Sunday, October 7, 2018

Words, Again

I have missed this little pocket of screen that some how feels it is just you and me, Joan as a writer in small places. Face book is the posting of my work, my projects, my sending on of calls to action and thank yous to all who live there. Here I am the the aging woman, the writer who never did another book but yet it feels as if I have never stopped writing. A 78 year old woman with yet another body mystery--a mass in my left lung that is not cancer, but a rare disease known as granulomatous inflammation--a word I cannot really pronounce. An autoimmune misreading, trying too hard to protect, it has created a hardness of cells that can be systemic but for now seems confined to my lung. The mysteries of the body misreading itself, a tenderness for its fallacies, when it errs on the side of protection. How human that all is--to create difficulties from too much vigilance.

I am still in Melbourne, still with Di, Cello still walks beside me, he and I slower, more crooked. We slant like Emily Dickinson's famous line, but I am afraid no truth seeps in. Other then the changing body, the changing abilities, the changing time one remains vertical. I am deep in helping to edit the Sinister Wisdom issue celebrating LHA's 45 years of existence along with wonderful LHA-ers: Red, Shawn, Morgan, Saskia, Deb, Maxine, Flavia. From 23,000 miles away, collaboration.
A Flame Robin, an Emblem of Passion, 2017, Anglesea, Australia

Like this pulsing heart of life, my heart, my head sometimes feels like bursting as I follow Trump's bellowing, the easy cruelties, the rush of money because Capitalism does not care who lives behind barbed wires or cocked guns-the overstatements of intent--I watch my NY Yankees, a daughter of the Bronx, I still am--and the the Boston Red Sox's sweat shirts assert "Do Damage"--not just simply win or do the best you can. The new Supreme Court Judge, a strange child man whose face pouts much like Trump's when he feels wrong done by, now a life time of power. Democrats demonized as the extreme left--we predicted this so many years ago when "liberal" became too scary for its progressive attachments--the center does not hold, it does not exist. But and the but is needed, we march, we get arrested, we write and create and vote and get others to vote and will never give up this resistance. 

I am very cold often and tired but books clothe me--my watercolor pencils take me into Cezanne's world, I miss my old friends and wish they were closer-- a kind of loneliness has been a companion my whole life, now intensified by this great distance from my historical home. I fool myself, this loneliness is in my bones.
A wonderful Visit with Morgan and Saskia, 2017

Thursday, March 8, 2018

My Australian Reading List--How I Learned about My New Home, Compiled in 2008

"You were born here. I come for the first
time in my life: a sort of pilgrimage
to find some relic, read an earlier page
than the known text..."

From "Another's Childhood," by Gwen Harwood, as Miriam Stone

On my first extended visit to Melbourne in 1998, I hunted my partner's book shelves to read all I could about my new geography. I have never stopped my search for  Australian texts that would help me read this land, these histories. Here are a few books, some old, some new, that have given me insight and  pleasure. [Given out at my first Brunswick Library talk about home and exile.] 

Armstrong, Diane. The Voyage of their Life: The Story of the SS Derna and its Passengers, 2001.
Astley, Thea. It's Raining in Mango, 1987.
Australian Gay and Lesbian Writing: An Anthology, ed. Robert Dessaix, 1993.
Australian Short Stories,  ed. Kerryn Goldsworthy, 1983.
Bail, Murray. Eucalyptus, 1998.
Cornelius, Patricia. My Sister Jill.
De Kretser, Michelle. The Hamilton Case, 2003; The Lost Dog, 2007.
Gardner, Helen. Monkey's Grip, 1977.
Grenville, Kate. The Secret River, 2005; Searching for the Secret River, 2006.
Growing Up Asian in Australia, ed. Alice Pung, 2008.
A Guide to Gay and Lesbian Writing in Australia, ed. Michael Hurley, 1993.
Harwood, Gwen. Collected Poems (1943-1995), 2003.
Hazard, Shirley. The Great Fire, 2003.
Hewitt, Dorothy. Everything I could find. Wild Card: An Autobiography-1923-1958;Collected Poems, 1995; The Chapel Perlious, a play, 1972; Bobbin Up, 1959; The Toucher, 1992;Neap Tide, 1999. Wrote an essay on Ms. Hewitt's work for the American The Women's Review of Books. Honored to have spoken to her on the phone.
Hughes, Robert. The Fateful Shore.
Langford, Ruby. Don't Take Your Love to Town, 1988.
Miller, Alex. Journey to the Stone Country, 2002.
Modjeska, Drusilla. Stravinsky's Lunch, 1999.
Morgan, Sally. My Place, 1987.
Moorhouse, Frank. Days of Wine and Rage, 1980.
Park, Ruth. The Harp in the South, 1948Aand all else I could find of hers.
Patterson, Banjo. Collected Poems.
Prichard, Katharine Susannah. Coonardoo, 1929; N'Goola and Other Stories, 1959.
Summers, Anne. Damned Whores and God's Police: The Colonization of Women in Australia, 1975.
Temple, Peter. The Broken Shore, 2005.
Tsolkas. Christos. Loaded,1994; Dead Europe, 2005.
White, Patrick. The Tree of Man, 1955. I can still hear the creaking wagon wheels of the opening paragraph.
Winton, Tim. Cloudstreet, 1991.
Wright, Alexis. Carpentaria, 2006. An epic writer, not only of Australia but of the world. Her language is the living hope of the oldest people speaking, waiting, for a moved white heart.
Wright, Judith. Collected Poems, 1994; Half a Life-Time, 1999.

And so I started my 20 year sojourn in this wide brown land.

Earning My Keep, Melbourne, 2003

Many thoughts set off by Megan Marshall's Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast.  How do you begin another life in a different geography, what is the meaning of traveling and how does one earn this second chance. And so many other reflections and sadness too. My desk being put in order because two old NY friends, Morgan and Saskia, are coming for a three week visit. All my tumbled papers must be given some kind of order. One fell to the floor.

                                                                                                                 November 4, 2003
Dear Peter,*
I just wanted you to have a more formal sense of what I have been doing during my honorary fellowship in addition to my writing and research. Before I begin my list, I want to thank you and every one in the English Department, Cultural Studies and Creative Writing Programs that have so warmly welcomed me.
1. Met with students approximately once a week to discuss their work.
2. Reading with Andrea Goldsmith and Lisa Davis, "Writing Live," at the Lesbian and Gay Cultural Festival, Adelaide, November 2003.
3. Department slide show and talk, "Where Do Stories Come From: The Creation of the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York City," March 26, 2003.
4. Involved students in a public reading, "Personal Dispatches: Writers Confront War," Builders Arms Hotel, Melbourne, march 16, 2003.
5.Held small seminar in reading a text from my book, Persistent Desire, February.
6. Spoke at premiere showing in Australia of "Hand on the Pulse: The Life and Times of Joan Nestle," by Joyce Warshow, Sydney, February; Melbourne, ACMI Cinema, March 19th; Auckland and Wellington, New Zealand, May 30-31.
7. Reading, "Beyond the Primary," Builders Arms Hotel, Melbourne, April.
8. Talk and slide show, "Images from the Margins," Victorian College of the Arts, Honors Seminar, May 14.
9. Co-facilitated Gender Workshop for the Gay and Lesbian Switchboard, May 6.
10. Met with book club reading A Fragile Union, June 4.
11.Gave an hour lecture in Prof. Stiben's Gender, Sex and Power class, University of Melbourne, October 15.
12. Keynote speaker at the 25th anniversary dinner for the Australian Lesbian and  Gay Archives, October 25
13.Wrote essay, "Wars and Thinking" to be published in the American Journal of Women's History, spring, 2004.

I hope to have the opportunity to continue my contributions to the educational community at the University next year. Happy holidays,
                                                                              Joan Nestle

* Peter is my partner's brother who is a distinguished professor in the Univ. of Melbourne's English Department. No pay is involved in being an honorary fellow but my appointment did help me win the right to stay in Australia for six months, to be with Di. I was awed by the appointment and felt very much I had to deserve my time here. The reading against war came about after Barbara Bush banned the reading of American poets Walt Whitman, Emily Dickenson, Muriel Ruckeyeser and others in a Washington D.C. literary event because she considered their work too anti-American.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Anna's Touch

She came to the door. a small loaf of her oven baked bread in her work worn hand.

Monday, February 12, 2018

In my hand...

I know. I have been away for along time. Using face book to tell the story of my days and heart's doings, of my love and loved friends. but I am back. Getting my papers together for their voyage back to LHA, working on two boxes of my writing self. I come across 6 yellowing index cards " from 1963. My first woman lover, the first woman I loved, not always the same thing, is dying of ovarian cancer, so young, so wanting to live. I wrote these in the shortest form I knew of, haiku, but more, because the pain was too deep for more.
The illness of my young friend
Makes me a dry pod
In an autumn field.

Her death snaps me.

The poet slept with song
And sucked her swollen breast
The poet walked with night
And stared (not finished)

Winter tiredness
Oceans heavy with grey
A silent gull
Carries my strength away.

The human body
falls into disrepair
The soul takes up residence
between a sunrise and a tear

My dear dear Carol, all these years I have carried your image with me, the photo of you golden against a blue sky, with the words you wrote to me, in that small, tentative script--"To Joan, who make me feel big enough for all." All these years I have felt your lips on mine.


Friday, February 9, 2018

2018--A gift of memory

Yesterday I received this letter from Tanya Visceglia, an old SEEK student of mine.

For Joan

When I was twenty-one, the only thing I knew for sure was that while “being myself” was a nice
idea, it was clearly not one that was meant for me. Gay and lesbian members of my Italian
Catholic family were hushed up when visitors came, pitied when we were alone, and
scapegoated in the heat of an argument. My Brooklyn neighborhood had been immortalized by
its appearance in “Saturday Night Fever” as the epicenter of hotheaded, blue-collar despair.
Bay Ridge’s only lesbian bar had an unmarked entrance and blacked-out windows to avoid
unwanted attention from passers-by. Even that failed to deter the occasional pack of drunken
cugines from wandering in and pulling down their pants to “show us what we were missing”.
When that happened, most of us didn’t fight back. We hung our heads and waited for them to
leave. Most of us weren’t out – either to our families or at work, and we couldn’t risk any
trouble or possible exposure, particularly those of us who worked as police officers or as
teachers in Catholic schools. Back then, an out cop was often a dead cop, and a lesbian
schoolteacher was fired with no explanation. Gay pride hadn’t even occurred to me then – I
would have happily settled for the absence of gay shame.
Having recently returned from Madison, Wisconsin, I had seen the promised land, where
Queer Theory reigned supreme, and spiky-haired undergraduates quoted Judith Butler in one
breath and harmonized Indigo Girls in the next. Yet the same women who reverently quoted
passages such as “what is most important is to cease legislating for all lives what is livable only
for some, and similarly, to refrain from proscribing for all lives what is unlivable for some” bluntly

dismissed my desire for masculine women as “imitation of patriarchal norms”, and my lipstick
and high heels as “too straight”. My fantasies of a strong butch lover with rough hands that could
rebuild an engine were confined to Saturday nights, which usually found me pinned up against
the wall of the bad girls’ bar on the outskirts of town.
My return to New York marked the year of the “lipstick lesbian”: girls who loved dressing
up and hooking up with other girls who loved dressing up. New York Magazine’s article on ‘90s
“lesbian chic” celebrated the death of “the old lesbian stereotype... she is humorless, wears badly
fitted mannish suits, cannot sustain relationships and is hopelessly unhappy” and heralded the
arrival of “the new, improved lesbian -- a party girl of much sex, lingerie and sophistication.”
While femme style had made a comeback, butch-femme relationships were still left out in the
cold. “So retro”, the DKNY pantsuits at Julie’s lounge bar would sniff, between sips of their
Cosmopolitans. “If I wanted a man, I’d be with a real one.”
One day, browsing in Judith’s Room, which has since gone the way of most independent
booksellers, I happened upon a book of essays called “A Restricted Country” by Joan Nestle, a
self-described 1950s femme from the Bronx. “In “Butch-Femme Relationships: Sexual Courage in
the 1950s”, she wrote: “Although I have been a lesbian for over twenty years and embrace
feminism as a worldview, I can spot a butch thirty feet away and still feel the thrill of her power.”
And “Butch-femme relationships, as I experienced them, were complex erotic statements, not
phony heterosexual replicas. They were filled with deeply lesbian language of stance, dress,
gesture, love, courage, and autonomy.” Reading those words for the first time, I cried right there
in the aisle. Finally, I had been given permission to be myself.

In 1992, when I heard that Joan would be teaching the first course in Gay and Lesbian
Literature ever to be offered at Queens College, I was so overcome with enthusiasm that I had
read every book on the syllabus before the first class. In that course, we were all hungry: for
images of ourselves, for testaments to our own experience, and for a place in which our own
issues occupied the center of discourse without “throwing our sexuality in people’s faces” or
“making an issue” where none need exist.
Our syllabus didn’t revolve around any particular theoretical perspective, period or
theme. We needed it all and cast our nets wide: “The Well of Loneliness” by Radclyffe Hall, Walt
Whitman’s “Calamus” poems, “Maurice” by E.M. Forster, James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room”
Kate Millet’s “Sita”, and Audre Lorde’s “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name”. We read Leslie
Feinberg’s “Letter to a Fifties Femme” and excerpts from Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America”,
which was then running on Broadway. Twenty-five years later, I’m collecting snapshots of that
course from memory, and offering them to you, Joan, with thanks and with love.
I already knew many of the students who showed up on that first day from the campus
Gay and Lesbian Alliance. We were buzzing before Joan arrived, looking around for new faces. I
walked in with Frank, a leather daddy who was preparing to enter the police academy. As I sat
down next to my friend Helen, the razor-sharp but fragile daughter of a Tanzanian diplomat, I
greeted Shirley, who taught me how to salsa dance, and whose visual impairment never once
slowed her down. Across from me sat Rhonda, a fireplug of a woman best known for strident
proclamation of her love for butches. Dee, a Latina MTF with a wicked sense of humor, arrived
breathless from her race across campus between classes on rollerblades. Others I knew only by

name or face: Anna, Harold, Diane, Todd, and a slight, blonde woman who never spoke during
class discussions, but occasionally shared her poetry in a soft, trembling voice.
Joan’s kind blue eyes and genuine interest in every one of us slowly drew us out and made
room for us to unfold the whole world of our experience -- from humor to desire to despair. In
one class, while discussing “The Well of Loneliness”, I asked Joan why she had included it in the
syllabus. She replied with the story of a woman who had survived a concentration camp by
remembering the Polish translation of the story she had read, which sustained her hope to live
long enough to kiss a woman. In another class, Frank acted out a traffic stop scene from John
Preston’s “Mr. Benson”, squaring off in his academy uniform and mirrored police sunglasses. His
performance met with wolf whistles of approval from students and Joan’s dry response: “Frank,
now I see why you want to be a police officer.” In the last class of the semester, we read our own
poetry aloud. Our quiet classmate shared a poem that was written to a woman with severe burns,
who ran her local newsstand. “Seeing her every day/with strips of skin like loose bandages/I
wanted to ask how she could be so brave/ wearing her scars on the outside/when I have so much
fear/wearing my scars on the inside.” When I shared my poem about a friend who had recently
died of AIDS, I felt cocooned in shared grief, knowing that over the past ten years, every other
student in that room had also been crossing friends’ numbers out of their phone books.
Outside of class, we made a banner for our road trip to the 1993 LGBT National March on
Washington. On the day of the march, the escalator at Dupont Circle was so packed with queers
that it ground to a halt, overwhelmed by the sheer weight of us. A huge cheer rose from the
crowd, followed by a chant of “We are everywhere!”, and the waving of small rainbow flags at

strangers from side to side of the Metro station. Looking around me, I drank in the first day I felt
that the whole world was queer. We were a proud, open and unstoppable force.

    To celebrate the end of the semester, Joan invited us to her apartment for a potluck,
where we saw our history displayed on every wall, bookshelf and end table -- the huge collection
of letters, papers, and periodicals in the Lesbian Herstory Archives had not yet moved to its Park
Slope brownstone home. Balancing plates on our laps, we clustered around Joan, asking her to
read from her own work. First, she read: “Stone butch, drag butch, baby butch/leaned me back
against the bathroom door/tuned for the intrusion, you sucked my breast/Alert and wanting, we
made love in a public place/because territory was limited.” This was followed by the essay I had
first read in Judith’s Room: “The erotic essence of the butch-femme relationship was the external
difference of women’s textures and the bond of knowledgeable caring. I loved my lover for how
she stood as well as what she did. ... these gestures were a style of self-presentation that made erotic competence into a political statement." Hearing those words read aloud, surrounded by my queer classmates and the lovingly catalogued proof of our collective existence and persistence, I knew I had come home.

     Joan's gift to us--the gift of shared history and purpose, remains with me and sustains me to this day. It walked by my side when I came out and stayed out in a rabidly Christian work environment. It deflected the pain of my mother's hissed whisper: "Why do you have to go around telling people you're married? It's none of their business." It gives me the strength to speak up for my partner in the thousandth performance of the tired old play "Excuse me, sir, this is the ladies' room." They may not know who I am, but now I do. And that is enough.