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Adrienne Rich: Online Interviews Essay, Research Paper

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 (1947?51).

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


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


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


How has your refusal of the National Medal for the Arts had an impact on your life and


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

clich?s, 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


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


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


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.

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