Listen: 13419_1979328lorde_64

MPR’s Nancy Fushan talks with feminist Black poet Audre Lorde about the power in her poetry. Segment also includes Lorde reading her poetry.

Lorde published several books of poetry, including From a Land Where Other People Live (1972), which was nominated for a National Book Award, and The Black Unicorn (1978). Lorde was poet laureate of New York from 1991-1992.

This recording was made available through a grant from the National Historical Publications & Records Commission.


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AUDRE LORDE: Poetry is something that needs to inform our whole lives. It is a way of living. It is a way of looking at the earth, at our selves, at our connection with each other, that doesn't, doesn't, doesn't, doesn't limit itself to the act of sitting down and putting the pen to paper.

NANCY FUSHAN: Poet Audre Lorde has been using her art as a tool of introspection for nearly 30 years. And as a Black woman, one of the most significant observations learned has been the nature of power as it affects us all. In what she terms an oppressive system, too many people relinquish their chance to speak. Such expression is a calculated risk. Honest, uncompromising writing requires putting your mental and emotional power on the line.

For example, in a work called Power, Lorde links poetry with the ability to be ready to kill yourself. The key to dealing with power for Lorde is developing an alternative sense of power. And that is something that she sees as the major reason for her art form.

AUDRE LORDE: I see it is as helping to make not only me more who I need to be, but everyone else who partakes in it. And I see this as a function of any art and certainly the function of poetry to make us stronger, to make us more who we are, to make us, in other words, more powerful. I don't believe that there is such a thing as art for art's sake. Art in order to live, art in order to be meaningful, has a function. And it is to make us more who we wish to be.

SPEAKER 2: What filters down through much of her work is our capacity to change. Lorde's early work reveals a young and often angry Black woman facing the unfriendliness of urban America. And yet, in a poem like "Coal", Lorde finds a curious beauty in that hostile urban environment.

AUDRE LORDE: This poem is 1963? This poem is 15, 16 years old. And yet if I think of some of the poems that are most important in my life, in the earlier books, there are poems that were conceived of in the subway, written in the subway, or have, as one of their major symbols, the subway. And that's very interesting. So I think that there is something that we need to, that I need to attend to. Because I'm always conscious of that. And this is one of them.

This poem, I remember, came to my mind as I was riding uptown, right after my daughter was born, in a 5:00 o'clock subway, in a rush hour subway. And I became conscious of myself and all of us as individuals packed into those cars. And since I'm very involved with rocks, it felt as if it was the process of solidifying the change from coal into diamond. And that we were all undergoing it, that we were all being fired and pressurized. And that's the major symbol that comes through in this poem. The title of it is "Coal".

I is the total black being spoken from the Earth's inside. There are many kinds of open, how a diamond comes into a knot of flame, how sound comes into a word, colored by who pays what for speaking. Some words are open, like a diamond on glass windows, singing out within the passing crash of sun. Then there are words like stapled wagers in a perforated book, buy, and sign, and tear apart. And come whatever wills, all chances, the stub remains, an ill-pulled tooth with a ragged edge.

Some words live in my throat, breathing like adders. Others, no sun, seeking like Gypsies over my tongue, to explode through my lips, like young sparrows bursting from shell. Some words bedevil me. Love is a word, another kind of open. As the diamond comes into a knot of flame, I am Black because I come from the Earth's inside. Now, take my word for jewel in the open light.

NANCY FUSHAN: From that early stage, Lorde has written about her passages through parenthood, feminism, lesbianism, and cancer. The journey's latest stopping point is a published volume called Black Unicorn, a series of poems written from 1974 to '78. And they all include striking African imagery.

AUDRE LORDE: What it is, really, are poems of an African-American woman, of a black woman, recognizing the connections between my African past and my American past as they inform my life. And that is how many of the symbols and the imagery arises in Black Unicorn. When I think the African emphasis that you see there has to do because I was particularly involved with Africa during that period, and in examining the African connections within myself.

When you deal your art from the inside, when you use it, or when your art is informed with those realities that we know most deeply, those which come first from ourselves, out of the core of us, then we do not remain stagnant. I am not the same person that I was four years ago, 10 years ago, 30 years ago-- for instance, when some of the poems in "Coal" were written. But there is a continuity on the other side. It's not that they're totally different, but that we progress. And I stand behind, I would say, every poem that I've ever written.

NANCY FUSHAN: At the moment, Lorde is attempting her first prose effort, a difficult task for someone who deals with the brevity of poetic images.

AUDRE LORDE: I dream about paragraphs chasing me down the road, literally. And they are square, and they are solid. And they are sometimes almost impenetrable. And I think, how is it possible to communicate one sentence right after the other? It takes so long.

Now what that will tell you is one of the ways in which I view or feel about poetry. Which is, the thing about poetry is that it is so multi-leveled, it operates on so many different levels. And it's so economical that what is communicated in a poem, sometimes I think it can take five volumes, sometimes, to do in prose.

NANCY FUSHAN: The novel will be an autobiographical odyssey of the Black woman's experience in New York, in the 1940s and '50s. A major theme of the book will be survival. And that's a theme which also weaves through one of Lorde's favorite poems,

AUDRE LORDE: "A Litany for Survival". For those of us who live at the shoreline, standing upon the constant edges of decision, crucial and alone. For those of us who cannot indulge the passing dreams of choice, who love in doorways, coming and going, in the hours between dawns, looking inward and outward, at once before and after, seeking a now that can breed futures like bread in our children's mouths, so their dreams will not reflect the death of ours.

For those of us who were imprinted with fear, like a faint line in the center of our forests, learning to be afraid with our mother's milk. For by this weapon, this illusion of some safety to be found, the heavy-footed hoped to silence us. For all of us, this instant and this triumph, we were never meant to survive. So when the sun rises, we are afraid it might not remain. When the sun sets, we are afraid it might not rise in the morning. When our stomachs are full, we are afraid of indigestion. When our stomachs are empty, we are afraid we may never eat again.

When we are loved, we are afraid love will vanish. And when we are alone, we are afraid love will never return. And when we speak, we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak, remembering we were never meant to survive.

NANCY FUSHAN: Poet Audre Lorde, one of the guest speakers at the Midwest Writer's Festival, being held this week in the Twin Cities. I'm Nancy Fushan.


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