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.
(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.
There were lots of young people in the crowd, and at the microphone, for Monday evening's spirited rally in Union Square to honor Dr. George Tiller. It was quite a contrast with the last gathering occasioned by the murder of an abortion provider, the candlelight vigil at Columbus Circle in l998, after the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian. Back then, the crowd was small and middle-aged and rather dispirited. This time, people were awake and angry.
It's about time. Time to demand federal legal protection for abortion rights. Time to demand that law enforcement take seriously the violent anti-abortion underground. Time for doctors to show some spine, defend their colleagues who perform this necessary service to women and reintegrate abortion into normal medical practice. Time for women to come out of the closet and talk about their abortions, so that people will realize that the woman who terminates a pregnancy is their wife, their mother, their sister, their friend.
It's time, too, to stop the pretense that the "debate " over abortion consists of two equally extreme positions, and that wisdom resides in the mushy middle, where everybody disapproves of abortion except when they want one for themselves or someone they care about. There's only one set of extremists here, the one that uses language like "babykiller," " Nazi," "murderer," and "death mill," kidnaps and murders providers and clinic workers,burns and bombs clinics and drives cars into them, posts pictures of clinic workers and their families on the internet, and harrasses patients on their way to get care.
Only one side writes like this about the murder of Dr. Tiller:
"But I also know joy. Not the shallow type of joy but a deep resonating joy. I feel joy that no longer will this wicked man slay the judicially innocent. I feel joy because justice, albeit of a rough variety, was visited on someone who so thoroughly opposed a culture of life and who worked so assiduously to spread the culture of death. I know joy because the truth of Scripture that those who take up the sword shall die by the sword is seen as authoritative. I know joy because I know that no longer will Dr. Tiller be sucking out the brains of people, or torturing people with saline or dismembering people in utero. How could a sane person not feel joy at the death of a mass murderer and a terrorist?"
That's Bret MacAtee, Michigan pastor and Constitution Party activist.
People mock the word "choice" --it's consumerist, euphemistic, wimpy, calculated. But one thing you can say for it: It honors the individual conscience. If a desperately ill pregnant woman wants to risk her life to give birth, if she wants to carry an anencephalic fetus to term so it can die in her arms, or have her rapist's baby, or become a mother at 14, or produce octuplets, pro-choicers are not going to compel her to abort. Pro-choicers don't go around lecturing girls and women that they will blame themselves forever if they have a baby they may not be equipped to raise well. They don't paint gory pictures of the horrors and dangers of childbirth to scare pregnant girls and women into ending their pregnancies with a quick and safe termination. They don't tell women Jesus is going to send them to Hell if they sacrifice their futures to the whims of a wayward sperm -- although they might mention from time to time that the Bible nowhere mentions abortion. Pro-choicers don't blow up churches or assassinate the leaders of Operation Rescue.
Only one side wants to force women to live by its so-called morality, and only one side murders and bombs to make its point. Only one side has a terrorist wing.
In the days to come, let the public discussion acknowledge that.