I’ve been re-reading the anthology Amazon Poetry, edited by Joan Larkin and Elly Bulkin and published in 1975 by Out and Out Books. It is the first-ever openly lesbian poetry collection. Wow. First ever. For everyone who’s come out post-Ellen, stop to consider this—a time when there was no such thing as a collection of writing by out lesbian poets.
Reading it again, at the end of my third MFA semester when Joan Larkin has been my mentor, is fascinating. When I first found it, probably sometime in the mid-1980’s and probably on Mari’s bookshelf, I didn’t fully get what it meant for these women to be willing to be published in a lesbian anthology, because the writers I knew I already knew as lesbian writers. But for established poets, already grasping legitimacy by muscled fingers in a world where poetry journals had unofficial but strict quotas for how many women they’d publish, this was huge. One of the poets who agreed to be in this anthology, May Swenson, declined to be in Larkin and Bulkin’s next book, Lesbian Poetry, because the title seemed to confine these writers to a label. Which is a complicated issue, of course. What makes a poet a “lesbian poet”? What makes a poem a “lesbian poem”?
The answers to those were easy when I was just coming out. Lesbian poets were poets who lived, wrote, published, breathed, and slept in The Lesbian Community. Lesbian poems were poems about those experiences. Simple, right? So those are the poems I remember from Amazon Poetry, probably skipping the ones that didn’t seem to be “about lesbians.” Ah, youth. Or maybe just arrogance of a kind. Or maybe I was just so hungry for talk about lesbians that I wasn’t then ready to hear talk by lesbians.
Coming back to the book, I’m reading it for the damn fine poetry that it contains—which was exactly the point of the editors to start with. Not to make a ghetto for identity, but to show the range and depth of lesbian experience as captured by a few lesbian writers. In the 80’s, I read as lesbian who also wrote some poetry. Now I’m reading as a lesbian poet. Or maybe a poet lesbian. Definitely reading as a poet. Who is definitely a lesbian. How those identity boundaries are more porous all the time.
I’m going to be posting some of the poems from the anthology that are now my favorites, on this nearly 25th anniversary return to roots built before I came out (I was 11 in 1975, fyi). But let’s start with this one, which I loved then, was delighted to rediscover, and still love, from Elsa Gidlow, born in 1893 and happy, in 1975, to be an out 82 year old lesbian writer:
You say I am mysterious.
Let me explain myself:
In a land of oranges
I am faithful to apples