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In a Word

Colorado College's Visiting Writers Series presents 'A Celebration of Words'



In the next two months, the campus of Colorado College will be awash in a symphony of words. Readings by poets Adrienne Rich, Mary Jo Salter, Shulamith Halevy and Toi Derricotte will soothe the savage ear of students and anyone else who thinks spending an evening with a poet beats reruns of Chicago Hope hands down.

Award-winning poet Adrienne Rich is the Demarest Lloyd Lecturer in the Humanities at Colorado College this year. She is also the fourth of nine writers scheduled to read in the college's Visiting Writers Series. The series has already featured poets Wendy Cope, James Welch and Timothy Murphy, and will run through March 2000, concluding with appearances by novelist Jane Hamilton and poet-novelist Jim Harrison.

But for the autumn and early winter months, poetry will dominate.

Feminist critic, teacher, social activist, maker of new language, rebel -- those words have all been used to describe Adrienne Rich, but the most accurate and inevitable word for her is visionary. Throughout a long career, Rich has envisioned a more vital and democratic literary culture, and she has helped make it happen.

Barely 21 when her first book of poetry, A Change of World, was selected by W.H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Award, Rich has since published over 15 volumes of poetry and four books of non-fiction prose. She has won virtually every honor in American poetry, including the fellowship of the Academy of American Poets, the MacArthur Fellowship, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, two Guggenheims and the National Book Award.

For over 40 years, she has held an ongoing conversation with the world, and she's not out of breath yet. She writes risky poems about racism, sexism, violence, love, isolation, marginality and "blessed liberation."

Rich uses language as an instrument of change. Her work has "long challenged the social plausibilities built on violence and demoralizing power." In 1974, she received the National Book Award (Diving Into the Wreck), which she refused as an individual but accepted "on behalf of all women." In 1997, she turned down the National Medal for the Arts in retaliation to the U.S. House's July 1997 vote to end the National Endowment for the Arts, claiming: "Art is our human birthright. Like government, art needs the participation of the many in order not to become the property of a powerful and narrowly self-interested minority."

The poet's fervor is carried on in her newest collection of poems, Midnight Salvage (W.W. Norton). Reading from this slim volume, Rich's powerful voice is apt to fill Shove Chapel with a "theater of voices" -- men and women, the dead and the living, fellow radicals and culture heroes like Che Guevara, poet and resistance fighter Rene Char, photographer and activist Tina Modotti, and jazz musicians Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

Sorting through the contents of her 70-year-old heart, the poet tries to rescue what she can in "A Long Conversation:"

I have no theories. I don't know what I am being forgiven. I am my art; I make it from my body and the bodies that produced mine. I am still trying to find the pictorial language for this anger and fear rotating on an axle of love. If I still get up and go to the studio -- it's there I find the company I need to go on working.

Rich's genius is that she is able to salvage the moment and posterity at the same time. Her poetry is fueled and empowered by its language, taking readers (and listeners) to the very edge of their senses, and then to a point beyond that edge.

Poet Mary Jo Salter will read at CC in October. Her books include Henry Purcell in Japan, Unfinished Painting (the Lamont Selection in 1989 for the year's most distinguished second volume of poetry), Sunday Skaters (nominated for the National Book Critics' Circle Award) and a children's book, The Moon Comes Home.

Salter's awards include an Amy Lowell scholarship and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among others. She is one of the editors of The Norton Anthology of Poetry and is vice president of the Poetry Society of America. Her poems have appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and Grand Street.

Her latest volume, A Kiss in Space (Knopf, 1999), takes readers into the vast distances of the imagination. Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky describes Salter's work as "the marriage of superb craftsmanship to the tragic sense of reality, which is the formula for true poetry."

Also in October, afficionados will hear from award-winning Israeli poet, writer and activist Schulamith Halevy. Halevy is a small woman with a large voice. A pen-wielding warrior, she writes fiercely political, lyrical poetry that is extraordinary, simple, direct and deeply compassionate. Her highly acclaimed work has appeared in Israel, the United States and Mexico. She is the author of numerous essays and poems as well as a book, Ha Tirah Ha Pnimit (Interior Castle).

Halevy's poems, by their example, aspire for us all to that good which is "spiritual vitality" -- in these times, a necessity of life. A poet with passion and power, hers is a dance of words that will stun you.

November brings Toi Derricotte to the reading stage. Derricotte has published four books of poetry, including Captivity and Natural Birth. Her latest book, Tender (University of Pittsburgh Press), received the Paterson Poetry Prize for 1998. She is the recipient of many awards, including two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, two Pushcart Prizes and the Folger Shakespeare Library Poetry Book Award.

Her literary memoir, The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. It also received the Anisfield-Wolfe Award, and the Black Caucus of the American Library Association Literary Award in non-fiction in 1998.

Re-released in June 1999, this unusual collection features 20 years of personal journal entries written by a light-skinned black woman living with her darker-skinned husband in an all-white neighborhood near New York City. Derricotte writes honestly and unsentimentally from a unique, unasked-for perspective about the complexity of race in America. She writes: "My skin causes certain problems continuously, problems that open the issue of racism over and over like a wound."

Derricotte's poems challenge all our preconceived notions of what it means to be black or white and what it means to be human.

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