Andrea Scarpino is the author of four books, the Poet Laureate of Michigan’s Upper Penninsula, is the co-founder of the Disability March, and more. Scarpino teaches at the University of Illinois Springfield, but despite what is almost certainly a packed schedule, she sat down with me to talk about Adrienne Rich and the ongoing need for these poems and this work.
Black: “What Kind of Times” is one I’ve reached for a few times in the last year. Most recently I read it again when Bears Ears and Grand Staircase were devoured. You too? What moves you to share these poems? Is it a love of them or their prescience or…?
Scarpino: I also return to Rich’s poems again and again! When I’m struggling in my writing, I read her poems to remind me to be brave. When I’m struggling with our political situation, I read her poems to remind me that resistance is possible and can take many forms. When I’m looking for new forms, I read her poems to study the ways in which she plays with form. Her career was so long and so varied that there really are poems in her canon for everyone!
Black: Adrienne Rich might be considered “larger than life.” What is your sense of her life and career?
Scarpino: Larger than life definitely seems right, at least in some circles. When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Cincinnati, she came to do a reading and some lectures, and I remember so vividly that the university booked her in one of the largest rooms on campus—this horrible concrete auditorium that sat like 700 people. The place was packed. Like, seriously packed! And when Rich was introduced and walked out onto the stage, she looked so small in such a huge space, but the entire audience stood up and applauded. She hadn’t spoken a word, and she received a standing ovation. And I burst into tears. It was the only time I have ever seen that reaction to a poet and the fact that she was also a feminist icon when I was really just learning about feminism was even more meaningful to me. Here was a woman telling the truth of her life, and being rewarded for doing so. It was incredibly powerful.
I know Rich is derided in some circles—I had a graduate school professor who used to tell me my poetry was veering towards “the bad Adrienne Rich” which I always took as a compliment even though he intended it as a mean criticism—but I have always loved her courage, her sass, her wit, her clear-eyed look at the world around her. I hope people are still reading her in 100 years because she was really a game-changer for so many readers and writers and people interested in moving towards equality.
Black: Has Rich influenced you and your work then? And, how?
Scarpino: Yes, absolutely! For one thing, she reminds me to tell my truth, to write bravely, to keep myself attuned to the world’s atrocities no matter how painful that can be. Especially as a middle-class white woman—white US culture definitely supports us in refusing to engage with the atrocities of the world. And especially as a white US poet. There have been these conversations for way too long in white US poetry about the division between the personal and the political where the personal is supported and uplifted and the political is derided and downplayed. If you’re interested in writing political poetry in the US, you have a harder road ahead of you in terms of publication and general acceptance by the “academy.” And Rich reminds me how limited those views are, that they are particularly white US American views and that most people in the world don’t share them. I find that incredibly empowering.
Something I love about so many of her poems is that they follow Emily Dickinson’s dictum to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant—“ Take “Five O’Clock, January 2003.” That poem starts with soldiers “being hauled / into positions aimed at death” but immediately moves into a conversation about Ed Azevedo “half-awake in recovery / if he has his arm whole / and how much pain he must bear / under the drugs.” Rich never tells us who Azevedo is or why he is important to the speaker, and almost the entirety of the poem addresses his arm and what happened to him. A reader could forget entirely that the backdrop of the poem is war until we arrive at the end: “I didn’t say Your war is here.” That line always makes my stomach drop. It brings us so quickly back to war and the ways in which war creeps into our lives like an infection, a poison: it starts as a minor cut and ends with emergency surgery.
And I love how Rich does this in so many of her poems: she tells us the truth, but from an angle, from a slant. She doesn’t explicitly say “war is a destructive poison” but we understand that from spending so much time with Azevedo’s arm. She does a similar thing in “What Kind of Times Are These” which ends, “because in times like these / to have you listen at all, it’s necessary / to talk about trees.” I hear Rich saying, look, I know you won’t listen when I talk about all that we’re disappearing, I know that’s uncomfortable to you, dear reader. So I’ll write about trees and hope that you understand I’m also writing about what’s missing from the trees.
Black: Are there connections between these particular poems and your own work?
Scarpino: Definitely! I actually used that last quote as an epigraph to my book-length poem What the Willow Said As it Fell, which is a book about chronic pain and the medical establishment and the intersection of gender and medicine. And also, about willow trees and ash trees, both of which have traditionally been thought of as healing trees. Willow branches have a substance in them called salicin which is related to our modern day aspirin and which was used for thousands of years as a pain reliever—people in childbirth would chew on willow branches to help with the pain, for example. And in Norse culture, it was thought that if you passed a sick baby under the ash tree, the tree would heal the baby. And I loved the idea of using these two trees as foes, in a sense, to be able to focus some of the book on the trees instead of on unrelenting chronic pain. That is completely a strategy I learned from Rich! I basically took her advice literally—if I’m going to get a reader interested in reading about chronic pain for 70 pages, I better spend some time distracting them with trees.
But more generally, Rich’s work has always reminded me that it is okay to write politically—in fact, it is necessary and important to write politically! So much of my formal education taught me to revere the personal without any acknowledgment that of course the personal is political and the political is personal. The two aren’t ever easily separated. If ICE is deporting your family, then the political is deeply personal. If the president is sending you to war, then the political is deeply personal. And Rich continues to remind me of that when I lose my way: tell your personal story with an attention to the political world in which you exist. It’s the only way.
Black: What do you want readers to notice in particular in these poems?
Scarpino: I would love readers to notice their beauty, the beauty of Rich’s language, the beauty in a line. Even when writing about really hard subjects, Rich writes with an attention to image, to sound, to the movement of each line. They are works of intense beauty, and that is part of what draws me back to them again and again.
Andrea Scarpino is the author of the poetry collections Once Upon Wing Lake (Four Chambers Press, 2017), What the Willow Said as it Fell (Red Hen Press, 2016) and Once, Then (Red Hen Press, 2014). She received a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University and an MFA from The Ohio State University. She has published in numerous journals, is co-editor of Nine Mile Magazine, and served as Poet Laureate of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula 2015-2017. Her upcoming edited anthology is Undocumented: Great Lakes Poets Laureate on Social Justice (MSU Press).
Adrienne Rich was an intellectual, poet, writer, and activist, whose career spanned countless works. Her writing and activism have influenced some of the greatest minds working in literature and activism today.
The good stuff:
Adrienne Rich at the Poetry Foundation
“What Kind of Times Are These” at the Poetry Foundation
“Five O’clock, January 2003” at the Monthly Review
Adrienne Rich’s Obituary in the Times
Andrea Scarpino’s Website
What the Willow Said as it Fell, At Red Hen Press
An Interview with Andrea Scarpino at Wordgathering
The Disability March
Anna Black received an MFA from Arizona State University and a BA from Western Washington University. She has served as the editor-in-chief of the magazines Hayden’s Ferry Review and Inkspeak and is a twice awarded Virginia G. Piper global teaching and research fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, the American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others. Black has taught composition, creative writing, and/or publishing at Arizona State University, Western Washington University, Perryville Women’s Prison, and the National University of Singapore.