Andrea Scarpino is the author of four books, the Poet Laureate of Michigan’s Upper Penninsula, is the co-founder of the Disability March, and more. Scarpino teaches at the University of Illinois Springfield, but despite what is almost certainly a packed schedule, she sat down with me to talk about Adrienne Rich and the ongoing need for these poems and this work.
Black: “What Kind of Times” is one I’ve reached for a few times in the last year. Most recently I read it again when Bears Ears and Grand Staircase were devoured. You too? What moves you to share these poems? Is it a love of them or their prescience or…?
Scarpino: I also return to Rich’s poems again and again! When I’m struggling in my writing, I read her poems to remind me to be brave. When I’m struggling with our political situation, I read her poems to remind me that resistance is possible and can take many forms. When I’m looking for new forms, I read her poems to study the ways in which she plays with form. Her career was so long and so varied that there really are poems in her canon for everyone!
Black: Adrienne Rich might be considered “larger than life.” What is your sense of her life and career?
Scarpino: Larger than life definitely seems right, at least in some circles. When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Cincinnati, she came to do a reading and some lectures, and I remember so vividly that the university booked her in one of the largest rooms on campus—this horrible concrete auditorium that sat like 700 people. The place was packed. Like, seriously packed! And when Rich was introduced and walked out onto the stage, she looked so small in such a huge space, but the entire audience stood up and applauded. She hadn’t spoken a word, and she received a standing ovation. And I burst into tears. It was the only time I have ever seen that reaction to a poet and the fact that she was also a feminist icon when I was really just learning about feminism was even more meaningful to me. Here was a woman telling the truth of her life, and being rewarded for doing so. It was incredibly powerful.
Black: Has Rich influenced you and your work then? And, how?
Scarpino: Yes, absolutely! For one thing, she reminds me to tell my truth, to write bravely, to keep myself attuned to the world’s atrocities no matter how painful that can be. Especially as a middle-class white woman—white US culture definitely supports us in refusing to engage with the atrocities of the world. And especially as a white US poet. There have been these conversations for way too long in white US poetry about the division between the personal and the political where the personal is supported and uplifted and the political is derided and downplayed. If you’re interested in writing political poetry in the US, you have a harder road ahead of you in terms of publication and general acceptance by the “academy.” And Rich reminds me how limited those views are, that they are particularly white US American views and that most people in the world don’t share them. I find that incredibly empowering.
Black: Are there connections between these particular poems and your own work?
Scarpino: Definitely! I actually used that last quote as an epigraph to my book-length poem What the Willow Said As it Fell, which is a book about chronic pain and the medical establishment and the intersection of gender and medicine. And also, about willow trees and ash trees, both of which have traditionally been thought of as healing trees. Willow branches have a substance in them called salicin which is related to our modern day aspirin and which was used for thousands of years as a pain reliever—people in childbirth would chew on willow branches to help with the pain, for example. And in Norse culture, it was thought that if you passed a sick baby under the ash tree, the tree would heal the baby. And I loved the idea of using these two trees as foes, in a sense, to be able to focus some of the book on the trees instead of on unrelenting chronic pain. That is completely a strategy I learned from Rich! I basically took her advice literally—if I’m going to get a reader interested in reading about chronic pain for 70 pages, I better spend some time distracting them with trees.
Black: What do you want readers to notice in particular in these poems?
Scarpino: I would love readers to notice their beauty, the beauty of Rich’s language, the beauty in a line. Even when writing about really hard subjects, Rich writes with an attention to image, to sound, to the movement of each line. They are works of intense beauty, and that is part of what draws me back to them again and again.
Andrea Scarpino is the author of the poetry collections Once Upon Wing Lake (Four Chambers Press, 2017), What the Willow Said as it Fell (Red Hen Press, 2016) and Once, Then (Red Hen Press, 2014). She received a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University and an MFA from The Ohio State University. She has published in numerous journals, is co-editor of Nine Mile Magazine, and served as Poet Laureate of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula 2015-2017. Her upcoming edited anthology is Undocumented: Great Lakes Poets Laureate on Social Justice (MSU Press).
Adrienne Rich was an intellectual, poet, writer, and activist, whose career spanned countless works. Her writing and activism have influenced some of the greatest minds working in literature and activism today.
The good stuff:
Anna Black received an MFA from Arizona State University and a BA from Western Washington University. She has served as the editor-in-chief of the magazines Hayden’s Ferry Review and Inkspeak and is a twice awarded Virginia G. Piper global teaching and research fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, the American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others. Black has taught composition, creative writing, and/or publishing at Arizona State University, Western Washington University, Perryville Women’s Prison, and the National University of Singapore.