Sunday, September 16, 2007

The World in Us: Lesbian and Gay Poetry of the Next Wave

An occasional blog entry in response to classes that I am taking this fall.

The World in Us, edited by Michael Lassell and Elena Georgiou, was published in April 2000. I’m fascinated by lesbian and gay poetry anthologies because I consider them artifacts of how gay and lesbian identity was constructed at the time that the anthologies were published. I’ve looked closely at two lesbian anthologies previously, Amazon Poetry and Lesbian Poetry, which were publish in 1975 and 1981, respectively. As far as I know the first lesbian and gay poetry anthology was published in September 1988 and was titled, Gay and Lesbian Poetry In Our Time. Like The World in Us, it was published by St. Martin’s Press. Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time was edited by Carl Morse and Joan Larkin.

The World in Us contains work by 46 poets with between one and eight poems by each poet. There is an even breakdown between men and women included in the anthology and it is organized alphabetically. In the introduction, the editors note that they selected poems that are in some cases longer than poems usually included in anthologies, and indeed the length of the poems and the number of poems included by each author makes reading this anthology an interesting introduction to the work of each of the poets.

More than reflecting on the choices of the editors, however, the introduction provides some interesting insights into identity construction of gay and lesbian poets at the time the book was compiled. First, the editors posit that all of the poets are “mid-career,” which they define as poets who will write “their best work in the twenty-first century,“ or poets whose best work is in front of them. This is an interesting assertion, but I imagine most poets would feel that each poem immediately in the future is the best poem that they will write. That individual perception aside, however, one of the things about the construction of this anthology and the notion of “mid-career” is the way that it presents all of the poets as within similar generations. The editors write in the introduction, “The range of age is roughly midtwenties to mid-fifties. In other words, generally speaking, it’s a post-World War II crowd--in some cases, post-Vietnam (if generations are to be marked by violent global conflicts).” While this broad analysis may suit general readers, I see there to be a stark delineation among generations even within the anthology. I look here at the lesbian poets as their work I know the best. Of the twenty-three lesbian poets included in this anthology, I would consider there to be a generational break with these women being part of the second wave of feminism:

Olga Broumas+
Cheryl Clarke+
Marilyn Hacker+
Eloise Klein Healy
Joan Larkin*
Honor Moore+
Eileen Myles
Minnie Bruce Pratt+
Terry Wolverton

(* indicates inclusion in Amazon Poetry and + indicates inclusion in Lesbian Poetry)

Of those poets, there are some clear similarities in how their work is informed by feminist activism during the 1970s, both in terms of the creation of their poetry and the reception. With the possible exception of Eileen Myles, whose work I think was not received within feminist circles to the degree of the others, all of these poets could be considered poets of the lesbian-feminist movement.

Now consider the poets who are younger - that is not old enough to have been involved in lesbian-feminism, but more identified with the queer nation, for lack of a better word. I consider these poets in a different generation:

Beatrix Gates
Elena Georgiou
Melinda Goodman
Melanie Hope
Letta Neely
Achy Obejas
Gerry Gomez Pearlberg
Mariana Romo-Carmona
Ruth Schwartz
Robyn Selman
Linda Smukler
Cheryl Boyce Taylor

So why does this matter? Well, part of what I think all queer poet anthologies do is construct further the notions of the categories of “lesbian” and “gay.” The editors in their introduction note that there are differences between the anthology produced in 1988. They write, “Many of the writers included in Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time were literary lions, both living and dead. Remarkably, the world of queer poetry has changed dramatically since 1988. Its personnel has changed radically, and the mood is palpably different.” I think that the selection of writers to include for Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time in 1988 was driven in part by a desire to create, resurrect, affirm, and preserve a literary history for the lesbian and gay community. This was especially urgent in light of the AIDS crisis, which during the two years that the anthology was probably assembled was particularly acute in San Francisco and New York. By the time Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time was published the community - and by extension - the identities of gay and lesbian were immersed in grief in many ways while the political agenda remained to define and articulate a stabilized identity that could be read back through history, or at the very least through the post-industrialization history.

When The World in Us is published in 2000, there are very different identity concerns to be addressed in the assemblage of the anthology. Evident concerns include the need to articulate a queer of color perspective. The editors write, “Since 1988, the broadening, more inclusive community has become one of the most diverse groups on earth, and the poetry being written by its members is staggering in its variety as well as its energy. This new queer poetry (or perhaps ”postqueer“ describes it more accurately) is democratic in the best sense. . . . These young women and men are maturing in a world in which the unambiguous statement of equality has already been made. Their writing lives have had that context from the beginning.”

It is here that I see the generational issues most starkly. Consider one of the poems by Olga Broumas from “Caritas.” She writes,

With the clear
plastic speculum, transparent
and, when inserted, pink like the convex
carapace of a prawn, flashlight in hand, I
guide you
inside the small
cathedral of my cunt. The unexpected
light dazzles you. This flesh, my darling, always
invisible like the wet
side of stones, the hidden
hemisphere of the moon, startles you
with its brilliance

Broumas’ work in general and this poem in particular, although published in her book Rave from 1999, demonstrates values about women’s bodies and difference that are emblematic of a particular type of feminism during the second wave.

Also, consider Cheryl Clarke’s “Passing” which begins

i’ll pass as a man today and take up public space with my urges in the casual way he does in three-piece suit and gucci pumps big pants and large sneakers tight jeans and steel-tipped boots read my newspapers spread-eagled across a whole row of seats make my briefcase-boombox-backpack into an ottoman on the seat across from me on the l.i.r.r.

In this poem, from Experimental Love published in 1993, Clarke is working with gender roles to transgress them or to perform them with an ease to which she is entitled from her particular feminist analysis. I would argue that for her “passing” as a man means something very different than to a younger poet for whom the term “transgender” will come into play in different ways. Interestingly, this anthology makes no mention of bisexual or transgender although those two identities are very much contested spaces at the time that the book is published.

For the older generation of poets included in this anthology, I read gender, not only in their included works but in their broader oeuvre, as a site of action for their poetry, where as for the younger poets, gender is not acted upon as a site of their poetry in the same ways. By gender as a site of action, what I mean is that one of the projects of the poetry of these poets is to construct lesbian identity through their poetics either implicitly or explicitly. I also mean that these poets consider an analysis of the inequality between genders as a source of comment or transformative action for their work.

For the younger poets, the sites of action are different because the need to assert a lesbian identity, in opposition to hegemonic heterosexuality, is less strong, that is, a lesbian identity can be adopted more easily. Consider these lines from Melanie Hope’s “Only Days,”

Of course only days after I meet you i am imagining ways we will make love
Of course we will sit opposite each other in staff meetings so no one will suspect anything resembling sexual tension has wedged between us
Of course you are married to some degree and have no intention of messing around
Of course for a while work will not matter we will come and go easily in our crushed-out bliss
Of course we will have days when we are sure everyone in the office knows what’s going on
Of course I will try to like the things you tell me of your lover in an attempt to be open
Of course one day we will both call in sick and meet in a hotel near the airport to make love

This poem, about an affair between two women, both of whom have stable lesbian identities, drives the dailiness of a lesbian identity for the poetic persona home with the dramatic anaphora of “of course” which continues through the full thirty-six lines of the poem. Gender is not a site of action in this poem, sexual desire is.

Finally, consider Letta Neely’s poem, “8 Ways of Looking at Pussy.” In the second part, she writes,

swollen pussy
all laid out and relaxed
says to everyone in the room
“I have been to mecca and back
and it ain’t nuthin compared to what you
done did”

Especially in light of Broumas’ poem quoted above, Neely writes about desire in a different way. Less discovery, less unmasking of an unknown territory, and more external assertion of sexual prowess.

These generational tensions within The World in Us actually make it more interesting to read and consider. While the editors were explicit in wanting to include newer poets and not just people who were or were on the precipice of becoming “literary lions,” I think that the selection of lesbian poets in the anthology demonstrates the different ways that lesbian poetics are unfolding for different generations of poets.

Finally, though, like all texts that explicit gather gay and lesbian writers, one of the ways to read the text is by its exclusions. The editors note, “it is also true that many poets who share our sexuality refuse the appellation and will not consent to appear in the context of our poetry. Disappointingly, some high-profile poets declined to appear in this book, and their refusal shows there is still a sense of stigma attached to identifying oneself as a member of a sexual minority.” This then becomes my other area of interest in looking at the work of lesbian poets. How do we read a contemporary lesbian identity for a poet who did not identify as a lesbian, either by omission or by rejection? Can we consider there to have been a lesbian identity that was just mitigated by the closet and read a lesbian poetics in their work? I think about May Sarton whose lesbian identity seems to me very different than say Adrienne Rich. What about Elizabeth Bishop? Does she have a lesbian poetic? What about Mary Oliver? Rachel Blau DuPlessis addresses some of this in her meditation on feminist poetics and I hope to write more about that latter.

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