In Their Own Words: Part 1


Joan Larkin: Poetry

David Ulin of the Los Angeles Times
has described Joan Larkin’s work as "poetry without pity, in which despair
leads not to degradation but to a kind of grace." Her most recent poetry
collection, My Body: New and Selected
, recently received the
Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry from the Publishing Triangle. Do you
recall the first poem by or about lesbians that had a lasting effect on you?

Joan Larkin: Judy Grahn’s poem "A Woman Is Talking to Death"
shocked me and changed the way I saw lesbians and the larger context of women
and power. "A Woman Is Talking to Death" was news in the ’70s — poetry of love, anger, and witness addressed to
women, about women, by a woman. Grahn honors our love for each other, showing
that "ordinary" lesbian lives are extraordinary. I’m still moved by
the strong rhythms, wild imagery and memorable words of Grahn’s poems in The Work of a Common Woman.

AE: How has the tone
or content of lesbian poetry developed or changed in recent years?
Though language always was and
still is the bottom line for poetry, I’ll take a leap and say that lesbian
poetry has grown more varied and sophisticated.

Lesbian poetry includes a wide range, from traditional to experimental,
from texts meant for the page to in-your-face performance poetry. I remember
waves of excitement at the first lesbian coffeehouse readings — poets were
articulate spokespersons of the women’s movement. Now there are as many or even
more lesbian poets writing, publishing, performing slam poetry or signing up
for MFA programs.

There continue to be coming-out poems and — as in all times and places —
love poems. But a new generation’s sense of permission to speak has expanded
poets’ themes beyond claiming an identity. And lesbians seem to know in our
bones that the world we’re living in now needs poetry — needs art and artists —
more than ever. Our soul survival depends on it.

AE: What is one of the
lessons you hope your students learn from you in regard to the writing of
I hope that my students won’t
settle for being clever or trendy and will explore the depths of their interior
lives. I hope that they’ll face their own terror and mystery. I hope that they’ll
read and read and read, and absorb the pleasure of the music and language of
powerful poetry.

AE: What are the
elements you look for in a good poem?

JL: Memorable language — a sense that this couldn’t be said any other
way. Music. Emotional depth. And something unpredictable and wild that makes me
want to read a poem over and over.

AE: What is it that
excites you about poetry? What does poetry give us that novels or other genres
do not?

JL: Poetry is music, and I love savoring the taste of the words on my
tongue and feeling its rhythms take hold in my body.

Poetry is language pared to its essence, and I love the thrift that lets
poets say more with less.

Poetry is immediate — not a second-hand experience, not the truth as we’ve
already heard it, but a fresh encounter.

Poetry is physical. Emily Dickinson said in a letter that she recognized
poetry when it "makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me"
or when it made her "feel physically as if the top of my head were taken
off." I think she meant this literally, and I recognize poetry the same

AE: Name a few out
poets you recommend. What do you appreciate about each?

JL: I’m still reading May Swenson for her fresh eye, exactness, and wit;
Muriel Rukeyser for her generosity and insistence that we learn to love what we
despise in ourselves; and Audre Lorde, for cleansing anger and strong music.
Among the living, Adrienne Rich’s vision of us as not separate from history and
politics reminds me to expand the scope of my attention, and I continue to be
stunned by her articulate, sensuous language.

Next page: Charlotte Mendelson on contemporary British fiction

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