The Amazing Grace Paley
Vermont's Poetic Conscience
By Rickey Gard Diamond
It wasn't easy for Thetford writer Grace Paley to find time for this interview. Nearing 85, Paley has been fighting breast cancer for a number of years and, the month before, she'd finished a new round of chemotherapy. Yet she and poet husband, Bob Nichols, had just collaborated on a new book, Here and Somewhere Else, out the same week I visited. She looked thinner than when I last saw her, but put me at ease, beginning our talk the way women often do: she admired my sweater.
I complimented her beret, worn at a jaunty angle, and she took it off to show me how short her hair is now, and darker - no longer snowy white. "It's beginning to grow back now," she said, running her hand over her head. "I was bald." Blunt, her voice still hails from the Bronx, edged with kindliness.
Paley first began spending summers in Vermont in the early 1970s. I asked her how she liked living here now, a place still snowy in April, and so different from her home town. "I feel lucky to be here," she answered. "But I was lucky to live in New York City, too. Both places are so different and both exciting to me. I wouldn't be who I am if I hadn't had both these places."
I told her I had made my decision to move to this state about the time I discovered her stories, 25 years ago. I was a working single mom with three kids. Poor, I dreamed of being a writer. Knowing that Paley was living in Vermont, I thought that breathing the same air she breathed might help my writing. Her stories had already changed my world.
Before reading Paley, I'd never seen my "secret woman's life" made visible, made literature. Her early path, like mine, looked conventional. Paley and I had both married by age 19; she a generation earlier, in 1942. I surely recognized what she said about it in her biography: "The whole atmosphere in the house was that if you didn't get married, you were in trouble."
Grace Goodside was born in New York City in 1922 to Russian Jewish immigrants (the family name altered from Gutseit). Her parents had expected their bright, pretty, funny, strong and determined child to excel, writes biographer Judith Arcana in Grace Paley's Life Stories. "But it never entered their minds she wouldn't also be a wife and mother."
"[My parents] were radical people in Russia," Paley told me, crediting them for her disposition and her politics. Paley carried that legacy into her college days, befriending an African American woman at Hunter College, according to Lucy Nichol, a childhood friend who attended college with Paley and now lives in Montpelier. Hunter College's fairly sizeable population of black students sat separately at lunch. "We were pretty radical, but it was a little unusual for Grace to pal around with an African American," Nichol said.
Paley remarked on her own education in Arcana's Life Stories. "Something happened to me at school. After junior high I just sort of went inside myself. I became desperately unhappy." When Paley was 13, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. When she was only 15, she graduated high school and entered Hunter College in 1939. Not surprisingly, for someone so young, she cut classes and dropped out after a year. She worked at clerical jobs until she married Jess Paley.
Later Paley tried more classes, including one with poet W.H. Auden. She had begun writing poetry. Her friends and family recognized Paley's talents. In fact, two years ago, at a special Vermont event in Paley's honor, Lucy Nichol read an early poem Paley had written for a mutual friend in the Bronx, who had saved the poem for 60 years. Could any of them have imagined Paley would one day be named Vermont's poet laureate, as happened in 2003?
Paley's early adult life was shaped by World War II. She followed her soldier husband across the nation, and lived with a friend when he went overseas. When Jess returned, the young Paleys settled in Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan.
In 1948, Paley's mother died, just a year before Paley's daughter Nora was born. A son, Danny, came in 1951, and in 1952, ill and exhausted, Paley had an illegal abortion, about which she later wrote in Just as I Thought. She was becoming deeply concerned about women's lives, though the greatest changes still lay ahead.
Writing in Secret
Paley's son Danny told Judith Arcana that by the time he was six, he knew his mother was a writer. He recalled Paley "typing away, I always saw her typing….I read her first book when I was eight or nine." That book, The Little Disturbances of Man, established his mother's reputation, not for poetry, but for short stories.
Paley had begun writing in secret. She later said she regretted not sharing her work with others sooner; friends reported it was hard to get her stories out of her clutches. When I asked her why, she said, "Because in those days, women's lives weren't considered to be interesting. That was the common thought. We [later] found out, it was interesting. I feel very lucky to have lived and written in these times when there was a great woman's movement, the greatest political movement of the 20th century."
Paley's material was her life-rich material. She worked with parent organizations at the school, went to meetings at the Peace Center she helped found in the neighborhood, took part in demonstrations and stood on street corners, handing out leaflets. Meanwhile, she wrote and managed a busy family. Children played a central role in all these realms.
I was given a glimpse of this period in Paley's life from another Montpelier woman, Fran Krushenick, who lived for ten years in the same apartment building as Paley in the Village. It was a dilapidated old apartment building, Krushenick said, even in 1962 when they first moved in. It was near Public School 41, the neighborhood full of the sounds of children. Krushenick's kids were much younger than Paley's, so the two mothers never met in nearby parks for those intimate talks famous in Paley's fiction, but she said Paley still visited regularly.
"She was constantly forgetting her key. I'd hear a knock, and there would be Grace, and I'd say, oh, you've forgotten your key again, and Grace would nod and go right through the apartment, into my son's bedroom and out his window to climb down the fire escape to her apartment below. She kept a window unlocked."
Krushenick's daughter, Andra, always looked forward to Paley's Halloween Haunted House, renowned in the neighborhood. Krushenick recalls a sweet story Paley once told her about her own girl. Out of milk, Krushenick had put a dollar bill in a little purse for her six-year-old's first solo trip to the grocery store, around the corner. Andra was very proud, said Fran. Streets were safer then. Plus neighbors, like Paley, paid attention.
Paley told Krushenick she'd then noticed Andra looking very forlorn. What's wrong? Paley asked. Andra had opened the purse to find it empty. Let me look, said Paley. The purse clicked open to two different compartments, and Paley found the dollar and showed Andra how the closure worked. Paley kept a look-out until Andra returned, beaming with success-but where's the milk? Paley asked, seeing she'd forgotten it in her excitement. Paley sent Andra back to the store, later sharing a laugh with Krushenick.
Keeping the Family Close
Today, the youngest four of Paley's grandchildren live very close by, and they visit her every day, she told me. Her house in Thetford is as scruffy as that old apartment building. In the center of her living room is a support beam, tacked with dozens of curling photos of the children in her life. She rose from her chair to show me each picture, and sympathized when I confided that my grandkids live far away. "That's hard," she agreed. Her phone rang, as it had several times, and she answered it in the next room. This time there was pleasure in her voice when she recognized the caller - it was the grown granddaughter, whom she'd already mentioned when I asked her if we really lived in a post-feminist age: were we all done?
"That's not really true," she answered, "but in my own family, for my granddaughter, who's in her mid-20s-she's going to law school. And for her, it's just natural. It's not the biggest thing anymore." She shrugged but then added, "I think young women shouldn't lose what the women's movement has gained. Don't make light of that sisterhood we found. They should keep their loyalty to each other, as women, and not give it away."
I heard her talking to her granddaughter. "I'm in an interview. I'll call you back, but first I want to know how you are. No, right now." She listened, gave encouraging hmms, then said, "While I have you, give me your new address, yeah, right now. Okay, pussy cat-kiss you."
When she came back in, I said, gesturing toward the childrens' photos, "You've been involved in the politics of social change for a long time. What do you dream of for these little ones?"
She sighed and took a moment. "It would be a world where all of my grandchildren-you saw two of them are black, not white-could feel at home in their world. I know when those children grow up, they're going to face some hard things. So it would be a world without militarism and racism and greed-and where women don't have to fight for their place in the world."
Paley's second book, the short story collection Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, was released in 1975 and included a wider cast of outspoken women. Grace and Jess Paley had divorced 1972. She'd begun teaching writing some years before that to help support her family. That same year she had married Bob Nichols, who had a home in Vermont.
That book and another story collection, Later the Same Day, published in 1985, reflected a changing world and included divorces, careers, arguments, always arguments, and black and lesbian voices, along with familiar women's friendships. About the change in her later stories, she told me, "There has to be some political movement before there can be a literature. Black literature came because first there was a black political movement. Women's literature came with a women's movement."
I asked her what she thought about contemporary women's writing. "I look for women in publications and I count how many women are being published. I consciously support publications that publish women because it's easy not to-like The New York Times Book Review sometimes. Women's writing needs to be supported by women."
Poet Susan Thomas, who lives in Marshfield, was one of Paley's students at Sarah Lawrence College, a short commute north of the city, where Paley taught writing for 22 years. "I knew Grace, first as an undergrad, from political stuff," Thomas said. "We were starting to march against the [Vietnam] war. Then I was with her for graduate school, 1977-1980. Now I've been her friend for longer than I was her student."
I'd already noticed Paley values relationships that last. In the forward to her autobiography, Just as I Thought, she thanked both of her husbands for their friendship and support. This seemed unusual, I commented, but she shrugged, matter-of-fact. "I was married to the other guy for 25 years and I've been married to Bob for 35. I'm just a long-distance runner." I laughed, recognizing the title of one of her best-known stories.
"Her writing class was not hierarchical," Thomas told me, emphatic. "We'd sit in a circle and listen to each writer read her story. Grace wanted us to hear the voice. We had to listen, because everyone had to say something. Then Grace would say something-like 'You don't have to talk so fancy about that story.'" Thomas laughed. "You know how she likes to dumb it down, but she's brilliant; she has her own cadences, her own language. She told us the process of editing is when you take out the lies. She said, you have to give all your characters integrity, including the bad ones."
Once, when Paley was away, a new teacher filled in, fresh from the Iowa Writers Workshop, where reputations are still made or destroyed. "She pitted us against each other, until we were all miserable," said Thomas, "so I told her, we don't do it that way here. We don't backbite. Everyone gets an equal amount of time and consideration." Thomas ran into that teacher years later, and they both remembered. "Paley taught us not only to be generous but to accept everyone's work as [being as] important as ours. There was no feeling of competition or hierarchy; we were all behind each other very, very strongly."
I experienced something similar in 1982, when Paley gave a reading at Vermont College in Montpelier. I was a student in the MFA in Writing program and Paley had recently been elected to the National Academy of Arts and Letters, an august post. My move to Vermont had obviously been wise, because there I was, not only breathing the same air, but sitting in the same room with Paley, a witness to her straight, strong posture. Surprisingly short, Paley carried a full head of bright, white hair and, out of her friendly-looking face, I now heard the voice that had jumped off the page at me so many times before. Her language rolled triple somersaults that took my breath away, more intimate than ever, speaking to me. Okay, there were other would-be writers in the group, too, listening-but she has a way of talking to each one, and personally.
Paley's story that day made us laugh and cry, and I noticed things I hadn't intended or understood could be in a woman's story. Afterward, she said to us, "Every story should be about the whole world." Her stories did seem that large, I saw, and from then on, mine wanted to be. But first, in the question period afterward, I tried to show off, disparaging Donald Barthelme, a writer very different from Paley. My tone gave away my scorn, as I'd learned was "done" in literary circles.
Paley surprised me, saying she valued his contributions, and that every writer has to find an authentic voice, however different. I didn't know at the time that Barthelme lived in her New York neighborhood and had been one of her earliest encouragers. But she didn't sneer at me in return. It was just as Thomas said: with Paley, everyone's words counted.
After the reading, I found the courage to invite Paley to my home, where an informal writers' workshop was meeting. I told Paley my writer friends would be honored to have her join us. She came and listened to our stories with interest, openly enjoying what everyone read. When she left, she kissed me on the cheek, thanking me. I've since tried to imagine Ernest Hemingway or John Updike mentoring this way-and the contrast always makes me smile.
Gender, Art and Politics
Paley's work continued to be published widely. In 1985 she penned a first book of poems, Leaning Forward, and the next year she helped organize a Women's Committee for PEN, the national writers' organization that advocates freedom from censorship. She and other women writers had noticed that only 16 of 117 speakers at PEN's 48th Congress were women.
Then-President of PEN, novelist Norman Mailer publicly explained it was because the speakers had to be of "real distinction." This was an intellectual event, and the only woman intellectual in America was Susan Sontag, he joked, and she couldn't attend. I've been told he later said from the podium that real writers had to have balls, and one of the women writers in the rear of the audience raised a hand to nicely ask him, "In what color ink does he dip them?"
This sounded so much like a comment Paley might have said that I asked her about the story. She laughed, but couldn't remember who it was, "maybe Nadine Gordimer."
"I don't know why he said such dumb things; it'll stick to him," she mused about Mailer. "I used to feel like I could talk to him, maybe, since both of us came from the Bronx. So I said once, Norman, don't talk that way! It's very upsetting to the women. And he said, they're just getting older and uglier, that's all. That was the end of my trying, so now when I see him at things, like at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and he's older, I think to myself, hey, look, Norman, you've lost your neck."
Paley's friendly protests for inclusion, for peace, cannot be separated from her art. Her wide-armed participation in life translates into stories and poems and actions and talks. Her political life is expressed as boldly as her literary one, the two a kind of yin and yang, nesting together, curling into a beautiful round shape that comes full circle.
Childhood friend Lucy Nichol reconnected with "Gracie" Goodside Paley at a Montpelier rally in 1979, and they have since worked together with the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). Both of them have sung with the Raging Grannies, a chorus group whose funny lyrics disarm conventional thinking about violence, war and commercialism.
Burlington activist and WILPF member Robin Lloyd told me, "Every time I hear her speak or read her poetry, she's able to cut through the jargon, the politically correct way of looking at things, which is often tedious. She gets to the kernel of it and describes it in a way that reaches your heart, with simplicity, directness, and this nitty-gritty realism that's so appealing. Her poetry is one with herself - and how she looks and how she dresses, there's no artifice."
Paley has worked with and founded dozens of organizations that give voice to those silenced by economic and military violence. They include The War Resisters League, the Women's Pentagon Action, The Clamshell Alliance, Resist, The Feminist Press, The Writers and Teachers Cooperative, and her and husband Bob's own Good Day Press. In 1979, she helped organize the first feminist environmental conference, "Women and Life on Earth," while just this March, another international women's group she sponsors, Madre, produced a report on the devastating effects of Iraq's government on women, a topic seldom reported.
I said, "When I look at the long perspective you have, Grace, your span of experience - like being a young girl and seeing firsthand the Depression, and then being a young woman, married and hanging out with soldiers during WWII, and then you worked a long time to end the Vietnam war and the wars in Central America - I wonder what advice you might have for Vermont women today."
"Advice? I don't give advice. It's not what I do," she said, voice curt. "If anything, the important thing is to remain interested in the world. It's a natural thing, I think, to be interested in different people and different cultures. And if you're not, well, that's too bad. It's important to pay attention to what's going on in the world."
"What do you think is most important now?"
"The war! It's so horrendous. I can't believe we've ended up going there. How can mothers bear it, to send their children off to this war in Iraq? There was no build up to it, no way it had made itself real to us, we're just suddenly there."
"Did you notice that hyper-masculinity during the last presidential campaign?" I asked. "I wonder what you think of this American posture-being so tough, so strong?"
"It's always been that way. That's how they make a war happen. They have to turn it into some big, exciting thing that will make all the boys feel like they should fight, and that they can be successful. But I have the sense that they're not getting their way this time." She paused a moment, then said. "I hope," a wry smile lifting one corner of her mouth.
Wrapping up our interview, I learned that Paley and Nichols were planning to make the two-hour drive to Burlington the next day for a sit-in at Congressman Peter Welch's office.
Sure enough, I read the following day that Paley had taken part in the protest, among those refusing to leave until Welch personally explained why he had voted to fund the Iraq war, when voters had elected him to help end it. Six Vermonters, including 87-year-old Bob Nichols, had been arrested. Paley decided to forego arrest this time. But through her stories and her actions, she continues to inspire many to speak up and refuse silence.
Contributing Editor Rickey Gard Diamond has earned her living by writing, publishing a novel, Second Sight, and other fiction, and editing Vermont Woman from 1985 to 1988. She now teaches writing at Union Institute and University's Vermont College campus. She would like to thank Paley's daughter Nora and her stepson Duncan for their kind assistance with this article.