Of Poetry and Women and the World

Grace Paley

I have to begin by saying that as far as I know, and even listening to all the people talking earlier, I have to say that war is man-made. It’s made by men. It’s their thing, it’s their world, and they’re terribly injured in it. They suffer terribly in it, but it’s made by men. How do they come to live this way? It took me years to understand this. Because when I was a little girl, I was a boy—like a lot of little girls who like to get into things and want to be where the action is, which is up at the corner someplace, where the boys are. And I understood this very well, because that was what really interested me. I could hardly wait to continue being a boy so that I could go to war and do all the other exciting boys’ things. And it took my own life, really, for me to begin to change my mind somehow—after a number of years of actually living during the Second World War. I lived a lot in Army camps. And I liked living in those Army camps; I liked them because it was very exciting, and it seemed to be where it was all at, and there were a lot of boys there, one of which, one of the boys, was my husband. The other boys were just gravy, so to speak.

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But as time went on in my own life, and as I began to read and think and live inside my own life, and began to work as a writer, I stopped being a boy. At some certain point, I stopped being one, I stopped liking being one, I stopped wanting to be one. I began to think there would be nothing worse in this world than being one. I thought it was a terrible life, a hard life, and a life which would ask of me behavior, feelings, passions, and excitements that I didn’t want and that I didn’t care about at all. Meanwhile, at the same time, what had happened was that I had begun to live among women. Well, of course I had always lived among women. All people, all girls, live among women, all girls of my time and culture live among mothers, sisters, and aunts—and lots of them too. So I had always lived among them, but I hadn’t really thought about it that much. Instead, I had said, “Well, there they are and their boring lives, sitting around the table while the men are playing cards in the other room and yelling at one another. That’s pretty exciting, right?” And it wasn’t until I began to live among women, which wasn’t until I had children, that I began to look at that life and began to be curious about it.

Now, that brings us to writing: how we come to writing and how we come to think about it. When I came to think as a writer, it was because I had begun to live among women. Now, the great thing is that I didn’t know them, I didn’t know who they were. Which I should have known, since I had all these aunts, right? But I didn’t know them, and that, I think, is really where lots of literature comes from. It really comes, not from knowing so much, but from not knowing. It comes from what you’re curious about. It comes from what obsesses you. It comes from what you want to know. (A lot of war literature comes from that too, you know—the feeling that Robert Stone had, that “this is it.” The reason he felt like this is that it hadn’t been it at all. So he wondered—but more of that later.) So I wondered about these lives, and these are the lives that interested me.

And when I began to write about them, I saw immediately, since my reading and thinking in my early thirties followed a period of very masculine literature, that I was writing stuff that was trivial, stupid, boring, domestic, and not interesting. However, it began to appear that that was all I could do, and I said, “Okay, this is my limitation, this is my profound interest, this life of women, and this is what I really have to do. I can’t help myself. Everybody’s going to say that it’s trivial, it isn’t worth anything, it’s boring, you know. Nobody’s hitting anybody very much [but later on, I had a
few people hitting each other]. And what else can I do?”

I tell that story only for other writers who are young or maybe just young in writing. To tell them that no matter what you feel about what you’re doing, if that is really what you’re looking for, if that is really what you’re trying to understand, if that is really what you’re stupid about, if that’s what you’re dumb about and you’re trying to understand it, stay with it, no matter what, and you’ll at least live your own truth or be hung for it.

We’ve talked about whether art is about morality or—I don’t even understand some of these words, anyway. But I do understand words like “justice,” which are simpler. And one of the things that art is about, for me, is justice. Now, that isn’t a matter of opinion, really. That isn’t to say, “I’m going to show these people right or wrong” or whatever. But what art is about—and this is what justice is about, although you’ll have your own interpretations—is the illumination of what isn’t known, the lighting up of what is under a rock, of what has been hidden. And I think people feel like that who are beginning to write. I was just speaking to someone who’s a Native American, who was saying that what he was doing was picking up this rock at the mouth of a cave, out there in the desert, picking it up and saying, “I’ve got to light this up, and add what I find to the weight and life of human experience.” That’s what justice is about, and that’s what art is about, that kind of justice and that kind of experience.

As for me, I didn’t say, “Well, I’m going to pick up this rock and see if there are any women under it.” I didn’t think about it that way. But what I thought to myself was: am I tired of some of these books that I’m reading! Some of them are nice, and some of them are exciting, but really, I’ve read about this stuff already. And who’s this guy Henry Miller? You know, big deal. He’s not talking to me. My life’s not going to get a lot sexier on account of him. His is, no question about it. Maybe.

So, luckily, I began to understand it. It was just luck or pride or something like that. Or just not being able to accept slurs at myself or my people, women, Jews, or whatever. Even in Shakespeare, it always hurt my feelings. So I didn’t really know that that’s what I was going to do, but that’s what I set out to do, and I did it, and I said, Yes, those lives are what I want to add to the balance of human experience.

We were accused of having been doomstruck the other day. And in a way we should be, why shouldn’t we be? Things are rotten. I’m sixty-one and three-quarters years old and I’ve seen terrible times during the Depression, and I do think the life of the people was worse during the McCarthy period. I just want to throw that in extra. That is to say the everyday life, the fearful life, of Americans was harder in that time than this. But the objective facts of world events right now are worse than at any other time. And we all know that, we can’t deny it, and it’s also true that it’s very hard to look in the faces of our children, and terrifying to look into the faces of our grandchildren. And I cannot look at my granddaughter’s face, really, without shading my eyes a little bit and saying, “Well, listen, Grandma’s not going to let that happen.” But we have to face it, and they have to face it, just as we had to face what was much less frightening.

If I talk about going to the life of women and being interested in that, and pursuing it, and writing about it all the time and not thinking about whether it was interesting or not, and finding by luck—I like to say by luck, you know, it’s polite somehow—finding by luck that it was interesting and useful to people, I also need to talk a little about what the imagination is. The word “imagination,” as we’re given it from childhood on, is really about imagining fantasy. We say, “Oh, that kid has some imagination, you know. Some smart kid; that kid imagined all these devils and goblins, and so forth.” But the truth is that—“the truth,” you know what I mean: when I say the truth, I mean some of the truth—the fact is, the possibility is that what we need right now is to imagine the real. That is where our leaders are falling down and where we ourselves have to imagine the lives of other people. So men—who get very pissed at me sometimes, even though I really like some of them a lot—men have got to imagine the lives of women, of all kinds of women. Of their daughters, of their own daughters, and of the lives that their daughters lead. White people have to imagine the reality, not the invention but the reality, of the lives of people of color. Imagine it, imagine that reality, and understand it. We have to imagine what is happening in Central America today, in Lebanon and South Africa. We have to really think about it and imagine it and call it to mind, not simply refer to it all the time. What happens is that when you just keep referring to things, you lose them entirely. But what if you think in terms of the life of the people, you really have to keep imagining. You have to think of the reality of what is happening down there, and you have to imagine it. When somebody said to Robert Stone, “Isn’t there a difference between the life of Pinochet and of you, sir?” you have to imagine that life, and if you begin to imagine it, you know that there’s a damn lot of difference between those two lives. There’s a lot of difference between my life, there’s a lot of difference between my ideas, between my feelings, between what thrills, what excites me, what nauseates me, what disgusts me, what repels me, and what many, many male children and men grownups have been taught to be excited and thrilled and adrenalined by. And it begins in the very beginning. It begins in the sandbox, if you want to put it that way. It begins right down there, at the very beginning of childhood. And I’m happy, for my part, to see among my children and their children changes beginning to happen, and also among a lot of young men—that’s one of the things that’s most encouraging to me: to think that some of these young guys have been listening, and imagining the lives of their daughters in a new way, and thinking about it, and wanting something different for them. That is what some of imagining is about.

So these are the things I’ve been thinking about a lot as a writer, both solitary in the world and at my desk. I just want to read you one little piece, and that’s how I’ll conclude. I probably left something out, but you can’t say everything. We’re really talking about society and artists, and this was in relation to the question of what was the responsibility of the writer, if there was any. And I thought, Every human being has lots of responsibility, and therefore the poet and the artist also has responsibility, why not? But this is the responsibility of society.

It is the responsibility of society to let the poet be a poet
It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman
It is the responsibility of the poets to stand on street corners
      giving out poems and beautifully written leaflets
      also leaflets they can hardly bear to look at
      because of the screaming rhetoric
It is the responsibility of the poet to be lazy, to hang out
      and prophesy
It is the responsibility of the poet not to pay war taxes
It is the responsibility of the poet to go in and out of ivory
      towers and two-room apartments on Avenue C
      and buckwheat fields and Army camps
It is the responsibility of the male poet to be a woman
It is the responsibility of the female poet to be a woman
It is the poet’s responsibility to speak truth to power, as the
      Quakers say
It is the poet’s responsibility to learn the truth from the powerless
It is the responsibility of the poet to say many times: There is no
      freedom without justice and this means economic
      justice and love justice
It is the responsibility of the poet to sing this in all the original
      and traditional tunes of singing and telling poems
It is the responsibility of the poet to listen to gossip and pass it
      on in the way storytellers decant the story of life
There is no freedom without fear and bravery. There is no freedom
      unless earth and air and water continue and children
      also continue
It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman to keep an eye on
      this world and cry out like Cassandra, but be
      listened to this time.

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Grace Paley, born in the Bronx in 1922, was a renowned writer and activist. Her Collected Stories was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Her other collections include Enormous Changes at the Last Minute and Just As I Thought. She died in Vermont on August 22, 2007.

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