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Lesbian-Feminist Midrash II: Stein and Sinclair

Friday, November 15, 2013 | Permalink

Lesbian-feminist poet and scholar Julie R. Enszer has been blogging for The ProsenPeople this week on poetry, loss, and the pioneers of American Jewish lesbian writing. In today's post, she determines the authors responsible for the second half of "the lesbian-feminist midrash."

Earlier, I wrote about how much Evelyn Torton Beck’s anthology Nice Jewish Girls means to me as a poet. My new poetry collection, Sisterhood, is in conversation with Nice Jewish Girls, but that isn't the only book that's part of the dialogue. Two books from the middle of the twentieth century are also a part of this conversation. Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Jo Sinclair’s Wasteland are both important parts of my imagined Jewish, lesbian, feminist world.

Jo Sinclair’s Wasteland is one of the great, under-recognized novels of the twentieth century. Sinclair is better known for her novel The Changelings, published in 1955, but Wasteland, which won the 1946 Harper Prize with a $10,000 award, tells the story of Jake Brown (Jacob Braunowitz) and his struggle for acceptance in the depression-era United States. Narrated by Jake and his therapist through a series of psychotherapy sessions, Wasteland also provides an early portrait of a lesbian, one who is comfortable with her lesbianism: Jake’s sister Debby.

Debby encourages Jake to enter therapy to address his own self-hatred. Jake loves his sister, but he does not particularly like that she is a lesbian; then again, Jake doesn’t particularly like many things about his life, including that he is Jewish and that his family is poor. Although we never hear Debby’s voice directly (she is a shadowy secondary figure), in my mind she looms large. She works as a writer for the WPA to help support her family. Debby is a young woman who is lesbian, Jewish, and poor, three conditions that stigmatize her. In spite of this, Debby seems to embody a joie de vivre that inspires even the dour Jake. Debby represents possibility: the possibility of a new life through hard work, the possibility of being a lesbian. While writing Sisterhood, I thought about relationships between siblings, particularly relations that are vexed. Non-saccharin portrayals of siblings interested me most; I like stories about siblings that are challenged, complex, messy, difficult, imperfect. So does Sinclair. Our work expresses this sisterhood.

I first learned about Wasteland while reading letters of lesbian-feminists from the 1970s and 1980s in the archives at Duke University. A few decades earlier, Jewish lesbian-feminists found Sinclair’s Wasteland as captivating as I later did. Through Jake, Sinclair provides us an image of ourselves in an earlier era, an image that is both meaningful and nurturing.

Tracing back my personal literary history of Jewish lesbians, the stop after Sinclair’s Wasteland is Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933). Stein’s Autobiography made her a popular icon in the U.S. I love the idea of Gertrude and Alice, two nice Jewish ladies, traveling around the country promoting The Autobiography and lifting belly in hotel rooms in the heartland.

Unlike Sinclair’s Wasteland, where we never read directly the voice of Debby, Stein’s Autobiography speaks openly in a lesbian voice, even if through an elaborate conceit in which Stein as the author writes as if she were her lover, Toklas. This dramatic linguistic contortion gives us an explicit lesbian voice, but it is still a voice seen through a mirror with the wink of an eye. Nonetheless, the physical and intellectual intimacy of the two women is present on every page.

Together, these novels open the possibility of being lesbian in the middle of the twentieth century, in a time not our own. They remind me that lesbians are not new or contemporary creations, but they also remind me that speaking in our own voice was not always possible. Sometimes our voices needed to be mediated through brothers or through an elaborate ruse to deflect or re-frame the truth.

In the 1970s, women’s liberation and gay liberation brought to lesbians the possibility of speaking in our own voice; they gave us the ability to occupy the center of the frame. The excitement of the personal and immediate “I,” the assertion of this subjectivity, by lesbian-feminists was crucial to my writing. My work, including my new book Sisterhood, embraces the subjectivity of lesbian-feminists from the 1970s, but when I think back to the mothers of my work, Sinclair and Stein are among them. The struggle to write, to express lives that have been denied and denigrated, is an important part of our literary history. I honor and engage the work of Sinclair and Stein as part of my lesbian-feminist midrash.

The Act of Writing a Poem

Thursday, November 14, 2013 | Permalink
“Interior monologue of the poet:
the notes for the poem are the only poem”
—from “Images for Godard” in The Will to Change (1971) by Adrienne Rich

The act of writing a poem is like standing in mourning, saying Kaddish. You hear voices around you murmuring words, the same words you, yourself are saying, softly, automatically, as though they are an incantation. You cannot fully distinguish your voice from the voices of the people around you. The words flow from your tongue as though by ancient dictate. Your words and the words of the people around you surround you, fill the space that is empty and cold. Sometimes everyone breathes together, and sometimes they do not. And sometimes everyone speaks around you and all you can do is muster the strength to stand, imagining the words being spoken from your lips. The role of the Jew in mourning is to be present, to stand, to recite the Kaddish. The role of the poet is to be present, to arrive each morning waiting for words, to write even if the words do not arrive. Sometimes poets write, sometimes poet rewrite, sometimes poets simply stand, listening to others intone the words they are commanded to speak. This is the act of writing a poem. Listening, speaking, writing.

The middle section of my new poetry collection, Sisterhood, is a sequence of poems about my sister’s death. For a long time, I fiercely resisted writing these poems. One reason I resisted writing about my sister’s death is the line from Adrienne Rich: “The moment of change is the only poem.” I misunderstood what this line means about writing poetry. I did not read Rich’s 1971 collection, The Will to Change, carefully. I thought that the moment of change was literally the moment of political change: watershed moments like the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Stonewall rebellions, the AIDS Drug Assistant Program, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Lawrence v. Texas decision, the United States v. Windsor decision. For many years, I thought that Rich was saying that these were the only poems—and this emboldened me. I worked as an activist. I worked through grief, not sitting at a desk to write each morning, but organizing people, strengthening the will to change.

Rich’s line now has become an aphorism, but in the poem, it is part of a progress from the opening couplet where “the notes for the poem are the only poem,” to the center of the poem where “the mind of the poet is the only poem” to the conclusion about the “moment of change” as “the only poem.” This trajectory tells me something different about the act of writing poems. Still, when I returned to writing, I worried about being consumed by narrow content. My sister’s death felt not like a moment of change, but like a moment that resisted change, a moment that was frozen in time. She was here on this Earth and then she was gone. Imagining a life without her was simultaneously impossible and the only kind of life we could live. Mostly, I did not want my writing defined by loss, particularly not a loss that felt so usual, so ordinary, so unremarkable outside our family. A car accident. A Saturday morning. Nothing political. Nothing intentional. No remedy. No reparations. Just the freakish way our lives unfold.

I wanted my obsessive content to have more meaning. I wanted my life to make sense in a larger political world. My grief felt so small in the face of the grief of the world, in the face of injustice and inequality.

Saying Kaddish, I realized those ancient words expressed the ordinariness of my sister’s death and that they could be spoken in my own words, with my own tongue. Now, approaching the eighteenth anniversary of her death, she is held in time, permanently fixed. My life has continued to swirl around her. Now, the poem “Tattered Kaddish” by Adrienne Rich offers me solace. Rich writes in the final line: “Praise to them, how they loved it, when they could.” These poems in Sisterhood are plainsongs; they tell how I loved my one sister who died and how I loved many other women, when I could.

Jullie R. Enszer is a lesbian-feminist poet and scholar at the University of Maryland. Her second collection of poems, Sisterhood is out this week. Read her previous post for The ProsenPeople on the importance and influence of the Nice Jewish Girls anthology here.

Lesbian-Feminist Midrash: Nice Jewish Girls

Wednesday, November 13, 2013 | Permalink

Lesbian-feminist poet and scholar Julie R. Enszer blogs this week for The ProsenPeople on the seminal Jewish lesbian voices of the previous generation and the process behind her own writing. Her second collection of poetry, Sisterhood, comes out this week.

As my second collection of poetry Sisterhood publishes this fall, I have been thinking about books from the past that made it possible for me to write Sisterhood. One of these books is Nice Jewish Girls, edited by Evelyn Torton Beck and published in 1982.

Writers are readers, first and foremost. For many of us, we, initially, write our books on the pages of other books, as though our books are a midrash, squeezed between the words and lines of other texts. We imagine ourselves part of a vibrant simultaneous dialogue with books and authors, alive and dead, written and emerging; we imagine that our book extends stories from other books, speaks directly to characters echoing in our minds. As if by magic, words flit across our manuscript page from other sources re-formed, re-shaped, and re-written into our own book. In this way, all books mimic the dialogue of midrash: one writer speaking to another or hundreds of others, each book speaking to earlier ones, words and images layered upon the past, a cacophony of voices distilled into sequential words on single, orderly pages.

In Judaism, midrash elaborates the Tanakh, but lesbian-feminists have no Urtext for perpetual return. Rather, lesbian-feminism is a constantly unfolding text; lesbian-feminism is a concatenation of theories, philosophies, communities, and lives lived. While there are no Urtexts, there are books that are touchstones, books to which I repeatedly return, books for which I am grateful, books to which I am always responding, books into which I try to write myself.

Nice Jewish Girls is one of those books. The conditions of anti-Semitism in lesbian-feminist communities and homophobia in Jewish communities motivated editor Evelyn Torton Beck to imagine and create the anthology Nice Jewish Girls in the early 1980s. Persephone Press, an independent, lesbian-feminist publisher, published the first edition of Nice Jewish Girls. After that first edition, two other editions of Nice Jewish Girls circulated—one from The Crossing Press in their “Feminist Series” and another from Beacon Press. Nice Jewish Girls stayed in print throughout the 1990s, a lodestar for many, including me.

During the first half of the 1980s, feminist presses published a variety of Jewish lesbian novels, including Alice Bloch’s The Law of Return (1983), Ruth Geller’s Triangle (1984), and Sarah Schulman’s The Sophie Horowitz Story (1982). Nice Jewish Girls, however, distilled the identity of Jewish lesbians. Nice Jewish Girls includes the work of an array of writers including Irena Klepfisz, Elana Dykewomon, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, Rachel Wahba, Maida Tichen, Susan J. Wolfe, Judith Plaskow, and Martha Shelley.

Nice Jewish Girls was a generative text; it nurtured new voices and sparked conversations between and among Jewish lesbians. Speaking directly to Nice Jewish Girls, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz and Irena Klepfisz published Tribe of Dina, initially as an issue of Sinister Wisdom and later as a book; Tribe of Dina responded to Nice Jewish Girls in productive ways, thinking particularly about relationships between U.S. lesbians and the state of Israel. Nice Jewish Girls also inspired a new generation of writers, who published—or continuing to publish—in the early 1990s, including Judith Katz’s Running Fiercely Toward a High Thin Sound (1992), Lesléa Newman’s Good Enough to Eat (1986), Anna Freud Loewenstein’s The Worry Girl (1992), Sarah Schulman’s Empathy (1992), and Jyl Lynn Felman’s Hot Chicken Wings (1992). Nice Jewish Girls articulated a Jewish lesbian subject position and generated activism and literary work from that subjectivity.

A few years ago, I had the extraordinary pleasure of meeting Evelyn Torton Beck in person to talk about her work in Nice Jewish Girls. I revered Beck’s many contributions as an activist and scholar; my awe grew while talking with her. In the dozen years since her retirement from the University of Maryland, where she was a professor of Women’s Studies, Beck earned another PhD in Clinical Psychology, published numerous essays on topics that extend from clinical psychology to art, developed a new expertise in aging, and conducted classes on dancing and creative aging. It is not surprising that the woman who helped to articulate and synthesize Jewish lesbian identities continues to live in the world in a dynamic, engaged, and joyful way. May I be so bold as to hope for the same?

I return to Nice Jewish Girls regularly, for inspiration, solace, and stimulation. Many of the poems in Sisterhood fit into the cracks, between the words, amid the sentences of Nice Jewish Girls. Sisterhood speaks to the women who wrote Nice Jewish Girls, sometimes with force, sometimes with trembling. My own small hope is that someday Sisterhood will be a meaningful part of Jewish lesbian herstory like Nice Jewish Girls; I hope that Sisterhood may be a touchstone text for a Jewish, lesbian writer in the future.