Adrienne Rich: Online Interviews Essay, Research Paper
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
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
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
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
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.
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.