The Lesbian Poets of Headmistress Press: Freesia McKee and Farrell Greenwald Brenner 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 are bringing you their conversations with each other, in a sort of online lesbian poetry conference. 

Previously, Jessica K. Hylton and Jen RouseJoy Ladin and Risa DenenbergGail Thomas and Lesléa NewmanMarissa Higgins and Samantha PiousRobin Reagler and Diane Furtney and Laura Foley and Maureen Bocka conversed.

This week, Freesia McKee interviews Farrell Greenwald Brenner about her book, Diatribe from the Library, and Brenner interviews McKee about her book, How Distant the City.

McKee: Diatribe from the Library is a card catalogue of feminist resistance. The speaker reports from the stacks like an embedded reporter: “Here is the shovel…/We are not planting kind words here/this ain’t your gramma’s time capsule.” As a feminist reader and lover of libraries, I recognized a familiar ritual in your poems: self-recognition through the act of reading. In other words, the power of the book as a mirror. Many of us remember first locating the feminist authors who would help us chart our way. What kind of mirror or map do you hope Diatribe from the Library provides?

Brenner: I wrote the title poem of Diatribe in a state of fury. I was sexually harassed in a public place—a library—and was incensed. How could he get away with that? Why couldn’t I think of anything to say until it was too late? Just as you say, some of the first feminist authors I ever read were ones that cleared a path for anger in themselves and in me as a reader. I wanted to continue that genealogy and reflect the rage in readers’ hearts, rage that burns after years of coercion and humiliation and belittling. It’s a report from the library as a war zone.

How Distant the City keeps a similar record of outrage. Your observations in “on 47th Street” and “Poem for Ashraf Fayadh” are so strongly contextualized in the simultaneous immediacy and distance of chaos and violence, it begs the questions, “Won’t anyone do something?” and then, “Shouldn’t I do something?” How Distant the City doesn’t shy away from a frank discussion of the costs and consequences of power. How are you calling your readers to action?

McKee: In light of the unstable narcissist in power, I have been thinking about how the exchange between reader and writer is an example of solidarity. I hope that my poems are a feminist affirmation and a political question. The reader participates by reading the poem. I want readers to write their own poem, song, letter: to make movement. I want to read these. As a reader, I have learned so much about power. I hope readers learn about their power as participants in the exchange of ideas. I hope we all learn more about becoming better activists, feminists, co-conspirators.

I am interested in your idea of the library as a war zone. Can you talk more about that?

Brenner: Libraries are where ideas are, putatively, preserved in perpetuity. Or, it is where ideas collect dust, when they are misshelved. Underfunded local libraries and community resources go hand in hand with the poisoning of water or the over-policing of poor, Black communities in our country; it’s a slower state of siege. I see the library as an arena with contention at every turn. In a more literal sense, libraries are a part of the landscape of any given war. Book burning is a common tactic often used early in campaigns of destruction.

I want to imagine the aftermath of this presidency. What do you think will be our role as poets when the dust settles?

McKee: I want to imagine that, too. It is a role for poets: inhabiting possible futures. I’m curious what readers of this interview think.


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.