Diane Rayor: “Ἔρος δηὖτέ μ’ ὀ λυσιμέλης δόνει, γλυκύπικρον ἀμάχανον ὄρπετον.”
Ellie Brigida: Welcome to Sweetbitter, a podcast where we investigate the truth and controversy surrounding Sappho, her life, the Isle of Lesbos, and her relevance today. We’re your hosts, Ellie Brigida…
Leesa Charlotte: …and Leesa Charlotte.
EB: This episode, we’ll be talking about the erasure of Sappho’s identity as a woman, and a woman who loved other women.
LC: As we do each episode, we’re going to start with one of Sappho’s fragments, chosen by our resident poet, Alyse. Stay tuned until the end of the episode to hear our own version of the poem as a song. This week, Ellie and I will be busting our musical theater chops, so make sure you stay tuned. And, my goodness, I’ve been waiting for this one. Alyse, will you tell us about it?
Alyse Knorr: Yes, this is our big ticket item, Sappho’s most famous fragment of all: Fragment 31. And it’s just–it’s like her greatest hit. It’s like her “Shake It Off,” if she was Taylor Swift. It’s–I don’t know any other good analogies.
EB: Her greatest hit! Anyways, Ido love this one so much.
LC: So good.
AK: And because it’s such a famous one, a lot of the scholars that we talked to gave us all kinds of really cool insights about it. So you’re gonna hear a little bit more discussion of this fragment than usual on this episode, than we usually do for our fragment. So first, let me introduce Sandra Boehringer. She’s a scholar of Greek history and the history of women and gender. And so she will read the fragment in Greek for a few lines, and then Diane Rayor, our favorite Sappho translator, will read the poem in English, and talk about it a little bit.
Sandra Boehringer: “φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴσος θέοισιν / ἔμμεν᾿ ὤνηρ, ὄττις ἐνάντιός τοι / ἰσδάνει καὶ πλάσιον ἆδυ φωνεί- / σας ὐπακούει.”
Diane Rayor: “To me it seems that man has the fortune / of gods, whoever sits beside you / and close, who listens to you / sweetly speaking // and laughing temptingly. My heart / flutters in my breast whenever / I quickly glance at you– / I can say nothing, // my tongue is broken. A delicate fire / runs under my skin, my eyes / see nothing, my ears roar, / cold sweat // rushes down me, trembling seizes me, / I am greener than grass. / To myself I seem / needing but little to die. // Yet all must be endured, since . . .”
LC: Since what!
EB: Since what. Tell us, Diane! I need the rest. I mean, this poem is obviously one of the most famous for a reason. I feel like as a queer woman, but also as people in general, we all can understand that feeling of intense jealousy, when you see the object of your affection talking to someone else. Why are you talking to them instead of me? And also, like, how is that person talking to them so easily when I can’t get three words out of my mouth?
LC: Like my tongue is broken?
AK: I mean, okay, so Diane is going to talk about this in a little bit. But what’s really interesting is that, like, yes, that’s one reading of the poem is that it’s about this jealousy that is liquefying the speaker’s body. Like she is coming undone and physically suffering because of how jealous she is. But also, another way to read it is that actually the man who’s talking to the speaker’s beloved is lucky, because this doesn’t happen to him when he talks to her. Like he has this shit together. He’s just talking to her, and listening to her, and he’s not literally dying, like Sappho is. She’s like, “Man, he’s like a god. Good job, mate.”
EB: It’s so impressive.
AK: And what a cliffhanger! Like, right? Like, what do you think she says next? It’s like, it cuts off right when she’s saying like, “Okay, I can endure this because…” And then, we don’t know, because the poem is lost.
EB: I’m not going to try to, you know, put my words into Sappho’s spaces. However, if I were to speculate, I like to think of it as: “All must be endured since I know you’ll be in my bed later tonight.”
EB: Right, Sappho? Right?
AK: I like that.
LC: I mean, we know Sappho is the Shane of Lesbos, so…
AK: The Shane of Lesbos!
EB: That is Ellie’s interpretation of the poem. Do not take this as Sappho.
AK: Well, I think one thing that’s really beautiful about this poem is that–is just that fragmentation. Because the way that it cuts off the end and leaves us wanting embodies the yearning and waiting and hoping that is in this poem, like that kind yearning and I don’t know what’s going to happen, and it’s really awful. We have to have that same discomfort and yearning, too. So it’s really cool.
DR: Some people focus on the man, who is, in this poem, actually almost irrelevant.
AK: Yeah, agreed.
DR: The speaker is going, “That guy can sit next to you and he’s not passing out. I can’t even glance at you without, you know, a delicate fire runs under my skin.” This part that I translated, “I am greener than grass,” “chloro terra,” it’s where we get “chlorophyll,” okay? So it literally is greener, but it has nothing to do with jealousy. Grass–we would think this, because we think lawns, right? Grass in Ancient Greece, particularly love poetry, is sexual. Aphrodite, when in Hesiod, when she is born from the sea and steps upon the ground, grass grows around her feet as she walks, okay? So grass is fertility, grass is sexuality. And so green is not the color green, but like, new wood, green wood, fresh, full of life, moist. So what Sappho is saying here, I think, in her much more subtle and beautiful language, “I’m hot, I’m wet.”
EB: Wow, I love that translation.
AK: It’s WAP. Fragment 31 is WAP.
EB: It is!
EB: Wet ass grass.
LC: WAP, Sappho.
LC: Sixth century, BCE, we love it.
EB: I mean, it’s a great translation, as we’re talking in this episode about the queer erasure of Sappho, where it’s like, okay, no, she’s really, really sexually attracted to this woman that this man is talking to. It’s very clear from that particular translation.
AK: Yeah. And Diane is just such a, you know, expert, careful, and wonderful translator. She told us a little bit more about how she made certain choices in putting together this translation.
DR: You know, how can you not like Sappho when you read the poem like this? And yet, we don’t have the rest of the last stanza. We just have a part of it. Now I translate it, “yet all must be endured.” The word “endured” could be “dared.” And when I translate it the next time, I decided that I’m going to put, “yet all can be dared,” because “endured” means, “Okay, we have to put up with this. We have to brave it. This is the way it is.” And the poem seems to suggest that, which is why I kept it that way, right? The word can go either way, “tolmaoto.” It can mean either one. But if I put “dared,” it means, “You go girl.” Right?
DR: And the more I keep reading this poem and thinking about it, I think it means: “And all can be dared. All can be braved.” Now if we only had the rest of that last stanza, we would know. But we don’t. All sorts of other possibilities are there. And so, as the translator, what I tried to do is make them available, not shut down the different possibilities.
EB: Given all the possibilities Diane is talking about, is there any ambiguity or multiple possibilities around the gender of the beloved Sappho is addressing in this phone? Eyebrow raise.
AK: Yeah, no, there are lots of possibilities around like, you know, the difference between “endured” or “dared,” but the possibilities around the gender are actually explained in the grammar of the archaic Greek, and classicist Marguerite Johnson explained that to us.
Marguerite Johnson: So Greek pronouns, like ours, are gendered. So she will say things like, in her famous fragment, Fragment 31, she talks about gazing at a woman across the table from her. Now, she doesn’t name a woman, she doesn’t use a female noun. All she uses as a female pronoun. So we know that–and her participles are feminine–we know that it’s a female, but to convince some students that, if you look at the Greek, then you will find the key to the gender of the addressee, or the object of desire. And that addressee or object of desire is a woman. They have to rely on you, and trust you, that you’re not trying to force a meaning on the poem that isn’t there. So I have had students look at me very, very cynically and say, “Is that true?” And I’ve had to say, “Yes.” So I translate my own Sappho and give it to them when I teach it. And I always explain that the key to the gender identity is in the original language, and it’s a subtle sort of thing. That particular poem by Sappho actually mimics the Homeric “Iliad,” where the Homeric poet is talking about the experiences of death on the battlefield. So when the Homeric heroes are hit with swords, their ears ring, because they’ve got helmets on. And Homer talks about the fear and the burning rage and the perspiration that these heroes have on the battlefield. Sappho knows Homer’s “Iliad” so well, she can pick it up and put it in an erotic context, and that’s what she does in Fragment 31.
EB: This is always one of the most exciting things to me about translation. All the gendered participles and pronouns, so we know–
LC: Literally every podcast we go on, Ellie’s like, “Let me tell you about gerunds.”
EB: “Let me tell you about participles.”
AK: Also, does anyone else–is it just me or does anyone else have, “Love is a battlefield,” stuck in their head?
AK: Literally Sappho.
EB: Sappho is the original Pat Benatar.
AK: Yeah. And I mean, I think what’s so cool about the participles is that Sandra told us that, you know, because Fragment 31–because like the descriptions of love and femininity are so subtle, even though it’s a quintessentially homoerotic poem, it’s a quintessentially woman loving woman poem, it has for the last 2,000 years been made straight by different interpretations and different translations. And, you know, putting more focus on the man at the beginning or kind of, like, changing the gender of the addressee. And so that is the theme of today’s episode, which is why I wanted to bring this poem to y’all as the example.
LC: I just love this poem so much. I cannot wait to sit down with you later, Ellie. It’s gonna be so much fun.
EB: It’s gonna be amazing.
LC: Thank you so much, Alyse, for joining us and for sharing this beautiful poem and your thoughts with us.
AK: My pleasure.
EB: So, we would like to start this episode by saying that although this is an episode about erasure and identity, we are not here to negotiate whether Sappho was lesbian or bisexual or pansexual, or anything else. Because these are terms that are modern, and would be totally anachronistic to Sappho in her time. You may remember we talked about this back in episode two.
LC: So we see a lot of people talking about this online, and using Sappho’s sexuality as a way to gatekeeper or exclude people from conversations. And we’re just not here for that. The Ancient Greeks didn’t think of sexuality being organized into orientations like this. And so it’s really pointless to identify Sappho in modern terms.
EB: What we do know, though, is that Sappho wrote erotic poems about women, like this one. But this queerness has been so controversial over the years that many scholars have tried to erase it and straight-wash her biography and poetry.
LC: So this erasure just started only a few hundred years after her death, with Ancient Greek comedians writing plays making fun of her and saying that she and other women from Lesbos were “slutty blowjob queens.” Super original, man.
EB: You said it so beautifully, Leesa. Actor, writer, and academic Jane Montgomery Griffiths told us more about this and how she brought it up in her play, “Sappho…in 9 Fragments.”
Jane Montgomery Griffiths: So through the play, through the Sappho fragments, there’s a lot of sexual imagery of tolerated but unwanted intercourse. Not just sexual intercourse, but intellectual intercourse. And also the idea of pushing the perspective into her gaps, into her holes. You know, the heterosexual subtext of intercourse is not particularly pleasurable. It’s just something that she endures. And the thing that is consistent about Sappho’s story is that her story is one of men trying to make her in their own image. When she’s first picked up in the fifth century BCE, we have Aristophanes, a Greek comic playwright, who actually talks about her being fantastic at heterosexual sex, and really, really good at fellatio. And indeed, there was a verb that came from being a lesbian, which meant “to do fellatio.” Then when we get to Catullus, who is a Roman poet. He sees himself, in a way, as a male Sappho. And many of his poems are imitating the Sappho that we have. And of course, this is fascinating for us because you can read back from Catullus into what Sappho might have been.
EB: So Leesa, I want to know and I want our listeners to know, who is Catullus?
LC: So Catullus is an Ancient Roman poet who wrote love poems to men and women, and really loved Sappho, and used her for inspiration.
JMG: I went to a conference on Friday, in fact, I organized a conference about Sappho. And a rather eminent and terribly, terribly boring academic from Oxford had created his entire academic career saying that from this one poem of Catullus, written in the first century BCE, that you could conjecture exactly what Sappho would have said, from what Catullus says 600 years later. I mean, it’s totally spurious on every level. But this man has made an academic career from saying that. And then as the story of Sappho continues, she’s picked up in the 10th century AD, common era, in this totally spurious encyclopedia called the Suda, which gives two potential biographies of her, neither of which have any validity at all in historical fact. And then through the course of the rest of time, she’s picked up to be an image of the profoundly conservative school teacher who is educating her young female wards in being a good member of society, a good wife. She’s picked up by other people in saying that she’s an image of sadomasochism. She’s picked up by painters in demonstrating their interest in the classical form, by Queen Victoria who actually did a sketch of her, showing her pain and suffering as she’s about to throw herself into the sea, because she’s in love with a male ferryman. All these incredibly dodgy stories. Now we don’t know what the historical fact is at all. We cannot know. But all we can know is to look back over the millennia and see how people have used and actually, as my Sappho says, abused her to tell their own stories.
EB: Jane just mentioned one of the most famous Sappho straight-washing stories from history, which was by the Roman poet Ovid: that she fell in love with a ferryman and then got rejected, and threw herself off a cliff. Diane will tell us more about that.
DR: I mean, for example, that whole, really quite funny story about Sappho falling in love with a handsome, young ferryman. And when he rejected her, she jumps off a cliff and commits suicide. Ovid wrote that. There was probably earlier things, I’m not really sure of how that whole legend got started, but Ovid is the one who made it, you know, in Rome, made it really popular. But, you have people making Sappho their own, for whatever purposes, right? And particularly before we had her Greek found again, when you have mostly people reading Sappho through Latin, through Roman writers, and, you know, people really didn’t have Sappho available–you still have this legend of Sappho. And so everybody makes her their own. So some people turned her into a prostitute, some a schoolmistress. Some people put her into the first lesbian, you know. I mean, there’s lots of ways of making Sappho your own when you don’t have the material.
LC: This is a theme that comes up a lot in Jane’s play, “Sappho…in 9 Fragments,” that you heard a bit about last episode. Here’s a bit from two parts in the play where Jane, as Sappho, speaks to the Phaon myth.
JMG: “Broken back and shredded skin, ripped and torn, fragmented. Did it to herself, they said. Oh, to sail from the cliffs for love of Phaon, limb-loosened and drowning in despair, the falling fallen woman. But I don’t think so. I really don’t think so. I don’t think that is how it was.” “You see, that wasn’t me. That was Ovid. Roman poet, mythographer, all round naughty boy! Spent his time between a rock and a hard place. Just another one. He wanted me to suck off his stylus, wining and dining me to make me feel oh, so precious. But really! Just wanting a quick, easy lay, his personal exclusive on my Phaon ferryman frenzy. Sensational sapphic suicide shock. Tortured tribad in terminal tumble. Lascivious lezza in Leucadian laps. ‘She fell for this stud muffin ferryman, you see. A little bit of rough. Couldn’t live without him, she said. I saw her on the clifftop meself–now, how many thousand for the suicide note?’ [Unintelligible], as if. As if I would kill myself for a sweaty public transport worker.”
LC: I love this. “As if I would kill myself for a sweaty public transport worker.”
EB: Jane really went for it.
LC: She did, I love it so much.
EB: She really did. But it is also the case of why we know this is a myth. Like clearly, with all the context that we have seen of Sappho’s women loving women, it’s so ridiculous that she threw herself over into the ocean.
LC: So this erasure of Sappho’s women loving women content continued way beyond the Roman period and into the modern era.
MJ: There is a strange response to Sappho. It’s been over thousands of years. And so how you treat her is more revealing about yourself than about her. What happened when Classics began to boom as a discipline, in the age of the Enlightenment. You have these scholars, such as Wilamowitz in Germany, who loved her poetry but had a crisis, and just could not accept that someone who liked women, someone who was so abnormal, could produce something so beautiful. So Wilamowitz invented “Sappho the schoolmistress.” And said, “No, no, no, no, no. All of these–all of these poems are just about a schoolmistress to her beloved pupils.” Which is creepy enough because you think, “What sort of school was she running if that were the case?” That he believed he was saving her from herself. Now, she’s gone. She’s dead. She’d been dead for thousands of years, but it was this chivalrous–misplaced chivalry–to keep her good and Christian and pure.
EB: As we heard Alyse talk about earlier, because the markers of feminine stuff–feminine stuff, meaning the gerunds, the participles–
LC: Ellie’s favorite part of everything we’ve ever learned.
EB: Yeah. My favorite part. And Sappho’s poems were discreet and subtle, and her descriptions of love were so inclusive, translators and scholars could claim it wasn’t clear and make the poems heterosexual. Many saw it, like Marguerite mentioned, as a way to “save” her reputation from her own homosexuality. Save her!
LC: Save her just like we saved Oscar Wilde, and Alan Turing, like all of these other people.
JMG: He has this fantastic footnote about Sappho, saying that she writes with erotic passion about these young women, but that there is absolutely no credence to be given to the potential that she engages in the nefarious sin that is lesbian love. I just think that’s wonderful that we see in the 20th century scholars who are so terrified of the idea of women loving women, that they have to again change their entire academic, pseudo-objective perspective on this poet, who quite clearly writes erotically about women so it conforms to a sense of nice Christian mores. So when my Sappho talks about herself being penetrated by Ovid or by Catullus or by Denys Page, it really is her saying that her fragments, her holes, demonstrate her meaning in the eyes of others, rather than any reality that there might have been.
LC: Here are a few more lines that we love from Jane’s play, “Sappho…in 9 Fragments.”
JMG: “Sometimes I wish they left me alone. All those clever, clever men, poring me with such trembling fingers. Pouring over me with such lustful eyes, so desperate to make sense of me, for me to make sense of them for them. So desperate. ‘Come on, now. Be a good girl. Don’t be a tease, you know you want it, really. What your heart most desires, all that longing to fill my emptiness.'” “So easily unraveled, so easily undone. But you can always take my strands. Weave your fantasies with my threads and patches. What would you like me to be tonight? Your wet dream of desire? Your nightmare of decadence? I might not look like much right now, but use your imagination, and who knows what I could become! Your teacher, your lover, your mistress, your whore!”
EB: We’ll be right back after a quick break to hear from some sponsors.
LC: Given all this erasure, when did Sappho start to be recognized for what she is: a woman poet who writes about her erotic love for other women?
EB: Well, with a few earlier exceptions, the term “lesbian” didn’t come into widespread use as a word to describe a woman who loves women until the mid 19th century. Before then it just meant “from the Isle of Lesbos,” for the most part. In the 19th century, the terms “lesbian,” “sapphist,” and “sapphism,” as ways to describe women loving women, came up, and came to take on cultural significance for some people. For instance, there was a group called Daughters of Bilitis, who even got together in 1955 as one of the first lesbian communities. They started a safe space for women who wanted to dance with each other. And they were named after “The Song of Bilitis,” a collection of lesbian poetry written in 1894 in the style of Sappho. Bilitis was a character who was supposed to be a contemporary of Sappho’s.
LC: They just wanted to dance with each other.
EB: I know. Also, can I say, like, I really wish that this still–I want a safe space for women who want to dance with each other.
LC: So Ellie, I hear this is where the name “card-carrying lesbian” comes from? Can you tell me about that?
EB: Oh, yes, they even had cards.
LC: What! How do we get these cards?
EB: Yes, they had cards that said, “This certifies that ‘blank,'” let’s just say, Ellie Brigida. “This certifies that Ellie Brigida is a member, with all the rights and privileges thereto pertaining.”
EB: And I don’t know what those privileges were, but we can all assume and be very excited about having lesbian privilege.
LC: I mean, do you think that we need a Sweebitter chapter of Daughters of Bilitis?
EB: I’m in.
LC: I can find someone to make these cards for us. Just hit us up and let us know. I don’t know what kind of test you need to take to be a card-carrying lesbian?
EB: Yeah, how do we get these cards?
LC: Is there a certain amount of, like–do you need references?
LC: So when we’re talking about Sappho as the OG lesbian, we don’t literally mean it as, like, we know her sexual orientation and her preferences. We just mean that she is a source for the cultural symbolism for this word and this particular community of gay women, who describes themselves with this word, inspired by her women loving women poetry that they found meaning in from so long ago. Marguerite told us more about what Sappho has meant symbolically for the community.
MJ: The most wonderful gift she gives to women, which is the gift of sexual liberation, to women who were attracted to other women. So when you get the rise of early seeds of women’s freedom, prelude to the suffragette movement, where you have females expressing their love for each other, like the aunt and niece combination of poets who wrote poetry under the name of Michael Field. And they looked to her, almost like, as a blueprint for living a life as lesbians. They had nothing else. And that’s the fascinating thing. There was no blueprint, there was no book. You have thousands of years of male voices on male topics. So if you’re growing up in the age of the Enlightenment, and you’re attracted to a woman, and you’re a woman, where do you go? Everything tells you, in every corner of your world, that it’s wrong, that it’s a sin, you’ll go to hell, it’s disgusting, your body is dirty, and on and on it goes. Now Sappho, only for the educated, very educated women, she must have been like a ray of light. So she showed women, like the aunt and the niece, like Michael Field, that there was a way of living that was okay. And, hey, in fact, we were doing this thousands of years ago, girls, and it was okay. And so, she has a place in the lesbian awakening for women, I think. And if you look at the early 20th century, and the Left Bank in Paris, where you have this diaspora of lesbian writers and poets and thinkers, like Natalie Barney, who had a salon, you know, wanted to recreate Lesbos in Paris, and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. A little bit later, but particularly prior–I think Gertrude Stein did occupy a world of men. She loved male artists, but she had a wife, Alice, and they lived a very heteronormative existence. The women of the Left Bank who were lesbian, just of the slight generation earlier, I think, than Stein. They were absolutely fascinated by her. Renée Vivien, one of Natalie Barney’s lovers, they were there. There were Americans and English expats living in Paris, and they were there as an escape, and they went there as an escape to be themselves, and again, no blueprint. “Oh, I have feelings as a teenage girl for my female girlfriend at school. How do I navigate this?” Sappho was the key. And what she showed them was it wasn’t perverse, it wasn’t ugly, it wasn’t dirty. It shows how it wasn’t a sin, because she had no concept of that. That it was beautiful, it was sensual, it was erotic. And, most of all, it could take you to poetic inspiration and artistic inspiration, and that’s her gift to them. And they took her with both hands, and they cherished her. And then that was the little book they gave to us. And second wave feminism came along and our feminist mothers of the second wave feminist era said, “Hey, we’ve got to reclaim these women. They’ve been ignored for too long. They’ve been vilified. They’re being, you know, burned. We have to cherish them.” And so the second wave feminists took the suffragette lead, and they gave us women’s history, and Sappho was first, front, and center of that history. And you have, you know, Judy Chicago’s amazing installation called “The Dinner Party,” where, you know, and there is Sappho’s plate, and it’s like, “Yeah, it’s okay, I’ve got her. She’s good.” So she’s there. And when the internet began, and there were those old things called–message boards! And when all the lesbians worldwide got together, they were writing on message boards that, you know, were called “Mytilene” and “Sappho’s Sisters,” and so she’s also become a code word for lesbians. Like, you know, you get the sapphic in-joke. So she has been symbolically incredibly important for women, but particularly women who love other women.
EB: But Leesa, did you know, even during the first wave of feminism, there was some backlash against Sappho’s lesbianism from some of the feminists?
LC: We can’t have two struggles. It’s too many struggles.
EB: Too many struggles.
LC: Two is too many.
MJ: Mainstream suffragettes, so like the Pankhursts and so forth, they wouldn’t have liked talking about lesbianism. Absolutely not. No, no, no. So they were white middle class ladies in England. The traditional English suffragettes were very conservative. And so, they were Christian, they were pro-World War I. They just wanted rights for women–the right to vote. So the suffragettes, while they would have written about Sappho–and they certainly did, because one of the big things with the suffragettes was the beginning of recording women’s history–but they wouldn’t have wanted anything like that about Sappho. So they had a bit of a whitewash. And when you get to the second wave feminists and radical feminism of the–on the back of the sexual revolution, they’re like, “No, she was a right on woman. She had sex with other women. Go Sappho!” And because second wave feminism coincided with the rise of gay rights, they were cool with that. So, she holds up a mirror to cultural periods, you know, into periods of history. She’s a great touchstone for measuring periods in history, because you can see how people react to her over the centuries, and what value systems accompany those reactions.
LC: And this continues even today. So we’ve spoken in previous episodes about how there was a very recent academic article that claimed that Fragment 94, also known as the song where we dress up in togas. And Ellie, you were the only person I know who would write such an erotic poem about a nap, honestly.
EB: True, I do love a nap. And Jane–we all know Jane, right? Have you met Jane?
LC: I mean, she’s great.
EB: Even Jane told us that when she was invited to write her Sappho play ten years ago, she was at first instructed to stay away from lesbian content.
LC: Of course.
JMG: Interestingly enough, the only brief I had was: it’s gotta show how amazing Sappho was, and there shouldn’t be lesbian content.
LC: No lesbian content?
JMG: No lesbian content. I thought, “That’s–okay? This is gonna be really hard, for Sappho.” So, of course, I completely ignored that mandate. What became apparent was it was a story about love–unrequited love–rather than any lesbian or queer content. The initial producer who said, “no lesbian content,” I think that she had a really false idea of what lesbian content actually means and there is a line in the play when Sappho says, “Okay, what shall I wear today? Tweed a-lines and sensible shoes or leather chaps and a strap-on?” I have a feeling that the producer was initially thinking that you can’t do a play about lesbian love without making it very, very dike-y. Now again, I have no issues about doing a play that’s dike-y. This is about love and about emptiness and being bereft. And so this response that I had, both at the Stork Theatre and especially at Malthouse, was mostly from heterosexual middle class, middle-aged audiences who consistently said, “It’s their story, their story of their initial love, of their initial heartbreak.” But of course, too, to the queer audiences, and particularly to the lesbian audiences that I spoke to afterwards, they liked it because it was showing their own journey, I suppose, coming out of the closet. From Sappho’s perspective, it is quite rife with lesbian jokes, you know, we have that Sappho’s a “dicon” or that she’s “beloved of the clitterati.” There’s jokes about Jeanette Winterson and Martina Navratilova. I mean, there were lots of in-jokes for the community. “You see, opening the closet door has never been a problem for me. It’s choosing what to take out. That’s the issue.” “Darling of the clitterati. Purveyor of overpriced organic root vegetables.” But perhaps the two most powerful responses I had–one from a woman who contacted me a few times to thank me because she was middle-aged, she had, by her own admission, always been lonely, and the play had helped her to come out, which was very, very powerful to read. And the other was from an old lady that there had been a matinee where there was a busload of residents of an aged care facility who had come to see the show. And the show is quite funny. You know, usually you get quite a few laughs. But this performance was absolutely silent. And it was like treading through treacle as opposed to walking through honey. And I was thinking, “This is dreadful. This has been a terrible show. No laughs, no nothing.” And then I got a letter from one of the women who had attended, to say thank you, and that it had made her remember what love was like when she was in her 20s, and the first time she had sex, and how important it was for people to understand that you might be in your 70s or 80s, but you still want sex. And that was delightful. And that made me feel very strongly, too, that as an actor and a performer, you must never, ever, ever judge your audience. And in a way, the openness of Sappho and Atthis in making themselves vulnerable, is about giving a gift of their pain to the audience. So yeah–so in terms of the lesbian content, it kind of went a bit unnoticed, really. There were a couple of academic articles that came out after the production and after it was done in the UK, about it being queer theatre. I don’t know that it’s queer. I think it just sort of is a love story, not that I in any way balk at being out and proud as a lesbian and a feminist. I don’t, but I don’t know that it’s exclusively or specifically a lesbian play. And it’s nice, of course, it’s really nice to see a lesbian story on stage, on mainstage. I can’t actually think, in my–in the many, many, many shows that I’ve seen in mainstage theater, one that has a lesbian love story at its core. You get lots in the fringe, but at main stage, they ignore us.
LC: Oh, I see. Jane’s doing a great job of staying away from the lesbian content there.
EB: So far away from lesbian content. I appreciate you, Jane.
LC: I mean, that was also–wasn’t that the directive I gave to you, Ellie, when we started this podcast? Like, let’s do Sapphos but, like, no gay shit.
EB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. As far away from gay stuff as you can when we’re talking about, hey, a poet who wrote specifically about loving other women. Love it. Yeah, great idea.
LC: I’ve been meaning to talk to you about it.
EB: Yeah, I’m sorry I forgot to edit all of that content out. Too late.
JMG: “Exiled from my homeland, I find sanctuary with the daughters of Lesbos. My island becomes synonymous for women who love women. Orientation replaces location, caps-lock to lowercase, lesbian is no longer a nationality. It is an irrationality. An affliction, a perversion, an abomination in the sight of the Lord, a condemnation, a–oh!–celebration, a turn-off, a turn-on. To the wider world, I am become a dangerous role model. But to the daughters of Lesbos, I am mother! Welcome home, mummy! I become a dicon! Martina Navratilova, k.d. lang, Jodie Foster, Peppermint Patty, and me!”
EB: So what is Sappho’s status in the queer community today as a “dicon”? What a word, I love it.
LC: It’s so good. Well, things aren’t super great back on the Isle of Lesbos anymore. In 2008, some conservative lesbians tried to get the Greek LGBT community to stop using “lesbian” to mean sexual orientation. But the mayor of Lesbos did not support this case, and I don’t think they were very successful.
EB: Lucky for us. I mean, I don’t know how you would tell–
LC: How do you stop colloquial use of a word? It’s just so ridiculous. Anyway, we interviewed Tracey Walters, an associate professor of literature and the chair of the Department of Africana Studies at Stony Brook University, and she had some really interesting things to say about Sappho’s current status in the queer community.
Tracey Walters: Why isn’t Sappho, like, emblazoned on a banner at gay pride, not to make it gauche, right? But why isn’t she? I don’t know, on a t-shirt, the same way we see Che Guevara and Angela Davis’s? Why isn’t she on a t-shirt? Sappho has a love of women. For me, there’s a beauty in that, a freedom in that. A woman who can love unconditionally and love as she chooses. Sappho, in the imagination of some women, can serve as an example of a woman who can express her sexuality however she pleases, unapologetically. And there’s a beauty to that, as a lover of women, as a lover of mankind. She’s a lover. A good thing. I’m not personally a lesbian woman, but I think it’s a wonderful thing to be able to love our people.
EB: Wow, Tracey speaks so beautifully about being a lesbian and loving other women that I’m like, wow, are we really that beautiful? Thank you, Tracey.
LC: It’s amazing from a straight woman. Amazing.
EB: Yes, amazing.
LC: And also, I mean, we do–like let’s put Sappho on all the t-shirts, I think. I’m here for it.
EB: Sappho float at Pride.
LC: Oh, my goodness, it would be so amazing. And also just the idea of having a Pride again.
EB: I know, yeah. I can’t even fantasize about it, it’s too painful.
LC: We’ll be hearing more from Tracey in a future episode, but now we want to end with some really cool remarks from Sandra.
EB: She talked about how Sappho has become an important part of the history and culture of women who love women. And, like Jane said, a kind of icon, a positive figure to be proud of.
Sandra Boehringer/Annie McCarthy: You can’t say that Sappho was a lesbian, because she probably wouldn’t have called herself a lesbian. To call yourself a lesbian or a heterosexual, that means call yourself, “girl straight.” It’s to say something about an identity. But those elements didn’t exist. That’s the thing. So, for a Greek man, to say, “I only love women,” would have seemed totally crazy. How? What? That’s the thing, you see. You can’t put people from the past in anachronistic identities. On the other hand, this poem, what I find fascinating in Sappho’s poems is that they describe the effects on the body that, in a certain way, it had an effect on our culture. Sappho has built our erotic body of today. In fact, there has been Sappho, there has been Catullus, there has been the transmission up to Louise Labé, then Hussayn. And the way we describe love today, when we say, “I have butterflies in my stomach,” it’s an expression that we don’t say in French, but you see a lot in English. Also “a tremor seized me,” that feeling of losing control of oneself, we could also describe love in another way. The emotions are also built in the culture. Therefore, I think that Sappho has built, in fact there is something of a lesbian nature, in the way that we all, men and women, receive love today. When a man falls in love with a man, or a woman falls in love with a man, or a man falls in love with a woman. I think that there is a lesbian eros there, because that way of describing really came from Sappho. From Sappho, or at least from the erotic archaic Greek poetry, I think. The paradigms started there. The way to build an erotic body, there. It’s a lesbian manifesto.
EB: So Sandra is basically saying that lesbians taught everyone how to love.
LC: It sounds correct to me. So, that’s canon now, yes.
LC: Seems right.
EB: Women loving women is the benchmark.
LC: The gold standard for love
EB: For love. Yeah.
LC: I love that. Well, this has been such a riot. I have loved learning about this.
EB: Wonderful talking about queer erasure today.
LC: Always a fun topic of conversation. We always have such a blast talking about the erasure–
EB: The erasure our identities–
LC: Of women and queer women. Great, we love it.
EB: We still have lots more to say. So here’s a taste of what’s to come on Sweetbitter.
Diane Rayor: We have to remember that all her poetry wasn’t meant to be written and read. It was all performed. So no matter how much it sounds like a letter, a diary, whatever it is, it was all meant to be performed out.
Tracey Walters: The Classics are still viewed today as so, like, stuffy and white and male and old and–in the minds of people, even though the Classics around them every day, right? They’re engaging with them every day, but when you think about it, they think, “Ugh, serious.”
Jade Esteban Estrada: I am so grateful for the privilege of being able to surrender my voice and my body and my creativity, so that she can come and live in me for a little while.
LC: Thanks for listening to Sweetbitter. Our next episode will be released on the 25th of March. As always, stick around until the end of the podcast to hear our original song for Fragment 31.
EB: If you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe, rate, and review us. It really helps, especially written reviews on Apple podcasts. You can also support us on patreon at patreon.com/sweetbitter.
LC: Thank you so much for your patience on the release of this episode, and for all the lovely messages of support we received. We’re very grateful. You can find us on Twitter and Instagram at @sweetbitterpod, or contact us on our website, sweetbitterpodcast.com.
EB: Sweetbitter is an independent production by me, Ellie Brigida, Alyse Knorr, and Leesa Charlotte. Our artwork is by Istela Illustrated. Music by Lyre ‘n’ Rhapsody. A special thanks to Diane Rayor, Jane Montgomery Griffiths, Marguerite Johnson, Tracey Walters, Sandra Boehringer, and translator Annie McCarthy for sharing their knowledge with us today.
LC: You can read more about our guests and where to find them on our website in the “About” section.
EB: And now, a very special song. We have Fragment 31. We’ll be singing in the musical theater style. And it is a duet between myself and Leesa, singing about a beautiful woman that we’re staring at. And her name happens to be Alyse Knorr. This one’s for you, Alyse.