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Archive for the ‘poets’ Category

Author Jesse Blackadder’s novel The Raven’s Heart is set in the court of Mary Queen of Scots – and was partly inspired by the discovery that the queen was a regular cross-dresser. The Raven’s Heart has just been published by Bywater Books in the USA, UK and Canada (it was published in Australia last year by HarperCollins).

However, it was another Mary from the time who penned a love poem to her female friend that has survived down the centuries. Here, Jesse crosses the historical divide to “talk” to Mary Maitland and tell us about the inspiration behind The Raven’s Heart.

Mary Maitland, you wrote a passionate poem to another woman and slipped it under your father’s nose, to be published in his 1586 Scottish collection The Maitland Quarto Manuscript. You were compared to Sappho – a poet who was part of classic education in those days – and in the poem you dream of changing into a man so you can marry the woman you love.

It’s (just) within the bounds of friendship poetry of the era, though the lines:

 You wield me wholly at your will

And ravish my affection

suggest a passion struggling to stay within social limits. You compare your love to that of Penelope and Ulysses, Pollux and Castor, and Ruth and Naomi (source of the declaration “Whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge”). At the end you write that your fervent friendship will endure until “death shall us divorce.”

Was a passionate – but chaste – friendship the only option for women who fell in love in the 16th century? Although men of the day were often accused of being sodomites – including the husband of the Queen of Scots – lesbianism didn’t openly exist as an identity. The fact that Mary Maitland’s poem was published in a collection compiled by the Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland, suggests there was no hint of indecency about her declarations.

But this poem (reproduced in The Literature of Lesbianism by Terry Castle) was one of the little jewels I found while researching and writing my story of powerful women struggling for their birthright in the time of the Queen of Scots, herself a powerful and attractive woman.

Unusually tall and highly charismatic, the Queen loved sports and outdoor activities and was accomplished at riding and hunting. She disguised herself as a man and slipped out of her palace at night to explore Edinburgh’s streets and drink in its taverns. Perhaps these experiences piqued the Queen’s interest in clothing, gender and power, for Mary began cross-dressing more politically. She turned up in masculine clothing to a banquet in honour of the English ambassador and joked about how a marriage between herself and Elizabeth I would solve their political problems. When one of her powerful lords in the north of Scotland defied her, Mary donned armour to lead her armies to defeat him and admitted that she loved to live as a soldier. She rode out again when her lords rebelled against her marriage to the unpopular (and rumoured homosexual) Lord Darnley, putting on such a show of strength that the rebels fled without a fight.

There’s no suggestion in contemporary or current history that the Queen was a lesbian, but I couldn’t help being fascinated by this extraordinary character. Mary was the most famous cross dresser of the time – but surely not the only one?

And so the main character in The Raven’s Heart, Alison, is disguised as a boy from a young age to protect her from kidnapping. When Alison goes into Mary’s service to petition for the return of her family’s castle, how can she not fall in love with the charismatic Queen of Scots?

So great joy does my spirit fulfil

Contemplating your perfection

You wield me wholly at your will

And ravish my affection.

Mary Maitland isn’t a character in the book, but I can’t help wondering: did she and her loved one remain “In perfect amity forever”? Or did her marriage to one Alexander Lauder end the constancy of her “holy and religious” love?

Jesse Blackadder’s website is www.jesseblackadder.com

Extract from The Raven’s Heart

Scotland, 1561.

We come across the North Sea, bearing the face of heaven in our hold.

A fleet of ships brings such a treasure, our galley speeding ahead and the rest following slowly with her horses and fineries, her tapestries and clothes. She returns from thirteen years in the French court to take up the reins of power.

Does she remember that she returns to a city of stone? Stone is too old to care what human hands press against it, what blood spills in its crevices. Even the palace, with its French architecture, is made of stone, and looming above it, Edinburgh Castle hewn from the cliff so that none may attack it and none may escape. She sails to a stone city, an icy country and a cold people.

As we draw close to the coast, heavy fog envelopes us. Bass Rock materialises through the mist like something enchanted, its sides steep and forbidding, and the gulls scream and wrack and sweep around it in circles. The sea is brown and heaving, the outpour of the Firth River is a scum of Edinburgh’s rot slapping at the side of the boat. She waits on the deck to set eyes on the land, but it stubbornly refuses to reveal itself through the mist. It is not a forgiving country and she has been gone since she was five.


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San Francisco, Calif.

City Lights Books

261 Columbia Avenue

The legendary City Lights Books in San Francisco, which was founded in 1953 and remains a literary landmark, has just been named bookseller of the year by trade magazine Publishers Weekly. City Lights was an informal center for the Beat poets in the 1950s.

City Lights’ publishing arm was founded in 1955 and has a distinguished history of publishing cutting-edge and queer work. In the most famous example, the co-founder of the bookstore/publisher, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was present at Allen Ginsberg’s first reading of “Howl” in 1956, and asked if he could publish the poem. The following year, after copies of Howl were seized by customs officials, Ferlinghetti was arrested for publishing and selling the book, which was deemed “obscene.” In his subsequent trial, the ACLU defended Ferlinghetti, and the judge ruled that Ginsberg’s work was not obscene. “‘Howl’ knocked the sides out of things,” Ferlinghetti later said. Kudos to City Lights for its long history of championing queer voices.

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Baltimore, Md.

Diana Press

12 West 25th Street

First housed in this brick building in Baltimore, Diana Press was one of the earliest lesbian-feminist publishing companies in the country. Established in the mid-1970s, it was committed to publishing openly lesbian material, which was not available from mainstream houses. Before she became a mass-market star with Rubyfruit Jungle, Rita Mae Brown published her collections of lesbian poems, Songs to a Handsome Woman and The Hand That Cradles the Rock, and a volume of essays, Plain Brown Wrapper, with Diana Press. Other titles from Diana included Elsa Gidlow’s Sapphic Songs and Judy Grahn’s True to Life Adventure Stories, as well as early poetry by Pat Parker. In the late ’70s, Diana Press relocated to the San Francisco area. If not for the efforts of this pioneering press, along with Naiad Press, Persephone Press, Daughters Inc., and many others, a lot of openly lesbian writing would have never seen print. As a writer who is also a lesbian, I’m grateful.

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(photo by Dan Vera, Beltway Poetry Quarterly)

 

Washington, D.C.

Tim Dlugos apartment
1437 Rhode Island Avenue, N.W.

Gay poet and activist Tim Dlugos (1950-1990) lived at this address as a young man, while working for Ralph Nader’s organization, Public Citizen. Raised Catholic in Arlington, Va., Dlugos joined the Christian Brothers as a teenager, but left the order and came out as gay in 1971.

While Dlugos was living in Washington, he was an active member of Mass Transit, a peer poetry workshop that convened weekly at the Community Book Shop in Dupont Circle. Mass Transit started a publishing venture called Some of Us Press, which published Dlugos’ first poetry collection, High There, in 1973.

In the late ’70s, Dlugos moved to New York City, where he edited the St. Mark’s Poetry Project newsletter and was a contributing editor of Christopher Street magazine. He published his own work widely, in magazines, anthologies, and chapbooks. His poem “G-9,” an account of his time in an AIDS ward, appeared posthumously in The Paris Review.

When he died in December 1990, Dlugos was enrolled in graduate studies at Yale Divinity School, with the intention of becoming an Episcopal priest. Poet David Trinidad is currently compiling Dlugos’ collected poems for publication.

My list of daily intercessions
is as long as a Russian
novel.  I pray about AIDS
last.  Last week I made a list
of all my friends who’ve died
or who are living and infected.
Every day since, I’ve remembered
someone I forgot to list.

–from “G-9,” by Tim Dlugos

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From the Dark Tower

New York, N.Y. (Harlem)

“The Dark Tower”
108-110 West 136th Street

This was the site of A’Lelia Walker’s (1885-1931) home and famous salon, “The Dark Tower,” which she hosted for writers, musicians, and other artists during the 1920s. It was named after a sonnet by queer poet Countee Cullen, which has been said to capture the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance (see below).

A’Lelia Walker’s fortune came from her mother, Madame C.J. Walker, an enterprising woman who created a million-dollar empire from beauty salons and hair-straightening products for black women, and who died in 1919. With her inheritance, A’Lelia purchased these two Stanford White-designed town houses on West 136th Street in “Sugar Hill,” combined them into one residence with a new façade, and furnished them lavishly. Here the woman dubbed “the Mahogany Millionairess” hosted cultural soirees for the Harlem and Greenwich Village “glitterati,” white and black, serving caviar and bootleg champagne and providing entertainment by queer performers Alberta Hunter and Jimmy Daniels. Langston Hughes later wrote that A’Lelia’s parties “were as crowded as the New York subway at the rush hour.” She herself was a striking figure, whom Hughes called “a gorgeous dark Amazon.”

Sadly, Walker’s historic home was demolished by the city in 1941. Appropriately, the Countee Cullen branch of the New York Public Library now stands on the site.

We shall not always plant while others reap
The golden increment of bursting fruit,
Not always countenance, abject and mute,
That lesser men should hold their brothers cheap;
Not everlastingly while others sleep
Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute,
Not always bend to some more subtle brute;
We were not made to eternally weep.

The night whose sable breast relieves the stark,
White stars is no less lovely being dark,
And there are buds that cannot bloom at all
In light, but crumple, piteous, and fall;
So in the dark we hide the heart that bleeds,
And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds.

– “From the Dark Tower,” by Countee Cullen

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Dayton Was a Woman

Natalie_Barney_and_Romaine_Brooks

Dayton, Ohio

Natalie Barney marker
Cooper Park
St. Clair at Third Street

On October 25, 2009, an Ohio Historical Marker honoring lesbian poet Natalie Barney will be dedicated at this site in Dayton, Barney’s city of birth. It will be the first such marker in the state to acknowledge a historical figure’s sexual orientation. The Gay Ohio History Initiative and its partners raised $2,300 to pay for the bronze marker.

Born to a successful businessman and a free-spirited artist, Natalie Barney (1876-1972) was one of the most famous – and wealthiest – lesbians of her day. Both of her parents inherited sizable family estates, and young Natalie was raised in the lap of luxury. When she was 2 years old, the Barneys relocated to Cincinnati, and when she was in her teens, they took up residence in the nation’s capital, where they moved in the top social and diplomatic circles.

Throughout her youth, Natalie often traveled with her mother, the painter Alice Pike Barney, to Europe for extended stays. It was in Paris that Natalie finally decided to settle at age 24, the heir of a substantial fortune of her own.

Barney published numerous poetry collections and plays in French during her lifetime, noted for their openly lesbian content (she had known she was a lesbian since the age of 12), and also penned several memoirs. Her tempestuous affair with poet Renee Vivien and her long-term relationship with painter Romaine Brooks (shown together in the photo above, ca. 1915) have frequently been written about. But it was as the host of a celebrated Friday afternoon literary salon at 20 rue Jacob that she is perhaps best remembered. Barney’s salon was the center of the French avant-garde and of queer expatriate Paris for 50 years, frequented by such literati as Marcel Proust, Colette, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Oscar Wilde, Radclyffe Hall, Janet Flanner, and Andre Gide. Djuna Barnes’ roman a clef, Ladies Almanack (1928), spoofed both the salon and its best-known members.

Lesbian filmmaker Greta Schiller made a documentary in 1995 called Paris Was a Woman, about the thriving lesbian cultural scene in Paris in the ’20s. In it, there is a walkthrough, using period footage, of Barney’s famous salon.

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mountaingrove2-m

Sunny Valley, Ore.

Rootworks
2000 King Mountain Trail

Southern Oregon has a rich history of lesbian and gay back-to-the-land projects. One lesbian separatist community, Rootworks, was established in the 1970s by Ruth and Jean Mountaingrove, when both women were in their 50s. “The philosophy was that we would live without men, separate from the patriarchal world,” Ruth told me in the late ’90s. “That is still pretty much the idea.” (The photo above was taken by Ruth at the commune in the 1970s.)

At Rootworks, there were originally only two houses – the Moonhouse and the Kitchen cabin. In the years that followed the founding, Ruth and Jean added the Sunhouse, a barn (called “Natalie Barney”), and the All Purpose crafts cabin. In the barn is a study and a feminist library. From 1974 to 1984, Ruth and Jean also published the magazine WomanSpirit from an office in the barn, and The Blatant Image, a feminist magazine about photography, was published there from 1981 to 1983; back issues of both are stored in the barn.

Ruth has credited WomanSpirit with bringing a lot of women to the southern Oregon region, by encouraging their creativity and spirituality. Though the magazine folded, Jean said, “the main elements of WomanSpirit are still being lived in the community – feminism, spirituality, all forms of creativity, sisterhood, nature, art, music, dance, literature, healing and personal development.”

Gardens that are nestled around some of the Rootworks buildings are filled with vegetables, beans, and berries. Solar energy provides heat and hot water and also powers the community’s lights. Ruth noted that it’s “not easy in the winter, and that’s when women usually leave.”

In 2008, Linda Long, Manuscripts Librarian for the Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Oregon in Eugene, told Lambda Book Report:

Rootworks is a historical site that is a perfect exemplar of the feminist-lesbian dream. From the 1970s to today, the women’s back-to-the-land community in Oregon was, and is, a dynamic expression of the separatist dream. As part of that dream, women experimented with new ways to live and work together – and with all sorts of activities and rituals, from house-building projects and collective gardening to the sacred circle. Many of the women were aspiring artists of one kind or another – writers, painters, photographers—and they hoped to be able to combine life on the land with their creative work. All of this lesbian/feminist life and work is represented in Rootworks…The permanence of Rootworks and its status as a women-owned land trust in perpetuity makes it a perfect example of a historic site. I think a living museum would be an effective and dynamic way to preserve the lesbian land dream and the history of the lesbian community in Southern Oregon.”

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