Introduction: The Way of the Matriot – On the Poetry of Frances Payne Adler
By way of introducing her poetry, I want to share my brief origin tale. In the early 1990s, I discovered Adler’s change-making work through a poem and article she’d published. The poem, which inspired me in my own work for the next twenty-five years, was prefaced by a photograph of an elderly woman (or so she was to my forty-five-year-old eyes), Helen Vandevere, raising her fist in front of a graffiti scrawl in caps (REVOLUTION), followed by Adler’s definition of a term she coined, serving as the poem’s title (please see the video below of Adler reading the poem). The documentary poem itself was in Vandevere’s voice, drawn from an interview. “Matriot” became the title poem of Adler’s 2003 collection, The Making of a Matriot. The starkness of the opening lines remains as powerful today as when I first read them: “There’s not much that’s important at my age / except making the world a better place.” (33)
I’ve been so inspired by Adler’s poetry and vision that I twice brought her to give readings and workshops at universities where I taught, and once I journeyed, as if on a pilgrimage, to the California State University Monterey Bay campus, to observe the Creative Writing and Social Action Program, which Adler founded and directed until her retirement in 2006. Preparing this feature, moreover, I’ve realized how much her documentary poetic practice (the interviews she conducts and makes into portrait poems, for example) and her innovative social action curriculum influenced me. Over the years, Adler has addressed in forthright poetry a number of “hot” social issues: pregnancy and addiction (When the Bough Breaks), homelessness (Home Street Home), and the trauma children of the survivors of the Holocaust inherit (Raising the Tents).
The topic Adler takes up in the collaborative feature piece (with photographs by Israeli photographer Michal Fattal) that follows, Dare I Call You Cousin, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Adler describes the dramatic origins of the work, the poems began “spilling out about the Occupation and I knew I needed to be there.” She went to Israel and the West Bank so she could see for herself, conduct research, interview Palestinians and Israelis, and live on the “seam” between East and West Jerusalem.
The subject lends itself particularly well to the documentary method of interviewing all parties, giving all sides a space in which to speak of their lived experience. As Adler clarifies in a short afterword, the hope of her piece is to bear witness to their lives:
Dare I Call You Cousin, a manuscript and exhibition of poetry, photos, and videos [by Israeli videographer, Yossi Yacov], steps inside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Images and stories, from both Israeli and Palestinian points of view, show the simmering conditions underpinning their lives. The art’s peacebuilding aim is to create breathing space for discussion.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to view a private exhibition drawn from the series as a whole, and similar to this feature in Persimmon Tree, we could read poems that were placed in dialogue with photographs we could see at the same time. It was emotional, inviting us “inside” the conflict, as Adler puts it, countering the natural tendency to remain outside, removed and distant.
Art reaches across political and individual boundaries to speak to us, and to bring us face to face with another person at the most intimate level, of the human heart and mind. It speaks truth, inviting us into its space to listen, feel, and think. Persimmon Tree embraces Frances Payne Adler’s ethical aim that art can be a part of “peacebuilding” efforts at this time, creating “breathing space for discussion.” We hope you’ll join in.
Frances Payne Adler, “Matriot” (Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2003). Lines quoted in text are from this first edition.