who honored me
by giving their works
—Sappho (Carson, trans.)
I choose to be a figure in that light,
half-blotted by darkness, something moving
across that space, the color of stone
greeting the moon, yet more than stone:
a woman. I choose to walk here. And to draw this circle.
—Adrienne Rich, from “Twenty-One Love Poems” 1974-76
For all the world we didnt know we held in common
the common woman is as common as the best of bread
and will rise
and will become strong—I swear it to you
I swear it to you on my own head
I swear it to you on my common
—Judy Grahn, “The Common Woman” 1969
Welcome to the Lesbian Poetry Archive! This electronic archive is conceived as a place to digitally preserve lesbian poetry and its ephemera and present them to not only scholars, but also poets and general readers. With this launch in December 2008, there are three items, the introductory material to Amazon Poetry, published in 1975; the introductory material to Lesbian Poetry, published in 1981; and the complete chapbook A Movement of Poets by Jan Clausen, published in 1982. If you would like to proceed directly to the archive, you can click here.
The Lesbian Poetry Archive is a project undertaken from both love and fear. The love is for poetry written by lesbians. Since I first encountered May Sarton’s Letters from Maine (a volume blessedly available from the B. Dalton Bookstore at the mall in Saginaw, MI) as a teenager, I have been searching for and gathering lesbian poetry around me as a way to both sustain and nourish myself. At every point in my life, I have turned to lesbian poetry as a way to understand my own experiences as a lesbian and to gather information and experiences of other lesbians living in the world at different locations and in various times. In my fantasy life as a reader, I was striving with these poets to create meaning through shared experiences.
The fear in this project is of losing the works of lesbian poets—and of forgetting what existed. The two decades between 1969 and 1989 represented a robust time for lesbian poetry and lesbian poets. During this time, activism flourished in the feminist movement, the gay liberation movement, the women’s health movement, and, in the later years, in collective responses to AIDS. From this consciousness-raising, political organizing, and general atmosphere of possibility, lesbian poets were writing and, just as important, printing and distributing their work. Publication of collections of poems, chapbooks, broadsides, and other small-print production through lesbian and feminist publishers thrived with dozens of small presses being founded and producing and distributing the cultural responses to the movements. Given the small print runs and the informal nature of some of the presses, there is no comprehensive bibliography of the cultural production of this time period. In scholarly work, very little has been written about the work that happened to document and interpret it for future generations. Moreover, in addition to many of the books falling out of print, only a small number of the poets writing during this time have found other publishers and remain in print. I am interested, through the Lesbian Poetry Archive, in addressing some of these conditions so that we do not lose—or forget—the work of lesbian poets, both during the decades that I have discussed and within a broader historical framework. These women’s words mattered then, and we must ensure that they matter now.
I began thinking about the project in conjunction with my graduate work at the University of Maryland. It would be proper to say that I was researching the books, chapbooks, and poems that I had read or heard about through thinking and writing about lesbian poets. The truth is, however, more than engaging in a research project, which suggests a particular emotional detachment, I was seeking these books and chapbooks and I even could say, hunting them down. It was not simply a project of intellectual interest but also of intellectual and emotional compulsion; I wanted to find these materials as a way to understand my own impulse to write poetry and to find and recover a history of lesbian poets. This project in the first decade of the second millennium was easier than a similar project two decades earlier, when I was an undergraduate. Computers and other technology made it easier as has the greater visibility and acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people that has happened in the United States. Moreover, my project now is easier than a similar project four or five decades earlier when many of the lesbians included (and forthcoming) in this archive were doing similar things. Yet, I believe we all felt the same urgency. To know about the past is to become, in some way, a part of it.
This, of course, is one of the dangers of the archive. Derrida calls it, “an impossible archaeology of this nostalgia, of this painful desire for a return to the authentic and singular origin,” which of course doesn’t exist in the archive as an archive is simply a record of what remains, not of what was. I realize that the creation of the Lesbian Poetry Archive embodies a desire to not simply record the past but to recapture it as well. That desire is ultimately futile; the past is no longer. Still I hope that by gathering these materials together, by putting them in a location that allows interested readers to access them and engage with them and think about them, that the Lesbian Poetry Archive is writing a future, and in that future the poets of the Lesbian Poetry Archive and the poems that they wrote are recognized, remembered and written about in substantive and meaningful ways.
There are hundreds of poets who can be included in this archive, not only from the two decades of my current concern, but also from the broader history of lesbian poetry. It is my intention that the archive will grow over time to include more poems, chapbooks, and books from poets as diverse as Audre Lorde, Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Robin Becker, Mina Loy, Gertrude Stein, H.D., Renee Vivien, and hundreds of others. I invite readers and scholars to contact me with suggestions for items to include and feedback on the archive as it develops.
At times, I worry that my lifetime is not long enough to attend to the enormity of the task set forth here. At other times I realize, despite my secret dream for comprehensivity, in truth this archive will be limited, like all archives. As it evolves, the Lesbian Poetry Archive will be in many ways an archive of my own attentions, an archive that reflects my own quirky readings and the vagaries of my mind and interests. I hope that in spite of that, or perhaps because of that, it will generate and hold interest for others.
Today, at the close of 2008, lesbian poetry continues to be underrepresented in mainstream publishing and in small presses. This in spite of the many historic gains—for instance, the poet laureate of the Library of Congress, Kay Ryan, is open about being a lesbian and one of the best-selling poets in the United States today, Mary Oliver, is also open about being a lesbian. For women like me, seeking to read about lesbian lives in poetry in 2008 and in the future, there are many more options that there were when I was a fourteen year old reader discovering May Sarton in 1984 or than there were for Judy Grahn reading in the 1960s prior to her 1969 publication, The Common Woman Poems.
In the world of publishing today, lesbian poetry continues to be underrepresented in mainstream publishing and in small presses. Many of the collections of poetry in what might be called the lesbian poetry “canon” have fallen out of print. In scholarly publications, lesbian poetry continues to lack serious engagement.
Electronic publishing and scholarship offers an opportunity for the collection of lesbian poems, chapbooks, and books as well as a way to engage the work of lesbian poets and explore lesbian poetics. I hope that the Lesbian Poetry Archive in conjunction with other gay and lesbian archives, such as the Lesbian Herstory Archive and One, National Gay and Lesbian Archive, can provide a space and a forum for readers and scholars to remember, read, and find new meaning in the work of lesbian poets as digital archives have done for poets such as Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.
The historical arc is not an upward progression. In many ways, the impulse of this archive is to document an era of lesbian poetry production, publication, and circulation that has passed. In spite of the many fine younger lesbian poets finding their way into print such as Jenny Factor, Elizabeth Bradfield, and Staceyann Chin, and in spite of the newer presses dedicated to lesbian writing such as Eloise Klein Healy’s imprint, Arktoi Books at Red Hen Press, there is still not the same volume of journals, books, and chapbooks being published, circulated, and read by lesbians as there were between 1969 and 1989.
In some ways, I believe this archive might inspire a new resurgence of lesbian writing and publishing. At the very least, I hope that lesbian poetry will not be lost or forgotten to the scholars and literary critics of the future, yes, but more importantly to the readers of the future. The vision of a readership that was not simply literary from the lesbian poetry movement continues to inspire me.
Finally, I want to acknowledge some of the people who have been helpful to me in this journey. I am grateful particularly to Katie King, who first suggested that I include an online component to my thinking and work around lesbian poetry. She handed me a stack of books and magazines and inspired the wanderings of my mind to conceive the project. She is an extraordinary intellectual mentor and ally and for that I am thankful. I am also grateful to Martha Nell Smith for many things. Her model of a scholarly digital practice inspires me as much as her probing questions, her political analysis, and beautiful mind. I am grateful for her support of this project through the Dickinson Electronic Archives and her constant and heartfelt encouragement of me as scholar and poet. Finally, I am grateful to and inspired by all lesbian poets, known by me and yet to be discovered by me. It is their work—their poems—to which this archive is dedicated. May this gathering of materials be a small honor to them for their belief in the power of our poetry, for their work to publish it, and for their unabashed commitment to sending it into the world.
Julie R. Enszer