About Judy Grahn
Mary J. Carruthers
Judy Grahn (b. 1940) is a love poet too, although her poetry is not particularly erotic. The Work of a Common Woman is sensual, but celebrates sweat and hard work rather than sexual play. Grahn is a "working-class poet," but she is neither a socialist-realist nor a slumming idealist. "Commonness" to her is not a new kind of exclusivity, for her "common woman" is Everywoman, that which is ordinary and common and binds women together. She is a love poet in the traditions of Whitman, Ginsberg, cummings, with more than a little bit of Gertrude Stein. Grahn borrows many of their repetitive, incantatory techniques, but transmutes them to celebrate the energy common to women in their diverse work.
[. . . ]
Her sensualness occurs in the dance-like, ritualistic patterns of much of her poetry. She seems able to find songs or enchantments in virtually every aspect of the language of women. "She Who," a group of diverse pieces which Grahn has recorded as well as published, contains a birth chant made from the midwife's instructions during natural childbirth, a funeral rite, an exorcism of all the hateful names that men have called women, a liturgy of heroic women evoked to give energy and to heal. These rituals, designed as Grahn writes, to make "our poetry what it should be and once was: specific, scientific, valuable, of real use," are interspersed with fables and exempla, the whole sequence resembling a Book of Common Prayer for women. Holding it all together is the powerfully evocative, syntactically polypositional "She Who." These poems are social activities, designed to replicate in readers, especially through reading aloud, the ideal of Lesbian civility.
Her most interesting and ambitious poem is the meditation, "A Woman is Talking to Death." Grahn has always insisted in her poems on what is factual, plain and simple. There are no obvious metaphors or myths. She has said of her early sequence, "The Common Woman": "I wanted to accentuate the strengths of their persons without being false about the facts of their lives." Of "A Woman is Talking to Death" she wrote, "This poem is as factual as I could possibly make it." The precise description of a fatal accident involving a motorcycle and an automobile on the Bay Bridge becomes an extended meditation on the futility of trying to work within a society fascinated by destruction. The poem clarifies sharply what women know of the difference between love and death; as Grahn says of it, it began "a redefinition for myself of the subject of love."
[. . . ]
Grahn idealizes but does not sentimentalize the Lesbian bond, because she makes us aware of the facts of aloneness, the penalties of her choice, and the tenuousness of her dream. She is also tough in rejecting the false securities and illusory paradises that romantic idealism produces. Grahn does not look to others to teach her love; her love comes with integrity. Love is a disciplined school of self-knowledge, self-evaluation, learned through the world of work and fact. It is that discipline which underlies the apocalyptic dream defined in "A Woman is Talking to Death" . . .
from "The Re-Vision of the Muse: Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, Olga Broumas." The Hudson Review. Summer 1983, 36:2.
Amitai F. Avi-ram
Poetry is what someone makes when she desires to hear a certain language and cannot already hear it in the world. To this Judy Grahn testifies in an interview: "I suddenly wanted something to read about women, but I couldn't find anything" (Yalom and Davis, 1983). Poetry satisfies the deesire for new linguistic experience, experience that can only be dreamed by the poet before she begins to work. Yet this new language is never purely new: it is made out of repetition, both internally in its formal devices, figures, and themes, and in echoing the language outside of and prior to it. For a poet like feminist Judy Grahn, who is dissatisfied not only with the language already in the world but also with the world itself, poetry can alter through language the relations between the audience and the world by transforming the meanings of words and symbols and thus how we experience them. On the one hand, poetry like Grahn's moves toward something new and opposes repetition of what is dangerous, painful, inhuman in the world and its language; on the other hand, a poem like A Woman is Talking to Death must do its work largely by repeating what already exists. The poem's title enacts this process in miniature, playing upon a figure of speech that at once invokes a stereotype about women's speech (i.e., talking endlessly), and signals both a commitment to language (talking until death, until the very end) and a larger, even mythical, meditation about ultimate meaning in which Death is addressed directly; that it is a woman talking to Death is unexpected and turns the hackneyed phrase inside out. New meaning thus arises out of language that is familiar. Transformation, then, depends upon the politics of repetition and refrain, mimicking in language the transformation of the material world sought by the feminist movement at large.
This is the paradox for the feminist writer: how to use what exists to create what is new. In Grahn's work, the paradox goes deeper. Formally and symbolically, A Woman is Talking to Death is structured around repetitions that generally work as the very mechanism that engages the reader and offers pleasure in the face of the uncanny. Thematically, it is the material of violence and prejudice that we find repeated. If the poem were not words but actions, we might say that we were witnessing its uncontrollable compulsion to repeat, a compulsion that would reveal its drive toward death. But because the poem is made out of words, its thematic repetitions make conscious the very pattern of violence that the larger culture is already repeating compulsively in action; and the formal, verbal repetitions further serve to transform the meanings of those words and our relation to them from an unconscious complicity with violence toward a position in which we may begin to free ourselves from its chains. A Woman is Talking to Death thus works socially upon its audience: Grahn's poem, in other words, is a liberating therapy for a society that is trapped in illness.
Adrienne Rich has pointed out how well Grahn's work transforms language, and the important difference between transformation—which is a real change in our psychic, social, and physical relations—and revolution—which is the replacement of one empowered group by another without necessarily transforming the essential power structure. In an essay on four lesbian poets including Grahn, Mary J. Carruthers rightly observes the connection between Grahn's "repetitive, incantatory techniques" and the "traditions of Whitman, Ginsberg, cummings, with more than a little of Gertrude Stein," and notes how she "transmutes them to celebrate the energy common to women in their diverse work." I suggest that this transformation is also ideological. For listeners, the refrains and repetitions bring about a new relation to prejudice and violence, as they work to release us from the oppressions we use against each other and which continually divide us; and they enact a process of empathy and growth. Grahn's use of repetition is also in certain ways representative of feminist writers in general: repetition and transformation occur with fair frequency, for example, in the work of writers as diverse as Rich, Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Helene Cixous, Gertrude Stein, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
from "The Politics of Refrain in Judy Grahn's A Woman Is Talking to Death." Women and Language 10.2 (Spring 1987).
JUDY GRAHN: THE UNCOMMON COMMON WOMAN
by Michael Davidson
The ability to read Joanne Kyger's or Helen Adam's work in feminist terms has been aided by a more activist posture developed among women writers during the late 1960s. In the San Francisco Bay Area, this period saw the appearance of important new reading spaces, publishers, and distributors of women's literature: Alta began Shameless Hussy Press, the first women's press in the area; Susan Griffin coordinated a large conference on women poets for the University of California Extension; Joanna Griffin and Sande Fini opened a series of readings and performances at a Berkeley bar called The Bacchanall; the San Francisco State College Women's Caucus began to hold readings in the Noe Valley; and perhaps most important, the Women's Press Collective was established by Judy Grahn in 1969. Although many of these events occurred after the period with which this book is concerned, they were empowered, to a certain extent, by tendencies already present in the San Francisco Renaissance.
For a lesbian poet like Judy Grahn, the historical fact of gay writing - as well as the city's relative openness to alternative social and sexual preferences - was no small component in the development of her poetics. Although Grahn was not associated directly with the San Francisco Renaissance, her literary voice derives, in many respects, from the populist mode of the Beats. It is hard to imagine works like "The Psychoanalysis of Edward the Dyke" or "Elephant Poem" without thinking of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's satiric portraits of alienated fifties life or the comic, quasi-surreal poems of Allen Ginsberg or Gregory Corso. The strength of Grahn's early poetry depends on the odd combination of humor and anger that gives a work like "Howl" its special power.
If the literary formation of Judy Grahn's work rests in the populist mode of the Beats, its social formation rests in the womens movement and, more specifically, in San Francisco's long homophile tradition, going back to the prewar years. The city had long been a haven for homosexuals and lesbians, and although the community was often threatened by the homophobic public, it always had a social and even political force in the larger demographics. Important gay political groups like the Matachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitus, and (later) The Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club had substantial memberships in San Francisco from their inception, and with the emergence of a gay liberation movement in the post-Stonewall era, the city became, as John D'Emilio says, "for gay men and for lesbians ... what Rome is for Catholics."
To a large extent, the permission for the San Francisco gay community to come out of the closet and become an active force in the city was granted during the period that this book covers and by many of the same literary events. The fact that many San Francisco poets were openly homosexual created the illusion - if not the fact - of tolerance in the city. Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" censorship trial, publications by Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, James Broughton, and Robin Blaser, and even Jack Kerouac's novels brought national attention to a city where variant sexual modes were possible. But as I have pointed out with reference to the Spicer circle, such permission was given within a largely male, homosexual community that remained closed or even hostile to women. Denise Levertov's "Hypocrite Women" was written in response not only to Jack Spicer's misogyny, but to the closed, homosexual circle he supported. It remained for the women's movement and its lesbian feminist component to open a new possibility for a gay women's poetry. Judy Grahn as much as anyone helped to create this possibility.
In order to create a gay women's poetry it was necessary to create a woman not totally defined within male, heterosexual stereotypes. Judy Grahn's early work involved the creation of what she called "the common woman," a figure whose power is repressed and whose beauty is masked behind social conventions. At the same time, Grahn must resuscitate the common woman from the uncommon woman, that objectified embodiment of male desire. As she says in her poem to Marilyn Monroe, "I have come to claim / Marilyn Monroe's body / for the sake of my own." Grahn must discover this woman from within a world that has not provided her with a name; hence many of the poems appear to be litanies for "she who" has no identity at all:
the woman whose head is on fire
the woman with a noisy voice
the woman with too many fingers
the woman who never smiled once in her life
the woman with a boney body
the woman with moles all over her (WCW, 107)
These incantatory passages suggest a communal forum in which repetition serves to unite and join, even as it differentiates.
Coinciding with the invention of a new woman is Grahn's archaeological interest in the origins of gay culture. This task is given explicit form in her book Another Mother Tongue, which explores archaic sources of homosexuality and lesbianism in what amounts to a popular ethnology of homoerotic culture. It is "culture" that Grahn is most concerned with: that of women, and that of lesbians specifically. As one of the founders of the gay women's liberation movement on the West, Coast, she has been acutely interested in what is specific to gay life: its informing myths, stereotypes, and communal signs. Her archaeological task involves exploring the words by which gays are marginalized - "butch," "fay," "queer," "dyke," - and finding their tribal or cultic origins, thus resuscitating from a despised language a new language of opposition and authority. If her historical scholarship is sometimes suspect, relying as it does on a good deal of artful speculation, it recognizes the difficulty of such ethnology: that any history of gay culture must rely on an idiom constantly under transformation, an idiom that mirrors at the same time as it satirizes the heterosexual world.
Grahn performs her archaeological work with a good deal of humor, using it to debunk certain stereotypes of gayness, both those of the straight world and those in the gay community itself. In her story "The Psychoanalysis of Edward the Dyke," she satirizes the straight psychoanalytical interpretation of lesbianism, but at the same time explores the ambivalence of the gay woman toward her own sexuality. Edward's compulsions and paranoids, as reported to her psychoanalyst Dr. Knox, are transformed into pathological symptoms of penis envy and castration compulsion. Dr. Knox sees all of Edward's problems in clinical terms, and his therapy is directed at transforming Edward (who is six feet four inches tall) into a normal "little girl": "We will cure you of this deadly affliction and before you know it you'll be all fluffy and wonderful with dear babies and a bridge club of your very own." After defining Edward's "problems," Dr. Knox subjects her to shock therapy:
Dr. Knox flipped a switch at his elbow and immediately a picture of a beautiful woman appeared on a screen over Edward's head. The doctor pressed another switch and electric shocks jolted through her spine. Edward screamed. He pressed another switch, stopping the flow of electricity. Another switch and a photo of a gigantic erect male organ flashed into view, coated in powdered sugar. Dr. Knox handed Edward a lollipop. (WCW, 30)
However humorous Grahn's story is, it deals with an interpretation of homosexuality not uncommon during Grahn's lifetime, an interpretation with serious consequences for the "health" of the gay community. Grahn challenges Dr. Knox's reading of Edward's problem by refusing to accept the language by which gays are categorized, whether in psychoanalytical or political terms. The issue of reforming the language, as Adrienne Rich points out in her introduction to The Work of a Common Woman, is central to Grahn's poetry:
When we become acutely, disturbingly aware of the language we are using and that is using us, we begin to grasp a material resource that women have never before collectively attempted to repossess. . . . We might, hypothetically, possess ourselves of every recognized technological resource on the North American continent, but as long as our language is inadequate, our vision remains formless, our thinking and feeling arc still running in the old cycles, our process may be "revolutionary" but not transformative. (WCW, 7)
The transformation that Rich seeks begins with the creation of alternative models against which specific women might measure and evaluate themselves. In her early work, Grahn created a series of portraits of women, both lesbian and straight, which embody the diversity of the "common woman." The result is a long series, The Common Woman Poems, which has become a major document in the feminist movement. The series mixes realistic depictions of oppressed women with a revolutionary call to action:
the common woman is as common as the best of bread
and will rise
and will become strong--I swear to you
I swear it to you on my common
head (WCW, 73)
The origin of this series, as Grahn says, "was completely practical: I wanted, in 1969, to read something which described regular, everyday women. without making us look either superhuman or pathetic" (WCW, 6). The women portrayed are tough and resilient, hardened by years of work in low-paying, demeaning jobs and in equally demeaning sex roles. Ella, for example, is
... a copperheaded waitress,
tired and sharp-worded, she hides
her bad brown tooth behind a wicked
smile, and flicks her ass
out of habit, to fend off the pass
that passes for affection.
She keeps her mind the way men
keep a knife ... (WCW, 63)
The language in these poems is as common as the women described, straightforward and direct, with an occasional rhetorical flourish ("to fend off the pass / that passes for affection"). But the more the women are described, the less "common" they appear, each one possessing some volatile side of herself hidden beneath the surface:
she has taken a woman lover
whatever can we say
She walks around all day
quietly, but underneath it
angry energy inside a passive form.
The common woman is as common
as a thunderstorm. (WCW, 67)
The titles of these portraits indicate precisely where the portrait takes place: "Helen, at 9 AM, at noon, at 5:15" or "Carol, in the park, chewing on straws," as though they are photos in an album. The portraits are not idealized, and the lives the women lead are hardly heroic. Madness, abortion, failed marriages, sexual frustration, shrill invective become the unhappy legacy of the "common woman." To Grahn these features signal a potential power that must be discovered in everyday language:
I'm not a girl
I'm a hatchet
I'm not a hole
I'm a whole mountain
I'm not a fool
I'm a survivor
I'm not a pearl
I'm the Atlantic Ocean
I'm not a good lay
I'm a straight razor
look at me as if you had never seen a woman before
I have red, red hands and much bitterness (WCW, 25)
In speaking of Joanne Kyger, I described her synthesis of autobiography and myth as an attempt to gain a perspective on her life as a woman - that by identifying with Penelope, she could speak for herself in the historical present. In the case of Judy Grahn, the feminist implications of this synthesis are made explicit. "Look at me as if you had never seen a woman before," she demands, and in much of her work she uses herself as the focus for a larger social imperative. The common-woman portraits may be derived from Grahn's personal life, but they attain a kind of nobility precisely because of their bare, hard-edged presentation. They gain mythical stature because they are so resolutely ordinary. At the same time, Grahn's use of historical figures like Marilyn Monroe (or Susan Griffin's use of Harriet Tubman or Adrienne Rich's use of Emily Dickinson) represent retrievals of exceptional women to serve as simulacra for every woman. The necessity of retrieving women, common and uncommon, from their sequestration within a patriarchal world has been the task of a feminist poetics from the outset. Judy Grahn is no different in this respect than other feminists in the country, but her ability to speak as a lesbian was certainly encouraged by the large gay community in San Francisco and the Spirit of social action that had been there from its earliest days. Grahn became the inheritor of this tradition but also one of its most articulate disseminators.
CONCLUSION: WHOSE RENAISSANCE?
Writing about women in and of the San Francisco Renaissance is difficult not because there were so few of them but because the standard definition of the movement has no way of including them. The boys' club of San Francisco bohemia, however progressive in defining new social roles for individuals, was often blind to its own exclusionary posture. Where women are mentioned in the chronicles of the period, their contributions are usually relegated to their "service" function. Carolyn Cassady may be valued for her retrospective memoirs of life with Neal and Jack, but not for her own literary attainments. The entries on Cassady and Eileen Kaufman in Arthur and Kit Knight's chronicle of the Beat generation, The Beat Vision, simply memorialize their former husbands. Although Joanne Kyger's major work, The Tapestry and the Web, is long out of print, her journals of travel in India with her then-husband Gary Snyder are readily available. Women are conspicuously absent from major critical accounts of the period, although Kenneth Rexroth does acknowledge the pioneering work of Ruth Witt Diamant and Madeline Gleason in establishing the San Francisco State Poetry Center. And although Josephine Miles was included in the San Francisco issue of Evergreen, she is almost invariably thought of as an academic fellow traveler rather than an active participant in the movement. Such omissions, subordinations, and marginalizations may reflect the roles that women played during this period, but they also suggest the endurance of a privileged narrative - what I earlier called "enabling myths" of origins - in which women are seldom the subjects.
By recognizing the contributions of women writers during the period from 1955 to 1965, we may revise that narrative somewhat, but this is only half the job. It is also necessary to discover the women who were already being invented between the lines, as it were, of male verse. These women are as much projections of that romantic ideology that I mentioned in my opening chapter as they are of the historical period with which we are concerned. They emerge from romantic conceptions of feminized nature and from a theory of creative imagination based on dualisms of form and content, action and inspiration, artist and muse. The fact that Denise Levertov and Diane DiPrima recognized those hidden women and responded to them in their own terms was crucial for the development of their individual poetics. At the same time, their "appropriations" of male discourse represent ways in which romantic narratives of natural rhythms, cyclic life, and participation are revised in terms of gender.
One of the dominant themes of feminist scholarship has been the ways that women writers have rewritten patriarchal discourse, subverting its authority while at the same time providing women with alternative discursive forms. Helen Adam's variations on stock romantic figures and Joanne Kyger's rewriting of male myth are obvious extensions of this revisionist imperative. Their work was performed within - and, I contend, against - male-centered circles in the San Francisco milieu. Judy Grahn developed her poetics in the frame of a more self-consciously feminist poetry - one that she helped to create - and, although not usually associated with the literary events described in the rest of this book, she represents a logical outgrowth of them. Like the Beats, she emphasizes plain speech and "common" subjects, but whereas Ginsberg and Kerouac often discover transcendental principles in urban landscapes, Grahn seeks the historical awareness of women's - and specifically lesbians' - condition in patriarchal America.
By concluding this chapter with figures not usually mentioned in the standard histories of the San Francisco Renaissance, I am suggesting that in order to see the contributions of women to modern literary history, we must often look outside the canonical narratives. These counternarratives challenge more than our reading of literary history; they introduce a new subject as reader. That subject, "she who" reads, must ask of the period we are studying, Whose Renaissance? Renaissance of what? If those questions are asked retrospectively, by a generation that reads through the spectacles of gender, it is thanks to figures like Denise Levertov, Diane DiPrima, Helen Adam, Joanne Kyger, and Judy Grahn. Impatient with the roles their male colleagues consigned to them, they seized upon the social and aesthetic advantages of 1950s bohemian culture and began to write "her" story in the margins of "his."
From The San Fransisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century. Copyright © 1989 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Grahn was a member of the Gay Women's Liberation Group, the first lesbian feminist collective on the west coast, founded around 1969. The collective established the first women's bookstore, A Woman's Place, and the first all-woman press, The Women's Press Collective (Case 49), which "devoted itself exclusively to work by lesbians disfranchised by race or class" (Harris, 1993, xxxi). Grahn's poems, circulated in periodicals, performances, chapbooks, and by word of mouth, were foundational documents of lesbian feminism. Her work enjoyed a wide underground readership before 1975 (Larkin 92), although it did not reach commercial audiences until the late 1970s. Collected as The Work of a Common Woman in 1978, the poems were published by a series of successively larger and more mainstream publishers in the late 1970s: first Diana Press (a small lesbian-feminist press into which The Women's Press Collective was incorporated in the early 1970s), then Crossing Press (in paperback) and the New York publishing house St. Martin's Press (in hardcover). According to Carl Morse and Joan Larkin, "Crahn's work, both as legendary poet and independent publisher, fueled the explosion of lesbian poetry that began in the 70s" (Morse and Larkin, 1988c, 140).
Carruthers cites Rich's introduction to Grahn's collection The Work of a Common Woman as evidence of Rich's influence on Grahn's poetry, and Grahn herself has acknowledged Rich, among others, as important to the development of her work. What Carruthers fails to note, however, is that Rich was moved to write the introduction to The Work of a Common Woman because of the impact of Grahn's work on her own poetry years earlier. In Rich's introduction, "Power and Danger: Tile Work of a Common Woman by Judy Grahn," Rich describes weeping when she first read Grahn's "A Woman Is Talking to Death" in 1974: "I knew in an exhausted kind of way that what had happened to me was irreversible. All I could do with it at that point was lie down and sleep, let . . . the knowledge that was accumulating in my life, the poem I had just read, go on circulating in my bloodstream" (Rich, 1977, 9). The most clear evidence that Grahn influenced Richs later work is Richs adoption of the term "common" from Grahns The Common Woman (1969) in The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977 (1978) "where it was greatly broadened by new phrases" (Grahn, 1985, 73).
Margot Gayle Backus interprets Grahn's long elegiac poem, "A Woman Is Talking to Death," as a calling "into being [of] a unified human communitas, a 'we' capable of containing and healing the divisions between subject positions that the capitalist appropriation of human labor, emotions, time, and lives has represented as natural and desirable. Grahn invokes a living, intersubjective community" (Backus 835). Grahn herself writes that poets build community by "making cross connections and healing the torn places in the social fabric of myth we have all inherited, but that the outcast especially inherits" (Grahn, 1985, 84). (As a committed activist in the 1970s, Grahn clearly also believed that poets build community by founding and contributing to various grass roots institutions and political actions.) Grahn conceives of herself as a poet in a community of lesbians and of other lesbian poets developing "a new voice . . . a new women's literature" (Aal, Part I, 76).
Before this community emerged, Grahn and her character Edward the Dyke appeared to number among "the Nat Turners of the world," in Duberman's phrase:
Resistance to oppression takes on the confident form of political organizing only after a certain critical mass of collective awareness of oppression, and a determination to end it, has been reached. There are always isolated individuals who prefigure that awareness, who openly rebel before the oppressed community of which they are a part can offer them significant support and sustenance. These individualsthe Nat Turners of the worldare in some sense transhistorical: They have somehow never been fully socialized into the dominant ideology, into its prescriptions and limitations; they exist apart, a form of genius (Duberman 75).
Humorless Lesbians and Other Misrepresentations
By the early 1970s, a growing community of lesbian feminists, which included Judy Grahn, was in dead earnest about fomenting revolution. Far from the stereotypical "humorless" feminist or lesbian, however, Grahn is among the funniest of contemporary American poets. Her broad use of humordescribed in turns as "raucous," "macabre" (Martinez 49), anarchic (Backus 816), "witty and lighthearted" (Rich, 1977, 14)itself redefines what is appropriate to serious poetry. Inez Martinez writes that "the dominant tone and voice of [Grahn'sl poems consists of deflating male supremacy through humor, and of taking her place among the imperfect" (49). But despite the prevalence of wit in Grahn's poetry, critical writing about her work tends to focus on her long, weighty poem "A Woman is Talking to Death." (Martinez sees "grim and desperately puzzled" humor in the poem's parodic elements . In addition, the narrator not only talks to but in the end defiantly laughs at death"Hey you death / ho and ho poor death"but humor in the common sense is hardly the dominant tone of the elegiac poem.) Critics Amitai F. Avi-Ram and Margot Gayle Backus have published articles focusing solely on the poem; other critics invariably devote considerable space to it in more general discussions of Grahn's work.
[. . . .]
Again and again, appreciative critics and reviewers refer to the power of Grahn's poetry to "transform." Rich writes that the word "transformation" best describes the goal of feminism and feminist poetry like hers and Grahn's; unlike "'revolution' [which] has become not only a dead relic of Leftism, but a key to the dead-endedness of male politics," transformation is "a process which will leave neither surfaces nor depths unchanged, which enters society at the most essential level of the subjugation of women and nature by men. We begin to conceive a planet on which both women and nature might coexist as the She Who we encounter in Judy Grahn's poems" (Ricil, 1977, 7-8), Lunde considers Grahn's "feminist vision of personal and social transformation" to be one of her basic themes, which are "inseparable" from "her transformation of language" (238). Carruthers writes that the "energy" of lesbian-feminist poetry "springs . . . from the perception that women together and in themselves have a power which is transformative." She sees a special role for lesbian-feminist poets in this transformation, because "in order to recover their power women need to move psychically and through metaphor to a place beyond the well-traveled routes of patriarchy and all its institutions, especially its linguistic and rhetorical ones" (Carruthers, 1983, 294).
[. . . .]
Grahn attempts to walk the dividing line in the essentialist/ constructionist debate. Grahn commented in 1987 that her book Another Mother Tongue, which traces the folklore and speculates about the origins of North American lesbian and gay cultures, "has become the basis for a new philosophical stance in gay men's culture, which they call essentialism, to argue against the sociological/socialist view that 'gayness' was only invented in this century and is the product of our particular industrial culture" (Constantine and Scott 7). Grahn calls the opposition to essentialism "the sociological/socialist view" rather than "social constructionism." This is perhaps a slip of the tongue, or a mistake in transcription of the interview. While Grahnor those gay men to whom she refersmay be making a point about homosexuality" as a form of alienation under industrial capitalism, she does not elaborate; "socialist" as an oppositional term to "essentialist" is unusual enough to suggest that Grahn's use of the term is accidental, if provocative. In any case, it is a nomenclature clearly outside the academic "essentialism/social constructionism" debate. Further, Grahn says that "essentialism" is what "they call" the position for which they use her work. Were she to take part in the debate, Grahn would argue her position from the perspective of history and her belief in the folklore she writes about in Another Mother Tongue: "Actually, I don't think the two views are mutually exclusive. Certain elements of gay culture are very 2Oth century, but we're so much older than that it's absurd to imagine that all of this is brand new" (Constantine and Scott 7).
Elsewhere, Grahn engages directly with terms that are central to recent literary criticism: margin, center, and difference. The relevance to both postmodern theory and Grahn's poetry merits quoting at length:
If the world were shaped like a plate, "exile," "marginal" and "difference" would be words accurately descriptive of life at the edge of a single universe. . . . Our social groups, countries and plant and creature groupings are globe shaped, and interactive; the walls can intermingle without losing their integrity. Reality continually folds in and out of itself, with as many "worlds" as we have the ability and judgment to perceive, each with its own center.
In a many-centered multiverse, exiles from one place are first class citizens of another, margins of one "globe" are centers of another, "marginality" itself becomes a ribbon of road, of continual and vital interaction shaping and reshaping whatever lies within borders, and "difference" is so essentially common (and self-centered) that it is duplication that is the oddity. It is a matter of perspective, of metaphor: to seek not what is "universal," rather to seek what has commonality, what overlaps with others without losing its own center (Grahn, 1989, 145).
Grahn's insistence in The Highest Apple that by "common" she does not mean "universal" is clearly an answer to accusations of essentialism that had been leveled against lesbian feminism by the mid-eighties.
Universal, "one-world" implies everyone having to fit into one standard (and of course that one, that "uni," is going to turn out to be a white, male, heterosexual, young, educated, middle class, etc. model). . . . Common means many-centered, many overlapping islands of groups each of which maintains its own center and each of which is central to society for what it gives to society (Grahn, 1985, 74).
Grahn compares her sense of commonality , particularly the "international connection present in the 'She Who' series" to Audre Lorde's work, in which international, cross-cultural elements are "vividly apparent." "Commonality," as Grahn applies the term to women, "means we get to belong to a number of overlapping groups, not just one." She points to the term "'common differences': defining and retaining racial and ethnic identities without losing either our affinity as women and or as Lesbians." While acknowledging and honoring the diversity of lesbian poets and of women in general, Grahn maintains the importance of "a common structure" to lesbian feminism and the women's movement (Grahn, 1985, 76-8).
In 1981 Grahn wrote that she "sought nothing universal to mankind in writing" The Common Woman poems. "In fact, in order to make certain they were really there in the flesh, I avoided all thoughts of 'universality, 'the masses,' 'the common people' or 'mankind."' On the other hand, she confesses to writing "deliberate pro-woman propaganda":
so as to bypass the built-in patriarchal hatred of, condescension toward, deliberate ignorance toward: 1. the details of women's lives; 2. especially of "workingclass," everyday women: 3. more especially women of color; 4. most especially of lesbians; 5. always of women who fought back, had abortions, did not love their bosses, and desired to change their lives (Grahn, 1981, 547).
Numbers three and four are problematic: although Grahn addresses racism directly in" A Woman Is Talking to Death," none of The Common Woman poems is clearly about a woman of color; only one is about a lesbian. Although none of the poems makes claims to universality, readers would tend to assume that the characters are white, in the absence of information pertaining to race or ethnicitybecause the poems exist in the context of a white-dominated society, and because Grahn herself is white. Grahn's lesbianism could lead a reader to guess that individual "common women" are lesbians, but the specific indication of one character's lesbianism implies that the others are heterosexual, where their heterosexuality is not otherwise clearly indicated. Any of the common women could be a lesbian and could be a woman of color, but with the exclusion of specific information about race and sexuality (cf. Spelman), they do not "especially" appear to be so.
"What Is a Lesbian?" and what constitutes lesbian literature have been burning questions for lesbian studies and politics since the early days of lesbian feminism. Grahn wrote, performed, and published some of the first poetry within the context of the movement to attempt to provide answers. In so doing, she presented a complex picture of lesbians, rather than the monodimensional (and pathological) portrait of "The Lesbian" that had been invented by psychiatry and sexology and which reigned supreme until the 1970s, and in contrast to the "politically correct" stereotype of the lesbian feminist purveyed by some vocal postmodern queer theorists. Grahn's poetry addresses issues of gender, sexuality, class, and race, but her main contribution to the diversity of lesbian feminism is her insistent working-class perspective. Although in the 1980s Grahn wrote and spoke many times of the racial and ethnic diversity of early lesbian feminism, it fell to her colleague and friend, the African-American poet Pat Parker, to illustrate through poetry how lesbian feminism in the early 1970s dealt with issues of race in the context of an analysis based primarily on gender and sexuality.
from Garber, Linda. "Lesbian Identity Politics: Judy Grahn, Pat Parker, and the Rise of Queer Theory." Diss. Stanford U, 1995. Copyright © 1996 by Linda Garber.
Judy Grahn's life and work contrast markedly with H.D.'s. Born of another generation in 1940, Grahns writing has from the beginning eschewed tradition and disrupted notions of structure, expressing themes which celebrate lesbian culture, its endurance and danger, and issues of marginality and oppression and oppression of women. The images in her work, rather than expressing intense but abstract emotion, are those of what she calls "common women," flesh-and-blood persons whose lives reflect specific struggles and personalities. Her poetry includes prose dialogue, narrative, lyric, and drama, often in combination. In contrast to H.D.'s strict but supportive upbringing, Judy Grahn grew up in an atmosphere of potential disapproval. Her working-class background would have permitted no space for a young lesbian in the early 1960's, and she recalls her
utter isolation at sixteen, when I looked up Lesbian in the dictionary, having no one to ask about such things, terrified, elated, painfully self-aware, grateful it was there at all. Feeling the full weight of the social silence surrounding it, me, my unfolding life.
Her writing and her marginality led to a discharge from the Air Force because of her lesbianism; moreover, she experienced denials of jobs and housing, and was even "beaten in public for looking like a dike." As a woman writer and a lesbian, she had become doubly Other, a recognition which, instead of silencing her, radicalized and motivated her. By the late 1960's, she had helped found a gay women' s liberation movement and was publishing her work through independent women's presses. Unlike H.D., Grahn needed no male mentor to inscribe her, as Pound literally enscribed and created "H.D., lmagiste" at the beginning of her career. As a lesbian, Grahn was far removed from H.D's "romantic thralldom" and dependence on male approval. Rather, she had come of age and to an age in which a woman could proclaim,
I'm not a girl
I'm a hatchet
I'm not a hole
I'm a whole mountain. (Work 25)
Despite these differences, H.D. and Judy Grahn share striking commonalities. Each has rejected poetic forms of the past to express a woman-centered vision.
[. . . .]
The horrors of World War I galvanized H.D.'s pacifism, as the Civil Rights, Anti-war, and Women's Movements galvanized Judy Grahn's commitment to justice. H.D. published her Trilogy, which condemned patriarchal structures which further war and violence, and revised the Christian myth to exalt a feminine spiritual presence. Grahn challenged the homophobic, misogynist, and racist culture of her day with her long poem, A Woman is Talking to Death in which she considered "the subject of heroes in a modem life which for many people is more like a war than not" (Work 112).
[. . . .]
Grahn' s challenges to culture, evident in her early work, find full expression in her two-part epic. The Queen of Wands exposes historical and contemporary oppression of women while at the same time weaving a woman-centered myth of the Spider Webster. In the Spider's web, history and pre-history converge to rewrite Helen's story, re-forming her into the Queen of Wands, the Flama, "Keeper of the Flame" of women's ancient knowledge, the "weaving tree" who weaves a story of female power, past and future. As Helen is a goddess in The Queen of Wands, she becomes a hero in The Queen of Swords, which retells the Sumerian myth of the goddess Inanna, who willingly descends and embraces Death, the dark goddess Ereshkigal, in order to ascend to her autonomy and heroism. By returning to a myth of quest which predates the myths and quests of warrior heroes, Grahn shows that a narrative of a female subject and her journey toward selfhood has simply been waiting for rediscovery.
[. . . .]
As women poets such as H.D., Judy Grahn and others embark into the unexplored landscape of a feminized quest, they open the door to the closed systems of the past by disrupting conventional forms; this is a "poetic revolution" indeed. These poets and their female heroes create narratives which move according to patterns which may refuse to "go somewhere" because that somewhere has already been mapped out and claimed by the male quester.
[. . . .]
The career of Judy Grahn has from the beginning paralleled and celebrated the struggles of women to redefine themselves as heroes. She describes her early writing as developing within an atmosphere of potential disapproval, fearing "that someone might see the scribbled notes in my pockets." This fear, which often accompanies women's attempts to claim authority and voice, was magnified by the specific danger inherent in Grahn's subject matter, which was "women in general and lesbians in particular" (24).
from Fisher, Delia. "Never-Ending Story: Re-Forming Hero in the Helen Epics of H.D. and Judy Grahn." Diss. U of Oregon, 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Delia Fisher.
In terms of feminist history in the United States, Grahn was anomalous as a working-class lesbian who identified with the African American movement of the 1960s. Her acknowledgment of diversity among women and her reaching for a metaphor by which to garner this diversity as a collectivity undermined the male/female oppositional metaphor on which heterosexuality (and separatism) is founded. In her attempt to see a commonality between the lesbian and the heterosexual woman she proposed a mutuality among women, as well as a space that theoretically enabled a return of the )lesbian) monster's gaze (cf. Williams, "When the Woman Looks" passim).
[. . . .]
Using the palindrome as a template we may expect to find Grahn's work bordering on the queer, unassimilable and indefinable world of the "feminine."
[. . . .]
My reading of Grahn is centered in her concept of "the common woman," a figure that, like the vampire, encompasses the queer feminine as aporia and the "phallic" woman's self- reflected gaze at the monstrous "other," her double. The term lesbian as metaphor for this "crossing" of Woman as sign and the woman as creator, is based in lesbian theory, which recently has focused on a destabilized or provisional identity for political purposes, removed from a destructive or simply "tired" binary paradigm.
Like Irigaray's two lips touching as "metaphor for metonymy," lesbian is a metaphor for the touching, crossing, and assimilation of doubles, even across national boundaries, and within an ongoing women's discourse. The "new mestiza" is thus an important metaphor, for the knowing lesbian "exile," whose home is in linguistic "space" rather than geographical space
[. . . .]
Of those of Grahn's books of poetry less germane for this study than The Common Woman are She Who and Confrontations with the Devil in the Form of Love. All of these works are reprinted in The Work of a Common Woman. The Queen of Swords and The Queen of Wands are brilliant epics and the poetry is rich and moving. For my limited purposes, however, each of these works is dealt with only in terms of the archetypal figures that Grahn portrays. In particular, these figures are "crossing" figures. Helen, the mythic icon of feminine beauty, crosses into the underworld of Ereshkigal, the terrible queen of swords, in, order to effect the wisdom of rebirth.
[. . . .]
Grahn's irony also plays on the misperception of el lector inimigo. She uses humor as a lacquered surface, that is, "openly" as sarcasm, jokes, irony, and puns. Her lexicon includes words from working class, gay, and Black cultures, recognizable to an audience of "metaphorically feminine" readers. Of her technique she says,
Of course sometimes high humor is involved in maintaining . . . secrecy. Gay people of all social strata develop intricate codes and language inflections that operate within ordinary-sounding language patterns to convey information that members of the Gay culture can understand. The idea is that hidden things may be least noticed when contained in what is most obvious. (Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds 24)
Grahn's characteristic deadpan humor reflects the gap between her knowledge, based on the reality of being a talented, daring lesbian in the 1950s and 1960s, and popular images of femininity and familial perfection. As a "baby butch" Grahn was early sensitized to the consequences of surpassing heterosexual gender codes. She did not enjoy the benefits of middle-class cushioning or a cosmopolitan environment. She was reared, she says, in
a sparsely populated, rural portion of the world, in an economically poor and spiritually depressed late 1950s New Mexico desert town near the hellish border of West Texas. (Another Mother Tongue 4)
Her college years as one of a group of lesbians included looking out for herself and her friends in a "wasteland of human relationships and social rigidity." Typically, Grahn relates this mutual protection system to women as an underclass:
We stood watch for each other as lovers do in jail. We admired each other's (forbidden to women) courage. We knew about cunnilingus, though only the boldest among us practiced it. We knew about the Mound of Venus. We knew about tribadism and about butch and femme. We admired each other's (forbidden to women) sexual appetites. We knew that Gay was our generic name, that people who were not Gay were "straight" and that many of them called us "queer" with unfathomable hatred and fear. . . . (5)
The ideological violence Grahn underwent extended, of course, far beyond the confines of small town and college life. The following passage from Another Mother Tongue (1984), her history of gay culture, describes her despair after her "less-than-honorable discharge" from the Air Force for lesbianism:
Discharged into a poor area of Washington, D.C., with $80 and utter demoralization, I worked as a bar maid serving hard liquor to dying winos. I did not believe there was any farther to go on the bottom of society than where I was. But as I found the company of other Gay ex-service people who also had the state fall on their heads, living in an area mixed with people at the bottom of Washington's perpetual ghetto of Blacks and whites and a scattering of Asians, I found that despair has no bottom; it can multiply itself indefinitely, inside the mind and outside. (169)
Grahn' s link with the "perpetual ghetto" of underground urban life is a salient feature of her work. Her 1987 The Queen of Swords draws on her experience as a barmaid. In the epic poem, Grahn transforms the experience into a myth of rebirth, basing the revision on a 5,000 year-old Sumerian story. In the Sumerian myth, Inanna, queen of heaven and earth, descends to the underworld to strengthen her powers. Grahn's version renames Inanna as Helen, the archetypal figure of beauty, and sets the scene of her symbolic death and rebirth in a lesbian bar. In this modern underworld Helen confronts Ereshkigal, the bar owner and "queen" of the underworld scene.
As her description of life as a barmaid in the "poor area of Washington, D.C." indicates, the urban underclass included the Black population. The poet was involved politically with the early movement of Blacks for their civil rights, and her continued commitment has been evident throughout her career. According to Grahn in The Highest Apple, Audre Lorde has been an influence in her work since 1971. In 1976 Olivia Records produced Where Would I Be Without You: The Poetry of Pat Parker and Judy Grahn (Another Mother Tongue 191). Published a year later, Grahn's collection, Confrontations With the Devil in the Form of Love, was inspired by Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf.
Grahn knew the violence that prejudice does to the psyche and was familiar also with actual physical violence based on hatred of her Butch appearance.
[. . . .]
Grahn's concern for women is not a theoretical "feminine" and she does not use the term feminine often in her work. As a metaphor, her "overlapping islands" is more theoretical than her pragmatic approach to art and her positive-image approach to feminine absence. Like Cesar's "ship in space, " Grahn's "overlapping islands" represent the paradoxical combination of feminine masquerade and "phallic" integrity that is the lacquered surface. The idea is demonstrable by visualizing the overlapping islands as Lingis "continuity of convexities and concavities" and of Irigaray's constantly touching lips.
[. . . .]
[T]he occupants of Grahn's overlapping island(s) are not subjected to the reflection of themselves as the exterior and mad. "other."
[. . . .]
Speaking of her youthful butch orientation Grahn says what many lesbians and lesbian theorists have continually reiterated:
[O]ur point was not to be men; our point was to be butch and get away with it. We always kept something back: a high-pitched voice, a slant of the head, or a limpness of hand gestures, something that was clearly labeled female. I believe our statement was "Here is another way of being a woman," not "Here is a woman trying to be taken for a man." (Another Mother Tongue 31)
Further, in her introduction to Confrontations with the Devil in the Form of Love Grahn pointedly connects the graphics of The Work of a Common Woman with her writing as an exchanged look between women. She says,
The graphics throughout this book are by two women [Karen Sjoholm and Wendy Cadden] whose primary concern has also been in reshaping the images we have of women, what our strengths are, when seen through our own eyes. (134) (emphasis added)
Grahn' s view of women through "our own eyes" presumes and creates likeness, doubleness, and assimilation. Given these, the non-linear features of her writing are significant. Grahn's work must be considered aslant (at least) of heterosexual dichotomies and preconceived sotry lines. Her symbolic mastery, that is, her razor-sharp wit and pen, allow her to cross . . . into unbordered, queer regions unknown to the single-minded.
[. . . .]
Grahn' s courageous "factual" language mimicking the violence endemic to the underclass is an ongoing tradition in the United States among contemporary lesbian writers.
From her "phallic" stance as a lesbian, separatist, and feminist, Grahn enters the queer feminine realm by theorizing a commonality with all women. From this position Grahn enables the reader's "entranced response to the monster" (Case 10) by creating a "lesbian relationship between self and other" (Zimmerman, "Lesbians Like This and That" 4).
from Maciunas, Billie. "Crossing Boundaries--Lesbian as Metaphor/Lesbian Poetry in Brazil and the United States." Diss. U of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Billie Maciunas.
John Philip Chapin
Part of what I've done in this chapter is to argue that Judy Grahn's writing uses language in new ways to alter our possibilities for conceiving of the world. Her tools are part of a system of language that at present embodies detrimental social, cultural, and political relations; while recognizing language's complicity in oppression, she suggests that it can be used differently to provoke a rethinking and a reunderstanding of these social relations. For Grahn, as for other contemporary feminist and lesbian feminist poets, changing the language changes reality. In this appendix, I'd like to address some of the lesbian-feminist and poststructuralist theoretical work that underlies Grahn's political project.
Grahn in/as Context
Judy Grahn's work with language to transform our understanding accords with a broader context of feminist and lesbian feminist movements that seek to challenge social and cultural reality, to redefine power relations to accommodate and value women. Some lesbian feminist writers try to reach beyond the "fundamental oppressiveness" inherent in our patriarchally structured world: Mary Carruthers argues that writers such as Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, and Olga Broumas create poetry that
does not arise directly from nor concern itself primarily with a response to men. Its energy springs rather from the perception that women together and in themselves have a power which is transformative, but that in order to recover their power women need to move psychically and through metaphor to a place beyond the well-traveled routes of patriarchy and all its institutions, especially its linguistic and rhetorical ones (Carruthers 294).
By examining themselves in relation to men, many women trap themselves within a binaristic linguistic structure, ultimately perpetuating the potential for oppression. When man/woman or heterosexual/homosexual or rich/poor remain the only ways to describe people, the dominant culture retains powerful means for regulating reality and insuring power relations that are fundamentally the same. Within this system, marginalized people can only hope for what Elizabeth Meese calls a "reversal where relations of power are exchanged;" this exchange is only valuable for "the lesbian whose personal stake/investment rests in the domination of men, and not particularly in the liberation of 'women' and 'men"' (Meese 6). Meese implicitly aligns herself with Grahn and other lesbian feminist writers in her attempt to write beyond the dominant mode of discourse, to change the universal and not merely the personal. She locates her work in relation to that of, among others, Monique Wittig and Jacques Derrida; Derrida describes transformational language as being beyond grammar, as "a choreographic text with polysexual signatures," pluralized labels and meanings that expand linguistic categories beyond difference (understood both sexually and as "otherness" in general) to encompass a continuum of meaning (Meese 11/Derrida "Choreographies" 76). Derrida would argue, I think, that much of the language in literature and poetry throughout history has been "transformative"he describes literature elsewhere as "an institution that tends to overflow the institution" ("This Strange" 36), implying that literature is by definition pluralizing. But here he seems to be concerned with the relationship between language and sexuality; as I've argued above, Grahn's vision is overtly polysexual (see the discussion of Ernesta's future at the end of the novel), and she implies that it is her language that makes this vision possible. Grahn is engaged, like Meese and Derrida, in pluralizing language, in disrupting its stability in order to open it up to unlimited possibilities for understanding. Derrida, again quoted by Meese, envisions the possibilities of nondiscriminating language in terms of sexuality:
. . . what if we were to approach here . . . the area of a relationship to the other where the code of sexual marks would no longer be discriminating? The relationship would not be a-sexual, far from it, but would be sexual otherwise: beyond the binary difference that governs the decorum of all codes, beyond the opposition feminine/masculine, beyond bi-sexuality as well, beyond homosexuality and heterosexuality which come to the same thing. (Derrida "Choreographies" 76/Meese 11)
Derrida's metaphor for this area of polysexual signatures is the "dance"; this is his "dream." Both of these metaphors become significant in Mundane's World; my discussion of Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues in the next chapter is also quite pertinent.
Grahn's linguistic work, like that of Meese, attempts to go beyond establishing an essentialized identity for lesbians within the current cultural framework. It seems to question that whole framework; any lesbian identity would then be constructed, rather than absolute.
Susan J. Wolfe and Julia Penelope also link lesbian writing and poststructuralist theory , pointing out that both "problematize gender relations" and "question the 'naturalness' of gender relations" (Wolfe 1). They argue, though, that traditional notions of the self deconstructed by postmodernism never applied to lesbians; before lesbian theorists could participate in deconstructing notions of identity they had to posit an idea of the lesbian subject. To do this, "we have had to deconstruct the notion that women can be seen only in relation to men, and defined only in terms of male discourse, in order to create a position from which to speak and be heard" (Wolfe 3). Implicit in lesbian writing is a disruption of the dominant language and understanding. Beyond this, though, Wolfe and Penelope assert that it is essential to retain some sense of identity: the lesbian feminist writer's project becomes that of deconstructing dominant discourse while constructing an identity from which to base political action. They quote Diane Fuss as pointing to the possibility for a "more mature identity politics" (Wolfe 4)the unstable and incoherent nature of identity does not mean that identity disappears. Judy Grahn accords with Wolfe and Penelope's vision by disrupting language, by asserting women's identity apart from men, and by positing the possibility of an infinity of constructed and coexisting identities in a single community's discourse. Her notion of identity and subjectivity , as I argue above, is decentered yet politically enabling. It is an engagement with a "more mature identity politics" in that it is a vision of how we can conceive of subjectivity and identity after (or rather in the midst of) the deconstructive movement.
But why do I place Grahn's work in these theoretical contexts? Why do I subject her to philosophical/critical/theoretical frameworks? Is it merely to argue that she is doing what Meese and Derrida and Wolfe and Penelope have already done? NoI would not argue that Grahn has borrowed her ideas from these theorists; only insofar as they have influenced or are representative of greater cultural/intellectual trends toward postmodernism. What I would rather argue is that Grahn tries to put into practice in her fiction a solution to the problem of subjectivity and understanding in this postmodern world. Grahn is perhaps responding to the conditions outlined by Meese and Derrida and Wolfe and Penelope; she offers some of the same solutions. But in the very way in which those solutions are proposed she is enacting and at the same time describing a transformation.
from Chapin, John Philip. "Transforming Subjects: Readings of Toni Morrison, Judy Grahn, Leslie Feinberg, and Leslie Marmon Silko." Diss. U of Nebraska, 1998. Copyright © 1998 by John Philip Chapin.
Judy Rae Grahn was born in 1940 in Chicago. Her father was a cook, and her mother a photographer's assistant. She spent much of her childhood in what she describes as "an economically poor and spiritually depressed late 1950's New Mexico desert town near the hellish border of West Texas. There, it seemed to me, virtually everything was prohibited except low-level wage slavery and mandatory, joyless marriage." At 18 she" eloped" to be with Yvonne, a student at a small nearby college who first introduced her to the secret Gay culture whose history she would later trace. She joined the Air Force, but at the age of 21 was given what she calls "a less-than-honorable" discharge for being a lesbian. Her letters and notes were seized and used against her friends in the service, and her parents notified of her "crime." When she went to a Washington D.C. library to read about homosexuals and lesbians in an effort to investigate who she might be, the librarians told her such books were locked away, available only to professors, doctors, psychiatrists and lawyers for the criminally insane. As she would later write, there "constituted some of the serious jolts I experienced in my early twenties concerning the position of Gay people in American society." Such jolts made her "angry and determined enough to use my life to reverse a perilous situation." In 1963 she was one of fifteen members of the Mattachine Society to picket the White House for gay rights. In 1964 she published, under a pseudonym, an article in Sexology Magazine in which she argued that lesbians were normal, ordinary people. Also under a pseudonym, she published some poems in The Ladder, the magazine put out by the Daughters of Bilitis and edited by Barbara GITTINGS. Most of her poetry, she realized, was unpublishable by a mainstream press: so in 1969 she founded, with Wendy Cadden (her lover at the time), the Women's Press Collective. They began by printing on a mimeograph machine in the basement, but in time grew into a complete, productive press That same year Judy Grahn was a founding member of the West Coast New Lesbian Feminist Movement. Along with such poets as Susan Griffin, Alta, and Pat Parker, she became an important part of the west coast women's poetry renaissance of the 1970's. Her volumes of poetry include Edward the Dyke and Other Poems (1971), She Who (1972), an experiment in feminist scripture, and A Woman Is Talking to Death (1974). These three volumes were collected together as The Words of A Common Woman and issued in 1978 with a preface by Adrienne RICH. Along with Pat Parker,a black lesbian feminist poet, Grahn recorded an album of poetry for OLIVIA RECORDS, that company's first spoken-word release. In 1982, influenced by H.D.'s use of myth in Helen in Egypt, Grahn published The Queen of Wands, the first of a projected quartet of long poems. The Queen of Swords appeared in 1987, with Cups and Diamonds to follow. In 1984 Grahn published her most influential work, Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds. In this richly researched and speculative study of gay and lesbian cultural history, she explores the history of words (like "gay," "faggot," "dyke," "fairy," "butch" and "drag") associated with gayness. As she puts it: "Another Mother Tongue proposes that Gay people have a culture, that it cuts across class, race, gender and even national and tribal categories. It proposes further that Gay people have functions in society that involve, and in fact require, Gay attributes. In short, it says that Gay culture is central to Gay people and that Gay people are central to their societies, even when they occupy a despised or underground position." According to Grahn, the unique place gay people occupy in any society is in opposition to any stable, one-sided, monochrome perception of the universe: "I believe that Gay culture at its heart is continually, however unconsciously, trying to reveal the other side, sometimes just to reveal the fact that there are sides. I believe we do this with regard to the sexes, to work roles, to the world of judgment and value, of aesthetics, of philosophies, of other realms of consciousness. We act out irony, essential humor, and paradox." Like the work of Gloria ANZALDòA and Cherrie MORAGA, Another Mother Tongue mixes the genres of poetry, essay and autobiography to produce a fluent, mutable new form. In her subsequent work The Highest Apple (1985) Grahn builds on her notion of gay culture to trace a lesbian poetic tradition from SAPPHO through such figures as H.D., Amy Lowell and Gertrude STEIN to contemporaries including Adrienne RICH, Audre LORDE, Olga Broumas and Paula Gunn Allen. In her latest and most controversial book, Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World (1993), Grahn undertakes nothing less than a radical reconceptualization of human history and identity. Blood, she thinks, is at the center of culture: as she told The Advocate,"It doesn't have to be traumatic blood. It can be natural blood and the rituals that women have always performed that have given us all the things we treasure." Those things include chairs, drinking straws, Greyhound buses, lipstick and red wedding dresses. Judy Grahn has been a pioneer in the field of gay cultural history: her explorations not just of the present manifestations of gay life but the origins of its signs and codes have had far-reaching consequences for the gay imagination. Her version of gay culture is very much her own, and perhaps too speculative for stricter tastes. Nevertheless, her life's work--not unlike that of a very different personality, the poet James MERRILL--has been a quest to see the larger picture, to create a gay cosmology, an empowering saga telling us who we are, where we have been, where we might be going. In so doing, she has created invaluable myths--and perhaps even realities-- of meaning for gay and lesbian people everywhere.
from Gaygate [www.gaygate.com]. Online page source.
Return to Judy Grahn