Elisavietta Ritchie on BETTY PARRY
(January 5, 1927 - August 1, 1997)
Betty Parry was a prime shaker-and-mover--an apt cliché in a city of politicians and lobbyists. With her many activities and projects, and the poets and writers of all ages and backgrounds whom she encouraged, she helped change the course of Washington's literary history. She quite worshiped poets and poetry, perhaps indeed believing, "Poets not priests / intercede with the Gods" (from "Double Helix in a Mirror").
Public relations was her métier, both professionally and personally, and she used her skills to organize several ground-breaking readings featuring new as well as established poets in a town that hitherto had offered little beyond an occasional reading, usually by a big-name out-of-town poet or writer, at the Library of Congress and Folger Shakespeare Library. And through all her activities, from conducting personal interviews to organizing public forums, as well as in smaller gatherings at her house, she brought countless new and established writers, including many from Washington's Black intellectual circles, to broader audiences.
Born January 5, 1927, (as she writes in her poem "Flowers and Astrology": "nee Widder, German for ram,/ born Zodiac-goat on the fifth/ of January in the Chinese year/ of rabbit"), she died of pancreatic cancer August 1, 1997. She published the anthology The Unicorn and The Garden (The Word Works), and a collection of her own, Shake the Parrot Cage (New Poets Series).
The Textile Museum Poetry and Literature Series
The Poetry and Literature Series at the Textile Museum took place in a stunning yet fairly intimate gallery, from 1973 to 1975. Over the course of twenty-four truly international programs, the series featured the Washington area's first major bi-racial readings, including African-American, African and Caribbean poets. Along with internationally-known figures such as Chinua Achebe, Robert Bly, Leon Damas, Allen Ginsberg, Josephine Jacobsen and Reed Whittemore, the series introduced a generation of younger poets and writers whose names have since become familiar far beyond the area, such as Samuel Allen, Lucille Clifton, Roland Flint, Colette Inez, Galway Kinnell, William Packard, Linda Pastan, Henry Taylor, and the man who probably did more than anyone to promote poets around the world, John Pauker.
Poetry in translation, fiction, dramatic readings, and poetry and music programs were included, and Betty Parry invited two poets who were also politicians: Eugene McCarthy (former Democratic senator from Minnesota and presidential aspirant) and Katie Loucheim (active leader in the Democratic party and first woman to be appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of State). And from Washington's Black literary community, Sterling Brown and May Miller, who became her especially close friends. (During May Miller's last years, when she was ailing, Betty Parry was a frequent visitor to her bedside.)
A tangible outgrowth of the Textile Museum Poetry and Literature Series was the anthology, The Unicorn and the Garden (Betty Parry editor, The Word Works, 1978). Presenting poetry, fiction and translations by nearly forty writers, the anthology, designed by Paris Pacchione, was printed on beautiful stock. The cover was embossed with the head of a unicorn--Betty Parry's quasi totem. As she wrote in her introduction, the unicorn symbolizes "the mythical imagination, the creative process, the poetic vision--equally admired and sought after as a unicorn and equally as elusive--[who] remains invisible to all but those who have been inspired and touched by the Muse."
Gunston Arts Center Poetry Series
The Gunston Arts Center Poetry Series: "Shaping an Artistic Consciousness" and "Shaping an Artistic Conscience," which Betty Parry developed and coordinated in 1980-1981, included readings by Ai, Carolyn Forche, Stanley Kunitz, Eugene McCarthy, Gregory Orr, Linda Pastan, Myra Sklarew, William Jay Smith, Kathleen Spivack, Ahmos Zu Bolton and many others. Gunston provided the first setting in Virginia for Ethelbert Miller's Ascension Readings promoting African-American poets. (The Word Works obtained funding from the Virginia Commission for the Arts and the Writer's Center for this series.)
Other Outreach Programs
Betty Parry was involved in, and later president of, the Literary Friends of the DC Library, and helped to develop the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library's literary programs. Instrumental in creating programs to encourage the cultural interests of young people, she also served on the board of the then-nascent Duke Ellington School for the Arts.
Sterling Brown's Influence
When Betty Parry came into Washington's literary world, Sterling A. Brown was a highly respected elder poet, folklorist, critic and professor emeritus from Howard University. He was little known, however, in Washington's multiple other intellectual, cultural, political, international, and local professional communities, predominantly of Anglo-Saxon, European, or other foreign extraction. As Betty Parry's daughter Roberta Brawer describes it:
"The Browns' salons offered a whole other world, what the historian Constance McLaughlin Green reveals in her book The Secret City: the other side of Washington. My mother felt honored to be part of that group. She was so excited hearing their stories that she wanted to share them with others, and provide a forum where these exciting intellectuals could talk about what it was to grow up to be an artist, writer or a doctor as a Negro in Jim Crow Washington DC."
According to Jack Dennis, Sterling Brown's son, "Betty Parry gave my father recognition before he died. He was not getting recognition as a poet, but she brought him back from his retreat. Then he got a lot of attention because she focused light on him."
Betty Parry's encounters, interviews and deep friendships with Sterling and Daisy Brown and May Miller, and their circles, were fundamental in the creation of the colloquium, "In The Shadow of the Capitol."
In the Shadow of the Capitol
At the time of her death, August 1, 1997, Betty Parry was editing and preparing for publication the transcripts of "In the Shadow of the Capitol," a two-day colloquium held in April 1981, at the Folger Library. Part of The Word Works' broader oral history project in the Washington area, the colloquium was her brain-child, an outgrowth of her life-long concern for civil rights, and more specifically, the years she spent meeting and interviewing many Black leaders among Washington's intellectual and cultural circles.
The titles of the panels, and their participants, many then in their seventies and eighties, are in themselves indicative of content: "Remembrances of Growing Up in Segregated Washington," (Sterling Brown, W. Montague Cobb, Raymond W. Logan, May Miller, with Karen Hastie Williams as discussant); and "Education in Segregated Washington," (Howard Chinn, J. Leon Langhorne, La Verne Gregory West, Wesley S. Williams Sr., and Marjorie Parker, moderator).
Other topics included: "Theater in Segregated Washington," "Literature in a Segregated Environment," "Civil Rights and Segregation in the Professions" with sub-panels on "The Sociology of Prejudice," "Law, Politics, Economics and Journalism," "Medical Health Services and the Armed Forces," "Music and Visual Arts," and "The Role of the Church."
The conference was, as poet and professor Myra Sklarew said, "incredibly important" beyond intellectual circles, as an "invaluable treasury of eye-witness Black history" to show younger generations how their Black elders survived and managed to be creative in their various fields. Myra Sklarew recalls one young Black man asking Sterling Brown and W. Montague Cobb, "How did you have so much confidence?"
During her last years, aided by several friends including Jean Bower, Jean Johnson, Myra Sklarew, and Jim Beall and Karren Alenier of The Word Works, Betty Parry was "quite desperately" at work transcribing and editing the materials, as Myra Sklarew said, "with a view to publishing this invaluable treasury of eye-witness Black history...We all promised Betty before she died that we would publish this."
Currently the transcripts of the colloquium and Betty Parry's various interviews are in library and private collections, and some may serve as sources for others' scholarly research and articles. Her children intend that all of them will eventually be published in a larger edition than originally planned.
Dea ex Machina Also on the Home Front
While devoting her professional talents to these more public activities, in the personal arena, Betty and her husband Hugh Parry, (a prolific novelist who wrote thrillers under the name of James Cross and more academic tomes under his own), hosted countless literary gatherings at their house on Falstone Drive in Chevy Chase, Maryland. These brought together American and foreign writers in an extraordinarily warm ambiance. Betty Parry's own personality set the tone.
Her daughter Roberta Brawer's description of her mother encapsulates how many people viewed her: "She was generous and loving and amazingly energetic. Very curious about other people. At times flamboyant. Very loyal to the people she loved. She especially loved Josephine Jacobsen, who became a spirit guiding her. She took great pleasure from reading, and it was contagious. She always got sparks flying around her, always had interesting things to talk about and wanted to share. And she shone the light on many."
Betty Parry's ever-growing circles of friends and acquaintances treasured as
much as the literary soirees the quieter visits with her and with Hugh Parry,
the very supportive husband whom she loved deeply. Elisabeth Stevens captures
the ambiance of the household in her elegy:
YOUR HOUSE by Elisabeth Stevens
In memory of Betty Parry
I return again
to your house.
The door is unlatched.
The dinner table is at the right,
and on the left Hugh sits
reading the paper.
He rises, smiles, as you
descend the half flight
from above to greet me.
You are wearing one of your
long, shimmering, multicolored
dresses, and its folds
swirl about you as
you approach with your
arms spread wide in welcome.
In one hand you hold a
half-empty glass, in
the other, an open book.
We sit on the pale green sofa
together, exchanging confidences
while the cats circle.
I join you.
From the glass table before us
you take the bulging folder
of your poems.
The kindly Hugh
has gone down to his television,
and one by one,
we turn white pages as
this room facing the garden
darkens with twilight.
"Turn on the lamp," I beg.
The warm, carpeted room,
the patterned chairs,
the hearth piled with magazines,
and the framed family
photographs on the piano
are dimmed by waves of shadows.
I am immersed in your images--
surreal, color-clogged, multiple--
until you snap the light, admit:
"I have a pain."
On a July morning you lie
in clean sheets, half-conscious.
There is only a week left
and that, soon over.
Past, past, everything slips
into the past,
but through the long chain
of days leading back,
I return to your house.
One poem promised you
would "move into the firmament."
Yet the door is open,
and you are at home.
Hugh is in his chair reading,
you are coming
down the stairs
to greet me with open arms.
(photo by Brian Parry))).
Betty Parry's Poetry
As for Betty Parry's own poems, for years she seemed to sponsor or at least attend every reading and workshop in the Washington area, and air little of her own output beyond a few communiqués for other poets, such as William Meredith, with whom she was working to help him restore his speech after a stroke.
We study the text.
Sustain small losses.
Build new equations.
The Braille of the mind becomes
touch therapy; memory clogs crevices.
"I can't find the word," you say,
but you do, you often do."
("Filling The Silence")
By the later 1980's and up to her death in 1997, however, she was an active participant in several on-going peer workshops, which gave her feedback on her own poems. Perhaps most useful to her was the group that over the years included Jean Bower, Jean Johnson, Cheryl Romney-Brown, Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda, Judith McCombs, Mariquita MacManus Mullan, Fan Ogilvie, Elisabeth Stevens, Charles Sullivan, Elisabeth Sullam, Alice Tarnowski and Stacy Tuthill.
"Betty Parry was one of the stronger poets in the group," according to Jean Bower. "She was a marvelous editor in suggesting new avenues of exploration." Alice Tarnowski and Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda co-edited the anthology that emerged from this particular group, In a Certain Place, (SCOP Publications 2000), and dedicated it to Betty Parry.
Meanwhile, with particular encouragement from Josephine Jacobsen, who continued to be a steadfast friend to a number of poets in the Washington area long after she finished her term as Poetry Consultant at the Library of Congress and returned to Baltimore, Betty Parry began to work toward her own collection.
"Betty had a highly original poetic voice that could deal with the surreal,"
Alice Tarnowski says. "She could bring a surreal element into her poems
into her poems and make it work." One example is Betty Parry's poem written
after visiting Parco Dei Mostri di Bomarzo in Italy:
Stone monsters fill the gardens. An ogre's head
bears the inscription "Ogni pensiero vo"
Creatures walk on ceilings
in a nightmare world.
Pegboard floors are upside down.
A sly disorder is perpetuated by poltergeists.
Tables fall upward.
Men rush forward on stilts landing
backward with forks in their hair.
Chairs dance a jig
sliding to the center outward.
Truth is chairness (quality of chairs).
If I were a chair
would I dance too?
If I were a knife
would I wound or kill
if I cut a chair
will it bleed and die?
("Fly Away All Thought")
Organizing her papers, however, was not, according to several friends, Betty Parry's strong point. Elisabeth Stevens called it "a tendency toward surreal scatter." Jean Johnson, whom Betty Parry credits for "invaluable editorial help," describes the scene at the Parrys' house as they tried to prepare her manuscript for publication:
"I would sit on the floor surrounded by Betty's poems, while she sat in an armchair trying to sort. She thoroughly enjoyed assembling and editing, and we would have a wonderful time. When Betty got right down to looking at her work, she would see and turn things around or add things. We would drive to the printers in Baltimore, blueline already in hand, but she was still changing lines."
Shake the Parrot Cage was published in 1994 as part of Clarinda Harriss' New Poets Series. Describing her personal ars poetica, Betty Parry wrote in the introduction:
"My poems attempt to explore the tension between freedom and restraint, whether personal, political or psychological. I try to limn the space between reality and dreams, the paradox of the beautiful and the grotesque, where I am, where I've been and where I would like to be."
Grace Cavalieri's review, published in the Washington Review, provides brilliant insights into Betty Parry's poetry:
I read through the book once again to see exactly what Gwendolyn Brooks meant by calling these poems works of 'wry realism,' and I found the description a good one. Betty Parry's Shake the Parrot Cage has all the elements Carl Jung would claim necessary for a well made life, and, next, Robert Bly would borrow from Jung for his literary analysis of the well made poem: intelligence, intuition, sensuality, and feeling. All four are equally dominant here making up the reality of Parry's poetry -- along with her humor -- playful and literate.
The poems roll toward us in four sections. Fly Away All Thought ( Section I) is a reminder of the layers we live with, and how poetry lifts the veils--one by one--from religious systems, legal systems and our tenuous personal relationships - or energy systems. Parry threads and rethreads her way; and how would a poet make sense of all this cacophony but by wit and craft, Parry's strong points. Several of the poems move to the surreal with surety, " My Last Dali" and "Dialogue In Court," for example, but anarchy in poetry only works when rooted in a believable reality. Betty Parry never leaves the poem untended. At its source is a knowledge of the world and what there is to know of love in it, and how the opposite of that turns words from building blocks to rockets. So it is with "Breast Envy" - a wildly funny poem which is based on real and slightly concealed anxieties and acceptances.
Section II, Filling the Silence , turns sometimes to Ms. Parry's childhood remembrances (and wry observances) of mother and father, a life in New York City, and then to a present day homage to more recent fathers--poetry ones--the venerable William Meredith, and Sterling Brown, the first Poet Laureate of Washington D.C. Not unsymmetrical then, are the themes of love running through his section, including the romantic, and her own found love. Here, from "Bruising The Grapes," some plain talking sentiment:
Your arms around me careless,
relaxed as a coat on a chair.
We have been together
for years past counting.
With Section III, In Monet's Garden, the book reaches its lyrical moment--with reverberations from former sections, and in this way achieves unity, and overcomes the dangers of fragmentation. The author looks at her mother's death in "Dinnertime," a memory of Daisy Brown in "Daisy's Garden," and we see the reemergence of humor, this time in " The Elocution Teacher," and also Parry's political overtones as shown in the poem "Kent State."
The completion of the book with Section IV is not a twilight stage for her work. The title poem "Shake The Parrot's Cage" begins the last section, and a vigorous energetic work it is, signaling us with the parrot which is both actual and symbol -- a witness to history, and startling critic. The poems which end the book become largely meditative and more introspective than those preceding; but, from the "chaos of life" and "charade of death," Betty Parry details a great aliveness born here between the pages. Compassion, kindness and humor are freely given.
Betty Parry has been a leading light of one of our country's major "literary markets," Washington D.C., for 25 years, presenting and promoting the work of others. It is therefore an occasion to behold her first book of poems. The New Poets Series is run by Clarinda Harriss who launched this work from more than 1,000 manuscripts submitted to her press this year.
This is a much-awaited book and one to read. The parrot is out of the cage, and nothing will ever be quite the same again.
(from The Washington Review, Vol. XX, No. 4, Dec. - Jan. 1994-1995.)
Well before her death, she recognized her own mortality in a poem included
in Shake the Parrot Cage:
Before I wake, rattle the bones.
Close the doors. Smash the vases.
Dig the grave. Bury me deep
Shovel the earth. Keep the body dry.
Death lies on the axis.
Suicide, the Janus of murder,
A razor on the wrist,
the failure of nerve.
White-robed monks in flowing robes
read the Tarot cards. In Rome
on the Via Veneto, I walk through shadowed arcades.
Death follows me. I feel her ice-caked fingers
("If I Die")
Betty Parry's last poems were, Myra Sklarew remembers from the hand-written drafts, "dialogues with herself written late at night, not self-pitying at all."
Fortunately Alice Tarnowski found in her own files the draft of "Terminal," written in the spring of 1997, and published for the first time here:
TERMINAL by Betty Parry
Hours curdle like old milk
night turns sour
my gods have failed
I can't recall the litany
my antique carriage clock
stutters its striker
assonant no more
no time to re-burnish
a rich affluent sound
Sappho my black cat
shakes the ladder
ashes from embers
the fire goes out.
A Personal Note
Finally, my own long friendship with Betty Parry. We met in the late 1960's. I was working as a translator and also as instructor and graduate teaching fellow in French at American University, and my poems were beginning to see print; she was working in public relations, reading poems, and conjuring the idea of a literary series. We brainstormed on the Textile Museum series, and on many more subjects. We introduced each other to our then-small handfuls of writing friends. She invited me to read at both her Textile Museum and Gunston series. We went to other readings and workshops together, and were often at each other's houses, and not just for literary gatherings, which greatly expanded our respective intersecting circles. We shared thoughts not only on the joys of writing and the problems of the world, but the struggles within the microcosms of our own families as we tried to look after older, middle and younger generations.
Then I was off in Canada for half a decade, with only fleeting visits to Washington.
Shake the Parrot Cage arrived in 1994. A revelation. From hearing only
a few of her earlier verses honoring other poets, I had not realized what an
amazing poet she had herself become. And that now-overused word "amazing"
does suit many of her lines, which do amaze and startle, sometimes sadden ("The
moon would not break bread with me," "The edge of October no longer
slices the sky,"), or quite terrify:
cannot be netted
like a butterfly.
Inner screams scar our flesh.
Out in the courtyard
nothing but silence.
A shattered mirror chases madness
out of corners. Coal-black helicopter
wings reflect spider-mothers....
("Off the Normal Curve")
Likewise terrifying this poem, which brought me back to an afternoon when Betty Parry recounted her crusade to keep oncologists from lopping off breasts without patients' permission:
Picasso's girl, single breasted,
takes on all comers.
"Accept it as it is," the surgeon said.
"I will cut up and down with a scalpel."
Knives are cold. Blood is red.
I saw myself lopsided
on the sidewalk on a dark street
in the afternoon.
Bleeding hot rich milk
cauterized into white ash,
a frozen section of dry ice.
Betty Parry herself was spared breast cancer, but her personal crusade helped to sensitize the medical profession to other patients' sensibilities.
Then in early 1997, when I was living in Australia, Elisabeth Stevens wrote me that in January, on the eve of Betty Parry's seventieth birthday, she had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and Hugh Parry, 80, with bladder cancer. While looking after her husband, Betty Parry was still frantically trying, with the help of friends, to transcribe and edit her interviews and the proceedings of the colloquium "In The Shadow of the Capitol" in time for publication during "Black History Month," February, 1998 or 1999. She had received awards from the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Poetry Committee of the Greater Washington Area for her cultural work. And she was working on a few more poems.
The obituary, reprinted below, finally reached me in the Outback. Upon returning to Washington, I saw how immense the gap of her absence. Yet also immense is her legacy.
POET, ACTIVIST BETTY W. PARRY DIES AT 70
From the WASHINGTON POST
August 4, 1997; Page B5
Betty Widder Parry, 70, a Washington public relations consultant since 1963 who also was a published poet and an activist in Washington area cultural and education affairs, died of pancreatic cancer Aug. 1 at Sibley Memorial Hospital. Since the 1960s, she had been active in organizing and directing area literary series and poetry readings. Her own poetry had been published in the Antietam and Maryland poetry reviews and the New York Times. Earlier this year, she had received awards from both the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Poetry Committee of the Greater Washington Area for her cultural work.
Mrs. Parry had served on the advisory board of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington and had helped establish its creative writing program. As president of the Literary Friends of the D.C. Library, she had led the way in establishing literary events at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library.
She also organized a project, "In the Shadow of the Capitol," which was sponsored by the Folger in 1981. It was an oral history of African American professional and cultural leaders.
In the mid-1970s, Mrs. Parry organized a poetry series at the Textile Museum, which resulted in "The Unicorn and the Garden," a 1978 collection of poetry she edited. A book of her own poetry, "Shake the Parrot Cage," was published in 1995.
She also represented this country at a 1982 poetry festival in the former Yugoslavia.
She was a member of the National Press Club and the Woman's National Democratic Club.
Mrs. Parry, a Chevy Chase resident, was a native of Queens, N.Y., and a 1948 graduate of Queens College. She came to the Washington area in 1961.
Her marriage to Milton Brawer ended in divorce.
Survivors include her husband of 36 years, Hugh J. Parry of Chevy Chase; their two sons, John, of Silver Spring, and Brian, of Chevy Chase; two children from her first marriage, Stephen Brawer of Stockholm and Roberta Brawer of Cambridge, Mass.; a brother, Herman Widder of New York; and two grandchildren.
Shake the Parrot Cage, copyright 1994 by Betty Parry, New Poets Series, Inc. Available from editor Clarinda Harriss, 541 Piccadilly Road Baltimore, Md. 21204; and from The Writer's Center, 4508 Walsh St. Bethesda MD 20815
In a Certain Place, co-editors Alice Tarnowski and Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda, SCOP Publications 2000, available from Alice Tarnowski, 3900 Watson PL NW, Apt 4B-A, Washington DC 20016.
The author wishes to thank (in alphabetical order), Karren Alenier, Jean Bower, Roberta Brawer, Grace Cavalieri, Jean Johnson, Brian Parry, Myra Sklarew, Elisabeth Stevens, and Alice Tarnowski. Thanks to Brian Parry and Elisabeth Stevens for permission to reprint poems, and to Brian Parry for the photo of his mother.