|Erato Serenading Thalia, Euterpe, and Melpomene by Charles-Joseph Natoire. In the public domain.|
While I was living on Jenifer Street in Madison I discovered that a woman who had befriended me as a kind of kindred spirit in Anthropological Linguistics class lived across the street. D. was a poet. While still in high school one of her poems had been published in an elite journal. She kept writing and kept submitting with no further luck. I understood her disappointment. How did others become successful, whether it was writing a poem or a term paper, finding happiness in a relationship, or maintaining a friendship for years? Life mystified me. I thought that it was supposed to be easy and that it was easy for everyone else but me. D.’s experience made me feel less alone.
When she invited me to an open mic reading of women’s love poetry. I agreed–with some apprehension. Would I be expected to perform? I stuffed some of the poems I gave my boyfriend, S., deep into my purse, thinking that “Bitter Pearl” might be good enough to share. It had a strong propulsive beat and alliteration that might rise to the level of poetry.
The reading was at Wil-Mar Center, a converted church within walking distance on Madison’s near east side. D. also brought along a poem or two and though I felt certain that her poems would match or best anything else heard, she was not enthusiastic about sharing her work. We agreed to wait and see whether we felt comfortable reading or not. It was early March 1975, the edge of the deep Wisconsin winter beginning at last. The night was clear and dry; the cold steamed down from the stars and pinched our faces.
The Center was full of women. Only women. Many of them wore workboots, jeans, and t-shirts with a pocket, the kind of clothes I bought at the Army-Navy Surplus store and wore when working on the factory floor. Almost no one wore a bra, and I recognized no one’s face.
We were ushered into a large room without furniture, the de-commissioned sanctuary of the church. As soon as the reading started, someone turned off the lights. I don’t remember how anyone read. With a flashlight? A candle? A table lamp? Early on a woman read a few poems that were obviously about a heterosexual relationship. It was met by tepid applause. Almost everyone else read lesbian love poems. I was trying to listen critically for poetic elements but eventually gave up trying. Each was enthusiastically, even boisterously cheered. After a while, I realized that the audience was applauding something more than the poem. It was about sharing identity and having that identity affirmed and validated. It was about celebrating the transformation of their life stories into literature.
One poet identified herself as a wife and mother. She wore blonde braids wrapped around her head like a Scandinavian folk heroine. Her husband was waiting for her in the car in the cold outside. He had driven her there to show his support.* She wanted to lift up heterosexual love in poetry, she said, to express its value and importance to society. As she read, someone in the audience began to hiss. Others joined in and the hissing and booing grew louder. She spoke of her disappointment that as a woman reading to women they did not show her respect.
I’m not sure how she had the gumption to speak her mind. I would have run for the door at the first hiss. No, I wouldn’t have. I would have read the audience and introduced my love poem with more humility. Or what I did, which was to keep my love poem buried beside me and let the night unfold as the organizers intended.
By then, the audience was lying on the floor in couples. They rested their heads on each other’s laps and kissed. It reminded me of the dorm basement lounge right before curfew. By the end of the reading, D. and I were the only ones still sitting upright.
We didn’t have much to say to each other on the walk home. D. seemed lost in thought and finally told me that certain serious subjects are hard to write poetry about without using clichés. Yes, I nodded, having little idea of what a cliché was, but I remembered that S. told me once that a short story I wrote at his request had both clichés and redundantly formed sentences. At the time, I was simply proud that I had produced something for him and wasn’t perturbed by his criticism.
D.’s words added weight to S.’s and glittered in my mind. There’s a way to write that’s better than forcing thoughts into a contrived form or letting emotions flow in an unrestrained gush. I still thought talented people put pen to paper and a few weeks later produced a novel or a book of poems. It’s more than that, I realized, but what it required remained a mystery.
*Thinking about it after almost 50 years, I think men might have been barred from entry at that event so as to ensure it would be a safe space for lesbian women.