The Vagaries of Love: How Poetry and Queer Movements Give Each Other Names

The week I came out, I went to poetry readings three nights in a row. In the two months leading up to that crush of realization, I wrote at least 30 poems. The night I met my first girlfriend, she distracted me from texting a poet I had an ill-advised crush on. (Has there ever been a wise crush on a poet?)

None of these are coincidences, and I’m part of a pretty big club of women who first identified their queerness inside poems. Poetry makes space to get found — to create identity, to discover truth, to build communities. It takes readers into other dimensions of language, image and place. Creating poems gives writers a safe place to put their feelings and ideas and to obfuscate or amplify truth at their leisure.

So it makes sense that so many famous poets have been queer women and so many queer women have written poetry. Goodness knows we love poetry here at Autostraddle.

In the 6th century BCE, Sappho wrote some of the most beautiful love poems of all time about her lovers and the women she admired. In “The Anactoria,” she wrote:

Some there are who say the fairest thing seen
On the black earth is an array of horsemen;
some, men marching; some would say ships; but I say
she whom one loves best

is the loveliest.

Sappho is the earliest known queer woman poet.

Sappho is the earliest known queer woman poet.

These words helped initiate a long tradition of poetry by women about loving women. The orientation of some poets, like Emily Dickinson and Anne Sexton, remains in dispute. But words like these from Dickinson about her sister-in-law Susan:

Her breast is fit for pearls,
But I was not a “Diver”—
Her brow is fit for thrones
But I have not a crest.
Her heart is fit for home—
I—a Sparrow—build there
Sweet of twigs and twine
My perennial nest.

remind us that we have a long tradition of poetry from women about women to celebrate. That’s due in part to the fact that childless lesbian women had more time on their hands than their married counterparts, said Julie Enszer, a poet who founded the Lesbian Poetry Archive and a professor at the University of Maryland. Poetry created a way for them to express and grapple with their experiences, which largely existed outside of the cultural norms they saw in art and daily life.

“Poetry is the medium of exploring the space of emotions, of exploring the space of love, and of doing it in a way that embraces the nuance and the multiplicity of experience, and I think it’s also a medium that values both the direct and the hidden within it,” Enszer said. “The opportunity to really explore the vagaries of love and lust and human desire is appealing when you’ve thought a lot about desire and how your desire doesn’t fit some of the other societal scripts.”

The first time I read “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver, really read it so that it seeped into my bones, I was on the toilet at my friend’s co-op. The walls were spackled with hand-written poems, but this one was at eye-level.

You don’t have to be good.
You don’t have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You just have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Oliver, an environmentalist, Pulitzer winner and out lesbian, once said “the poem was made not just to exist, but to speak — to be company. It was everything that was needed, when everything was needed.” “Wild Geese” was everything I needed when I needed everything. I carried it close to my heart like a photo in a locket.

You just have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

The vagaries of love are many, and are more when our love is under scrutiny. Queerness makes love political; poetry make love a public consumable. Poetry also provides a place to whisper our secrets in code. Oliver doesn’t have to say “I am a lesbian and my body loves other women’s bodies” for us to see ourselves in her words.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination

You, closeted bi teen; you, activist trans woman of color; the world is yours.

Here’s another thing about poetry: Geese are kind of annoying. They are loud and quite aggressive toward humans. Have you ever heard a goose hiss? It is the sound of your imminent doom. Yet they are also elegant, the royalty of the sky, and a necessary member of the natural environments they inhabit. For our ugly and our beautiful, we are all worthy of poems.

Plotting its graceful, shrill takeover. Photo by Intern Raquel

Plotting its graceful, shrill takeover. Photo by Intern Raquel

Enszer’s work focuses on feminist writing and publishing in the late 60s through early 80s, a time when lesbians, especially lesbians of color, were implementing a radical agenda and using poetry as an integral part of that work. Anthologies like This Bridge Called My Back featured poetry amidst essays. Radical leaders and thinkers like Audre Lorde, June Jordan and Marilyn Hacker used their poetry in their activism and community organizing.

Lorde wrote:

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.

Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. 

“Poets were deeply engaged with what it means to be a person in the U.S. concerned with justice and equality,” Enszer said. “Poets saw themselves as having a voice to lend to what was a broad movement of activism to speak out for themselves.”

Poetry became a fundamental part of lesbian and bi women’s lives, both in and outside of activist circles. Lisa Moore, a poet and professor at the University of Texas writes in her article “Sister Arts: On Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde and Others:

When I told a friend who helped found a women’s bookstore in the 1970s that I was writing this piece, she laughed: “Honey, we all wrote poems then. You made love to a woman, you wrote a poem. That was it.” For a generation of women to whom “finding voice,” “breaking silence,” and “speaking out” were not just powerful metaphors but conscious political strategies, poetry was almost an obligation, one’s feminist duty, a lesbian rite of passage.

That tradition of poetry interlocking with feminism continues today. “I think poetry, especially poetry by lesbians, especially lesbians of color, has had a central and prominent role in feminism,” Moore told me in an interview. “So in that domain, poetry offers queer women both a visible tradition and an opportunity for leadership that may not be as available elsewhere.”

Poet and activist Sonya Renee Taylor praised Audre Lorde for holding a space for queer black women’s voices in poetry and said queer women of color writers have been critical to our understanding of the intersections of oppression.

“That’s always what’s been most powerful about queer women writers: we create space for us to see the interconnectedness in our struggles which enables the interconnectedness in our liberation,” Taylor said.

Taylor is part of a powerful movement of queer women poets who are using their writing to mobilize change in causes they care about. She founded the movement The Body Is Not An Apology, which uses storytelling, events and community to promote radical self-love.

In an email interview, poet and activist Andrea Gibson said they hope to write poems that inspire people to action and that works to undo racist, patriarchal oppression.

“Queer women have certainly found refuge and comfort and desire and magic and healing and home in poetry,” Gibson said. “I think poetry tends to be most welcoming to those who might not be welcome elsewhere. It is a place of ‘Yes.’ Whoever you are and whatever you are creating, ‘Yes.'”

Gibson, whose most recent book, Pansy, came out last month, also works outside of poetry to pursue the work they care about as well. They co-founded Stay Here With Me, a suicide prevention campaign that takes its name from a line in the poem “The Madness Vase/The Nutritionist.”

In the last half of 2011, I lived inside my depression. I alternated between sadness and numbness, between hyper-productivity and three-day crying jags where all I did was eat buttered toast and listen to Elliott Smith. In 2012, poetry taught me to feel other things again. I fed off Sylvia Plath’s tragedy, took whimsical journeys with e.e. cummings, grounded myself in stories with W.S. Merwin, got high on Anis Mojgani’s hope, riled myself up with Audre Lorde. I related deeply to Eileen Myles and Adrienne Rich and wasn’t quite prepared to process why.

Poetry didn’t convince me everything was going to be ok — too many great poets died by suicide or died alone and angry for me to believe poetry could be a cure-all — but they showed me that I was not alone in my not-okayness. They showed me there was more to life than being fucked up, and they reminded me I deserved better.

Gibson writes:

The trauma said, “Don’t write this poem.
Nobody wants to hear you cry about the grief inside your bones.”

But my bones said, “Tyler Clementi dove into the Hudson River
convinced he was entirely alone.”

My bones said, “Write the poem

I wrote poetry obsessively and externalized my anguish into Word documents I never saved. These poems were not good, but calling them poems made it easier to articulate the sticky parts. At some point, I started looking for something more than survival in poetry. I started looking for myself.

You are not weak
just because your heart feels so heavy.
I have never met a heavy heart that wasn’t a phone booth
with a red cape inside.

I began seeing my therapist monthly instead of weekly. I told her about my thesis instead of my thrashing attempts to alienate everyone who loved me. I shared some of my depression poems with my college poetry club, a collection of weirdos whose acceptance of those poems gave me new strength. Soon, my sadness quieted down enough for me to hear other feelings — like how maybe I should start taking my desire for women more seriously.

Poetry often works in metaphors and specific anecdotes to suss out personal experiences, illustrate social problems or tell meaningful stories. In this way, poetry teaches us to give new names to things and to identify their complexities. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought, Lorde wrote. I spent a year living in metaphors and learning so many names and becoming a mostly whole human being again. When I heard Lauren Zuniga read “Confessions of an Uneducated Queer,” she gave me permission to name myself.

“Live. Live. Live.”

Poetry can be a tool for individual and community survival, but it’s hardly a commercial force. Queer poetry, and most poetry in general, is distributed via small blogs, small presses and small, dingy clubs. At Write Bloody, one of the most prominent contemporary poetry presses in the U.S. with a ton of queer poets on its roster, a very successful book sells about 10,000 copies in its first year, while the average book sells 2,000 copies or fewer. The author will make about $1 in royalties from each copy.

Queer poetry isn’t about the money; it’s about amplifying queer stories that deserve to be in the world. Today, we’re hearing and telling those stories more than ever. Organizations like Lambda Literary exist to promote work that wouldn’t otherwise see the light of day, said managing editor William Johnson. In his world, the literary is necessarily political.

“When I’m in it, it’s not such a forthright political act, I’m just thinking ‘I love this and I want to promote it,'” he said. “But it becomes political by showcasing it.”

Occasionally, politically meaningful poetry reaches a mass audience. Kay Ryan and Mary Oliver are about as mainstream as poetry gets. They’ve both won Pulitzer Prizes for their poetry. Ryan is a former U.S. poet laureate, and Oliver has been called America’s best-selling poet by The New York Times. Ryan wrote many poems about her long relationship with Carol Adair and was solidly out of the closet when she was named poet laureate in 2008. Oliver’s work on environmental themes is political, but her sexuality only peripherally appears in her work. These two women’s fame is remarkable and tells much about the public’s acceptance of lesbians as canonical storytellers.

Mary Oliver at home with her pup. via The Cleveland Plain Dealer

Mary Oliver at home with her pup. via The Cleveland Plain Dealer

We should never diminish the fact that people are able to engage with out lesbian poets as a neutral act,” Enszer said. “It’s only in the last decade that we can engage with lesbian as representing American.”

The link between poetry and queerness remains strong. You’ll find queers at any poetry reading and poets in any queer circle, and you’ll find queer poets in any radical activist movement. Queer women have always used poetry to express their love, their fights and their deepest selves. It’s a powerful legacy that grows stronger today as literature, activism and the queer community are all in states of flux.

This National Poetry Month, we should honor all the queer foreparents and poets who created a world where we can use our lovers’ real pronouns in our poems if we want to, where we have online, print and real life spaces to speak out for human rights to love and safety, sadness and whimsy. The harsh cries of wild geese are announcing your place in the family of things. You can read all about it in a poem.

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Adrian is a writer, a Texan and a Presbyterian pastor. They write about bisexuality, gender, religion, politics, music and a whole lot of feelings at Autostraddle and wherever fine words are sold. They have a dog named after Alison Bechdel. Follow Adrian on Twitter @adrianwhitetx.

Adrian has written 153 articles for us.


  1. Saphic poetry and a prominently featured a goose! Your words lend wings to my dreams indeed

  2. i often have a really hard time connecting with poetry, but this is damn beautiful and you are wonderful, and so i’m glad you saw yourself in these words and shared it with us. <3

  3. Wow, what a great post. There are so many things I need to run off and read now.

    My poetry story (sort-of):

    The summer I was twenty years old, I had come out to my parents (again) by telling them about the woman I’d been dating for about eight months. It went better than I thought it would; the first time I came out at 17, they were very angry and made some threats about cutting me off financially if I dated women, etc., and then we never spoke about it again – it was like nothing had ever happened.

    Anyway, that didn’t happen when I told them about my ladyfriend, and I was so relieved that at first I didn’t even realize it was bothering me that they basically acted like my partner didn’t exist. I wasn’t living at home, so it’s not like they were actively ignoring her, but when I would go visit or call home on Sundays, they never asked how she was, how we were doing. Eventually, I realized what was happening and started feeling resentful.

    Now, I am not a religious person, and I am skeptical about claims that the universe gives you what you need, when you need it. But one day during that summer, I was at my favorite thrift shop, browsing the store’s button collection. The first one to catch my eye was black with white letters and had “Your silence will not protect you. – Audre Lorde” printed on it.

    It was a revelation. I felt shaken and so afraid and also like there was a sudden clarity – I was afraid of pushing my family, but not saying anything was also damaging. I bought the button and went home to find out where the quote was from. Technically, the line is from one of Lorde’s essays, but that piece feels just as much like poetry to me. I reread it when I am feeling afraid or stifled and it doesn’t solve everything, but it’s a good reminder and leaves me feeling braver.

    • Lorde’s writing always hits me like poetry, no matter how she did the line breaks in a particular piece. Thank you for sharing your story!

    • In my first year at uni, I wrote an essay arguing that she was queer. I honestly believed I was the first person to have thought of it…

  4. I read the title as “The Vaginas of Love” about four times before realizing my mistake, 10/10 would mistake again.

    Hearing Andrea Gibson’s poem “Andrew” changed my life, no joke. I didn’t know anyone felt like me before that. I repeat the line “I am whoever I am when I am it.” when I get anxious about my lack of defining label.

  5. Love this! I’ve been doing the 30-Day-Challenge (where you try and write a poem a day for the whole of April), and will be using this as my inspiration for today’s poem!

    Also- Andrea uses they/their pronouns, so you might want to edit that section.

  6. What a beautifully written piece, thank you so much! Reminded me of my “library phase” (which is still ongoing, but not quite as feverish as 10 years ago..) I would search the library databases for anything with the l- or b- or q-words, carry home everything I possibly could, and just relish in all the delicious or nasty or even tasteless theory or poetry or prose that made me feel right at home.

  7. Thank you for writing this, Audrey, it is a fine ode to National Poetry Month! I found myself snapping along while reading.

    So glad you mentioned Emily Dickinson here – her writing is INCREDIBLY queer – see Open Me Carefully to see her letters to Susan. “Wild Nights” will make you laugh and blush.

  8. Julie Enszer also does incredible work with the poetry journal, Sinister Wisdom. Check it out if you want to support poetry by queer women.

    Thanks for such a great tribute to poetry. It really is an important and even subversive act to read and write poetry about women who love women.

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