Like most of us, ever since the Diane Sawyer Interview and Vanity Fair Cover I’ve been thinking a lot about gender, about appropriation of clothes and image, about what constitutes “sexy” and for whom.
Although it is more fair to say I think about that stuff all the time. Those questions, about sex and gender and power, are at the heart of how I understand feminism as an analysis of power in my society. Not Feminism as an identity (are you or aren’t you) or Feminism as a set of answers. Feminism as a series of hard, honest-as-possible questions. Uncomfortable questions – cause if you’re entirely comfortable with your answers, you haven’t asked the right question yet. The closer an issue is to our core, to our understanding of our place in the world, the more important it is that we ask the uncomfortable questions.
And I have a lot of uncomfortable questions to ask about gender as it is playing out in the current social debates.
But first, another pop-culture event of the moment, the Tony Awards, for which I hauled my tiny little tv and Roku downstairs and then had to pay $6 to CBS for “Full Access” because I don’t have cable. This year, for the first time, this show and its entire artistic and power structure had actual relevance to my life. For the first time, Dykes, not just the occasional gay women or bit lesbian roles, but Dykes were onstage and in the award program. I had considered not watching, because I’m going to see the show next week and didn’t want to watch only one production number isolated and in advance. But then the Fun Home team insisted on “Ring of Keys” as their song in the show, and Sunday at 9 pm became a Dyke Cultural Moment, which are damn near otherwise extinct.
Of course I was sobbing even before the first note was sung. As in sobbing-gasping- for-breath. Scaring my dog sobbing. Sobbing that comes from a place in my heart that was empty and hollow and just waiting for words and images to fill it.
Which is what Alison Bechdel has been doing for us, for dykes, since all of us were young and high on the energy created when hundreds of thousands of women were coming out all across the country within just a few years. I was in Madison Wisconsin then, a perfect place to be for who I was and who I wanted to grow to be, and when I first walked into one of the Dyke Dance parties I could only stand there in awe and a little fear and, and,
And, honestly, searching for words I didn’t have yet. Which is why that moment in “Ring of Keys” when Young Alison sings “I feel” and then stumbles, having no words, broke me open.
That moment, and then the word swagger. Do you know how deeply swagger is a Dyke word?
I am the dyke in the matter, the other
I am the wall with the womanly swagger
I am the dragon, the dangerous dagger
I am the bulldyke, the bulldagger.
Swagger – it’s sexual, it’s cocky, it’s Male, it’s pirate-ly. One swaggers only when one owns not only one’s body but also the entire space around the body. It is the direct opposite of femininity and mincing along in high heels.* Swagger is the lesbian appropriation of the male power to claim the body, claim the space, be open and proud and loud. Swagger is utterly direct evidence that Lesbians were creating this show.
Before sobbing all during the song and again after it members of Dyke Nation were carefully scanning every audience shot, especially as Fun Home started racking up awards. Where was Alison? She was there, we all knew, but why weren’t they showing her?? Someone texted a link to Urvashi Vaid’s twitter feed in which Alison was shown on the red carpet. With a backpack on. Oh goddess yes!
And then Fun Home had won Best Musical and the whole cast and crew were onstage and still WHERE THE HELL WAS ALISON? Then someone pushed her forward and there she was, her handsome butch self, in a tux, young-Alison’s very fantasy of being a GQ cover image.
And there I was crying again, such violent gratitude for even this one little Butch Dyke moment in the world of violent silencing. For, as performer Sara Felder pointed out, even as Fun Home was winning there was still a wall of silence:
Yet another Tony Awards reflection:
What does it mean to name and be named?
Considering the large wins for Fun Home and Curious Incident, i don’t think I heard the words: ‘queer, dyke, gay, homosexual, butch’ (nor from Curious Incident – autism spectrum.) Even the description of Fun Home from the Grey family, managed to describe it without saying the words. (Yes, I know he came out as gay recently, so there was an implication there.) I missed the first hour so I assume I missed this? or…? It’s interesting to me because it is such a huge step towards lesbian/butch visibility… yet… was it there and I missed it? Surprising, right? (Sara Felder, Facebook post, June 8th, 2015)
And of course Sara didn’t miss it. There wasn’t an it. So ok, maybe it isn’t the job of an awards show to fully acknowledge all the social-change implications of a musical or play. But in an evening when Alan Cumming was making ENDLESS JOKES ABOUT HIS BISEXUAL DESIRES, the gaping difference between gay and lesbian realities was, well, gaping.
And don’t get me started on the absence of dykes and butches. We don’t exist. There was a time when the phrases “butch dyke” or “bull dyke” or “bull dagger” were thrown around publicly as the ultimate cultural put-downs, THE way to scare women by flinging up images of the MONSTERS they’d become if they turned gay. Before that time, in closeted underground Dyke Time, butch dyke was a real thing, a known way for a human female to be, but then that knowledge was erased. And, to my own shame years later, the eraser was driven in large part by the lesbian feminist culture I embraced when I came out. We wore jeans and flannel shirts and men’s shoes and decried all that was feminine but derided older Butches for being “too male.”**
Yep, my own tribe tried to erase swagger. For a while, at least, but swagger couldn’t be fully kept down. Swaggering is too much fun, and once one feels the freedom of swaggering it is impossible to forget. Swaggering has meant many different things over the years in between, associated with “lost bar dyke” culture, “scary publicly sexual dyke” culture, and “jock dyke” culture. These days there is an active effort to reclaim Butch in face of the FTM activism, as evidenced in the Butch Voices movement.
For To Swagger is to be Butch. To be public. To insist on taking up space, on being seen, even if not named, as in the Tony Awards.
A quick quiz – name 2 items of clothing that represent Butchly Swagger.
1. Tux, and not the cut-to-fit-model-female-body-breasts-hanging-out tux but a real tux
2. The wallet or keys or both hanging on the chain from the belt loop. Which, of course, requires having clothing that has belt loops.
Sunday night we had both, of course, along with silence. The words “butch” and “dyke” don’t belong in the verses of “Ring of Keys,” because the strength of the song is how Young Alison doesn’t the vocabulary for what she nonetheless inherently knows. Of course, we Dykes watching knew the Butch being seen, both from the comic strip and from the actual panel in Fun Home:
We saw her there on stage, that big ole’ butch, knew she had swaggered in and would swagger out again. Did anyone else SEE her? I have no way of knowing, although I always suspect not. I am so grateful to the writers for using swagger repeatedly in the chorus, for letting it carry the cultural significance of referring to the swaggering bull dyke more strongly than anything else that’s ever existed on a mainstream stage. (Or even most gay or lesbian stages – playwright Carolyn Gage has written about this extensively. For an overview of her work, watch her narrated slide show “The Butch Visibility Project,” which is embedded below.)
I do know the world saw Alison herself on stage, even if they weren’t sure what they were seeing, and even if Fun Home was rushed off the stage so a song from Jersey Boys could come on. And I do know that, in the middle of a sea of hyper-determined-gender outfits Alison was in a tux.
Cause can you in any way imagine her (or Mo) in one of those dresses?
coming up in part 2:
*Although, to be fair, I have seen jocks forced into heels for family functions swagger in those heels, in which case the femininity becomes an uncomfortable costume and the pointy shoes take on a weapon-like quality.
**I think a lot about why this happened. These days I’m pinning it on class. Those old dykes were pretending to be men, the argument went, whereas we are appropriating male power and freedom. The difference being we had gone to college and read books about it.
In my ongoing struggle to pull myself out of this damnable pit of festering depression, I’m returning to studying Hebrew and to finishing Shez’s manuscript. Today I am sending it off to Alice James for their translation open reading period. Yes I am, although I have only ten hours left to get everything together and turned in.
As I do that, here’s a recent piece on Shez from an Israeli website: Poem of Shabbat
And here is a very very rough translation of the article:
Shez is a poet and a writer in a well established and important and central figure in the development of community [name of her poetry workshop series]. It is also offering of workshops, and people who know her workshop know they are not only a place of writing and creativity but also a place of deep mental processes.
Shez is a poet with a special sound, sometimes blunt, sharp and honest to the extreme, which shows with honesty her hard life story. Her poetry, as well as a weekly column of her published poems, has strong presence of violence and pain on one side and also tenderness and intimacy and closeness. This tension between the two poles of the soul, of our existence, makes her singing shaking and strong. Her poetry is willing to devote itself to the truth, the truth which is also extreme and distorted, it is willing to devote itself to comfort and compassion. The honest poetry evokes not only solidarity, it also gives the reader the feeling that there can not be pretense or coloring of the world too bright colors, integrity like that allows her poetry to penetrate deep our psychological structure.
The Art of Craft: a series of craft classes for writers, readers, and teachers
Big Blue Marble Bookstore
Thursdays, 7-9 pm
April 16th – May 21st
Considering an MFA? Wondering how to take your poetry to the next level? Try on MFA-style learning with this series of craft talks and focused workshops. Each week we’ll focus on a different element of poetic craft, first in the work of great contemporary poets and then in our own writing.
The cost for the entire series of 6 classes and workshops is $300. In honor of National Poetry Month, if you and a friend sign up together you’ll each save 1/3 – $400 total price for both of you!
If you are a teacher, or avid poetry reader, you can attend only the 6 one-hour craft talks for $150. Special discounts for Bring-A-Friend and for Philadelphia public school teachers. Please email.
To register or find out more, go to: Register for the Art of Craft
April 16th Thinking Like a Poet
We begin by exploring HOW a poem works, considering formal strategies, language, diction, time and space, music and clatter, movement and grounding
April 23rd A Density of Sound
How does the poem sing? What is the chatter, the clatter, the smooth move, the structure, the improv? How do poets use sound to structure the poem and to convey its emotion, context, meaning, and urgency?
April 30th Spines and Joints
What is the central axis of your poem? Where does it bend, rotate, flex? How and when do other voices/views come into the poem?
May 7th Measuring Meter
The inherent meters of English live in everything we write. We’ll study how meter controls the pace and meaning of poems, and how to use meter as a tool for revising.
May 14th Walking the Line
Never again worry about where to put in line breaks—because lines don’t break. Lines end, when their work in the poem is complete. Break the myth of the break, and free your lines to be the great engines of your writing.
May 21st Case Study: The Persona Poem
Persona poems, or poems that speak in a first person voice that is clearly not the voice of the poet, have been adapted to many interesting uses in the past decades. We’ll look at some of the most original and most startling voices, while considering structural issues such as how poets enter and leave the persona poem.
Publishing for Poets
Wednesday March 18th, 7 pm
$25, pre-registration is required
Print journals, online journals, famous journals, upstart journals, submission services, contests, open reading periods – how’s a poet supposed to navigate all of this and still have time to write?
Elliott batTzedek, MFA, is the founder of Poetry Business Manager, a submission management service for poets. In this 2 hour workshop, she’ll introduce you to the world of poetry publications and help you learn to find the right match for your work. Learn to avoid publication scams, stay away from high fees, and where to begin your search for submission calls and reading periods.
To register, email: email@example.com
Saturday March 7th OR Saturday March 28th, 2-4 pm
Big Blue Marble Bookstore
551 Carpenter Lane
Philadelphia PA 19119
Workshop is free but pre-registration is required. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
As children, we loved poetry for its sounds, its silliness, its relevance to our daily lives and our dreams. Then, for too many of us, years of poetry “education” took all the fun away and gave us headaches looking for hidden meanings and themes. Enough of that! You can turn back the clock and learn to love poetry again!
The workshop is led by Big Blue Marble Poet-in-Residence Elliott batTzedek. Elliott has an MFA in Poetry and Poetry in Translation from Drew University and years of teaching and workshop experience.
In this two hour workshop we’ll touch on the huge variety of amazing contemporary poets, and look at their work the ways poets look at poetry – not as a mystery to solve, but a celebration of sound, music, and image. If you know you like poetry but don’t know quite where to start reading, this workshop is for you!
3-5 pm, Sunday March 22nd, 2015
Paradigm Gallery + Studio
746 South 4th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147
An afternoon of readings about girlhood, coming of age, and the female body, with Lauren Rindaldi, Dawn Lonsinger, Laura Madeline Wiseman, Kimberly Rinaldi, Elizabeth Akin Stelling, Shevaun Brannigan, Marion Cohen, & Elliott batTzedek
First poetry live tweet from my new home, first new book by Mary Ann McFadden in waaaayyy too many years. Follow along as I dive in!