Remarks given by Gigi Bradford on her acceptance of the inaugural Elizabeth Kray Award
June 22, 1998
It’s a pleasure and a gift to be here among so many friends and supporters of Poets House. I wonder if you know how much this award means to me, for Betty Kray was a friend and a mentor, and her example put me on the path I follow today.
Distinct from my pleasure in receiving this award is my great satisfaction that it has been established, and established in Betty Kray’s name. Betty’s life and work embodies the notion of engaged cultural citizenship, which is more important today than ever. We live in a country that demonstrates daily its fear of the future. Just last week the House of Representatives voted to zero out the NEA, and before the Supreme Court sits the case of the NEA Four, an illustration that art has become so contentious and change so challenging that we have begun to judge it by a legal standard.
This award is important because it acknowledges the role of art and culture in our democracy, and it recognizes that the cultural sector needs three things: artists, audiences, and the connective tissue that links them. Betty was that connection, as is Poets House and everyone in this room.
Betty did not teach me to love poetry, but she did teach me to serve it. As we crossed this magnificent bridge this evening, I thought it really is a metaphor for the structural way Betty encouraged me to think. Betty thought not only about how to help poets, but how to help poetry. She was interested not just in the personal–though those of us who knew her know she was intensely interested in that–but in programs and institutions as well.
She gave me the notion of literary landscape. Many enduring aspects of our literary life were dreamed up and dauntlessly implemented by Betty: reading tours, Poets-in-the-Schools, literary symposia, college prizes…I could go on and on. Betty led and established many literary institutions: the 92nd St, Y, the Academy of American Poets and Poets House among them, and numerous present programs, including WritersCorp at the NEA, bear her legacy.
I worked with Betty on programs such as poetry reading series, poetry seminars and symposia, poetry walks, poetry prizes, poetry books and anthologies, and important poetry projects such as the best second-hand clothing stores on the east side, the perfect replacement buttons for Deemer’s suits, and the cheapest and best calzone joints around NYU. We traced John Sloane, Walt Whitman and Paul Zweig through the streets of Manhattan, and we raced through American poetry of this century in the public libraries of Connecticut and Rhode Island. We drank gin and tonics on the splendid, ruined deck of the Ocean House in Watch Hill, and we grilled potatoes among mosquitoes in Shannock. On hearing of this award in Betty’s name, a mutual friend wrote me: “How hard it is to have lost her fierce and attentive presence. Remember how alive you always felt when you were with Betty? Remember how she felt that poetry should be as regular as food.”
Under Betty’s live wire tutelage at the Academy of American Poets, then at the Folger Shakespeare Library and the National Endowment for the Arts, and now at the Center for Arts and Culture I have tried to do two things: assure the essential and generous role of literature and culture in everyday lives, and promote the principles on which art is based.
As in her career Betty faced and fought censorship, so at the NEA did it seem unquestioned both to fight for the principle of individual support for artists, and to bring together the literary field to build more long-term institutional strength and financial support.
Margo Viscusi’s citation for this award mentions things I am proud to have participated in, but they could not have been done alone. Cultural citizenship is about connection and action, and that’s why recognizing Betty’s contribution is important.
In my present job at the Center for Arts and Culture I carry out Betty’s principles and act on Betty’s beliefs: that art and culture are essential ingredients in the civic and spiritual life of this nation; that the elements of effective cultural citizenship are articulation, congregation, structural, support, and informed and principled policies.
Alarming as she would have found the present cultural climate, Betty Kray would have waded into the fray. I challenge you to do no less. The first Betty award in her name is not for what has been done, it’s for the work that remains. In the next century, what role will poetry, art and culture play in our everyday lives? What will be the intangible benefits of citizenship, and how will we secure them?
One day seventeen years ago, Betty typed a short excerpt from a Jon Anderson poem and tacked it over my desk. I have it still, and I quote it often:
“Ah, but in such an ugly time The true protest is beauty.”
The true protest is beauty.”
Thank you for your support of Poets House, poets and poetry.