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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 Rich’s later work is Rich’s adoption of the term "common" from Grahn’s 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 individuals—the Nat Turners of the world—are 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 humor—described 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 [49]. 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.

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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 Grahn—or those gay men to whom she refers—may 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 ethnicity—because 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.