The legendary poet, essayist and feminist Adrienne Rich, who died on Tuesday at the age of 82, was one of the most celebrated poets of the last half-century and a lifelong advocate for women, gay and lesbian rights, peace and racial justice. Rich drew widespread acclaim for her many volumes of poetry and prose, which brought the oppression of women and lesbians into the public spotlight. She was a key figure in the women’s movement and an uncompromising critic of the powerful. In 1997, Rich famously declined to accept the National Medal of Arts in a protest against the Clinton administration, writing that art "means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage." We remember Rich’s life with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker and Rich’s literary agent Frances Goldin. [includes rush transcript]
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JUAN GONZALEZ: The legendary poet, essayist and feminist Adrienne Rich died on Tuesday at the age of 82. Rich was one of the most celebrated poets of the last half-century and a lifelong advocate for women, gay and lesbian rights, peace and racial justice. Rich drew widespread acclaim for her many volumes of poetry and prose, which brought the oppression of women and lesbians into the public spotlight. She was a key figure in the women’s movement and an uncompromising critic of the powerful. Rich won numerous awards and honors, including the National Book Award for the 1973 collection Diving into the Wreck. Refusing to accept the award alone, she appeared onstage with poets Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, and the three accepted the award on behalf of all women.
AMY GOODMAN: In 1997, Adrienne Rich famously declined to accept the National Medal of Arts in a protest against the Clinton administration, writing that art, quote, "means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage."
In a moment, we’ll be joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker and Rich’s literary agent Frances Goldin. But first we’re going to go to Adrienne Rich herself, reading her poem "What Kind of Times Are These."
ADRIENNE RICH: 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.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Adrienne Rich reading her poetry. She died on Tuesday at the age of 82. Alice Walker, as well as Frances Goldin, her literary agent, are here to talk about her life.
Alice Walker, your thoughts about Adrienne?
ALICE WALKER: Well, it was very interesting. She and I saw each other infrequently and almost always by accident, so it was quite magical. We would be sometimes in an elevator together, and she would have come from one part of the country and me from somewhere else, and there we’d be. Or we’d show up at a movie, and there she’d be, and there I’d be. She was very close to a friend of mine, June Jordan, and so I got to know more about her through June, and also, of course, through her poetry, which was very meaningful to me. And my sense of her, the thing that I most loved, was her integrity. She lived exactly what she said. And this was so rare and so beautiful. And we will miss her.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the National Book Award in 1973 that she won for Diving into the Wreck that she insisted that you, Alice, and Audre Lorde accept the award with her on stage? Talk about that moment. Where were you?
ALICE WALKER: I was in Mississippi. I was, you know, fighting the good fight down there. But anyway, what happened was that we were all three nominated for this award. And we understood that we were living under apartheid and segregation and, you know, all of that, and that under such a system, which favored white people, she would get the award. We knew that. And so, we decided, before anybody—anything was announced, that we would not accept being ranked, and we would not accept the racism implicit in an award that would go to someone—you know, she was a great poet, but it would go to her also because she was a white person. And to her immense credit, she had no desire to be honored as we would be dishonored. And so, we got together. Audre called me in Mississippi, and we chatted about it, and Adrienne. And so, we decided that we could only accept an award so suspicious if we accepted it in the name of all women and indicate by that action that we understood that women were not honored in the arts and elsewhere.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Frances, you represented her for many years. Talk to us about how you first came to know her and what kind of person she was, and especially this issue of her stances on principle and social justice.
FRANCES GOLDIN: I met her at a dinner. The gay and lesbian rights groups had a dinner the night before, every year, when the publishing world came together in various countries—cities in the country. And I was sitting next to her and met her for the first time at that dinner. And we bonded, because we had similar politics, and we had wanted to meet each other for some time. And when the meeting was over, I said to her, "Can I hug you?" And she said, "It would be a pleasure." And we hugged. And then I said, "Well, if we can hug, can I kiss you?" And she said, "I would love to." And we left, and that happened.
And then I really campaigned for a couple of years to be able to represent her. And I remember taking a camera on a city bus, because they had on the billboards of the buses the poet of the month. And once, it was Adrienne. And so, I took a picture of that and sent it to her and said, "Millions of people in New York know about you because you were on the bus this morning." And, you know, I just courted her with anything I could think of.
And then, one day, she called and said, "I need some help. My publisher, Norton, has two offers from England, and I don’t know which one to take." So I said, "Well, just sit there, and don’t go away from your phone." And I called my British agent, because I certainly didn’t know which was the better of the two. And he called her, and she explained it, and he told her which was the best publisher for her. And she called back and said, "He was so wonderful, and he didn’t take any money, and he wouldn’t charge me." And I said, "Well, of course not. It was just a favor." And she said, "Well, then, can you represent the book?" And I said, "How can I? You signed a contract. And if I called with a question about it, they would hang up on me, because I didn’t agent this book." And she said, "Well, can you do my next one?" And I said, "Does night follow day?" And we became agent and author. And it’s been 25 years.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to that moment in 1997 when Adrienne Rich refused the 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 at the time, which administers the awards. Adrienne Rich appeared on Democracy Now! soon afterwards, and she read her letter.
ADRIENNE RICH: "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 on Democracy Now! the letter she wrote to the actress Jane Alexander, who was then the head of the National Endowment for the Arts, rejecting the 1997 medal, the 1997 National Medal for the Arts. Alice Walker, your final thoughts on Adrienne Rich?
ALICE WALKER: I think that that letter demonstrates that integrity that she had that I so admired. And I think her legacy for all of us is to continue to believe in the power of art, especially in the power of poetry, and to keep moving and not to be dissuaded, not to be discouraged, but to take heart from a woman who lived for 82 years giving her very best, growing out of every shell that society attempted to force her into to become this really amazing figure of inspiration and hope and love.
AMY GOODMAN: Alice Walker, we want to thank you for being with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and activist. Frances Goldin, Adrienne Rich’s agent and friend. And we will post you reading, Frances, Adrienne’s letter to you on our website at democracynow.org.