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3 November 2010, 1:00 pm 4 Comments

Fifteen from 1984: Gay History Week 8: Judy Grahn, Activist and Lesbian-Feminist Poet

Submission by Philip Clark, former TNG history and books columnist.

This summer, I was doing research in the George Fisher papers at Cornell University.  Fisher was an airline steward who, as a side job, ran a massive gay mail-order bookselling operation, Elysian Fields, from 1972 until near the time of his death from AIDS in 1990.

In the course of working my way through boxes of letters, catalogs, and flyers from Fisher’s business, one of them caught my attention.  It advertised the autumn 1984 reading series at the New York City outlet of the bookstore A Different Light.  Every week for 15 weeks between September 11th and December 18th, A Different Light hosted a free reading by a different gay or lesbian literary figure.  What was amazing was the sheer quality of this assemblage of talent.  I highly doubt that any similar reading series could be launched in one city in the U.S. in 2010 – not one with such frequency and consistency of talent.

Let’s return to the fall of 1984.  Each week, we’ll look at that week’s novelist, poet, playwright, and critic.  What had they done by 1984?  What have they done since?

Week 8:  Judy Grahn

Although more associated with the West Coast, activist and lesbian-feminist poet Judy Grahn appeared at A Different Light in New York to share material from her recently published Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds (1984).  Another Mother Tongue is still Grahn’s best-known work of nonfiction, and in its combination of gay and lesbian lived experience, culture, and myth, it dovetails with the topics and themes of Grahn’s poetry and fiction.

Unlike a number of the authors who appeared during the autumn reading series, Judy Grahn was not born into privilege, or even into the middle class.  Growing up in New Mexico, the daughter of a cook and a photographer’s assistant, Grahn came firmly from the working class, and she has always kept one eye in her writing on the experience of working class women and men.  Grahn worked a series of jobs to help continue her schooling; this included joining the Air Force, from which she was ultimately discharged for being lesbian.

Following recovery from a coma at the age of 25, Grahn committed herself to achieving her life’s dream of becoming a poet.  In 1969, she co-founded the Women’s Press Collective (WPC), an off-shoot of the Gay Woman’s Liberation Group, in order to provide publishing opportunities for marginalized lesbian women’s voices.  Beginning in 1969, she published a series of influential and beloved books of poetry addressing the lesbian experience through the Women’s Press Collective.  These included The Common Woman (1969), Edward the Dyke and Other Poems (1971), A Woman is Talking to Death (1974), and She Who (1977).  Diana Press, an offshoot of the WPC, gathered these books into The Work of a Common Woman: The Collected Poetry of Judy Grahn, 1964-1977 (1978), which was quickly picked up by a larger publisher, St. Martin’s, for a 1980 re-release.

The 1980s would find Grahn teaming up with The Crossing Press, a small publisher in upstate New York that had a history of printing gay material; Crossing had released the first modern anthology of gay poetry, The Male Muse, in 1973.  For Crossing, Grahn would enter into a remarkable partnership, writing the introductions to Pat Parker’s Movement in Black (1983) and Alta’s Shameless Hussy (1980), editing two volumes of women’s True to Life Adventure Stories, publishing a new book of poetry, The Queen of Wands (1982), and a novel, Mundane’s World (1988), reprinting The Work of a Common Woman (1984), and writing essays to accompany work by Gertrude Stein in Really Reading Gertrude Stein (1989).

Grahn’s volume on Gertrude Stein was just one piece of an increased turn toward nonfiction.  In addition to Another Mother Tongue, which looked at gay life and language, Grahn researched and published such books as The Highest Apple: Sappho and the Lesbian Poetic Tradition (1985), which examined the work of 9 lesbian poets, and Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World (1994), an anthropological look at the influence of menstrual rituals on history and culture.

After Blood, Bread, and Roses, however, Grahn stopped publishing her own books throughout the rest of the 1990s and well into the ensuing decade.  She is currently undergoing something of a renaissance, though, with her new-and-collected poems, love belongs to those who do the feeling (2008) and The Judy Grahn Reader (2009) delighting old readers and finding new ones.

Recommended reading:  Combining important older works with new pieces, either The Judy Grahn Reader or love belongs to those who do the feeling is a good choice.  As they are in print, they’re also somewhat easier to find than her older books, although the early poetry books are beautiful small editions.

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  • Kevin Killian said:

    Judy Grahn is a living testimonial to the virtues of great courage and great talent. When I moved here to San Francisco I didn’t know much about her, but at a party someone whispered to me, “There’s Judy Grahn,” and I soon came to meet the poet whose work, back then, really changed my feelings about the position of poetry vis a vis shared social struggle. For the next decade or so I watched her work in every sort of genre, succeeding in each, it seemed there was nothing she couldn’t do. And then two years or so my dream came true and I wound up reading with her at a program organized by the Lambda Literary people.

    Strangest of all in 30 years she hasn’t aged a whit!

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