Language As City: Beth Brant in Detroit

To love, to move perpetually
as the body changes

—Adrienne Rich, “Images for Godard”

Sinister Wisdom’s newest Sapphic Classic, A Generous Spirit: Selected Work by Beth Brant, releases into the world today. All of the Sapphic Classics are special to me, but this one repays an important debt from my youth.

Beth Brant may be linked most closely with her beloved Tyendinaga Mohawk Reserve in Ontario Canada, where she recorded conversations with Tyendinaga elders that became the 1995 book I’ll Sing ‘til the Day I Die, but to me her face is always Detroit.

Back around 1990, learning of my passion for lesbian literature, Ann Perrault, the Amazon who operated the Detroit Women’s Coffeehouse for more than two decades, told me that she knew Beth Brant. I was awestruck: Ann Perrault’s sexy, long gray hair and now her connection to this lesbian writing icon.

You should meet her, Ann said. I did. Beth invited me to dinner with her partner Denise in their home in Detroit’s downriver suburb. Denise cooked. Beth and I talked about books. I was nervous, star-struck. Beth walked me through her library and shared a few books with me: other Native writers, the poetry of Assoto Saint.

Later, I think, the local women’s bookstore, A Woman’s Prerogative in Ferndale, Michigan, organized a writing workshop with Beth. I attended. I cannot remember the order of these events. Did I go to dinner at the house before or after the bookstore workshop? I do not know. 

Beth and Denise and I became friends. Then I broke up with my girlfriend in a way that made Beth cross with me. I avoided her. Then I moved away from Detroit. Writing this today, I shudder at the folly of my youth—how I did not hold on to what was sacred to me, to writers, to Beth.

I did not talk to Beth before her death. I always wish that I had repaired that relationship. I carry an enormous sense of gratitude for those conversations with Beth. She helped me peer inside what it meant to be a writer, not the operations of it, the details of publishing, but the spirit and commitment to it. I remember Beth showing me her desk, the material she used to write, and also her sense of imaginative expanse in the world. There were stories everywhere, waiting for us to catch them.

As was the case with more than a few lesbian writers, Beth was under-appreciated in her hometown of Detroit, though beloved by many across the United States and in Canada. In spite of this fact, much of Detroit for me reveals the spirit of Beth: the gritty suburbs, the people who scrap a living from the city helping the people around them, the world of Detroit and its suburbs, was grist for the mill of Beth’s creativity. Her language enlivened the city to me.

Rich wrote, “my face must have meaning.” Beth’s face gave meaning to Detroit, and meaning to the phrase “living writer.”

When Beth died in 2015, I was living in Maryland—but a few months later, I found myself in Michigan for a spell. I reached out to her family asking if I might publish a Sapphic Classic of her work. I drove to meet them, and we agreed on the project in principle.

After some networking, Janice Gould signed on to the project as editor. Janice died in June as the book was going to press. As A Generous Spirit: Selected Work by Beth Brant wings its way into the world, I wonder: How do we repay the debts of our past?

One way is to help work continue to live—one of the reasons this Sapphic Classic is special to me. Ultimately, my story about knowing Beth Brant as a writer is mundane. Every day, around the world, writers generously mentor young people.

From my mundane story, however, is a reminder of the work of Beth Brant. Beth’s work is sublime. I urge you to read it and know her as a writer and thinker. It will change you. As Rich concluded in “Images for Godard”—“the moment of change is the only poem[.]”


Julie R. Enszer is a scholar and poet. She's currently the editor of Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal, and a regular book reviewer for the Lambda Book Report and Calyx. Julie's research has appeared or is forthcoming in Southern CulturesJournal of Lesbian StudiesAmerican PeriodicalsWSQFrontiers and other journals; she is the author of the poetry collections AvowedLilith’s DemonsSisterhood and Handmade Love and the editor of The Complete Works of Pat Parker and Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry.