Female writers, pursuing their voice

January 18, 1993|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Contributing Writer

"Poetry is a matter of life, not just a matter of language," Lucille Clifton, past poet laureate of Maryland, explains. The writer is drawn by the world, by life, by mystery. "You have to be open to mystery," she says. "And life keeps happening."

Ms. Clifton, who teaches at St. Mary's College and is the winner of numerous awards, including an Emmy from the American Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, calls writing a visceral thing. The writer must get a feel for "how the lines wish to proceed, how the words wish to follow each other, how the sounds work together in a kind of music."

Ms. Clifton is one of the writers in Mickey Pearlman's latest book: "Listen to Their Voices, Twenty Interviews With Women Who Write." This book, like her previous one, "A Voice of One's Own," presents a cross section of women being published in America today. It includes the English novelist Fay Weldon, Australian Janette Turner Hospital and Margot Livesey of Scotland.

Three of the writers are poets -- Ms. Clifton, Joy Harjo and Sharon Olds. Terry Tempest Williams is a science writer. The rest write fiction, although several write essays as well. Some of them are older, well-established voices, such as Grace Paley and Anne Rice. Others, such as Gish Jen, Jessica Hagedorn and Connie Porter, are younger writers, with one or so -- usually prize-winning -- books to their credit.

Ms. Pearlman presents her interviews in a narrative style. This, she thinks, will allow readers "to appreciate more fully the context of mood, style, sense of humor, and shared interest." Unfortunately, this approach calls attention to itself with some awkwardly written prose.

On occasion, Ms. Pearlman shares too little about her subject and too much about herself. I found this especially annoying in the Grace Paley interview when Ms. Pearlman wasted a page and a half getting started.

Two other books featuring female writers -- "Women Writers At Work: The Paris Review Interviews," with an introduction by Margaret Atwood, and "Writing Lives: Conversations Between Women Writers," edited by Mary Chamberlain -- use the question-and-answer format. The result is a more focused interview.

Yet despite some technical difficulties, Ms. Pearlman's book is both inspiring and informative. It is also political. As Grace Paley says, writing the lives of women, especially women writers, is politics.

Ultimately, the book is about art and about women as word artists. In the words of Ms. Paley, it's about women who use the mother tongue to sustain and invigorate the language.

These are women who trust themselves to the mystery of the word. They let words work through them in an intuitive, almost physical way. So Terry Williams can speak of writing out of the body of the earth: "We are so afraid of loving the Earth, loving each other, loving ourselves." Sharon Olds can muse about a life given over to the written word: "One hopes only to be able to live a life that brings out the best poems that one can write." Joy Harjo can remind us of the regenerative quality of language. Language, she says, should be powerful and beautiful and meaningful. It should, and this is what Ms. Pearlman's book does at its best -- connect us.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Listen to Their Voices: Twenty Interviews With Women Who Write."

Author: Mickey Pearlman.

Publisher: Norton.

Length, price: 224 pages, $20.95.

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