A Woman's Journey
Through the Radical Sixties
(Curbstone)A half-a-century ago, Ms. Sherman and I shared many venues. We both grew up in Florida, were alienated from our families; we went to live in Berkeley as students before it was Bezerkley; found love, but of the wrong kind, at least by the Puritan standards of the day.
We both passed time in New York City --- she was experimenting with radicalism, I was at sixes and sevens, lived in other people's apartments, wondered what was wrong with me. Ultimately, she went to Cuba, met Fidel; I went to Spain, did not meet Franco. In the late sixties, we both grew infatuated with the anti-war movement, marched, wrote, published, had the FBI take note of our private habits. I more or less gave up on America, settled into a benign senescence. Not her: the FBI continued to dog her heels, got her fired from teaching at Barnard.
She went on to learn a few tricks for surviving in leftist politics: outside the hair-raising account of her meeting with Fidel, she is at her best when she is revealing the inside secrets of surviving as a Radical American in the Nixon years.
One is, don't be doing drugs when you are being an activist --- it gives a handle to the powers that be to get you out of the way. If you are going to have a demonstration, do it where you can get the hell out when the club-wielders come down on you.
In early 1971, a rally was planned for the parking lot behind the 5th Street Woman's Building. "There was only one escape route out of an area jammed with at least two hundred women. I started frantically urging women to get out of the area even if it meant stopping the rally." Her instincts were right: "Only a dozen of us managed to get through before the exit was effectively blocked by the [police] cars swerving around and parking sideways across the driveway.
Pandemonium broke out as the police began to beat and drag women across the rough pebbles of the parking lot alley as they battled frantically to get through the small escape space. The street was absolute chaos.
In 1969 she returned to Havana. On the basis of her radical magazine IKON, which had done several pro-Castro articles, along with her work with the Cultural Congress of Havana, Ms. Sherman was invited, late at night, to a basketball court outside of Havana. Castro would play sports there, in secret, with friends, to stay in shape. She was brought to meet him. She admits to being "panicked." "What struck me first were Fidel's eyes. They radiated isolation, a loneliness that was as overwhelming as it was unexpected."
As soon as we began to speak, I realized what was so compelling about the man. His charisma wasn't based on physical presence or power or even the passion of his infamous speeches. Each time I spoke, he waited for a few moments, head tilted to one side, as if mulling over what I had said before he replied. I could see why people were so drawn to him --- a person who listens.
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Despite the heady life, America's Child requires considerable stamina just to make it through until the end. Sherman is a poet, and an experienced --- if radical --- writer, but it can get turgid there in counterculture America. The notes I kept as I wandered through this cornfield include "p53 --- wretched writing;" "p90 --- namedrop Levertov/Ginsberg/Paley;" "p91 --- terrible poetry;" p98 --- "blah-blah, who is sleeping with whom;" "p105 --- "'humor' she says, but not funny;" "p142 --- boring & self-centered."
The entry on page 105 refers to her statement, "Writing plays also allowed me to experiment with humor for the first time ... in my next play, 'A hatrack Named Georgie.' Earl the main character, lives in the center of a cornfield --- no house, just a bed, dresser, a few pails of paint, and his hat rack." I am not slapping my knees at this, but am recalling Mark Twain's words: If you are going to be funny, be funny ... don't tell people you are going to be funny.
As I soldiered on through America's Child, and despite adventures on the fringe, I didn't get a single boff. At least, not up to the last page. Then I lost it.
Because here is this life-long radical, bedeviled by COINTELPRO and the FBI, raging against the American establishment and its various wars, ranting (in poems, broadsides, magazines, plays and speeches) about the villainies of our capitalistic system, doing her best to uproot it, tear it down, bury it ... and here we get to the end of the line, thirty years later and what does Ms. Rad do for a living? The autobiographical notes at the tail end tell us that
Her awards include a 1997 fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) for Creative Nonfiction Literature, a 1990 NYFA fellowship for Poetry, a Puffin Foundation Grant (1992), a Creative Artists' Public Service (CAPS) poetry grant and editors' awards from the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines (CCLM) and the New York State Council of the Arts (NYSCA).
Since most of these are funded, directly or indirectly, by federal and state governments, we have the exquisite picture of a life-long anti-establishment radical who is now feeding, and apparently feeding well, at the golden trough she has been kicking so viciously for so long.--- Wendy Barnett