Remembering poet Virginia Ruth Scott

This excerpt is from  my memoir, Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen (Part 1 is on Scribd.com). The time is summer of 1981, and the setting St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, 423 West 46th Street, Manhattan, NYC.

I was almost finished with Gore Vidal’s Two Sisters, and I told Virginia Scott about it when we were talking in the downstairs theater for a couple of hours. Virginia was interested in playwriting and getting away from editing and publishing, but her press had recently been given three grants from the NEA, so she had to work on those books.

Discussing our publishing adventures, she said, “You are a poet who has made a commitment to publishing, and it’s quite a commitment.” She went on to say, beside what you have to give up, people abuse you, use you, judge you.

In her year’s sabbatical, she wanted to learn about play production, from the manuscript to the final production. “St. Clement’s is just the place to do it.”

Our “negative space” [a reference to the book about film, Negative Space by Manny Farber] was filled with poetry. The physical space was filled with the pungent aroma of food. While we planned the October 25th benefit for the Poetry Festival, I went to the kitchen to investigate. I had $5 in the bank and spare change in my desk drawer. With a cup of tea in my hand and a muffin left over from Sunday lunch, I came back, telling Virginia, “I couldn’t get Robin Morgan at Ms today. No answer twice and then she’d just left.”

“If you can’t get Gloria Steinem or someone just as big,” said Virginia, “forget it. You’ve got to have the balls to stand up to Robin Morgan.”

“I do.” I wanted Denise Levertov and thought that she would be a good draw. But where is D.L. in August? All the big hitters left the city in August.

Who to ask?

“Ginsberg,” we sighed.

“He could’ve been a force,” she said, recalling the literary world twenty years ago. “I picked up the first issue of Partisan Review the other day and the names were impressive: Sartre, for instance, and even the lesser ones, like Stephen Spender.” She compared it to a recent issue and was appalled. “Aren’t there any great intellects in the 1980s?”

“That’s what Gore Vidal said in his book.” And my friend PJ: “There’s no intellectual leadership in the world today.”

We stopped to watch the crew work on the set for the next play.

“This is what fascinates me,” Virginia told me, “the behind the scenes work, set design, building a set.”

I thought, she sounds like me when I first came here.

I introduced her to Anita [Anita Khanzadian, Theater at St. Clement’s] and they seemed to connect. I hoped Virginia would hang out at St. C’s, as she said she would.

Traveling to Greenwich Village was a journey into another life. My negative space was filled with good vibrations. Elaine Fenton’s Manhattan Poetry Review publication party at the Speakeasy made me feel like a traveler who has discovered new lands and cannot go home again. Elaine was gracious, smart, funny; for her I made this trip. Friends swam out of the crowd. I smiled and dove in. Kathy Nocerino pointed to my new Hell’s Kitchen tee-shirt. “See, she’s telling us who she is.”

Virginia Scott was reading September 13th. In late August, in the downstairs space, Virginia and I sat at a long table, talking about women writers while she looked through scripts.

“You are the sexton?” Virginia laughed. “You could change your name. Mary Sexton.”

“Anne Sexton had a play done here,” I told her.

“Really?”

“Yes. Wait, I know. My middle name is Ann. Mary Ann Sexton.”

And I rolled my eyes and we both laughed.

Read more about Virginia Scott.

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3 thoughts on “Remembering poet Virginia Ruth Scott

  1. No intellectual leadership in the world today? A really interesting question, that one. For many intellectuals, it is not towards their contemporaries that they are looking. Intellectuals remain rooted in the past. Maybe that is a necessity in the life of the mind. Really big ideas take a long time to absorb, being able to live in and with them even longer. I wouldn’t be worried about intellectual leadership. We might be making Plato’s mistake, in thinking that the Republic needs a real live philosopher to be its leader. No, better to have a community that thinks, and recalls the great ideas upon which is is founded, and to participate in the ongoing questions of whether such ideas are relevant or adequate to today’s challenges. And from that reflective process, fresh ideas are born. It isn’t leaders we need. It is communities that think, and remain in dialogue. But this book of yours Mary, is part of this dialogue, as are all your books.

    • You’ve made a good point, one which I missed then and now. The thinkers she was referring to were part of a community of thinkers. In the case of the Partisan Review, originally at least, they were Marxist and anti-Stalinist. That changed in a few years, and the magazine published Orwell, who criticized Communism. The other writers and poets were a band of non-conformists, accused of “bohemian individualism” or of being “fascist” (Pablo Picasso, T. S. Eliot). There was a dialogue going on about things political, social, cultural, religious, ethical and moral. They were reading the others, meeting to talk or exchanging letters. What they were doing could be called “intellectual leadership” (PJ’s phrase).

      David, you’ve shown that the internet can be a place to engage in this kind of dialogue. But it’s all over the cyber-place, so it’s hard to build these communities.

      • Yes Mary, to your last point, I think all we can do is put our stuff out there when we think its ready to go out to a wider audience, but first we need to have smaller communities to test our ideas with people we already know. However the danger is becoming trapped in the familiar and the safe.

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