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Archive for June, 2017

pride-flag-in-alleyThis year we celebrated Pride by going to see the lesbian musical Fun Home.  The celebration started when my partner Barbara won free tickets from WRTI, the local jazz radio station.

We started the evening with dinner and then a short stroll through the back alleys of Philadelphia’s “gayborhood” — where I found out that the Bike Stop still exists (from my memories of coming out thirty some years ago.

Fun Home is based on the 2006 graphic memoir of the same name written and illustrated by Alison Bechdel.  It is a touching coming of age story based on the author’s lesbian identity and that of her father, a closeted gay man.  The play didn’t disappoint, but when my partner left, she had a puzzled tone in her voice when she said that the audience was mostly straight people. Thankfully, the world has changed.

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Barbara-stage-in-background

 

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I’ve never met Alison but have long read her comic strip “Dykes To Watch Out For” and have read her graphic novels. Then when my book Tea Leaves: a memoir of mothers and daughters was published (2012: Bella Books), it was in the same review as one of Alison’s books in Curve magazine.

This blog post is dedicated to my late friend Toni Brown.Toni_Brown_author Toni was a wonderful poet and writer and you can hear her read her work by clicking here.

Before moving to Philadelphia, Toni lived for many years in North Hampton Mass. She may have told me that she once knew Alison Bechdel or it just may be that North Hampton (which I visited several times) was so very much like the “Dykes To Watch Out For” comic strip that I always associate it with her.  Thank you Toni.

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Recently we went to see A Quiet Passion — the movie about Emily Dickinson.  The role of Emily was played by Cynthia Nixon. While there was some wonderful acting in the film — including by Cynthia Nixon and while anything that brings notice to Emily Dickinson’s life, the film left us feeling that some things never change.  There was such an absence of any lesbian content – including Emily’s long-term relationship with her sister-in-law Susan (written about in the New Yorker decades ago by Emily’s niece and Susan’s daughter — who described Emily as a “valiant knight” to her mother — that I returned to my earlier work on Emily Dickinson.  A longer essay titled, “The American Sappho: In Pursuit of a Lesbian Emily Dickinson” that I wrote was published in the Vol. 3, Number 3 2002 edition of the Harrington Lesbian Fiction Quarterly (now out of print).

My shorter essays on Emily Dickinson is reprinted below.

It was previously published on Technodyke.com and aired on This Way Out, the Los Angeles-based lesbian and gay radio syndicate that airs across the U.S. and in 22 countries abroad.

Emily Dickinson and I did not hit it off on the first date. That is to say that on introduction to her work, I saw her–or rather was taught to see her–as a lady like poet writing of hearts and flowers, tendrils and vines, the stuff of which had absolutely nothing to do with my life. In junior high when I came across Dickinson’s work, I was already a hell on wheels hard drinking adolescent, a product of my 1970s working class environment that put me on a collision course headed toward disaster.

Emily Dickinson color

It was my love of language that got me through. I’ve often heard it said that poetry serves no purpose. Perhaps that is true if one takes a completely materialistic and emotionally bankrupt view of life. But the fact is that two lines of poetry saved my life: Shakespeare’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow/ creeps through this petty pace from day to day.” I didn’t know it at the time, but that I could recite this part of Hamlet at will, even if I was on my way to being blasted or hung over from the night before, embedded in my mind that I would have a tomorrow. A tomorrow was not a petty thing to have: a few of my friends didn’t make it.

I wonder if things could have been different, for myself and for the close-knit gang of teenage girls I hung out with. I wonder if a Lesbian reading of Emily Dickinson could have halted our self-destruction and consequently saved a few young lives. It took a few more years for me to grow up, stop drinking and come out as a Lesbian. And when I did I found myself falling head over heels in love with poetry. Emily Dickinson was someone I returned to again and again. There was something clever, yet profound, in her verses that I memorized. The lines were deeply personal, as if they had been written just for me. I found her public personae intriguing. She was portrayed as a spinster, a recluse dressed in white, the eternal virgin who had nothing to do with men.

A few more years passed and I went to visit the Dickinson homestead in Amherst Massachusetts. I was there with a group of friends, some of whom lived in the area and were just visiting her home for the first time. It was ironic really– there we were a room full of Lesbian poets listening to the tour guide’s official wrap about the cloistered and asexual Emily Dickinson, trapped in her father’s house. There was something sinister about the house, foreboding. But behind the house, in the flower garden, was a beautiful wash of colors. And as I sat in the garden, on a white wrought iron bench, I peered through a shady grove to the neighboring house. I remember it being painted in the glowing hues of peach, at once golden and pink. There was something mysterious about this house, set back as it was from the road, directly approachable from the Dickinson homestead. If I were Emily I could not have resisted its magic lure.

I found out later that this house is where Susan Huntington Dickinson lived. She was Emily’s sister-in-law, married to Emily’s brother, Austin, and she was the love of Emily Dickinson’s life. She was Muse to Emily, her intended reader, thoughtful critic and, by more than a few accounts, she was Emily’s lover. In correspondence to Susan, Emily wrote that Susan was “imagination” itself. The two women were close friends for 40 years, and they lived next door to each other for 30 of those years.

In “Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson” (from Paris Press), the editors, Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith, point out that over the course of their lifelong friendship and love affair, Emily sent countless numbers of letters, poems and a form of writing that Emily came to call the letter poem. And on many of these letters, placed for Susan to see when she unfolded them, Emily had written her careful instructions: “Open me carefully.”

Emily Dickinson lived at the end of the Victorian-era in New England from 1830 to 1886. After her death, any mention of Susan was carefully removed from her poetry and this essential body of correspondence was neglected. Still, even with this erasure of Susan’s name, which Emily had written at the top of so many of her poems, it is obvious that they are essentially Lesbian love poems. Consider, for example, the piece that begins with the line “Her breast is fit for pearls…”

“Susan, / Her breast is fit for pearls, / But I was not a “Diver”– / Her brow is fit for thrones / But I have not a crest, / Her heart is fit for home– / I–a Sparrow–build there / Sweet of twigs and twine / My perennial nest. / —Emily”

In Victorian New England, Emily Dickinson certainly could not mention her most intimate body parts. But she did a pretty good job of using the birds and bees as metaphor: “These days of heaven bring you nearer and nearer, and every bird that sings, and every bud that blooms, does but remind me more of that garden unseen, awaiting the hand that tills it. Dear Susie, when you come, how many boundless blossoms among the silent beds!”

To separate Emily Dickinson from her Lesbian passions is a cruel and unnecessary act. Not only does it do a disservice to Emily’s poetic genius, but it also deprives her readers of a deeper comprehension of Emily and therefore of a deeper understanding of themselves. That’s what literature, at its best, does. It leads us home.

It really doesn’t matter if Emily Dickinson ever made love with a woman. (Although my guess is that she did and most likely did so rather skillfully.) What matters is that she experienced deep rending passion, that must at times, under the circumstances, have been painful.

A Lesbian reading of Emily Dickinson places her firmly in the center of her own page. When I think back on my visit to her house, I can see her clearly now, sitting down at her desk after her daily chores were done, as she smoothed the white folds of her skirt and picks up her quilled pen. As she writes, her cheeks are ablaze with longing and desire, that essential Lesbian desire.

 

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The following is a recent review that I wrote for the Alexander Artway Archive, a very interesting photo collection that I have been working with. Alexander Artway was an architect and photographer who photographed New York City in the 1930s. You can view the photos by clicking here.

We have decided to review photography books for the Alexander Artway blog — and this first book by David Freese documents that climate change is real.

Working with the Alexander Artway Archive inspired me to write the novel Looking At Pictures. You can click here to read excerpts (or watch me on YouTube).

The blog post/review is reprinted below:

artway blog

Last year or so when taking photography classes at Temple University (so that we could apply the learning to our photo archive ) we had the good fortune of taking David Freese’s course on World Photography.

When we heard that David was introducing his new book at the Print Center in Philadelphia (formerly the Print Club), we were delighted and went to the lecture and to buy David’s book, East Coast: Arctic to Tropic, Photographs by David Freese with text by Simon Winchester and Jenna Butler.

After Hurricane Sandy — when Freese saw the devastation first hand — he was, as he writes in the book on a mission to “show the connection between a warming climate and these fragile and vulnerable low-lying areas.” The result was this coffee-table sized photography book with stunning black and white images.  The images (most of them aerial) are so visually appealing that many to us were reminiscent of trips we had taken or evocative of places we had read about.

That these images are important is underscored by the fact that this coast line with be vastly different in a generation or two. In other words, people living in the future will not see what we see if global warming is to continue its cataclysmic course.

 Freese  — who writes that he “did a lot of research on the topic” of climate change – shows us the pristine beauty of ice and cloud in Greenland at the start of his journey.

As he writes, “water, water is everywhere” and we see that this is true – not only of glacially pure remote areas but major cities as he descends down the Eastern Seaboard in his book coming to the conclusion that “the albatross of global warming and a rising sea is around our collective necks.”

Among other places, the images take us to Quebec, Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia where the heavens seem to shine down in sun rays from above. Freese also shows us remote views such as “Bubble Rock and Eagle Lake,” Acadia National Park, Maine.  The image, dominated by a boulder atop a mountaintop under a sky that is palpable startles with its bold simplicity.

 The book ends in Florida with images that are as equally beautiful and stunning.  The photography is done with such skill in the tradition of landscape photographers (think Edward Weston and Ansel Adams) that at times it’s easy to forget that everything might be underwater soon.

East Coast: Arctic to Tropic is published by George F. Thompson Publishing – www.gftbooks.com

 

 

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