“The shortest statement of philosophy I have is my living, or the word ‘I.’”
In the fall of 1970, the Academy of American Poets received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to stage a series of lectures and readings in public parks and libraries. Elizabeth Kray, the Academy’s first Executive Director, was one of poetry’s most spirited advocates in the whole of Western civilization, and she held two things particularly dear — civil rights (she had overseen the remarkable poet-led protest that revoked Amiri Baraka’s wrongful imprisonment) and the life-transforming power of enchanting young minds with poetry (she had founded the Poets-in-the-Schools program, which also received NEA support and which gave us Thom Gunn’s reading list of essential poetry for young readers). Upon receiving the grant, Kray hastened to invite the great Caribbean-American poet, essayist, feminist, lesbian icon, and anti-war, civil rights, and human rights activist Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) to host a series of “poetry readings and rap sessions” at an Upper West Side branch of the New York Public Library in the spring of 1971. (Lorde had benefited from an NEA grant herself the previous spring through the Poets-in-the-Schools program — a modest sum by corporate standards, but a transformative one for any artist, especially for that supreme martyr for creativity amid a culture of commerce, the working poet.)
“The readings will attract a general audience,” Kray wrote in her invitation, “but the bulk would be ‘young adults,’ junior and senior high school aged kids.” Lorde gladly agreed. “As a former Young Adult Librarian,” she replied, “it has always given me great pleasure to work with this age group.” But her impetus was even more personal: Having published her own first poem in Seventeen magazine at the age of fifteen, Lorde had a profound appreciation for the power of finding one’s voice in poetry as a youngster.
On a recent research visit to the Academy’s ceaselessly rewarding archive, I discovered the short and exquisite piece Lorde had written for the promotional flyer announcing the readings. Printed on the inside of the folded brochure, it is part meditation on the indivisible cohesion of identity, part beautiful manifesto for the importance of arts education and arts funding, and part poetic micro-biography akin to Italo Calvino’s delightful CV and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s playful self-portrait in verse.
I am Black, Woman, and Poet — fact, and outside the realm of choice. I can choose only to be or not be, and in various combinations of myself. And as my breath is part of my breathing, my eyes of my seeing, all that I am is of who I am, is of what I do. The shortest statement of philosophy I have is my living, or the word “I.”
Having made homes in most parts of this city, I hang now from the west edge of Manhattan, and at any moment I can cease being a New Yorker, for already my children betray me in television, in plastic, in misplaced angers.
Last spring, under a National Endowment [for] the Arts Grant, I spent some time as Poet in Residence at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, where I became convinced, anti-academic though I am, that poets must teach what they know if we are to continue being.
At The City University of New York, I teach young people.
A decade later, Lorde was awarded the NEA’s esteemed Literature Fellowship. She was among three thousand individual writers who have received a total of $46 million from the NEA since the agency’s inception in 1965 — aid without which, it may be safe to say, many of the most beloved artists of the past half-century would have struggled to survive and some may have never brought to life the works for which they are now beloved.
If you are as terrified as I am at the prospect of the NEA’s demise in the hands of a heedless government that cares as little about the arts as it does about science, call your representative today and speak up for the survival of the arts — Lorde’s own powerful words about our responsibility to break our silences are timelier than ever.
Then, complement the work of resistance with the work of persistence by joining me in donating to the Academy of American Poets so they may continue to do their increasingly important mission of buoying the human spirit in this time of dire need.
donating = loving
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