Stefan Hard/Times Argus
About 120 people gathered for a Grace Paley remembrance Sunday in the College Hall chapel of Vermont College in Montpelier.
MONTPELIER –As autumn sunlight warmed the green at Vermont College Sunday afternoon, Grace Paley's friends, neighbors, former students and fellow poets filled College Hall chapel, recreating her life through vignettes and voices, much as she created lives in her stories.
Paley — writer, peace activist, mother, past poet laureate of Vermont and nominee for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award — died Aug. 22, 2007, at the age of 84 at her home in Thetford Hill.
She was born in the Bronx of Jewish immigrant parents and grew up in a household rich with the sounds of Russian, Yiddish and English.
Joseph Gainza opened the memorial service with the observation that Paley wrote about the ordinary – "the miraculousness of the ordinary, the ordinary in which we all live."
Gainza is the program coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker peace organization that Paley and her husband, playwright Robert Nichols, supported for many years.
When its members came up with the idea for a memorial service, Merry Gangemi, a poet and member of organization, began calling other Vermont poets. Eleven paid tribute to Paley Sunday, some reading from her works and others reading poems they had written about her.
The celebration was punctuated with music by the Nisht Geferlach Klezmar Band and the Raging Grannies, a singing group made up of members of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, which Paley belonged to. The event concluded with Nichols and others recounting personal memories of Paley.
"I suppose, when all is said and done, this is my way to thank Grace for all the times she said 'Yes,' and showed up for protests and demonstrations, and for letting them arrest her for saying 'No' to war," Gangemi said, explaining why she organized the memorial service.
Nora Paley, the poet's daughter, read a statement that her mother had written for the Women's Pentagon Action in 1980. She stood behind a podium draped with a rainbow flag that bore the words "NO NUKES" and beneath the words, a swirling sun.
"We are in the hands of men whose power and wealth have separated them from the reality of daily life and the imagination," Grace Paley had told the demonstrators. "There is a fear among the people, and that fear, created by industrial militarists, is used as an excuse to accelerate the arms race. 'Who will protect you?' they say…We want to know, what anger in these men, what fear, which can only be satisfied thorough destruction, what coldness of heart and ambition drives their days?"
Paley enumerated the country's needs: good food, decent work, child care, heath care, safe streets, renewable energy, and for "the earth, our home, to be fed as well as harvested." She concluded by calling for an end to the arms race and "the amazing inventions of death."
The picture that emerged from Paley's poems was of a woman connected by ties of affection to babies, friends, her husband, neighbors, the earth and daily life. Her activism grew out of the threat she perceived that war posed to those loved.
On the other hand, David Budbill, who read "The Poet's Occasional Alternative," revealed Paley's love of fun and lack of pretensiousness:
"I was going to write a poem
I made a pie instead it took
About the same amount of time
Of course the pie was a final
draft a poem would have had some
distance to go days and weeks and
much crumpled paper …
everybody will like this pie
it will have apples and cranberries
dried apricots in it many friends
will say why in the world did you
make only one
this does not happen with poems …."
In "Responsibility," read by Major Jackson, Paley declared her view of the artist's role. She wrote:
"It is the responsibility of society to let the poet be a poet
It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman
It is the responsibility of the poet to stand on street scorners
giving out poems and beautifully written leaflets
also leaflets they can hardly bear to look at
because of the screaming rhetoric …
It is the poet's responsibility to speak truth to power as the
It is the poet's responsibility to learn the truth from the powerless
It is the responsibility of the poet to say many times: there is no
freedom without justice and this means economic
justice and love justice…
It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman to keep an eye on
this world and cry out like Cassandra, but be
listened to this time."
Cora Brooks, Merry Gangemi, Jody Gladding, Phyllis Larrabee, Jim Schley, Samn Stockwell, Susan Thomas, Ellen Bryant Voigt and Martha Zweig also read. Several of the readers commented on Paley's supportiveness to other writers.
Brooks, who had demonstrated at Vermont Yankee with Paley 30 years ago, noted the coincidence of the collapse of the cooling tower on Aug. 22 with Paley's death.
Corey said she thought had heard Paley's voice right after she died. Brooks turned her words into a song, "so it wouldn't seem so strange:"
"Carry it on, carry it on ….
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