Revealing all the Secrets
“Tongues of ice break free, fall, shatter, / splinter, speak. If I could write the words,” Minnie Bruce Pratt writes in “Justice, Come Down.” The poem appears in her groundbreaking Crime Against Nature, first published in 1990, and in it Pratt found a way to write the words, exploring how she lost custody of her children after coming out as a lesbian in the 1970s. In awarding Crime Against Nature the Lamont Poetry Prize, the Academy of American Poets selection committee wrote, “She makes it plain, in this masterful sequence of poems, that the real crime against nature is violence and oppression.”
The book, long out of print, has just been rereleased this spring by A Midsummer Night’s Press and the journal Sinister Wisdom as the first Sapphic Classic. This new series is dedicated to reprinting iconic books of lesbian poetry.
Julie Enszer, editor of Sinister Wisdom, Sapphic Classics, and the Lesbian Poetry Archive, spoke to the Poetry Foundation about the politics and erotics of lesbian poetry and these classics, which reveal “all the secrets, all the things you thought you couldn’t say outside of a bar or bedroom.”
I want to first talk about Crime Against Nature and how you first encountered this book.
I encountered [these poems] very early on in their life, then came to the book again through my own writing and through talking to Minnie Bruce Pratt. When I realized that it was out of print, I knew I wanted to have a role in helping it … be available to a new generation of readers.
So did this book inspire the Sapphic Classics series?
Yes, Crime Against Nature being out of print really inspired the series—this idea of thinking more broadly about what’s out of print that would have meaning now.
What about Crime Against Nature makes it significant now?
Now you have to explain that in the past people were regularly denied custody of their children because they were gay. And there's been a shift in the gay and lesbian community; many people are choosing to have children in gay and lesbian relationships. In the past there were always children in gay and lesbian communities but they often came out of heterosexual marriages.
At a time in the gay and lesbian community when we're embracing one particular model of family and marriage, Minnie Bruce reminds us that there are many different models of family and marriage. There are many different ways people live their lives. We need to see them all and recognize them all, to see that there isn't one hegemonic way of organizing what family looks like.
Are there poems in this collection that particularly stuck with you?
When we published the book in March, the Supreme Court was doing the hearings [on same-sex marriage] and Minnie Bruce said, “I see the poem ‘Justice, Come Down’ coming up a lot on Facebook.” The last stanza of this poem, the part that people quote, is:
stretch out your hand. Come down, glittering,
from where you have hidden yourself away.
I think it's fantastic, I love it and I think it speaks to this moment as we wait for the Supreme Court to rule. But the part in the stanza before I think is so profound:
Instead I have told my story over and over
at parties, on the edge of meetings, my life
clenched in my fist, my eyes brittle as glass.
Ashamed, people turned their faces away
from the woman ranting, asking:…
People quote how justice is glittering and it appeals to the greatness that we hope for as a people, but it comes at the end of Minnie Bruce telling us that in reality, in day-to-day life, people are ashamed and they look away from people who are targeted and marginalized. I think these two stanzas really encapsulate a lot of the power of Minnie Bruce’s work. They work with that tension; they tell one truth that we want to hear but also get at that ballast of the other truth that we want to look away from.
The community of publishers was such an important part of how this book first came about. How do you see the lesbian-feminist publishing world changing from that time to now?
Oh, it's changed so dramatically. The book was published into a very strong community of publishers and readers that, while not commercially as successful as some other publishers, was also not a commercial failure.
Firebrand Books paid authors royalties; it generated money and distributed money into the community. That's an important part of the story because one of the things that people were deeply concerned about was how do we create culture, how do we create feminist and lesbian-feminist critiques and interventions and also support ourselves materially and financially? That's what a lot of the presses were interested in experimenting with. And today with publishing Sinister Wisdom, we see publishing more as a philanthropic activity. This is something that loses money now; it’s not something that provides financial support.… I think there are a lot of broad reasons for that in terms of what's going on economically in the U.S. and around the world, but it has big consequences in what it allows us to imagine for ourselves.
I’ve done interviews with people who were running feminist businesses in the 1970s and ’80s. They had a critique of capitalism, but they were also very deeply invested in it; they were invested in making it work, making how people earn money something that reflected their values. There's been a big shift that started happening in the 1980s with more people going into the nonprofit sector. I wonder if historians will look back and say we took too many people out of capital markets and that's part of why the markets ran amok, because there weren't more people saying this is how we have to act and behave.
With that changing sense of identity, from lesbian-feminism as a fused concept to now a more varied sense of identity, why is it important to re-publish books that are considered lesbian-feminist?
I feel deeply that while lesbian-feminism doesn't have valence today in how people describe themselves, I actually think that the ideas and values of lesbian-feminism have been adopted and have transformed our culture in profound ways. There are hundreds of examples of this. One is when the women were found in Cleveland, the news was rolling out and the…man who heard the woman in the house said, “I thought it was some domestic violence situation, so I went in.” When I was born if somebody heard something in a house next door and thought it was a domestic violence situation, they would not have gone in. That has been something that has radically changed over the course of my lifetime and I think that lesbian-feminists were at the core of that change.
With gay and lesbian marriage, [while] many lesbian-feminists will be the first to say I don't like marriage as a concept, I think the fact that we're having this public dialogue is the result of the ideology and work of lesbian-feminists who said: Look, we need to talk about our lives, we need to talk about our lives as though they matter, and we need to assume and assert our ability to be recognized in civil society in multiple ways.
One thing I want to do by republishing these books is to invite us to engage in a conversation…. We may not want to use the term “lesbian-feminist” to organize politics or activism or identity today, but we should respect and understand what its contributions were and how it has helped to bring us to the point that we're at today.
How do you see poetry fitting into this?
Poetry was so important in feminism and lesbian-feminism in terms of people reading it and sharing it and it…express[ing] what people thought and felt. It was a way to enter into other people’s lives. So, one of the things is just honoring the place that it had in the women's movement.
The other way that it appeals for me is that it does resist. As much as I like to talk about how presses are deeply engaged with capitalism and the material way we live our lives and wanting to create new models for that, poetry in some ways entirely resists that. The myth of capitalism is that if you're not contributing, if you're not bringing economic value eventually there will be no space for it and it will disappear…. But poetry doesn't and I always wonder why. It’s this constant beacon that reminds us that there is something outside of economic value that we deeply value and want and need, and we do whatever we can to bring it and keep it in our lives.
Pratt once wrote: “…I began to write poetry again in 1975, when I fell in love with another woman. I returned to poetry not because I had ‘become a lesbian’—but because I had returned to my own body after years of alienation." Do you think there is something unique in how lesbian poetry approaches the physical and the erotic?
I certainly think there was during the 1970s and ’80s. Lesbians were looking for ways to read their lives and finding out what it means to have this embodied experience as a lesbian. Poets [were] doing this work and that's part of why women [were] reading it, for all of the secrets, all of the things that you thought you couldn't say outside of a bar or a bedroom. People [were] putting [them] into books and selling in public, in bookstores.
One of the high-water marks was Marilyn Hacker’s [Love, Death, and the] Changing of the Seasons, that lovely novel in sonnet form that is deeply erotic, deeply concerned with writing the body.
So is it [uniquely erotic] today, right? There’s the question. And that I’m less sure about.
At that time the lesbian body was a site of struggle.
And in some of the more recent work, the site of struggle is the domestic, between the domestic lesbian relationships and the state. So the eye of poetry gets cast more to the domestic. During the 1970s and 1980s, lesbian poets saw writing about eroticism and sexuality as a way of political transformation and political challenge. Now I think … people really imagine [domestic work as] being a political challenge. It’s not erotic in the same ways; it’s more about how people live their lives.
Do you think that poetry gives a different lens to history than you would see if you were documenting lesbian history through a different form?
Yes. I think that poetry invites us to think about the material conditions of women's lives and how they made their work public. That’s one of the things that through the Lesbian Poetry Archive I’ve been thinking about… . Another thing I'm thinking about a lot is how it helps us define genealogies. Because we need to contain the wide world of things that we could read or think about, we choose a particular poet to stand in for a movement. So Adrienne Rich stands in for all of lesbian-feminism. And Audre Lorde stands in for what it means to be a black lesbian. One of the things that I want the Lesbian Poetry Archive and the Sapphic Classics series to do is to help us remember that there is a broader genealogy of poets and writers that are a part of the creation of Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich, for example. By constructing that genealogy and inviting people to remember and understand, we simultaneously create more space for everybody.
[These genealogies] remind us that poetry, while we may write it alone and may read it alone, really exists in a community of people writing and reading together and talking together.
In your introduction to Crime Against Nature you ask the reader to “commit to building a world where these crimes—and many others—are relics of the past.”
I always want to see people respond by writing more and reading more. The poems in this book are deeply political… deeply erotic and sexual; in some ways, that was a break from some of the Lamont Prize winners. We can look at other Lamont Prize books, those by people of color, where there’s a challenge and a transformation in the poetry world of what’s acceptable to talk about: when lesbian bodies come in and are acceptable to talk about, when African American experiences come in and are acceptable to talk about, when immigrant experiences come in and are acceptable to talk about. These are moments of real transformation in the institution of poetry, and I think they’re important, and that’s another part of what I see as this call to action, to ask what conditions made it possible for Minnie Bruce Pratt to win this prize and how do we ensure that we’re always agitating for those kinds of conditions to exist in the world.