An Almost Unheard Low Note




Lisa L. Moore interviews Minnie Bruce Pratt

An Almost Unheard Low Note

August 24th, 2014 reset - +

MINNIE BRUCE PRATT is the author of six books of poetry. Her 1990 volume, Crime Against Nature, was the Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets and won the Gay and Lesbian Book Award of the American Library Association. The book tells the story of Pratt’s loss of custody of her two young sons when she came out as a lesbian in the 1970s. When the book was targeted by right-wing activists, Pratt received the Dashiell Hammett-Lillian Hellman Award from the Fund for Free Expression. Pratt’s Lamont Prize acceptance speech, which begins, “The gay bar that I went to in 1975 […],” also became the subject of controversy. Poet Judith McDaniel, in a letter to the Academy, wrote that “Only a few moments into Ms. Pratt’s presentation, John Hollander began looking at his watch, fidgeting in his chair, whispering audibly to James Merrill, and distracting the audience.” Hollander passed Pratt a note asking her to cut short her reading but she refused. Gay Community News reported the incident under the headline “Lesbian Poet Harassed at Awards Ceremony.”

Crime Against Nature, originally published by Firebrand Books, has just been re-issued by A Midsummer Night’s Press with an introduction by Julie Enszer, a new afterword by Minnie Bruce Pratt, and the text of Pratt’s Lamont Prize acceptance speech. It is the first volume in a new series titled Sapphic Classics, a collaboration between the venerable journal Sinister Wisdom and A Midsummer Night’s Press, which aims to reprint classic collections of lesbian-feminist poetry.

The following interview is an edited version of a telephone conversation that took place on May 9, 2014.

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LISA MOORE: What has it been like to see your first book, Crime Against Nature, receive new life and attention?

MINNIE BRUCE PRATT: Well, really Julie Enszer was the driving force, and I was very happy that Sinister Wisdom wanted to reissue it. But I did go through a process that many go through when they go back and revisit an earlier work: does it still speak to this moment? Between finishing the book in 1988 and now, of course, there have been tremendous political struggles to expand gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender life. I still get emails from lesbians who are losing custody of their children now… Actually, that motivated me to write the afterword, because I wanted to bring forward my understanding of this ongoing suffering and the ongoing struggle over how family is defined. I want to push that definition wider and wider so that it isn’t just contingent on the concept of a married same sex couple. Of course we should have access to marriage, but that doesn’t cover all the different configurations of family structure, which continue to survive under and in spite of intense pressure. So I think the voice of the book still resonates because it’s the voice of someone who was almost crushed by oppression and decided she would fight.

Absolutely. I taught this book in the early 1990s, and rereading it this morning, I find that it speaks to my experience as a mother (I am a married lesbian with children — my partner was able to adopt our children so we are both legal parents). There are stories, woven throughout the book, of terrible circumstances — the draft, poverty, even the enslavement of women — in which children are taken away from their mothers or mothers are denied access to their children. No matter how individual or historical the situation, motherhood still remains one of the most vulnerable states of being. Having children inevitably presents the risk of losing them.

Yes. And of course, I am still the mother of my sons, but I did not want to write about my personal circumstances with my children. That contradiction that was forced on me — are you a mother or are you a lesbian? — is a contradiction that is quite specific, yet universal to women’s oppression. Try substituting another word for “lesbian.” Are you a mother or do you leave the home and go out and work? Are you a mother or are you a sexual woman? This contradiction that gets forced on women, like you can’t be a whole self and be a mother. And if you are your whole self, the children may be taken away from you to punish you for living a complete life. Are you a good mother, or are you a woman who has to seek the support of the state in order to sustain survival? I was thinking of all those things as I was writing.

And that richness is very much felt in the book. Sometimes, with poems that tell such a strong story and have a powerful political message I find that we overlook the discussion of craft. You don’t get asked about your craft enough …

That’s right!

Can we turn to the craft a little? These poems are beautiful and powerful and ugly and explosive literary artifacts. And I think that’s one of the reasons these poems have lasted and will last. You have this great metapoetic moment in “The Child Taken From the Mother,” where you pop out of the narrative:

 And here,

 perhaps, you say: That last word doesn’t belong.

Woman, mother: those can stay. Lesbian: no.

Put that outside the place of the poem. Too

 slangy, prosy, obvious, just doesn’t belong.

 

It’s a brilliant example of your ability to tell a story in a way that expands the idiom of American poetry. Can you talk a little bit about what kinds of language and shaping you needed to invent for yourself to write these poems?

It was truly a struggle to understand what the language of the poems needed to be. And I think it’s important for readers to know, if they don’t already, how derogatory the word “lesbian” was in say, 1987, or the years that I was really going through the separation: 1975 and 1978. The only worse thing was the people throwing bottles at me. And of course that’s what the whole book’s about. I was thinking of and influenced by Joan Larkin’s “Vagina Sonnet,” a wonderful poem about a sexist encounter with a fellow teacher, a professor who didn’t want her saying, writing, speaking about women’s issues. In the last line, she addresses this person who doesn’t want her to defend her cunt’s good name. She uses that word explicitly.

That’s great!

It was part of the very live literary discussion going on among us about what kind of language we should use to talk about ourselves. Do we say “cunt” when that’s been used to defame us and harm us? And that struggle of what language to use bursts through the language of my poem “The Child Taken from the Mother.” There was no planning about it. It felt urgent to speak to the people who were telling me to be silent. I was speaking to them, the people who were telling me just go under, don’t defend yourself… for whatever reason. But the backdrop to that poem was a very deep, nuanced, political discussion about the language of the oppressed and the language of oppression, a conversation which is still happening. There will always be that gap between how we name ourselves and how others name us.

In “All the Women Caught in Flaring Light,” you write:

 

I often think of a poem as a door that opens

into a room where I want to go. But to go in

 

here is to enter where my own suffering exists

as an almost unheard low note in the music,

amplified almost unbearable, by the presence

of us all, reverberant pain, circular, endless,

 

which we speak of hardly at all.

 

What draws my attention immediately is the idea of the poem as a door and the idea that suffering is “an almost unheard low note in the music.” Would you say that describes an aspect of how you’re trying to write this poem?

Yes. I think that a good bit of my work, even now, is about that unheard low note — that it’s really just the cry of mourning, grief, pain, and rage that is searching for language. That’s part of the struggle against oppression, part of my role as a poet fighting oppression — my own and that of others whom I am in solidarity with — it’s the struggle to bring the almost inexpressible experience into language in the face of a discourse of power and domination that doesn’t want to hear us. And that is why it’s almost unheard — not just because it’s difficult to express but because there hasn’t been a place for it to come through. And even when there’s a place, a little opening in which to speak and be heard, we have to create the language that will somehow hold the experience. And that’s not a smooth and easy process. So, you know when you say people don’t ask me about craft… well, I don’t have a very easy relationship with craft. I have a very troubled relationship with it. My poetry has come up so much out of that raw place that I struggle to find a form that will hold it, even temporarily, and thereby be able to be heard by others. I often think about Molly Peacock…

A true formalist.

A genius at form. She said, when I heard her speak once, that for her form was something that could hold that pain, that helped her hold it. But I have never had that relationship with form. Instead, I struggled to find an idiomatic voice. Sometimes, it’s a formal structure. But more often it’s about how the voice negotiates the line and how it moves from the rhythm of one line to the next. How can the speaker stay in communication with the reader and carry that pain and struggle in some way that allows the reader to connect — to hear it? My choices follow from this gap that I’ve experienced in my life between what is happening to me and what can actually be voiced and heard in a public space. For me, poetry really has been that door.

It’s fascinating to hear you speak about your uneasy relationship to craft. It’s very beautiful to think about your poems as seeking out and inhabiting these in-between places between received forms.

Let’s turn now to your recent collection, Inside the Money Machine. Formally, Inside the Money Machine is extremely different from the poems in Crime Against Nature, in both directions. It includes many prose poems, as well as a sonnet that is very rhyme-rich. Is there something about exploring different formal containers for the poems that is part of your project here, or is just the way the poems evolved as you were seeking to find the right voice?

It wasn’t a deliberate new exploration of forms, but the form did follow the intent of the work. There’s a long history in the US of writing about work, workers, working class lives, so for these poems it was not a situation of having to break through to a new language. The real challenge for me with those poems was to come to some understanding of myself as part of a “we” and as part of an “us.” I spent a lot of time reading Cary Nelson and the poems of class-conscious writers in the 1930s.

I noticed your epigraph is from Rukeyser.

Yes: “the only danger is not going far enough.” It’s very interesting to look at how Rukeyser, Langston Hughes, Lola Ridge, Edna St. Vincent Millay and many others, use pronouns — “we” and “us” and “you” — and that was part of the project of understanding who I was as a poet in relation to other workers. There’s a poem by Neruda [“The Poet’s Obligation”], and in it he describes himself as someone who carries cups of water to people in prison. That’s how he conceived of himself as a poet. I’ve thought about that a lot, but the implication is that the poet himself is not imprisoned.

But isn’t the poet sometimes in prison?

Yes, though often it’s a figurative prison. When I was writing these poems, I was coming to an understanding that I am a worker and I’m inside capitalism with the other workers. So what is that “we” and what is that “us”?

There’s this great part in “Standing in the Elevator” where you talk about the experience of having been unemployed:

 

Jobless, I thought I’d never hear

our Niagara of sound going up the stairs again, never step,

immersed, into tens of thousand rushing to work…

…It’s never really about the money, except for the guys at the top.

They know how to make money off of us. We know

how to make things with each other. That’s what we want to do.

 

It’s incredible. That issue of making is a powerful theme throughout the book. Is making the place where you feel like you meet other workers?

I still feel very close to that poem.

“The Wednesday after May Day” is another poem that comes to mind about making. Formally, it is one of those very “made” poems, sonic and chiseled into stanzas. In the central stanza, you write:

 

The world watches the line bend. The people create

a rift, the numbers shift, the people shout, No, no,

they won’t work until they die so the banks can live,

make corporations into corpses is their cry—Make!

 

So much of this language is also about the making of poetry. . . Bending the line, shifting the numbers. Shouting. And then there’s all this great rhyme and assonance and consonance. And then, “make corporations into corpses, make!” It’s destruction as creation!

Yeah, absolutely. Making a new world.

And making a dead body.

Yes, that’s right. You know, in the Communist Manifesto, there’s a line that was very meaningful for me: “The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science into its paid wage laborers.” I think of myself as a worker who is a teacher and a poet. And I think a lot about intellectual property and how there’s a whole generation of us now who are making artifacts that then are taken and used for profit, digitally and in publishing and in other ways. I remember years and years ago reading an article in The Wall Street Journal that said something like intellectual property is the Gold Rush of the 21st century.

I’m just so intrigued by your reading of the poetry of the Manifesto!

Autoworkers are making cars. I’m making poems. I’m in the National Writers Union and we’re part of the UAW, and I see these roles as intimately connected. Both cars and poems are products that can be and are sold by people who make profit off our labor. All of this was on my mind and in my life while I was writing these poems. I understood that capitalism as an economic system has been naturalized. We, in the general population of workers are told this is the only way, yet we also know it’s not a good system for us. On some level we know that. But how do we feel it? How do I connect my daily life to these economic abstractions? What are the gestures of resistance? I spent a long time walking around my neighborhood and just trying to be with people and understand what it felt like for them to be where they were.

That sense of companionship and witness is clearly palpable in the poems. What about the presence of the natural world in your poetry? That doesn’t seem to get discussed enough either, yet almost every poem ends up having a moment of observation about the weather or a plant or birds or animals. But a lot of them are memories of your rural childhood, country places that you’ve lived. The beauty and danger of the natural world feel essential to the work. In “The Sparks Fly Upward” the natural world appears in a somewhat unexpected context:

 

On the way to work, I’m given a ratchety

static of rain hitting cement in the roadway.

Going home against the dark screen of sky,

I see the trees blazing up in their dying,

their fallen leaves making a carpet of sparks.

If I could jump into their bonfire!

 

And then the poem goes on to talk about trees, about evolution:

 

The walk is littered with red leaves, scorched

with brown, still veined with green. That’s us,

scattered on the ground for who comes next.

 

It’s a very anti-romantic, industrial version of nature. Like turning corporations into corpses, it’s a kind of fearless way of looking at how nature both is dead and causes death, among other things that it both is and causes. Could you talk about how those images of the natural world tend to come into your poems or inform them?

Well, I see the natural world and the economic critique that I’m trying to do in the poem as being completely connected. There’s a great quote from Marx on estranged labor: “The worker can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world.” And then he said something about nature being our body, “with which we must remain in continuous interchange if we are not to die.”

I grew up in a very rural place in Alabama, and that childhood experience of being in the natural world, of the natural world, not surprisingly shaped my life and my body and my memories, the way an urban child would be shaped by the city. So, the Cahaba River, the thunderheads coming up from the Gulf, these were the center of my sensual life. Then, much later when I became political, I began to learn the history of my state and my county — the history of racism, as well as the history of economic exploitation of coal, timber, the so-called natural resources. In the county that I grew up in, something like 75 percent is owned by out-of-state corporations. In my poems, I try to re-establish the link between the sensuous external world and our daily life — battered as we are under capitalism. We are still one species intertwined with the world and other species, and we need to rebuild our relationship to nature as part of our struggle to build a future we want to live in.

And yet, as you said before, in nature there is also death.

But for me there’s hope in that. I think, well, I’m going to die, but I’m also going to go on — my molecules will be part of the energy of the universe, and my words part of the struggle for justice. In order to build a new, coherent world, we have to find and create connections between the natural and the industrial, the environment and the economy. It’s the same way we find connections with other people in order to make societies work. It takes a conscious struggle, and that’s what the poems are about: the conscious struggle to return to these fundamental relationships. Engels once said, “Matter is unthinkable without motion.” The poems are my attempt to show matter in motion toward a new world — in our daily lives.

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Lisa L. Moore’s most recent book is Sister Arts: The Erotics of Lesbian Landscapes (Minnesota). She is a member of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and teaches literature, feminist and LGBT studies, and creative writing at The University of Texas at Austin.

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