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Florence in Words

Publishing Grace Paley

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
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.  Read More 
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