Martha Courtot

Martha Courtot (1941 – 2000) was a lesbian, an activist, the mother of three, the grandmother of one, and a prolific poet. In her lifetime she published books and chapbooks. Some of her poems took on lives of their own, passed lesbian to lesbian on handwritten, typed, dittoed, or xeroxed pages. My favorite has always been “Lesbian Bears,” which I first found on a dusty broadside at Amazon Books in Minneapolis in the late 1980’s. Other women love “Tribes,” and have used it over the years in bonding and croning ceremonies.

After Martha’s death, her family and friends put together a collection of her poems called The Bird Escapes. You can still find a few copies from good used book sources like Powells.

As I can, I’ll post more of Martha’s poems here, since women looking for her poems keep finding me. Like so many of the lesbian poets who wrote and published in lesbian communities in the 70’s and 80’s, Martha touched many lives without ever being “famous” and without operating in the mainstream (malestream) poetry world. I’m honored to carry on part of her legacy, for she and other dyke poets have shaped my life and my writing profoundly.

Martha’s poem i am a woman in ice

Martha’s poem “Lesbian Bears” with comments from her sister, daughter, friends, and fans

Blogger Cherie W Rolfe’s podcast of “i am a woman in ice” is here.

Activist Adrienne Lauby’s reading of a Martha poem on KPFA: “When the Bear Comes to My Garden”


15 thoughts on “Martha Courtot

  1. I have a poem by martha courtot perhaps originally published in Off Our Backs. It is titled lot’s wife. Has it been published anywhere else?

  2. I have her book of collected poems, “The Bird Escapes,” that her family and close friends put together after she died, and it’s not in there. I’ll have to check in the copies of her little chapbooks, but I don’t think I know it. Could you post a copy? I’ve just been asked to curate a page about Martha on a lesbian poetry website, so am gathering what I can.

  3. OMG! I once had a small purple book with the poem “Tribes” bought at Amazon Book Store in Mpls when it was by Loring Park. I bought several of those little books for gifts. A friend bought me a copy of TRIBE, the chapbook, for my birthday one year. But, try as I could, I could find nothing about Martha Courtot. I wondered if she was Native American?

    Thank you so much for this information. Now I know something of the person behind the poem “Tribes” which I often share when I teach. I look forward to reading more of her poems on your blog site.

  4. Sherry – what a wonderful story! _I_ first found Martha’s work at Amazon Books at Loring Park, a single broad side of the poem “Lesbian Bears”! Then I found a few more poems in small journals like Sinister Wisdom, and then nothing for years. I finally bought a couple chapbooks once ebay existed and I could hunt for them. Not long after she died her daughters and friends put up a website, which is how I found out she had died, and how I got a collected version of her poems that they put out. I posted Lesbian Bears on my blog, because I love it so and didn’t want to lose it again, and Martha Courtot fans and family began appearing constantly. Half the people that come to blog come looking for Martha’s work.

    Some good news about finding her work – Julie Enszer, who runs the Lesbian Poetry Archives, has already scanned two of the chapbooks to post. I’m working on an introduction to them, with some biography but more a reflection of how the poems go on living in communities. Your story is perfect for that! We’re trying to get copies of the other two chapbooks she published, but they are not to be found for sale online. I’m trying to find some now just through lesbian networking.

    Once the books are made public, I’ll post about it here.

  5. Thanks, I found a few of her books on Amazon, try that-but I didn’t purchase them. Are you from or living in Minneapolis? I’m thrilled to know a little bit about her. I’ve tried for years to find out who she was. I’m so sad to hear she died. Was she from Minneapolis? I loved that little purple book and was sad when I couldn’t find any more. They were perfect gifts. And I love how she explains why women enter and leave each others’ lives, it made so much sense.


  6. I went to school for an MS in Women’s Studies at Mankato, so spent a lot of time in Minneapolis around 88-91. I’ve heard lots of women talk about how much that one poem has meant to them, including using it at bonding/wedding rituals and ceremonies. I have to finish up the essay about her soon. May I include your story about finding the book and buying copies for friends?

  7. Thanks, Oriethyia. I have both of those, and they have been digitized already. I got permission to use those books, but have been struggling to get permission to use personal letters. If you knew Martha well, would you be willing to do a phone or skype interview? I need to put together an essay to introduce the books, and need more info about Martha in her world to finish the piece.

  8. My
    Mother was one of Martha’s friends. You could reach out to her for stories and recollections of Martha, I bet. DM me if you’d like her contact info.

  9. Pingback: Black Kripple Delivers Poems and Lyrics | Pushing Limits

  10. “The Bird Escapes” the 171 page retrospective of Martha’s poems is available for $15. each. Write: Adrienne Lauby, 1 Kingston Way, Cotati, CA adrienne_[at]

  11. When Martha still lived at home and sometimes had to watch me, as the youngest child in the family; she would take me to the Library, to Burnett Woods and read poetry to me and of course I also had the chance to slide down the concrete slide. I remember one day she wanted to go to the Library downtown so we would have to take a bus but I made her promise to take me to the Children’s section at the Library which was on the third floor (which I have never understood) so we got in the elevator on the first floor of The Cincinnati Library and then a lot of people got in behind us so we were at the back of the elevator. It started moving and when it stopped everyone got out including Martha and as she turned around she was horrified because I was still in the elevator by myself as the doors closed between her and I. I shall never forget her yelling, “Roberta” with fear in her voice. You see, Martha never liked to ride elevators and would rather walk up flights of stairs no matter how many flights there were; but when she saw her baby sister (me) and that is how she always referred to me no matter how old I got; she was terrified. She started yelling for help as I sat down on the floor of the elevator scared and only about 7 years old. People started getting on and riding down and it was not long before Martha and I were reunited but it seemed longer to a small child. We had a lot of good memories as children at home. There were so many things she did for me like play pickup sticks on the floor after coming home from high school or taking me for walks in the woods while she would read Robert Frost poetry to me. I remember the day I went upstairs and I could hear her crying in her room so I went to see what was wrong and she was sitting on her bed with her scrap book and a bottle of glue as well as having a large newspaper clipping with a photo of a car that had crashed. She was inconsolable: you see it was James Dean. She was crazy about him or maybe just the life he lead.
    I am the only sister of the three of us left and who knows when I will join them but I wanted to share just a few wonderful memories of her as my sister. I look at her photo when she was a child with our sister Laura and our father in Florida. They had their lives ahead of them but it only took one day in June 1952 that changed everything for everyone in my family. Our father died as he was talking to a friend. Our mother never seemed to get the credit or love she deserved because Dad must have been the favorite parent at least to the two oldest sisters and they both mourned him all the days of their lives. I did not know him but I still felt a loss and maybe my life would have been different if he had lived. Martha, our brother, and I had gone to Coney Island that day. There is a photo of us in the jail and after we came home that day is when our father died. How can a day that started off so well end so badly? But it did. I have so many good memories of Martha; once a cousin whom I had never met was coming to our house with mom and her aunt and uncle so Mom called and told us to straighten up the house. We did and while we were cleaning Martha started telling me stories about this cousin whom I had never met. She told me that this girl had three eyes; and as a very young girl will do I believed whatever she said. We were all out in the back yard a little later when I found myself standing next to this cousin and Martha: so I tried to find that third eye under her bangs but I could not see it so finally I just blurted out, “you don’t have three eyes” and with that statement Martha grabbed me up and took me in the house.
    memories of the little sister

  12. I am researching a women’s collective where Martha lived for a few years (1974-?) with her three children, called A Woman’s Place in Athol, NY in the Adirondack Mountains. Any information on Martha during this time in her life would be appreciated. I’m on Facebook if you’d like to message me that way. Otherwise the email below is fine.

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