Section: LOCAL
Page: B1

THURSDAY, November 14, 1991

STATE POET BLASTS POLITICAL PRIORITIES

By Paul Grondahl Staff writer

It was an afternoon of contradictions Wednesday as Gov. Mario M. Cuomo installed Norman Mailer as state author and Audre Lorde as state poet.

Lorde's impassioned speech received a standing ovation and whoops of recognition from the nearly 300 invited guests and VIPs in the Legislative Office Building. She ripped into national political priorities that place the buildup of weapons ahead of feeding starving children, accepting her award on behalf of "poets who are oppresssed, silenced and disenfranchised who write on scraps of paper in homeless shelters, in mental wards, in prisons and squalid reservations ..."

The normally irascible Mailer, whom William Kennedy described in his introductory remarks as a writer "who has offended just about everyone worth offending," left his bad- boy image down the Hudson and was on his best behavior.

After praising Cuomo as a deep thinker and "great politician," Mailer mustered only an anecdote about Jean-Paul Sartre's refusal of the Nobel Prize and said he wouldn't follow the French philosopher's "puritanical" suit.

"I accept this award happily," Mailer said with a boyish beam, referring to his controversial prose and prolific output as nothing more than the work of "a little beaver, whom, given two sticks, will make a dam."

Mailer never unleashed the dam of spleen he's capable of, the legendary from-the-hip invective that has made him a target of feminists over the years, saying after the presentation with a wink, "This is the new me."

The ironic juxtaposition of the two award recipients was not lost on the audience, particularly Kennedy, who chaired the panel of writers that selected Mailer. "There was no preplanning, and we didn't know who the poetry panel was choosing," Kennedy said. "These are awards given purely on literary quality. They're not affirmative action awards."

Afterward, Lorde suggested that her selection for the state's highest honor for an author - even though the official citation signed by Cuomo avoided direct usage of the word lesbian - is a crowning moment for lesbians and women of color.

"I see it as historic," said Lorde. "I do not hide who I am. I am a black lesbian feminist warrior mother and if I were not those things, I might be wealthy and famous from my writing today."

Lorde is the author of 10 collections of poetry and seven books of prose, most of which have been published by small, alternative presses. She recently published a book on her fight with breast cancer, a condition that led her to move from New York City to the tropical climate of St. Croix.

On Wednesday, her exotic blue and brown print smock and leggings from Senegal and colorful African jewelry was in stark contrast to the gray slacks and blue blazer of Mailer's Ivy League uniform (he entered Harvard University at age 16 to study aeronautical engineering).

Outside this sartorial schism, there were no clashes between the two honored writers. Mailer praised Lorde's impassioned acceptance speech as "coming right out of the depths of her."

With Cuomo looking on a few feet away, Lorde stood proud at the podium, under the glare of television lights, and pulled no punches about the governor's policies. She decried rising education costs coupled with lowered standards and criticized inadequate health care for minority communities in New York City.

At the same time, Lorde accepted a plaque, a Steuben glass sculpture and $10,000 cash award, allowing that "we live in a world of intense contradictions" and it is the poet's job to "bridge those contradictions and learn their lessons."

Cuomo sidestepped Lorde's poetic gauntlet and, instead, responded with loose, impromptu wordplay aimed at Mailer's suggestion that all 50 states name an official state author and poet who would then convene in Washington every two years as a "shadow government" that might help untangle the federal bureaucracy.

Cuomo also reminded Mailer of the novelist's shellacking in his New York mayoral bid. The old Mailer might have put on the rhetorical gloves after that barb, but the state author let it slide and said afterwards he would encourage Cuomo to run for president.

Could Cuomo beat Bush?

"Hell, yeah," the old Mailer snarled. "If there are enough serious people out there who will vote, there's no way George Bush could beat Mario Cuomo."

Copyright 1991, Times Union, Albany, N.Y.

Section: LOCAL
Page: B8

THURSDAY, November 14, 1991

POET USES FORUM FOR A MESSAGE

Robert Borsellino

Applause is common in the meeting rooms of the state government complex.

Aides are quick to show appreciation for their bosses, and advocates are eager to show their approval for people advancing their points of view at the endless hearings that take place.

And just about anytime the governor of New York enters a room there is some degree of recognition, even if it is purely out of respect for the office.

But that applause and recognition usually goes to men - white men as a rule - who enjoy some modicum of power.

Wednesday the applause was different.

It showered on a small black woman, a lesbian, a feminist, a mother, daughter and visionary, who writes poems of "elemental wildness and healing, nightmare and lucidity," according to one critic.

Audre Lorde was honored with the Walt Whitman Citation of Merit, making her the state poet for 1991- 93.

The outpouring of affection for Lorde was different than the usual fare served up in the hearing rooms of the Legislative Office Building.

There were two heartfelt standing ovations that - unlike the rowdy receptions given to pop stars - were respectful.

What made the appreciation of the poet even more interesting is that Lorde was supposed to be little more than the opening act to the main event: Norman Mailer and Mario Cuomo.

Mailer was honored as the state author. For 43 years he has tap- danced on the cutting edge of American literature, and his 1,310- page novel, "Harlot's Ghost," was published recently. But Mailer has become a caricature of himself - "Yeah, I know Cuomo. I met him once at Jimmy Breslin's wife's funeral. Good guy. If he runs, I'll support him. I think I met him one other time."

And the governor lately walks through these ceremonies like a man who has other things on his mind.

It was not, however, by default that Lorde rose above the occasion.

A 57-year-old New York City native with 17 books to her credit, she managed to add dignity to the occasion.

There was an elegance and eloquence about the woman that seemed out of place in a government building.

Most important, when Audre Lorde rose to accept her award and say a few words, she had something to say.

While Mailer talked about himself, and Cuomo talked mostly about Mailer, Lorde used the opportunity to talk about apartheid and the work that still needs to be done, here and abroad.

"The price of one Stealth bomber, already outmoded, is more than the entire federal appropriation for all the arts," she said.

"We live in a world full of intense contradiction."

She reminded people that - from Bonn to Baton Rouge - racism and religious intolerance has become the order of the day.

"The fall of the Berlin Wall was supposed to represent a new era of peace in Europe," said Lorde. "Yet not since fascism have the streets of Berlin been so unsafe and horrifying for Jews, black Germans, foreigners, people of color."

She talked of a Ku Klux Klan leader recently returning from Bonn, terming successful his efforts to whip up anti-black sentiment.

And a former Klan leader who may soon enjoy one of the highest honors he can achieve in his home state of Louisiana.

At what was a festive occasion, she gently spoke of problems this state faces: from day care to a failing judicial system.

"So I accept this award in the name of all the poets, the oppressed, the disenfranchised, silent people of this state.

"For the poets who write on scraps of newspaper in homeless shelters, in prisons, in mental wards, on squalid reservations and after grueling hours of work.

"I accept this award in the name of those folks who see and experience the enormity of the forces aligned against all that is human in all of us ... the ones who see all of this and still refuse to give in to despair."

Copyright 1991, Times Union, Albany, N.Y.

Section: LOCAL
Page: B1

THURSDAY, October 3, 1991

INSTITUTE NAMES MAILER STATE AUTHOR

By Winifred Yu Staff writer

Norman Mailer has been honored as the state author by the New York State Writers Institute. Audre Lorde has been named state poet for 1991-93.

The awards, known as the state Edith Wharton Citation of Merit for fiction writers and the state Walt Whitman Citation of Merit for poets, were announced at a news conference Wednesday.

Neither writer was present. Lorde is currently in Germany, and Mailer is on tour for his new novel, "Harlot's Ghost."

"The award is to celebrate New York state writers and poets," said Tom Smith, associate director of the institute and member of the poet advisory committee. "We look for a resident of New York state, and the totality of their lifetime work."

Mailer succeeds E.L. Doctorow, and Lord assumes the honor from Robert Creeley.

Writers are nominated by their colleagues, and a running list of contenders is maintained.

"It was difficult," said William Kennedy of the selection process. "There were a number of other serious contenders."

Kennedy, director of the Writers Institute, served on the advisory panel that named Mailer. A separate panel selects the state poet.

Both writers will receive a $10,000 honorarium. They will be required to do two readings a year in the state during each year of their tenures.

Mailer embarked on his writing career as author of the novel, "The Naked and the Dead," about World War II. He is also is the author of the non- fiction book, "The Armies of the Night," for which he won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He received a second National Book Award for "Miami and the Siege of Chicago" and the Pulitzer Prize for "The Executioner's Song."

Lorde is a founder of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press and Sisters in Support of Sisters in South Africa. She is the author of several volumes of poetry, including "The First Cities." She also has published prose, essays and, most recently, a novel, "Zami: A New Spelling of My Name."

Both writers are scheduled to be in Albany on Wednesday, Nov. 13, to receive their awards from Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.

It's not that what she said hasn't been said before.

It's just that it doesn't get said often enough, particularly in the halls of government.

Copyright 1991, Times Union, Albany, N.Y.

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