Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Lesbian Print Culture, 1969-1989: Class Presentation

Read “A History of Lesbianism” by Judy Grahn.
(I’m not putting this on the blog because if you are reading this, please go to www.redhen.org and purchase Grahn’s new collection, love belongs to those who do the feeling. The poem is in the book.)
This poem first appeared in Edward the Dyke and Other Poems, Grahn’s “first, woman-produced, mimeographed book.” In reflecting in 1984 on why she titled the collection, Grahn wrote, “for two reasons: first, by insisting that Edward was a poem, I was telling myself that women must define what our poetry is. I believe this about every other aspect of our lives also. Secondly, it meant people had to say the word dyke.”
Grahn’s self-reflections on her work begin to open up some of the inquiries that my project considers. Edward the Dyke and Other Poems is an early example of a print product from the Women’s Liberation Movement – and the poems appear in multiple other publications during the time period of my concern. Grahn notes that she is with her poems engaged in defining what women are – and what lesbians are.
One of the challenging things in my project is how to define lesbian, feminism, and lesbian-feminism. The usage of these terms in the archive is fluid; they are being defined and negotiated through the poetry and by the people within my inquiry. What, besides time, creates the boundaries for my inquiry? What poetry is classified as lesbian, or lesbian-feminist? What is excluded? What activities and print publications are classified as lesbian or lesbian-feminist? And what are excluded? Part of my response to this challenge, in addition to a temporal limitation, is to look geographically. I think this presents a useful framework, though still an incomplete trope for writing and understanding this history.
This grounding in time and location comes not only from standard scholarly practices, but also from the print culture that I am studying. In Amazon Poetry, a collection of lesbian poetry published in 1975, the poets were organized according to the aesthetics of the anthologists. In Lesbian Poetry, published in 1981, the poets are organized chronologically by date of birth and their biographies at the end of the book include their geographic location. It was important to the anthologists in the second iteration of the anthology to organize poets generationally and to situate them geographically. Part of the intention of my research project is to do that not just for the individual poets but for the ‘movement of poets.’
What prompts someone to create and distribute printed material? And why is it important? These are two questions implicit in my work in this project. I’d like to briefly consider them through two items from the time of my concern. The first, a chapbook, published by Out & Out Books, a publisher in Brooklyn, NY, is the reprint of a speech given by Adrienne Rich at the New York Lesbian Pride Rally on June 26, 1977. It is titled “The Meaning of Our Love for Women Is What We Have Constantly to Expand.” This is the second printing and corresponds with the revised text that was published in Rich’s On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. The first printing had original text and was published within weeks of the pride rally. The publisher, on the back of the chapbook, prints, “This is the first in a series of pamphlets documenting ideas important in the evolution of lesbian/feminism.” Perhaps that tells us what we need to know about this document.
The fifth issue of Sinister Wisdom, published in 1978 from Charlotte, North Carolina, contains an essay by one of the founders Harriet Desmoines, titled “READING and WRITING and PUBLISHING: Retrieved from Silence.” The essay, about Daughters, Inc. Press, recounts Desmoines’ discovering that she is a lesbian by reading lesbian novels, particularly ones by June Arnold and Rita Mae Brown. Through the essay, Desmoines explores how “reading about, writing about, talking about, listening to what might save wymyn as a class.” She concludes with this passage,
What is it I so want? Only this: the witch’s doing. The power to transform energy. The power to juggle spheres of sound, the power to keep them in the air, the power to transmute the tumbling words into mirrors, crystal spheres glinting in the sun, reflecting doe wymyn, panther wymyn, gazelle wymyn. . . . .
Desmoines intentions for her writing and her publishing are florid in relief to the intentions of Out & Out Books. Yet both want to communicate between and among women interested in these ideas. I suppose at a most basic level, I want to do the same. Within this reading and close examination of archival materials and print and cultural products, there lies some knowledge to be excavated and produced. I hope that by listening and documenting, this knowledge will tells us all a bit more about how we lived then, how we live today, and how we might live in the future.
Grahn noted about Edward the Dyke, “What would Amy Lowell say to this? She would probably offer me a cigar.” Someday, I hope to join the two of them in that celebration.

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