Sundress Publications is glad to give space to the writing community at large for broader discussions on important topics. Recently, we have hosted discussions on accountability in publishing, plagiarism, and starting small presses. Now, we are sharing an AWP panel which was sadly cancelled this year, due to the coronavirus, on reading and writing in response to Adrienne Rich.
The Cherrywood Poetry Workshop in Austin, TX, following a format learned in Hoa Nguyen’s private studio, read and wrote in response to all 1216 pages of Adrienne Rich’s Collected Poems 1950-2012 (Norton, 2016). Surmising that having read every published Rich poem in community might be a unique accomplishment, Cindy Huyser, Lisa L. Moore, Desiree Morales, and Robert Stanton report on how deeply prescient Rich is about the ruptures in contemporary American life and share some of the work developed in response.
What follows is the second part of this roundtable. The first part can be found here.
- Cindy Huyser (CH): (coordinator) (she/her)
- Lisa L. Moore (LLM): (she/her)
- Desiree Morales (DM): (she/her)
- Rob Stanton (RS): (he/him)
The Cherrywood Poetry Workshop’s process consists of reading the poems aloud, two pages per person at a time in a “round robin” format, then generating prompts at the end of the reading session before a period of writing. How does the group’s communal, performative, generative process enable us to encounter Rich?
CH: Our workshop’s process allows me to enter Rich’s work in an embodied way on multiple levels. In speaking the poems, we actually bring them into our bodies and literally into the present moment. In addition to highlighting the sonic effects of the work, this “round robin” reading allows me to hear and imagine the poem in multiple registers and from multiple viewpoints. Our process also encourages me to think about Rich’s craft as we read—the patterns she uses and then subverts—as well as the topics she engages. Reading in this way leads to fertile generative ground.
DM: Our process makes me feel like I am trying on Rich’s voice the way I would try on clothes, with the added benefit that I also get to see how it looks on the poets whose work and process are closest to me. Generating prompts spontaneously together also fossilizes the present moment and the insights of each poet in the room into the writing that results. So much of Rich’s work is about confronting and really seeing the present moment, and the practice of writing together synchronously acts as an invitation and reminder to connect our seeing to the present moment, our present predicament, whenever we are/were.
LLM: With the mix of ages, genders, and sexual orientations in our group, it has been illuminating to me to hear Rich’s poems in so many voices and to witness how they feel personal and prescient to so many different kinds of “persons.” This process certainly increased, or at least confirmed, my esteem for Rich’s poems and awe for how much they mean to us.
RS: It definitely feels like we have “lived through” Rich’s poems–it is odd to reflect that I have probably now spoken her words aloud more than any other poet, that I have heard her words so often in the voices of my friends in the group. That we then respond, not with critical analysis (other than the occasional stray comment or murmur of assent), but with our creative effects–individually but in a communal grouping–felt like we were “honouring” Rich’s work in a way I had never really encountered before.
How does Rich’s work act as a map?
CH: I think Rich’s work provides us a political and social topography, with poems that give us indicators of distance and direction. When I was a young woman, Rich’s poems questioning heteronormativity and speaking lesbian existence plotted destinations that made my own world more expansive. As I return to the poems now, I discover that the terrain of the United States—its policies and prejudices—is easily recognizable in spite of the passage of time. Rich’s insights act as a legend that deepens my understanding of the current moment.
DM: The week I really began to understand the extent of the concentration camps on American soil, just a few miles from where I live in Texas, Lisa and I met and read Rich together. Among the poems we read that day were poems she wrote about being an American Jew during the Holocaust, balancing the pain, relief, and guilt of being safe and distant from the genocide. She articulated my exact feelings and I felt relieved to have Adrienne Rich do some of the heavy lifting to process them. It was also important to realize she had written those poems in the 80s, reminding me that it takes time to heal enough to tackle something like that and articulate it. I cried but then I breathed for what felt like the first time that week.
There have been so many moments like this. When I sifted through the Collected to find “Nightbreak” I came across these lines, from “Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev:”
After the long training the early sieges
we are moving almost effortlessly in our love
In the diary as the wind began to tear
at the tents over us I wrote
We know now we have always been in danger
down in our separateness
and now up here together but till now
we had not touched our strength
from Collected Poems: 1950 – 2012
They struck me to my core that day, and even harder now, as I write these responses quarantined alone in my apartment, which I did not leave to attend AWP. It’s been weeks since I’ve been touched but down in my separateness I’m sustained in part by how collectively, we’ve now touched our strength.
LLM: Rich’s poems give us permission to go “all over the map” in our own poems—geographically, historically, politically, and emotionally. The sheer range and volume of the Collected created so much space for my own composition process.
RS: Reading Rich’s poems in full really reveals what a “total” poet she is–one for whom the personal and political, the historic and the biographical are all inevitably interconnected in the same accessible imaginative terrain. Writing under her influence felt like encouragement to break all thoughts and feelings out of their individual compartments and into one collective space–very liberating!
How does Rich’s work read into the present moment?
CH: As I mentioned earlier, for me, the sociopolitical topography in these poems is utterly recognizable. One example that comes to mind is “Frame,” which was written in 1980 (from A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far). In this poem, a student seeking shelter from icy wind as she waits for a bus is transformed by white gaze into a criminal and subjected to violent arrest. Themes of police violence, racial inequity, and the power of the white gaze are instantly recognizable in the current environment. I had this experience again and again as we read through the Collected Poems.
DM: Rich models how to see the present moment and write about it. She writes about what’s in front of her with such well-honed specificity and insight that her poems are at once urgently present and universal at the same time. This connects back to how her work is a map: she lays out the emotional landscape of a particular moment with such accuracy that readers of her work only need to recognize a moment or event as analogous to our predicament and the whole emotional life of the experience is laid out in front of us. She is somehow always writing about now—her present as she writes it and our present as we read it.
LLM: It is actually paradoxically comforting to realize/remember that the underlying issues of racist colonialism and capitalist patriarchy are not new. Great minds such as Rich’s have engaged with these problems before. They have not solved or banished violence and oppression, which puts into perspective that perhaps that’s not the task. Perhaps the task is simply to show up for the work of compassion and justice as it presents itself in our own lives, humbly.
RS: “Joke” is not the right word, but it certainly became a recurring comment in the group that this or that poem seemed like it was “speaking” to our present moment directly: we felt addressed. On one hand, this could be discouraging: for all her work as trailblazer and ground-breaker, the same hatred and violence can be seen to drive the contemporary world. But, more frequently, it was a reminder that it is possible to respond to “dark times” with one’s whole being, one’s concerted sensibility, in ways that aren’t only angry or incisive, but beautiful. She’s still a model of how to do that and not crumble.
What does it mean to be a poetic ancestor? How is Rich ours? How are we carrying that lineage forward?
CH: I think of a poetic ancestor as someone whose work passes down strands of craft and concern that in a later generation retain a certain likeness, even when mutation has occurred. Rich is my poetic ancestor not only in terms of the poems I’ve written directly in response to her work, but in what she has taught me about attention to the world. Another theme of the poem “Frame” is the role of the witness: the poem’s speaker both identifies their ability to be hidden “outside the frame” and claims the space of witness. So I hope to carry Rich’s lineage not only in work that responds directly to her poems or carries traces of her sensibilities, but by writing poems that bear witness.
DM: Rich is our ancestor in a number of ways. The first is because we chose her. We spent two years calling her into the room with our voices, reading her closely, learning everything we could from her so that we can take our turn and do the work of poets, striving to live up to the standard she modeled (we’ve got a long way to go).
Secondly, because we didn’t choose her. She is an influential American poet whose poetic impact is inescapable. I see her lessons fossilized in the work of so many living poets whose work matters to me right now—Claudia Rankine and Ada Limón, for instance—she’s taught all of us.
Finally, she’s our ancestor because she shows us how to navigate American life, especially its ugliness. That’s what culture and ritual ultimately have to do for us, give us something that shows us how to feel, give us something to do, when we can’t completely manage the lift of doing that for ourselves. So she’s our ancestor because she gives us something as big as what culture gives us, something human and universal and personal and intimate.
LLM: Before reading her poems with Cherrywood, I thought of Rich as a poetic ancestor mainly as a lesbian and a feminist—one of the first self-identified lesbian poets I had ever heard of or read. Now I experience her as everyone’s ancestor, everyone, that is, to whom these poems speak with urgency and power.
RS: I realized, after joining the group, that I had been eager for this encounter with Rich’s work, more even than I’d expected. Before, I had admired what I knew of her work from a slight distance mainly because she was clearly such a powerful forebear for others I admired. Now, open to the experience, I felt–as is somehow the case with all great art–that it wanted and needed to be so “absorbed.” And, as with the work of all great artists, it ultimately makes it a just little bit easier to go on living and go on creating.
Once again, part one can be found here.
Thank you to the roundtable participants:
Cindy Huyser’s poems appear in many journals and anthologies, and in a chapbook, Burning Number Five: Power Plant Poems (Blue Horse Press, 2014). She co-edited Bearing the Mask: Southwestern Persona Poems (Dos Gatos Press, 2016) and several editions of the Texas Poetry Calendar.
Lisa Moore is the author of the chapbook 24 Hours of Men (Dancing Girl, 2018) and a winner of the Lambda Literary Foundation Book Award. The author or editor of five scholarly books, she is Director of the LGBTQ Studies Program at The University of Texas at Austin.
Desiree Morales is a poet and educator in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in What Rough Beast, Conflict of Interest, and Truck: I35 Corridor. She grew up in Southern California and plans to never stop talking about it.
Rob Stanton lives and teaches in Austin, TX. He is the author of The Method, Trip- and Takes, Cuts, the latter in collaboration with Colin Winborn.
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