I was lucky to meet Adrienne Rich when I was in college and she came to visit the campus. I had several hurried, fraught conversations with both students and professors about pronunciation. Was it true, I heard, it wasn’t AID-rienne but ADD-rienne? (It was.) No one wanted to say the wrong thing. Everyone wanted to meet her.
I worked for the English department doing all sorts of things. One of the best parts of the job was helping out at author readings. First, there was free coffee. Second, there were free dessert bars (chocolate chip, raspberry jam, Rice Krispies). Third, it forced me to attend every single reading the English department held. Fourth, it made me feel like I was a part, even if I was the tiniest of cogs, of this world of letters. Fifth, it paid! At each event, I sold books on behalf of the college bookstore and took pictures for the department. I have never seen these pictures anywhere other than on the display screen of the camera I checked out from the Audio Visual Center except for a single image that, somehow, appeared on the tumblr Awesome People Reading. (I have no idea how this picture made it from the first location to this last‚ I had never seen it appear on the college website.) Still, of all of the images I took over my college career to appear in the outside world, I’m glad that picture was of Adrienne Rich.
When Rich arrived on campus, I learned that there would be two, rather than one, author events. She would sign (and I would sell) books one afternoon,she would read (and I would photograph) the following morning. I arrived at the signing with the books 15 minutes early and set up at one of two tables. She’d be sitting at the other. I put out piles of Diving into the Wreck, The Fact of a Doorframe, The Dream of a Common Language, Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth, and spiraled them, like I once learned to do at Books-a-Million. (This was a special occasion, and I was aiming for whatever finesse I could achieve.) When she arrived and settled in at her table, she looked so small next to the big white plastic slab. I was told to tell everyone buying a book that Rich would not be personalizing the books, that she could only sign her name, that please open up your books to the title page.
People were giddy. I took some photos during the signing, just in case they were wanted, and many students pressed me with their email addresses. (Would I email them the pictures? Yes, I would.) One girl brought in a map from her dorm room, where it normally hung. It was a standard world map, with nations the colors of Skittles, and over it had been written in Sharpie the entirety of Rich’s Diving into the Wreck. Rich put one hand on her chest. She had never seen anything like this before. I think, I hope, she was moved.
I later saw, when she signed my own books, her small, round hands. The media reported that she died from complications of rheumatoid arthritis. This was the reason did not inscribe people’s names in the books she signed, why all of the pages had to be preturned. I knew this at the time but had no idea how serious it was. I thought her knuckles had grown so large from a lifetime of writing. Maybe that is still true. In retrospect, I’m surprised and touched she signed our books at all.
As the signing drew to a close and fewer and fewer people trickled in, I sat with Rich and a few of my professors. We talked about Wikipedia. She seemed a little mystified by it,particularly because she noticed several errors the last time she looked at her own entry. Her voice was wonderful, the way her vowels slightly shifted toward -ah’s and -u’s. Every conversation I had with her was deliberate and sincere,though not without humor. She took everyone in the room seriously, and, especially for an undergraduate, it was intoxicating.
The next day I had lunch with her and a few other students. (This was, admittedly, another major perk of my on-campus job.) I still remember some of what we ate! Lunch was held in a room that was normally a classroom, which seemed like an odd location, but it was full of beautiful, clear light. We talked about the creative projects some of us were working on‚ one student was a photographer, another a playwright, many also doubled as poets‚ and then we talked about the television program The Wire. Rich liked The Wire. She was halfway through the first or second season. After lunch, she left for the airport.
Earlier in the day, she had read for us. She read not in the normal space‚ a smaller though very handsome room in the student center‚ but in my campus’s large, open chapel. This is where I took the picture. She sat in an armchair in the middle of an empty stage with her sheaf of poems. The late morning sun filtered through the thick, stained glass windows. All of the pews were full, her microphone crackly. I don’t think I have ever seen as many people come out for a reading before or since, much less for poetry. Rich looked so powerful up there, alone, commanding this great room of people, her voice carrying over the odd, muffled sputters of the sound system.
This is what I remember, and this is how I will remember her: as unpretentious, thoughtful, and kind; as serious and lilting in conversation; as a woman who liked The Wire and who did not eat much of her salad; and, finally, as this great poet who sat on a stage before a full, rapt audience, holding our attention from her chair.