In Their Own Words: Part 1

Joan Larkin: Poetry

David Ulin of the Los Angeles Times has described Joan Larkin’s work as “poetry without pity, in which despair leads not to degradation but to a kind of grace.” Her most recent poetry collection, My Body: New and Selected Poems,recently received the Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry from the Publishing Triangle. Do you recall the first poem by or about lesbians that had a lasting effect on you?
Joan Larkin: Judy Grahn’s poem “A Woman Is Talking to Death” shocked me and changed the way I saw lesbians and the larger context of women and power. “A Woman Is Talking to Death” was news in the ’70s — poetry of love, anger, and witness addressed to women, about women, by a woman. Grahn honors our love for each other, showing that “ordinary” lesbian lives are extraordinary. I’m still moved by the strong rhythms, wild imagery and memorable words of Grahn’s poems in The Work of a Common Woman.

AE: How has the tone or content of lesbian poetry developed or changed in recent years?
Though language always was and still is the bottom line for poetry, I’ll take a leap and say that lesbian poetry has grown more varied and sophisticated.

Lesbian poetry includes a wide range, from traditional to experimental, from texts meant for the page to in-your-face performance poetry. I remember waves of excitement at the first lesbian coffeehouse readings — poets were articulate spokespersons of the women’s movement. Now there are as many or even more lesbian poets writing, publishing, performing slam poetry or signing up for MFA programs.

There continue to be coming-out poems and — as in all times and places — love poems. But a new generation’s sense of permission to speak has expanded poets’ themes beyond claiming an identity. And lesbians seem to know in our bones that the world we’re living in now needs poetry — needs art and artists — more than ever. Our soul survival depends on it.

AE: What is one of the lessons you hope your students learn from you in regard to the writing of poetry?
I hope that my students won’t settle for being clever or trendy and will explore the depths of their interior lives. I hope that they’ll face their own terror and mystery. I hope that they’ll read and read and read, and absorb the pleasure of the music and language of powerful poetry.

AE: What are the elements you look for in a good poem?
JL: Memorable language — a sense that this couldn’t be said any other way. Music. Emotional depth. And something unpredictable and wild that makes me want to read a poem over and over.

AE: What is it that excites you about poetry? What does poetry give us that novels or other genres do not?
JL: Poetry is music, and I love savoring the taste of the words on my tongue and feeling its rhythms take hold in my body.

Poetry is language pared to its essence, and I love the thrift that lets poets say more with less.

Poetry is immediate — not a second-hand experience, not the truth as we’ve already heard it, but a fresh encounter.

Poetry is physical. Emily Dickinson said in a letter that she recognized poetry when it “makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me” or when it made her “feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.” I think she meant this literally, and I recognize poetry the same way.

AE: Name a few out poets you recommend. What do you appreciate about each?
JL: I’m still reading May Swenson for her fresh eye, exactness, and wit; Muriel Rukeyser for her generosity and insistence that we learn to love what we despise in ourselves; and Audre Lorde, for cleansing anger and strong music. Among the living, Adrienne Rich’s vision of us as not separate from history and politics reminds me to expand the scope of my attention, and I continue to be stunned by her articulate, sensuous language.

Next page: Charlotte Mendelson on contemporary British fiction