Famed poet and activist Adrienne Rich speaks
Before beginning her reading, Rich acknowledged the recent death of Palestinian-American writer Edward Said, who "for many years was a lone voice in America on the 'question of Palestine' and on the effects of Zionism." She continued by describing him as "vilified by the American establishment," a loss to the world "who will be deeply mourned."
Her reading began with an excerpt from one of her longer pieces entitled "Eastern Wartime," a poem about memory and the weight that time can bear on the individual consciousness. Portrayed as an account of suffering, "Eastern Wartime" is able to evoke notions of cross-cultural oppression as recollected through history. Rich read, "I am an immigrant tailor who says a coat is not a piece of cloth only / I sway in the learnings of the master mystics / I have dreamed of Zion / I dreamed of world revolution "
Following this, Rich read from her poem, "For A Friend In Travail," a work that exhibits similar qualities of charged political language, while at the same time displays a retreat from conventional identity. An outspoken advocate for the women's rights movement and self-proclaimed lesbian-feminist, Adrienne Rich writes with the same force and conviction resonant in her beliefs: "'What are you going through?' she said, is the great question. / Philosopher of oppression, theorist / of the victories of force. / We write from the marrow of our bones. What she did not / ask, or tell: how victims save their own lives."
She continued her reading with selections from What Kind Of Times Are These?, a group of shorter poems based on the work of German Communist poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) who once wrote, "What kind of times are these, / When a conversation about trees is almost a crime, / Because so many misdeeds are left unspoken?"
Out of this group came a poem that began on a lighter note titled, "Miracle Ice Cream," in which Rich describes an ice cream truck as it passes the block she lives on, approaching a nearby elementary school: "Miracle's truck comes down the little avenue, / Scott Joplin ragtime strewn behind it like pearls, / and, yes, you can feel happy / with one piece of your heart."
Among her other poems, "A Long Conversation" is a unique collage that threads together quotes from such varied sources as Ché Guevara, Richard Nixon, the 18th century Romantic poets Blake and Coleridge, the philosopher of rhetoric Ludwig Wittgenstein, and a number of invented characters, including a policemen in Italy and a female bartender. As she described it, "the poem concerns the centuries-long conversation about human freedom, justice, and power, and the forces that try to silence it."
Concerning the question of identity, and the vastness of her poetic subject-personas, she commented, "none of us are a single person-what interests me is writing from a multitude of voices. I hope to develop a poetry in which the pronouns are not necessarily fixed, where 'I' and 'you' are varied and not the same 'I' and 'you' we are used to."
She finds her own public identity and the labeling of her work not as a stifling and restrictive act, but instead as "pointers that people use to point with." She continued by saying, "I grew up in a world where there were many gay and lesbian writers, but you didn't know it." She finds the utility of a public image and labels as a force in and of itself, a way to "help understand the poem's core."
Concerning "Diving into the Wreck" and what the idea of "the wreck" might represent, Rich describes the idea not as "a system in code, where I write a nugget in a ball of string that you can pull out and unravel," but instead as something more open. She offers possible interpretations in "wrecked dreams or aspirations," a social wreck or "any of an infinite number of meanings that such a wreck might invoke."
In describing her own writing process, Rich said, "I don't start
with an idea, I start with some music in my head" and that "it
is an impulse more than an idea-an impulse without a name yet."