At the beginning of February 2012, the Lesbian Poetry Archives published Two Chapbooks by Stephania Byrd, a free electronic edition that collects 25 Years of Malcontent, first published by Good Gay Poets in 1976, and A Distant Footstep on the Plain, self-published by Byrd in 1981. The latter was featured recently on the Ms. Magazine blog as part of their series celebrating Black History Month. Since publishing Two Chapbooks, Julie R. Enszer, curator of the Lesbian Poetry Archive, has been talking with Byrd about publishing, lesbian poetry, and making meaning. This dialogue is part of their ongoing conversation.
JRE: Let’s talk about our experience republishing 25 Years of Malcontent and A Distant Footstep on the Plain. What did you think when I first emailed you about the project?
SB: I was surprised. I had some publishing success after A Distant Footstep on the Plain, but I thought the reception of both books was tepid. I have been working on my poetry under the impression that my work had been forgotten, by all but a few friends.
JRE: Once I heard Martín Espada say that if you want to keep a secret, publish it in a book of poetry! What has it been like with having the poems republished?
SB: I believe I have something to say with my poetry. Having my old work republished and read was a moment of mirabile dictu—a spoken miracle.
JRE: There is this great photo of you that we include with this interview. It was originally printed in the journal Sinister Wisdom in 1980. Do you remember when that photograph was taken?
SB: Yes, I was living in Roxbury, a neighborhood in Boston. The photographer, Susan Fleischmann, came out to my apartment to take the picture. I remember that day; I had been laid off. Then the city of Boston had money from Comprehensive Training and Employment Act (CETA), and I was hired by the city as a rat hunter. My job was to follow them and find out where they ate, follow their runs and track them back to their burrows. I was really good at it! When I found where they lived, the city sent out this man who had a license to poison. He was from Cape Verde. The stuff they used to poison rats was called Red Squill, and it was absorbed through the skin and so was really dangerous.
At first, I was depressed about the job, but then a friend told me, “What you are doing is a public service.” I like to think of it that way.
JRE: CETA was a wonderful federal employment program; a handful of the feminist presses had CETA grants to support their work. In addition, it provided support for writers like you to pay the bills and still have time to do your creative work!
SB: Yes, CETA was a great program.
JRE: Let’s talk about lesbian poetry. For me, the Lesbian Poetry Archive and my scholarly work are strategic attempts to identify the tradition of lesbian poetry and nurture it. I don’t want lesbian poets to be forgotten—to fall into obscurity. I also want to ensure that future generations see the exigency in writing about, for, and to lesbians. What for you is lesbian poetry?
SB: I believe that lesbian poetry is poetry that celebrates our being women who care deeply for other women. Sappho wrote about this love, and her imagery is easily understood. Her work made me search for other women who wrote about the act of love, secular and sacred. This is what I will leave behind for other women.
JRE: Yes, I agree with that definition of lesbian poetry. Especially during the 20th century, I tend to think of lesbian poetry as poetry written by lesbians—by women who organize their social and erotic lives around other women. Then again, there is also a reading practice, especially articulated midcentury by Jeannette Howard Foster and Barbara Grier, of reading lesbian themes—portrayals of relationships between women—regardless of the author and her (or his) sexual orientation. I think that lesbian poetry still holds space for both definitions.
JRE: Sapphire, Audre Lorde—and Pat Parker! I love their work. How did you encounter each of them?
SB: I reviewed Pat Parker’s “Pit Stop” and introduced her at a reading held in The Saints, a lesbian bar owned and operated by lesbians in Boston, around 1977. She was quite a character—a hard-drinking, butch woman of legend. She had taken to singing at the end of her readings. After the reading, we drank whiskey and she played her guitar, which she had brought with her from California. We did not talk about poetry; she was ready to have a good time. I liked that about her. She was older than I was, and I looked up to her; I was sorry to see her go. Pat was happy to be alive when so many lesbians were not—it was hard to live openly, and not everyone had the stomach for it.
JRE: What about Sapphire and Audre Lorde?
SB: I met Audre Lorde in 1989, although we corresponded briefly before we met face to face. I read Between Ourselves and later The Cancer Journals. I audaciously sent her some of A Distant Footstep on the Plain. She graciously sent me picture postcards encouraging me to keep writing.
I met Sapphire through Azalea, the journal published in New York City by Joan Gibbs.
JRE: Azalea published some of the earliest works of Sapphire.
SB: Yes. I was working for the Boston & Maine Railroad and had read Azalea. Sapphire and I used to talk when I came to New York City. Sapphire was working on the poetry in American Dreams, which remains one of my favorite works. I did a lot of performance work with my poetry in those days.
JRE: Tell me a bit about your favorite poet, Elizabeth Bishop, whom I also admire immensely.
SB: Did you grow up with guns?
SB: I grew up with a lot of guns. One of my family’s hobbies was going out and shooting. I read this essay by Elizabeth Bishop about trap and skeet, the art of holding a gun’s release until your target, which is moving, is in your sight. I was really good at trap and skeet. I never missed a shot. I read her essay and I thought, oh, she understands.
JRE: Ah, yes. She also repeats the word “gun-metal” in “Roosters.”
SB: Yes, there is a kind of fury in her imagery, which is what I take from “Roosters.” It is clear that this cock and its crow are a part of a masculine fury that she links with St. Peter’s “sin.” Yet the fury is controlled by rhyme and stanza length from beginning to end. That phrase “gun-metal blue” invoked in the first stanza sets the tone for what’s to come.
JRE: The Bishop poem that really speaks to me is “Chemin de Fer,” an early one of hers that features a “dirty old hermit.” I realize that the hermit “shot off his shot-gun/ and the tree by his cabin shook.” The shooting imagery is in this poem, as well as the emotional control that you reference. I love the line that begins the final quatrain: “Love should be put into action!” It is so declarative. It fulfills the assertion of emotion that I always want from Bishop, but in this poem, it comes from the dirty hermit.
Then, in the final two lines of the poem, the pond, the natural world, declines to confirm the hermit’s declaration. I love how Bishop constructs these lines: “Across the pond an echo / tried and tried to confirm it.” This shows the type of emotional control you find in Bishop’s work: the echo repeating itself with a refusal to confirm anything about love or action.
SB: When I was working on my master’s thesis in English, I dreamt that Ms. Bishop came and sat with me in my living room, looking out on the Chagrin River. She told me there was an intruder in the house. I said, “No, it’s we two.” She repeated her observation and I woke up. I was writing a piece on Elizabeth Bishop for a course on the craft of poetry, and it was in its third revision.
I had read her villanelle, “One Art,” and was writing about it and two others that my professor had given thumbs-up to. My heart and spirit were captured by this poem and the control with which she spoke of loss and how one comes to terms with loss. I initially tried to explain what I saw as Bishop’s loss of “love” as an act of self-control. But I could not seem to explain how the villanelle form acted as the control.
I think Ms. Bishop was trying to tell me something: the professor was the intruder.
JRE: That’s a lovely way to commune with Bishop! I’m interested in the way you speak about her control. Your early work in 25 Years of Malcontent and A Distant Footstep on the Plain is often direct and angry, but part of your desire is to explore through your poetry a sense of control. How does that work for you?
SB: A lot of things I do in my poetry are because I am listening to the meter in my heart, and in doing so I find peace. I’m not as angry as I was 40 years ago.
JRE: You went to Cave Canem in 1997. What was that experience like?
SB: It was pretty intense. I wrote every day; I barely slept, drinking coffee and talking to poets in workshops and at meals, all day for seven days. I got the idea for poems about a “wise child,” someone who has been here before but still could hear the spirit world.
JRE: You mentioned that you are very focused on teaching right now at the community college, and that this is energizing your work. Can you talk a bit about that?
SB: It seems like there are always people who are perceived to have no value in our world, and they are the students at the community college. I tell my classes that poetry and writing are a way to challenge how others may perceive them. How can we as poets acknowledge that? I like to read poems aloud, with music that complements the poem. I even sing lyrics from musicals to my students. I have tapped out the meter to poems and then asked the class to discuss what they have heard. Blues, jazz, any kind of syncopation works to convey the sense of meter.
JRE: How have you sustained your writing practice over the past 35 years?
SB: I moved to the East Coast, and worked and wrote there until I moved to Michigan. I was in love and had a plan. The plan worked out better than the love. Later, I moved to Ithaca in upstate New York. It was a spiritually intense period; I was published twice in those years, in American Voice and The Kenyon Review. I wrote and read and learned enough Zulu to get by.
I don’t have many people that I speak to, but I have a rich and rewarding inner life. I no longer have to remind myself that living is an ever-changing work of art. I have only to listen and write.