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Posts Tagged ‘Poetry’

 

Looking back into the not so distant past, I recall wondering as I looked out the window — what if Spring doesn’t come back this year?  I didn’t wonder that this year, probably because I was busy — with my head in my laptop —revising my novel The Unicorn, The Mystery.

Having been raised secular (along with being a fan of Greek mythology), one of my favorite stories is about Persephone and her emergence from the underworld to be reunited with her mother Demeter.

I’m the first to acknowledge that I’ve had my issues with Christianity over the years.  What it came down to was that traditional religion just had too much baggage for me.  But that is changing.

But having been raised secular was freeing enough for me to once write a poem that said 

Jesus is a daffodil.

That’s it.  That’s all the poem said and, in my mind, all it had to say.

Just recently, I published a blog post about seeing the movie, Wild Nights With Emily, and how happy it made me as a scholar of Emily’s lesbian life.  I received a comment from someone who called himself “a reverend” about how upset it made him to think that Emily Dickinson was “gay.”

The movie is based on solid research regarding Emily’s relationship with her sister-in-law Susan and how that relationship was erased.  The comment (given its source) made me wonder if all – or most — of homophobia is based in religion.

A7CFB471-CA19-44C6-9F38-DDCFC95058E7Thankfully, religion is changing.  At the movie theater, I picked up a copy of The Philadelphia Gay News, which had an article about Drag Story Time at the Mt. Airy Philadelphia branch of The Free Library being protested by conservative Christians. My partner and I were delighted to  see the minister (McKinley Sims) of the Unitarian Church we attend on the cover of the newspaper as one of the counter protestors protesting the protestors and taking the side of the drag queen and story time. 

McKinley is on the bottom right of the photo (holding a big wooden cross) and his wife K.P. Is next to him holding a sign that says, “Christ is in all things, including drag.”

I was delighted that the a substantial graduating class of Notre Dame College walked out on speaker Mike Pence because of his anti-LGBTQ views. One of them coined the hash tag #notmyjesus. (For more informative, click here )

So let’s hear it for the people changing Christianity and changing the world!

 

Available through you local library, (including the Lovett Library branch of the Philadelphia Free Library where the protest was) THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders is also available through your local bookstore or online.

To learn more about my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (published by Adelaide Books New York/Lisbon), click here.

they_cover1_300

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This afternoon, I went to see Wild Nights With Emily and was blown away.   With a comedic actress in the lead (Molly Shannon), the movie was billed as  a comedic drama, but by the end I was stifling sobs.  It’s true that I kept thinking “poor Emily” at various places in the film, but when all was said and done, it was the sound of the eraser of history that sent me over the edge.

When it came out about two years ago, my partner and I went to see A Quiet Passion — the movie about Emily Dickinson that starred Cynthia Nixon.  While that movie was worth seeing, it erased all mention of Emily’s documented love affairs with women, especially with her sister-in-law Susan.  As I remarked after this movie, what really can be said about Emily when her sexuality is erased?

Her sexuality was crucial — in her development as a poet, in her wring and in her poems which were included in the movie.

My partner and I thought we better see the film while we could, because like all things lesbian, it probably will be dismissed and marginalized.  I do hope this time will be the exception and Wild Nights With Emily will get the acclaim it deserves.

I have long been an admirer of Emily Dickinson and have written about her love of women. Decades ago, Emily’s niece (Susan’s daughter) writing in the New Yorker decades ago described Emily as a “valiant knight” to her mother. I am reprinting a shorter piece that I wrote on Emily below.

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).

 

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.

 

Available through you local library, THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders is also available through your local bookstore or online.

To learn more about my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (published by Adelaide Books New York/Lisbon), click here.

they_cover1_300

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This morning, I took part in Poetry Sunday, a Unitarian Universalist summer service that is a tradition. In my talk, I reflected on the nature of love and read from my recently completed novel The Unicorn, The Mystery. I also read a poem by Sappho and read my own work that it inspired (“Sapphics for Aphrodite”).

The YouTube video of my talk  is below. The complete text of my talk is below that.  The service took place at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration on Stenton Ave. in Philadelphia.

 

 

There are many types of love. I explore the many types of love in the novel that I just completed The Unicorn, The Mystery which I am going to read from briefly:

 “The point I was going to make is that romantic love is far from the most important type of love,” said the Priest with his usual authority. “Christians believe that pure love—the kind of love that is selfless and creates goodness—is the way that God loves us. This is why the saying, ‘love you neighbor’ is so important. There are numerous references to this in the Bible. But the most important is from the Gospel According to Mark in which he says ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than this.

“This kind of love is called ‘agape,’” continued the priest. “Agape is the highest form of pure, selfless love. It is the kind of love that God has for us—and the kind of love that we strive to have for our fellow man.”

“I recognize the word,” I replied. “It’s Ancient Greek, from the time of Homer.”

The Priest narrowed his eyes.

 Of course, many of the great poets have been inspired by romantic love, especially the Greeks.  But some may argue–and I do–that love (regardless of the kind of love) is the inspiration for all poetry.

Sappho statue

 

 

One of the poets from antiquity who greatly inspired me was Sappho, who lived around 600 B.C.E.  Of course, she lived before labels but many of Sappho’s love poems were written to women.  And she was technically a Lesbian since she lived on the Isle of Lesbos, now called Lesvos.  Most of what is left from Sappho is in fragments. One of the complete poems that survived is her “Hymn to Aphrodite” which I’ll read now: 

 

On your dazzling throne. Aphrodite,
Sly eternal daughter of Zeus,
I beg you: do not crush me
With grief

 But come to me now – as once
You heard my far cry, and yielded,
slipping from your
father’s house 

to yoke the birds to your gold
chariot, and came.  Handsome sparrows
brought you swiftly to
the dark earth, 

their wings whipping the middle sky
Happy, with deathless lips, you smiled:
“What is wrong, Sappho, why have
You called me? 

What does your mad heart desire?
Whom shall I make love you,
Who is turning her back
on you? 

Let her run away, soon she’ll chase you;
Refuse your gifts, soon she’ll give them.
She will love you, though
unwillingly.”

 Then come to me now and free me
From fearful agony.  Labor
for my mad heart, and be
my ally.

 

Almost twenty years ago, when I took a pilgrimage to Greece, including a stay in Sappho’s birthplace of Skala Eressos, a beach town on the Isle of Lesvos, I wrote the following response to Sappho’s hymn to the goddess of love.  The title is “Sapphics for Aphrodite” —

 

Aphrodite, in your blazing chariot,
I do not ask to be loved by anyone
against her will, to be fled from
or to be pursued. 

I do not ask for anything that will
sever my breath with anguish; I do not wish
to destroy or to be destroyed.
I do not wish for 

anything other than for the stars to blaze
in my pulse until breaking, shattered, and
incandescent, I am consumed: the moon’s rays
intent upon me. 

Aphrodite this is all I ask of you,
you who hold the Fates in my hands,
and you, of the golden winged chariot, in
whose temple I burn.

 

The priest in my novel has a point. Romantic love can have its limitations.  But love is love – regardless of what it is called. And love can lead to goodness.

 

Namaste

 

 

 

 

 

 

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After hearing about the controversy on Samantha’s B’s Full Frontal, I decided to repost this blogpost featuring my poem, “The Cunt Sonnet.”  I originally wrote it in about 1992 when I attended The Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado.  It was so long ago that Allen Ginsberg, alive and well, was on the panel when the poem was read by the theatrical Bobbie Louise Hawkins.

I heard that the word cunt — as in that “feckless cunt” — is regularly used in Canada (where Samantha is from) and in Europe.  “Cunt” has a long and regal history.  (Obviously Samantha was upset by the news — and justifiable so.) Let’s give her another chance.  And let’s take back the word in the United States!

The cunts are coming, the cunts are coming!”

 

I heard that recently, on Face Book that there were some derogatory references going around containing the word “cunt.” Someone remembered my poem from the old days, “The Cunt Sonnet,” which I posted below. I came of age in a woman-affirming lesbian feminist community. No doubt that entered my thinking when I wrote “The Cunt Sonnet”. Now, more than a quarter of a century ago, I was at Naropa Institute for the summer in Boulder Colorado (when Allen Ginsberg was still there) when I was inspired to write the poem.  After one of the faculty members, the writer Bobbie Louise Hawkins, read it on the farewell panel, I took a bow as “the cunt who wrote it.” Indeed.  It is always time to reclaim the word “cunt” — perhaps now more than ever.

 

 

The Cunt Sonnet

The cathedral of my cunt is a real cunt-nundrum:
what and who it wants often I do not.vaginal art five calla lily
since the days of the cunt-iforms,
ancient Persia and Babylon,
this had been engraved in stone.
Still the English midwives,
those working class cunt-esses,
call a cunt a cunt.
Hark their cries in the dark night:
The cunts are coming!
The cunts are coming!
Join the cunt-ilinguists.
Scream it on the tastebuds of our common cunts
as they rise in my cunty swagger
for I am a cunting woman by day and by night
when those invited and not enter my dreams:
Cunts all, I embrace them warmly.
With my woman, cunt-ilingus is our pleasure boat
Sometimes slippery canoe or runaway yacht.
Each morning I hasten to salute:
My cunt-ry tis of thee
Sweet land of liberty.

by Janet Mason

first published in When I Was Straight, poems by Janet Mason from Insight To Riot Press (1995)

 

thanks to CA Conrad for encouraging me to submit to EOAGH, A Journal of the Arts

(CA may have been the guest editor at the time)

https://chax.org/eoagh/issue3/issuethree/mason.html

 

To learn more about my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (just published by Adelaide Books New York/Lisbon), click here.
Amazon THEY

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Recently, my partner, Barbara, and I went to see our old friend CA Conrad when he came to the Kelly Writer’s House at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.  CA was reading from his latest book While Standing in Line for Death from Wave Books. You can watch him reading a poem on YouTube (below) and see more photos of the reading below that.

 

 

ca Barbara and me

 

Frank Sherlock and new poet laur

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Last week or so we bid our final goodbyes to Lili Bita who died in a tragic accident.  Lila was a talented actress, writer, and pianist who I knew through my partner Barbara McPherson who drummed with Lili at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival for nearly twenty-years. The following is an early collaboration between Lili and Barbara in Lili’s production of Medea.

Below the YouTube video is a creative obituary and a poem that I received on a poetry e-mail list. You can scroll down to read more.

 

 

Lili Bita, a prominent figure in Philadelphia’s cultural life for more than thirty years as an author and actress and whose career won international acclaim, passed away on February 12.  Lili, a native of Greece, emigrated to the United States after performing leading roles on the Greek stage, including ancient drama, Shakespeare, Ibsen, O’Neill, and others.  With her one-woman shows, “The Greek Woman Through the Ages,” “Body Light,” and “Freedom or Death,” she toured widely in America and abroad, and as Artistic Director of the Theater Cooperative, which she founded with her husband and collaborator, Robert Zaller, she was a fixture for nearly two decades at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.  The Greek government sent her to India in 1995 as an ambassador of Hellenism, and in 2014 she was inducted into the Hellenic Authors Society, the oldest and most prestigious literary organization in Greece, in recognition of her lifetime achievement.

Lili was the author of a score of books of verse, fiction, memoir, and literary translation, which won praise from such figures as Nikos Kazantzakis and Anais Nin.  Her last six books, including her collected love poems, Fleshfire, were published by Somerset Hall Press of Boston, from which they are available.  Commemorative events for Lili are being planned for the Rotunda, the Manayunk Arts Center, and other venues.

 Lili was a figure admired and beloved in equal measure, and her passion for life, love, and the exercise of her art was equaled as well by her care, kindness, and generosity of heart and spirit.  The poem she concluded all her public readings with was “Credo”:

The young pines
guard the narrow path
to the grotto.
The sea greets us with a blast of emerald
and a hidden tremor of wings.
The air is vivid with dawn.
You slide into my crotch.
A wave breaks over my breasts.
Slow poison bleeds into my veins.

When I was a girl
I believed that men and women
copulate only once
because their ecstasy
must kill them.
The stones grind into my back.
Nakedness is not enough.
The spilled entrails
the crushed bones
the blood and urine mixed
and drunk into the earth
would not be enough.

Before I knew
the facts of life
I believed that men and women
copulate only once
and die of their pleasure.

Make me believe it again.

 

lili bita darkness

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I had the honor of hearing my long time friend, the wise poet Maria Fama read from her most recent book — Other Nations an animal journal — last fall at The Free Library of Philadelphia — the Fumo Family Library branch.

I recorded two of the poems.  You can watch the video below.  The first poem is about whale watching and the second is about Maria’s family and history — and a rooster.

 

 

Other Nations poetry Maria Fama

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