FLORENCE HOWE

activist, writer, and founder of the Feminist Press




Florence in Words

The Walkers

July 7, 2015

Last month I asked, “What is it I need to recover my ability to be independent, cheerful, and mobile?” Yes, I talked about this as I was preparing for bed, alone in my apartment, in one of those conversations with myself that I’ve written about in a poem published here. And I hit on the idea of “walkers,” individuals who might have a free hour or two each week to walk with me in exchange for my helping them perhaps with writing poems or prose. When I told Ellen Bass about this idea, she moved swiftly to put it into action. She wrote to four poets in New York and told them what I needed, and pronto, there was Scott Korb, professor at NYU, sending me Melissa Sakow, new M.A. who had studied prose writing with him. We’ve had several walks and talks, and we’ve been working on a piece about Melissa’s undergraduate college.

The second person to call me came from Ellen’s magnificent mailing list, though Briana Rose hasn’t seen Ellen in years, and has stopped writing. Briana has, instead, become a dance movement teacher and practitioner, who has recently moved from the Bay Area to New York, quite close to where I live. We walked once to the postoffice and the bank and talked in part about Ellen, in part about differences between dance and movement.

The third person, Elyse Hilton, who works as a lawyer, has recently been Ellen’s student at Pacifica where she is enrolled in an M.A. Writing program. And though we have walked only once, we have already exchanged poems, and I’ve discovered that not only is Elyse a fine poet, she is also a fine critic who demonstrated her talent by critiquing the poem I printed here as part of a blog. I am going to respond to Elyse’s critique by printing a revised version in my next blog and giving her credit for it.

There is a fourth “walker,” unavailable until fall. And in the fall, Ellen will be in New York for a recording session at the New Yorker. (Some of you may know that six of Ellen’s poems have appeared there.) What I’d like to do is plan a party for the walkers and sponsors—Scott and Ellen.

And yes, I feel as though I’ve made progress. To wit: Yesterday, I took a taxi to the JCC, the gym I haven’t been to since the knee surgery in mid-November 2013. And I went to the swimming pool and swam for half an hour, not as vigorously as I once did, but I kept my legs and arms moving, sometimes taking turns. I mean that occasionally I walked the length of the pool; occasionally I used my arms vigorously and my legs laconically. Always, I kept moving, and when I was through, I wasn’t too tired to take myself to lunch in the place I used to frequent where I could have my favorite grilled cheese and tomato sandwich and feel almost myself again.

Yes, it’s the day after, and I am resting. On Wednesday, I am going to a meeting and I am also going to the pool again. And yes, at least one walker on the weekend.

Thank-you Catch-up

June 22, 2015

Tags: Jane Austen

I am writing especially to thank two people whose comments I just found on my web-site, both very kind and thoughtful comments. Betsy Herman, thank you for encouraging me about writing poetry, and Doreen Saar, thank you for mentioning that you had been a student in my class. I do forget that part of my life, for I was far happier then, and it’s easy to dwell in the present and forget that once, life was different. If you’ve read my memoir, you know that I chose teaching at Goucher over marriage to my handsome English husband. And I would probably do it again, though right now it would be nice to have a partner. I am writing also to say that I will not give up on the blog right now, and I will write more regularly.

What have I been doing? I’ve been rereading Jane Austen “backwards.” That is, I began with Persuasion and ended with Northanger Abbey. And last night I watched a film version of Persuasion that I thought could have been better, though it was better than the version of Emma I saw some weeks ago. Perhaps the best film version was the early Pride and Prejudice with Greer Garson (I think) and who? Am I alone in my view of Austen’s greatness? And filmdom’s failure to get at her nuance?

As for poems, I have to begin again. I have to believe again that I can write something I can call even a “journal/poem.” For whatever reason, I’ve stopped that kind of happiness-making writing. Guess I felt discouraged. But I will give it another try.

And for cheer, let me conclude on a wonderful note: I am in the early stages of improving my ability to walk by having “walkers,” people—all connected in some way to Ellen Bass—who can come to my apartment and walk with me for an hour or two. And, yes, there is an “exchange.” I am available to read their work, prose or poetry, and even advise about publication. Each of these women—yes, they are all women—have been students of Ellen Bass, except the first one, who is a student of a New York-based friend of Ellen, a writing professor and poet at NYU. I’ve walked with Melissa twice, and she’s now given me a piece of her prose to critique, and it’s a delightful exchange. Walking and talking for critiquing and writing advice. What could be better?

Publishing Grace Paley

April 10, 2015

Tags: Grace Paley, The Feminist Press

Grace Paley
I haven't disappeared but rather have been rereading Grace Paley in order to talk about her at a conference at the New School here in New York City. I recommend to all who are interested in her, two books I published when the publisher at the Feminist Press. They are both available still at the web site: Long Walks and Intimate Talks and Here and Somewhere Else.

Publishing Grace Paley

This is a story that begins in the mid-nineteen-sixties and ends exactly a month before Grace’s death. It’s about Grace as a writer of poetry as well as prose and about me as her editor, publisher, and friend. Its focus: ways in which Grace consciously used her voice both to jar readers and, perhaps more sparingly, to provide a bit of comforting humor, and occasionally, good news. The state of the world worried her as a writer, a mother, a grandmother, and a citizen.

In the summer of 1967, I worked for and was one of the founders of The Committee to Resist Illegitimate Authority, known as Resist, and based on the example of the French Committee that worked to free Algeria from French rule. We wrote to writers throughout the country, asking them to sign our pledge to work towards ending the war against Vietnam. Grace not only signed; she joined me in attending monthly Resist meetings in Boston and thus, to digress a little, I was able to witness, though never to imitate, her amazing ability to tell the male politicos present that they were behaving badly, not thinking clearly, or just plain fools, and have them laughingly agree with her. From my view, Grace was a charmer. And of course I began to read her stories.

Three years later, in the summer of 1970, several months before the founding of The Feminist Press, my former student Ellen Bass and I began collecting poems for what became of No More Masks! the first anthology of poems by women to appear since the 1920s. Perhaps I must remember to say that 45 years ago women poets were seemingly scarce, as hard to find in print as were women fiction writers. My own women students in the 1960s didn’t want to read women writers, whom they referred to disparagingly as “Ladies Home Journal” writers, even when they were Mary McCarthy or Kate Chopin or Doris Lessing.

Ellen and I searched for women to submit poems, even if they had not yet published a volume of poetry. We included Grace, and we were fortunate to receive two poems from her, both of which we published in 1973. One of the features of this anthology asked poets to date their poems and provide a short bio to appear at the back of the anthology. This is Grace’s bio:

Grace Paley was born and still lives in New York City. She teaches experimental writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Her volume of short stories, The Little Disturbances of Man, was published in 1960, and she has published other stories in the New American Review, the Atlantic, Esquire, and many little magazines. On a recent trip to North Vietnam, she began to write poems. About the last ten years, she says: “The Vietnam War has taken my energy, time, interest, and emotion.”

Many people knew that Grace had gone to Vietnam in 1969 on a particular mission having to do with bringing back U.S. pilots whose bombing planes had been shot down. The poem she wrote about that experience is the one we published first in that 1973 volume, where Grace dated it 1973. As I talked about the politics of women’s studies on hundreds of campuses in the seventies and eighties, I usually concluded by reading this poem. I can say here how delighted I am to realize that I was the first to publish it. I will read it:

This is about the women of that country
sometimes they spoke in slogans
They said
We patch the roads as we patch our sweetheart’s trousers
The heart will stop but not the transport
They said
We have ensured production even near bomb craters
Children let your voices sing higher than the explosions of the bombs
They said
We have important tasks to teach the children
that the people are the collective masters
to bear hardship
to instill love in the family
to guide for good health of the children (they must
wear clothing according to climate)
They said
once men beat their wives
now they may not
once a poor family sold a daughter to a rich old man
now the young may love one another
They said
once we planted our rice any old way
now we plant the young shoots in straight rows
so the imperialist pilot can see how steady our
hands are
In the evening we walked along the shores of the Lake of the Restored
Sword
I said is it true? we are sisters?
They said, Yes, we are of one family

In this early poem, one can hear both Grace’s colloquial voice, and the distinctive Vietnamese women’s voices in terse, memorable “slogans.”

Late in 1970, the Feminist Press was founded by a group of women and one man in Baltimore, though it moved to New York less than a year later. Now that I was in New York, I could see Grace, attend some of her readings and work with her on at least one memorable occasion that landed us in jail together, where she was always upbeat and even humorous. With regard to the Feminist Press, she was from the start supportive in many different ways. She signed fundraising letters, came to fundraising events and spoke on our behalf, always emphasizing our mission, saying that the restoration of lost women writers was important educationally and politically both to women and men.

Grace also helped the Feminist Press’s international mission, first, by writing a Forward to Apples from the Desert, a volume of stories by Savyon Liebricht, an important Israeli fiction writer, and then by connecting us to Lady Borton and the distinguished Women’s Press of Vietnam. With this press, ten years older than Feminist Press, we co-published in 2007 (after a decade of work) a large bilingual volume of Vietnamese women’s poetry from the beginning of time to the present, to be sold in both countries. Organized and edited by Lady Borton, the volume includes a Forward by Grace, who read the volume in manuscript. When I went to Vietnam in 2011, I was introduced as Grace’s friend and publisher and presented, in a loving ceremony, with a volume of Grace’s fiction in Vietnamese, signed by the publisher.

In 1985, Grace published a volume of poems with Granite Press—I own a much beaten up volume—so that when I began work on an enlarged new edition of No More Masks! , to appear in 1993, I chose, in addition to “The Women in Vietnam,” three of Grace’s poems from this volume. My choice reflects the political modes of Grace’s poetry, though I could not have known it then. One of these is a concern for the planet’s health and the health of grandchildren both at home and in the world. Here is the last stanza of “The Sad Children’s Song”:

The world is a wreck said the children
When they came home with their children
There are bombs all over the place
There’s no water the fields are all poisoned
Why did you leave things like this
Where can we go said the children
What can we say to our children?

“On Mother’s Day,” like some of Grace’s stories about the New York neighborhood in which she lived for many years, represents her special form of bizarre hilarity, which appears often in her fiction. In this poem, a woman walking on mother’s day, spots “twenty-two transvestites” and describes them “in joyous parade stuffed pillows/under their lovely gowns.” She watches them enter “a restaurant”:

under a sign which said All Pregnant Mothers Free
I watched them place napkins over their bellies
and accept coffee and zabaglione

The poem ends on a modulated note of regret without losing the warm humor of her loving voice. Miraculously, the voice expresses sentiment without sentimentality:

I am especially open to sadness and hilarity
since my father died as a child
one week ago in this his ninetieth year

The third new poem I chose, “In Aix,” represents the international perspective which mark Grace’s poems and prose as strongly as her neighborhoods in New York and Vermont. Here are the three brief stanzas of “In Aix”:

The doves the speckled doves
are cooing in French in high
female French the shutters
clatter against their latches.

The rain is the rain of Aix a-
wash in old paintings of
marsh and mist by Granet the rain
splashes the shutters, the rain is

bathed in the clouds of Chernobyl
last night on the evening
news we heard how nightingales
blowing north from Poland
folded their wings fell over
the border and died in Germany

For Grace’s 65th birthday, the War Resister’s League held a huge fundraising event on December 14, 1987 at the Village Gate. They also produced a unique “program” and bound the 74 pink pages in a blue cover on which there are two words: “Climbing Fences,” and a photograph of Grace Paley doing just that, at the top of a steel mesh fence. The pages are filled with birthday greetings, appreciations of Grace’s activism and her writing, photos of Grace and her family, various kinds of biographical pieces, two poems by Grace, and the much-beloved “Midrash on Happiness.”

Sometime after this celebration Vera Williams approached Grace to talk about producing a Peace Calendar for the War Resisters League. I regret that I don’t have a copy of 365 Reasons Not to Have Another War, published in 1989 by the League and New Society Publishers. Apparently, Grace and Vera continued to work together, perhaps for as long as a year, on a joint anti-war volume, expecting that Grace’s publisher would take the volume. But instead, early in 1990, Grace asked me whether the Feminist Press would publish what had become an expanded version of this Peace Calendar, now called Long Walks and Intimate Talks. I was surprised that Grace’s publisher had refused her, as had all the publishers her agent had tried. The issue was, Grace said clearly, that she was committed to Vera Williams, whose idea this had been in the first place. Hence, they had to have color, and no publisher would take that on. Perhaps they also couldn’t understand that Vera was not “illustrating” Grace’s writing; she was making her own anti-war statement in paint. Publishers were also surprised that Grace and Vera were to share royalties equally: they were both authors. I want to emphasize this point, for it represents Grace’s rare publishing politics.

Not surprisingly, I was totally delighted and in 1991 the Feminist Press published the book not only in paperback, but also in a cloth, numbered, and signed special edition. The book is both unique and timeless, since the traumas of war and mindless violence, however altered, continue unabated, both in Central America and worldwide. While readers of an anti-war anthology expect to be assaulted by shock and pain, Grace and Vera use another strategy. Both deliberately include pieces—of art as well as literature—that I call “centering,” pieces that offer visions of an ideal world in which flowers bloom, trees flourish, and people dance. What I want you to know is that Grace and Vera organized their volume. And I was smart enough as their publisher to accept what I could see was brilliant and should not be meddled with. I will give you a sample of this organization, focusing only on Grace’s pieces.

“Midrash on Happiness” opens the volume, and I have to assume that you know Grace’s voice as Faith talks about what makes her happy, especially “the long walks and intimate talks” with women friends. What follows are four poems, each turning the screw more sharply. I’ll try to illustrate quickly. First, a tiny poem, almost child-like and seemingly idyllic, called “Families,” which is really about sheep families, in which a lamb named “Gruff” is “going away, meaning “his work is meat.”

Slyly, and perhaps surprisingly for Grace, in the next poem, called “I Gave Away That Kid,” the speaker is a once-patriotic American father who says that his son now “is a puddle in Beirut the paper says/scraped up for singing in church.” The refrain of the father’s voice continues through several stanzas, “I gave away that kid like he was an old button,” again referencing perhaps the long war in Vietnam and the draft, for which many parents were proud of their sons going to war.

The following two poems, in the voices of mothers who have also lost their sons, are more painful still, though again modulated, the first not as shocking as the second. The mothers of the disappeared, in “In San Salvador I,” at least have “these large/heavy photograph albums full of beautiful/torn faces.” “In San Salvador II,” a longer poem, a woman mourns—and revisits—the four gruesome deaths she witnessed seemingly of four different sons, but she ends the poem, asking, “are you listening? Do you understand this story? There was only one/child one boy like Mary I had /only one son.”

What follows these harsh anti-war poems is a cheerful piece of autobiography called “Conversations,” in Grace’s voice, describing her visit with Bob to his ill and failing mother in Florida. “One evening at supper,” Grace says, “she asked me about Women’s Lib. She and her best friend (also very sick) had been talking about it…What was it like? Did it mean there would be women lawyers?” Would they work for women? And “Would women get the same pay?” Other questions continue the conversation, including Grace’s strongly expressed view of not wanting a piece of the men’s pie. The next morning Bob’s mother surprises them by coming down to breakfast to say, “You know I was up all night thinking about you and especially those young women. I couldn’t stop thinking about what wonderful lives they’re going to have.”

Long Walks and Intimate Talks appeared in 1991. I retired as director/publisher in 2000, but returned in 2005, at the request of the Feminist Press Board. I had been imagining a new series of small books, like the idea of the Press in the first place back in 1970. But these would contain fiction by two esteemed writers, one male, one female. Without fanfare, such books would simply announce themselves as what I called Two-by-Two. No politicking, no charges of discrimination. Instead, books that took for granted the kind of pairing I had in mind: a pairing of equals.

The first two living authors I wanted to publish were Tillie Olsen and Grace Paley. And in 2007, before her death, Grace could hold in her hand one of these first books. I told her that I hoped these small books would be used in the classroom so that students might grow accustomed to the idea of equality as normal, without labels or preaching. After 40 years of crying sexism, I wanted to see female and male writers sharing the same space, perhaps speaking differently on the same themes.

The series began with Tillie Olsen’s “Tell Me a Riddle” paired with Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Illich.” Other volumes in the series paired Edith Wharton with Henry James; Lu Hsun with Ding Ling; Bessie Head with Ngugi wa Thiong’o; Willa Cather and Gustave Flaubert. For Grace, I wanted something else, for several reasons: yes, I wanted to give a present to Grace; and yes, I thought it was suitable to team Grace with Bob Nichols, her husband. And I wanted Marianne Hirsch, the distinguished professor at Columbia and major figure at the MLA, to write the introduction. To do this, she spent considerable time with Grace and Bob, talking about their lives and their passions and discussing which of their work to include. I came into the discussion especially to agree that this volume would include both fiction and poetry.

What made the volume especially precious to me was that Grace could hold it in her hand, since it appeared the year she died. And she told me she was pleased. And now I want to conclude by noting, first, that Grace chose to include two love poems to Bob, as well as two poems about aging, one of which clearly presages her own death. First, the love poem called “Here,” which is one half of the title the pair gave to their volume: Here and Somewhere Else making clear in a phrase their everyday lives and their moral commitment to the world:

Here I am in the garden laughing
an old woman with heavy breasts
and a nicely mapped face

how did this happen
well that’s who I wanted to be

at last a woman
in the old style sitting
stout thighs apart under
a big skirt grandchild sliding
on off my lap a pleasant
summer perspiration

that’s my old man across the yard
he’s talking to the meter reader
he’s telling him the world’s sad story
how electricity is oil or uranium
and so forth I tell my grandson
run over to your grandpa ask him
to sit beside me for a minute I
am suddenly exhausted by my desire
to kiss his sweet explaining lips

“Walking in the Woods” ends Grace’s half of the volume. The poem reminds me today of how ill I found Grace when I visited her a month before her death:

Walking in the Woods
That’s when I saw the old maple
a couple of its thick arms cracked
one arm reclining half rotted
into earth black with the delicious
hospitality of rot to the
littlest creatures

the tree not really dying living
less widely green head high
above the other leaf-crowded
trees a terrible stretch to sun
just to stay alive but if you’ve
liked life you do it

Now in the second half of my eighties, I appreciate that poem personally: yes, one learns to live “less widely.” And perhaps, in conclusion, I need to say a few words about the kinds of poems Grace writes. I have called her poems “journal poems,” in part because they were little as well as transparent. “Transparent” is a word I used as I wrote critical introductions to the No More Masks volumes. I preferred transparent rather than “opaque” poems; I wanted to choose poems that could communicate directly to readers. Grace’s journal poems capture moments in time, flashes of vision. We have many flashes of vision from Grace, and I find them surprising and sustaining. As the old masters have long told us, literature should teach and delight. Grace mastered that formula from the start.

Where Have I Been? What Have I Been Doing?

February 6, 2015

Troubling Borders
Readers (if any, and wherever you may be), I owe you, perhaps once again,an apology for my silence. No, I’ve not been depressed or ill. Nor have I been traveling and thus too busy to write. No, No, No. I’ve been spending my physical time visiting doctors, taking x-rays and other tests, and trying to solve a physical (not a medical) problem: my legs are no longer the same length. One half inch separates the longer left leg, which has had a knee replacement, from the shorter right leg, which used to be my “strong,”dependable leg, and which now has problems.

I now understand that this sometimes “happens” to people having knee or hip replacement, but it has taken almost a year for the six doctors I’ve seen to firmly diagnose and figure out how to deal with the condition. I now have a half-inch lift inside the three pairs of new shoes I can wear, and I am trying to get used to that condition. And I am going back into “rehab,” along with a weekly medical masseuse to help overcome the effect on my muscles and tendons of the inertia it has suffered. And I’ve been told that in six to eight weeks—when spring comes—I should be able to take a decently long walk without back pain.

So what else have I been doing? Do you know the Korean journal, Asian Women’s Studies, that comes out of Ewha Women’s University in Seoul, Korea? I have been trying to write a (brief) review for that journal of Troubling Borders: An Anthology of Art and Literature by Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora, published by the University of Washington Press—in color. It deserves a long review, and I tried four pages, alas. I will try to include a copy of the cover, front and back.

Troubling Borders back cover
Troubling Borders back cover


I have also been writing my “journal poems,” and I’d like to know whether you (whoever you are, if you exist at all) would like to read some of them, even the sad ones, though I’d start with the funny ones, like “Talking to Myself,” which I wrote yesterday. Here is the poem:


Talking to Myself
Most nights, as I prepare for bed,
I’ve just noticed, I fall easily into
Conversation with myself.
No, not in my head, this conversation
Is out loud. Someone listening
Might imagine that two people were
Preparing for bed.

Yes, I talk to myself most nights.
Yes, out loud. In a conversational tone,
I say, “You should be more careful,
Or you should not have risked a fall,”
Or walking barefoot into a dark room,
I say gently, “That was not intelligent,”
As though I were the mother I never had,
Or perhaps the older sister I never had,
loving, gentle, and concerned.

Sometimes it’s different, more like a
Discussion, perhaps about something
coming up the next day.
Should I do this or that?
Should I speak or remain silent?
It’s good to hear the words spoken.
It’s like reading out loud a sentence
you’ve just typed out on the screen
to test whether it makes sense, or whether it
needs revision.
And when you live alone,
you have to try things out
on the only person in sight.

I’m not embarrassed about talking to myself.
I’m wondering how many people
living alone, have fallen into this mode.
I know that when I hear myself
stating two positions,
and sometimes even three,
I can decide which makes sense,
And which is wishful thinking, or just plain
Nonsense.

Besides, it’s cosy, this chatter,
And it reminds me of a time
Seventy years ago, when I wrote an essay
Called “Me, Myself, and I,”
As though I were three different selves
Housed in one body. I’ve long lost the
Essay but not the memory, and it’s
Still fun to visit the three people
Inside me, the meek little “me,”
The warm-hearted “myself,”
And the formal, seeing “I.”

Goodbye to 2014

December 29, 2014

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Dear Friends:

The years do pass more and more quickly in old age. Yes, that’s where I am—in old age—and if I have begun to feel it keenly, it comes as an aftermath of the knee surgery, which ironically has made it impossible, so far, to regain my former mobility on foot. Yes, I can walk up and down steps without pain, but were you to see me in the street today, moving slowly and awkwardly with a cane, you would label me a disabled person.

So I must begin by explaining the aftermath of my knee surgery. The knee mended and I regained its flexion. But the surgery produced another problem: the surgical leg is now much longer than the right leg. As a result, walking has been destroying my right foot, especially its ankle tendon along with the soft tissue along the foot’s right side. The more I walk, the more I am harming the right foot. According to my surgeon, this sometimes “happens.” He has recommended a foot doctor, who has said she can do nothing for my condition. She has just me to someone who may be able to build a special insert for my shoes or order a special shoe constructed that would balance the length of both legs.

Not understanding any of this, early this year I accepted a speaking engagement at the University of Lincoln in England, and thanks to the generosity of my African project colleague, Christiane Owusu-Sarpong, I planned, with her, a three-week stay in London, Strasbourg, and Luzern. After the lecture in Lincoln, in mid-July, she metme in London, and we stayed for a week with her children in their beautiful apartment along the Thames. We went to several theatres and to museums, as I lived on Tylenol and tried to ignore the pain. Midway, in Strasbourg, I had to cut back, and in Luzern, I could do very little walking. Fortunately, I was in a beautiful place, and fortunately I had George Eliot’s Middlemarch with me, as well as interesting people to talk with who were also kind about driving me to see something of the area and feeding me wonderful food and conversation.

Family news: A month before that trip, I had flown to Kansas to visit with Alice, my daughter, and her son Jack, his wife Maban, and their two darling daughters, Kennedy and Mina. Because Alice had her car, and because we didn’t try walking except to shop or visit a park with the children, I enjoyed being with the young people and especially the children. Through the summer, daughter-in-law AnnJ was a frequent visitor, and my step-son David some of the time, in part because their daughter, Miriam, is also in N.Y. She has left science for high-level computer work, and has just begun her first fabulous job. Dr. Florence, my other granddaughter, is working in oncology-radiology at Queens General Hospital, though her formal appointment is at Mount Sinai. She is happy in New York.

What can I say about the state of the world? I am pleased to see some young people at home and abroad taking non-violent action on behalf of civil rights, and some days I can feel part of a previous generation that led the way. On other days I fret that I can do nothing but write a check, and not very large ones at that. I continue to believe in the good sense of President Obama, and hope (as I remember Mariam Chamberlain did) to be able to vote for Hillary for President while I still have my marbles (which I do). President Obama’s actions on immigration and Cuba have cheered me, but since I read the Times, I am also disheartened daily by the atrocities of governments and the brutality of assassins here in Brooklyn and all over the world. I avoid cinema that pictures a future filled with still more brutality, and can’t help wondering whether my two and five-year oldgreat granddaughters will have to survive such a dreadful world.

My warm wishes to you for the new year.

Gravity and Racism

December 9, 2014

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I’ve just finished watching Gravity, and I can understand why, a year ago, it was a possible contender for the Academy Award. It’s an unusual film, an exiting film, and a complex one scientifically. Probably it was more terrifying to see on a big screen than it was here on my little television set. I can understand the disappointment of the director/producer and the female star when 12 Years a Slave won. Clearly, the subject—the terrors of racism, albeit historically presented—won, and not the terrors of forward-looking science and technology.

Ironically, of course, this year, as possible Academy Award films begin to challenge each other, there is nothing among them to capture the vision we have on small screens of white policemen killing black males, one even as young as twelve, and one old enough to have a couple of children. No film we are being offered comes close to the stories we hear about on television and in political speeches and read about in newspaper and magazine print.

People like me went to Mississippi in the mid-sixties, where we witnessed white police savagely attacking black youngsters “to teach them a lesson,” as I heard one officer say. And at least once in my months in Jackson, in 1964 and 1965 I saw members of the F.B.I. stand by while police banged kids in the head and kicked them as they lay on the ground. No one ever touched me, though I was told countless times to “go back where you came from.”

I did not understand how traumatic this experience had been until, back in Baltimore, the car I was driving was hit from behind by a truck that didn’t stop in time. As a white policeman approached my car, I screamed, “Don’t touch me. Get away from me.” He tried to tell me I was bleeding, but I kept on screaming until a friend came by and explained that I needed medical attention and the policeman was trying to be helpful.

Today, at lunch with my bi-racial grand-daughter, I heard her describe how her white father and black mother—both lawyers—had prepped her and her older brother about what to do if stopped by police, wherever they might be. “Don’t fight it. Don’t get angry. Do what you are told. Be passive. Say you want to call your father.”

I can’t explain rationally why all this came out after “Gravity,” unless it’s the word itself. Yes, it means the force that keeps us anchored to the earth, but it also means something of extreme significance. And that’s also where we are as a nation: somewhere in outer space, unwilling or unable to come to terms with our racist past, unable to break out of the racism that still controls many of us both consciously and unconsciously. I want to say, “How long? How many years longer before we are not burying black men killed by white men unable to control their fear."

The Absence of Depression

November 20, 2014

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A strange title for me, and a strange feeling. I’ve been aware for more than a week that the depression that usually lives with me, if not in me, has gone away. Perhaps it’s only temporary, but it is gone, though I don’t think I can explain how I know. Seems mysterious. Probably is.

I am sleeping a bit less than I do when I’m depressed. And I’m dreaming a lot, sometimes very strange dreams, which I do also when I’m depressed. So that’s not it. First clue: I’m eating more than usual, and nibbling as well, on nuts, fruit, even bits of chocolate or cookies. When I’m depressed, I eat very small meals, I’m usually not interested in food, and don’t nibble at all. Just this week, the scale showed a quick gain of some five pounds, so perhaps that’s a palpable clue: do I want to be fat or depressed?

Another clue: Last week I wrote poems each morning, just like that. And I didn’t write journals every day, wrote every third or fourth day. And I wrote nothing in the journals about depression. And now here I am trying to write a blog. But of course I have written blogs while depressed—and several of them about being in that state.

Final clue: Response to visitors. When I’m depressed, I usually prefer being alone and when I can, I put off appointments, visitors, certainly people I don’t know at all. And this week I had several visitors and felt welcoming and felt glad I had agreed months ago to host two women from San Francisco I had met in Mallorca in 2011—the first time I went to Ellen Bass’s workshop. Connie, Julie, and I had talked a bit there, as we ate meals together, and also took several walks down a rocky road, but I had no expectations of seeing them again. Well, they asked if they could stay in my apartment for a long weekend in New York as part of their longer honeymoon to be spent in Paris. They had a busy schedule, mainly seeing other people, but we had mornings--and several late evenings--for conversation over breakfast or tea. When we talked about childhoods, I mentioned that, if asked, I would never have said I had experienced depression early in my life, and I told them about the little notebooks written during my mid-teens at college, which mentioned depression. I told them that my long-time depression, which had returned after I had returned from Europe, was now gone, though I didn’t know why, or even when, much less where it had gone.

So how does it feel to be without depression? How does one describe “absence”? Does it feel “normal”? I need to work at this, for I can’t describe the feeling except as absence. It’s not there—or here. I don’t “have” it. When I “had” it, I sometimes used the metaphor of a quilt. Once, I said it was like a shot to my body.

This is the second day I’ve tried to write and rewrite this blog. Yesterday, I wandered into the area of religion, but I’ve cut that out and left it for another day. I’m going to try to look at the day: it’s a blue-sky day out my window, royal blue. And from here I can’t see signs of a stiff wind and I’m too high to see the people on the streets below bundled in layers, hats, and scarves. I’m going out in a few minutes to get a flu shot, take a short walk, test the day.

Will send the blog into the world. Perhaps that’s the key: It’s not finished, but I’m sending it. Makes no sense, I know. But perhaps I’m too eager to make sense.

Building Women’s Knowledge Institutions: in Honor of Mariam K. Chamberlain

October 15, 2014

Tags: Mariam Chamberlain

Mariam Chamberlain
The following is a speech I gave at The Sackler Center at the Brooklyn Museum on October 12, 2014.

Mariam Chamberlain was my dear friend, mentor, grant-giver, and colleague for forty years. We first met in April 1971, when she called a meeting mainly of academic scholar-feminists in order to map a program of giving by the Ford Foundation. She was interested in me because I mentioned that I had a list of new college courses on women that faculty had begun to teach. Faculty called them female studies or women’s studies or feminist studies. Clearly, this was the way that social or political movements begin--without organization or leadership, and with only individual, isolated outposts, which, because of an intrepid undergraduate at Goucher College named Carol Ahlum, I had on a list. Faculty had written to me because a journal called College English had published my course syllabus and my essay about the composition course focused on women writers I had been teaching since the mid-sixties. I didn’t think about women’s studies. I was trying to improve my students’ writing. At the time of Mariam’s meeting at Ford, in 1971, I had information about two women’s studies programs and 610 courses at 210 institutions.

When we met a few weeks later, Mariam said she wanted more information, and she proposed that I survey all the colleges in the country and that the Feminist Press publish the results. She offered the Feminist Press its first Ford grant, about $10,000, and in this way Mariam began to support women’s studies. In 1974, the Feminist Press published a 300-page volume called Who’s Who and Where in Women’s Studies, listing 2,984 faculty, teaching 4,658 different courses at 885 different institutions. I should mention that this study was done through the U.S. Postal Service, and, in my office, the editors, who were Old Westbury students, used note cards to assemble the information. (There were no computers at the Feminist Press until 1987.) This volume also listed 112 Women’s Studies Programs, some of them offering majors or minors. The spurt in growth between 1971 and 1974 can only be described as phenomenal. Mariam used that information as a guide for her funding program that ranged through the 1970s until 1982, when she left the Ford Foundation. By then, she had funded more than 30 Centers for Research on Women, most of which had begun as a Women’s Studies Program and continued a teaching component.

Why did this matter? Why does it still matter today? In the 1960s, I had begun to teach a writing course at a women’s college focused on women because of a mind-bending experience in Mississippi in the summer of 1964. I was not a feminist. I was interested in solving a puzzle. Why was it that poorly-educated young Black high school girls could write amazing poetry, while Goucher students could write only perfectly correct and absolutely boring essays. For a couple of years I searched for the subject that might excite these privileged white students, and when I hit on it, it seemed obvious. I asked them to talk and then write about how they and their brothers were treated in their families. And I assigned books by women to stir their imaginations further.

But clearly, that was not enough, since I was also teaching literature courses with nary a woman writer in them. By 1969, students who had been in my writing class could not understand why my 18th century syllabus contained the name of not one woman writer, and they asked me whether someone had typed this for me and had made an error. No, I responded, I typed my own syllabus. I have to admit, I continued, I don’t know any 18th century women writers. They were as shocked as I was embarrassed.

At about the same time, I was also conducting a huge study of 5,000 English and foreign language departments for the Modern Language Association, where I chaired a Commission on the Status of Women. The results were not what I had expected, and I had to interpret them. Fields and men were 20 percent. As doctoral graduate students, the figures were neatly reversed: men were 80 percent and women 20 percent. How could that be? We also knew that women’s grades were far higher than men’s. And we could not blame the disparity on discrimination, since women did not even apply for places in doctoral programs.

I’m sure you can imagine the effect of at least a hundred years of such practice. All or more than ninety percent of the faculty in the most prestigious colleges and universities were male. And even on elite women’s college campuses, most faculty were male. What was the problem? How could I analyze these results?

At first I was simply shocked, and then, when I put this information together with my own experience, two facts stood out: First, I had read no women writers, and if not for the president of my college, who had singled me out and helped me directly to enter graduate school, I would have become a high school English teacher. I had no other ambition and no reason to have another ambition. Second the curriculum in literature studies was certainly ninety percent male. How could female college students grasp the idea that they might become professors of literature, much less writers of literature? Clearly, they had no models at universities, nor in the literature they were reading. How could they imagine themselves as writers? Or professors?

The Feminist Press was founded in 1970, almost a year before that meeting at the Ford Foundation, and for the purpose of correcting ignorance about women not only as writers but as important to historical memory. We had begun with the idea of publishing brief biographies of women and children’s books. But only a few months later, after a world-famous writer, Tillie Olsen, sent me a brilliant, “lost” novella written by a woman, the emphasis of our work shifted markedly. I remember saying out loud, if Life in the Iron Mills by Rebecca Harding Davis had been lost for 110 years, there must be other works lost as well. And of course I was correct, as the 44-year history of the Feminist Press makes clear. I am convinced, further, that there is much still to be found of the voices of women not only in the U.S. but around the world.

Mariam knew this story and we had for most of the 1970s worked together on issues of importance to women’s studies in the U.S. But unlike many of us, Mariam’s vision, in part shaped by management studies, which, as an economist, she had worked on through the 1960s, had also been honed to think internationally. In early 1980, about a decade after we had met, Mariam called one day to say she wanted me to go with her to look at women’s studies in three European countries, England, France, and Italy. She had made several small women’s studies grants to institutions in each country, and she wanted to see what had happened and what else might be done. She also knew that there was to be a UNESCO meeting on Women’s Studies in April of that year, and though I didn’t know it then, she planned to name me as the U.S. representative. Finally, she also had plans for the United Nations meeting in the summer of that year. As part of her funding program for women’s studies, she would give the Feminist Press $5,000 to organize a presence at that Copenhagen conference, and she would also use her influence so that the UN itself would give the Feminist Press another $5,000 for the same purpose.

Mariam was an unusual program officer, in that, at least with this project, she was ready to enjoy being in part also a participant, seeing the project close up. We were certainly partners as we traveled to Oxford, then London, Paris, and Rome, to interview those who had Ford grants and others who would like to have them. Mariam was not shy about stating her interests. She knew how to move movements forward—conferences were an important instrument, as were “centers” for networking and information-gathering. And while she was somewhat disappointed that those in Britain and Paris were indifferent to her stated interests, she saw the Italians as moving intrepidly on their own to construct networks and conferences, and rewarded them accordingly. Within a year the Feminist Press had published a book about the kinds of women’s studies the Italians were creating in combination with trade unions to enhance work and study opportunities for women.

Perhaps most interesting was that at the United Nations conference in Copenhagen, Mariam felt free enough to behave sometimes as a staff member might, taking her turn at the coffee machine in the meeting rooms we occupied for the two weeks of the conference, and then, switching gears to pick up the dinner bill at planning meetings, and finally, to host an end-of-conference party for the several hundred participants who had been speakers or audience at our thirty-five sessions.

One of Mariam’s last grants to the Feminist Press came out of these UN conferences. For the first five years following the meeting in Copenhagen, we were to be the partner-organizer with the Center for Policy Studies in New Delhi, India, of a Women’s Studies International Network. We were to use the several hundred thousand dollars to visit and offer collegial services to various kinds of women’s studies programs around the world. And we were to hold focused international conferences in the U.S. Mariam’s dream was big-time and never to be realized, since she was cut off when her job disappeared, but she had talked about it with me often. Though she was not a reader of fiction, which was, ultimately, my interest, and the strength of the Feminist Press publishing program under me, she grasped the power of publishing as an arm of the knowledge-gathering purpose of the women’s research centers she had been publishing for a decade. She was certainly visionary in many respects, but few people know how far her vision extended, and that she certainly understood the power of publishing for women. Had she continued at Ford, I have no doubt that she would have begun to fund publishing especially focused on women’s economic equality.

Mariam died a year and a half ago. She left $100,000 to the Feminist Press, which we have turned into the Chamberlain Revolving Capital Campaign, aiming to add $200,000 so as to provide the director of the Press with a mechanism for managing a business that has never had its own capital. As an economist, Mariam was especially keen, all through the years she served on our Board of Directors, that we begin a capital campaign. She knew that we needed to control debt by having some capital. And of course, once again she has helped us. If you are interested in contributing, please write to me.

Summer 2014: Strasbourg, France and Luzerne, Switzerland

September 26, 2014

Tags: traveling

Edmond, Irene, and their daughter Christiane
From July 30 to August 12—virtually two weeks—I lived with Christiane Owusu-Sarpong in her own beautiful apartment in Strasbourg, and for a short time in Luzerne, with other friends. I want to say, first, how much I owe to Christiane for putting up with this old lady’s quirks and inabilities. She was a genius for finding and supplying me with daily copies of the International New York Times (the new name of the old International Herald Tribune). So, yes, I had the crossword, to my delight. And she understood that my mobility was limited. And as we left for France and Switzerland, mobility became the first issue for me, since I probably had overdone the walking in London.

In Strasbourg, Christiane’s parents wanted to see us at once, and we agreed to have a traditional mid-day dinner with them at a restaurant I remembered from a previous visit. Elegant and beautifully set in gardens, the restaurant served its traditional plate of ham, stuffed cabbage, potato, and sauerkraut. These items really do all go together, and I expect I delighted these warm and kind people by leaving only a clean plate. Later, in the apartment of Christiane’s parents, she and I played Rummikub with Irene, Christiane’s mother, while her father, Edmond, took a nap. That was a quiet, restful day, and I should have had several of these in a row. (Yes, Irene is the champ of Rummikub.)

Christiane and her mother, IreneChristiane and her father, EdmondChristiane playing Rummyikub
Christiane and her mother, IreneChristiane and her father, EdmondChristiane playing Rummikub


But on the following day, Christiane and I set out to do half a dozen errands and a bit of shopping, and of course it proved far too much for me, though we were back in the apartment long before dinner time. Yes, I was frustrated. There were many places in Strasbourg I had never been to, the weather was perfect, sunny and comfortable, and I seemed grounded. So I insisted on going out again, and this proved my downfall. Christine arranged for me to have special help as we traveled by train to Switzerland to see some of Christiane’s old friends and to enjoy views of Lake Luzerne.

Like the trains in England, these were very comfortable, the first from Strasbourg to Basel, was French; the second from Basel to Luzerne, was Swiss. In both places, we were helped with the luggage and I was in a wheelchair.

In Luzerne, we enjoyed more fine weather, a few memorable thunder-and-lightening storms, and great sunsets. We enjoyed being on the lake in a boat, and driving around the lake, as well as up a small mountain so that we could see Luzerne—the town and the lake—spread out below. And I rested enough so that, on our final day, I could visit Luzerne’s museum, which tested the limits of my ability to photograph using the I-Phone. I failed. We did see an exhibit of one of Switzerland’s most beloved painter-heroes, Hans Emmenegger (1866-1940), whose art I had never seen before. The exhibit included samples of his various subjects. I was most taken with his early paintings of tree trunks in sunlight, and almost as obsessive, his interest in trying to paint the movement of water in various forms.

From inside the museum in LuzerneInside the museum in StrasburgPart of exhibit in Strasburg
From inside the museum in LuzerneInside the museum in StrasburgPart of exhibit in Strasburg


Back in Strasbourg for the last remaining days, Christiane and I had lunch at the Art Café of the Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. Much of the museum was taken up by Daniel Buren’s work, an artist whose exhibit called “Like Child’s Play, Work in Situ” consisted of 104 giant wooden pieces in the form of children’s geometric, traditional building blocks, half of them painted white and half in bright colors. Clearly families with small children were having a good time walking through the exhibit. The same artist’s idea of “in situ” had also transformed the museum itself. And here I was more successful with my I-Phone. The museum’s glass-paneled walls had been covered with “tinted film affixed directly to the glass canopy.” As the museum’s pamphlet continues, “Thus, added to the 25 meter high “nave,” these “stained glass windows create a striking effect, radically altering our external vision of the museum’s iconic façade, as well as our perception of its interior space.”

Finally, I will conclude with another tribute to Christiane for making my holiday possible, both in London and on the Continent. While I wrote, she worked on her translations, and we could talk together of books we had and hadn’t both read. And despite our cultural differences, we shared mutual interests in film and theatre. We also liked playing games, and especially Rummy-kub, which I hadn’t played in decades, and in which, dear reader, she beat me almost every time.

A Week in London

August 27, 2014

Tags: traveling

It is hard to explain why London is so fraught for me with emotional longings, for home, for missed opportunities, regrets, losses, and, at the same time, filled with anticipations of joy and even magic. I like the look of it—yes, that’s one simple pleasure. I connect it with memories of youthful adventure, including the month I spent at the British Museum copying out the manuscript of Mrs. Dalloway, each morning greeted warmly by the guards, to whom I had made presents of political buttons calling for an end to the Vietnam War. I remember the visits to the National Gallery, the old Tate and then the new Tate Modern. I remember the little hotel on a street one block long, just off Piccadilly, where I stayed with daughter Alice one year, with friend Helene another, and once with Mariam Chamberlain as well. Five years ago, I shared an apartment in the suburbs with Susie Tharu and her husband, and I remember a very hot day, when we walked across the pedestrian bridge to see a play at the National Theatre. And the early days of the National itself, gleaming white in the sunlight, pristine still. I’d visit on the very first day to buy tickets to whatever was on in its three theatres. And in those days, there would be live music an hour before curtain time in the extensive lounges on the ground floor.

But this visit bound to be different not only because of my walking problems—we took many taxis--but also because I was going to share the time with Christiane Owusu-Sarpong, the French translator of the Women Writing Africa volumes, two of whose children lived in London. Didier, Christiane’s son, and his fiancée, Clare Podbury, had just bought the apartment in Canary Wharf they had been living in for a decade. The area, on the river, and within a short bus ride or a long walk to the underground and ferry wharf, is the new financial center of London (see skyscraper photos). They invited us to stay with them for a week. The apartment is spacious, beautiful, decorated in what Clare calls “greige,” and ornamented as well by the river and by exquisite sunsets off a deck outside the living room’s glass wall. One day Christiane and I walked along the river from the apartment to take the Thames ferry to the Tate Modern.

Christiane and her daughter, ColetteDidier and ClareCanary Wharf
Christiane and her daughter, ColetteDidier and ClareCanary Wharf


In all, we saw three plays, viewed four art exhibits, and ate two lunches at the Tate Modern, one at the Globe, another at the National Gallery, and took Clare and Didier out to two dinners in upscale restaurants. The plays: Julius Caesar at the Globe, a special experience because of the theatre, and a good example of how discomfort can vanish when one is caught up in language and movement. We were at the National twice, catching it in some disarray, as it prepares to revise itself in time for a 50th anniversary celebration. There, we saw Alan Ackbourne’s A Small Family Business, an old play but totally contemporary in our greedy world; as if to prove it, we also saw Great Britain, the brand new riff on the newspaper scandals that tore open other veneers of our shared greedy culture.

Out the window during the dayThe GlobeStorm over London
Out the window during the dayThe GlobeStorm over London


View from the apartment
View from London flat in Canary Wharf


On our first day in London, we went to the Virginia Woolf exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, a new experience for Christiane, who is just beginning to read Woolf, and overwhelming for me, for many different reasons. Later in the week, we took the boat to the Tate Modern first to have lunch with Christiane’s daughter, Dr. Colette and her young niece Ohemma, who would also like to be a doctor, then to view the huge exhibit of Henri Matisse’s “Cutouts,” which included snippets of film showing him making them. Still later in the week we returned to the Tate to see a large retrospective of the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich, whose work I had first seen in Russia in 2006. As our last exhibit, Christiane chose an unusual riff on “Color” at the National Gallery, focused not only on the paintings but on the creation of paint itself.

I should mention one sharply different experience of London. When traveling with Mariam, for example, we always did a bit of shopping, and never missed a trip to Liberty’s, Mariam’s favorite. We ate in little tearooms she enjoyed in the shopping area, or off Piccadilly. This time, when Christiane and I took the bus to the Canary Wharf stop of the underground we took escalators down to a huge mall, where we could have coffee at Starbucks, use the bank machines, and buy the International New York Times. One morning, all four of us went to that underground mall to choose a Nespresso machine as a thank you gift to Clare and Didier. We could also have done the week’s marketing right there as well. Yes, London was different, but for me still a charmed place.

Select Works

"Everyone concerned about global feminism, women’s contributions, and humanity’s future will be enhanced and enchanted by A Life in Motion.”—Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume I and Volume II
Lecture delivered by Florence Howe on January 8, 2011, at the Modern Language Association Annual Convention
“It is impossible to imagine women’s studies without Florence Howe. Myths of Coeducation shows her vision and courage, insight and dauntlessness.”–Catharine R. Stimpson, Rutgers University
A revised and expanded edition of the classic groundbreaking anthology of 20th-century American women's poetry, representing more than 100 poets from Amy Lowell to Anne Sexton to Rita Dove.

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