VPR remembers author and activist Grace Paley

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When Grace Paley died Wednesday at her home in Thetford, she left a legacy in Vermont as state poet and friend to many.

Paley, who was 84, was a familiar face in Vermont’s literary and activist circles.

VPR’s Steve Zind has this remembrance.

(Zind) Grace Paley’s down-to-earth nature drew many people to her Thetford home.

(Nichols) "There are always people coming by over the years, who come and they sit on the lawn. People who have been jail with her, people who have been in writing workshops with her".

Duncan Nichols is Paley’s stepson. Nichols says his stepmother preferred contact with people to the solitary writer’s life.

(Nichols) "She said long ago about her output that ‘life is short and art is long’, so when people come she will drop everything and visit with the people that come."

Paley’s writing career began in the 1950s and her early work focused on life in New York, where she grew up in a Russian and Yiddish speaking household.

Paley also used her writing and her celebrity to voice her anti-war, anti-nuclear and feminist views – views she also expressed at many rallies and gathering over the years.

She was never a prolific author. She produced three volumes of short stories and three poetry collections over five decades.

Even though her output as a writer was modest, its quality assured Paley a place among the finest modern short story writers. Author and Middlebury College Professor Jay Parini.

(Parini) "I think her talent as a fiction writer was for the small moment and fine moral distinctions. Her language is always remarkably clear and she has a terrific sense of humor. I think that’s her great strength."

Paley was passionate about the issues she cared about, but she usually didn’t write about them overtly. Instead they existed as subtext, stitched into the daily lives and conflicts of her characters.

Rose Yalow Kamel wrote about Paley in her 1988 book "Aggravating the Conscience – Jewish-American Literary Mothers in the Promised Land". Kamel says for women like herself Paley was a groundbreaking feminist voice.

(Kamel) "It was a time when the feminist movement wasn’t that much in evidence as we now know it, but she understood feminist issues in immigrant women in particular and she wanted them not to be spokeswomen for men’s point of view."

Kamel says she met Paley only once, years ago at the height of her popularity.

(Kamel) "I just fell in love with her. She was so much herself she didn’t have this kind of ‘idolize me, I’m the star of the day."

Paley moved to Vermont in 1988. In 2003, she was selected as the state’s poet laureate. That summer on VPR she recited her poem "On Occasion".

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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