Wednesday, December 24, 2014

An Interruption to the Story of Our Journey--Our day Here, Now

Today our home in West Brunswick was gifted by a flow of lovely young men: Arpan from Bhutan, 23, and "Will" from Beijing, 25, students here and Felix, 14, the brother of Ruby, who lives across the street. Arpan and Will and I have decided to form an English conversation class in our back yard while Felix came with a jar of honey made in the backyard of one of his friends. Speaking with these lads, as it is said here, was touching in a way, a part of the future, understanding the sacrifices so many are making to forge a life out of shifting boundaries. Loneliness and courage--all of us finding new words to welcome each other. La Professoressa and I held each other in the specialness of this day. To be of use.

Cello in all his aging glory

This is the time of year when our backyards produce their own gifts and are shared. Here yellow beans, homemade bread, and Italian fried sweet bread from Anna and Vincenzo, fresh eggs and apricot jam from Colin and Jenny, our rhubarb and apricots.

The glory of poster paints as I make our wrapping paper. A whole other way of life I have found here.
I wish you all the kindness of each to each.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Journey: Part 4--SEEK Pride Day,Cadences of Liberation, October 20, 1014, Queens College

Going over my notes with Dr June Bobb, my colleague for so many years, another impossible farewell
Poem for June
It was you who first islanded me,
who showed me how to step from
bony spine to bony spine.
Waters of history and endless time
lapping at volcanic determination.
You freed for me all the lyric possibilities
of island memory.
Of how to eat a mango, the poet, your friend, 
Of how to find the beaten flesh and hunker down
in caves deep in mountains' sides
Until the tyrants drowned in those
blue seas ringed by flaming trees.

For twenty years we scoured texts,
flesh and seed to feed
our students' quest.
Now I am 73
and live upon an island continent
Far from where I started.
but I have my island legs,
and more, your voices
deep within me.

From   1965 to 1995 I taught writing in the Queens College SEEK Program. Here I found worlds of literature and friendships as profound as my work with the Lesbian Herstory Archives. When Mark Levy, another old SEEK colleague and veteran of the Freedom Schools who now works on creating the Queens College Civil Rights Archives, told the program I would be in New York one more time, Dr. Norka Blackman-Richards, Assistant Director of SEEK, worked out a day's schedule for me so I could address the students, visit classes and take in dear faces. These are matter- of- fact words for such a day.

Schedule: 10:05--11:00 Dr Rodway's English 110 Class
                11:10-12:00 Meeting with Assistant Provost Dr June Bobb
                12:15-1:30 SEEK Pride Day: Generation 18
                1:40-2:40 Dr. Rodway's English 110 Class
                3:00-4:30 Small reception with SEEK Faculty and Staff

Our SEEK student guides for the day, Janet Williams and Gatrie Samaroo and how they stuck with us through all the tumult of the day. How such students grace Queens College and how welcoming they were to us both.

Ciceley, more formally known as Dr Rodway, a poet, an old friend, for years we had laughed and struggled with the challenges of our SEEK lives, a program always fighting for its life, a student body fighting for its life, Dr Rodway still marching as she did last weekend in Washington, D.C. in honor of the lives of black men, including her two sons. One more time, she gave me the chance to greet students, to listen to their journeys with the task of writing, to look another generation in the face, kind enough to let me make contact for such a short time, one more time I had a piece of chalk in my hand, and there on the board took shape again that sentence that contains, as I said for years, the most powerful use of the semicolon in the English language. From The Narrative of Frederick Douglass (19845): "You have seen how a man was made a slave; now you will see how a slave is made a man." The journey of a life time in that semicolon turn, of a  nation still caught in the juncture. The sheer joy of the time I had with these students, with their questions, with their brave explorations, with Dr Rodway making all possible, with La Professoressa sitting there, seeing Joan, the teacher, a joy so deep, feeling again all that SEEK had given me, the poetry of hope and of struggle, of meaning. How grateful I am. For all.

The hall filled with another generation of SEEK students

In a small reception room, in the SEEK Building, Lloyd Delaney Hall, such stories lie behind these simple words, I met once again comrades. The SEEK motto: "Learn to Struggle, Struggle to Learn."

Alem. dear Alem, still teaching social sciences

Looking at pictures of the old days with Frank S. Franklin, the director of the Program for many years now. I knew us all before we went gray.

Good-bye, my dear friends,

Notes for my talk on the anniversary of SEEK (1964--): The Poetry of SEEK

In Memory of Mordine Mallory, the first SEEK librarian, George Priestley, social science teacher, Daniel Chiremba, social science teacher, Sam Floyd, English teacher, Ruth Siegel, English teacher

Poets who have had a connection to SEEK as teachers, as students: Nikki Giovanni, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Alex DeVaugh

What does it mean to be born in liberationist times--when national scripts were being refused, when the usual insults  to race, class, genders and sexuality were answered with grassroots communal assertions of full human dignity. There is a cadence to such years as gave SEEK life, that live on with you, the cadence of asking questions of assumed power and privilege, of seeking connections between peoples in their struggle to create new histories. My life shines with the voices that live in my head and heart, that I first heard in my SEEK years, 1965-1995--the voices of my colleagues and the writers we found to teach us what was needed to be understood. To be educated to ask questions of power, outside of ourselves and sometimes even of our own, to master the  skills that allow the decipherment of texts and to produce ow own complex analysis--to find a way to look towards the future with a better vision while understanding the tensions and pretensions of the past, all concerns that connect SEEK to its liberationist past and to your futures in the 21st century. Forgive--when you are 74, you sometimes speak funny, in sweeping waves of the heart. 
Shirley Chisholm, 1960s

History notes: SEEK created, as a five year experiment, to quench the determination of young black and Puerto Rican women and men to get a higher education--the street rebellions of the 60s--Watts, Detroit, New York--social change movements of the 60s--people believing that history could be changed and made again by the force of their determination to say no more. In the streets and in the halls of politics. Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005) one of these social activist and progressive politicians who co-authored the legislation that brought SEEK into being--daughter of West Indian immigrants, the first black woman elected to congress, the first woman to run for President of the United States, a grassroots organizer who who in the 60s hired only women to be on her staff, who said in 1965,"Women in this country must be revolutionaries, we must refuse to accept the old traditional roles and stereotypes," who said "I want history to remember me not just as the first black woman elected to congress or to make a bid for the presidency of the US but as a black woman who lived in the 20st century and dared to be herself." Her political vision--wrote and worked for a bill that secured unemployment insurance for domestic workers and daycare providers, obtained federal funding for daycare facilities and campaigned for a higher minimum wage. Her campaign motto, "Unbought and Unbossed." all in the early 60s.

Poetry is the language of dreams and deep endeavors, of faces turned to the sun while in the shadows of failed human visions. Poetry lives on the human body as much as it lives on the page; it lives in the landscapes of a people's yearning to be free, complex and happy, it lives in the language of resistance and commemoration, poetry speaks every time we honor each others' fullness of dignity. Poetry is the enrichment of our senses to all the possibilities of life. This was SEEK to me. I might have left SEEK in 1995 but SEEK has never left me. The cadences of our life together-- students,colleagues, administrators, and in the texts I first had to learn so I could bring their poetries into the classroom-- have never left me. I can still trace the curves of Karintha in my mind, the creation of Harlem Renaissance poet, Jean Toomer, find her as my class did in the undulating rhythms of her name that so held a woman's tragedy, My spirit still jumps for the moon, still shining with the force of Zora Neale Hurston's power of story telling, I still tell myself, :things do not fall apart," hearing both words of Chinua Achebe and Lucille Clifton, things do not fall apart but are held in lines, in the heart. Bessie Head's "Collector of Treasures" still trembles with the fierce tenderness of her life, both of her characters and her own. The works we studied together, with their anger and determination, "do you really know me," asks Nicolas Guillen, all of me, not just the Spanish part of me but my African grandfather lost in the seas of the middle passage. James Baldwin looking at his father, telling us that history must be confronted, all the old countries where so much was taken, but which keeps parts of us alive. Langston Hughes, his soul deep as ancient rivers, walks with me, his tenderness and dedication. and always, the cadences of Frederick Douglass, telling us in 1880, that the discussion about character and not color must go on, that "where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe. This discussion will go on." Douglass' cadences of refusal and of higher visions, of political insights and historical understandings, his poetry of what was taken and what must never be given up,  stay with his readers for a lifetime. You too will find, write, create your own cadences of  insight, of indignation and of hope.

SEEK is the living will of a generation of students who were determined to learn all the poetics they could--critical social thinking under the tutelage of George Priestley, Daniel Chiremba, of mathematics, of languages, of international texts singing of complex geographies and shifting borders.
I stand her today with deep gratitude for being a small part of the wonder we call the SEEK Program, that meeting place of beginnings and the refusal of deprivations, of big dreamings and hard hard work, where voices leaped off pages into our hearts, where thinkers, teachers and students alike, broke new ground while valuing the gifts of their own cultural richnesses. We made and make a world here a community of respected differences and complex solidarities, struggling always to learn both the text and how best to use them in this 21st century. It seems that all that stands at the center of SEEK is needed now more then ever in this country, in this world. Thank you for the privilege of speaking with you.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Part 3: The Lesbian Activists-Artists of Ljubljana: Thank You, Tatjana, Urska, Natasa, Petra,Nina, Beti and All, September 26--September 28, 2014

Our First Walk along the Ljubljanica River

The letter that make it all possible, March 5, 2014:

Dear Joan Nestle,
I'm writing on behalf of Lesbian section SKUC-LL from Ljubljana, Slovenia. We run a small non-profit publishing house--book edition Vizibilja, dealing with lesbian prose, poetry and theory. So far we have published 33 titles. For 2014 we were planning to publish 3 titles (one book of prose, one book of fiction by Slovenian lesbian authors)-one of which will be your work, "A Restricted Country." Actually we have already started the process of translation as a collective of three translators: Natasa Velikonja, Urska Sterle and Tatjana Grief...and there is something else I'd like to ask. We would like to invite you to visit us in Slovenia and to take part  in literary readings for our cultural project dedicated to LGBT history. Please let us know if you can visit us between September and December. Looking forward to your reply, Tatjana Grief, editor of Vizbilija

Thinking of the generosity, the dedication, the creativity, the determination, the imaginative strength of the women we met in our short but intense visit to Ljubljana gives us visions of what is possible. Tonight, the day after the actions of a violent ill man in a Sydney cafe, in a time of endless wars and no responsibility for the history that creates the rage we call terrorism, I look at the faces of our friends, the lesbian women of Ljubljana, who with little material support, keep demanding, keep producing inclusive lesbian, feminist, queer culture.

Just Published, 25 Years of Lesbian History in Slovenia, 197-2012. Compiled and Written by Natasa Velikonja and Tatjana Grief. A copy is now at the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, NY and one is with us in Melbourne, where turning the pages puts us once again in the presence of this visionary community.

Urska, Tatjana and I in the cafe before the public conversation in the old art gallery

Nina, the poet, in the archives--publishing space of the Lesbian Project--on the site of the old army barracks, Metelkova, now liberated space for activists--artists.

La Professoressa and Urska in the squatted and transformed counter culture precinct of Metelkova

Stacks of Slovenian and translated lesbian works. Audre Lorde lives in this Slovenian lesbian cultural project.

Nina and Petra join us for the morning with Nora, the dog, who is part of everything.

Urska and Di looking over book covers and journals

Urska asking me hard important questions during our public conversation. I still feel the honor, the wonder of looking out at the gathered, some of the women making the journey from Belgrade, of being asked to be part of such a moment. On the arm of La Professoressa, I have come to the city of Three Bridges, to the home of another history with the Alps looming over the narrow alleys, to sit in the night with our new friends, before the cafe that welcomes us. I remember that other late night cafe gathering, on our last night in Belgrade. The young not wanting us to go, we so moved by those faces, those yearnings for a chance at a fuller life, new friends become so deeply old. Never will we forget the moments we have shared in these streets, the faces that embraced us.

An early issue of the Slovenian lesbian journal, Lesbo

Nina, Urska, Petra--in their territory. On such bodies such courage.

I have written of the habitats of farewell that so marked this journey, but at times, new moments of welcome gave endless hope and deep pleasure.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Journey, part 2: Habitats of Farewell

Deborah by the river

Each leave taking in its own setting, its own geography of impossible moment. Here, Deborah is having lunch with me in the small cafe that sits before the Hudson River promenade on 70th street, the concrete tongue built by Trump that pours out into the river.We have known and worked with each other since 1973. There is no way to say good-bye. We just perch on this corruptedly- built spit of river way to be in each other's company one more time.

 In the old Catholic cemetery in the Bronx, an ancient habitat of farewells, Deb and Teddy take us to visit the grave of Mabel Hampton, but Ms Hampton soars into life in the air around us. How impossible it is to contain our human story in stone, our human lesbian story made of spirits too huge for such solidity. We tell stories as we stand of the Hampton years; all around is impermanence--this I knew as every day on this journey, I tried to take hold of time and those I loved in it and now I sit in our study in Melbourne, a late hour, La Professoressa walking the streets of Oslo where snow and cold touch her Australian cheek, Cello sleeping at my feet, his breathing a little more labored now, and I return to these images to keep them in life, to keep me in life.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Journey of My Lifetime, August 27th to November 4, 2014

Our first encounter: Excavations at the La Brea tar pits where woolly mammoths fell into endless history. Under the glitz and struggles of Los Angeles, the end of a time bubbles up into a tar memory. My brother, Elliot, had told me of this place. For him, who never broke free from the grip of his own sorrows.

The sad events of the world flood me; American racism so persistent, so murderous, the people of Gaza stumbling over the ruins of their homes, hatred on the unjust streets, and the terrorism of the Israeli state that kills Palestinian selfhood every day is never called out for what it is. A German-Turkish woman beaten to death for coming to the aid of two young women who were being harassed by men just because they could. Unquestioned masculinities as dangerous as unquestioned nationalisms.

Oh, here she goes again. Yes. All of this never goes away, not in my lifetime. But because of La Professoressa, roads lead also to hope. My lesbian life has saved my life in so many ways, so different from the judgment of the 1950s world I came out into, where all was seen as pathology from cultural to biological. I have not been able to find the words to tell you of our journey of two months, from the end of August to the beginning of November, from Los Angeles to New York to London to Ljubljana to London to the Welsh Hills to New York to Santa Monica and finally home to Melbourne, ten planes and 16 beds later.

In Manhattan, saying goodbye to Naomi and Eva, la Professoressa wearing her iconic Australian flowers

(I must write  this telling in small passages, slowly, reliving the goodbyes that will stand for the rest of my life. To those who looked for my words over these months, or those who read my older words for the first time, thank you for looking for me, for finding me.)

The unplanned sharing of lives for only hours. Naomi and Eva invite us to share with them their Sunday morning meditation service in the Goodard-Riverside Community Center, a place I remember for its caring for the needs of people just getting by over the years. Still there on Amsterdam Avenue. I sit next to Naomi, her eyes closed, her thigh touching mine as she relaxes into the wanted stillness. I feel the weightlessness of her presence, the privilege of knowing my friend of so many year, is sharing her preparations with me. My friend, her small apartment on 75th street with a poem so centred on the little wooden desk, month after month, reaching into the years. My friend who walked with me in Central Park over the years and spoke poetry as we breathed, "My dear, my dear, it is not so terrible here," my friend who brought me her old watercolor set when I was wheel chair bound, my friend who spoke to me over cups of chamomile tea in fine cups with morsels of Haliva on our shared plate, my friend who would steal away with me to Happy Hamburger, now long gone, to sit with truck drivers and take big bites, my friend who said in my ear in so many ways, "Courage, Joan, courage,"my friend who sat with me in chemo rooms, my friend who now has lived for 97 years with her laughter and her literary battles, my friend who lives in love, my friend. You always make me better.

Our arrivals back into Manhattan always tease me with remembered connections while reminding me I no longer have a home there. A dark night when we see our Roomarama on the corner of 75th and Riverside Drive, our home for the next two weeks. A sitting room as the British would say. We have entered the twilight zone of renting rooms in NY. Nothing works properly and we discover all the mailboxes have the same last name on them. A shadowy business this, and as we discover in our last stay in New York, one with tragic consequences for the elderly, the fixed income survivors who are just dead wood for the corporate interests. Real estate is New York's oil, a friend will later tell us, and like the other tar pit we       gazed upon, whole lives slip easily into displacement and loss. I no longer know this city, but I do reach for my friends.

Paula Grant finds us in our bedsit. We have known each other since the 70s and now is the time for our deepest visit. We will sit on benches in the upper reaches of Central Park, we will walk along the Hudson, we will share the coming of a storm along this mighty river, we will talk and talk, the years of shared connections falling about our shoulders, like a favorite shawl.
Sharing a meal and then a place of refuge in the Marina restaurant on 79th street, the wind howling across the river, blowing the patrons out of their seats. Workers and diners try to fasten the plastic strips to no avail.

New friends are made in aftermath, shelter offered and taken.

As we walk back to our bedsit, the river roils with its disturbed currents and I think as I always do of my beloved Whitman tenderly walking along its banks, ever open to a promising glance. Once back in Melbourne, however, thinking of the time spent in the company of the Hudson, this time from the Jersey side, with Deb and Teddy, high on the Palisades, I think of T.S. Eliot's line, "until human voices wake us and we drown" and for the first time, I understand. The river unrentable, unowned in its depths, profound in its just being, ancient in its just being, there I see a complex possibility, but on the streets of Manhattan, the noise of frantic exclusion, the conversation of who deserves to have a place to live, of who is really of value, roars in one's ears, and the old  city falls apart.