And the winner of the latest collection of Elana Dykewomon’s poetry is…
Thanks for playing, all!
For those of you of a “certain age,” you are probably well-versed in Elana’s work and impact on lesbian fiction and culture. For those of you who came of age after the 70s or 80s and aren’t aware, HERE’S YOUR CHANCE.
I was really excited and honored to finally chat with Elana, who JUST RELEASED her latest book of poetry through Sinister Wisdom, What Can I Ask: New and Collected Poetry, 1975-2014. She’s the third poet featured in the Sapphic Classics series over there, and if you’re not familiar with Dykewomon’s poetry, wow. You are in for a serious treat.
Her poems address themes that you will find throughout a lot of her work — lesbians as dynamic and active; honesty, no matter how painful or difficult; women moving between communities; class; physical bodies; the sense of the outsider; sexuality and sensuality. You’ll find those themes as well in her novels at Bywater Books, so you can read Elana’s work in a variety of narrative forms.
In honor of this just-released Sapphic Classic collection of poetry — and in honor of National Poetry Month! — our fabulous colleagues at Sinister Wisdom are putting up a print copy of Elana’s latest collection. To get in on this awesome-ness, leave a comment below (remember, don’t put your email in the comment body but please provide your email in the comment fill-out form). We’ll do the drawing Monday, April 20th at 9 PM EST.
Elana Dykewomon was born in New York City. When she was 8, her middle-class Jewish parents moved the family to Puerto Rico. She returned to mainland eventually, and studied fine art at Reed College in Portland, Oregon and received her B.F.A. in creative writing from the California Institute of Art. Later, she would complete an M.F.A. in creative writing from San Francisco State University. She published her first novel — the groundbreaking Riverfinger Women — when she was in her early 20s. Since then, she has won awards for her fiction, served as editor of Sinister Wisdom, the multicultural lesbian literary and art journal, and been a teacher and activist.
With the publication of her collection of short stories and poems in the 1976 And They Will Know Me By My Teeth: Stories and Poems of Lesbian Struggle, Celebration, and Survival, Elana changed her surname to “Dykewoman” to demonstrate her commitment to and solidarity with the lesbian community as well as to “keep her honest” — anyone reading the book would know instantly that the author was a lesbian. The collection dealt with themes like class, lesbian bodies, sexuality, and lesbian communities both real and imagined. With her 1981 book of poetry, Fragments from Lesbos, published “for lesbians only,” she changed the spelling of her last name to Dykewomon, to avoid an etymological connection to men.
Her work has broken numerous silences about women and lesbians — their bodies, sexualities, identities, lives, losses, and loves. She has often voiced what remained unvoiced, written what had yet to be transcribed, and captured the essence of eras and change.
Please join me in welcoming Elana to Women and Words.
ANDI: Hi, Elana! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me here at Women and Words. It’s a pleasure to have you here, and a huge honor as well. So let’s get right to it. You were born in New York City but ended up in Puerto Rico as a child, where you initially struggled with the knowledge that you were a lesbian. How did those early years in PR help shape you as a writer?
ELANA: What a question! It seems to warrant a book.
ANDI: We can dream…
ELANA: Childhood is opaque, even when you’re a child; and everything influences your writing if you’re a writer.
Going to Puerto Rico at 8, though, informed many aspects of my political analysis. It was an intersectional childhood: we were American Jews in a small Jewish community composed of other American Jews on business and many European holocaust refugees; later Jewish refugees from Cuba. So: Jew in a Catholic country; lesbian in the heterosexual culture of the late 50s- early 60s; white colonialists among people of color. Outsider, despised, and oppressor. A tangled root. I continue to learn by watching how stones wear each other away at the tide line.
ANDI: That image really resonates with me. I grew up in a rural river town, and I always found peace on the banks, where I’d collect smooth stones. To this day, I still carry stones from river banks in my pockets or my luggage when I travel. They impart comfort, I’ve discovered.
Let’s talk about your first novel, Riverfinger Women, which was published in 1974, when you were 24. It’s hailed as a classic of lesbian life in the anti-war 1960s and it was published by Daughters, Inc. Press, founded in 1973, the press that also initially published Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle. Can you talk a bit about the cultural backdrop for Riverfinger Women and how it fit into your life as a writer and burgeoning activist at the time?
ELANA: When I wrote Riverfinger Women — which was several years before Daughters started — it came from the simple desire to write a lesbian novel with a happy ending. Before then, lesbian novels had almost universally gruesome conclusions; if the lesbians simply went straight and “repented” that was as happy as it got. Ann Bannon’s Beebo Brinker was a little less tortured and written more sympathetically, but it still centered around the lesbian bar scene and broken hearts. My ebook publisher was just (April 2014) running a “Sex Drugs Rock ‘n’ Roll” special, and Riverfinger was included in the list — and that’s what it is, sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll — the lesbian version.
Yet not simply that. I wrote it in great gulps as I was leaving college; at the urging of one of my professors, I sent it to Henry Miller’s publisher who was starting a line of “liberated soft porn for housewives” — they kept it for a year and sent it back. And then Daughters started. I saw the notice in the Valley Women’s Center (Northampton), where I had started volunteering, likely around 1972, or early ’73, when we thought the revolution was just around the corner — if we hurried, we could meet it. Riverfinger was part of a sea-change in consciousness. It was the first novel advertised as being about lesbians in the New York Times (even Rubyfruit, on the same page, was not described as lesbian). This could be a twenty-page answer, so for the rest, you’ll have to read my memoir when I finish it.
ANDI: I love the stories behind the stories. That era was such a ferment of lesbian culture and politics, and your description of a sea change in consciousness really brings it home for me, given all that I’ve read that was written in the era and later about the era. The people I’ve spoken with who remember it talk about shifts in consciousness and a new kind of zeitgeist. Riverfinger Women is for me a historical document, especially in the ways that you incorporated materials into the text from the era. It’s also something buoyant and jubilant but also messy and searching, sort of how I envision that era to be.
And speaking of history: your novel Beyond the Pale (orig. published 1997), is a Lambda winner and a Ferro-Grumley Award-winner. It’s a sweeping historical novel set in the early 20th century that follows the lives of two women who were born in a Russian Jewish settlement but immigrate to New York’s Lower East Side. You’ve said that the novel took you 10 years to write. Would you share the story about how the idea for this novel came to fruition and what was involved in writing it?
ELANA: Over the course of about 15 years, I kept hearing the “voice” of an immigrant Jewish lesbian who spoke to me in songs and poems about her experiences, until I decided, damn, I have to figure out who she is. So I started to do some research and the more I did, the more she and the other characters became real to me. It’s a rare and exciting experience for writers. But I had no idea how much she was asking. Of course I didn’t work on it every day for ten years — most of the writing happened at retreats. But the research was enormous. Research not only supports what you have written, but leads you in new directions, or to new depths. All my friends helped, and I’m blessed that my spouse is a librarian.
ANDI: Thank you for pointing out the importance of research. That’s one of the things I loved about this novel.
ELANA: And, although I am of course pleased by its enduring place in lesbian literature, my favorite response was my mother’s. “To think that one of us wrote this!” she said, holding me as the fruition of many generations of women’s toil.
ANDI: That’s a theme I pick up in your work. This sense of generations of women, working to common purpose, some of whom perhaps don’t ever see the results of that work, but when they do, there’s a sense of recognition and perhaps a realization about the multilayered and multigenerational history of that work, whether material, political, or cultural.
You’ve described yourself elsewhere as a “cultural worker.” What does that mean to you and how do you think it has played out in your writing over the years?
ELANA: Being a cultural worker is a conceptualization of the role of artists as members of their communities — not above or separate. And it honors writing/art as work vital to a community’s well-being, as much as plumbing or nursing. It has been both useful to me and in some ways detrimental to “marketing” myself & my work, since its underpinning is anti-capitalist and its intent is non-hierarchic. The essay “The Ex-Patriot and Her Names” reprinted (from InVersions, ed. by Betsy Warland, Press Gang, Vancouver, 1991) in the new volume of selected poems goes into this in much greater detail.
ANDI: Got that, readers? You might want to check that out.
I want to turn now to something else. You read part of the preface to your 2003 collection of stories, Moon Creek Road, in a 2010 interview. The last part of what you read was,
“What I hope and keep hoping is that women of every kind will find room in the world for their own stories, and that eventually—sooner, rather than later—borders will stop making sense, because our stories will no longer hinge on the empty language of turf, possession, and competition, but on the visions we bring to relationships. May our words remake the world.”
In the years that you’ve been involved with women’s/lesbian publishing in all the ways that you have, and seen the changes in the industry and in the cultural, political, and social contexts that surround it, what’s your sense of stories, and remaking the world with them?
ELANA: I remain convinced that story is the only thing that does change people, moves them, brings them together. Consider the stories underlying the Black Lives Matter movement – individual stories of specific atrocities that deepen each other’s meaning and mobilize communities to change.
Of course stories are used for entertainment and diversion; the lesbian and queer communities are no different in their consumption of those fables. No, I take that back — even the feel-good romances of marginalized people have the task of mirroring us to ourselves and each other, bringing us into being (Public lesbian “be-ing” is a very new & raw phenomenon). Self-publishing seems to have taken up where independent publishers have been squeezed out of the market, and while that has its own problems (especially lack of critical editing), it is on the whole a healthy development. And, amazingly, independent lesbian publishers still exist and put out engaging, thought-provoking, stimulating work.
We need our stories as we need clean air & water; and just as deeply, we need to listen, to re-dedicate ourselves to taking in what others offer.
ANDI: One of the most common refrains I hear about so-called lesbian fiction — regardless of genre — is that sense of “seeing myself represented.” Which comes with its own set of issues about who is being represented in those stories, and whether they’re capturing class, ethnicity, race, and bodies in all their manifestations. I think that’s changing, too (for the better), and I hope that self-publishing and the explosion of other kinds of independent platforms further enable the telling of stories.
I want to talk now about your poetry, especially since you’ve got a new collection, What Can I Ask, just out with Sinister Wisdom’s Sapphic Classics! What brought you to poetry, and how does it fit your work as a cultural activist?
ELANA: I started out as a poet. And I kept being one. It’s as difficult a label to adopt & grow into as “lesbian” — perhaps harder.
ANDI: Could you say more about that?
ELANA: On one hand, my analysis is that all art is political, and its purpose, to paraphrase Lorraine Hansberry, is to either put its audience to sleep or wake it up. Poetry stirs us. The Harlem Renaissance, the Nuyorican Poets, all the women writing poetry in the 60s & 70s — poetry is the manifestation of a community’s longing to envision, define & articulate itself.
On another hand, poetry is something beyond specific communities, a vibration alive in the vast stretches of everything we think of as empty, the song of what we cannot see. It’s power without self-interest, song beyond belonging to anyone. So. For me poetry is both profoundly rooted in community as well as a spiritual conveyance…
ANDI: Poetry, for me, often captures the visceral in ways that other narrative forms do not. It’s a sensory experience, and both reflective of an ethos and individual as well as a harbinger of possibility and reminder of the past. I love how poetry can pull reactions from us.
ELANA: Here’s a short one from the book [What Can I Ask].
If you were my home
I would be your garden
If I was your garden I would want you
to cultivate me to plant water weed harvest
and like I promised I would feed you
You can always eat what straggles up or
what’s gone to seed but nothing will be
as sweet as the taste of the womon
you tended purposefully
[NOTE: formatting changed on last line to mimic how it appeared in Elana’s document]
ANDI: Thank you so much, Elana. I love the rhythms and images of that one. Your latest collection of poetry — New and Selected — covers the years 1975-2014. How did you approach this collection? Did you have themes in mind as you put the collection together?
ELANA: Julie Enszer [editor at Sinister Wisdom] had the idea to get my poetry back in print. So the collection is everything I still like enough to want in print from three books — They Will Know Me By My Teeth (which was primarily short fiction and prose poems, with ten poems interspersed), fragments from lesbos and Nothing Will Be As Sweet As the Taste. The ten “new” poems (some of which are twenty years old, a couple of which I wrote in the last year) reflect themes I’m most engaged with — what we do with the inheritances of war, how we make community, how we claim our ancestors, aspects of gender and aging. It was very difficult to choose representative work that would fit in the space we had. Now I realize at least another book of poems, maybe two or three, are hanging out on my computer.
ANDI: That’s good to hear! Two or three more! So tell us a bit now about your writing process. Do you have a secret room? A particular beverage on hand when you start a writing session? Rituals? Music? Pre-writing dances? Inquiring minds!
ELANA: No secrets. I do have a study — when we were lucky enough to remodel our home, we built a new room on top of the garage, with a view of the Oakland hills (plus houses, a church — but I can easily over-look them). I write my dreams or whatever’s on my mind for a half hour every morning. Poems sometimes rise in response to other poets’ work — I keep a lot of poetry by my reading chair. Or a first line comes to me in the shower — poetry is a habit of being open to resonance, but it’s hard to discipline. I write essays when someone asks for one about something I’m interested in — they are very rough going and require endless revision. Fiction — I usually have to go away somewhere to write it. The characters in my books need a lot of room to walk around and talk to me, as I to them. I can revise at home, lay out the bones of chapters, or do research, but I am too easily distracted to give long-term characters what they need from me in the midst of my daily life. Oh, and I often have to play video solitaire before I get started. Except in the quiet mornings, when I am most at home in language.
ANDI: I’m going to quote you back here, because this line really grabbed me: “poetry is a habit of being open to resonance, but it’s hard to discipline.” I think many creative pursuits experience that. I especially like the idea of “resonance,” which is something I try to convey to newer writers. I can’t force writing. The instant I start to do that, there’s discord and it no longer resonates. So I encourage being open — to new experiences, new people, new places. And you’ll know when something settles into you and resonates. Thanks for that.
What’s next on your writing agenda?
ELANA: I’ve been working on a memoir for quite awhile, on and off. The first half/volume is close to done, though when my mother died recently, I realized I want to revisit the opening and change it radically. So that’s my next priority. My friend, the writer Susan Stinson, inspired me to write a memoir when she was visiting SF some years ago — we were driving around and I was telling her stories about Daughters Inc.’s big NY launch party, and she said, “You know that’s history. We want to know.” So I’ve been working on it.
ANDI: She’s right. We do. Are there any other projects in the works you can chat about?
ELANA: After the memoir, I want to gather at least another book of poems together. I have the starts of dozens of stories on the computer; I hope to be able to get together another volume of short stories and who knows, perhaps another novel. I’ve got about twenty writing years left, I expect. We’ll see.
ANDI: On that awesome note, I’ll let you go. I know you’ve got to be on the road and you’ve got things to do, people to see, appearances to make. Thank you SO MUCH for stopping by, Elana. Safe travels and may you find ever more resonance.
There you are, friends. Elana Dykewomon right here at Women and Words. DON’T FORGET to get in on your chance to win a copy of her latest collection of poetry, courtesy of Sinister Wisdom.
Elana publishes novels at Bywater Books!
WRITING WORKSHOP WITH ELANA!
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