- Birthing the Warrior:Poetry as Illumination
The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized.—Audre Lorde, from "Poetry Is Not a Luxury"
When I first read Audre Lorde's essay "Poetry Is Not a Luxury" in 2009, I was overcome with a mix of emotions. Mostly, I was angry. While I had been a student of poetry for over twenty years, I had never read a text that would so profoundly affect my sense of self and purpose. Perhaps, I thought, it was that all my writing and literature teachers, up until that point, had been part of the dominant culture and, I guessed, could not relate to the self-identifying "Black/lesbian/mother/warrior/poet." Although my teachers were vital in my development as both a student and poet, none could relate to my experience as a "Woman of Color"—a phrase I first heard as a nontraditional-aged mother-student at Smith College. Because they did not have this experience, I can only assume that what my teachers felt was important to my development was what they felt was important to their own. And this, I understand completely—now that I, too, am an educator.
But it was my mother who helped me drag into the light what for years paralyzed the women in my family: she walked into my house and saw the pillow I had embroidered with Lorde's life-affirming declaration "Poetry Is Not a Luxury." She responded, in a tone both self-affirming and self-evident and in sarcastic half gasp, "Yes it is!" [End Page 306]
I was crushed.
She was responding wholeheartedly; this I know. What she could not have fathomed when she was a thirty-something-year-old-woman with young children—a life built upon the needs of a woman, a life centered in self-awareness, a life distilled and refined through the hard-lived and hard-won consumption and creation of poetry—it seemed I was rubbing in her face, in every face that crossed the threshold of my front door: mine was the kind of life fashioned for the most eccentric, most self-centered (and most certainly childless) daughter of privileges, afforded her because of wealth or race or simple madness.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
It was this very fact, the fact that the women I knew growing up, women I know still, could not, would not, let themselves be swayed by the frivolities of excess: art, music, literature. Their conditioning, according to traditions and culture, led them to believe that to experience anything aesthetic meant their concerns and sensibilities were not focused on the most important thing in their world: their house. The center of this house, of course, being their husband and children.
Although poetry was far from what she longed for, my mother often felt the pull to creation beyond the kitchen stove. She embroidered, sewed dresses, curtains, quilts, releasing the blood of her desires into that which she could camouflage as necessity. I watched her. I watched the concentration in her face, what I recognize now as complete consumption—nothing took precedence when she was working with her hands. And there was nothing else that could fill her this way: what my father might call "woman's work" subversively became the art that saved my mother's sanity.
And, when no one was looking, on the backs of PTA fliers or picture order forms, my mother sketched portraits in ballpoint pen. Although her light was dimly lit, my mother was an artist.
Looking back at my early years as a new mother and wife, I was angry because I realized, after reading Lorde's essay, that for so many years, I had never given myself wholly to what I knew in my gut was my purpose. I was angry that I had let others dissuade me from picking up the pen because...