75 at 75: Maxine Hong Kingston on Grace Paley

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A special project for 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary and beyond, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to recordings from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Maxine Hong Kingston writes about a reading by Grace Paley, which was recorded live at 92Y on November 29, 1971.

Posted on Feb 24, 2015

Maxine-Hong-Kington_100What a jolt—suddenly to hear Grace’s voice, her cough, her footsteps. She’s alive. She’s funny, still making us laugh. But she doesn’t laugh. I hadn’t noticed until hearing this recording, she doesn’t laugh along with us. In fact, the first thing you hear, she’s complaining, “I’ve never not seen the people I’m reading to before. Feels funny.” It’s the lights; the audience is in the dark, and the lights are in her eyes. You hear footsteps again. Grace walking offstage to adjust the lights?

I flashed back to a night before an announced bombing of Baghdad when Grace and I were on stage in Berkeley; we were there simply to read. Rabblerousing voices interrupted, called for us elders to do something. Grace agreed, “Yes, we need to do something. I’m going to get a piece of paper.” She walked offstage, came back with paper and, as if taking dictation, wrote with the audience a declaration of peace. She sent the paper into the audience for signing. A radical shouted, “What are we going to do?” Grace answered, “We’re doing it,” and proceeded with her reading. I don’t remember which story she read. “Come On, Ye Sons of Art”? That title would make a great slogan.

This recording is of Grace’s first reading at the 92nd Street Y. (She shared the stage with Donald Barthelme.) Her introducer, theater critic Richard Gilman, says the audience will ask, “‘Who is Grace Paley?’ The reason you haven’t heard of her—though one of the best writers in America—she’s only published one book of short stories, and that was some years ago. . . . The Little Disturbances of Man.” The perception that Grace’s oeuvre is small continues to this day, even though her Collected Stories and Begin Again: Collected Poems and Just As I Thought, her collected nonfiction, total almost a thousand pages. The professed reason—the myth—is that she sacrificed art for politics. No time for writing and peacemaking.

I feel that her life was a beautiful whole. Her dear people went into the stories and poems, and her stories and poems were written in the service of peace, justice, rights for her people—us. Oh, so good to hear again her voice imparting endearments: “Oh, darling, darling,” “dear little chicks,” “Oh, my dear,” “Watch out, sweetheart,” “gay dog,” “darling girl.” You wouldn’t even mind being called “used boy,” so much love and concern she put into that epithet.

And a hoot to hear her swearing: “…idiots, morons,” “those bastards, contemptible goddamnable bastards,” “Merde,” “by the birdseed of St. Francis,” “holy toads!” There’s a moment in this recording when Grace misreads “Christ” as if it were a swear word and goes back to read it as the subject of the sentence. “I said, ‘Christ probably had all that trouble. . . .”

But, of course, it’s not the author but her characters who’re speaking. Hearing her spoken-word performance, I realized that Grace Paley’s stories are like plays, mostly dialogue. And she does all the voices.

“You guys make me puke.” In the middle of that speech, in the middle of “Come On, Ye Sons of Art,” she comes to a complete stop. Or is it a glitch in the recording? All goes still. Dead silence. As if she put a hand over the mike. Then, her voice from afar: “I may stumble, stumble over one or two pages of this, cuz that’s the way I feel about them. They’re not quite right.” Does she mean the characters in the last story or the one to come? Maybe she doesn’t like the greedy characters and doesn’t want to have their voices in her mouth.

She announces “some things” she’s been working on, “conversations with my father, real and invented.” We’re privileged to hear the near-last draft of “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute.” (“A Conversation with My Father” will become the title of another, later story.) Grace channels the voice of her father “in the cave of old age . . . sick with oldness,” and of Father’s hospital roommate, John, and of Alexandra at 41, and of her young lover, Dennis. Dennis is a musician and sings. I was hoping to hear Grace’s singing voice, but she reads the lyrics, knock-knocking the first song’s rhythm on the podium. I’d call those lyrics poetry, but Dennis says, “Fuck poetry.”

Years ago, I sat next to the poet Carolyn Kizer listening to Grace read a new story. It was about a woman dying of cancer and her friends doing for her. The audience, like this audience at the 92nd Street Y, laughed throughout. Carolyn kept saying to me, “Why are they laughing? This is a sad story. They shouldn’t be laughing.” Under Carolyn’s influence, I sombered up and listened to a “short sad story from a long, happy life,” as Grace called two of her tales (“The Used-Boy Raisers” and “A Subject of Childhood”). Why do we laugh? Is it that Grace is chewing gum all the while she’s reading? Carolyn and I were seated in the back of the room; she probably didn’t see the gum-chewing, tough-girl delivery

Grace Paley’s stories are at once sad and long and short and playful. And now we have them to listen to forever, and again.

Maxine Hong Kingston’s most recent book is I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, a memoir.