Longtime peace activist honored as state poet

Sunday, April 20, 2003

— Grace Paley made a special trip to Montpelier, the state capital, earlier this year for a face-to-face meeting with the governor.

It was the first introduction between Vermont's Republican leader and the 80-year-old poet, who once described herself as a "somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist."

"We had a nice, short conversation," says Paley, who was appointed the new state poet by Gov. James Douglas, on the unanimous recommendation of a panel convened by the Vermont Arts Council.

"I think he really wanted to look at my face and see that I wasn't a really insane radical. I think he knew that my political positions were different than his. ... It's good for him to appoint someone whose political positions are different."

Ellen Bryant Voigt, the former state poet laureate who was on the committee that nominated Paley, said that Paley's longtime dedication to peace activism was neither a qualification nor a disqualification for the honor. The committee focused strictly on the quality of her work and on her long ties to Vermont.

"We assumed that the governor would feel the same way," Voigt said. "In other words, we want an outstanding writer. The politics of the person is neither here nor there."

At a reception last month honoring Paley, Douglas said politicians probably agree with the political views of artists about as often as artists agree with the artistic views of politicians.

"Artists are known for challenging convention," he said. "Great artists like Grace Paley do that and more. They reflect the very viewpoints of humanity, and in that reflection offer solutions and compromises and accommodations that are at the very core of political discourse in a free society."

Books and politics

Paley, a tiny, white-haired woman with a little girl's voice, published her first collection of short fiction in 1959 and helped found the Greenwich Village Peace Center two years later. She's been actively involved in antiwar efforts and other social causes during the last four decades.

She doesn't expect to alter her many passions as state poet.

"Sometimes two things are important at the same time," she says during an interview at the Thetford home where she and her husband have lived full time since the mid-1980s.

Paley has received an impressive array of literary accolades, including a senior fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in recognition of her lifetime contribution to literature. She also has written three critically acclaimed collections of poetry, including her latest, "Begin Again: Collected Poems," published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2000.

Born in New York City, the youngest of three children, Paley was surrounded by both books and politics from an early age. Her parents, Russian Jewish immigrants who came to the United States shortly after the turn of the century, were both avid readers.

She remembers writing her first complete poem when she was 9; she began writing short stories in her mid-30s.

"I decided I wanted to try to write stories to see if I could write prose because I was told the one year I was in college that I couldn't," says Paley, who attended both Hunter College and New York University. "I decided I had to try, and so I did."

Her first collection, "The Little Disturbances of Man," was published in 1959. And then, at some point, she says those short stories "sort of took over."

Paley's poems share the same traits critically recognized in her short stories -- they are rooted in human experience and capture the rhythms and the tonalities of speech, Voigt said.

"She has a great clarity that I think again you find in both the stories and the poems, which makes them very accessible without making them oversimplified or reductive," said Voigt, who held the post before Paley. Voigt believes Paley "will bring luster to the honor itself."

Poetry in everyday life

Paley, who served as New York's state author from 1986 to 1988, never imagined she would be tapped to serve as a state poet, even though she's been writing poems most of her life.

"I was just surprised, partly because I've been known more for years and years as a story writer, as a fiction person and most of my awards are really for stories," says Paley.

But the nominating committee, which also included Pulitzer Prize winner Galway Kinnell, felt Paley was not only an accomplished writer but poet, too.

"Her achievement as a writer in all the forms -- the poems, the short stories and the essays -- is just unmistakable," Voigt said. "Her connection to Vermont has been long and steady."

The state poet honor doesn't carry a formal job description, although previous honorees have given readings around the state.

During her four-year "term," Paley says she's looking forward to journeying through Vermont. And she's also excited about bringing poetry to people's everyday lives.

"I'd be glad to talk at all the literary things, but some young woman invited me to talk to an old-age group," Paley says. "To say poems to people like that and hear them read their own poems, that's really nice. I believe enough in poetry and what it could do for people, so I think I'd like to do that."

Kinnell said that enthusiasm will be meaningful.

"She's wonderful with people, with students and with people who don't know much about poetry," he said. "I think she'll do a lot for poetry in the state."

In February, she read at an event organized in Vermont after the White House canceled a literary symposium it feared would be used by some poets to protest a war with Iraq. She joined in the standing ovation she received, clapping along with everyone else.

The war has politicized the nation's poets, starting at the very top. The U.S. poet laureate, Billy Collins, publicly declared his opposition to war, and he, Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, former U.S. poet laureate Richard Wilbur and about 40 other writers and artists signed an antiwar petition in February, after first lady Laura Bush canceled her Feb. 12 forum on "Poetry and the American Voice," featuring the works of Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman.

'Never shut up'

Along with juggling increased requests for public appearances, Paley also plans to keep busy writing. She is currently working on three poems and two short stories, drawing on her themes of ordinary and global life.

Through the years, her poems have transported readers to places like autumn in rural Vermont and a women's prison in El Salvador. Her verse has touched on political themes such as the anguish of a parent who has lost a child fighting in wartime. She also has captured such universal themes as love and aging.

"I want to continue my work, but I really want to do the job," she says. "I want to serve people; it's not often you get an opportunity like this."

Paley also remains a committed peace activist.

"I think it's like a dark, dark cloud and a period of great anxiety," she said of the war in Iraq. "If we lose, it's horrible, and if we win, it's horrible. Those of us in this movement really want every soldier saved and home."

Paley went on a peace mission to Hanoi in 1969 during the Vietnam War and then traveled to Vietnam again several years ago. She goes to local peace group gatherings when she can and participates at Dartmouth College vigils on Fridays.

"The thing that worries me about success is that it would encourage this particular government to do other pre-emptive things," she says. "And the great fear is that they will stick to their position of not working with the U.N. or the other treaties and so forth that they withdrew from."

Later this month Paley will attend the "Poetry and Politics: Nations of the Mind" conference in Manchester, N.H., a confab of poets laureate from around the country. She also plans to participate this month in a second local poets for peace event.

"These poets will never shut up now that they've learned their power," she says.