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Poetry readings were once more than literary events. They were social happenings. Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost read to huge crowds in the '50s. In the '60s, confessional poets such as Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath could turn a poetry reading into front-page news.

But in recent years - alas - people seem to have less and less time for poetry.Except in the case of Adrienne Rich.

A soft-spoken writer with a piercing intellect, Rich is one poet who still commands a crowd. She has won the Pulitzer Prize, been awarded a MacArthur genius grant and has published 16 books of verse. Two of her themes - tolerance and justice - play well on campuses and also in middle America. Her straightforward language also appeals to young and old.

Last week Rich spent several days as a poet in residence at Westminster College - a major coup for the school. Amid preparing her selection of poems for her reading and shaping some comments for a panel discussion, she was gracious enough to spend some time with the Deseret News and speak about her life and times - and ours.

Deseret News: Your new book of poems, "Dark Fields of the Republic," is very much a political book. But being a poet instead of, say, a newspaper columnist, you express your political opinions with subtlety and artistry. Do you ever wish you could address populist themes in a more popular way?

Rich: I think that's a fruitful question. But first, I want to get rid of that word "populist." For H. Ross Perot it means one thing; for Jerry Garcia it might have meant another. There's a lot of confusion in this country about what is popular art. The "mass market culture" in America is not always popular culture.

Many poetries are being produced in America that are not rarefied or elite, but are very, very beautiful. So I don't feel frustrated as an artist. I do feel frustrated, however, that there has been a segregation of art and politics in the minds of many people.

What can a writer do but - according to the best of her or his ability and in the way that he or she can - bear witness to a time like this?

Deseret News: Is there a healing quality in such art?

Rich: For me, all art is able to embody all the reasons for staying alive and fighting and taking risks. It puts us in touch with our unmet needs. It puts us in touch with our passions. Art calls us to ourselves. And I think that's why some of our congresspeople find the arts very, very threatening.

Deseret News: You began years ago as a young, swashbuckling poet. Now you've been recast as one of the wise elders of the tribe, a poet with disciples at her knee. Is that an awkward role to play? Do you have to watch yourself?

Rich: You mean and not shoot my mouth off? (Laughter.)

Deseret News: Or not send an impressionable writer away with the wrong idea.

Rich: I feel I can suggest a path to young poets, or some simple possibilities, or suggest some reading. I don't think that's too dangerous. But I do feel if you are someone who gets published and speaks with a public voice - no matter your reputation or age - you owe it to yourself and to others to try and speak with integrity.

But then I never see people as disciples. I've never stayed in one place long enough to become a fixture and develop disciples.

Deseret News: Do you object to labels? Critics always want to pigeonhole and categorize writers so they can deal with them more easily.

Rich: Over the years I've called myself a feminist, a lesbian, a Jew. I've never objected to being called a woman poet, though I know Elizabeth Bishop objected. She would never let her work be published in anthologies of women's poetry.

Designations can work a lot of different ways. If you're ever perceived as being in a marginal group, you're always having to define yourself. I'm sure that Mormons know this. You always feel you're being called upon to explain yourself in the world. And you become the object of both misconceptions and mystery. But I don't believe that living in a society with so much social fragmentation as ours you can simply transcend the labels. You can't just say "I'm a human being." Well, we are human beings. But you're not allowed to live in the world that simply.