John Felstiner: Interview with Judy Grahn

Judy Grahn is the quintessential feminist writer. The content of her poetry and her personal style were formed within the context of the women's movement in the Bay area. In the seventies she was published by several small presses and also became the publisher of other women poets, and was a frequent participant in those poetry readings which constituted public rituals for feminists, as they had for the beat writers of an earlier decade. . . .

[Grahn responds to an interviewer's question]: "'Vera, from my childhood' is one of seven poems in my Common Woman series. I wrote them in 1969, when I had just joined a women's consciousness-raising group. Those groups came along at the end of the sixties and I suddenly wanted something to read about women, but I couldn't find anything. The closest I came was a Leonard Cohen song sung by Nina Simone—very wistful. I put it on the record player and played it over and over and wrote those seven poems to ordinary women I had known. I picked the word 'common' poetically because it means so many different things, and they all come back to feminist ideals in some way. 'Common' reminded me of 'common whore,’ 'common slut' or something that's sexual property, and 'common' also reminded me of the commons of England and of Boston where people could meet together and assert themselves. It reminded me of what we have in common, which is a cross-connection between us all. And in one of the poems, I even managed to use it as a nail, which, if you are a carpenter, you know is called a common nail. The multiplicity of meanings gave the poems an extra emphasis which was both poetic and real and political, all at the same time.

Felstiner noted that the word "'common' has what so many words suggest which political and ethnic groups have picked for themselves lately: a hard, angry, negative thrust with a bad connotation that turns itself around and says this is something we have to stand by and be proud of."

He turned to a question that must have been in the mind of everyone who knew Grahn's poetry: How is a man supposed to feel when he hears a poem addressed by a woman to another woman, especially by an openly lesbian woman?

Grahn replied, "Well, women identify with men writing about men. There are men who write about nothing but men, and I am able to identify with them as a sister and as a daughter. I think that when men get into my poetry, which is woman-oriented, they do it in a parental sense, in a brotherly sense, and I don't think they have that much trouble." She explained that the poem to Vera was inspired by her mother, "an older woman in my, past, my present and my future."

"I was born in Chicago, but I grew up in a little town in New Mexico and I was an eccentric child. I was a combination of a tomboy and a poet. I was always known as a poet. I began writing long poems that my girl scout troop acted out when I was ten or eleven. Since we were very much lacking in any extra money, I saved up my allowance to buy two items that I desperately wanted. One of them was a softball glove, but since I had no instruction, I accidentally bought a catcher's mitt. I did not want to be a catcher. I wanted to play first base, but forever after I had to be a catcher because I accidentally spent my money on a catcher's mitt. That's a really tragic story, you know. But the second item that I bought was instruction on how to write poetry. I don't even remember who wrote those books but I had all of them that I could get, and I went home and studied my craft even as a child. I hid it from the other kids. They thought it was okay that I wanted to play softball but that I wanted to be a poet was really bizarre."

When asked if she, like many male poets, had the experience of "bumming around" in her early years that influenced her later poetry, Grahn replied, "I think my position as a female and as a woman of no means whatsoever and little secretarial skills, plus being a lesbian and being militant about it—wanting to have a bill of rights that would guarantee us a place in the modern state—gave me more than bumming around; I was kicked around, I was floated around from place to place, hunting and searching, not for experience, but for a place to stop having so much experience and be able to express something. I think that for many women this is true. What took me a while was to know that my life had been a set of experiences that were worth writing about and that actually had a richness to it and connection to other people. So it wasn't bumming around that I needed but the other, the opposite, the stable society in which to say 'everything I have experienced is true,' to say it out loud so that it is confirmed as something that really matters. I needed to express what it's like to be a secretary, to make sandwiches, to want to be a scientist, and have breasts as well. How do you express all that? I think that's what women writers have been dealing with.

"Once I grew up!, I wanted to go to school, but I couldn't afford it, so I became a sandwich maker and worked nights so that I could go to trade school in the daytime and become a medical secretary. Then I was a medical secretary in the daytime and I went to school at night, which is not atypical of the way that women go to school, and after a long time of doing that, I suddenly became very ill and got brain fever and went into a coma, and when I came out of my coma, I couldn't remember anything, but I was very happy, extremely happy. I remember waking up singing a little ditty from Archibald MacLeish's play, J.B., that was about survivors of nuclear warfare. It had this little childish song in it: 'I love Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, da da da . . . ' I sang the song for a year; that was the only thing I could do, it was my only skill. And during that time I realized that if I was going to do what I had set out to do in my life, I would have to go all the way with it and take every single risk you could take. I was then twenty-five years old and I saw that I could have died a very nice ordinary woman who had produced absolutely nothing. So I bought a notebook and I got a very strange hat and I went to a local bar and told everyone I was a poet. I began taking notes and began again, and this time I decided I would not do anything I didn't want to do that would keep me from my art. And I haven't since that time. I just turned forty.

"I should probably add that I was very fortunate to have had a lover who wanted me to be a poet, and she took care of me for that year when I was in such terrible condition. She was a teacher and so we just got by. It was a very hard year. And then I did not go and become a poet until I had also gotten a part-time job as a laboratory technician.

"Edward The Dyke was written at that time. It was considered unpublishable, a little satire about a woman and a psychiatrist. I wrote Edward The Dyke in Washington, D.C. That's the white collar center of the universe. You would think that no one would ever write a lesbian feminist satire in 1965 in Washington, D.C., but I did. Since it was unpublishable, I had to wait and become a publisher myself before I could really get rolling.

"In 1969 I founded a press with Wendy Cadden, an artist, with a simple mimeograph machine. I had a little trouble learning to use it at first—it's such a classical office machine that I had avoided it for many years, not wanting to end up doing only that, but when we realized that no one was going to do our work for us, we began to design beautiful books on that mimeograph machine. We treated it as an artistic instrument, and it produced for us as an artistic instrument. We produced books of graphics and poems, deciding to find a new basis for the criticism of art and poetry.

"Thiswas the same time I began writing The Common Woman poems. I took them to my neighbors and asked them what they thought of them. I did not say that I had written them. Sometimes I just said 'Someone gave me these poems. What do you think of them?’ to get female feedback. I was very courageous in those days because real people tell you real things about your work. It established a new basis for women's art—things which had formerly been unspeakable suddenly became vital and desirable things to say, and The Common Woman poems spread all by themselves without any help from any New York publication of any kind.

"People took them along because they wanted other people to read them. We had women who sold them on the buses, sold them at work. Women sneaked them into foreign countries because they wanted others to have them. That's what building a network of people is about—people who are just as interested in what you're doing as you are, and you help them and they help you. So much depends on making sure your work is relevant, making sure that it is useful to other people.

"The Common Woman poems spread: the last time I counted them was about eight years ago, and they had been reprinted half a million times from Canada to Australia and to Germany. I get letters from women in jail, women in Harvard Law School, and men in jail, men in Harvard Law School, about them and about other things. So we shifted the basis of poetry, coming out of what the beatniks had been trying to do, but they had stayed a little exclusive, and I think the women's movement and the black arts movement also shifted the basis for art and infused it with a new set of ideas and a new lifefulness. Our publishing simply magnified that. We published work of women that we thought no one else would do and we put out about sixty thousand volumes of verse on our own—isn't that amazing! Sixty thousand volumes by about 200 different women! And then we merged with another press and we kept that up for awhile. Now we've pulled away from publishing and we're concentrating on our own work."

Grahn was asked if she might still publish her own poems or have them published by another feminist press, now that she has a New York publisher, St. Martin's Press. "It keeps me very independent, which I like. It keeps me knowing that if there is an idea I really feel close to, one that is essential to what I'm doing, that I can compromise the corners of it, but I'm never going to have to compromise the center core, because I can damn well do it myself. You know, that kind of independence is pretty unbeatable. I would never have gotten anywhere if I had had to depend on New York publishers; they're very conservative to most of our ideas."

In response to a question about the West Coast publishing scene—whether it was a good climate for women and lesbian writers—Grahn was of two minds. "Not only women and lesbian writers but many independent publishers drift out here where there has been a flourishing small press trade for many years, and flourishing poetry and flourishing political, spiritual and economic ideas. Women writing and publishing, as well as male writers and publishers, come to the West Coast and make the climate; we all hear about it and so we drift in this direction. But I think most people create their own environments. There's an environment here for publishing, but for writing? Writing takes so much determination—you would do it on a rock in the middle of the ocean, if you had to."

Remembering her first years on the West Coast, little more than a decade ago, Grahn spoke of the role she had played in the creation of feminist separatism. "I helped to found the institution of separatism for women, but it has been founded multitudes of times through the centuries. For me, it began in 1969 when we formed women-only groups and held women-only dances. We were quite daring to do that at the time. I began writing specifically about women's issues and lives, feeling that I couldn't learn to do that from men. I could only learn to do it by concentrating on women. We perceived separatism as a tool, as a home base in this very nomadic society—everyone needs one—and for women, separatism has been a home base from which to launch our various legions of issues out into society.

"I found that sometimes at women-only readings, men would dress up like women and come to my readings to hear me, which really astonished me. They would creep in in dresses. I believe this happened in antiquity and someone's mother ripped him to pieces for doing that very thing, but of course we're different now. We don't go to those extremes. "The first time I read anything on the subject of rape where there were men in the audience, they laughed because they didn't know how else to respond. So, it was impossible to bring the subject up with men in the audience until men had learned a different set of responses and perceptions. They had to identify with rape as a problem and not want it to happen. Many people took it for granted before the women's movement that rape was okay, it was even funny; so that was one of the reasons for us to use separatism at that particular time. Now I would read a rape poem to a mixed audience on purpose because I know there would be plenty of men in the audience who identify with it, some of them who have been raped themselves, or who go out on Take-Back-The-Night marches and who are organizers on the issue.

Grahn was asked if being a lesbian poet created additional problems of communication. Does she feel that she speaks for other lesbians or women in general or even some larger community?

I don't think I speak for anyone but myself. I don't think anyone ever basically does. I mean, you have to ask someone else whether I speak for them or not, but I certainly have tried to speak about and to a large number of people, different kinds of people, whose spirits crowd into my room in their most critical aspects while I'm writing.

"Being a lesbian, which I knew I was by the time I was sixteen, and being a poet, which I knew I was when I was nine, forced me to put those two things together, and there are a number of ways to do it. I had some traumatic things happen to me as a lesbian. For example, I was thrown out of the Air Force for being honest about my lesbianism. So I felt it was very important for me to be able to find a way to speak as a lesbian and then go on from there to be everybody's poet, which is what I want to be. I had to take care of that little piece of business first. For fifteen years I've been juggling both sides of myself, trying to create a climate whereby people could see around the fact that I'm a lesbian. When this stereotype would be broken, they would understand, 'Yes, there is such a thing, and it has thus and such dimensions, and that's her or that's me, but the rest of her work is about something else which pertains to many, many other issues.' I don't know if I'm describing it, but my intention is to write poetry for everyone, and, given that, I have to do it as me. So first I have to establish that everyone can see me as who I am and take that for granted, and then we can go on to what comes next.

Commenting on the universality of Grahn's work, Felstiner read from Adrienne Rich, in her introduction to The Work of a Common Woman: "When I finished the poem ("A Woman Is Talking to Death") I realized I had been weeping; and I knew in an exhausted kind of way that what had happened to me was irreversible."

Her poem on Marilyn Monroe caused readers to wonder how Grahn could reconcile anger and humor. She explained: "If you have two emotions, then you know that I'm really talking about something more than just what I said I was talking about. What I'm really talking about is all of us who have seen a symbol of Hollywood success commit suicide at the height of her career, after having married an athlete and after having married an intellectual and obviously wanting to become an intellectual herself, and wanting to be someone whose body would be taken more for itself and less as the pretty horseflesh that it was taken for. When I think of her, I get a terrible chill because I know that she came from a poor background and worked her way all the way up to being a suicide, and I don't want that to happen to any of us ever again.

"I knew women similar to her, for example, a very statuesque blonde woman who was the mistress of a doctor and when he jilted her at age 40, she drank mercury and took a week to die. It was the same year as Monroe's death and that was not unusual. We should not have those kinds of images in our minds to look forward to. This poem was written to break through that poster image to another side and say, 'let's go for what's real, let's take this and make something else out of it,’ and I think that for the last decade we've been doing just that." Grahn made it clear that the anger was not directed at Marilyn Monroe but at the potential suicide "who lives in each of us."

"I'm doing a lot of research into women's history and also gay history and beginning to write about that. I'm also working on a novel. It actually has many characters that are plants and animals, which I find intriguing. I seem to be really expanding the notion of how poetry can be useful to the other arts and lead us further into understanding the nature of our world: where we come from and what the basis of women's power is, what it looks like, where it developed and where it might go. At some point in the past, poets were scientists in society, and I want us to reclaim that part of poetry, the notion of being very exact in description, like druids and sorcerers and other ancient poets. They were using language in its most potent form. So I am straining, in every direction, in order to do research and combine etymology with imagery. I am trying to understand analogy, which is a way of comparing one thing to another, so that we can make connections again."

Grahn had written an article on the word "bulldyke," in conjunction with her historical research. "I don't know of an uglier word I've ever been called in my life than 'bulldyke.’ I was so haunted by this for many years that I finally decided to take the[ word by the horns and find out why this strange word is in the vernacular. I've traced it to a Celtic queen who fought against the Romans in A.D. 61 during the reign of Nero and nearly won. The Celts had institutional gay practices, which the Roman authors were horrified by. This queen led a nation which still had gay traditions going on. She had flaming red hair and was a very large woman. The Celtic women warriors were older women who often taught the men arms. It was a totally different sense of fighting than we have any conception of. And when she rebelled against the Roman colonists and nearly won, they suppressed her name. Her name was Boadicea, a word which has come down to us meaning a very militaristic or strong, warrior-like, lesbian-type large female. That's a part of what I'm working on, combining poetry and etymology and my own experiences. There are many other examples besides that one. That's the one that really thrilled me to death when it finally came together."

Judy Grahn leaves her readers realizing, consciously or not, what people from antiquity down through the Renaissance have realized: that at her best, the poet feels no distinction between her own experience, her art, and her political life. All three feed and flow into each other.

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Title John Felstiner: Interview with Judy Grahn Type of Content Interview
Criticism Author John Felstiner Criticism Target Judy Grahn
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 03 Aug 2022
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Women Writers of the West-Coast: Speaking of Their Lives and Careers
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