Audre Lorde died twenty-one years ago today. When I first composed this post, I didn't realize the significance of this day. It's not a coincidence, I'm sure. The spiritual connection that allows black women to strengthen each other can't be broken, even in death.
Last month, I got the thrill of a lifetime with the chance to see a documentary film about Audre Lorde, my activist poet queen, at The New Parkway Theater in Oakland. Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years
was playing as the final feature film in the 2013 International Black Women's Film Festival
, an event designed to combat negative stereotyping of black women in the media by giving space for black women to tell our own stories. As soon as I heard the film festival would be playing this film, I knew it was the place for me.
It's just a movie, I know, but as I headed to the theater, I felt the giddiness of preparing to meet my idol in person. It seemed like the closest thing – when Audre Lorde passed away in 1992, I was a child unaware of her existence, and I have rarely seen evidence of her life in any form other than text. This text has felt, to me, like sacred traces of a mystical woman, echoes of divine footsteps that once walked the earth with us mere mortals. As I've read Audre's poetry, essays, and speeches over the years, I've imagined her as such a human being who is so extraordinary, she may not be human at all. In my mind, Audre Lorde has always been a goddess.
It remains true that Audre's spirit is divine and eternal. But the film showed many things, and perhaps most of all, it showed her humanity. Would a goddess walk through parks with friends, or laugh, or dance? Would she face the struggle of a cancer diagnosis? Would she endure the gentle teasing of her loving life partner? Maybe. But it's possible for any person, including me, to experience such things. Any of us could live our lives as she lived hers, with love and poetry as social action, with the capacity to change the world around us.
After the movie ended, I was a blubbering mess of joyful tears, and I didn't have the words to explain why. Maybe the sight of Audre Lorde dancing was something I never knew I needed to see. Maybe I'd been thirsting to hear her speak the words I'd read so many times. Suddenly, she felt more real to me than she ever had before. Maybe I needed to see her in the flesh. Maybe I needed to be seen.
It's strange to think that seeing somebody else on a big screen could help me
feel seen, but it's true. The film chronicles the final years of Audre's life, 1984-1992, when she spent time in Berlin and had a profound impact on the lives of black women there, challenging both black women and white women to think and write about race as they never had before. She mentored black women who had been silenced and isolated from one another, bringing them together to recognize one another and themselves as Afro-Germans. Many of these women testified in interviews that Audre's guidance allowed them to feel proud of who they are, for the first time in their lives.
The film sent me off with the exhilarating, terrifying feeling of seeing myself as Audre Lorde would have seen me. Not the goddess Audre Lorde, mythical creature of my dreams, but Audre Lorde, the human being, who really lived and breathed and saw a magnificent power in every black woman.
Now, I don't have to wonder what it would be like for me to meet Audre Lorde. Now, I know. I wouldn't have to prove my worth to her or ask her permission to step into my power. She would believe in me, simply because she could see me for who I really am.
I got to step into the power of my visibility later that day, when I read my poetry at Hazel Reading Series
, opening my reading with an epigraph by Audre Lorde: "Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs." Hazel's all about fostering the visibility of women, featuring women writers who each invite another woman to read at the next installment of the series.
Hazel's next event is today at 5:00 pm, at 1564 Market St. in San Francisco. My invitation to read went to Jezebel Delilah X, another queer black woman writer with divinity in her humanity. I can't wait to witness her sharing of magic through her words, continuing the legacy of resisting invisibility by lifting up our own stories to be seen.
It's Labor Day. So to honor workers in labor movements and other tireless folks whose work never ends, here's a poem by Audre Lorde.
A Song for Many Movements
by Aurde Lorde
Nobody wants to die on the way
and caught between ghosts of whiteness
and the real water
none of us wanted to leave
on the way to salvation
three planets to the left
a century of light years ago
our spices are separate and particular
but our skins sine in complimentary keys
at a quarter to eight mean time
we were telling the same stories
over and over and over.
Broken down gods survive
in the crevasses and mudpots
of every beleaguered city
where it is obvious
there are too many bodies
to cart to the ovens
and our uses have become
more important than our silence
after the fall
too many empty cases
of blood to bury or burn
there will be no body left
and our labor
has become more important
than our silence
Our labor has become
than our silence.
It's almost eerie, the way I can revisit Audre Lorde's work again and again, and always find that she seems to be speaking directly to the questions I'm grappling with at the moment. It's one of the reasons I count her as one of my mentors, in spite of the fact that this mentorship began long after she passed away.
Have you ever had a mentor like that? Here's a passage I came across while
rereading her work for school. From her essay "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power:"For as we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like their only alternative in our society. Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within.
These are meaningful words, and timely, for everything I've been exploring lately about getting in touch with my feelings
and creating change from within
. Thanks for the affirmation, Audre.
So. On with the newness. Here's one change that's happening for me: I'm no longer part of the Matrices Press anthology I was helping put together to gather voices that challenge oppression and silencing. Since I'm feeling open to change, it feels right to move on. Hopefully soon I'll be able to focus on my own project in support of my vision for lifting silenced voices. Big thanks to all of the talented writers who submitted their work! If you'd like to keep up on what's next for Matrices, visit the website
And something new that I'm trying: tonight I'm going to try participating in a special show called The Lit Slam. The Lit Slam is a monthly performance poetry event based on competition for a shot at publication in an annual print journal.
I've never competed in a poetry slam before, and I'm a little nervous about going up against some seasoned pros, but I am on the lookout for submission opportunities
, and since I'm trying new things, I thought I might as well. The last time I participated in a writers' competition, Portuguese Artists Colony, it turned out pretty well for me
. And if nothing else, I know that tonight I'll have fun, which is really my main goal.
This month's feature is slam champion Danez Smith
. I've just spent way too much time on Youtube falling in love with his poetry. I'll never get that time back, but it was so worth it. Here's one of his pieces. If you want to hear him read live, come out to Viracocha
tonight at 8 pm, and for more about The Lit Slam, see their website
Warning: this isn't a proper blog post. It's not something from a real professional writer, the kind who has something profound to say after spending the last week and a half soaking up the brilliance of the likes of Leslie Adrienne Miller, Bonnie Jo Campbell, and guest speaker Charles Johnson. I'm not pretending to be that person. I'm seeking the essential me-ness
, so this is a blog post from the real me. This is a blog post about kittens. As we near the end of the Pacific University MFA residency,
I'm trying to decide on a defining moment for this experience. And it's not the moment when Joseph Millar, Dorianne Laux and Ellen Bass shared what they learned from reading Lucille Clifton. It's not when Kwame Dawes read his poems, or when he read the work of Audre Lorde and Langston Hughes, two poets whose words
are tattooed on my body
. It's not
even when Marvin Bell used one of my poems to illustrate the points he made about poetic strategies.
These were all incredible moments that will remain with me, undoubtedly, but if I had to choose just one moment of all of those that are sticking out in my mind, this would be it: Standing on the corner of the farmer's market in Forest Grove, holding in my arms one of the kittens from the free kitten box I've just come across, as Ellen Bass rubs his tiny head and we giggle over his absurd adorableness. I know, I'm ridiculous. That moment had nothing to do with the residency. But to me, in a way, it had everything to do with why I choose to be here. I choose this moment not simply because
I'm crazy about animals, although it's true that I am, and not just because I have immense admiration for Ellen Bass, though that's true, too. I choose this moment because Ellen and I weren't standing apart as student and teacher, or as emerging poet and established poet. We stood together, no expectations between us, just united by our appreciation for cute creatures, a real, down-to-earth, essential part of who we are, not just as poets or lovers of the written word, but as people.These are the moments that make my MFA experience so unforgettable. I am just deliciously delighted to say that Ellen Bass is my advisor for this
semester, which means that from now until January, I'll be working with her one on one to craft an essay and continue to grow in my poetry. I just adore Ellen, as a person and as a poet. She writes the loveliest poems about some of the subjects I care about most, including love between women, healing from trauma, and spirituality. And I've already worked with her in workshop so I know that she "gets" me, and really supports my poetic vision. And kittens. She also shares my love of kittens. She understood my longing
as I reluctantly faced the truth that the kitten in my arms couldn't come home with me. But before I put him down, we all shared a moment - Ellen, the nameless black kitten, and I. And though it may seem silly, in that moment I knew that Ellen Bass understood an essential part of me. Watch this clip of Ellen reading her sweet, funny poem
"Bone of My Bone and Flesh of My Flesh." You can visit her website
Walter Alois Weber's
Blue Bird of Paradise
“Wherever the bird with no feet flew, she found trees with no limbs.” –Audre Lorde
I’ve always been what you might call a strange bird. My feathers carry colors you wouldn’t expect to see, and I chirp in poetry instead of song, and I also sometimes speak in metaphors that fall apart. When that happens, it comes down to this: I’m a weirdo. I have strange tastes, strange interests, strange ways of being. I love my solitude, so I’m likely to spend a weekend entrenched in my own strange ways, emerging on a Monday morning to recall that I don’t quite fit into this world.
When I was growing up, being a weirdo made life challenging. Even for a kid who liked being alone, finding myself perched on the outside looking in made me wonder if something was wrong with me. This time for solo introspection had its perks – I was able to step away from the expectations of others and learn what it really meant to be me. In a lot of ways I appreciated my perch on the outside, where I learned how to do things like take myself out on dates and use my own written words for company, so I didn’t have to be around other people to have fun. I appreciated my solitude, but in some ways, I still didn’t quite understand it.
Enter, stage left: an understanding of systematic oppression. My journey on the outskirts led me to discoveries of the movements behind feminism, racial equality, queer liberation. I learned about privilege and power, and saw my solitude as part of a bigger picture. My thinking went something like, Well, of course I never fit into spaces where societal norms are upheld. No self-respecting young queer woman of color should.
Let’s be real – it’s not just being a queer woman of color that makes this bird as strange as she is. But I think connecting my identity to my weirdness gave me a complex of sorts, an expectation that I’d never really fit anywhere, because there are things about me that are different. And following the legacy of writers, artists and other earth-shakers who were considered “different” in similar ways gives me a special kind of pride in those qualities that make me uniquely me.
Enter, stage right: other birds with colors like mine. After getting used to the idea that I’d never find a flock to accompany my flight, I’ve found artistic spaces where I’m welcomed, not in spite of my differences, but because of them. Where being a queer woman of color is something to lift up, to celebrate.
Two events in May really gave me a moment to be proud of my strange voice. At CUAV’s The Color of My Spirit
, queer and trans artists dance, sang, and spoke of our stories of survival and resistance, and I swear, by the end of the night, my heart swelled with so much pride, it was ready to burst right out of my chest. And at Harlem’s Poetic Rebellion
, I was so honored to be part of such an amazing night of performances by powerful queer black artists that I…well, that I flubbed my own reading. But being the weirdo that I am, I’ve had to recover from plenty of flubs before, so that’s what I did. I read on, too full of gratitude to keep my head down.
It’s not often that I feel a true sense of belonging. Sure, by the end of the day, I’m still happy to settle into my nest, wrapped in the comfort of my own wings. But for a little while, it’s nice to take flight with a flock of birds as strange as I am.
There are more chances for strange bird sightings, coming soon. Upcoming events include special National Queer Arts Festival editions of That’s What She Said!
and Queer Rebels of the Harlem Renaissance, on June 26th and June 30th. And on July 7th, I’ll be reading at Hella Soulful, part of Oakland’s Beast Crawl
. Check back soon for details about these events!
Whew! I hit the ground running when I got back to the Bay Area this week, so now that it’s the weekend, I’m taking a minute now to come up for air. This quote by my queen Audre Lorde has been circulating the internet: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” It’s exactly what I need to hear right now.
I’m pretty busy these days. As I keep up with work, school, and writing, other things have fallen to the wayside. The idea of having a social life is just laughable. And while I may be able to find some time for others, taking care of myself has not exactly been a priority. I’ll eat if I remember to do so, and if I’m feeling really selfish I might squeeze in some time for sleep, but I find that the more my schedule fills up, the less I make time for me.
I know I’m not the only one who tends to forget to add myself to my list of priorities. It’s not unusual for those who work in my field(s) to make more time for others than for ourselves, and it’s also not uncommon for survivors of violence to put “tending to my needs” last on the to-do list, if it makes it there at all. Since I’ve begun work at CUAV, one of my biggest motivators for self-care has been the fact that I just can’t be there for others in the hard work of healing from trauma if I’m not taking care of myself. It’s helpful, but still, as Audre Lorde reminds me, it’s not enough.
The most effective self-care comes from a place of deep love for myself
. It’s not being selfish. It’s daring to be powerful, which comes from another brilliant quote by Audre - “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” As someone who hopes to create change, it’s essential that I recognize my power and strength. I deserve care, simply because I exist. And while some self-care practices may be as simple as tending to my basic needs, the task of tending to myself is no small thing. It’s cultivating a powerful tree whose roots and branches reach far beyond my own needs.
Let me say this again, because sometimes we need to hear it more than once – we all deserve care, simply because we exist. That means you. And caring for yourself is one of the most powerful ways you can care for the world around you.
There’s a book I highly recommend for folks who work around trauma, and even for those who spend time taking care of others outside of their professional lives. It’s called Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others.
Earlier this week, I participated in the Trauma Stewardship Institute
with the book’s author, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, and that opportunity couldn’t have come at a better time for me. It felt so validating to have someone recognize the toll this work can take, especially with the systems of oppression that add to the daily impact of trauma. Maybe the book can be helpful for you, too.
Our bodies are designed to take care of themselves. Take, for example, the way we continue to breathe, even without thinking about it. When we’re facing the hard truths of the world on a daily basis, though, we could all use a little more intentional care. My suggestion? Breathe a little deeper. What’s yours?
Last week we lost Adrienne Rich
, the lesbian poet, essayist, feminist who was unashamed of the inseparable ties between her personal life and her political perspective
. Adrienne Rich once refused to accept a National Book Award unless two of my other heroes, Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, joined her onstage to accept on behalf of all women (read their acceptance speech here
). She once declined the White House's offer of the National Medal of the Arts, writing in a letter
, "[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage."Since I found out she died, I've been trying to write a poem in homage to her. But looking back with those words in mind, it feels as if all of my work is in homage to her. I really believe I wouldn't be doing what I do without the influence of women like Rich, Walker and Lorde. When I write, I always feel like I'm taking a risk. And without the courage of these women leading the way, I probably wouldn't take the chance. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the honesty of anger, the kind of anger I felt when I wrote a poem for Trayvon Martin, the teenage boy who was killed because someone deemed his dark skin "suspicious."
I shared that poem at New Poetry Mission, and I'd like to share it with you now. Here's a video of my reading, brought to you by Litseen
. I'd like to thank Adrienne Rich for opening the doors wide enough for my anger to pass through. I'll be reading this and other poems tonight at MAPP, Mission Arts and Performance Project.
There will also be live music, theater, film screenings and more, with art and healing and transformation taking place all over San Francisco's Mission District. Check out the whole program here
, and the program for the event I'm a part of, Reflexiones, here
. This is for Trayvon.
Photo by Darius Johnson
I love literary tattoos. What can I say? I love words, and I love the body, so naturally I've got a weakness for words on the body. So, of course this means that I love Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor for bringing together some of my favorite things, books and words and the body, in The Word Made Flesh, a book called "part collection of photographs and part literary anthology written on skin." Many of the book's photographs are also featured on the website, tattoolit.com. Find my first tattoo featured in this entry.
That's the Audre Lorde quote I wrote about here
. I love seeing it shared with the world, so I'll have to submit my other literary tattoo
now. And then, well, then I'll just have to get another one to show off. According to The Word Made Flesh, I'm part of an "emerging subculture of literary tattoos." Is this my generation's way of honoring literature like never before? Or do we lose sight of these words' meanings when we turn them into tramp stamps and over-inked
clichés? I must admit, when I look through websites like these I sometimes wonder if for some, this isn't just a silly trend that may soon stray too far
from the printed form literature used to take.Then again, I've never seen anyone else with my literary tattoos, and personally I've found them to be a great way of spreading my love of literature when, for instance, someone who has never heard of Audre Lorde asks why I have words about singing grasses tattooed on my skin. It has something to do with the crazy idea of freedom, I tell them. And I go on to enlighten them about this woman's words, hoping that they, too, can find strength in them, and knowing that they wouldn't have come across them if they weren't printed on my skin. And that makes it worth it to me. Bringing important words to people who might not have found them anywhere else. There are lots of great literary tattoos out there. Some are just pretty (and some, not so much). And some are really meaningful. Hopefully, through books like The Word Made Flesh, we can all understand the stories on our skin a little more.
Yesterday would have been the 77th birthday of my poet queen, Audre Lorde
. So as I promised when I showed off my newest literary tattoo
, here are photos of my other literary tattoo, along with the powerful Audre Lore poem that inspired it.
Tattoo by Marco of Picture Machine
Photo by Darius Johnson
by Audre Lorde
Haunted by poems beginning with I
seek out those whom I love who are deaf
to whatever does not destroy
or curse the old ways that did not serve us
while history falters and our poets are dying
choked into silence by icy distinction
their death rattles blind curses
and I hear even my own voice becoming
a pale strident whisper
At night sleep locks me into an echoless coffin
sometimes at noon I dream
there is nothing to fear
now standing up in the light of my father sun
I speak without concern for the accusations
that I am too much or too little woman
that I am too black or too white
or too much myself
and through my lips come the voices
of the ghosts of our ancestors
living and moving among us
Hear my heart's voice as it darkens
pulling old rhythms out of the earth
that will receive this piece of me
and a piece of each one of you
when our part in history quickens again
and is over:
the old ways are going away
and coming back pretending change
masked as denunciation and lament
masked as a choice
between eager mirrors that blur and distort
us in easy definitions
until our image
shatters along its fault
while the other half of that choice
speaks to our hidden fears with a promise
that our eyes need not seek any truer shape--
a face at high noon particular and unadorned--
for we have learned to fear
the light from clear water might destroy us
with reflected emptiness or a face without tongue
with no love or with terrible penalties
for any difference
and even as I speak remembered pain is moving
shadows over my face, my own voice fades and
my brothers and sisters are leaving;
Yet when I was a child
whatever my mother thought would mean survival
made her try to beat me whiter every day
and even now the colour of her bleached ambition
still forks throughout my words
but I survived
and didn't I survive confirmed
to teach my children where her errors lay
etched across their faces between the kisses
that she pinned me with asleep
and my mother beating me
as white as snow melts in the sunlight
loving me into her bloods black bone--
the home of all her secret hopes and fears
and my dead father whose great hands
weakened in my judgement
whose image broke inside of me
beneath the weight of failure
helps me to know who I am not
weak or mistaken
my father loved me alive
to grow and hate him
and now his grave voice joins hers
within my words rising and falling
are my sisters and brothers listening?
The children remain
like blades of grass over the earth and
all the children are singing
louder than mourning
all their different voices sound like a raucous question
but they do not fear the blank and empty mirrors
they have seen their faces defined in a hydrants puddle
before the rainbows of oil obscured them.
The time of lamentation and curses is passing.
My mother survives now
through more than chance or token.
Although she will read what I write with embarrassment
and a small understanding
my children do not need to relive my past
in strength nor in confusion
nor care that their holy fires
more than my failures
Somewhere in the landscape past noon
I shall leave a dark print
of the me that I am
and who I am not
etched in the shadow of angry and remembered loving
and their ghosts will move
whispering through them
with me non the wiser
for they will have buried me
either in shame
or in peace.
And the grasses will still be
I thought it was appropriate that the sky was raining ruthlessly the day I interviewed poet Camille T. Dungy
. I was heading to a café in the Mission to meet with the woman who edited the first collection of nature poetry by black writers, and by the time I got there, nature was on my mind, in my shoes and dripping from my clothes. It felt only right to find myself sitting with Dungy and her six-month-old daughter, two black poets coming in from the rain to discuss, among other things, black nature poetry.
Having her take the time to sit down with me was a big honor. Camille T. Dungy authored the poetry collections What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison
(Red Hen Press, 2006) and Suck on the Marrow
(Red Hen Press, 2010), edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry
(UGA, 2009), and co-edited From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems that Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great
(Persea, 2009). Dungy has received fellowships from organizations including the National Endowment for the Arts, The Virginia Commission for the Arts, Cave Canem, the American Antiquarian Society and Bread Loaf. She is associate professor of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University. When did you begin writing? And is that separate from when you decided to pursue a career of writing and teaching poetry?
Yes, I’ve been writing my whole life. So I couldn’t tell you when I began. I made a conscious decision during college that I was going to become an English Major with a Creative Writing focus. And then I made a conscious decision at one point to do an MFA instead of a Ph.D., so there were several times along the way when I made decisions about focusing more deeply on it, but the writing has been there all along.
It’s just the decisions and opportunities to make it professional that keep confronting me. ...