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…
…and Leesa Charlotte.
EB: In this very special bonus episode, our resident poet, AK:, sat down with living legend Judy Grahn to discuss Sappho, Enheduanna, and the power of lesbian poetry.
LC: We are so happy to give some time to the incredible Enheduanna, who existed 2,500 years before Sappho. So kind of like Sappho’s Sappho.
EB: Judy Grahn is a lesbian poet, activist, and scholar with an impressive bio which also lists the following achievements. Judy was arrested, interrogated, and dismissed from the Armed Forces on charges of homosexuality in 1961, an episode that shamed, angered, and ultimately radicalized her. In the spring of 1965, she picketed with Mattachine Society for gay rights in front of the White House, the first such picket, and then began writing and publishing pro-lesbian works.
LC: Judy loves to cook, garden, and play golf. She used to keep cats, a bird, some fish, but now a dog. Yes, we know, everyone in the house is a guardian to the dog. But still, he naps with her.
EB: Judy has won lots of awards and has been grand marshal of two gay pride parades in Seattle in 1998, and San Francisco in 2014. The Seattle parade had, as its theme that year, Judy’s book, “Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds.”
LC: Judy’s writing of the 1970s spread around the world, helping to encourage fledgling movements. In 1986, when lesbians in Argentina first began organizing and seeking public presence, a small group of them carried posters in procession at the weekly march of Madres de Plaza de Mayo, in Buenos Aires, in solidarity with the mothers of the disappeared, whose children were killed during the Dirty War of 1976 to 1983, and calling for broad reforms of Argentinian culture. One of the posters had a picture of Judy on it as an icon of lesbian resistance to the patriarchy.
EB: Through her Scandinavian father, Judy inherited a spirit medium, whom she calls Monique, and accesses through a pendulum.
LC: Without further ado, Alyse can kick off the interview.
Alyse Knorr: Well, oh my gosh, I’m just kind of starstruck, Judy, I’m meeting one of my biggest heroes. So please forgive my franticness. I just want to thank you for all of the work that you’ve done throughout your life, as an activist and a poet. As a lesbian poet myself, I was telling my wife last night, I’m meeting someone who helps make our lives possible. You know, we have a child and we are married, and just to be able to write the poems I want to write, I just want to thank you for all of the work that you did to make that possible.
Judy Grahn: You’re welcome for, you know, whatever part I played in all of that, and we all seem to be in this groove, really reshaping our culture. I’m just saying, we’re all in this together and we’re all moving it all along. You know, this work that you’re doing is really an important part of it, I think.
AK: Thanks so much.
AK: So I know that you wanted to talk a little bit about Sappho and Enheduanna? I don’t know how to pronounce her name.
JG: Enheduanna, yeah. Yes, you asked me about my relationship with Sappho. And, so that, of course, it made me go back and remember, and I tried to put a peg on what that was. And I think that at 16, she really entered my life. Because I was so upset about the fact that my sexual orientation had not turned into a phase. I wasn’t just a tomboy, I still didn’t want to wear girls’ clothes. And I dreamed about the kind of woman that I would be looking for as a partner. It was in a dream. So I looked in the dictionary and found the word lesbian. The fact that the word lesbian existed and was in the dictionary was crucially important because of the model that she represented. To be reflected is everything in life, isn’t it? Even if it’s just a dictionary word, it was something. And then as I matured, enough to comprehend sapphic love, I was so heartened that Sappho was a poet. Because I wanted to be a poet, and I’ve been writing poetry since I was 10. And that she wrote love poems to women was just so delicious to know about, it was a little branch to cling to in what was otherwise a stormy flood. And the other little branch was the existence of Gertrude and Alice, as a couple. Of course, Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas. So, besides for the moral support of having a reflection of sorts, an existence somewhere in space and time, I believe I have written into this sapphic model three times in my life. I’ve actually incorporated her and her sensibility into my writing. The first time this happened was in 1975. I wrote a set of little quizzical–is that a word?–“Confrontations with the Devil in the Form of Love.” It’s a series of short poems about love, it uses apple metaphors, and was first printed in “The Work of a Common Woman” in 1978, out of Diana Press, and currently, it’s in my collection of short poems from Red Hen Press, which is called “Love Belongs to Those Who Do the Feeling,” you might know that one. Then 10 years later, I wrote “The Highest Apple,” subtitled, “Sappho and a Lesbian Poetic Tradition.” So that was 1985, on the heels of publishing “Another Mother Tongue,” and initially, I had thought that “The Highest Apple” would be a chapter. But it turned into an entire book of its own with three sections, that I’ll read from later. And it directly compares and uses Sappho’s fragments as a framework with which to compare the works of nine recent women poets, describing them and their work, at least, if not also them as lesbian, in a broad sense. I’ll name them. I’m going to be repeating myself in this little talk, because there’s so many names, and it’s wonderful to say them. So Emily Dickinson, Amy Lowell, Gertrude Stein, H.D., Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Paula Gunn Allen, Olga Broumas, and myself. The third time that I wrote about Sappho, it was indirect, but it’s in my newest book, which is called “Eruptions of Inanna: Justice, Gender, and Erotic Power.” And this book, which is due out in May, from Sinister Wisdom and Nightboat Presses, in collaboration with each other, it tells eight of Inanna’s stories–and I’ll tell you who she is in a minute–that are largely, but not entirely, from translations of the poet, priestess Enheduanna, who is the earliest named poet in all of known written history. She served in Sumer, the civilization of Sumer. She served the moon god’s temple at the city of Ur, which we know from the Bible. But her heart belonged to goddess Inanna, whom she calls “spouse of mine.” Sumer was at the lower end of the Tigris and Euphrates watershed, leading to the Persian Gulf area, currently called Iraq. And some historians think that the name “Iraq” may derive from Inanna’s original city, Uruk. Sumerians had a rich pantheon of fascinating deities, the greatest of whom were natural elements: sky, earth, water, sea, underworld, and Inanna, who was love, beauty, and power. What else do I need to tell you about Sumer. How long ago it was: 5,500 years ago that it got started, and between 3000 and 3004 or so, writing was developed. And then a few hundred years later, priestess Enheduanna was doing her writing, which they did in clay tablets with cuneiform wedges that were reeds. So I’m comparing now to deities, Enheduanna’s deity Inanna, and Sappho’s goddess Aphrodite, as they both carry the qualities of desire and erotic love, of all different kinds, and they do it as a diffuse life energy. Sappho described Aphrodite arriving to her from above in a golden chariot, surely a metaphor for how love comes to us as this golden glow. And Inanna also lived in the sky and descended to the earth as a light, as lady brilliance. Inanna is the oldest and most powerful recorded version of the goddess that Sappho called upon as a personal advisor in love, Aphrodite. The Sumerian poets of Inanna wrote their lines some 4,300 years ago or earlier, and Sappho wrote her lines 2,600 years ago. Since they lived 1,700 years apart, it might seem impossible to imagine the two poets and their goddesses as part of a line that runs directly through the East Semitic or Acadian Ishtar, to the Assyrian and Phoenician Astarte, and then to Greek Aphrodite. This is recognized. And from there the tradition went to Roman Venus, and Venus is the name we have. Sappho is 1,700 years later than her earlier Sumerian counterpart Enheduanna, and the other Sumerian poets who wrote love poems to and about Inanna. Both Enheduanna and Sappho were poets whose poetry most passionately addresses a goddess who is the planet we call Venus. The Sumerians called her Inanna, while the Greeks called the same planet “Star of Aphrodite.” The two goddesses have lots of other similarities. Aphrodite, today, is the fourth day of the month, in which your altar is consecrated with the blood of a sacrificed dove, followed by a procession and ritual bathing. Inanna’s people also gave her monthly processions, which included sprinkling her altar with blood. Aphrodite’s lover is Adonis, who descends directly from Ishtar’s lover, Tammuz, who descends directly from Dumuzi, Inanna’s shepherd lover. In one story, Aphrodite also falls in love with a shepherd. So the male love line is there–is equally direct. In one Greek area, Aphrodite was the goddess of war and in another, of prostitutes. In others, of course, she is love, beauty, sexuality, and reproduction. While married to the blacksmith Hephaestus. I’m not sure I’ve got that right. He is unfaithful, engendering his wrath as volcanic eruption. One translation of her name, meant “very brightly shining.” And during the Roman era, she became identified with Isis, and also with Helen of Troy. As we remember that apple story of the three goddesses offering Paris something, and he took what Aphrodite offered, which was the most beautiful woman on earth, Helen. The myth of Aphrodite and her lover, Adonis, derives from Inanna and her lover, Dumuzi, as I said. The earliest reference to Adonis is in Sappho, in a poem, in which she is answering the young women wanting to know how to grieve Adonis, and she’s the goddess Aphrodite says, “Beat your breasts and tear your tunics.” Tearing clothing and also, once, flesh of the face, was a mourning ritual in Sumerian poetry as well, so the rituals passed along. Sappho has also said, who I’ve described Eros, as the son of Aphrodite, who is associated with birds, especially doves, and sparrows, and also ducks, swans, geese, and Inanna is associated with doves. Dove figures were found in her temple. And geese, and some kind of predatory bird, and she herself had wings, at times, and flew as though she took the form of a bird goddess. So there’s that overlap. But Inanna had more varied powers than Aphrodite, as patriarchy developed and encroached on or appropriated female powers into the masculineness, or masculinized. In addition to love, beauty, war, and sexuality, Inanna was goddess of justice, rural and urban tools, and the economy, the land, paradoxical qualities of economic life. So, trade, success, but also ruin, abundance, but also poverty, sickness, health, deception, grace, arts, volcanoes, and a great deal more. She received and wore a cloth around her hips, the fundamental principles of both human civilization and of the cosmos. Her powers and stories split as her religion devolved over the centuries, and were assigned to other deities. So, for instance, the great myth of descent to the underworld descended through the centuries to Persephone, and not to Aphrodite, that I know of. Both Aphrodite and Inanna are goddesses of sexual love, and though the sacred marriage was Inanna’s, and Sappho wrote marriage poems, lovely ones, that were very protective of the bride. Did you notice? The goddesses Aphrodite and Inanna were unwilling to be faithful to just one lover. They both had many lovers. Their love is gregarious, generous, and untameable. Around 2200, before the Common Era, Inanna was elevated by the poet priestess Enheduanna to a position more powerful than the older gods, to a power resembling that of Indian goddess Shakti, whose radiance animates all of life. Enheduanna described Inanna’s power to melt mountains. That is to say, volcanic power. Aphrodite was also involved with volcanic power, though in her myth, it was Hephaestus, the blacksmith, who affected the meltdown and not she, herself. Sappho and Enheduanna, the poets also have lots of similarities that doing this paper for you allowed me to see. That the two poets share a goddess, who is both love and war, both lover and warrior. They share this as a lineage, not a coincidence. The two poets were both priestesses, they both served in temples. They share a woman’s centeredness, and Sappho’s is obvious in her praise of things feminine. They share woman to woman love, in that Enheduanna called herself Inanna’s spouse. Sappho called on Aphrodite to help her with a female lover’s heart. In their lives, the two poets were popular, their portrait images have survived. Sappho’s face was on a Greek coin, and Enheduanna’s likeness–excuse me–was found on a clay disk with her name on the back. Their work was repeated by others following their deaths. Enheduanna’s writings were used to teach the art of writing for 500 years after she died. Both poets’ original work was found and restored, at least in part. Sappho’s was burned, as we know, so only fragments remain, and perhaps Enheduanna wrote other poems besides those clay tablets that have been found by archaeologists. The two women had enormous influence, yet also, each was exiled in her lifetime, and then reinstated. Sappho wrote of the highest apple, Enheduanna’s goddess Inanna also had an apple tree. So that’s what I wrote for, you know, comparing those four–the two goddesses and the two poets. And I was really so pleased that they had so much in common. I didn’t–I hadn’t really focused on this before, and what I’m seeing is there’s a lineage. Yes.
AK: Yeah, that’s amazing. Because, on the podcast, we kind of look to Sappho as the original. We call her the “original lesbian,” you know that she’s the first one, but there’s someone before her. There’s–1,700 years before her. That’s incredible.
JG: Yeah. And it’s lesbian in the broadest sense, because there’s no way of knowing whether Enheduanna had lovers, but for sure, there’s lesbian aspects of the goddess Inanna. So, that a poet would call, who adored this goddess and elevated her, would say, “I am her child.” That’s one thing she said. But she also said, “I am her spouse,” you know.
AK: Is there any way of knowing what Sappho–how much Sappho could have known about Enheduanna?
JG: I don’t know, you know, it’s like I wouldn’t have thought that Emily Dickinson knew about Sappho, but she did.
AK: Yeah. Good point. I love this feature in your scholarship, Judy, of tracing gay culture and lesbian culture back to its most ancient origins. And I was wondering if I could ask you why you think that’s so important to do, to be able to say, “I’m influenced by Judi Grahn, who’s influenced by H.D., who’s influenced by the continuous influence by Sappho,” like, why is that so important?
JG: Because our culture really respects the tree of begats, and we are not on it. Women are not on it. You know, women lose their names when they get married, unless they are modern and keep their names. And because this work was overturned as being a heretical along the way, and yet, that same culture created these scientists and archaeologists who went out and found it. So we have it back, I think, for good reason, because it helps us have a history. It’s been one of my tasks, over my lifetime of writing, 55 years now, I think, of writing something that mattered, to restore this history as much as possible, because it matters a great deal whether you’re included in the origin story and how you’re included, if you are. In some of our major origin stories of our culture, women are just not included, or blamed for a made up thing, original sin, blamed for that and shamed, body shamed especially. So undoing that has just been something. Another thing is LGBT people are not included in the sacred texts at all. There’s no Queen Esther, who is a drag queen, there’s no, you know what I mean? There is no wisdom teaching that includes gay priests and priestesses, homosexuality is not included. But when you go back through all the way to the Sumerian poets, and see how much of their material constructs the stories in the Bible, so much of it, the Garden of Eden, the apple tree, the flood, and what I’m saying–claiming–the book of Job, in my new book, “Eruptions of Inanna,” I won’t go into that, but it’s in there. And many other details. It’s clear that–and there is–Inanna had homosexual priests and priestesses, and transgender priests and priestesses, who accompanied her in her quest for justice, and in these processions that people did every month to her to honor her. Isn’t that–that’s amazing. So that was not brought forward, but it’s in the original. And for us to know that is a beautiful jump, because suddenly we’re in the origin story. There we are. And in some marvelous ways, that I won’t go into right now, but I’m telling you, when, in May, when “Eruptions of Inanna” comes out, I am really going to be talking about it. The subtitle of that is “Justice, Gender, and Erotic Power.”
AK: That sounds amazing.
JG: I can’t wait.
AK: How long have you been working on this book?
JG: 20 years.
AK: Wow. I can’t wait to read it. And it’s beautiful to hear you talk about just finding ourselves in this ancient history, the way that you found yourself in the dictionary.
JG: Yeah, exactly. Finding myself in the dictionary meant a great deal. It meant that I could have another place to stand, another stance that I could take besides the one that excluded me or said that I was a queer and that queers were bad.
AK: Yeah. And I know that in “The Highest Apple,” you know, where you’re tracing a lot of that lineage, you also come back again and again to the point of Sappho is a way of talking about a women loving women culture and community. Can you speak a little bit more about that, about Sappho’s role as this kind of place of origin for that community and that culture?
JG: Oh, yes. Let me just say that “The Highest Apple,” which has been out of print for lots of years, but I’m hearing rumors of it going back into print, like within the next couple of years, so it’ll be back. It has three sections, and the titles of the sections tell us what the content is, if I can get to that part, past the acknowledgments to the table of contents. The one–the first chapter is “A Heart-shaped Journey to a Similar Place,” which is what I just did, a comparison of these poets. Then “Writing from a House of Women,” and that is talking about poets and community, the communities that these poets put together, and then “To Surface with Lesbian Gods.” Now I will tell you again, who they were: Emily Dickinson, Amy Lowell, Gertrude Stein, H.D., Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Paula Gunn Allen, Olga Broumas, and myself. And I looked at their poetry, and call them all lesbians. H.D. hadn’t yet been public identified–publicly identified as such. But after the book came out, a woman wrote me and said she had been one of H.D.’s lovers, which is very confirming.
AK: Wow. That’s incredible.
JG: Yes, yes, yes. So, you know, in Sappho’s description of the altar, the apple tree with the water running through it, do you know that poem?
JG: And the circle dance that the, “hurry young charges,” or whatever they were, students or interning priestesses, whatever they were to her, that they circled around the altar, that it was full of roses, and–as well as apples. And here is what she said about those apples: “As the sweet apple ripens on the bow tip / on the top of the topmost bow, the apple gatherers have forgotten– /or no, they have not forgotten, not entirely, but they could not reach it.” That, to me, describes a lot of what lesbian culture, how I experienced it, that we just simply separated from everybody and took up households. You can read about this in “A Simple Revolution,” which is my memoir. We took up households that were doing useful things out into the culture, but they were also cloistered. We were like secular nuns, and we just sometimes described ourselves as being like that. We were not under the thumb of any church or any male power whatsoever, any public, any male-identified anything. We were reinventing ourselves. And so, writing from a house of women, is–refers also to what we were doing on the West coast. I was doing this, the poet Pat Parker was doing this. And on the East coast, Audre wasn’t in a women-only household, she did belong to a women-only group that met, and Adrienne Rich was in that group, and Michelle Cliff, and the writer/playwright, Clare Coss, and the writer/historian, Blanche Wiesen Cook. Can you imagine what a powerful group that was? And two other women, one of them, Audre’s lover at the time, and they were–they were therapists. It was just like ideal. Put some poets together with some therapists and have a group. Yes, but real power–there’s real power in that. And we can just imagine how much confidence they gave each other. And we were doing something similar on the West coast. You know, there was a writing group. And I was in it, Pat was in it, several other people that we were publishing or who were helping to publish our work, were in it.
EB: Wow, Leesa. Hearing about all of these women living together, I really want to just start a podcasting harem.
LC: Can we please? Since our live episode, which we will be releasing on our feed, and all of the queer and non-binary folk who were just–this amazing podcast family supporting each other, I just like–let’s just all buy a house and move in together, with all of our podcasting dollars.
EB: I don’t know how many times I’ve, like, been at a party and I’m like, “We should buy a house and live together.” Like every person I am near I am like, “I want to live with you and I would live with you.” But to be fair, that is the dream.
LC: Yes. 100%.
EB: And Judy is just so cool.
LC: Judy’s so cool. And you know what else is really dreamy?
LC: The people who sponsor our podcast.
EB: Oh, nice segue, go hit it. Hit it, advertisers.
JG: Let me just read a little bit from “To Surface with Lesbian Gods,” which, you know, is controversial because what is meant by lesbian god? And I still don’t know. But I take a swing at it every once in a while. So here’s Dickinson–Emily Dickinson said something quite amazing about religion or deities or something. She said: “If “God is Love” as he admits, / We think that he must be / Because he is a jealous God / He tells us certainly. / If “All is possible” with him / As he besides concedes, / He will refund us finally / Our confiscated Gods–.” “Our confiscated gods,” what a big phrase that is! Isn’t it?
JG: I think not so well known that Dickinson went down that little road, and there it is.
JG: Yes. So here are some other examples. Here is Paula Gunn Allen, who did descend from a tradition of female deity, Thought Woman and others, Spider Grandmother and others, from her Native American maternal lineage, which was also mixed with Scots, and her father was Lebanese. But she just turned herself into a critic, an excellent critic for–in behalf of–Native American writing, and also did a great deal of writing herself, gathering stories, and wrote poetry. Here is some of her poetry: “Water (woman) that is the essence of you. / He na tye (woman) that is recognition and remembering. / Gentle. Soft. Sure. / Long shadows of afternoon, growing as the light turns / west toward sleep. Turning with the sun. / (The rest of it is continents and millennia. / How could I have waited so long for completion?”
JG: Isn’t it beautiful? And it goes on and it’s equally beautiful. But I want to go to Audre Lorde. Audre went to Africa at some point and wrote out of that a magnificent book called “The Black Unicorn.” It’s not so well known as some of her other work, but it’s really worth exploring, because it’s just luscious, lesbian-centered, as well as, you know, black American-centered, work. Just, social justice was always such a priority for her, as for–as it was for some of the rest of us, as it was for Inanna’s poets as well, I may say. So here, “October”: “Spirits of the abnormally born / live on in water / of the heroically dead / in the entrails of snake. // Now I span my days like a wild bridge / swaying in place caught / between poems like a vise / I am finishing my piece of this bargain / and how shall I return? // Seboulisa mother of power / keeper of birds fat and beautiful / give me the strength of your eyes / to remember what I have learned / help me attend with passion / these tasks at my hand for doing. // Carry my heart to some shore / my feet will not shatter / do not let me pass away / before I have a name / for this tree / under which I am lying // Do not let me die still / needing to be stranger.” So that answers–speaks to your question of why do we–are we interested in a lineage? And she is saying why, so that we’re not strangers here on the earth. And so that we have the courage and confidence to do the work that we came here to do. It makes it very clear.
AK: Wow, I want to ask a follow-up question, which is that, you know, to have a career, like you said, that spans 55 years of thinking about this project, the lesbian lineage, ancient cultures. What is it like to see the changes that have occurred since 1969? And the things that haven’t changed? I imagine that finding solidarity in lesbian literature might have felt different in 1969 that it did–than it does now. And so I’m just curious, over this long career you’ve had, what do you think about these different changes you’ve witnessed, or the things that haven’t changed in the treatment of LGBT people?
JG: We surfaced. And before that, a lot of people, little pockets of people, were sliding under the railing, out of sight. But now we’ve surfaced, and it’s–we’re all over the world. And there’s not such easy hiding. And that has created a lot of tension that needs to be addressed. It’s–the tension is between those with an origin story that not only excludes what condemns us and says that’s religion, says that’s the sacred, omits us from the sacred, and imagines that we fall into this made-up category of sinfulness. That needs to be addressed, lots of things have been addressed. And lots of things, of course, have been made more comfortable for some people and quite a bit less comfortable for others, more safe for some of us, and less safe for others. For a long time, coming out was the safest thing you could do. Because then you knew who your friends were. And that was amazing, that period of time, that 20-year period of time, when coming out was the main thing. And people who had felt unsafe in being themselves took the chance to say, and it was a big chance, because for some, it meant losing their families, or friends, or jobs. But it also meant gaining community and a kind of protection and a sense of mission. That is empowering. There’s cowering, and there’s empowering. And they are two different things, but for other folks coming out became quite terrifying, if the community or the church or your family excluded you, and if you are also beleaguered for other reasons having to do with racism or ableism, or any number of other hazard to your health conditions that our culture creates for people. Because it has, in my opinion, an exceedingly cruel philosophy at its heart that needs to be addressed. So there’s a great deal more work to do. And this kind of thing that you’re doing furthers that, I think, because you empower more and more people to understand there’s a lineage, and it’s–I almost said noble, but that isn’t the word that’s usually in my vocabulary, but it’s credible and useful. It’s not just useful. I’ll tell you, we don’t know what all was in Sappho’s work. But in–how the poet’s are describing Inanna, she’s an ecological force. She’s an environmentalist. And if you mess up the environment, she goes after you. So yes, she’s a eco-warrior, justice deity, and we need those, don’t we? We need to be able to say, “It is sacred to be an environmentalist warrior.”
AK: It’s so striking to hear you talk about these intersections with the other movements, like the anti-racist movement and the environmental movement. And it’s making me think of that scene that you open, I think it’s–yeah–“Ground Zero,” you open with the scene of a group of lesbian activists creating a human shield in front of a Black Panther Party office in 1969. And I was just so struck by that scene, because I think it’s, like, the perfect way to represent how that coalition-building and intersectionality existed in action, like we’re going to stand here in front of this building, we’re going to use our white privilege to create a shield. It just really stands out in my mind, and I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about just how the movements overlap and intersect, especially during the 70s when everything was happening.
JG: Yes, when everything was happening. You know, the movement that I co-founded was called Gay Women’s Liberation, and we wanted to liberate everybody. We wanted everybody to be free. We consisted of people who had been supportive of civil rights and also Black Power, of labor. There were some socialists who were part of our group and other movements that overlapped and that sense never went away, for me. That’s still where I live, is in identifying with that and doing–in fact, I have a second book coming out. I have actually three books coming out. The one that has just been released is a thin but important book. It reprints one of my anti-racist poems, and then I have made study notes and background notes to go with it. So it’s a teaching tool that has to do with anti-racism. But I need to address what you just said, was I didn’t mean to imply that there was a wall of lesbians at the Panther office. There were other activist lesbians involved. And we actually didn’t know each other at the time. Yeah, it was later that we got to know each other and talking about and sharing our stories, it became clear that, “Oh, I was there, too. Oh, well, and so-and-so is there, too.” And pretty soon, it’s clear, there were at least four of us in this tiny little group, couldn’t have been more than 20 people, probably not that many. And then we became–you see how it went. The activism fed right into, finally, a movement that was about us, after we had been involved in movements for other people’s hurts for a long time. And I’m speaking as white woman when I say that. For Parker, who had been a Panther, Pat Parker, a poet, and Audre, who had been a black activist, and used her voice for that, it was seamless to integrate those movements together.
AK: But when you said that, like, during that 20-year period, you remember, it felt like it was safer to come out, because then you knew who your friends were, and you could be certain. And that’s just really striking to me, because I had read it in “Another Mother Tongue” about how much adversity you faced when you came out, being discharged from the Air Force and being beat up for the way you dressed. And I’m just curious, like, if you could speak more about the kind of personal adversities that you faced early on in your life, and how that affected the kind of work that you wanted to do.
JG: Well, that was very radicalizing, I will tell you, to feel as an outsider for that and other reasons in my life, but that was the big one. To go through a year with a psychiatrist who claimed to be an expert. But his whole thing was how to cure you from being a lesbian. And after trying, I was like, “Oh, please, let me out of here. This is where madness lives.” And then belonging to Mattachine, my first lover, Yvonne, and I, we knew, we were desperate to find some people who were up for the changes that we knew we had to have, in order to have a life. During that period of time, there were gay men put in prison for sodomy, consensual sex. There were teenage lesbians put in mental hospitals and subjected to all kinds of psychiatric physical methods that I met later, who had gone through that experience. And there were, you know, people who were so desperate that they were cutting themselves, trying–I mean, Leslie tried to cut her breasts, her own breast off, you know, it’s just like, ugh, no. It was–and that continues now that we have surfaced and people cannot escape. That’s who we are. And people are divided into those who think that we’re okay or love us because they are our relatives or best friends, and those who are in tight-knit communities that they themselves need, and can’t imagine saying to anybody out there, church, or other social gatherings, “My child is gay.” So, there is a point–there was a point at which I think the positive things, the surface, our surfacing, became this mountain-shaped thing that nobody could escape looking at. And so, the people whose philosophy is in opposition, who are following origin stories that exclude or even demonize us, they are working out where they stand with all this, trying to scare themselves that trans people using the bathroom is threatening, and so on, and trying to avoid what goes on in their own families, and avoiding the obvious truth that most LGBT people are born into straight families and cis families. That’s the factory that produces us, Hello, hello, hello! That’s so true. Oh, wow. You know, most of our demographics tell us that most of our listeners for this podcast are, like, 18 to 30, 35. I’m curious, like, what advice you have, or thoughts you’d want to share, with that generation of young adult queer people who are wanting to do the work and wanting to keep that lineage going, keep the activism going, what you’d share. Ooh, I would share–ooh, become as articulate as you possibly can about what your positions are and why. And don’t assume that people ought to know better, they don’t. Assume that you’re the teacher, and you need to teach them something. I know that gets old, but don’t let it get old. Let it get complicated. And let it stay interesting. And let that be a part of your life goal. Everything that we do in this unspoken temple that we construct out of air, and support the work that supports it. By writing the books around, give them away, give them as presents, the things that are teaching tools and the things that saved your own life along the way. Treasure those things, put them on an altar, and give them to everybody you know. But mostly just stay articulate about what’s needed, and do it fearlessly. Not foolishly, not to put yourself in needless harm. But do it steadily, knowing that the tortoise won the race.
AK: I love that. I’m thinking about your essay on Boudica, and how you–’cause you’re reclaiming the word “dyke,” and that’s so powerful, but then you do it through this historical warrior-woman lineage. I remember reading that only a few months after I had come out, and feeling all alone and worried and sad. And then I read that and I was like, “I’m a warrior.”
JG: Hey, yes!
AK: This is great, but so articulate, right? Like, this is why this word is so cool, and this is why this word matters.
AK: Embrace it.
JG: Embrace it. Yes, and that is a so much more powerful place than wallowing around in one’s hurts.
JG: Which doesn’t go anywhere, except to get you more attention for being–needing someone to take care of you. And what about if instead, it was, “Oh, I’m a warrior, or even an athlete,” you know, mountain climbers lose their fingers to frostbite, and they go do it anyway. There’s people who have gotten in these tiny little boats, little sailboats, and gone down to Antarctica in those seas, you know, and, “Oh, the boat is turned upside down, and oh my goodness, is this it?” That is a sensibility that I love. It’s like, “Is this it?” Think about Rachel Carson, who had to hide, and all of the people who’ve gone before and gone before us, who had to be courageous, and who were, because they were warriors of one kind or another. They were science warriors, or they were save-the-children warriors, or they were, you know, some kind of–get out there and make a contribution in society, kind of thing. I would wish that for any generation, because it’s so empowering. There’s, of course, the down things, but there’s the down things anyway. And there can be just nothing but down things if you don’t construct how you’re going to do the up thing.
AK: That’s beautiful. I mean, I’m just so struck by the courage and grace of that statement. And I also love the idea of tithing. Because I think one thing I struggle with, with my students, I try to tell them, “You might not experience the results of your activism before you graduate. But the next group of students will, and like things are better for you because of what people who came before you did.” So we’re kind of always, like, tithing to the next generation, the way that the previous did for us.
JG: Yes, pay it forward. That’s right. Yeah.
AK: Wow, gosh, I don’t want to take up too much of your time, because I know we said an hour. So I guess my last question would be, is there anything else that you’d like to say that I didn’t ask about or that you want to leave us with?
JG: I want to read a little bit from the apple poems that I wrote, the “Confrontations with the Devil in the Form of Love.” You can see that was sort of being a little bit frisky there. And I’ll just start and read a few of them. “What do I have, if not my two hands and my apples? Look at my lips, they are apples. My eyes are apples. My life is an apple tree. You are what is female, you shall be called Eve and what is masculine shall be called God. From your name Eve we shall take the word evil, and from God’s the word good. Now you understand patriarchal morality. Love came along and saved me, saved me, saved me. However, my life remains the same as before. Oh, what shall I do now that I have what I’ve always been looking for? Love, you wicked dog. So handsome to look at, so awkward close up, and so unfaithful to good sense. Whatever feeds you attention gets you, like it or not. And all your bad habits come with you like a pack of fleas. Wherever I turn for peace of mind, there is the love dog, scratching at the door of my lonesomeness, beating her tail against the leg of my heart, and panting all night with red breath in my dreams. Love dog, get in or out of the house of my life. Stop chewing on my belongings, the papers and shoes of my independence. Look at my hands. They are apples. My breasts are apples. My heart is an apple tree.”
AK: Ugh, it’s so beautiful.
JG: I have so enjoyed this. This, you know, you’re just–you’re asking the right questions. I love that, and drawing out things that I otherwise would have kept secret, not said out loud, you know what I mean? The interview is–it’s a form of reflection, and it enhances consciousness, you know, which is dependent on being reflected in some way.
AK: Oh, it’s just been such a delight and such an honor to get to talk to you and learn from you today, and hear you read your work. I’m so excited to get to share this with our listeners and just help them hear and think about this lineage that takes us from Sappho and Enheduanna, all the way up through to now. So I can’t thank you enough, Judy, for for participating.
Judy Grahn You’re welcome. You’re more than welcome, Alyse.
EB: Thank you so much to Judy and Alyse for this incredible conversation.
LC: Thanks for listening to Sweetbitter. We have one more episode left before we go on a break, where we’re going to prepare for season two, the untold history of pirates.
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 by going to patreon.com/sweetbitter.
LC: Patrons have access to 11 bonus episodes. So if you think you’re going to miss our content over the break, now is a great time to become a patron. You can also 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 is by Lyre ‘n’ Rhapsody. Special thanks to Judy Grahn for being our special guest this episode.
LC: You can read more about our guests and where to find them on our website in the “About” section.
EB: We do not have a song for you today, but we will be back in a few weeks with our live episode featuring guests Kristin Russo from Buffering the Vampire Slayer; Liv Albert from Let’s Talk About Myths, Baby!; Leigh Pfeffer from History is Gay; and a performance on the lyre from Vanessa Stovall.