“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
— Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry, 1821
LAST MARCH, WHEN ADRIENNE RICH DIED, tributes poured out across every platform and medium. I sorrowed with the poets, shared the gratitude of the feminists, and felt, with the lesbians, the loss of someone I’d never met who nonetheless felt like family. After a while, I started to feel an unspoken connection I had noticed subliminally but had never quite put together until I started to steep myself in others’ assessments of Rich’s life and times: the unacknowledged history of how poets — often lesbians, often women of color — helped create the bedrock of contemporary feminist theory.
I’ve been teaching, and therefore rereading, Audre Lorde’s powerful book of essays, Sister Outsider, for most of my adult life. But the week of Rich’s death I noticed something new about this familiar little volume. I was organizing a yearlong poetry symposium at the University of Texas with my colleague Meta DuEwa Jones — officially entitled “Poets and Scholars,” but which we liked to call Queer-Black-and-Feminist Poetry World — and as one of our keynote poets we had invited Marilyn Hacker. Flipping through Sister Outsider in order to teach it that week, I noticed, it seemed for the first time, that the footnote to the “Interview Between Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich” had the name of a third poet buried in the middle:
This interview, held on August 30, 1979 in Montague, Massachusetts, was edited from three hours of tapes we made together. It was commissioned by Marilyn Hacker, the guest editor of Woman Poet: The East (Women-in-Literature, Reno, Nevada, 1981), where a portion of it appears. The interview was first published in Signs, vol. 6, no. 4 (Summer 1981).
Oh, what a tiny compressed history of love and struggle. Oh, what a constellation of brilliant and powerful poets. Oh, what a poem.
For the first time it occurred to me to wonder what Marilyn Hacker was doing in Audre Lorde’s book. I’m a longtime admirer of Hacker’s work but I had never (in my ignorance) thought of her as a “movement” poet — not with her famous formalism and irony, her end rhymes and her regular meters and her erudition. More an Elizabeth Bishop style expatriate cosmopolitan than an Edna St. Vincent Millay marching for women’s suffrage. If anything, I would have associated Hacker with the 1980s “pro-sex” lesbian critique of second-wave feminism, her bawdy novel-in-sonnets Love, Death and the Changing of the Seasons a paean to bad decisions and great sex. (That critique, which exploded at the famous Barnard Conference on Sexuality in 1982, rejected the idea that lesbian sex ought to be all about safety, equality, and androgyny. It embraced the bad girls — butches and femmes, leatherwomen, sadomasochists and pornographers — and claimed them as feminist innovators and hot babes. The conflicts that followed are known as the Feminist Sex Wars. The story of the poets in this movement and their contribution to feminist theory is one for another column.)
So Adrienne Rich, a star in the firmament of both feminist theory and mainstream American poetry, had seemed to me singular. As all the obituaries noted, when she won the National Book Award in 1974 for Diving Into the Wreck, Rich insisted on having her co-nominees Alice Walker and Audre Lorde on stage with her, and accepted the award “in the name of all women.” Her prose writing so shaped emerging understandings of gender and sexuality that her very titles are terms of art: The Dream of a Common Language, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Continuum,” On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. But Marilyn Hacker, currently Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, was also a rank-and-file member of the women’s movement — facilitating dialogues about antiracism, publishing in feminist journals with small press runs, and helping to “midwife” (as one no doubt would have said back in the day) the feminist theory texts my students and I are still studying. Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Marilyn Hacker: three important American poets, three important contributors to the canon of feminist theory. What, I finally had the wit to wonder, is up with that?
In a recent conversation, I asked Hacker about the interview and its context. “There certainly was something special” about the status of poets in the women’s movement, she told me. “It wasn’t too much of an exaggeration to talk about it as a movement of poets.” (In fact, poet Jan Clausen wrote a 1982 book about feminism with that very title.) As an editor, Hacker said, “I knew about the long friendship between Audre and Adrienne and I asked Adrienne to do the interview.” As far as the content — the sharp thinking about women and racism from which my students still learn so much — Hacker said, “I didn’t ask them what they wanted to talk about — that was entirely up to them.” Their preoccupations, of course, did not surprise her: “It was two poets talking to each other. And that was a time when the line between poetry and politics was very permeable.”
In the Sister Outsider piece, Rich and Lorde speak openly (and not for the last time) about how race has divided them as friends and colleagues. They had both taught in the SEEK English Program at CUNY in the late 1960s, an open admissions program with an explicit radical agenda populated mainly by poor and working-class students of color. They both recall being terrified, but for Rich, it was “white terror — you know, now you’re on the line, now all your racism is going to show.” Lorde replies that she had her own “Black terror […] How am I going to speak to them? How am I going to tell them what I want from them — literally — that kind of terror. I did not know how to open my mouth and be understood.” Rich has no problem feeling authoritative but is afraid to be wrong. Lorde feels the urgency of the task but fears that the institution is not a place where her words can be heard — an example of institutional racism that is still painfully familiar. Later in the interview, Lorde brings up a previous conversation in which Rich demanded that her friend explain “chapter and verse” just how she, Rich, was being racist. Rich admits, “I’ve had a great resistance to some of your perceptions. They can be very painful to me […] But I don’t want to deny them. I know I can’t afford to.” The principles being worked out here — that it is not the job of people of color to educate white people about racism, that white people often confuse their own resistance and denial with the other person not being “clear” or “correct,” that one practices antiracism not for the sake of the Other but for one’s own sake and to create a world better worth living in — are still key to feminist understandings of race in both academic and movement settings.
This interview also contains a delicious discussion of how the language of poetry digs deep into the unconscious, the feminine, the dark, and the disavowed — what Lorde calls “the Black mother inside all of us.” At one point, Rich refers to this material as “sinister,” drawing on an old word used to designate all kinds of Otherness, from witchcraft to left-handedness. This bit gives me a thrill of dramatic irony, because of course Rich went on to collaborate with Michelle Cliff, the African-American writer with whom she would live for the rest of her life, in editing Sinister Wisdom, the oldest lesbian journal still in existence. (Currently edited by Julie Enszer, Sinister Wisdom deserves its own upcoming column.) The journal was founded in 1976, and between 1981 and 1983 it was co-edited by two antiracist lesbian feminist writers at the tops of their games, writers lauded by the mainstream yet trusted by the movement. Glory days.
Of course, every movement has its poets. Lorde herself is part of the tradition of civil rights and Black Power movement poets that gave us so many of its most memorable phrases and moments. Poets have been associated with outsider protest at least since the Romantic era of Percy Shelley, when the idea of the poet as bard of the voiceless both created audiences for women and laboring-class writers like Charlotte Smith and John Clare, and inspired more canonical poets like Grey, Wordsworth, and Shelley to include dialogue or create personae in their poems that attempted to articulate the “short and simple annals of the poor.” In the United States, where we hold artists cheap, this association has been turned inside out so that the widespread assumption is that poets belong only on the margins of society. No poet-presidents or poet-ambassadors for us, and if you don’t like it move to Russia — or Peru or Mexico or Poland. So it would be surprising not to find poets in the women’s movement.
But in some ways the women’s movement made everybody a poet — at least the lesbians. (And as Alix Dobkin famously sang, “any woman can / be a les-bee-ann.”) Because of course the other secret identity that Rich, Lorde, and Hacker share besides “poet” is “dyke” — as gay liberation radicals like Judy Grahn, author of the 1971 verse collection Edward the Dyke, taught us to call ourselves. (“Black is beautiful,” “The personal is political,” “Gay is good” — these phrases, too, are movement poetry.) When I told a friend who helped found a women’s bookstore in the 1970s that I was writing this piece, she laughed: “Honey, we all wrote poems then. You made love to a woman, you wrote a poem. That was it.” For a generation of women to whom “finding voice,” “breaking silence,” and “speaking out” were not just powerful metaphors but conscious political strategies, poetry was almost an obligation, one’s feminist duty, a lesbian rite of passage.
Minnie Bruce Pratt, entering the movement in the early 1980s, found these ideas explosive. I’ve been teaching Pratt’s stunning essay about racism and anti-Semitism, “Identity: Skin Blood Heart,” since it was first published in 1984, and her more recent writing about gender and transgender are among the best we have. But Pratt is also the author of six books of poetry, including Crime Against Nature, which was a New York Times Notable Book and the Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets in 1989. In the introduction to a new e-publication of her 1980 chapbook The Sound of One Fork, Pratt writes about the “productive ferment” of 1970s feminist organizing in North Carolina, where she was then living:
I began reading feminist theory and writing short book reviews for a local movement publication, the Female Liberation Newsletter — begun in 1969 and sold at a women’s liberation lit table for 2 cents in mimeo. And then, I began to write poetry again in 1975, when I fell in love with another woman. I returned to poetry, not because I had “become a lesbian” — but because I had returned to my own body after years of alienation. The sensual details of life are the raw materials of a poet — and with that falling-in-love I was able to return to living fully in my own fleshly self.
First feminist theory, then lesbian sex, then poetry. As my friend put it, “That was it.”
I recently asked Pratt, who now teaches at Syracuse University, why so many second-wave feminist theorists seem to be poets. Theory, she said (quoting her partner, the transgender writer Leslie Feinberg), is “crystallized experience. And obviously poetry is a form of the crystallization of experience conveyed in a distilled language.” Everybody, she told me, was involved in the famous process of consciousness-raising. The idea (inspired by the Speak Bitterness groups that produced revolutionary critiques of Chinese imperialism) was that you shared personal experience in order to understand how problems you had thought were private and personal — especially problems with sex, marriage, body image, work, parenting, domesticity — were not unique but rather widely shared, the result of systems of inequality rather than your failures as a woman. T.V. Reed, the author of The Art of Protest, about the role of art in US social movements, writes that “consciousness-raising was crucial in forming feminist thought on a whole range of issues, from economics to government to education, but it was particularly useful in giving a name to the ‘nameless’ forms of oppression felt in realms previously relegated to the nonpolitical arena of ‘personal’ relations.” As Pratt put it, “we were, within the movement, being trained to draw on our experience as raw data.” And of course, turning a new eye on one’s experience is also the basis for writing a poem. Reed says: “Poetry was consciousness-raising. Poetry was theory. Poetry was feminist practice.”
Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Marilyn Hacker, Cherríe Moraga, Judy Grahn, June Jordan, Gloria Anzaldúa, Pat Parker, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Susan Griffin, Wendy Rose, Marge Piercy, Irena Klepfitz, Janice Mirikitani, Nellie Wong, Chrystos, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Joy Harjo — these are among the iconic names of second-wave feminist theory, and all are poets. Virtually all are lesbians, and all but a few are women of color. It’s no coincidence that many of these classic essays concern racism in the women’s movement, relations among feminist women of color, and/or white women’s efforts to become antiracist allies to women of color. Lesbians of color played a significant role in producing the outpouring of small press journals, books, festivals, conferences, bookstores, and other distribution networks upon which feminist theory — and hence academic women’s and gender studies — now rests. Audre Lorde made one of the most ambitious claims perhaps ever made for poetry when she wrote, “We can train ourselves to respect our feelings and to transpose them into a language so they can be shared. And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it.” White male modernists like Auden had despaired of “making things happen” with poems; lesbians of color experienced poems themselves as events.
In her classic essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” Lorde wrote that “poetry can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, on scraps of surplus paper.” For these reasons, Lorde said, “poetry has been the major voice” of working-class women and women of color. Adrienne Rich, in “A Space for Poetry,” claimed the simple materials of poetry as one of the great bulwarks against commodification and capitalism: “Poetry remains an art that can be, and continues to be, produced cheaply, whose material requirements are modest.” Cherríe Moraga writes that both her lesbian identity and her anticapitalist feminist politics were deeply shaped by poets: “Moving to the Bay Area in the mid-1970s, it was unequivocally the bravery” of lesbian poets like Pat Parker, Audre Lorde, and Judy Grahn that “gave lesbianism a body: a queer body in the original, dangerous, unambivalent sense of the word, a dyke body that could not be domesticated by middle-class American aspirations.” Poems make up almost a third of the landmark 1981 anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, co-edited by Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa; in fact, the book gets its name from Donna Kate Rushin’s “The Bridge Poem,” which opens the volume. Moraga’s own writing is also studded with poems, from the 1983 classic of Chicana feminism, Loving in the War Years: Lo que nunca pasó por sus labios, all the way up to her most recent book, A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness. Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name and Anzaldúa’s Borderlands: La Frontera also use this poetry-rich, mixed-genre format and pioneer a genre that has been called “autotheoretical writing,” a form that has influenced everyone from Henry Louis Gates, Jr. to Elizabeth Gilbert, whether they know it or not.
Another story for another time is the signal contribution of independent feminist, woman-of-color, and lesbian presses to both feminist theory and American poetry. In the introduction to Sister Outsider, publisher Nancy Bereano, whose Firebrand Press published much of Lorde’s work in both poetry and prose, writes that Lorde always insisted that she did not do theory: “I’m a poet.” For Bereano, publishing the prose work of this poet as theory was a way of pushing back against “the white western patriarchal ordering of things,” which “requires that we believe there is an inherent conflict between what we feel and what we think — between poetry and theory. We are easier to control when one part of our selves is split from another, fragmented, off balance.” Poets made theory to push back against abuses of power. As Moraga writes, “Just a lesbian poetry of heroism.”
But it’s not only essays by poets that constitute this bedrock feminist theory — it’s also poems themselves. The 2010 textbook I assign to my students, Feminist Theory Reader (edited by Carole McCann and Seung-kyung Kim, and published by Routledge) anthologizes — among the social science essays about globalization and poverty, the history and the philosophy and the legal theory — poems. The first selection, as befits the volume’s transnational ambitions, is a 1911 poem in which Yosanao Akiko writes from imperial Japan: “All the sleeping women / Are now awake and moving.” Muriel Rukeyser’s “No More Masks” is here too, with the lines, “No more masks! No more mythologies!” — lines that became a rallying cry for so many feminist struggles. (“Among living links to a longer legacy,” writes T.V. Reed, “no poet was more important to the movement than Muriel Rukeyser”; Rukeyser won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1935.) In fact, Rukeyser’s poem is followed in the anthology with a 1968 account of the beauty-pageant protests of that year called “No More Miss America!” — its title surely an echo of Rukeyser’s, which by 1968 was simply feminist vernacular. Rushin’s “The Bridge Poem” and a 2003 spoken-word text from South Africa are also here, alongside essays by Pratt, Lorde, Anzaldúa, and June Jordan.
In “A Communal Poetry,” Adrienne Rich tells a story about running into an old friend, a poet she’d known from the antiwar movement in New York in the 1980s. Things were awkward as they tried to reconnect, and Rich mentioned it had been a while since they’d talked: “Suddenly, his whole manner changed.” Her friend barked, “You disappeared! You simply disappeared.” In the intervening years, Rich had published several books, including the classic reflection on the politics of motherhood, Of Woman Born, and poetry collections like Diving Into the Wreck and The Dream of a Common Language. These were not obscure books (as noted above, Diving won the National Book Award). But in them Rich emphatically claimed her lesbian and feminist perspectives, a move unprecedented not just for her but for American letters. Apparently, for her old comrade of the barricades such a stance was a kind of vanishing, “not so much from his life as from a landscape of poetry to which he thought we both belonged and were in some sense loyal.” (In a study of contemporary sales and reviews, Susan Sheridan found that Rich did indeed lose mainstream readership and recognition during this period, although she was later to gain it back.) But for Rich, “if anything, the intervening years had made me feel more apparent, more visible — to myself and to others — as a poet […] It had never occurred to me that I was disappearing — rather, that I was, along with other women poets, beginning to appear. In fact, we were taking part in an immense shift in human consciousness.”
A new language, a shift in human consciousness: Lorde and Rich did not think these were tall orders, but merely what the women’s movement expected of its poets, and what poets could deliver for the benefit of all. Let’s acknowledge poets as the legislators of the women’s movement and of so much of the good that movement germinated. The legacy of these poetries of heroism will be the ongoing subject of Sister Arts. I can’t wait.