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Icon and iconoclast 

by Kris Dinnison

Spokane is not exactly a hot spot on the circuit for cultural icons. We get the occasional musician, writer, politician, or activist who wanders through town on their way to somewhere else. But this weekend, one of the great voices of the last 50 years pays a visit to Spokane's sleepy North Side. Adrienne Rich, acclaimed poet and social critic, is Whitworth's Endowed English Reader for 2001. After working with students in the afternoon, Rich will read from her work on Saturday night.

"The purpose of the readings is to bring nationally recognized writers to the campus and community," explains Doug Sugano, professor of English at Whitworth College. The series has brought such celebrated authors as Donald Hall, David James Duncan, Joy Harjo and Jane Hirschfield in the past. But even with that prestigious list, Sugano recognizes that Rich's visit is special. "She doesn't do that many readings in a year," he says. "If you were to ask people for a top 20 list of living American poets, she'd be on the list."

Rich's accolades began very early in her life. She won the Yale Series of Young Poets award in 1951 for her first book of poetry, A Change of World. She was 21. Her work continued to grow and evolve in the formalist tradition of the day. However, in 1963 she published "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law," which showed a startling shift toward a free verse exploration of personal truth and social injustice. After 17 volumes of poetry and several collections of essays, Rich's new collection, Midnight Savage: Poems 1995-1998, shows that those explorations have no end. "One thing that's great about Rich is that even though she has 17 volumes of poetry, it's never the same," says Sugano. "She always moves forward with either new issues or new voice."

Rich is famous for addressing the issues head on. Her hallmark is unabashed truth-telling. In her poem entitled "Diving into the Wreck," written in 1972, she says she seeks "...the thing I came for:/the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth." Looking at the reality and not the myth has led her to examine deeply such issues as violence, racism, poverty, sexism, lesbianism and the marginalization of groups that mainstream society has forgotten. Taking on these issues honestly, without their sugar-coating, or the "myth," has often resulted in polarized responses to Rich's work. Some see her as a social icon, others as an iconoclast. "She's someone who speaks with a really clear and distinct feminist voice," Sugano explains. "I always appreciate what she says because it's so thoughtfully considered, and it's always based on her experience and based on what she sees in the world."

This thoughtful consideration was evident in 1997 when Rich declined the National Medal of the Arts, an award presented by the National Endowment for the Arts and President Clinton. In a letter reprinted in the New York Times, Rich said she could not accept an award from a government where "both major parties have displayed a crude affinity for the interests of corporate power while deserting the majority of the people, especially the most vulnerable. A President cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored."

It is this kind of personal critique of the status quo that has drawn people to Rich's work for more than 50 years, and it is this voice that Sugano is excited to bring to the Whitworth campus. "It's more exciting for me as a teacher and for the students to be reading someone we're actually going to meet," explains Sugano. "I'm hoping it'll start some fruitful and healthy discussions on campus. I want the students and community to hear a voice we would ordinarily not hear. To hear what I would consider a consummate poet, you just don't get to hear that every day." In the end, visits by thinkers like Rich are what education and learning are all about. "If you can't bring interesting people to a liberal arts campus, don't bother," Sugano says. "You have to bring in people who are going to educate everyone, and not just reinforce what already is."

Adrienne Rich reads at Whitworth College's Cowles Memorial Auditorium at 8 p.m. on Saturday, April 7. Call: 777-4212.

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