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Katha Pollitt

Columnist

Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the ridiculous and the sublime. Her “Subject to Debate” column, which debuted in 1995 and which the Washington Post called “the best place to go for original thinking on the left,” appears every other week in The Nation; it is frequently reprinted in newspapers across the country. In 2003, “Subject to Debate” won the National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary. She is also a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute.

Pollitt has been contributing to The Nation since 1980. Her 1992 essay on the culture wars, “Why We Read: Canon to the Right of Me…” won the National Magazine Award for essays and criticism, and she won a Whiting Foundation Writing Award the same year. In 1993 her essay “Why Do We Romanticize the Fetus?” won the Maggie Award from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Many of Pollitt’s contributions to The Nation are compiled in three books: Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism (Knopf); Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture (Modern Library); and Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time (Random House). In 2007 Random House published her collection of personal essays, Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories. Two pieces from this book, “Learning to Drive” and its followup, “Webstalker,” originally appeared in The New Yorker. “Learning to Drive” is anthologized in Best American Essays 2003.

Pollitt has also written essays and book reviews for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Harper’s, Ms., Glamour, Mother Jones, the New York Times, and the London Review of Books. She has appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air and All Things Considered, Charlie Rose, The McLaughlin Group, CNN, Dateline NBC and the BBC. Her work has been republished in many anthologies and is taught in many university classes.

For her poetry, Pollitt has received a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her 1982 book Antarctic Traveller won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her poems have been published in many magazines and are reprinted in many anthologies, most recently The Oxford Book of American Poetry (2006).  Her second collection, The Mind-Body Problem, came out from Random House in 2009.

Born in New York City, she was educated at Harvard and the Columbia School of the Arts. She has lectured at dozens of colleges and universities, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brooklyn College, UCLA, the University of Mississippi and Cornell. She has taught poetry at Princeton, Barnard and the 92nd Street Y, and women’s studies at the New School University.


  • Activism October 15, 2009

    Facebookers, Unite! Help MADRE Win the Causes Challenge

    MADRE, the women's rights organization, has joined a contest to raise funds for its work protecting women's rights workers in Afghanistan, where as I'm sure you know many have been threatened with death by the Taliban. MADRE needs your help to win one of these these generous prizes.

    Katha Pollitt

  • Regions and Countries October 14, 2009

    German Party Politics: Color Them Blurry

    Leftist parties in Germany offer a range of choices but no cohesive challenge to the right.

    Katha Pollitt

  • Regions and Countries October 10, 2009

    Berlin Postcard

    Saturday, October 3, was Reunification Day, the anniversary of the formal reuniting of East and West Germany in 1990.

     

    Katha Pollitt

  • October 1, 2009

    Roman Polanski Has a Lot of Friends

    If a rapist escapes justice for long enough, should the world hand him aget-out-of-jail-free card? If you're Roman Polanski, world-famousdirector, a lot of famous and gifted people think the answer is yes. Polanski, who drugged and anally raped a thirteen-year-old girl in 1977in Los Angeles, pled guilty to the lesser charge of unlawful sex with aminor and fled to Europe before sentencing. Now, 32 years later, he'sbeen arrested in Switzerland on his way to the Zurich film Festival,prompting outrage from international culture stars: Salman Rushdie,Milan Kundera, Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodavar, Woody Allen (insertyour own joke here), Isabelle Huppert, Diane von Furstenberg and many,many more. Bernard-Henri Levy, who's taken a leading role in roundingup support, has said that Polanski "perhaps had committed a youthfulerror " (he was 43). Debra Winger, president of the Zurich Film Festivaljury, wearing a red "Free Polanski" badge, called the Swiss authoritiesaction "philistine collusion." Frederic Mitterand, the French culturalminister, said it showed "the scary side of America" and describedPolanski as "thrown to the lions because of ancient history." Frenchforeign minister Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of Doctors WithoutBorders, called the whole thing "sinister."

    Closer to home, Whoopi Goldberg explained on The View that hiscrime wasn't 'rape rape,' just, you know, rape. Oh, that! Conservativecolumnist Anne Applebaum minimized the crime in the WashingtonPost. First, she overlooks the true nature of the crime (drugs,forced anal sex, etc), and then claims "there is evidence Polanski didnot know her real age." Talk about a desperate argument. Polanski, whowent on to have an affair with 15-year old Nastassja Kinski, has spokenfrankly of his taste for very young girls. (Nationeditor-in-chief Katrina vanden Heuvel, who tweeted her surprise atfinding herself on the same side as Applebaum, has had second thoughts:"I disavow my original tweet supporting Applebaum. I believe thatPolanski should not receive special treatment. Question now is how bestto ensure that justice is served. Should he return to serve time? Arethere other ways of seeing that justice is served? At same time, Ibelieve that prosecutorial misconduct in this case should beinvestigated.") On the New York Times op-ed page, schlocknovelist Robert Harris celebrated his great friendship with Polanski,who has just finished filming one of Harris' books: "His past did notbother me." This tells us something about Harris' nonchalant view ofsex crimes, but why is it an argument about what should happen inPolanski's legal case?

    I just don't get this. I understand that Polanski has had numeroustragedies in his life, that he's made some terrific movies, that he's76, that a 2008 documentary raised questions about the fairness of thejudge (see Bill Wyman in Salon, though, for apersuasive dismantling of its case.). I also understand that hisvictim, now 44, says she has forgiven Polanski and wants the case to bedropped because every time it comes up she is dragged through the mudall over again. Certainly that is what is happening now. On theHuffington Post, Polanski fan Joan Z. Shore, who describes herself asco-founder of Women Overseas for Equality (Belgium), writes: " The13-year-old model 'seduced' by Polanski had been thrust onto him by hermother, who wanted her in the movies. The girl was just a few weeksshort of her 14th birthday, which was the age of consent in California.(It's probably 13 by now!)." Actually, in 1977 the age of consent inCalifornia was 16. Today it's 18, with exceptions for sex when oneperson is underage and the other is no more than three years older. Shore's view--that Polanski was the victim of a nymphet and her schemingmother--is all over the internet.

    Katha Pollitt

  • Media September 30, 2009

    Are You Happy?

    What a stupid question.

    Katha Pollitt

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  • Society September 16, 2009

    Kristof’s Challenge

    If women's equality is the cause of our time, we'll get further by acknowledging it's a challenge no country has fully met than by framing it as a Western crusade.

    Katha Pollitt

  • Film September 2, 2009

    The Female Gourmet

    A movie about women's struggle to express their gifts through work? Delicious.

    Katha Pollitt

  • August 30, 2009

    Perils of the Poetry Reading

    Am I the only person who finds it hard to follow an unfamiliar poem when I hear it read out loud and don't have the text in front of me? Even when reading to myself at my own pace, I might have to go over a poem several times to really get it, but at a reading, the poems whizz by unstoppably-- no chance of a second hearing, and all the helpful visual cues of print , like punctuation, italics, quotation marks, and even line breaks, are absent. A stray thought enters my head -- I wonder why they painted this room turquoise? -- and in seconds I've lost the thread. (I'm speaking of what you might call "literary poetry" here, poetry written primarily to be read silently, not spoken word, which is intended for the ear from the outset.)

    I often find that the poems I've enjoyed most at a reading seem oddly flat on the page when I hunt them down in a book. What made the poem seem striking and fresh was the poet's performance: the energy and especially the humor was in the voice and manner and gestures, not the words themselves. Or it was the story the poem told: the poetry reading as a series of anecdotes, with the poet placing and embellishing each one in his introductions: My uncle ran a chicken farm in Iowa, and when he ran off with the Methodist minister's wife my aunt killed all the chickens and gave them to the nuns, and out of that comes this next poem, "Saint Rooster and the Holy Choir of Hens." it's been suggested, in fact, that the proliferation of poetry readings, and their importance to a poet's career, has actually changed the way poets -- "literary poets" -- write, encouraging verbal simplicity, talkiness, easy emotions, simple narratives, and punchlines. It's the poet as stand-up comedian/tragedian.

    Still, you can see why poets would try to shape their art to please their audience -- and notice how we now commonly speak of poetry's audience rather than poetry's readers, which tells you something right there. It can be painful and embarrassing to stand up before a small group of miscellaneous strangers who expect you to entertain them and instead offer poems they might find bewildering, or remote. I've given readings at which I just want to say, oh well, never mind, let's just go have a beer and talk about health care reform.

    Wislawa Szymborska's "Poetry Reading" (translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh) may be the definitive account of a reading at its awful, humiliating worst. To paraphrase the old Jewish joke about the Catskills hotel ("The food is terrible!" "Yes, and the portions are so small!"), the audience is not only tiny, it's not even listening. And yet, Symborska disperses her pity, her warmth and her satirical humor so evenly among poets and audience members and even the muse, poor thing, that what in lesser hands would be just another complaint about the world's indifference to art becomes a gesture of understanding, forgiveness, love.

    POETRY READING

    To be a boxer, or not to be there
    at all. O Muse, where are our teeming crowds?
    Twelve people in the room, eight seats to spare --
    it's time to start this cultural affair.
    Half came inside because it started raining,

    Katha Pollitt

  • August 27, 2009

    A Friend Reports from a Town Hall Meeting

    (Claire Moses, professor of women's studies at the University of Maryland, describes the town hall meeting on health care held by Democratic Rep. Jim Moran in Reston, Virginia, on August 25. Sounds pretty wild! Note that even when progressives make up the majority of the audience, the antis steal the show.--KP)

    I just came from a Town Hall Meeting run by our congressional representative (Jim Moran, a progressive--favors the public option, etc.). He had Howard Dean with him to give a pep talk and to answer questions. One thing that the friends I was with all mentioned was that we have never been at such a political event where opposing sides were in attendance. We're so used to campaign rallies and civil rights, reproductive rights, and anti-war demonstrations--all of which give off good vibes because we're among so many people we agree with. Of course, there are the hecklers along the sides--but they're not participants. This was quite a bit different.

    The event started at 7 p.m. The doors opened at 6, but MoveOn.org had suggested we get there before 5, and it's a good thing we did because the lines already snaked around and around. I don't know if we could have gotten in if we'd come any later. While waiting in line, we saw lots of protestors who were part of Lyndon Larouche's group (he lives around here; I don't know if their anti-Obama hate campaign is national). They had the Obama signs with the Hitler moustache. But I don't think they actually came into the meeting--just walked up and down the waiting line. (I believe that the doorkeepers were checking to see if everyone entering was from this Congressional District; but they obviously failed in at least one significant case--so I don't know how carefully they tracked this.)

    Inside, the significant majority was progressive--and not just on healthcare: some of the people circling the auditorium had anti-war, anti-military signs and they got big applause. (Jim Moran voted against the Iraq war.) But there was also a significant minority against healthcare reform--with the expected anti-"socialism" or "we can't afford it" signs. None of the "anti" signs were too, too horrific. Not like the Larouchees outside with their Obama=Hitler signs. But there was a lot of chanting back and forth. And the antis tried hard to interrupt Moran. But still nothing horrific.

    And then Moran introduced Dean--who got a resounding standing ovation from the audience. We quieted down...he began to speak...and before we knew what was happening stood up in the center of the auditorium and started screaming "we won't pay for murder"--or something like that. One man, in the center of the group, was standing on a chair--looking like an orchestra leader--and immediately Moran recognized him and named him: it was Randall Terry! It was amazing! I do believe that they were after Dean--because they did nothing to protest, or participate in the anti-healthcare reform chants, or any interrupting until Dean started to speak. (Moran votes always in favor of whatever reproductive rights issue might come up in the House, but Terry's group didn't interrupt his almost hour-long talk.) Anyway--Moran told the audience who he was, and everyone (well, I suppose not "everyone") started chanting "go home." Moran actually offered him an opportunity to talk: offered him the choice of asking his question (offered him 5 minutes!) or he would be escorted out of the auditorium. Since Terry didn't choose to ask a question, he and his entire entourage were escorted out and calm was restored and that was that. Of course, there were more interruptions--but at least it was from the group that opposed healthcare reform.

    The question-and-answer portion of the meeting was worthless. Moran took questions equally from the pro- and the anti- groups-but none of the questions were enlightening in either direction. And I have to say, if I were opposed to reform, I'd have been upset by the way Moran cut them off.

    The one thing I can say, though, is that after this meeting I have a much better idea of what's in the House bill that is most likely to be passed (H.R. 3200).

    On the other hand, some of the sloganeering--on our side--bothers me, because it is just plain wrong. The purpose is supposed to be to reassure people who fear "change," but all it does is water down the importance of the change. For example, Moran talked about the problems with the insurance companies and how some of the regulations and minimum standards and the existence of the public option will rein them in. He even talked about the horrors of insurance denied, etc. Then he said that "85% of Americans are covered by private health insurance and they needn't worry that anything for them will change." You've heard this same statement from Obama--how can they be so stupid as to keep repeating this "nothing will change" statement! There were other things like this: "no employer can make any employee take the public option." But what happens when employers drop health insurance, as so many have done and more will do? won't that "force" employees into the public option? Not that I'm opposed to the public option--but this kind of talking out of both sides cannot help our case.

    Katha Pollitt

  • August 23, 2009

    Voting in Kabul

    (Women for Afghan Women, a humanitarian organization I've supported for many years, runs a shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence in Kabul, and a smaller one in Mazar-i-sharif. In this update to her August 19th letter detailing the anxiety leading up to election day, WAW executive director Manizha Naderi reports on voting in Afghan elections on August 20. For more information about WAW, and to make a donation, go here.)

    Dear WAW Supporters:

    Thank you for all the supportive emails we have received since my last update a few days ago.

    All of you have probably heard from news reports, the elections went on as planned and with far fewer violent attacks than we all expected. The Afghan news reports said that there were 135 rocket attacks around Afghanistan and about 20 people were killed.

    Our centers, staff and clients were safe. There were no incidents. Now we are all waiting for the announcement of the winner. The government has forecasted that there will be demonstrations. I might close the Kabul Family Guidance Center for another few days when that happens.

    On election day I went to vote. I went with my husband, his sister Naseema, her two sons, and also my babysitter Nafis Gul and her daughter. Everything was peaceful. Turnout was low. Besides us there were 4 other men there to vote. This was the first time that Nafis gul and Naseema were voting. I was very excited for them.

    While I was at the polls there were no other women there besides us. But from what we've heard, women showed up at the polls everywhere. More women voted in the North than in the South (for obvious reasons). The Taliban had threatened anyone who voted and had ink on their fingers. They said that they will cut that finger. Even then these brave people went out to vote. But overall voter turnout was lower than last time.

    It was incredibly empowering to vote. It was my first time to vote in Afghanistan. It was even more empowering for Nafis Gul and Naseema. This was their first time to vote in their lives. They didn't know what to expect. Before the elections I had spoken to them about how important it was to vote. I told them that if they didn't vote, they couldn't complain later about the results. So it was like their birthday. It was very special.

    Everyone is now waiting for the results. People are afraid if Karzai wins, then Dr. Abdullah's people are going to hold violent demonstrations.

    Karzai--we've seen what he's done already. His major plan if he wins is to negotiate with the Taliban-which WAW is against.

    Dr. Abdullah--His major flaw is that he was a warlord during the civil wars. WAW stands in solidarity with leaders like Malalai Joya who risked her life by denouncing the presence of warlords in the institutions which govern the nation. Men who have killed and raped have no place in the government, let alone as President.

    Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai--He's the most qualified although he probably won't win the election. In the TV debates, Mr. Ahmadzai won every debate. He has really good plans for the economy. He's the only person who talked a little about bringing women into the government.

    I was dismayed that all candidates downplayed women's roles. It was like they didn't want to talk about women. Both Karzai and Dr. Abdullah have claimed victory. People think that if Karzai wins Dr. Abdullah's people will become violent.

    I am happy that the election took place, but since it looks like Karzai is going to win, I am not very hopeful. We will have the same old again. More corruption and wasting money. This time, he'll negotiate with the Taliban. Hopefully I'll be wrong about him. Women here are angry that Karzai signed the Shi'ia law in such a stealthy way right before the elections. We are waiting to see the full text of the law that was signed before we make an official WAW comment.

    I will write again soon about the two clients who arrived in our shelter on the night before election day. Our drivers drove them from the police station to the shelter in the middle of the night. I will be meeting them today.

    It is a huge comfort to know that our supporters are now beginning to hear more about our day to day work in Afghanistan and the tensions and challenges of doing work in a war zone. I am grateful to each one of you for caring. Do send us a donation if you can, as much or as little as you can.

    Manizha Naderi
    Executive Director, Women for Afghan Women

    Katha Pollitt