On Intersectional Queer Poetics

Identity and intersectional identities are about power. To assert an identity and to assert a complex identity is to speak to power, to challenge power, to mobilize power, and to call power into action. Naming our realities, giving language to our bodies and how they move through the world, builds power individually and collectively. These are bedrock principles in my life, my poetic work and my editorial work. In these brief comments, I affirm and contradict these ideas.

Calling forth an identity -- speaking as a lesbian, as a femme lesbian, as a Jew, as a feminist, as a woman, as a person committed to social justice, as a queer -- requires imagination and courage. Identities name each of us individually and call to others to share in how we understand ourselves in the world. Identities assert power for people, especially people traditionally disempowered. Identities define; they challenge; they celebrate; they complicate. As always with power, the work is difficult and contentious. Identities create new possibilities and new allegiances; they also fracture, redress, upbraid, censure.

Editors step into the middle of these exciting, terrifying, energizing conversations, hoping to capture the spirit for readers not swirling in the discussion. Sinister Wisdom has been doing this kind of work, standing in the midst of these stormy conversations, for forty years. At its core, editing is a strategy to assert power in the world and amplify voices to speak about power in order to change the world. I have been editing Sinister Wisdom for five years, seeking out ways to give voice and space to expressions of intersectional identities in lesbian communities. Largely, I consider my work a failure; that, of course, is the feminist impulse: it is never enough, never diverse enough, never analytical enough, never beautiful enough, never enough. There is always room for improvement, space for more in the feminist cosmology. I revel in these failures. May there be many more.

Now a contradiction. In June of 2015, as I was returning from a week of intensive research on the paper of Pat Parker, I learned of the Obergefell decision granting marriage equality to same-sex couples. My vision for queer liberation has always been greater than marriage and the military, but as a cisgender lesbian in a long-term relationship, the decision was extraordinarily meaningful to me. I thought it was "A Change of World," to steal the title from Rich's first poetry book. Six months later, however, by November 2015, I was driven from my home of fifteen years by neighbors who threatened, bullied, and intimidated me and my family. The neighbors were able to drive us from our home using homophobia and racism. No Supreme Court decision could protect us; very few people stood up for us. Our lives were up-ended, and we had few methods to fight back.

Pat Parker gave me solace. Particularly, her defense of Priscilla Ford in "one thanksgiving day" in her collection Jonestown:

You cannot be insane
to be enraged is not insane
to be filled with hatred is not insane

So did her words of explanation about the slaughter at Jonestown:

the messages of my youth
came clear
the Black people
in Jonestown
did not commit suicide
they were murdered
they were murdered in
small southern towns
they were murdered in
big northern cities
they were murdered
as school children
by teachers
who didn't care
they were murdered
by policemen
who didn't care
they were murdered
by welfare workers
who didn't care

and Parker continues a litany of people who did not -- and do not -- care.

Speaking the word lesbian, defining our intersectional identities did nothing to help me and my family. If words and language are a source of power, if they offer a way to fight back against institutional oppression, at a time when I needed them most, when I needed something with which to fight, words, language, identity failed me.

The ache of that loss shapes my life now. I want to return to my beliefs about power and identity and queerness, but for the moment, I live in this fissure of failure.

Pat Parker feeds my rage; Adrienne Rich invites me to imagine another truth:

what in fact I keep choosing
are these words, these whispers, conversations
from which time after time the truth breaks moist and green.

[From "Cartographies of Silence"
Adrienne Rich]

Author Note: I prepared these comments for a panel at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs' Annual Conference. Jason Schneiderman, organized the panel, Queertopia or Bust: Thoughts on Intersecional Queer Poetics; I am grateful for his work and his continued generosity to my work. Tara Shea Burke attended the panel in my absence and presented my remarks; I am grateful for her time, attention, and continued friendship.