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Audre Lorde on Poetry and Activism

[A]s we come more into touch with our own ancient, non-european consciousness of living as a situation to be experienced and interacted with, we learn more and more to cherish our feelings, and to respect those hidden sources of our power from where true knowledge and, therefore, lasting action comes.

. . . I speak here of poetry as a revelatory distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean--in order to cover a desperate wish for imagination without insight.

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas. They become a safe-house for that difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action. Right now, I could name at least ten ideas I would have found intolerable or incomprehensible and frightening, except as they came after dreams and poems. This is not idle fantasy, but a disciplined attention to the true meaning of "it feels right to me." We can train ourselves to respect our feelings and to transpose them into a language so they can be shared. And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it. Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.

Lorde, Audre. "Poetry Is Not a Luxury." Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984. 36-39.

Poetry is an absolute necessity of our living because it delineates . . . it the beginning of that process by which we insure the future because we know so much more than we understand. We must first examine our feelings for questions, because all the rest has been programmed. We have been taught how to understand, and in terms that will insure not creativity, but the status quo. If we are looking for something which is new and something which is vital, we must look first into the chaos within ourselves. That will help us in the directions that we need to go--that's why our poetry is so essential, is so vital. Now whether poetry has the responsibility to effect social change . . . it doesn't really matter. As we get in touch with the things that we feel are intolerable, in our lives, they become more and more intolerable. If we just once dealt with how much we hate most of what we do, there would be no holding us back from changing it. This is true with any kind of movement. This is the way in which the philosopher/Queen, the poet-warrior leads.

Hammond, Karla. "An Interview with Audre Lorde." American Poetry Review March/April 1980: 18-21.

I see protest as a genuine means of encouraging someone to feel the inconsistencies, the horror of the lives we are living. Social protest is saying that we do not have to live this way. If we feel deeply, and we encourage ourselves and others to feel deeply, we will find the germ of our answers to bring about change. Because once we recognize what it is we are feeling, once we recognize we can feel deeply, love deeply, can feel joy, then we will demand that all parts of our lives produce that kind of joy. And when they do not, we will ask, "Why don't they?" And it is the asking that will lead us inevitably toward change.

So the question of social protest and art is inseparable for me. I can't say it is an either-or proposition. Art for art's sake doesn't really exist for me. What I saw was wrong, and I had to speak up. I loved poetry, and I loved words. But what was beautiful had to serve the purpose of changing my life, or I would have died. If I cannot air this pain and alter it, I will surely die of it. That's the beginning of social protest.

"Audre Lorde." Black Women Writers at Work. Ed. Claudia Tate. NY: Continuum, 1983. 100-16.

I am a black feminist lesbian poet, and I identify myself as such because if there is one other black feminist lesbian poet in isolation somewhere within the reach of my voice, I want her to know she is not alone. I have been teaching the poems of Angelina Weld Grimke recently, another black lesbian poet of the Harlem Renaissance. Thanks to the work of women like Gloria Hull, Barbara Smith, Pat Bell-Scott, Erlene Stenson, and others, her work is once more becoming available to us. But it has been lost for many years to me. And I often think of her, dying alone in an apartment in New York City in 1958, while I was a young black lesbian, in isolation not too far away, and I think of what it could have meant in terms of sisterhood and survival for each one of us to have known of the other's existence, for me to have had her words, and for her to have known I needed them. That we are not alone.

Lorde, Audre. "Sisterhood and Survival." The Black Scholar March/April 1986: 5-7.

Whenever a conscious Black woman raises her voice on issues central to her existence, somebody is going to call her strident, because they don't want to hear about it, nor us. I refuse to be silenced and I refuse to be trivialized, even if I do not say what I have to say perfectly. What I write is important, and I insist that you feel out what you have to say on the subject, and then maybe you can say it better. But it must be heard. I refuse to be silenced, that's right. And I will not allow my work to be trivialized because what I am writing is not only about me, it is about the lives of many voiceless people, and the life of the planet that we share. You can't get rid of me just by saying I'm strident, or I'm too intense, or I'm silly, or I'm crazy, or morbid, or melodramatic: hey, listen, I can be all of those things, and you still must open yourself to what I am talking about, in the interests of our common future. . . .

I want my poems--I want all of my work--to engage, and to empower people to speak, to strengthen themselves into who they most want and need to be and then to act, to do what needs being done. In other words, learn to use themselves in the service of what I believe. As we move toward empowerment, we face the other inseparable question, what are we empowering ourselves for? In other words, how do we use this power we are reaching for? We can't separate those two. June Jordan once said something which is just wonderful. I'm paraphrasing her--that her function as a poet was to make revolution irresistible. Well o.k. that is the function of us all, as creative artists, to make the truth, as we see it irresistible. That's what I want to do with all of my writing.

Rowell, Charles H. "Above the Wind: An Interview with Audre Lorde." Callaloo 14.1 (1991): 83-95.

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