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 are bringing you their conversations with each other, in a sort of online lesbian poetry conference. Previously, Jessica K. Hylton and Jen Rouse, Joy Ladin and Risa Denenberg, Gail Thomas and Lesléa Newman, and Marissa Higgins and Samantha Pious conversed.
This week, Diane Furtney interviews Robin Reagler about her book, Teeth & Teeth, winner of the Charlotte Mew Prize, and Reagler interviews Furtney about her book, Riddle, finalist for the Charlotte Mew Prize.
Furtney: Your best moment in Teeth & Teeth, I think, is that admission of need to travel halfway across Texas while driving in reverse. It’s a terrific, flamboyant metaphor for defiant lesbian experience across a mostly unaccommodating world. I wonder where it came from? Is it too much to hope that autobiography was involved? A transmission problem, perhaps—and no helpful state trooper in sight?
Reagler: How’d you know about that state trooper?!
Teeth & Teeth is a grief story, tracking the recent loss of my parents. They lived in Arkansas; I’m in Texas; so I traveled back and forth constantly for the years of their decline. Autobiographically, a friend commented that she bet I’d done that trip so many times, I could probably drive it in reverse. That’s the impetus for the poem, “We Holy Thieves.” The route from Houston to Hot Springs is entirely rural, and I certainly felt my queerness keenly on those journeys. The most dramatic encounter took place at a small town mechanic’s. I was getting a tire replaced, and a man was taking down Hilary Clinton. A more sensible lesbian might have kept quiet, but I’d been up all night with my mom in the ER, and his comments provoked me. Instead of asking questions, I was arguing. We both left the shop at the same time, and back on the highway I realized that he was following me. I slowed down to a ridiculously slow speed which frustrated him. Within a minute, he gunned the engine of his F450 pickup truck, passed me, and roared into sunset. My heartbeats were crazy for days after that.
I will say that in these drives I was pulled over three times, and in each of those interactions, the police were not just courteous but generous. In fact, on the day my dad died, an officer offered to escort me that last 25 miles to make sure I got there safely. To move through the South as a lesbian, you meet up with all of America. My experiences have ranged from condemning to accepting to celebratory.
In Riddle, Diane, you write an autobiography through your poems. I wonder if you could talk about how poetry recasts the lesbian life—in this case, your own—in ways that, say, nonfiction, fiction or film might not. In other words: How do poetry and lesbianism work together in your book?
Furtney: Not a question I’ve been asked before! A smart-aleck answer would be that lesbianism is the real poetry of life. More honestly, though, poetry writing and lesbian experience share the fact of a frequent solitude that frequently deepens into loneliness. Because so many lesbian works conclude unhappily, Riddle deliberately celebrates the eventual arrival of an important love that thrives in the midst of a good deal of solitude.
What I think a lyric line of poetry can do, better than other arts, is entrap more of the vividly lighted moments and, if there are firm and distinctive rhythms in the line, keep those moments brightly lit. Prose sentences rarely maintain that same concentration and flare. When they do, it’s likely the prose is so full of sound-stitching that it has a secret identity as a prose poem. What I hoped to do in Riddle is describe, as lyrically as possible but with energetic line breaks, not the ways in which lesbian love experiences are unique but rather ways in which they’re indistinguishable from what’s experienced in the general population.
What wonderful Texas troopers! They must be so bored they turned nice just to have something different to do. I could wish they’d tutor their brethren in Oklahoma. I once experienced a police shakedown there—almost midnight outside a small town, another woman with me, which the solitary deputy did not like. Lots of careful, delicate talking. Finally cost $50 each, cash, no receipt, the air heavy with threat. Not that I’m complaining, mind you: could have been much worse. Still, the good and not-so-good experiences of lesbians encountering police authorities could make for an extremely interesting anthology, especially in poetry.