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.
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.
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,
When the subject of Islamic dress comes up, it's often phrased the way President Obama put it in his Cairo speech -- as women's right to wear what they want. Hear, hear. But what about those pesky laws that force women to wear what the theocrats want-- or face arrest and a beating? Iran and Saudi Arabia are not the only countries with a government-enforced dress code.
As has been widely reported, 13 Sudanese girls and women listening to music in a Khartoum cafe were arrested on July 3-- for wearing trousers. Never mind that that in much of the Muslim world, for example Pakistan and Turkey, pants are normal traditional garb. Article 152 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits "indecency" in dress without defining what it is, was invoked in all its rigor. 1o of the 13 women accepted a plea bargain -- ten lashes and a fine. But journalist and UN press officer Lubna Hussein, and two others insisted on going to trial-- even though losing in court will mean forty lashes and a much bigger fine. In fact, Hussein resigned her UN post so as not to have immunity -- she wants to win this battle on principle, not a technicality, and have the dress-code law abolished. ""I will take my case to the upper court, even to the constitutional court," she told The Guardian . "And if they find me guilty, I am ready to receive not only 40 lashes, I am ready for 40,000 lashes. If all women must be flogged for what they wear, I am ready to be flogged 40,000 times."
What a hero! I'm in awe of this woman's courage and daring. Her case has given heart to Sudanese women and men sick of the harsh Sharia law that has been in force in Sudan since l989, when President Omar al-Bashir seized power in a coup. Large demonstrations outside the courthouse in support of the women were put down violently by police. The story of Lubna Hussein has made headlines around the world.
As usual, Western feminists have beeen charged with going AWOL on human rights for Muslim women , most recently by Susie Mesure in The Independent, who accused "the sisterhood" of being overly concerned with their own trivial issues, like sexist men's magazines and "perceived discrimination in the workplace." Before this canard hardens into conventional wisdom, let me note that in fact, there's been a fair amount of coverage of Lubna Hussein in the feminist blogosphere, including The Women's Media Center, The F-Word and -- wait for it -- Jezebel, Gawker's much maligned potty-mouthed younger sister.
But of course there can always be more.
You can sign the Arab Women's Connection petition supporting Lubna Hussein here.
(I posted this at The Best American Poetry last Friday. I'm going to be blogging there regularly about poetry. I hope you'll take a look.)
I love the Gertrude Stein quip David Comiskey posted in response to my last blog: "I write for myself and strangers." that just about covers it, doesn't it? Another reader sent in a different version: "I write for myself and strange people." That's probably just as true. For some more portraits of the reader in one's head, I queried members of WOM-PO, a listserv of mostly poets (both sexes) devoted to discussion of poetry by women. Here are some answers: Emily Dickinson, YOU, "the me which is that feathered thing alive and barnacled on/as my soul," "people who need my words," a friend in Colorado with whom the poet has exchanged a weekly poem for the past 33 (!) years, "my former next-door neighbor, Joan, who didn't go to college, but who is a terrific reader," a longstanding poetry critique group, a local poetry listserv in Sebastopol, CA. Linda Rodriguez says she writes for "a literate, reading person somewhere out there in the world, someone curious who wants to see beneath the surface of life" -- a version of Virginia Woolf's Common Reader -- but others longed to reach people, including their relatives, who didn't read poetry and who might be electrified by something they wrote. "When I find a fifteen year old girl in a small town somewhere that has read a poem and gone on to the library filled with questions," writes Sina Queyras, "Well, that's what it's about for me." If that doesn't happen, don't lose heart. As Kate Bernadette Benedict points out "My internalized reader may not even be born yet!"
Mary Oliver agrees with Benedict. "I write poems for a stranger who will be born in some distant country hundreds of years from now," she wrote in "A Poetry Handbook." Of course, Oliver is one of the most popular poets in America right this minute -- it's not like she's waiting for posterity to catch up with her. Billy Collins, the other most popular poet, has a riff on Oliver. It's a funny poem, but I can't decide if he's making fun of her. Is he mocking her somewhat vatic claim on posterity, debunking the idea of posterity as anything special, ruefully deflating the concept of universality, or even comparing Oliver's poetry to a wet dog? What do you think?
To a Stranger Born in Some Distant Country Hundreds of Years from Now
I write poems for a stranger who will be born in some distant country hundreds of years from now. - Mary Oliver
Nobody here likes a wet dog.
No one wants anything to do with a dog
that is wet from being out in the rain
or retrieving a stick from a lake.
Look how she wanders around the crowded pub tonight
going from one person to another
hoping for a pat on the head, a rub behind the ears,
something that could be given with one hand
without even wrinkling the conversation.
But everyone pushes her away,
some with a knee, others with the sole of a boot.
Even the children, who don't realize she is wet
until they go to pet her,
push her away
then wipe their hands on their clothes.
And whenever she heads toward me,
I show her my palm, and she turns aside.
O stranger of the future!
O inconceivable being!
whatever the shape of your house,
however you scoot from place to place,
no matter how strange and colorless the clothes you may wear,
I bet nobody there likes a wet dog either.
I bet everyone in your pub,
even the children, pushes her away.
It's easy to describe the readers I have in mind when I write my column in The Nation: the 185,000 Nation subscribers, who are mostly liberals, progressives and leftists of various sorts, college-educated, over thirty, up on the news. I know quite a few of these readers, and hear from them all the time. Beyond the magic subscription circle, there's the larger community of feminists, other journalists, and writers I admire, including a few dead ones in my head.
Is there something wrong with writing poems about writing poems? And if so, what? My friend Richard Howard was the first person who told me he didn't approve of that subject, but since he said it while saying nice things about a poem I had written on that very theme, I didn't take it as a blanket prohibition, just a personal preference. It turns out a lot of people share it.