This essay is based on a series of interviews with Audre Lorde in her office at Hunter College, CUNY, New York City.
Crafting Her Life
Audre Lorde’s poems are not for the weak. Her themes range from woman as victim and Black to woman as nurturer, lover, warrior. Although she has been called an urban poet, her images extend beyond classification, which is how she preferred it. Lorde’s work is about searching and finding her truth, which was not always readily available to her.
“I write to reach the core of my feelings,” she said. “To share these perceptions with my reader.”
Of Lorde’s work, Jane Augustine (New Women’s Times Feminist Review) wrote, “Each poem exhibits her willingness to suffer pain for the sake of reality and intelligence since she is the bearer of contradictory heritages, Black, White, in herself …Poetry is the gift and tool that both retains and expresses her sanity and largeness of vision.”
Lorde’s committed rage about the Black struggle and the women’s struggle resonates through her work, entwined with profound optimism. The meshing of these potent emotions rises from the page exposing her personal strength and resolve. She believed in herself and in all women. Her message was and remains – women must overcome their fears, to challenge themselves and speak.
In the poem “For Each of You,” she urges women, Black women specifically, to break through their silence because it is the only way to break through to each other:
Be who you are and will be
learn to cherish
that boisterous Black Angel that drives you
up one day and down another
protecting the place where your power rises
running like hot blood
from the same source
as your pain.
When the poet was three years old she was diagnosed as being legally blind – until this time her parents had thought their daughter was retarded. No one was aware that she couldn’t see.
“I was always falling down. I was tongue-tied too,” she recalled. “I didn’t talk until I was four. When my eyes were finally examined the doctor found that my vision was 200/500 and 100/300.”
She learned the importance of non-verbal communication from her mother who expected Lorde to know things, whether or not she spoke them.
“You become strong by doing the things you need to be strong for.”
She started writing at the age of twelve in order to express her feelings and ideas, which she couldn’t communicate in other ways. She moved from secretly writing about feelings to realizing she could speak her feelings.
“I write because I need to read them (her feelings). Write or I must die. How do you feel Audre? They don’t want to know how I feel.”
In the poem “Memorial II” she wrote of her high school friend who committed suicide:
I wish I could see you again
far from me even
flying into the sun
your eyes are blinding me
“It is a battle to preserve my perceptions,” she said. “But I have always swam into punishment because I’ve always insisted on being who I am…even if I go down to the store to buy bread I have to do it my way, like I was reinventing the wheel each time.”
Until her death, Lorde taught poetry workshops, however, she wasn’t always a teacher. She had worked as a nurse’s aid, a factory worker, librarian, and social investigator for the Bureau of Child Welfare. Her literary achievements include a National Endowment for the Arts grant, volumes of poetry, novels, extensive essays, articles, and a book about her experience with cancer. In Cancer Journals she wrote:
I realize that if I wait until I am no longer afraid to act, write, speak, be, I’ll be sending messages on a Ouija board, cryptic complaints from the other side. When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less important whether or not I am unafraid.
One of the poetry workshops she taught was “Poet as Outsider,” at Hunter College (CUNY) in New York City. The course concentrated on literature that was not readily available – books that were not widely distributed or out of print.
One Afternoon, in “Poet as Outsider,” a Black student read his poem about living in a city where there is a life of canals beneath the streets. Lorde encouraged the student to explore his imagination and what he felt about the lines between the lines.
“Don’t be easy on yourself,” she scolded.
As a result of her own emotional and physical struggles, she had no patience for self-indulgence. This is an underlying message she tried to impart to her students. Later, she sat back in her office chair and recited from an e.e. cumming’s poem to illustrate the point that words possess power:
Anybody lived in a pretty howtown
up so floating many bells down
“Words are so charged. They’ve been used against us with their connotations and denotations, but there’s also energy around a word; it depends on how often you hear them – in what context you hear them.”
Lorde felt an urgency about getting her words down; she believed that we’re all threatened in the world and must learn as poets to use our language, but without claiming a freshness that we no longer have a right to.
“We must make the distortions of language fresh enough that we can still make people feel.”
In her essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury” (Chrysalis), she describes why we must name:
Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought…Poetry is not only dream or vision, it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.
She believed that poetry must serve one’s vision of the future, specifically the future for women. But she knew that before we can work for a future you must be able to dream it, must also know the past – successes and failure – to connect it to the future. She urged women poets to be strong and confident and “say what needs to be said,” not to be quieted.
“There will always be people who will want to pluck out one piece of your identify and use it as your whole definition. If you do that, then everything is fine, but if you insist upon other pieces of yourself that do not coincide with them – they can make it very difficult.”
Even in her deep anger, she maintained that hope, strength, and our ability to speak out are our only weapons, emphasizing that she was not in the business of teaching people how to write poetry, but rather, aimed to educate people in recognizing fear and how not to be afraid, how to reach for what they needed to say.
Though she taught writing and literature, she believed that the academic approach to learning often excludes experiences and personal feelings.
“There is a western aesthetic that evaluates literature and art by a pseudo-objective standard of beauty that has no meaning to me,” she explained. “What is important to me is the meaning of a poem, or the piece of art. A poem has a function. I don’t believe in poems for poems’ sake. I think you deal with a piece of sculpture in terms of how it feels and what it makes inside of the you.”
Even after decades of writing, she often struggled to reach her own feelings to write a poem.
“I live it, teach it, sleep it, drink it, write it, cook it up,” all in an attempt to name that truth – and thereby make it real.
Poetry, for Lorde, flourished from the contradictions we feel as people. The process of working these contradictions out is what often produces the poem. Even though a poem may have taken years to complete, she was frequently happier with the struggle than with the poems that came without a fight, because she didn’t always trust the ones that came in a flash.
“I’ve been working on one for over a year,” she explained. “Sometimes the hard work is short. It’s hard but short. Like a quick delivery, very painful, but a fairly short one.”
Madeleine Beckman is the author of Dead Boyfriends, a poetry collection; her poetry, fiction, essays, articles, and reviews have been published in journals, anthologies, magazines, and online. She has been the recipient of awards and artist residencies in the U.S. and abroad. She is Contributing Reviewer for Bellevue Literary Review, and teaches in the Masters Scholars Program at NYU/Langone Medical Center. Madeleine holds an M.A. in Journalism from New York University, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University. She lives and works in New York City.