What does it mean to “say it out loud?” In her latest book, A Simple Revolution we learn Judy Grahn’s way in to her landmark poems “A Woman is Talking to Death” and “Edward the Dyke.” Grahn also reflects on the struggles of being arrested, interrogated and ultimately discharged for being out in the military in 1960, for what she names the crime of “authenticity.”
When Grahn was a young poet and wrote about breaking down walls, she needed to put it in the world, so she went and spray-painted it on a wall in Albuquerque in the middle of the night, with a friend who had a flashlight in hand.
Grahn’s memoir begins, before her childhood, with the story of the Woman’s Press Collective being vandalized, reminding us there has been risk and real danger in doing the work that Grahn makes and supports, which always points towards the other women and activists around her. She writes, “The common woman is as common / as a thunderstorm.”
Both vision and perseverance propel Grahn’s readers. Grahn questioned the psychologists who wanted to cure homosexuality. She asked, “Why couldn’t society change?…Why did I have to change?” Her questions hang in the air, the atmosphere ready. The change passes through our boundaries of knowledge not without violence and records.
Grahn ties together the places she has lived by the way the wind hit her skin and moved inside her. What connects outside and inside? Grahn locates thresholds between the locked up lesbian books at the library and the underground gay bars, between the antiwar struggles and race struggles of the civil rights movement. The gay worlds Grahn describes in Another Mother Tongue grapple with how to name your own time, watch it change, from the spoken to what sticks in the renovation and recycling of words. The story is not just a story from Grahn. It is a history and a present that struggles but is clear and present in its articulation. Her writing is always hungry for more history combined with myth and the poetic force of curiosity.
As an accidental post-Reagan Era publisher (damn, post-Bush #1 and post-Clinton and post-90’s part of the AIDS crisis too – Belladonna* began publishing with its first broadside of kari edwards in 2000), I remain struck by A Simple Revolution’s frame of publishing, its emphasis on publication and furthermore Grahn’s spread of evidence that shows how by whom and in which manner one is published determines not only the writer (and that writers writing), but also which revolution the writing makes, for if nothing else, Judy Grahn’s oeuvre is testament and testimony that our revolutionary potential is not merely in making poetry but in making it public; “once overtly lesbian poetry is published and available to the world, there is no place to hide.” (I think we small press poets forget about this, that being small doesn’t remove us from the wide wide world.) And this is so important and perhaps under-discussed in our post-Reagan Era small press worlds.
To honor Judy’s program in writing the book I must note that exactly here in Simple Revolution’s narrative, Grahn is writing about the public publishing acts of Pat Parker the late great African American Working Class dyke who wrote Child of Myself (1971), Pit Stop (1973), Womanslaughter (1978), Movement in Black (1978; 1999), and Jonestown & Other Madness (1985)* and the more well-known Audrey Lorde – both of whom in this part of Grahn’s story are seen uncomfortably, but out of a sense of communal necessity, splitting their poetry acts between black and lesbian houses (house is used literally and metaphorically by Grahn as place of action and doing).
Personally Judy Grahn is a giant for me not only because her poetry made me a poet 10 years before I allowed myself to actually be public as one – even to put it down on paper – but also because she loomed large in my imagination for teaching at the New College of San Francisco. This indicated to me that somehow there was someone else who trafficked both in the publication language of pro-queer, anti-racist, working women of and the formalist language of the 70’s poetry avant-garde. As many or some of you know this merge is the seed desire and the continued effort of Belladonna* – and I would say that which Judy Grahn has since the 60’s been constantly stepping up to and insisting on, that it is possible for the writer and necessary for the writer to keep all the multi-layered factors of revolution in her/their head all the time and that this is not only possible for the writer because we have in our hands the malleable fact of form and publishing, but it is also: simple.
*The asterisk refers to the definition of the Belladonna flower: “deadly nightshade, a cardiac and respiratory stimulant, having purplish-red flowers and black berries.”
*Both Pat Parker’s and Judy Grahn’s Women’s Press Collective chapbooks are available as PDFs at Stephanie Young and David Horton’s amazing Deep Oakland archive: www.deepoakland.org