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Grace Paley 1922-2007: Acclaimed Poet and Writer Dies at 84

StoryAugust 24, 2007
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The acclaimed American poet, short story writer, and anti-war activist Grace Paley has died. She was 84 years old and died Wednesday in her home in Vermont. We go back to a Democracy Now! interview with her talking about the peace movement and the role of poets in a time of war. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The acclaimed American poet, short story writer and antiwar activist Grace Paley has died. She was 84 years old and died Wednesday in her home in Vermont.

A native of the Bronx, Grace Paley was the former state poet laureate in both New York and Vermont. She also received numerous prizes for her work, including the Lannan Literary Award, a National Book Award and a senior fellowship recognizing her lifetime contribution to literature from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Since the 1960s, Paley was very active in the antiwar, feminist and anti-nuclear movements. She helped found the Greenwich Village Peace Center in 1961. Eight years later she went on a peace mission to Hanoi. In 1974, she attended the World Peace Conference in Moscow. In 1980, she helped organize the Women’s Pentagon Action. And in 1985, Paley visited Nicaragua and El Salvador, after having campaigned against the U.S. government’s policies toward those countries. She was also one of the “White House Eleven,” who were arrested in 1978 for unfurling an anti-nuclear banner on the White House lawn.

AMY GOODMAN: Just over four years ago, at the start of the Iraq War, I interviewed Grace Paley. In February of 2003, the first lady had cancelled a White House poetry symposium honoring Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman. Laura Bush had feared the invited poets might invoke poems critical of invading Iraq. I asked Grace Paley for her response to Laura Bush’s action.

GRACE PALEY: Well, it was probably the most extraordinary event to happen to American poets, and Laura Bush did it. It couldn’t have happened, though, really, without — you know, when people say, “What can poets do?” I often say, “Just what any other working group could do to get anything accomplished, and that is to organize.” You know, one poet is a nice thing, saying no. And, you know, it gets the papers, sounds good.

But then Sam Hamill came along from Copper Canyon Press, and that’s where things began to happen. So I owe — we — all poets owe a great deal to Laura Bush, Sam Hamill and the computer, because, as this happened, within about two days, there were about — I don’t know — 15,000 poets writing letters, writing, sending poems to Laura Bush, poems of protest. But more than that, they were beginning to do readings, which were attended by — you know, if you’re a poet, you can sometimes read to seven people and you’re happy, but these readings had packed houses. It was really quite an extraordinary experience for almost any poet. And this was true not only in Vermont, but, from what I hear, all over the country. So it was great.

I just want to say one thing. It brought me back to olden times. You know, by that I mean like 20 or 30 years ago. For us to organize a thing like this, which we did do during the Vietnam War, something called “Angry Arts,” which we worked at, took us months, took us really a long time. By the time we got the mail out and by the time we got all the volunteers to come in and lick the envelopes and by the time all that was done, it was a long — and this happened like that in three days. So it was quite extraordinary, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you were recently named the poet laureate of Vermont. It’s very interesting. You’re named by the governor, who is a Republican governor. Can you talk about how you relate to him in your meeting with him?

GRACE PALEY: Well, first of all, he really — he didn’t — well, he had to sign the paper, but I was chosen by a group of other poets, a couple of whom had been laureates, like Galway Kinnell and Ellen Voigt, and a couple of other people who had to make a choice. I don’t even think I was the best one, but that’s beside the point. Still, there — you know, there’s time for others. And then I had to meet with him. He wanted to meet with me and talk to me, but before he really signed on. And I — he knew a lot about me, and I said, well, I wasn’t going to change very much, you know? I’d probably be the same person I was, no matter what. And we talked awhile about this fact. And he really — and then he signed it. That’s all.

AMY GOODMAN: Governor James Douglas?

GRACE PALEY: Yes. He’s a Republican. He has a very mild manner, and I don’t know whether that’s the part of the Republicans of Vermont or what, but he’s a Republican. I mean, there’s no question about it.

AMY GOODMAN: But in terms of your poetry, more significantly, here he is naming you poet laureate, whether he chose you or not —


AMY GOODMAN: — he is for the war, and you’re opposed.

GRACE PALEY: Yeah, right. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And you have been using your poetry a lot in the last few months to express that view.

GRACE PALEY: Well, I would do that, no matter what. I mean, this is what I’m about, and this is how I live my life. It’s — I don’t even — I wouldn’t understand how to do otherwise.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the position of state poet laureates?

GRACE PALEY: Well, you don’t have to do anything. It’s an honorific, really. And if I chose to just sit around and write poems, which would be nice, I could do that, you know? But very few others have done that. And people have, before me, have done a lot of good work.

But what I — what happened to me in this first month is that I’ve gotten so many requests to read at this library in Rutland, that place in Brattleboro, and all over the state, and I’m very ill-equipped by my organizational gifts or the state of my desk to really get everything straight about where I should be. The last place I was was at a Barre senior center reading to and talking with a lot of old people, a lot of old people, many of whom were younger than me. And — but they loved poetry. They really loved poetry, and they wanted to hear me read poems. They wanted to tell me about their poems. It’s really great, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: Grace Paley, can you talk about your background? Can you talk about your family, coming from Russia when they came, what their politics were?

GRACE PALEY: Well, I’m from the Bronx originally. And my parents came over here in 1905 from Russia from a town called Yuzovka. And they were — my father had been in prison before that, and my mother was in exile for a while. And then the czar had a son, and when he had a son, all the people under 21 were pardoned. And so, my grandmother got them all out of Russia, and they came to the United States. So that was their politics. They were social democrats, actually. And they didn’t do much political stuff. Once they got here, they just worked like hell. And my father, supported by the women in the family, aunts and so forth and mother, went to school and became a doctor very soon and moved to the Bronx. And that was my life.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you discover the written word, whether it was poetry or prose? When did you start?

GRACE PALEY: Well, I had an older sister. My brother and sister are both 15 years older than I am, and they were very — my sister, especially, read to me a great deal, and she liked poetry. She happened to like poetry, and she read poems to me. And so, I began to write little poems, you know, cute stuff, you know? You write — by that time, my sister and brother, who were the children of the working class — I came along, and I was a child of the middle class 15 years later. And so, they — you write a sentence, and everybody says to you, “Oh, isn’t that nice,” you know? And so, you write another one. And then I began to be, you know, a big reader, what we used to call in the old days a “big reader.”

AMY GOODMAN: When did you — actually, when were you first published?

GRACE PALEY: Well, you see, I wrote poetry for a long time, and I had hardly ever sent anything out. And I think I may have published a couple poems when I was about 20. And then I had children and led another life, but kept writing and began to write stories in my mid-thirties, and that’s what I published. I did not publish poems until many years later.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did the politics of the times — for example, the Vietnam War — weigh in? The nuclear movement — how did that affect what you were doing and what you saw your role as a writer and poet as?

GRACE PALEY: Well, I never saw my role — I never thought of it like that, you know? I mean, that’s what I was doing. And at the same time, I did have these very strong political feelings and very natural ones, they seemed, to me.

And so, even when my kids were smaller, you had three — people like me had three things to do. They had the family to take care of and to worry about. And they had our political lives to lead — I mean, I should say the business of the war or whatever it was. And then we also had our work, our life work, which for me was literature, which I — which was my great good luck that I had that, because it enabled me to think in another way than a lot of other people.

AMY GOODMAN: Your mother was protesting way back. You talked about the bus.

GRACE PALEY: Well, that was — I wrote a story about that called “Traveling,” about my mother, in 1927, going to visit my brother at college — was sitting in the back of the bus as they went down, and when they got to Washington they asked her to please move to the front, and she refused.

But what’s interesting about that, to me, was that my sister never really told me that story until like five years — seven years ago, eight years ago, something like that. She just never told it to me. And when she did tell it to me, it meant a great deal, because I remembered my own trip down south in 1943. And it became a story in this book called Just as I Thought, in which my grandson, who isn’t white, also appears and brought it all together. That’s the thing about writing. You can bring a lot of stuff together.

AMY GOODMAN: Could you read something you have written? Can you read one of your poems?


AMY GOODMAN: You have your Grace Paley Begin Again: Collected Poems book in front of you. Grace Paley is with us. She is the poet laureate of Vermont, has written many poems and books and was here in New York last night for a reading, for an international anthology of writings from antiquity to the present called Women on War. Grace Paley.

GRACE PALEY: Published by the Feminist Press. OK. This poem is called “Fathers.”

Fathers are
more fathering
these days they have
accomplished this by
being more mothering

what luck for them that
women’s lib happened then
the dream of new fathering
began to shine in the eyes
of free women and was irresistible

on the New York subways
and the mass transits
of other cities one may
see fatherings of many colors
with their round babies on
their laps this may also
happen in the countryside

these scenes were brand-new
exciting for an old woman who
had watched the old fathers
gathering once again in
familiar Army camps and com-
fortable war rooms to consider
the necessary eradication of
the new fathering fathers
(who are their sons) as well
as the women and children who
will surely be in the way.

AMY GOODMAN: Grace Paley, her poem “Fathers.” Grace, in your life, you’ve spent time in jail protesting. What has that meant to you, how it has affected your writing?

GRACE PALEY: Well, I haven’t — you know, I guess I — it’s only interesting to me, the time I spent a week, but I’ve never spent real time in jail, just like overnights. A lot of overnights is the way it happened, or two days or three. But one time, by accident, by the accident of a judge, I spent a week, a whole week, in the women’s house of detention. And it, you know, was a teaching experience. It was a very valuable experience to be among all those women. And I wrote about it. And I — it was a funny experience, because I lived right around the corner from the house of —- women’s house of detention -—

AMY GOODMAN: Here in New York.

GRACE PALEY: — which was on 10th Street at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: Where Angela Davis was also.

GRACE PALEY: Yeah. And I used to look out the window, and I could see my kids going to school, you know? And it was a very —- that was very -—

AMY GOODMAN: Did you yell through the bars, “Dress warmly”?

GRACE PALEY: Well, I almost did, you know, but they weren’t paying attention. They just wanted to go their way. But people did yell up to me and yell up and say, “Grace, how are you?” You know.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, maybe that’s why it’s no longer there, right in the middle of civilization in New York.

GRACE PALEY: Well, it’s a terrible thing that it’s not there, because once they moved that prison, they moved it out to Rikers Island. See, when it was there on that street, people could come, and they — older people remember that — and on Sixth Avenue, they would stand there, and they’d yell up to everybody. And people would be able to — apart from visiting, they could see each other out the windows and yell out back and forth, “How’s the kids?” You know?

AMY GOODMAN: Poet Grace Paley, speaking in our firehouse studio April 24, 2003, a few weeks after the U.S. invaded Iraq. She had come to New York to be part of an event at Cooper Union the night before called “Women on War.” This is Grace Paley reading from her poem “Responsibility” that night.

GRACE PALEY: It is the responsibility of society to let the poet be a poet
It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman
It is the responsibility of the poet to stand on street corners
giving out poems and beautifully written leaflets
also leaflets you can hardly bear to look at
because of the screaming rhetoric
It is the responsibility of the poet to be lazy
to hang out and prophesy
It is the responsibility of the poet not to pay war taxes
It is the responsibility of the poet to go in and out of ivory
towers and two-room apartments on Avenue C
and buckwheat fields and army camps
It is the responsibility of the male poet to be a woman
It is the responsibility of the female poet to be a woman
It is the poet’s responsibility to speak truth to power as the
Quakers say
It is the poet’s responsibility to learn the truth from the
It is the responsibility of the poet to say many times: there is no
freedom without justice and this means economic
justice and love justice
It is the responsibility of the poet to sing this in all the original
and traditional tunes of singing and telling poems
It is the responsibility of the poet to listen to gossip and pass it on in the way storytellers decant the story of life
There is no freedom without fear and bravery there is no
freedom unless
earth and air and water continue and children
also continue
It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman to keep an eye on
this world and cry out like Cassandra, but be
listened to this time.

AMY GOODMAN: Grace Paley, the acclaimed poet, short story writer, peace activist. She died Wednesday at her home in Vermont at the age of 84, had been the poet laureate of both New York and Vermont. And if you’d like to see Grace reading her poetry or the interview or read the transcript, you can go to our website at democracynow.org.

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