photo of Minnie Bruce Pratt and Leslie Feinberg by Marilyn Humphries
The night after I chatted with Minnie Bruce Pratt about her new poetry collection, Magnified (out on March 3 from Wesleyan University Press), I slept about three hours, spending the other five wide awake worrying that I had done harm by dragging her through memories of grief. When I finally gave up on sleep and headed over to my computer, I found an email from Pratt waiting for me. It turns out she, too, had been worrying—worrying that we hadn’t spent enough of our conversation talking about my own recent grappling with the death of loved ones. Grief is funny like that. It can feel so profoundly lonely at times (and especially during a pandemic), but then these strange synchronicities remind us that we’re always stretching towards each other across some long, deep river.
Pratt lost her beloved— iconic trans lesbian activist, historian, theoretician, and communist revolutionary Leslie Feinberg—in 2014 to complications from Lyme disease and other tick-borne co-infections. Feinberg had been ill and living with mobility limitations for many years before that, and it’s in the shrunken world of caregiving and illness that Pratt’s collection emerged. On her daily walks around the neighborhood, Pratt would take note of the tiniest details to bring back for her lover: “I bend over the cobbled verge, the used-for-nothing- / now edge, except to make the little glints, insignificant, / that catch my eye. The first flowers, smaller than this s.”
These poems struck me as equal parts devastating and transcendent in their attention to ways grief can contract and then implode into a multiverse of emotional depth. Pratt is no stranger to navigating the pain of loss through poetry—she wrote her 1989 collection Crime Against Nature after losing custody of her sons when she came out as a lesbian. Yet she has also written extensively on her passions, from the tender and sexy vignettes in S/HE to the anti-capitalist poetry of Inside the Money Machine. In Magnified, the fullness of her life bursts from every page, leaving me with exactly the type of honest, rich, and unflinching solace I—and undoubtedly so many others—need to make it through this season of grief.
A note on pronouns from Pratt: “Between us, as lesbian lovers, we both used the pronouns she and her. Leslie’s identity was more complex—but Leslie explicitly named the pronouns she and her, as well as ze and hir, as preferred pronouns. In our conversation today, I’ll use she and her to refer to Leslie.”
Sarah Heying: How did this poetry come to be?
Minnie Bruce Pratt: I began to write the poems when Leslie and I were realizing how sick she was, so this was around 2006, 2007. And, as she got more and more sick I began to walk outside to take breaks sometimes when I wasn’t helping her. Then, as I was walking outside I began to draft poems, sometimes just to find some words or an image that I could hang on to help me keep going.
I went into the collection assuming that Leslie was always the beloved and you were always the speaker, but there are several moments where you challenge this direct correlation. Could you speak a little bit about how these poetic figures shift?
Originally, many of these poems were for Leslie, to bring her back a little gift from the outside world, especially as she and we were increasingly being cut off from the greater world because of her illness. That is part of what illness does, what sickness does. It makes your world get smaller in many ways. Physically smaller and socially more limited. We’re finding that out during the pandemic. And yet there’s another motion happening within illness, which is that there is a widening and deepening of the emotional world. That widening that comes with profound illness and with the awareness of our human limitations and our human desires in the face of death. So though the poems began as ways of writing to the “you” who is Leslie, as time went on, they began to widen out. Not in a not a linear way. At moments, the poems began to widen out to reach towards the “you” of my reader, of any reader, not even knowing if anyone else was ever going to read these poems, but just feeling the connection to the other “you’s” out there who are loving and suffering.
This was happening as I struggled to find my links beyond the rooms of our apartment. Leslie and I had lived so actively in the world. We were political activists, and we were vibrant in our writing, our speaking, our teaching. We were immersed in the world that was chanting at protests, “A better world is possible! A better world is in birth!” And so, not surprisingly, the poems became a search for a way for me to connect to that world, and to the motion of the world in time and space beyond isolation, beyond death, beyond what might happen with me and Leslie. So now and again, the poems turn to the “you” of the reader, who is beyond the isolation Leslie and I were living in.
And also, the “you” is sometimes Leslie. I think that the “you” that’s Leslie happened in poems particularly where I was feeling and recognizing the separation between us. There was a separation that was there because of illness and impending death. And in that way, the poems were both in the present moment to Leslie, but also they were becoming a memory or a history of her. A way to keep her with me. Leslie was sick, and then sometimes very sick, for most of our life together. We had talked and strategized about death for years. Medical strategies, because of the trans and queer prejudice in the for-profit health system. We had emotional strategies about what to do if one of us lost the other through death—and it was always most likely that I would lose Leslie first, either through illness or through the violence against her as a trans person. Anyway, we talked about death a lot.
But then, through illness, the separation between my “I” and her “you” became sharper in the poems. The “you” I think became more explicit as I tried to understand how to keep going in a future where she wouldn’t be. It’s about the distance that death was bringing.
This makes me think of how people talk about sadness or depression as a completely isolated kind of closing-off, whereas grief seems something different here, with the shifting distances and proximities between you, Leslie, your readers, and your communities.
Yeah, what you’re saying is true. And the meaning of time kept shifting.
I wrote the first of the poems that I think of as Leslie’s poems in the context of illness in October 2007. And then the last of those poems I wrote in February of the year she died, 2014, with one last poem, “At the Beginning” written in February 2016. There was a gap, but everything else was written over that seven-year span, 2007 to 2014. So there were a lot of moments between these poems where we were just living. Leslie was sick, but we were still living in our world as vibrant, active people while struggling against the illness and all the prejudices that Leslie was facing around trans issues.
So the eternal time of death, the short intense time of work, and the focused, magnified time of the intimacy between us—there was a lot of back and forth. I think what readers have to remember when they’re reading Magnified is that I didn’t—we didn’t—know the outcome while I was writing the poems. They were all written, except for one, before Leslie died. So I was in the middle of a path that seemed to be turning towards death, but it might also turn towards recovery and a future more like what Leslie and I had had together.
And here’s the other thing—from 2007 until the moment of her death, we were working. I was working at a job teaching, I was writing, I was doing political organizing. And even though the illness affected Leslie’s ability to write to some degree, she still was able to do some political writing. These are the columns for Workers World that became “Lavender and Red.” Leslie also did civil disobedience and organizing around CeCe McDonald, who had defended herself against a fascist, racist assault. And then the other thing we really worked on the last nine months of her life was getting Stone Butch Blues into a free, polished online form with a new introduction by Leslie. It was monumental. We just worked, really, into the last week of her life because she wanted to write her own obituary. She’s a historian. She didn’t want anybody interpreting her life for her; she wanted to interpret her life. So when people read Magnified, it’s against that backdrop. We just kept living, living, living together until the moment she died.
How has all this time living and working with Leslie, right up to her death, affected your understanding of what it means to labor, and what it means to be revolutionary?
For one thing, I understood in a way that I never had before the inexorable nature of labor in daily life. The labor that just has to be done, literally, to keep living. It’s not that I hadn’t worked hard before—I’ve always had to work very hard. But for almost our whole twenty-two years together, we lived in a fifth-floor walk-up in Jersey City. So that meant all the laundry had to go up and down by hand, all the groceries, all the water, everything. And our bodies. I remember there was one winter when Leslie was really sick, and it was the winter when there were seventeen snowstorms in the New York metro area, and I had to dig the car out by myself, every time.
People who are reading this who have dealt with serious illness will know that there’s so much physical labor that goes with it. For a lot of our life Leslie shared all this labor with me, but then when she was ill, she couldn’t. When the person who’s sick can’t do the work, then the caretaker does the work. Unless there’s a lot of money.
So I really understood in my body what it meant to work, physically, in a way I never had, and it also made me have immense compassion and identification with all the other people who are doing that labor. I think about that all the time now when I meet anybody. What physical exertion are they having to make in their lives, just to survive?
The neighborhood I live in is not affluent. There are lots of people living with disabilities, lots of poor people, lots of immigrant people walking in the snow to do their jobs if they have jobs. They’re gathering cans out of the dumpster. And I knew that before, but now I feel it in my body. It’s in the poems, too, very much so. The fact of the labor in everybody’s lives, and the need for us to not assume that we know what any other person is going through when we meet them on the street any given day.
I’m not talking about the rulers of the world. I’m not about talking about the people who move us around like pawns. I’m talking about the working people, the oppressed people, that are the majority of the world. And the poems are for them, for us.
You have that powerful line about “the unseen work of staying alive.” And then, of course, there’s the labor of emotional processing, and of writing poetry.
This makes me think of something that happened in the mid-1990s. I was on a panel at a queer literary gathering. It was me, Holly Hughes, Randall Kenan, and some other writers. And also on the panel was a literary agent for one of the big publishing houses. In the Q&A, this literary agent asked us that given how the mainstream wasn’t committed to publishing most LGBTQ writing, why did any of us keep writing?
Incredibly condescending question, right? Like the only reason we were creating anything is because we wanted to be consumed by profit-making companies. A completely out-of-touch question. Resistance writing has been and always will be part of liberation movements. It was part of the lives of those of us on the panel. It’s not like we started out thinking that anyone would be publishing any of this stuff. And it’s part of history, like the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s.
Anyway, that day, I was the person who responded to the comment. I said that when I thought of my poetry and my political work, I saw it entering a stream of time that had begun before me and would continue after me. And I hoped that it would be useful, somehow, in that struggle. I felt that even if my name is forgotten, or when my name is forgotten, when my actions or words themselves are forgotten, I still felt like what I’m doing has meaning because my words and my actions have entered the current of struggle. They are alive in people. That’s all I want.
So in relation to Magnified, what happened to me was that the illness and the circumstances around it really tested that statement. It tested my understanding of the particulars of life and why they mattered because death was so big. Personal oblivion was very close. Leslie’s, but also mine. My life and what I did in the struggle just became so small in the face of inexorable death.
But the poems won me through. I just wrote, step by step, the truth of what I was in. I used the words to make myself matter every day, even when I didn’t know what was going to happen, or what they would mean at some point in time after I wrote them. This was not a metaphysical or religious understanding of the future. It was a materialist understanding: I’m doing some things now, and I’m going to hope that they matter, but all I can do is do something that matters now.
So what are you working on now?
I’m trying to learn more and more about the layers of history that have fallen over the land where I grew up [in Centreville, Alabama]. When I wrote Walking Back Up Depot Street, I primarily was delving into what it meant to know about and act against white supremacy in the place that I grew up and in places I had lived in New York. Now, I’m going deeper into my understanding of the land as indigenous land. Not just recently indigenous as in the 1400s, but back to when people began to be people on this land.
That deep history.
Right. I’m trying to understand things like the Cahaba River, which is probably a Creek or Choctaw word. I’m used to thinking of it as my river. It’s not my river—it’s the river that I belong to. So I’m trying to go into the “going on” in the world we live in now, which is bigger than me, and it’s going to go on without me, and it’s going to be beautiful without me. I’m trying to find my place in it with some of these new poems.
Minnie Bruce Pratt’s Magnified is available from Bookshop and your local bookstore now!
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