In this 1977 letter from our archive, Adrienne Rich writes to Betty Kray, the first executive director of the Academy of American Poets, about her family and various female poets she’d like to see featured in a reading series.
Here, Rich, known for her very vocal stances—both in her life and in her work—on socio-political issues such as racism, war, and feminism, suggests “a possible reading of Japanese women’s poetry from classical times to the present.” In particular, she mentions Ikuko Atsumi, who, along with Kenneth Rexroth, coedited Women Poets of Japan (The Seabury Press, 1977), the “collection of translations” that Rich refers to in the letter. The anthology includes works by seventy-seven female Japanese poets, from the Classical Period to the Tokugawa Period, as well as modern tanka and haiku poets, and contemporary free verse poets of the time.
While Rich seems to have had a positive impression of Atsumi, saying she “found her extremely intelligent, charming and serious about the presentation of this work,” Rich and Atsumi also appear to have shared a mutual interest in women’s rights. Atsumi, a poet who has lectured in universities in both Japan and the United States, devoted much of her time and energy into developing a women’s cultural movement in Japan and addressing gender biases and restrictive societal norms and stereotypes; Atsumi even founded and edited a Japanese feminist magazine called Feminist. In an article in Michigan’s The Argus-Press that ran just a few months after the date of this letter, Atsumi was quoted as saying, “One of the purposes of Feminist is to introduce women’s studies and cultivate Japanese cultures of the past. … The more women students study, the more they strengthen male society. I was a student of English literature, studied Shakespeare, Tennyson and wrote my thesis on Dylan Thomas. But I learned nothing about how to live as a woman. The female element in culture is important.” For Women Poets of Japan, Atsumi collaborated with Rexroth, who was also coeditor of The Orchid Boat: Women Poets of China (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1973), which Rich also refers to in the letter.
Rich also mentions the anthology Ordinary Women: Mujeres Comunes: An Anthology of Poetry by New York City Women (University of Michigan Press), which would be published the following year. The collection, which was edited by Fay Chiang, Sandra Esteves, Sara Miles, and Patricia Spears Jones, included an introduction by Rich, who certainly supported the fact that it represented “some of the racial and ethnic diversity of the city.” As she writes in the letter, “This is the first time that some of these women, particularly the Asian and Hispanic, have published their work, and there is a vitality, toughness, pathos and tenderness in some of these poems that is very exciting.”
Rich discusses some of the changes she and her family had been undergoing at the time; she herself was at a transformative time in both her personal and professional lives, as she had publicly come out as a lesbian in 1976. That same year, she published Twenty-One Love Poems (Effie’s Press), which was eventually included in the “new book of poems” she mentions working on in her letter: The Dream of a Common Language (W. W. Norton, 1978), which was marked by its open exploration of female sexuality and sexual identity politics.
Here Rich also discusses her family life, particularly the significant life changes her sons are encountering, and her parental take on it all: “They seem to me remarkable in their ability to decide and follow-through on their decisions without parental haggling (I refuse to haggle!)” It is these kinds of parental experiences that encouraged her to write about motherhood—both the true, fundamental experience and the restrictive archetype born out of societal standards and expectations—in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (W. W. Norton, 1986).
Though Rich was already a known poet and National Book Award winner (Diving into the Wreck, 1973) at the time she wrote this letter, she would still go on to publish over a dozen collections of poetry and prose and receive several honors, including the Bollingen Prize, the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the Wallace Stevens Award, and the National Medal of Arts, which she famously refused in 1997. She served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1999 to 2001 and died in 2012, at the age of eighty-two.
I suggested last spring to Ikuko Atsumi that she write to you about a possible reading of Japanese women's poetry from classical times to present. She worked with Rexroth on such a collection of translations (along the lines of The Orchid Boat) which will be appearing this year. Although I have not seen the translations, I have met Ikuko Atsumi and found her extremely intelligent, charming and serious about the presentation of this work. I thought that possibly there might be interest in having her read and comment on these translations—with or without Rexroth—at the Donnell. I don't know whether she's written to you yet, but I just wanted to let you know that I had suggested it.
I hope we can have lunch early in the Fall and do some catching-up. I've been here, mostly, this summer, putting a new book of poems together and writing some prose; I went out to California for a week, had a few days in Vermont, and this week Michelle and I are leaving for a real vacation in the Berkshires. The boys are all changing their lives: David is moving to Los Angeles to pursue his musical career; Pablo is entering University of Vermont and Jacob starting at Sarah Lawrence. So there are real shifts in their lives. They seem to me remarkable in their ability to decide and follow-through on their decisions without parental haggling (I refuse to haggle!)
Another possibility for programming occurs to me, one which might be close to your own heart: Four young New York women, Sara Miles, Patricia Jones, Sandra Esteves and Fay Chiang, have put together an anthology of poems by young NYC women poets, representing some of the racial and ethnic diversity of the city, including poems by women of West Indian, Hispanic, Asian, Afro-American, as well as white descent. They are publishing it themselves under the title (which I love) ORDINARY WOMEN. This is the first time that some of these women, particularly the Asian and Hispanic, have published their work, and there is a vitality, toughness, pathos and tenderness in some of these poems that is very exciting. I've said I'd do a brief foreword, and they are hoping to do group readings to further publicize the collection and make the work of the poets known. I think it could be a marvelous evening. If not at the Donnell, is there any hope that library readings in various neighborhoods could be arranged?
I hope you're serenely in Rhode Island through all the recent sturm and drang. With much love to you,