Judy Grahn, the poet, activist, and self-described renegade scholar of gay life, personifies contemporary lesbian writing. At 54, she has a massive body of work that reflects the growth and development of the lesbian-feminist movement that she helped found on the West Coast more than a quarter-century ago. Lines from her poems became the rallying cry for a movement; her interpretation of history gave us a place in the world. In the last ten years, I have had the privilege of working with Judy. Recently, we discussed the roots of lesbian writing, where it is now, and where it might be going. Judy Grahn is the winner of the Bill Whitehead Lifetime Achievement Award and of a Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Non-Fiction. Her latest book is Blood, Bread and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World.
Nisa Donnelly: It is virtually impossible to separate the lesbian-feminist sensibility from the history of contemporary lesbian writing. But I think what we often forget is how the lesbian-feminist movement or politic came about, and how it affected lesbians in such a profound way, sometimes to the confusion of gay men.
Judy Grahn: Lesbian-feminist sensibility grew out of real life in the 60's. It grew out of all our experiences of growing up after World War II, with the whole sense of that war resounding in our ears. I remember the end of the war and my parents' tremendous shock when the concentration camps were opened. When our generation came of age, as the Vietnam War was beginning and I was a working-class girl-and girl was the word—we had no money, no hope, no future; all expectations were that we were servants and nothing more. The first time I suggested to a professor that a person such as myself might become a college professor, he was so offended that he wouldn’t talk to me anymore.
So we had to gradually get together with each other and understand that you can do something about life, and you do that by banding together with like-minded people. But first you have to know what you want. We saw how adept African-Americans were at organizing and had become very articulate about what they wanted. And then, through" the antiwar movement, we realized you could express a mass opinion about the whole government, and while you might not be listened to—and I don't think we were—at least you figured out what you believed in and wanted it never to happen again.
When it came time to think about feminism and ourselves as lesbians, we had a set of articulations. We had some methods to apply to our own situation, And it more or less spontaneously exploded. Seven or eight of us got together shortly after Stonewall and we already knew from trying to work together with gay men that they had a different agenda. We also knew that lesbians didn't yet know their agenda. So we separated to see what it was that we wanted, and immediately found that feminism was a really appropriate set of understandings to get involved in. Of course, feminism at that time was mostly collections of women talking to each other in private spaces. Lesbians brought action to that.
Getting lesbians to talk about their lives was a pain in the ass, they just wouldn't do it, but they would go found a store and a karate class and a rape crisis center and go picket weddings and take action immediately. We added action and radical ideas to feminism.
ND: I remember when there were no women's bookstores, no feminist presses, no real lesbian culture as we know it today, I think when I first discovered Rubyfruit Jungle I must have inhaled it in one sitting, not so much because it was a great book, but because it was the first book of its kind I'd ever seen. The lesbian didn't die. She didn't get married. She was strong and funny and outraged und I was starving for that kind of validation of my life and the lives of the women I knew. Shortly after that, I moved to Chicago and I remember there was a tiny two-room women's bookstore in the upper floor of a commercial building in the Loop. There wasn’t much to pick from, but I still thought I was in paradise. I went through a few years of reading only books written by women, preferably lesbians. And by literary standards, some of the writing was, frankly, not very good, but it was so remarkable that it existed between the pages of a real book. I felt like I was finally hearing my own voice. And for the first time I believed that it was possible for lesbians to write about lesbian life and actually be published. That alone was . . .
JG: I wrote the "common woman" poems as an exercise to see if I could write about the women's movement. They were all portraits of ordinary women. The last one was about my mother, "Vera From My Childhood," ending with the sentence about the common women shall rise like good bread. That line traveled all over the country and was memorized by people. In 1969, we didn't even have a press at that time that published women's work. Now there are ten or twelve feminist presses. Pat Parker and I started one of the first.
I didn't want to run a press but there wasn't a choice. Being a poet, there was no way I could be published, so I could either stop writing and become completely an oral poet or I could start a press. That's true of anyone with radical content in any era, unless you have a friend with money, and we didn't have that.
The Women's Press Collective started in San Francisco and moved to Oakland. For four or five years after Pat Parker and I founded lesbian-feminism on the West Coast, we worked together as a team. We had the press and were putting out work that we thought was revolutionary that would arouse women. And it did. There was one other press: Alta had Shameless Hussy press. I think she founded it a year before I started my press, and she put out Susan Griffin and Pat's first book. She's a very important early publisher.
The result was a very strong feminist publishing movement because once there's a press, then there's a readership; it doesn't work the other way around. And as women began wanting to read exclusively about themselves and with a brand of content about their real lives, then there became what is now called a market. In the early days, we certainly didn't think about a market—we thought about a political constituency. But within three or four years there was something called a market.
I think women have always been speaking to each other. At the turn of the century there were lots of women poets; Amy Lowell crossed the Atlantic; there were international little cliques that knew each other and were exchanging work; there were little magazines that were publishing their work; there were lots of women on the lecture circuits; there was lots of intellectual activity among women. It didn't get remembered, because women don 't have rituals to pass on to each other what we have learned. We're always having to re-invent the wheel to the point that when I started my press I believed that I was the first woman in the world to ever have anything to do with a press.
ND: Your press was destroyed, as I recall, in the late 70's. You were already well known as a poet. Your books, especially The Work of a Common Woman and Edward the Dyke, had made you a household name—at least in lesbian households. By then, though, it was becoming easier for lesbian writers to find publishers. Is that why the Women's Press Collective was never re-established?
JG: Our press was vandalized by persons unknown in 1978. It was a very difficult time; I was ill, probably very chemically poisoned—we knew nothing about safety precautions—and I wasn't taking very good care of myself. I had been trying to live on coffee and cigarettes and kerosene, so I just about collapsed. And took a year or two to recover myself. I changed my diet, got rid of some habits and so on, and to my great relief I could concentrate on my own work.
My poetry just keeps me alive at times. It's just been a lifeline at times that I throw out for myself and hang on to. It's the way that I've gotten through life. I've gotten to fulfill lots and lots of ambitions. My poetry is like islands of earth in an otherwise moving sea. I just walk from poem to poem or set of poems to set of poems to understand all kinds of things about myself or other people. Or who women are in the world. They give me a vision. That may sound trite but that's what they do.
ND: I remember hearing you say that poets go out and "map the terrain" and then we prose writers come along and fill in the terrain.
JG: Which doesn't exactly hold true, but makes a nice sentence. I write prose in order to gather information and I write poetry in order to put out information in a form that has a really strong rhythm or tender rhythm that I think the world needs in order to dance differently.
ND: And today, there is such a richness of poetry and prose, so many diverse voices and new and exciting ways of looking at not only the work, but also at the world.
JG: I can't say that I've kept up with the work that everybody's doing, but one of the things that's happened is a lot more people are more expressive about more things in the movement. There's been more inclusion, which we originally wanted to see happen. I see members of lots more communities who are writing; that's happening in many segments of the American population and it's an extremely important development, a very important democratizing of the media.
The means of print production gradually came into people's hands, so it was possible for our little group of lesbians to buy from Diane DiPrima a mimeograph machine for two or three hundred dollars and be in business. As soon as we could learn how to use it, we could be publishers and that's what happened. The office equipment gave us accessibility to the media. That's one reason there is such a renaissance of women's writing now: there is that access to the means of reproduction of work. Desktop publishing has done nothing but aid that. And I'm confident that now there are going to be lots and lots of filmmakers, lots and lots of video makers all over the world.
A brand new way of speaking to each other has evolved and it is not elitist. Even television is planning to put in more and more cables and channels, so it's possible to speak to each other as never before in these various art forms. It's very exciting.
This is an opening up of media that enables us to talk to each other more quickly and yet very thoroughly with ideas that are needed—and lots of thinking is needed right now because lots of changes are going on. One of the things I hope can happen in this movement is that we develop a capacity to speak to each other: that older women are able to pass on knowledge and tradition, and also to learn from younger women. We need to express ideas and to dialogue about those ideas and to help construct the world in new ways.