- A Revelatory Distillation of Experience
I was in only the fourth and seventh grades, respectively, when Audre Lorde's "Poetry Is Not a Luxury" and "The Uses of the Erotic" were first published. During that time in the mid-1970s I was duly ensconced in the queering of popular culture vis-à-vis disco and fashion, but still relatively naive about my own queer desire bubbling just beneath the surface. The erotic charge activated when engaged in horseplay in the bathroom with my male classmates or when gazing into the eyes of my best friend, Raymond, while we wrestled in the grass went unnamed except through my journal entries and poetry when I transitioned to junior high. Indeed, poetry became a "revelatory distillation of experience" whereby I gave "name to the nameless so it [could] be thought" (Lorde 1984a, 37). In other words, my poetry made material my subjectivity in a way that only poetry can. Reading Lorde's essays thirty years later I am struck by their prophecy. How did she know that poetry would become the outlet through which I would name my sexuality? How did she know that poetic language would be the method through which I would wage some of my harshest critiques of patriarchy, racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia? The answers to these questions, of course, lie in the fact that Lorde's own motivation for writing these essays grew out of her experience of deploying poetry and the erotic for these very purposes. She was not merely "theorizing" the possibilities of poetry and the erotic, but rather living it, experiencing it.
The genius of Lorde's writing, in general, is what one might call a poetic praxis. In this case, her definitions of poetry and the erotic are similar, in that, according to Lorde, both come from a place within that [End Page 311] precedes thought but must manifest materially toward some progressive action: poetry is "made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action," while the erotic "offers a well of replenishing and provocative force to the woman who does not fear its revelation, nor succumb to the belief that sensation is enough" (1984b, 54). Poetry and the erotic are essentially calls to action that start from a politicized subjectivity that has yet to unleash its potential. Lorde suggests that until women—and, I would argue, all marginalized people—embrace those pieces of our creative and erotic energy that have been repressed, colonized, or otherwise curtailed, we cannot stand within our own truth or exploit the fullness of who we are so that we may effect change in the world. Both poetry and the erotic, then, are about trusting one's feelings, not in a pedestrian or banal way, but in a radical way that recognizes our "incredible reserve of creativity and power" and "heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all [our] experience" (1984a, 37; 1984b, 57). Valuing and trusting feeling and its radical potential is anathema to heteropatriarchy, which necessarily inspires distrust in feelings and emotions as signs of weakness rather than "a long-for bed [to] enter gratefully and from which [to] rise up empowered" (1984b, 55).
These essays teach us something about where we are today within the broader LGBTQIA (are there enough letters to accommodate it all?) movement (if it can be called a movement). Lorde was writing during a renaissance of feminist-of-color creativity and political action. Forced to intervene in the myopia of second-wave feminism that marginalized not only women of color but also lesbians, lesbian feminists of color struck back with a host of manifestos, novels, poems, political essays, marches, and collective action that made visible the work they were always already doing as a part of liberationist struggle, but also to make known the imbrication of multiple identity markers. Indeed, race, class, sexuality, ability, and age were all ingredients in the stew of difference. That is true no less today than it was thirty years ago—and somehow we are still grappling with the same issues. Lorde would be scratching her head at how much ground we have lost from not heeding the lessons from her words.