seriously as part of the poetry of our time. A book of poems doesn't just come out by chance, an editor has to select it, a publisher has to distribute it or you will never see it. I'm sure this is true in Canada too.

PC: As poetry steps from poet to product, we do not see the eye of the poet, hear the breath of the poet. Does poetry lose strength then?

AR: I think we do hear it through readings. In the U.S. there are more poetry readings than there have ever been, with larger and larger audiences. I'm going from Calgary to the Dodge Festival in New,"Jersey. It lasts for three days and a large roster of poets reads to thousands of high-school students, their teachers, and general audiences. The kids are riveted to hearing poetry, and they also go around reading their poems to each other. It's a glorious ferment. And there are poetry festivals like that in many states, community events.

PC: It is the oral poetry, the word as breath that is making a comeback and not the text?

AR: I think many poets, including myself, write both for the voice and for the page. I certainly write for the person alone in the library, who pulls down a book and it opens to a poem. I am also very conscious of what it means to read these poems aloud. Increasingly I think of poetry as a theatre of voices, not as coming from a single "I" or from any one position. I want to imagine voices different from my own.

PC: Poetry continues to be seen by some as a priestly profession. Priestly in the sense that there is an aura of mystery, of distance. The language of poetry seems not to speak to a large segment of the population, perhaps it even intimidates people.

AR: In a society where some people are far more educated than others, in which public education is ill-funded--here I am speaking of the U.S.--while we build more and more prisons to incarcerate youth who ought to be in school, there is already a gap between those with education and those without. Those with educational privilege can be seen as arrogant, remote, alien--and very often they believe themselves superior.

I am uncomfortable with talking of poetry as a priestly profession, because I have little use for organized religions and priestly hierarchies. They have demoralized, persecuted, so many, including women, gays, non-believers. I think of poetry as something out there in the world and within each of us. I don't mean that everyone can write poetry--it's an art, a craft, it requires enormous commitment like any art. But there's a core of desire in each of us and poetry goes to and comes from that core. It's the social, economic, institutional gap that makes it difficult.

PC: I draw the priestly parallel in relation to the text, the priests were the medium to the text...

AR: Which was supposedly given from God or the gods...

PC: Yes, and for instance, monks from the Middle Ages were the interpreters of the text, deliverers of the word, which gave them power. The people, in awe, believed they depended on them to access the spiritual world.

AR: Literacy was denied to most people, too...I don't want to succumb to the idea that for the generation, or generations, raised on television, the text is irrelevant or so intimidating that they won't deal with it. If you teach, you see this is not true. It may be that newer generations do not worship the text as some of their elders do. I think also that young people know they are being betrayed by the mass electronic media. It caricatures them, caricatures others. It is not really about them though it targets them as consumers.

PC: Have you felt heard as a poet?

AR: In later life, I have. But the fact that I'm here, alive, and published has to do with the privileges I was born into--class and skin color--education, and the fact of being a woman, which has pushed me to question, to search for new methods, though for years I was doing this in isolation. I had been asking myself, "What is a woman, what does it mean to be a woman poet?"

The women's movement appeared at a very crucial moment in my life. There was a whole political movement asking such questions and others I had never asked. I began to feel heard in that movement. But it was because my voice was resonating with other voices.

I guess what concerns me always is the need for a field, a rich compost, for any art to flourish. But however isolate or unheard you may feel, if you have the need to write poetry, are compelled to write it, you go on, whether there is resonance or not. You have to give your art everything you can--I don't mean only writing, but studying other poets and poetics, thinking, reading what poets have written other than their poetry.

Thinking about the place of poetry in the world, what might be possible. What your place as a poet might be. You have to do that.

from Samsära Quarterly. Copyright © 2001 by Paulo da Costa. Online Source

from "Adrienne Rich: Standing at the Intersection of Art and Activism"
Interview by Pat Simpson, Michele Marchand, and Anitra Freeman

from Real Change News

Real Change: We wanted to ask about a phrase you used in an interview - "radical happiness" - that you said was a touchstone for you in your work; happiness that comes from public participation in a process for real change. When have you witnessed or experienced that kind of radical happiness?

Adrienne Rich: Well, it's interesting that you ask me that, because I just got back from Chile, from an International Poetry Festival, and I realized after I'd been there a day and a half that I was witnessing a huge expression of public happiness. And it's about the end of the dictatorship, it's about the new hope that's in the country at large, it's about the fact that they've got a democratically-elected socialist government again - not as left-wing as Allende's government was, but still, more in that direction. And they again have freedom of expression. People are not terrorized, they're not being disappeared; people are not being tortured, and they have such a strong tradition of poetic life and poetic culture in that country that this festival drew crowds of 50,000 people at a time. 

People have said to me, what does it feel like reading to 50,000 people, but you don't even think of yourself as doing that, it's seeing 50,000 people listening to poetry, who are there because it is poetry. It's just something we don't see here. It was important to me to be there, coming out of a time of such hopelessness, to be in a country where new hope is emerging, particularly among young people who maybe were very small if they were even alive during the early time of the coup. But they are learning the history of what happened, trying to take it in. That was to me the most marvelous demonstration of anything I'd ever dreamed of when I wrote about radical happiness.

I would like to think that at different times and places you've felt that here in Seattle-

RC: - During the WTO -

Rich: In a true sense, even the little that was coming over the media, it inspired people all over the country. It gave everybody hope at a very tough time. You sent out sparks of radical happiness from Seattle during the WTO, I can say that.

RC: What makes you angry?  

Rich: I think, complacency makes me very angry. The kind of complacency that either doesn't want to see, or that's seeing and knowing [that] it's gliding over the truth.

RC: In What Is Found There you wrote, "The question for the North American poet is how to bear witness to a reality from which the public - and maybe part of the poet - wants to turn away." What realities do you see us turning away from? 

Rich: Well, until recently, until the stock market fell, these were supposed to be the best times in history, this was supposed to be the happiest country in the world; everybody was supposedly doing well, and I mean it was all a lie, of course. The realities of who is not on that side of the equation... that's what people have wanted to turn their eyes away from, and have successfully turned their eyes away from. And then ultimately blaming the victims of the society for their own problems, and accusing them of creating the problems. 

RC: That's happening more and more here. There's a new computerized tracking system they're proposing, to track homeless people from service to service as though the reason they're homeless is their own fault.

Rich: So they're sort of like a virus or something that's travelling through the system?!

RC: How do you identify the things that you yourself turn away from and then turn yourself back to?

Rich: That's a very painful matter, and some of it is kind of like trying to see what you don't see. I've lived all my life as a middle-class person, and I've never been hungry and I've never not had a roof over my head. And that puts you in a certain position. It makes you assume that those are the conditions that everyone lives under. If someone doesn't have those advantages then it must be their fault.

I feel it in myself, I feel it all around me, a tremendous way of turning one's eyes away by saying that person doesn't deserve my vision, doesn't deserve my attention. It's very painful to realize the extent to which one has been brainwashed.   I find that sometimes my dreams will tell me things that I am not consciously wanting to know - things about society, things about people.

RC: Who are some of your heroes and heroines?

Rich: You know, I always feel when I'm asked that I'm going to leave out the most important names. I think of Muriel Rukeyser, whom I wrote about in this book, and who is still kind of an exemplary figure for me, in terms of what she did see, and did say, and did embody, and did exemplify.

I think about someone like Eduardo Galeano, a Latin American who's also published widely here, who writes a lot about the accountability of the writer and the necessity for the writer to look into what he calls "the open veins of the society." Who believes that it's important to do that and at the same time not to feel that writing and language and literature are going to solve everything, because they won't.

A lot of my heroes are writers because they were the people who've shown me ways of possibly being or paths to start.

RC: You used the image of building a foundation... your work and ours, it's all the same building. Thank you so much for deconstructing the myth of Sisyphus, because it's not just one of us alone pushing that boulder up the hill, it's all of us together.

Rich: I know. I know. It's a relief to realize that.

from Real Change News (April 19, 2001). Online Source

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