Adrienne Rich, one of the most distinguished poets living and working in the United States, refused the 1997 National Medal for the Arts to protest the growing concentration of power in fewer and fewer hands. Rich informed the Clinton administration of her decision in a July 3 letter to Jane Alexander, the chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts, which administers the awards. The National Medal for the Arts is usually awarded annually to 12 people. Past winners include the writer Eudora Welty, the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, and the artist Roy Lichtenstein. Adrienne Rich begins the interview by reading her July 3, 1997 letter to Jane Alexander, chair of the National Endowment of the Arts. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Adrienne Rich, one of the most distinguished poets living and working in the United States, has refused the 1997 National Medal for the Arts to protest the growing concentration of power in fewer and fewer hands. Adrienne Rich informed the Clinton administration of her decision in a July 3rd letter to Jane Alexander, the chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, which administers the awards. The National Medal for the Arts is usually awarded annually to 12 people. Past winners include the writer Eudora Welty and the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. A ceremony at the White House will take place in the fall.
We’re joined now by Adrienne Rich. And we were wondering if you could start off by reading the letter you sent to Jane Alexander.
ADRIENNE RICH: OK.
“Dear Jane Alexander,
“I just spoke with a young man from your office, who informed me that I had been chosen to be one of twelve recipients of the National Medal for the Arts at a ceremony at the White House in the fall. I told him at once that I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration. I want to clarify to you what I meant by my refusal.
“Anyone familiar with my work from the early Sixties on knows that I believe in art’s social presence—as breaker of official silences, as voice for those whose voices are disregarded, and as a human birthright. In my lifetime I have seen the space for the arts opened by movements for social justice, the power of art to break despair. Over the past two decades I have witnessed the increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice in our country.
“There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice. But I do know that art—in my own case the art of poetry—means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage. The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A President cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored. I know you have been engaged in a serious and disheartening struggle to save government funding for the arts, against those whose fear and suspicion of art is nakedly repressive. In the end, I don’t think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope. My concern for my country is inextricable from my concerns as an artist. I could not participate in a ritual which would feel so hypocritical to me.
AMY GOODMAN: Adrienne Rich, reading the letter she wrote to National Endowment for the Arts chair Jane Alexander, after turning down the 1997 National Medal for the Arts. Adrienne, what was Jane Alexander’s response to your letter?
ADRIENNE RICH: Well, I’ve not received any response from either Jane Alexander or the White House, but I gather from the New York Times that she sent them a very—what I consider to be a very supportive statement respecting my decision.
AMY GOODMAN: What is it you most object to about President Clinton?
ADRIENNE RICH: Well, it’s not even an ad hominem thing about President Clinton, although I find him cowardly and spineless. I am concerned about what it means when we have two parties which are so close together in their collaboration with the wealthiest interests in the country and who are so alike in their disregard for the majority of people in this country. And I feel as if the relative creative freedom of artists and intellectuals ultimately depends on the conditions everywhere and the conditions of human labor everywhere. We’re all working. We’re all trying to do our work. And the circumstances, the conditions under which working people exist in the society are not something that can be separated and left aside from the position of the artist. I just don’t see how you can do that.
AMY GOODMAN: In the New York Times article that described your rejection of the arts medal, it says, "Ms. Rich views poetry as an instrument of change, and her work has sometimes been dismissed by critics for being political." What is your response to those critics?
ADRIENNE RICH: To those critics? I don’t have a response to those critics. I have to go on doing my work, and my work is informed by the society in which I live. There’s no getting around that. And I believe that that’s true of all art, that it comes out of a social context. It does not simply blossom in some studio or attic away from the polluted air, the fumes, the social conditions of the artist’s own time. And I feel as if this effort to segregate art is extremely dangerous, and it’s a kind of—it is an attempt to hold art hostage, to make it a captive, a carved radish rose on the dinner table, if you will.
AMY GOODMAN: One of the issues that—one of the issues that President—just let me fix my mic. One of the issues that President Clinton has held firm on is support for the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities. Last week, the House voted to virtually eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, but President Clinton says, whether or not the Senate votes to abolish it, he would not support that.
ADRIENNE RICH: Well, I mean, this is one of my concerns. This was one of my concerns when I got this call, that this administration does try to keep a liberal image, and while the Republicans can be seen as totally dismantling the NEA, Clinton attempts to play the—play the pro-arts position without, I think, really understanding the kind of connections that I’m trying to talk about. There’s no evidence that this administration understands those connections, that, in other words, if you’re—if you’re a writer, it seems to me, it would seem only natural to care passionately about issues like literacy, about public education, about public libraries, about public opportunities in all the arts, and about the saving of human lives, which are precious and which are also the lives of artists and of people who would care about art. And, you know, they’re not—these are lives that are worth saving in any event, but if we’re going to look at it from the point of view of the value of the arts, the value of the arts is no greater than the value of every human life.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Adrienne Rich, who, again, has just turned down the 1997 National Medal for the Arts. I just visited your homepage on the World Wide Web and learned that your being a refusenik goes way back. In 1974, you refused to accept the National Book Award for Poetry as an individual and said you would only receive it on behalf of all women.
ADRIENNE RICH: Yeah, well, that was—that was a little collective action that Audre Lorde and Alice Walker and I put together, because we were all nominees for the National Book Award that year, and we just felt—we admired each other’s work, we cared about each other’s work, and we didn’t feel like we wanted to be set in competition with each other. So we put together that statement, and we agreed that any one of us who might actually win the National Book Award would read the statement on behalf of the three of us, and on behalf of women whose voices have not been heard, whether as poets or as witnesses in the world. So that was—that was really a kind of collective action.
AMY GOODMAN: Who are the people you see as role models?
ADRIENNE RICH: I feel very fortunate. I have both the dead and the living to inspire me. And among the living, certainly activists, poets, other kinds of artists, teachers, students. I couldn’t even begin to cite. You know, one draws strength from a lot of sources.
AMY GOODMAN: When you first started writing poetry, who did you turn to? Who gave you courage to write?
ADRIENNE RICH: Who encouraged me to write?
AMY GOODMAN: Either personally who encouraged you, or who gave you courage, in terms of reading their work?
ADRIENNE RICH: Well, my father encouraged me to write poetry, although as I grew older and perhaps became more myself, he didn’t much like the poetry I was writing. But I think that I just drew a lot of nourishment from the poets that I then was aware of and able to be aware of, poets like William Blake, like Emily Dickinson, like Whitman, people whose—and then later, somewhat later, Yeats, who taught me in fact that poetry could be political and still be incredibly beautiful. And on and on, because one is always reading, one is always extending one’s range into the world of poetry translated from other languages, poetry from other centuries. All of that has been very important to me.
AMY GOODMAN: Adrienne Rich, we’d like to play a little of your poetry from the cassette of your readings of Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems, 1991-1995. Could you give us a little introduction to this work?
ADRIENNE RICH: I suppose that I would pick "What Kind of Times Are These," which is a sequence of short poems. And this sequence has that title coming from a poem by Bertolt Brecht, the great German playwright and poet, a revolutionary playwright and poet, I should add, who wrote a poem in which he said, "What kind of times are these, when it seems almost a crime to talk about trees, because it means keeping silent about so many evil deeds." And so, I called the whole sequence "What Kind of Times Are These." And in it, I was just playing with the sense of what it was like—what it is like to be alive in this country in the 1990s—the encroaching power of the capitalist economy, the denial of any kind of counterbalancing past, the wiping out of history, and also the need to find happiness and pleasure in the midst of such dark times, and how that can carry you through to be aware, as open-eyed as you can of what is going on in your time, and at the same time, as Rosa Luxemburg advised, to seize every beautiful cloud and every joyful moment. And so, this little sequence of poems came out of that kind of musing.
"What Kind of Times Are These"
There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.
I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.
And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.
"In Those Years"
In those years, people will say, we lost track
of the meaning of we, of you
we found ourselves
reduced to I
and the whole thing became
silly, ironic, terrible:
we were trying to live a personal life
and, yes, that was the only life
we could bear witness to
But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged
into our personal weather
They were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinions drove
along the shore, through rages of fog
where we stood, saying I
AMY GOODMAN: Adrienne Rich, reading from her book of poems, Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems, 1991-1995. And we’ll finish up our conversation with the poet when we return from our break. If you’d like to get a copy of today’s show, you can order a cassette by calling 1-800-735-0230. That’s 1-800-735-0230. And we’ll also look at a new report on anti-gay activity in this country. You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. In just a minute, we’re going to take a look at People for the American Way’s report on anti-gay activity around the country. It’s called "Hostile Climate," and it’s not so much about gay bashing in terms of physically beating up gay men and lesbians, but about just increasingly hostile behavior. We’re still talking to Adrienne Rich, who has turned down the 1997 National Endowment for the Arts award, which is called the National Medal for the Arts. And Adrienne Rich, in light of our conversation that’s coming up, I wanted to ask you if you think that acceptance of gay men and lesbians has improved over the years. And how has this climate in the country affected your own acceptance of yourself as a lesbian?
ADRIENNE RICH: Well, as far as my own acceptance of myself as a lesbian, it is complete. This is who I am and how I live, and I—it’s a very—it feels moral and ordinary to me. I think that—there are two things that I see. I think that there’s the hostility, and I would be very interested in seeing that report, because my own impressions are impressionistic. But there’s another way in which I believe, with Tony Kushner, that capitalism could inhale gay and lesbian identity, so long as it is willing to be absorbed into the normal of capitalism, to assimilate. And I have real problems with that fact. I think of us as having a political identity that has been, has a tradition of being, and needs to be much more dissident, much more oppositional to the way things are, and not simply to go for acceptance, because what thrusts us outside—what can thrust us outside also thrusts many others outside, and I believe we have solidarity with many other kinds of people.
AMY GOODMAN: Adrienne Rich, we want to thank you very much for joining us. Again, poet Adrienne Rich’s latest book, Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems, 1991-1995. And we’re curious to know what you think of her sentiments, her letter to Jane Alexander and to the Clinton administration about why she has turned down the 1997 National Medal for the Arts and won’t be attending that White House ceremony, where 12 people will be given this honor. She’ll be replaced with another winner. Give us a call, and we’ll play some of those comments on the air, at 202-588-0999 extension 313. That’s 202-588-0999 extension 313.