The Lesbian Poets of Headmistress Press:  Joy Ladin and Risa Denenberg in Conversation

There are many things you don’t know about lesbian poets. The poetry establishment—major literary journals, male poets, poetry professors—cannot hear, see, recognize or value lesbian poetry. Lesbian poetry is largely ignored. Headmistress Press is determined to make a change in this status quo. In this special Ms. series, the brilliant, lively, lesbian poets of Headmistress Press will be bringing you their conversations with each other, in a sort of online lesbian poetry conference.

This week, Joy Ladin interviews Risa Denenberg about her book Whirlwind @ Lesbos, and Denenberg interviews Ladin about her book Fireworks in the Graveyard.  

Ladin: In Whirlwind @ Lesbos, the speaker is identified clearly as a lesbian. In some of your poems about romantic and sexual relationships, such as “Femme Leaves Home,” it sounds like you are indirectly critiquing some of the ways feminist ideas or assumptions intersect with intimate interactions. How do you see the personal and the political playing out in your relationship poems?

Denenberg: I have always been a domestic goddess. I love my sense of home, being in the kitchen, feeding people, trying to please—read, searching for love? It didn’t work in romantic/sexual relationships because I’m so easy to take advantage of and then I become resentful. The narrator’s complaint in this particular poem is really, “Was my domesticity so insignificant? Does it make me so easy to forget?”

Ladin: I see a range of emotions in your poetry, but I am particularly struck by poems in which anger is prominent. You don’t romanticize the past—you are as tough-minded as any poet I can think of—but I often have a feeling of elegy in those poems.

Denenberg: It’s true that I wrote a bushel of very angry poems when a relationship ended badly and I was feeling misused. And yes, there is elegy in a lot of my poems; life has taught me that growth or maturity is an individual’s response to their accumulation of losses. I had a very full and engaged life in the first half, and a more interior and quiet life in the past couple of decades. My ‘interior years’ have been very productive and satisfying.

Speaking of elegy, there are many references to your own death throughout Fireworks in the Graveyard. I know you have been ill most of this year. In “Aubade,” you talk about dying and the “dying part” of you. In “Departure” you say “Now that my life is almost over.” Can you describe the connections (if any) between your transition and your current illness?

Ladin: I’ve been sick for many years now. I started to notice I was getting sick around the same time I realized I had to stop living as a man and live as myself. I actually mistook my physical symptoms for gender dysphoria, only realizing after I was living as myself and still sick that this was something separate. But not entirely separate. It’s clear that the stress of living as a man, and the excruciating experience of gender transition, divorce and so on, exacerbated an illness that was then in the early stages. So on the one hand, my illness helped me realize I had to finally live as myself, and on the other, it has made it hard to delight in a body and life that finally feel like mine.

Denenberg: You refer to ‘difference’ in the sense of being an outsider in several of the poems in Fireworks.What does difference mean to you? How does it intersect with identity?

Ladin: Identity can never be free of the sense of being different. Identities—the very idea of ‘identity’ itself—are fictional, acts of imagination by which we try to make enduring sense of our constantly changing feelings, bodies, and experiences. But that is not to say that identities aren’t important, or aren’t real in terms of human experiences and relationships. We rely on them to make sense of ourselves and connect and relate to others, and that’s why it can be so damaging for people to live in a culture that doesn’t offer them healthy, recognized identities. So many people have to scrape together functional identities out of bits and pieces that are not only inadequate but often insulting, stigmatizing, damaging. From that perspective, embracing difference instead of identity is liberating and empowering. Being absolutely different is not an option for us. But embracing difference is crucial to keep our identities alive, growing, flexible—to remember that they are here for us rather than us being here for them.


About and

Headmistress Press publishes books of poetry by lesbians, Lesbian Poet Trading Cards and Lavender Review. Their definition of "lesbian" includes both women who identify as lesbians and people who identify with lesbians, recognizing that lesbian communities have been and continue to be informed by bi women, trans women, Two Spirit, genderqueer, gender non-comforming and non-binary people, and that many of these labels are not mutually exclusive categories. In that spirit, they welcome submissions from all poets who feel an intimate connection with the term "lesbian." They will be accepting submissions for the annual Charlotte Mew Chapbook Contest from May 4 to July 4, 2018.
Mary Meriam advocates for the right of women to love each other in their poetry and art, and strives to give their work a place at the table. She writes about and publishes such work in the journal she founded, Lavender Review, at the press she cofounded, Headmistress Press, and at Ms. magazine, The Critical Flame, and The Gay & Lesbian Review. Her poetry collections, The Countess of Flatbroke, The Poet's Zodiac, The Lillian Trilogy, and Lady of the Moon, honor a cosmos of strong, creative women. Her latest collection, My Girl's Green Jacket, was published in 2018, and her poems have appeared recently in Poetry, Prelude, Subtropics, and The Poetry Review.