In my old Detroit Public Library copy of Sister Outsider appears one of Audre Lorde's most well-known essays. It's just over three pages long. And perhaps because she brings her life as a poet to bear on these rather brief prose pieces (the longest is a transcript of a conversation between her and Adrienne Rich), her big ideas are distilled into crystal and simply laid before us readers. Lorde doesn't waste time. There's no filler. Like so:
As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas. They become a safe-house for that difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action. Right now, I could name at least ten ideas I would have found intolerable or incomprehensible and frightening, except as they came after dreams and poems. This is not idle fantasy, but a disciplined attention to the true meaning of "it feels right to me."
There's quite a lot articulated here, in just four sentences. At once, Lorde upholds poetry as an art of profound and practical change; of deep feeling (rather than analysis) as the most significant response in readers (whether it's articulated in a way we'd traditionally call "well" or not); and, as well, Lorde affirms that deep feeling in poetry is the habitat of the most radical ideas, where human difference is a catalyst, rather than an impediment, as it too often is in our unpoetic lives. By associating dreams and poems, Lorde also presents poetry as peculiarly physical.
"Your silence will not protect you." It's one of Lorde's quotations that I've seen cited on blogs, T-shirts, on a button pin among a hundred button pins on a college student's backpack. And it doesn't matter if the context was Lorde challenging violence against women of color, or racism in the feminist movement, or what it's like to raise a male child as a lesbian, or about Russia, or the value of anger, or about, finally her poems or the poems of others that she loved. It is all one thing.
In her really amazing essay, "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power," Lorde contends that the erotic is a concept that has been too neatly relegated to the bedroom and to simply conflated with pornography. Rather, she says, the erotic "is a resource within each of us … firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling." It's a depth of feeling, non-rational knowledge, that women in particular have been taught to distrust and fear.
In the essay, you hear the echoes of "Poetry is Not a Luxury:"
Beyond the superficial, the considered phrase, "It feels right to me," acknowledges the strength of the erotic into a true knowledge, for what that means is the first and most powerful guiding light toward any understanding. And understanding is a handmaiden, which can only wait upon, or clarify, that knowledge, deeply born. The erotic is the nurturer or nursemaid of all our deepest knowledge.
I love this conflation of the deep feeling of poetry, of the erotic, of "daring ideas" and of interacting with others in this world. Because it centers humans, humanity. So, while the very title of "Poetry is Not a Luxury" might sound like an admonishment to get on with our duty, Lorde is actually elevating the worth of joy.
Another important way in which the erotic connection functions is the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy. In the way my body stretches to music and opens into response, hearkening to its deepest rhythms, so every level upon which I sense also opens to the erotically satisfying experience, whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, examining an idea.
That self-connection shared is a measure of the joy which I know myself to be capable of feeling, a reminder of my capacity for feeling. And that deep and irreplaceable knowledge of my capacity for joy comes to demand from all of my life that it be lived within the knowledge that such satisfaction is possible, and does not have to be called marriage, nor god, nor an afterlife.
I'm working on an article for Bitch Magazine on writers and ambition (and the uneasy relationship between them). In my call-outs, I got an extraordinary response that resulted in 87 pages of transcribed interviews. They're funny, honest and often brilliant, and I'm lucky to have such rich resources to draw from as I pound out my 2,500 words.
But I'm reading Audre Lorde now, which makes certain patterns among the interviews stand out. Writer after writer–and these are poets, novelists, reporters, performers, playwrights and writers of self-help and crime fiction–turns on some variation of the phrase "it's the work that matters." That is, amidst our human drama of competition, insecurity, ego and ambition, it is a commitment to "the work" that keeps the fire on for these writers.
I believe them, I agree with them–to a point. Put in context of Lorde's thinking, it's not "the work" that matters at all; it's deep feeling, heightened in the sharing (reciprocity) among writer and readers. "The work"–that depersonalized phrase–is simply a point of translation. It's not writing for writing's sake, or work for work's sake, that we do what we do. There is a human center.