When I Worked as an Assistant to My Hero, Adrienne Rich
"I learned a lesson that has served me well: I learned to be careful."
In September 1980, I moved to Montague, Massachusetts. I was 21. I lived in a metal-sided house with my boyfriend, and three housemates. We each paid 65 dollars a month in rent. By late October, we’d taped plastic on the windows to keep down the electric heating bill. I wanted to be a poet and a printmaker, imagining that like William Blake, I’d manage to do both well. Montague was just up the road from the town of Amherst where Emily Dickinson had lived. This seemed an auspicious start for my post-college life as a poet.
To earn money, I found a part-time position as a counselor at a women’s halfway house for recovering alcoholics. Why exactly I was hired never seemed odd to me then, though my only job skill, it seems now in hindsight, was a degree of empathy. Soon I located a studio to share with a mostly absent printmaker who owned a beautiful large etching press. The studio had two walls of window facing fields that crested to a pine forest. I worked on large monotypes, and by November my first poem was accepted for publication in a journal I admired. Everyday at the halfway house, I was schooled in courage and humility by the newly sober women. Some nights driving the backcountry roads, I couldn’t believe my good fortune.
When I learned that Adrienne Rich lived in Montague, my world tipped way past good fortune into free-fall of astonishment. If William Blake and Emily Dickinson were essential icons in my personal canon, Adrienne Rich reigned as the living poet whose work made me swoon. That’s putting it mildly. I knew by heart much of The Dream of a Common Language, published in 1978. Her poems embodied a density of thought, history, language that was a revelation for me. She had a restless intelligence; everything, including her own life, was the subject of her interrogation. “I came to explore the wreck. / The words are purposes. / The words are maps. / I came to see the damage that was done / and the treasures that prevailed.”
All of the brilliant, rigorous poems were unabashedly, unapologetically female. “I am a woman in the prime of life, with certain power / and those powers severely limited / by authorities whose faces I rarely see,” she wrote in 1971 in I Dream I’m the Death of Orpheus. Seven years later in the sequence Twenty-one Love Poems she wrote, “If I cling to circumstances I could feel / not responsible. Only she who says / she did not choose, is the loser in the end.” Choose, change—these words sparked through many of her poems, a declaration of the intersection of personal and political. This insistence that there “comes times—perhaps this is one of them— / when we have to take ourselves more seriously or die.”
Now, unbelievably, I lived down the street from this contemporary genius, my genius. Rich’s home was red brick, stately, one of the older houses on the town green. I took to walking by in the hope of seeing her curved over a desk in what was her study. I almost couldn’t bear looking, like looking directly into what Emily Dickinson called the “white heat.” I’d glance to see her framed in the long front windows of the study. Her dark head bent. She was thinking! She was composing! The “unanointed” white heat of imagination! My whole body pounded with exclamation.
I had to meet her. Plain and simple. I needed to meet the master. Could I simply knock on her front door and quote to her from Transcendental Etudes a poem that made my day-to-day possible? That was idiotic. I had enough good sense to realize that sycophantic recitations would annoy Adrienne Rich. Instead, I drafted and redrafted a letter to Adrienne and her partner Michelle Cliff, a fiction writer whose novel Abeng I’d stumbled on before knowing that she was Rich’s partner. I left out all the drooling praise for Adrienne’s poems and for the dense lyricism of Cliff’s prose. Instead, I chose to offer my services.
Michelle and Adrienne had somewhat recently taken over the rotating editorship of Sinister Wisdom, a literary and arts journal by and for lesbians. I knew from editing my college’s literary magazine just how much work a magazine entailed. Conjuring all the bravado I didn’t really have, I wrote that I was a young poet who had recently moved to Montague. Could I be of use on the magazine? And hoping to impress them with my bonafides, I mentioned my one published poem in a literary journal. I contemplated sending a few poems in place of my largely blank resume but happily (in hindsight) decided not to. I chose to write a handwritten letter, which I dropped off at the post office located almost directly across the green from their house.
“Victoria, you’ve got a call,” my housemate shouted until I finally heard through the door of the room where I sat trying to write poems. And, just like that, three days after I’d mailed the letter, Michelle Cliff was saying my name! Could I come over for work the following Wednesday? How about after lunch? You bet I could. But how I’d manage my excitement and nervousness until Wednesday was another question. Several crises at the women’s halfway house put my anxiety in perspective. A woman I counseled failed to return to the house and went missing. Another woman needed extra counseling sessions to manage all the conflicting feelings at the prospect of a visit with her children for the first time in two years.
On Wednesday, I woke to light snow and all morning restlessly watched the horses stand in the field across from my house, their shaggy coats glinting with crystals. Finally, though I had no appetite, it was time for lunch. I headed down from my house, reciting over and over, the opening lines of Toward the Solstice: “The Thirtieth of November. / Snow is starting to fall. / A peculiar silence is spreading / ’over the fields, the maple grove . . . I am trying to hold in one steady glance / all the parts of my life.” I’d recited that poem hundreds of times but now I was going to actually walk up the brick front path and meet the woman who had the daring to start a stanza claiming: “My brain glows / more violently, more avidly / the quieter, the thicker / the quilt of crystals settles . . .” and end the stanza with the deeply honest: “we are moving into the solstice / and there is so much here / I still do not understand.”
Michelle answered the front door, showing me where to leave my wet boots and led me upstairs to the large central room off of which were offices and bedrooms. “Victoria’s come,” she said by way of introduction to Adrienne. Already, my name in their home sounded so familiar and warm.
Adrienne looked up from a couch where she was reading. “So glad you’re here,” she said with the same mischievous smile and dark eyes I’d seen on her book jackets. “We’ve got a ton of work.” She said, “You ready?”
My first task was to type mailing labels on an IBM Selectric typewriter. In those pre-computer days, the idea was to create a master list, which could then be xeroxed for each issue’s mailing. I set about with determination. The list of subscribers was a 1980 feminist extravaganza. Gone were names like Silverman. Instead, I typed addresses for Anise Dykwimyn and Sybil Clitwomb. Gone were Susan and Jane. Instead, Starflower, Athena, Kali had subscribed. Many women refused the uppercase entirely. At some point, I must have chuckled out loud. “What?” Michelle called out. Before I could cook up a lie, Adrienne laughed. “You better divulge the name that did you in!” A back and forth of names ensued, at once hilarious, wicked, and loving of all the lesbian and feminist name-shifting by subscribers to the magazine. I worked hard all afternoon. “Take a break,” Adrienne said and brought me a cup of tea. She asked me to read a few submissions for a response. She showed me new poems of Minnie Bruce Pratt. Had I not read her? She loaned me books.
That first day Michelle and Adrienne made me feel not only welcome but also immediately essential to the magazine. When I closed the door and walked back up the hill, the horses stepping through snow to knock close to the fence, I was certain I had died and gone to poetry heaven.
I returned the next week and asked Michelle for the labels. She hesitated, “We’d like you to do another job today.”
“But the labels weren’t finished,” I said, eager to polish off my first job.
“I know that,” she responded with certainty. “But the typing, your typing, wasn’t very accurate, Victoria. Adrienne had to retype all the labels.”
“No.” I must have flinched.
Michelle was quiet. Her silence acknowledged the shame I felt. I’d come to serve the Master and she’d been forced to redo my sloppy, two-fingered typing job. Adrienne Rich had sat at the Selectric and retyped my paltry effort. I thought I might vomit.
But there wasn’t a second to get sick or wallow in shame; there was too much to accomplish. I was given tasks—filing, answering inquiries, even, eventually, typing, which I double-checked was completed without error. My typing skills became part of Michelle and Adrienne’s quick-volleying humor. Each Wednesday, we’d buckle down and read submissions; the discussion of poems and essays drifted to politics, to the complicated relationship of separatism within race and class. And there were always more poets to be read and every week more borrowed books—June Jordan, Irina Klepfisz, Joan Larkin, Marina Tsvetaeva. My education was happening at every second. Among the many gifts of those Wednesdays, I learned a lesson that has served me well: I learned to be careful, especially with efforts done for others.
Two months of Wednesdays had passed when I looked over at Adrienne and Michelle sitting together on the low sofa discussing a sequence of poems that they were considering for publication. Light came in through the sheer curtain angling across their bodies.
“I need to tell you something,” I said standing up from the desk chair. “I should tell you this.” My heart was racing. They leaned toward me. The light moved with them.
“I live with a man.” I confessed as if confessing a serious crime. “He’s a boy I met in college. A poet,” I added hoping that might soften the news. They sat staring at me as if still waiting for what it was I needed to tell them. I expected them to say I couldn’t help with Sinister Wisdom. Maybe they would feel I’d deceived them.
Then they burst into laughter. They laughed raucously, doubled over, side-grasping laughter. Adrienne finally caught her breath enough to say, “Is that all?” and then they were laughing again at the funny apology in my voice, at my shy coming out as a straight girl.
Soon when Adrienne and Michelle went away on trips, I was given the task of feeding the cats and watering plants. Each time I’d unlock the door and step into the house, I couldn’t get over that I was entering the home of Adrienne Rich. That I’d spent hours talking with her about poetry, that she’d been kind enough to look at my writing and often direct enough to encourage me to throw whole poems out. When there was praise for a line, an image, even a whole poem, I trusted it because I’d come to know that when it came to poetry she was profoundly honest.
I’d hang my coat on the hall rack and linger at the door of her office looking at the wood desk where on darkening afternoons, I’d watched her working. That’s where she wrote poems. That’s where she wrote letters. She was a prodigious letter writer. There were piles of paper, carbons for the copies she made of each letter she sent. And once, I’ll confess, I couldn’t help myself. It was early evening. There were small lights on in the hallway. I crossed the lintel to her room and stood close to the wood desk. Then I pulled out Adrienne’s chair and sat. I stayed in the dark of her room, looking out at the lit streets and the town square. This was where she looked up, snagged by a word, tracing the lines of a thought, digging for the truth inside the music of a line.
I imagined myself inside the mind of the woman who had sat there in that room wrestling with a poem. I looked out the window at the sidewalk where I’d watched her and promised myself to become a writer. Then I got up and fed the cats.