Queer Poets on the Poems That Changed Their Lives
PostedMay 24, 2016
In celebration of LGBTQ Pride Month, we asked poets to tell us about the poems that influenced their lives as LGBTQ writers and individuals. Read about the powerful and long-lasting impact poetry had on their identity.
At sixteen, I stopped feeling ashamed of desiring men but dealing with a public queer identity—navigating a world that told me if I wasn’t invisible I wasn’t wanted—stressed me. Then and now, I loved media written by or about women—safe havens for the femme self I was shamed into hiding. I felt kinship with women whose inner lives were ignored or denigrated. H. D.’s book Sea Garden was one such work. Because my queerness was private and hypothetical (I hadn’t so much as kissed a boy at the time) my sexuality was profoundly interior. Sea Garden reminded me of Florida, the patch of beach where I listened to Mariah Carey and imagined a life without worry. Unafraid of traditionally feminine images—flowers, the sea—H. D. inspired me with her luscious and acrid, florid and bitter, god-haunted landscapes—erotic, psychological, and spiritual. In H. D.’s poem “Orchard,” the prostrate speaker entreats a god’s absent son to spare him from loveliness. Isn’t this an endlessly queer dilemma—to love and loathe one’s desire? I knew those rituals from my own fantasies beckoning some big, god of a man to have his way with my body, yet stay, stay tender, leave me—so that I may call him again—loved, sore, alive.
I first read Judy Grahn in an amber-lit bar in Nyack, New York, on a summer night, newly out—the rumpled borrowed mimeograph of “A Woman Is Talking to Death” a little damp in my hands, text dissolving at the page-folds.
These “testimonies in trials that never got heard” speak to cop brutality, gaybashing, rape, an army hospital, a court martial, a scene of domestic peace, and of erotic love—all serving to shift the locus of shame away from marginalization and stigma (those external prosecutions of queerness, androgyny) and relocate it to our failures of compassion and accountability for one another.
Throughout the poem, love—erotic, authentic, communal—is seen as the sole subversive force that can tear down the courtrooms and death drives of authority.
Finding absence and presence, fertility and death, high romance and brave self-implication, I looked up ten minutes later to see what felt now like an entire world sitting and sipping beverages around me—not just women, now, not just potential lovers—but each disenfranchised soul open for engagement, needing every one of us to hear and answer for the testimony of one another.
Grahn’s poem transformed my lesbianism from a locus of desire to a political stance, a way of being present with others.
As I swam through my new life in subways and at preschool drop-off, my lesbian identity became both a code and a mode of witness.
I carried those folded copies around in my pocket for a long time.
read "A Woman Is Talking to Death"
Pat Parker was one of the first black lesbian poets whose poetry I discovered while attending Barnard College. I was a young, closeted, black lesbian and her poems were empowering and life-altering. Parker spoke directly to me when she discussed the beauty of loving another woman: “my lover is a woman / & when i hold her / feel her warmth / i feel good / feel safe.” Her poems of gay pride, political activism and her open, unapologetic love of women gave me courage to come out to my own family. A beloved only child, the first in my family to attend college, raised by my southern grandmother and mother in Harlem, I naively expected their support when I came out to them in college. I was heartbroken when my Grandma Pearl responded in disgust “I can’t believe my grandbaby is a damn bulldagger!” Parker’s brutally honest stanzas mirrored my own experience in the black family: “i never think of / my family’s voices / never hear my sisters say / bulldaggers, queers, funny / come see us, but don’t / bring your friend.” Discovering Parker’s bold, unflinching voice helped prepare me for many uphill battles as an out queer black woman, not just in society, but at times, in my own family and community.
read "My Lover Is a Woman"
Central Florida in the ‘90s—tourists in mouse-ears and Benny Hinn preaching on TV, the culture stifling as the heat. Even at dawn, the only coolness was the dew on the grass, the just-cut blade-tips painting my ankles as I walked to the dock. Despite nails jutting from the boards like punji sticks, I bellied my way to the edge and perched my book above the water: The Dream of a Common Language. I read and reread the central section of “21 Love Poems”: “without tenderness, we are in hell. two people together is a work / heroic in its ordinariness.” Two women together, two writers. Though I had sought lesbian life in other texts, all those I’d found centered around sex alone, around lonely lives in which I couldn’t—didn’t want to—see myself. And then came Adrienne Rich and her poem“(The Floating Poem, Unnumbered).” Sex, yes, but sex held fast by love. A promise that being queer didn’t have to mean a life scrabbling in shadows for transitory pleasures. A promise that beyond the constricted world I knew at fifteen, I might instead inherit a future in which I could live and love in full daylight, that “whatever happens—this is.”
read "(The Floating Poem, Unnumbered)"
Reading Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons by Marilyn Hacker was vital for me because the book offered not a glimpse, but a total immersion into a lesbian context, as the story of a yearlong relationship unfolds across nearly two hundred sonnets. “On Marriage” is one of my favorites, because of the way it plays with convention, questioning whether to call itself an epithalamion or not. Ultimately, the speaker of this poem departs from the traditional contract, asserting that, “No law books frame terms for this covenant.” Keenly, Hacker uses geometry to back her speaker’s logic and the poetic line to enact her geometry (lines 11-13 refusing to be end-stopped) when she says that choosing such a love is “asymptotic to goal.” From what I understand, an asymptote is a line that comes closer and closer to a curve without ever meeting—except possibly at infinity. Thus, the poem offers that this unbound commitment to “choose, and choose, and choose momently, daily”—which these lovers are making—has a limitless trajectory. What a beautiful and radical declaration!
read "On Marriage"
“Double Exposure” was a kind of love poem I’d always wanted––earthy and witty, with a streak of primal strangeness. May Swenson disliked the label lesbian poetry (and told me so, in a letter). While my generation’s identity politics found expression in publishing collectives and coming-out anthologies, Swenson continued hiding in plain sight. With marriage equality decades away, she knew who she was and whom she loved, inventing playful shapes that explored (among other things) intimacy between women.
Two women (“you” and “me”) photograph each other in a spirit of experimentation that's both childlike and scientific. The poem reminds us that we’re animals––“the black snout of the camera framed by hair”––and teasingly suggests simultaneous orgasm: “I / wanted to trip the shutter at the exact moment you / did.” But the poem’s erotic life is as much about the intimacy of minds in dialogue with one another as it is about bodies. The Cyclops Swenson sees in the single glass eye of the camera lens invites fear into the ritual, but danger is part of the thrill. Glee is the state of mind and feeling as we transform each other: “Who, / or what, will it be––will I be, I wonder? Can’t wait.”
read "Double Exposure"
I’m almost sheepish to admit that I first heard of “I Sing the Body Electric” as a song (by title only) from the 1980s movie “Fame,” which in itself had pointed me to a certain path of gay self-discovery. But no matter, the point being I was made aware of Uncle Walt, albeit I was still too young and living in the Philippines, so it took several more years until I read selections from Leaves of Grass. When I did, Whitman’s all-inclusive sensuality and humanity not only affirmed my own, but lead me to an understanding and eventual acceptance of my precious otherness and burgeoning homosexuality, which I initially thought were deviant feelings. Whitman was a sexy writer, writing vivid descriptions of male physicality. Of course, his work transcended and encompassed creation with no shame but pure wonder. Who was I to argue with such wisdom. So, I consented and rejoiced in what I am, and my desires: bodily.
read "I Sing the Body Electric"
read from obedience ["the clock is on time"]
My first lesbian poem was one I heard, not one I read. I was twenty-nine years old, sitting in a tumultuous NOW conference, Philadelphia, 1975, with my first woman lover.
As a lesbian I was about to lose custody of my two children. I was at risk of losing my job teaching in North Carolina; gay and lesbian coworkers and other friends were being fired. My mother, grandmother, aunts viewed my love as a sin, a tragedy, or a psychological aberration—or all three. And only four years earlier, Betty Friedan had tried to purge the lesbian “lavender menace” from NOW.
I’d never read a poem that I knew a lesbian had written. I’d read Amy Lowell’s “patterned garden paths” where she disguised her passion for women in lord and lady and heterosexual marriage.
Then to the stage of the conference came a powerful figure, a woman I’d never heard of—Audre Lorde. She began to speak:
“Speak earth and bless me with what is richest…”
And into me came Audre’s defiant poem, her explicit physical passion for another woman. She was claiming that passion publicly, before thousands, and in the fullness of her selfhood as a woman of African descent.
Audre’s poem was a bolt of lightning, illuminating the landscape all around me, sensual, political. There was a path, a way to live my life writing, struggling, loving, with integrity—the hope of her immense integrity.
read "Love Poem"
How odd I was to myself in 1998—a good, married, Christian girl about to graduate from my hometown college in Tennessee—yet how normal I seemed to everyone else. A private hell, trying to corral the queerness that flared inside. And then this poem arrived—a woman’s voice taking up space—articulating, which is to say loving, the oddness (how sad the world is in which this is true) of feminine ecstasy, which is to say power—stretching its lines out long—images folding back on one another, bringing something (someone) else along each time.
By the time I hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2001, I had come out as queer but not yet as trans. I carried this poem in my pocket, memorized it, and recited it to strangers at bars in small towns, trees in Pennsylvania, stars in Maine. Embodying the poem made my own becoming more possible. Not the first poem I had ever seen but the first poem to see me—to make me say, I can do this.
Thank you, Maureen Seaton, for bringing me back to life.