On Love, Action, and Lesbian-Feminism

September 6, 2013
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By Julie R. Enszer

coverWriting about lesbian-feminist publishers in the 1970s and 1980s, I am haunted. Often I wake with a fragment from a poem by Elana Dykewomon, Pat Parker, Fran Winant, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Cheryl Clarke, on the tip of my lips. Sometimes, I flip open my calendar and think I have a womyn’s coffeehouse to attend this weekend. Some afternoons, after writing, I go to the mailbox, hoping I might find a copy of Conditions or Lesbian Ethics or 13th Moon, though none of these journals publish any longer. Sometimes, when I hear news about an oil crisis, I feel bad for our poor president, Jimmy Carter; I worry he will not be reelected. All of these things happen to me, but none of these moments are the haunting.

The haunting is of a line of poetry by a lesbian poet who preceded the most recent incarnations of lesbian-feminism during the 1970s and 1980s. A line from a poet who resisted lesbian and feminist identities, telling one friend, “You know what I want, Richard? I want closets, closets, and more closets!”, a poet who wrote to more than one person, “I simply prefer the sexes mixed,” as her polite but firm refusal to be in any anthology of only women poets. The haunting is a line from an early poem, “Chemin de Fer,” by Elizabeth Bishop. The haunted line is “Love should be put into action!” The haunting is the dirty hermit on the old train tracks, whispering, hissing, screaming to me, “Love should be put into action!”

For some people, love fills them; love comes with no obligations. Love is warm and sensitive; love caresses and supports; love heartens and adores. For some people, love is given openly and received freely; love does not require action. Love begins and ends with itself. I do not know this kind of love. For me, love demands actions. The ‘should’ in Bishop’s line is perhaps misleading. When the dirty hermit speaks to me, early in the morning waking me from deep sleep, late in the afternoon demanding one more hour of work, there is no possibility of not turning love into action. “Love should be put into action!” is not a conjecture, not a proposition for me to consider. Love and action are a demand, an absolute. The dirty hermit, sitting on my shoulder, the spectral Bishop, smoking in my study, insist on love and action, intertwined, together, united.

I attribute this ethic of love and action to Bishop, to her poem, to the dirty hermit that follows me from my bed to my writing studio each morning, sighing if I pause too long to eat breakfast or linger over a second cup of coffee. Action, she murmurs insistently, love…should…be…put…into…action…love. Neither Bishop nor the hermit, however, are the only characters to embrace this compulsion to translate love into action. Love and action, the intermingling of the two, are crucial to lesbian-feminism. The poems of Judy Grahn and Audre Lorde evoke the unity of love and action. The letters of Minnie Bruce Pratt and Gloria Z. Greenfield, one of the principles of Persephone Press, recite the necessity of love and action.

And so I wake each morning to the pleasures of reading and researching lesbian-feminism, but I know that my pleasure, my love for this work is not enough. The earlier lesbian Bishop throwing her voice into the dirty hermit, urges me to put my love into action. To not keep love for myself, to transform love into action. To not be satisfied with love, but to reach for action from the spirit of love.

This is what love means to me: “Love should be put into action!” And what are the actions that I take to exorcise the haunting? I write and publish. Writing and publishing, like love and action, intimately linked. I edit Sinister Wisdom, the longest surviving lesbian-feminist journal. The commitment to love and action prompted me to inaugurate the Sapphic Classics series from Sinister Wisdom in partnership with A Midsummer Night’s Press. The first Sapphic Classic is Minnie Bruce Pratt’s Crime Against Nature, published in April of this year. The second Sapphic Classic, scheduled for January of 2014, is Cheryl Clarke’s Living as a Lesbian.

Love and action as a conjoined construct call me to remember a past and invite others to rediscover it as a vibrant and meaningful part of our present. Printing new work by lesbian writers in Sinister Wisdom is love in action; reprinting classic lesbian poetry collections through the Sapphic Classics series is another form of love put into action.

I translate love into action daily, still the haunting continues. This haunting cannot be exorcised. The haunting of the dirty hermit, whispering in my ear, screaming at my back, “Love should be put into action!”, the haunting of Elizabeth Bishop, angry with my focus on lesbians, disapproving of my politics as feminist who revels at times in separating the sexes, disappointed, I am sure, in how I “limit the human personality’s capacity for growth and redirection to the point of mutilation.” Bishop may not love my work, the dirty hermit may find disappointment at every turn, but through it all is love and action. And sometimes, in the dark of night, I think that Bishop and the dirty hermit approve, though, I know, they do not. Bishop’s politics remain resistant to these lesbian-feminist concatenations, but still, Elizabeth, “it is marvellous to wake up together,” to struggle in this way, to enact and repeat, joyfully, gaily, with our little hermit, with all the best spirits and intentions of lesbian-feminism, “Love should be put into action!”

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Sources:

“and more closets” Richard Howard remembering Elizabeth Bishop in Remembering Elizabeth Bishop: An Oral Biography, Gary Fountain and Peter Braneau (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994): 330.

“I simply prefer the sexes mixed” Elizabeth Bishop to Barbara Segnitz and Carol Rainey, Psyche: The Feminine Poetic Consciousness: An Anthology of Modern American Women Poets (New York: Dial Press, 1973): 30.

“Love Should Be Put Into Action” from “Chemin de Fer” in The Complete Poems 1972-1979, Elizabeth Bishop (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979): 8.

“point of mutilation.” Bishop reviewed Rebecca Patterson’s book The Riddle of Emily Dickinson for the New Republic. Patterson contends that many of Dickinson’s poems express her love for Kate Scott Anthon; Bishop dismisses Patterson’s book as “infuriating.” “Unseemly Deductions” by Elizabeth Bishop, The New Republic 127 (August 1952): 20.

“It is marvellous to wake up together” in Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments, Elizabeth Bishop, edited and annotated by Alice Quinn (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2006): 44.

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JuliePhoto1Julie R. Enszer, PhD, is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland. She is writing a history of lesbian-feminist presses from 1969 until 2000. She is the author of Handmade Love (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2010) and Sisterhood, a chapbook (Seven Kitchens Press, 2010), and editor of Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2011). Milk & Honey was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Poetry. Her second full-length collection of poetry, Sisterhood, will be published by Sibling Rivalry Press in late fall 2013. She has her MFA and PhD from the University of Maryland. She is the editor of Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and arts journal, and a regular book reviewer for the Lambda Book Report and Calyx. You can read more of her work at www.JulieREnszer.com.

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