Arizona Quarterly publishes special issue highlighting later work of Adrienne Rich
The Autumn 2022 issue of Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory is a special issue devoted to the later work of American poet, essayist, and feminist Adrienne Rich. While Rich's early work garnered much literary attention, her openly political later work received resistance from the literary establishment. The latest issue of Arizona Quarterly seeks to appreciate and understand Rich's unsung later work. We interviewed the issue's editor, Cynthia R. Wallace, to gain more insight into the motivation and process behind the issue's creation.
Can you tell us a bit about your "academic origin story"? What is your specific area of research? What brought you to your area of academic focus?
I did my graduate degrees in English at Loyola University Chicago and had the privilege of studying with some phenomenal scholars, including Badia Ahad, J. Brooks Bouson, Suzanne Bost, Pamela Caughie, David Chinitz, Micael Clarke, Paul Jay, and Harveen Mann. It was an embarrassment of riches, honestly, with an emphasis on theories of race, class, and gender; postcolonial and global theories and literatures; and women writers. I also stumbled into literary ethics in graduate school, reading widely in both philosophy and literary criticism to get at questions about what literary texts can actually do in the world in response to suffering and injustice. All of this training, along with a community-based interest in the possibilities and harms wrought by the Christian tradition, led me to a career as a teacher-scholar working at the intersections of gender, race, (de)coloniality, religion, and ethics in twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature, especially literature by women. My work doesn't boil down to a tidy elevator pitch, but at its core, my research and teaching take an intersectional approach to the quest for justice and beauty in textual and material life.
My first book, Of Women Borne: A Literary Ethics of Suffering (Columbia University Press, 2016), addresses the risky paradoxes of suffering for others in contemporary literature, theology, and theory, and Adrienne Rich anchors the second chapter. The essays I've published since then on writers like Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, Denise Levertov, Mary Gordon, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Katherena Vermette continue to ask similar questions about the gendered, racialized, and religiously inflected risks of trying to bring justice and beauty into the world.
The latest issue of Arizona Quarterly is a special issue looking at the later work of poet Adrienne Rich. You note in your introduction that her later work has "received considerably less attention than her earlier work." Why do you think that is?
Rich began as a darling of the poetic establishment when her first collection was chosen for the 1951 Yale Younger Poets prize. In the 1960s, however, she woke up to a new political vision in large part due to colleagues in the New York Colleges' SEEK program, many of whom were Civil Rights and antiwar activists. As Rich writes about in essays like "Blood, Bread, and Poetry," when she started to write more openly political poetry, the literary establishment resisted. And in the 1970s, when she became a leading voice in American radical feminism, she found a passionately engaged audience with similar concerns, but some established critics panned her work. Scholars like Gretchen Mieszkowksi, Craig Werner, and Alice Templeton have written detailed accounts of this reception history that trace more of the nuance. Rich gained a reputation in the 1970s as an important radical feminist poet--which she was and continued to be. But she also continued to broaden her poetic and political view in the 1980s and forward, until her death in 2012, and I suspect that some of the critics who had written her off in the 1970s never re-engaged with her work in later decades. Her obituaries focused heavily on the 1970s, and the major anthologies tend to do the same. What this approach misses is the extraordinary range of Rich's continued learning and self-revision, her re-consideration of Marx, her commitment to intersectional approaches to global justice and global poetics. This issue of Arizona Quarterly is just one small piece of the work still to be done to appreciate and understand the last three decades of Rich's poetic life.
How did you come to guest edit the special issue?
In the summer of 2020--our first pandemic summer--I was re-reading Rich and thinking about how relevant her later work felt for our current cultural and political moment. Scholars continue to publish excellent work on Rich, and Women's Studies put out a wonderful special issue in 2017, but I thought a journal issue devoted to the later work and its importance for our time would be a good addition to the conversation. I contacted several senior scholars to see if they thought the project was a good idea and to seek advice about getting it off the ground: Al and Barbara Gelpi edited the original Norton Critical Edition of Rich's work as well as the recent update, and they were enormously helpful, along with Sandra Gilbert, with whom they put me in touch. Working with these scholars in the project's initial stages was an incredible honour, and with their advice I contacted the editors of several journals. Everyone I wrote was interested, which was amazing.
Was there a call for papers for submissions on the topic?
Yes! I developed an open call for papers and shared it in all the usual places online, and I was delighted by how much interest it generated.
What about the issue, either the scholarship itself or the work of editing it, stood out, surprised, or challenged you?
It's humbling to be on this side of the editorial relationship. As an author, I can be a little sensitive to revision suggestions, but the writers who contributed to the issue were all both brilliant scholars and lovely to work with. We took the essays through several drafts before submitting them to the journal for anonymous peer review, and it was so gratifying to see strong work become even stronger in the process, in large part due to the good will of people committed to a shared project.
I was also just floored by how much the papers spoke to each other, even though they developed without conversation among the contributors.
What do you hope readers of this issue will take with them?
I hope readers will feel the pull to read or re-read Rich's poetry and prose, especially the work from the 1980s forward. Every time I return to Rich's work, I'm amazed at how much her poetic and political process continues to speak to me: she worked with such integrity. She used her privilege to draw attention to writers of colour, queer writers, postcolonial writers, and working class writers, admitting that the earlier radical feminist work had been problematically white-, anglo-, and middle-class focused. In fact, she strove to keep learning throughout her life, admitting in the introductions to later books and editions of books how she had been wrong in earlier work and offering astonishingly clear-sighted cultural and political analysis. I honestly can't think of another poet or scholar who has modeled such intellectual humility. Rich's poetry can be demanding, but it is demanding in a way that asks me to pay better attention to the text and the world around me as I read it--what I call a literary ethics of attention. I hope readers will continue to come back to Rich's work as a companion through tenuous times.
What is your favorite Adrienne Rich poem? Why?
This is an impossible question to answer. I love "The Burning of Paper Instead of Children" and "North American Time" and "Hunger." The poem "The School Among the Ruins" is a remarkable example of Rich's work as a "citizen poet" calling her readers to global accountability. But I think my favorite of all might be the sequences "Sources" or "Contradictions: Tracking Poems," both of which engage in a sustained personal-political-poetic project of tracing familial and cultural roots, wounds, and accountability. These sequences were published in the collection Your Native Land, Your Life and showcase Rich's work in the early 1980s, when she wrote the important essay "Notes Toward a Politics of Location" about the need to take responsibility for the literal and cultural places one comes from, especially as a white woman. In "Sources," Rich addresses her father and erstwhile husband in a reckoning beyond the grave that is at once angry and tender and expansive, tying the domestic relationships to the broadly political, exploring personal and communal suffering and growth in a blend of verse and prose poetry. Rich embeds gems of crystalline insight in lines that allude to many different histories and places: for example, referring to "the faith / of those despised and engendered // that they are not merely the sum / of damages done to them." The characterization most specifically refers to the Jewish community but extends to others through references to "kente-cloth" and "batik" fabrics. This strategy of zeroing in on the most concrete details to evoke broader dynamics runs through Rich's later poetry and, I think, showcases a poetics of particularity, a commitment Rich often linked to June Jordan's line about the "intimate face of universal struggle."
What are you currently working on / what's next for you, research-wise?
This year I finished a book manuscript on the philosopher-mystic-activist Simone Weil's surprizing influence on a number of contemporary women writers, including Rich--the manuscript is currently under peer review. As an extension of that project, I'm working on an essay about Rich's reading of Weil thanks to the overwhelming generosity of the Adrienne Rich Literary Trust, which has given me access to Rich's copies of Weil's books and all their marginalia. I'm finding this kind of archival work deeply rewarding.
Meanwhile I'm also working on what I hope will be my third book, a collection of more personal literary essays on suffering, gender, religion, chronic pain, and uncertainty. There's a chapter on Adrienne Rich in this project, too, that traces her poetry's representations of embodied pain and the possibility that it can offer an opening toward solidarity with others suffering in other ways. Rich was diagnosed in her early twenties with rheumatoid arthritis, but for decades she was very private about it. It's not until the 1980s, when Rich was in her 50s, that the poetry really becomes explicit about her pain and surgeries. The essay I'm working on thinks with Rich about privacy and solidarity, and it does so from my own shared experience of autoimmune disease and arthritic pain, musing about the risks of sharing our suffering with others but also the possibilities. Every time I re-read Rich's work, I find more.
Cynthia R. Wallace is Associate Professor and Department Head of English at St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan. Her book Of Women Borne: A Literary Ethics of Suffering was published in 2016 by Columbia University Press. Her essays have appeared in the journals African American Review, Contemporary Literature, Humanities, Religion and Literature, Literature and Theology, Toronto Studies Quarterly, and elsewhere.