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Remembering Grace Paley, The Combative Pacifist

Erin Polgreen

"Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life." In honor of the late Grace Paley who died on Wednesday, August 22nd, 2007, we've culled the best of the online tributes, obituaries, and reprinted interviews that have appeared in the last two weeks. We've placed a special emphasis on those pieces that appeared in smaller, independent publications as well as those written by progressive friends in some of the larger independent press. There's also some obituaries and tributes from mainstream papers too. I'm sure we've missed a few and if you know of any additional pieces please send 'em our way via the comments section. From the anecdotes and reflections collected here emerges a portrait of a much lauded and beloved short-story writer, poet, social activist, rebel, teacher, mother, grandmother, and self-described "combative pacifist" and "neurotic anti-authoritarian," a woman with a large, giving spirit housed in a famously tiny frame, a writer who wrote in a poem the unforgettable line, "it is the responsibility of the male poet to be a woman," a dynamo actively committed to innumerable passions and convictions throughout her very full life. Grace was a long-time friend and supporter of In These Times and she will be sorely missed by many around here. We hope you find these words by writers who were touched either personally or distantly by Ms. Paley as inspiring as we did. Enjoy. *** From the independent press: John Nichols, writing for the Madison Capital-Times, remembers Paley's political activism and chronicles her commitment to the impeachment of Bush and Cheney. Thulani Davis at Alternet enumerates Paley's contributions to fiction and examines how her politics affected her portraiture of women's lives in New York City. Dani Shapiro at Huffington Post describes how Paley taught her to live, Ms. Magazine recounts Paley's efforts to encourage women to be honest and open about abortion, and Katha Pollit, on her blog at The Nation, writes a personal story about spending a snowbound night in Paley's Vermont home. Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! has a great interview with Paley in which she discusses the role of the poet in a time of war, her family history, and why Laura Bush is afraid of poets. Included in this interview are two readings, performed by Paley herself, of the poems "Fathering" and "Responsibility." Transcript is included. Robin Morgan, in a commentary for at the Women's Media Center, describes love for Grace Paley as a "mass movement." From the bigger rags and sites: Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, (who happens to be interviewed in the October issue of In These Times), writes that "sometimes, the best writing is the kind that settles in you like a bad cold, making you restless and achy as you try to figure out what's got you so worked up. Paley would not let me be." Regina Hackley, writing for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, believes in "enormous changes at the last minute," which she dubs "one of the best titles in literature," and writes of Paley: With her passing, there aren't many of her ilk left on earth, those New York socialist Jewish activists of a literary bent who never gave up their elbows-out fight for the underdog and never passed up the opportunity to indulge an undignified belly laugh. In her stories, they live on, fortitude rewarded. "I was messed up too." Leora Skolkin-Smith remembers in the Washington Post meeting Paley at Sarah Lawrence University when she was "an insecure sophormore" working on a novel she was frightened to show anyone and connects Paley's unmatched ability to listen to the humanity in her stories. Writing for The Guardian, AM Homes, another Sarah Lawrence grad, asks "Why didn't she just say 'pants?'" in a piece that defends Paley against detractors who considered her a writer of only "modest output," and wraps up with a humble, lapidary tribute: Grace Paley, hardly a writer's writer, or a woman's writer, but more a force of nature. Grace Paley, short story writer, poet, peace activist, feminist, wife, mother, grandmother, teacher, mentor. She taught me not just how to be a parent, a citizen and a writer - she taught me how to live. "Raising children and raising hell." Elaine Woo of the Los Angeles Times, in what is an otherwise excellent obit, laments the "distraction" that parenthood, activism, and teaching were to Paley's writing life, a casually dismissive term that Paley certainly would've rejected with a pointed quip. The New York Times revisits her short stories and describes how Paley aptly met her husband at the return desk of the New York Public Library. And Jess Row at Slate churns out his take on why Paley never wrote a novel. Reprinted interviews: Salon reprints a 1996 interview here. Paris Review has Paley's "Art of Fiction" interview here. Pen American Center has an interview with Paley on the writing process and "the open destiny of life" here. Memorial Page: Sarah Lawrence University is hosting one here that notes her enormous influence on and encouragement of the school's students. Finally: Some of the best tributes have come out of Vermont where Paley made her home at the time of her death: The Three Identities of Grace Paley: Burlington Free Press has reprinted an a thorough and charming 1994 interview-visit with Paley at her pastoral-setting home on the occasion of the publication of her collected works. Also, below the 1994 interview they've reprinted a 2003 interview on the occasion of Paley being named Vermont's state poet, an honor she shared with another Vermont state poet by the name of Robert Frost. And in Seven Days, Vermont's alternative web weekly, a young writer, in what is one of the more touching reflections, remembers what he learned from Paley and how he came to understand Paley's conviction that "stories save lives." *** To a consummate American writer full of wit, grace, compassion, and grit, Ms. Paley, we wish you "Goodbye, and Good Luck." With the loss of Molly Ivins, Kurt Vonnegut, and now Grace Paley, 2007 is proving to be a dire year for American culture. Three like, incomparably gifted, despairing and joyful souls gone. The world is a poorer place without them, but we have our memories and we have their words. And that will have to be enough. So it goes. R.I.P. -Jarrett Dapier Assistant Publisher In These Times

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Before coming to The Media Consortium in February 2008, Erin was an Associate Publisher for In These Times, where she managed advertising, marketing and outreach. Erin began working with In These Times as an editorial intern in June 2005. That August, she joined the staff as Advertising and Marketing Coordinator and was promoted to Associate Publisher in February 2007. From August 2004 through May 2005, Erin served with City Year Chicago, an Americorps program. As a Senior Corps member, she co-led a team of literacy tutors at an elementary school on the West side of Chicago. Erin graduated with departmental honors and a degree in English from Webster University in May 2004.
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