Me and Martha

I began the Martha Courtot section of This Frenzy accidentally—there was a poem of hers that I loved, “Lesbian Bears,” and hadn’t been able to find for years and years. When her family and friends issued her collected poems after her death I finally had the poem again so posted it. There was nothing about Martha on the web, so other people looking for her began to find me, including Martha’s sister and her daughters.

Then other women who had Martha poems that were precious to them began to contact me, with stories such as “We used a poem by Martha at our commitment ceremony 25 years ago and I can’t find it now—could you find it and post it?” And so a Martha Courtot online community began to form here.

More on that in a bit—but first this amazingness:

I’ve been buying copies of Judy Grahn’s The Work of the Common Woman for years now. Until last year her poems had been out of print and unavailable, so I regularly scoured used book sites and ordered copies, most of which I’ve given away. The last copy I bought this way sat on my shelf for a year or so before I opened it one day. There. at the top of the title page, was written “Courtot.” Could it really be a copy Martha had owned? It seemed unlikely, so I dreamed about it but set it aside. Then I “met” Martha’s daughter Thea via the blog, so I scanned in the page and sent it to her.

Then I waited. Only a few days, really (much less time than the 7 months or so that passed between my idea and my walking the book to the second floor of my own house to scan it in!). But now I was Actively Waiting. As in Judy Grahn’s advice “Love comes to those who wait actively / with their windows open.”

Yesterday I heard back from Thea. “Yes,” she said, “that seems to be my mom’s signature, and she signed EVERY book.”

Wow. Just wow. I have Martha Courtot’s Judy Grahn.

Now, back to the collecting Martha’s work. Julie Enszer, over at Lesbian Poetry Archive has asked me to work on a page about Martha and her work. Martha’s daughter is sending copies of her poetry chapbooks which Julie will scan to make beautiful online editions. I’ll work on an introduction talking about what Martha’s work meant when she was writing and why her words still matter to women, to lesbians, and also to the broader world of American poetry.

I’m not sure yet what exactly I’ll write for that, but I definitely want other “Martha and Me” stories – how have these poems affected you, how have they lived along with you?

I’ll see where that goes, and post more as I get into the work.

Signature on title page

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Amazon in the land of oranges—Martha Courtot

i am a woman in ice
Martha Courtot

i am a woman in ice
melting

piece by piece
slowly
i am divested
of the cold cage

sharp as glass
the splinters fall at my feet
do not cut yourself

when i listen
to the trains wail
i can feel
through underground caverns
of stalactal promises

the earth
full and steady
under me
move

i never thought
i’d love the sun again
but now my fingers move
in a panic
of wanting to be burnt.

Amazon Poetry in a land of oranges

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