In all ways, it is my pleasure to work with Diana K. McLean, whose review of Margaret Randall’s Ruins and First Laugh: Essays 2000-2009 are included in the latest issue of Bombay Gin. Diana is a graduate of the Jack Kerouac School’s low-residency MFA program and now serves as the Administrative Specialist for the Jack Kerouac School. She is the founder of Poetic Justice, a forum for social justice writing. I asked Diana to write a short reflection on her interest in Margaret Randall’s work. Please enjoy.—J’Lyn Chapman
I first encountered Margaret Randall at Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program in June 2008. It was my first week on campus as a student, and she delivered a lecture.
She was introduced as a feminist writer, poet, oral historian, teacher and activist who “unearths cities of language and vessels of memory.”
That was enough to captivate me, and the lecture didn’t disappoint. Here are just a few of the notes I took, scribbling as fast I could to get down the ideas that spoke to me most powerfully:
“Silencing itself is weapon and wall.”
“decimate walls of forgetting”
“propel us to write for change”
“awaken those who read and hear to the annihilation that threatens”
“We must weave our work from sense and memory.”
“It is not too late to ask the next question, challenge the answer…”
“A poetry of life and change need not be concerned with a particular subject matter. That would be propaganda.”
She talked about cultural walls, like the arbitrary walls of maps created by conquerors, and more intimate walls within families, social and religious settings, and said, “the same courageous voice may pierce them both.”
“Where does that authentic voice come from? Always from the other side of the wall.”
In Margaret’s lecture and her work, I found affirmation of my desire to be a writer whose words make a difference. In contrast to the voices challenging this idea, telling me it was naive (or heavy-handed) to attempt to use poetry to effect social change, here was this prolific writer talking about doing just that. (Clearly the blend of activism and writing hasn’t kept Margaret from being published: her website says she has over eighty published books to her name. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it’s ninety or more by now.)
Three years after that lecture, in my first month on campus as an employee, Margaret was again at the SWP, and I was asked to introduce her at her lecture. Of course I said yes. This time, her presentation was largely a slideshow of some of her photography, which she also uses to break down walls and try to create change. She talked about how she is a writer first and then a photographer, but clearly “activist” is a strong part of the mix, too.
Not long after last summer’s lecture, I volunteered to review two of her books, Ruins and First Laugh: Essays 2000-2009, for Bombay Gin. The chance to delve into her work in this way was a treat. Again I found that, as Jack Collom once commented to me, Margaret conveys important messages without sacrificing the art of her lines for that message. This is a balance many writers strive for, and far fewer achieve. Seeing it done so consistently and skillfully is both reassuring and intimidating: she proves it can be done, but she also sets a high bar for those of us who want to achieve that same balance.