A Change of World, Episode 3: Shattering the Blue Velvet Chair
Curtis Fox: There is some language in this podcast some people might find offensive.
Curtis Fox: There was Marianne Moore, then there was Elizabeth Bishop, and other women poets. They occupied what Carolyn Forché would later call “the blue velvet chair”.
Carolyn Forché: Hello?
Curtis Fox: Hi Carolyn. I’m calling to find out what you meant by “the blue velvet chair”. What do you mean?
Carolyn Forché: When I was a younger poet, I looked at photographs. Formal group photographs of American poets, poets such as Howard Nemerov, W.H. Auden, Robert Lowell...
Curtis Fox: The big shots.
Carolyn Forché: The big shots yes. All the sudden, in these portraits there would be a woman seated in a small chair in the front of the group. Most of the poets would be standing or leaning casually against desks surrounding her. In the earlier ones I saw the woman was Marianne Moore. In a subsequent version the woman was Elizabeth Bishop. I began to call this little chair the “blue velvet chair” because it appeared to be cushioned, almost Victorian.
Curtis Fox: And it was your symbol or your idea of what was essentially tokenism.
Carolyn Forché: Yes. That one woman, white woman, would be allowed into the portrait of the great poets. But she must be seated in a lady like fashion in front of the group in the blue velvet chair. I began to think of the most prominent woman poet of any particular period as the poet in the blue velvet chair.
Curtis Fox: That was Carolyn Forché and this is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, shattering the blue velvet chair. It’s the third podcast in our series, A Change of World, about the intersections between contemporary poetry and second wave feminism. This time, we’re going to be looking at how in the 1970s some women poets refused to be marginalized. We begin at the National Book Awards Ceremony in 1974. By all accounts it was a weird ceremony that year. Thomas Pynchon did not show up to get his prize, instead his publisher had a stand up comedian accept the award on his behalf. “He who underestimates the American public will not go broke” was one of the aphorisms the comic shouted out. At one point a naked man jogged through the hall shouting “Read books! Read books!”. This was the 1970s, streaking was a thing. The award for Poetry that year went to two poets; Allen Ginsberg and Adrienne Rich.
Honor Moore: Oh, it’s going to Adrienne Rich for this very radical book “Diving Into The Wreck”. Amazing.
Adrienne Rich: I came to see the damage that was done / and the treasures that prevailed.
Honor Moore: Amazing.
Curtis Fox: Honor Moore was a young poet at the time. She later put together an anthology called Poems from The Women’s Movement which included the title poem of Diving Into The Wreck.
Honor Moore: It has an iconically feminist poem or a poem that restates the cultural context for poetry.
Adrienne Rich: We are, I am, you are / by cowardice or courage the one who find our way / back to this scene / carrying a knife, a camera / a book of myths / in which / our names do not appear.
Curtis Fox: Before the awards were even announced, Adrienne Rich had concocted a plan with two of her fellow nominees, Alice Walker and Audre Lorde. If one of them won, they agreed, she would accept the award on behalf of the others. The ceremony wasn’t recorded apparently. But this is how Adrienne Rich began her brief acceptance speech.
Adrienne Rich: We, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich and Alice Walker together, accept this award together in the name of all the women who’s voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world, and in the names of those who like us have been tolerated as token women in this culture, often at great cost and great pain.
Honor Moore: It had the ring of great sacrifice in the sense of, oh my god, she’s giving up solo-ness for us. We’re in this together as women, every woman’s oppression is my oppression, that idea which came out of the radical feminist movement.
Adrienne Rich: We dedicate this occasion to the struggle for self determination of all women of every color, identification or derived class, the poet, the housewife, the lesbian, the mathematician, the mother, the dishwasher.
Honor Moore: It was shocking. Feminism had no standing in the culture. It was courageous in the sense that none of these three poets would ever be accepted or considered in the same way again.
Sonia Sanchez: She chose two black women to go up there and she was actually saying to the subtext that you don’t honor black women, you don’t honor black folks with these bloody awards here, okay?
Curtis Fox: For Sonia Sanchez who was active in the black arts movement, the barriers marginalizing women poets also affected poets of color including men.
Sonia Sanchez: This thing that sister Adrienne did with sister Alice and sister Audre was a magnificent thing. We know where these awards come from, so we must then get up and then share those awards with other people that this country was ignoring, period.
Curtis Fox: Adrienne Rich was kind of groomed to be in the blue velvet chair.
Carolyn Forché: But she wouldn’t sit in it. She took an axe to it or something. The blue velvet chair is in some attic some where. Adrienne Rich was a wonderful opponent of the blue velvet chair.
Adrienne Rich: The silent women who’s voice have been denied us, the articulate women who have given us strength to do our work.
Honor Moore: That speech was electrifying because she was speaking a truth about the fact that women writers were far less recognized, far less written about, far less read.
Curtis Fox: Like Sonia Sanchez and Honor Moore, Susan Griffin also came of age in the 1960s, and she too chaffed at the marginalization of women poets. She says Adrienne Riche’s speech was, among other things, a call for community.
Susan Griffin: What’s interesting is when you feel marginalized, to move to articulate it is a complicated process. Most people don’t just go directly from marginalization to giving voice to it. What has to happen in between is a community, and how does this community evolve? That’s the $64,000 question.
Curtis Fox: To help explain why women poets went from the margins of poetry in say 1960 to somewhere close to it’s centre today, you have to talk about community. The communities of women poets that began taking shape in the major cities in the 970s.
No more masks, no more mythologies.
Curtis Fox: At the heart of these communities were public readings.
Honor Moore: Oh, let’s go to a reading.
I’m a shouting woman. I’m a speech woman.
Honor Moore: Going to a reading was a thing you did with your lesbian girlfriend or your feminist consciousness raising group or your friend, much more than now. The people who came weren’t just poets.
Susan Griffin: It wasn’t unusual to have an audience of 1,000 people. In those days poetry readings were big social occasions. Everybody went to them. Many many women, but also men. They were huge riotous affair. It was not uncommon that you would read something and somebody would shout “yes!” or they’d get up and repeat your line or applaud in the middle of the line.
Sonia Sanchez: This is what we did, it was the most exciting time. And then women came together and we complimented each other.
Joan Larkin: There was a lot of word of mouth too, in cities and in rural communities.
Curtis Fox: Joan Larkin is a poet and a former publisher.
Joan Larkin: This poet is going to read, you’ve got to hear her! It was sort of like going to hear a folk singer.
Honor Moore: It was such fervent days, it’s hard to really communicate how outrageous that we ourselves felt we were being. We were crossing so many boundaries. We talked about sex, we talked about love between women, we complained about housework.
Joan Larkin: One of the things poetry does is it puts to language things you haven’t thought of in the language. So at a time when the women’s movement was changing women’s lives, and a woman would not be able to wash the dishes again, she might go to a poetry reading and hear a poem in which a woman is talking about being tired of washing the dishes.
Susan Griffin: This is a poem for a woman doing dishes.
This is a poem for a woman doing dishes.
It must be repeated.
It must be repeated,
again and again,
again and again,
because the woman doing dishes
because the woman doing dishes
has trouble hearing
has trouble hearing.
Curtis Fox: That was Susan Griffin reading the first part of Three Poems for Women which was published in book form in 1976.
Honor Moore: So that’s a poem made out of this horrible boring thing that you’re doing all the time, but it’s a poem. So that’s what poetry readings were like. Suddenly, your life was not just your life it was everyone’s life, and it was worth singing about. It functioned like consciousness raising in a way, except it was literature.
Susan Griffin: As much as a poem comes from a subjective place, it is in response to what is being validated in society. It doesn’t have to be the dominate society, it can be your own community. So as the women’s community formed, that allowed for certain stories to be told and certain music to arise. I think of poetry as a kind of music. Songs to be sung, let’s put it that way.
Sonia Sanchez: I like to read a poem called “Personal Letter Number 2”
i speak skimpily to
you about apartments i
no longer dwell in
and children who
chant their dis
obedience in choruses.
if i were young
i wd stretch you
with my wild words
while our nights
run soft with hands.
but I am what i
am. woman. alone
amid all this noise
Curtis Fox: That was Sonia Sanchez reading a poem she wrote and frequently read in the 1970s.
Susan Griffin: Something ignites in which people who’ve been muttering things to each other or whispering things to each other suddenly start saying them out loud. And mirroring each other, we affirm and validate each other’s experience, and validate our feeling of outrage, and the feeling that the way we’ve been treated is unjust.
Curtis Fox: Susan Griffin was a West Coast poet. Sonia Sanchez and Honor Moore, and Adrienne Rich for that matter, were East Coast poets.
Honor Moore: We were all conscious that there was a whole feminist poetry scene in California. It came out of feminism but it also came out of the California sensibility.
Curtis Fox: But women poets on the East Coast often didn’t know the work of women poets on the West Coast. They hadn’t been published yet, or they published in different magazines. Readings occasionally brought the far flung communities together. Case in point, around the time of the National Book Awards Ceremony, Honor Moore was contacted by the publishers of the New Women’s Survival Catalogue, kind of a feminist take on the whole Earth catalogue.
Honor Moore: They called me up and they said Judy Grahn is in town, she’s this amazing poet from San Fransisco, and she’s reading at West Beth. Tonight! It was a last minute thing. Can you come? Yes. Maybe you could tell Adrienne Rich.
Curtis Fox: Adrienne Rich, Honor Moore and about 15 others assembled at the West Beth, a housing development in New York City for artists and artist organizations. They went to hear a young West Coast poet many of them had never even read.
Honor Moore: It was a very bare room. Fluorescent lights and ugly chairs. I remember Judy being at that time a small wiry, fierce presence.
Susan Griffin: She was a dyke, she dressed very boyishly, she was working class, so she had the female equivalent of a Johnny Cash presence.
Honor Moore: And she’s in this kind of trance. And she says —
Testimony in trials that never got heard
my lovers teeth are white geese flying above me
my lovers muscles are rope ladders under my hands
Honor Moore: And she goes on. It’s like you’re suddenly in this dimension. It’s not Diving Into The Wreck, and it’s not an Audre Lorde poem, and it’s not a Sylvia Plath poem. It’s something else.
Susan Griffin: Great poem, epic poem.
Curtis Fox: The poem took about a half hour to read out loud. Honor Moore, Adrienne Rich and the small group with them listened to the poems account of a harrowing wreck on the Bay bridge between Oakland and San Fransisco.
Judy Grahn: in the dark
stiff wind it seemed I would
be pushed over the rail, would fall down
screaming onto the hard surface of
the bay, but I did not. I found the tall young man
who thought he owned the bridge, now lying on
his stomach, head cradled in his broken arm.
He had glasses on, but somewhere he had lost
most of his levis, where were they?
and his shoes. Two short cuts on his buttocks,
and that was the only mark except his thin white
seminal tubes were all strung out behind; no
child left in him; and he looked asleep.
Honor Moore: She manages to conjure all the associations and put them into words that you have with such a thing, including this kind of denial of death, the denial of mortality that fuels a lot of what we then call patriarchy.
Curtis Fox: The poem expands into a meditation on death and love, including this mock interrogation of the poet.
Judy Grahn: Have you ever held hands with a woman?
Yes, many times—women about to deliver, women about to have breasts removed, wombs removed, miscarriages, women having epileptic fits, having asthma, cancer, women having breast bone marrow sucked out of them by nervous or indifferent interns, women with heart condition, who were vomiting, overdosed, depressed, drunk, lonely to the point of extinction: women who had been run over, beaten up. deserted. starved. women who had been bitten by rats; and women who were happy, who were celebrating, who were dancing with me in large circles or alone, women who were climbing mountains or up and down walls, or trucks and roofs and needed a boost up, or I did; women who simply wanted to hold my hand because they liked me, some women who wanted to hold my hand because they liked me better than anyone.
These were many women?
Honor Moore: It’s all at this extraordinary level of intensity, and it’s about a feminist sensibility that includes poverty, that includes people of another race, that is not anti-male, that is I love women.
Judy Grahn: Josie was not only beautiful, she was tough and handsome too
Honor Moore: It was so exciting. I was so excited that I’d been there.
Susan Griffin: The poetry readings were almost like a ritual for this new community and culture that was evolving. We were defining culture outside the boundaries that we were taught in school. We were claiming culture for ourselves.
Curtis Fox: Readings were a big part of this community, but to push their work further in the culture, poets had to publish. Mainstream presses weren’t often interested.
Susan Griffin: We had many different ways to get our work out. My first two books of poetry were published by the Shameless Hussy Press, run by a woman named Alta. She had a mimeograph machine in her garage in San Leandro. I would drive out to San Leandro and help her with her work on the mimeograph machine, and then the pages were folded over and stapled. And then we had to find bookstores that would handle books without a spine. And one of the stores that did that, and he’s forever celebrated in my mind for it, was a store started by Fred Cody called Cody’s, it was a famous store in Berkley. It had books of poetry that were produced in the community by groups that didn’t have the money, because it’s expensive to give a book a spine. But it’s very inexpensive to create something just with a staple. A lot of women’s presses arose in this period to get the work out.
Joan Larkin: Who else is going to do it?
Curtis Fox: This is Joan Larkin again.
J: When I think back to those days, I think of this ferment, this activity in people’s kitchens and living rooms. Some other women and I co-founded a small press called Out and Out Books, it was just one of many. A lot of these small independent women’s presses were collectives, gatherings together of women who themselves were poets and prose writers who said we’re not going to wait, we’re going to recognize ourselves and each other.
Curtis Fox: Readings, small presses, bookstores, these were the primary venues for the emerging community of feminist poets in America.
J: Of course all of these institutions also had their dramas. Women expected everything of each other in those days. We couldn’t all deliver everything to each other. So the small groups of women poets meeting together, the bookstores, they were kind of major disasters that were like divorces as well. A lot of the small presses couldn’t carry on forever, but they made a huge difference at the beginning.
Curtis Fox: Another way women poets supported each other and sustained this new culture was mentorships with older women poets like Muriel Rukeyser.
Honor Moore: She arrives on the scene, she’s on the scene and everybody turns around and says oh, Muriel Rukeyser!
Curtis Fox: Younger poets like Honor Moore soon realized that Rukeyser had been writing feminist poems going back as early as the 1930s. She was a leftist, and her poems are deeply rooted in the radical politics of her youth. She was also a lesbian, and she could be as sexually blunt as any younger poet. As in this poem, “The Speed of Darkness” from the 1950s.
Muriel Rukeyser: I
Whoever despises the clitoris despises the penis
Whoever despises the penis despises the cunt
Whoever despises the cunt despises the life of the child.
Resurrection music, silence, and surf.
Honor Moore: That is a very bold statement of a feminism coming from a women who insists that her life as a woman is at the centre of human existence.
Muriel Rukeyser: Life the announcer.
I assure you
there are many ways to have a child.
I bastard mother
there are many ways to be born.
They all come forth
in their own grace.
Susan Griffin: She was brilliant, Rukeyser, and incredibly courageous. And spoke with an amazing authority. She was expressing some of these feminist sentiments before the movement existed. That meant a lot.
Muriel Rukeyser: Who will speak these days,
if not I,
if not you?
Curtis Fox: In the 1960s and 70s, Rukeyser became an important role model for many second wave feminist poets. In the days before MFA programs were wide spread, she held private workshops for younger poets.
Honor Moore: One in particular was Sharon Olds, but many woman took those workshops. She was sort of a mentor already there.
Curtis Fox: Rukeyser was born in 1913. Her feminism born in a very different era.
Honor Moore: She’s in living memory of women’s suffrage. Her feminism is a feminism that’s inspired both by women getting the vote and that struggle, which was very radical, and by the 30s left. For people who sat at Muriel’s feet and were at her workshop, it was amazing to feel yourself coming out of some long depth of American poetry that had women in it.
Curtis Fox: Muriel died in 1980 at the age of 66 at the end of a transformative decade for women in America. There was still a long ways to go though. When do you think the blue velvet chair disappeared?
Carolyn Forché: I have a lot of theories about that that go back to the democratization of literary culture that went with the democratization of higher education. As late as the early 1980s, we were all hyphenated poets. Women-poets, Black-poets, hyphenated poets. We were also discouraged from being what was regarded as political in our work. I don’t think that’s even the case anymore. I would say that it is in the 21st century that I’ve seen the greatest opening, or let’s say the flowering of the seeds that were planted quite some time ago.
Curtis Fox: That was Carolyn Forché. We also heard from Joan Larkin, Sonia Sanchez, Susan Griffin and Honor Moore, our advisor on this series. Thanks also to Hannah Brook-Motle for her editorial advice. Some of the historical audio in this podcast comes from PennSound, a fantastic resource for audio poetry. This has been the third episode in our series, A Change of World. We’ll be back in a few months with another episode. Do let us know what you think of this podcast, and of this series in particular. Email us at [email protected]. You can link to the podcast on social media on SoundCloud or you can subscribe to it on iTunes. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.
Our series dedicated to the women's movement continues with the changing cultural roles of the 1970s, when women poets refused to be marginalized or tokenized, and public poetry readings and writing workshops for women spread across the U.S.