Thursday, June 26, 2008



By Doug Holder

On a warm and humid morning in late June I jumped on the Red Line to go to UMass Boston, to attend the William Joiner Writers Workshop’s tribute to writer Grace Paley.

The Workshop is directed by poet Kevin Bowen, and is held every summer at the Boston campus. The late Grace Paley is a renowned fiction writer and poet who passed away in 2007. Paley was an enthusiastic, and much admired and loved teacher at the William Joiner. She was born in 1922 in the Bronx to Russian-Jewish immigrants. She published three collections of short stories “The Little Disturbances of Man,” (1959), “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), and “ Later the Same Day” (1985),and her “Collected Stories”(1994) was a finalist for a Pulitzer and a National Book Award. She published several volumes of poetry, was elected the first New York State Writer, and the Vermont Poet Laureate in (2003). Paley was also a political activist involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement, as well as the Women’s Movement. In 1969 she accompanied the peace mission to Hanoi to negotiate the release of prisoners of war. In 1978 she was arrested as one of the “White House Eleven” for unfurling an anti-nuclear banner on the White House lawn.

Paley’s writing focuses on the lives of women, examining their gritty everyday world. Her characters ranged from left wing women, their kids, their husbands, their lovers, their aging parents, and their aging selves. She was a master of dialogue, and a champion of everyday life in contemporary literature.

At the tribute were a number of Somerville poets including: Pushcart Prize winner Afaa Michael Weaver, Off the Grid Press publishers Bert Stern and Tam Lin Neville, Somerville poet, writer and activist Alex Kern, and Ibbetson Street Press author Elizabeth Quinlan (“ Promise Supermarket”). Paley’s husband Bob Nichols was present, as well as her daughter Nora.

Sitting next to me in the audience was Henry Braun, one of the founders of Somerville’s Off the Grid Press, and a friend of Nichols and Paley. Braun, who was once an editor of the Beloit Poetry Journal said of Paley: “She was the voice of my people. People who came from New York, the Lower East Side, political activists from the Vietnam era.” Afaa Michael Weaver, who was teaching at the Joiner this summer said later that he had met Paley two years before at the Joiner Center and was impressed by her graciousness and her “commitment to society.”

Julie Thacker, a creative writing instructor at Lesley University in Cambridge, lead the discussion of Paley and her work. She told me that Paley had a “Singular and human voice, married poetry and prose together beautifully, and found beauty in ordinary life. She also exhibited a striking compassion.”

The audience often commented on passages from Paley’s work and peppered their commentary with memories of Paley’s teaching at the Joiner Center. Most were in agreement with the fact that Paley, along with Tillie Olsen, were the first writers to open up the idea of ordinary woman as being good fodder for stories. Poet Elizabeth Quinlan told me: “ For the first time I realized that you could write about being a struggling young mother, your babies, even, well, your period.” Martha Collins, the founder of the undergraduate Creative Writing program at UMass Boston said she was amazed how Paley could combine the “political” with the fabric of life, and do it with such great humor. Paley, according to the anecdotes of the many folks who knew her was a master of dialogue, organically bringing the conversational into her work. She was a big believer in revision. Her husband Bob Nichols pointed out to the audience that they should respond to her work not only on an intellectual level but also on an emotional level . He reminded the audience that her work was all about emotional content. He also noted that Paley when she was giving a reading was always looking down at the text, rather than the audience. Poet Fred Marchant, the director of the Poetry Center at Suffolk University
said this was testimony to her singular focus on her work.

Paley, to her credit, was able to marry the profound and the ordinary, without sounding stilted. And in all of her work there was endless conversation, rather than a strong sense plot. Like in her fiction, the tribute was an ongoing conversation punctuated by memories, and always-generous doses of laughter. One student remembered Paley asking her to her home to discuss her work. She said: “ Let me make you a cheese sandwich. You’ll love it.” And I guess Paley would like it that way, to be remembered by her work, and, yes, even her cheese sandwiches.


Here I am in the garden laughing
an old woman with heavy breasts
and a nicely mapped face

how did this happen
well that's who I wanted to be

at last a woman
in the old style sitting
stout thighs apart under
a big skirt grandchild sliding
on off my lap a pleasant
summer perspiration

that's my old man across the yard
he's talking to the meter reader
he's telling him the world's sad story
how electricity is oil or uranium
and so forth I tell my grandson
run over to your grandpa ask him
to sit beside me for a minute I
am suddenly exhausted by my desire
to kiss his sweet explaining lips.

--Grace Paley

Doug Holder/ Ibbetson Update/ June 2008

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