Sappho’s Series of Lesbian Poets: Vi Khi Nao’s Body of Language

Coming out doesn’t make you at home in the world; nor, certainly, does sex. You need bonds beyond sex: a community, a culture, a shared set of obsessions.

“Love on the March,” Alex Ross, The New Yorker 11/12/12

When I was a young lesbian in rural New Jersey in the ‘70s, I was completely lost in a dark sea and sky—without stars, sun or moon to guide me. The word “lesbian” was only uttered, when it was uttered at all, with contempt and mockery. There appeared to be no place for me in society and culture, and to express myself would be dangerous. I wrote poems, and kept my poems private: a community of one.

Then I saw two words in the Village Voice that pierced through the fog: Lesbian Nation. A whole nation of people like me! 

It’s 2020, and I’m still sharply attuned to Lesbian Nation, especially the poet part of the population. Where are the stars, sun and moon of lesbian poets? I look for you always. I love most those lesbian poets who are fearless and inclusive and complete, who don’t censor themselves. Let me share your voices with the world. So I did, starting Lavender Review and Headmistress Press. 

This year, Headmistress Press is proud to announce the inaugural Sappho’s Prize in Poetry, awarded annually for one full-length poetry collection by a lesbian. To celebrate and promote this prize, I’m posting a series of short monthly book reviews or interviews here on msmagazine.com.

Full disclosure: I’ve published some of these poets in Lavender Review, though I haven’t published any of their books. Headmistress Press made Lesbian Poet Trading Cards for some of these poets. Some of these poets have served or will serve as judges for the Headmistress Press Charlotte Mew Chapbook Contest.

This year’s judge of the Charlotte Mew contest, Vi Khi Nao, was born in Vietnam and lives in Iowa. She is a prolific, prize-winning author working in poetry, fiction, film and cross-genre collaboration. I talked with Nao about her two “sapphic” books, The Vanishing Point of Desire and Swans in Half-Mourning. Knowing she’d give me brilliant answers, I also asked her two questions almost impossible to answer. 

Nao’s Lesbian Poet Trading Card.

What is poetry? 

The ability to have two faces at once: the face of an ephemeral candor + clamor of where you are in history, where you are in between the liminal door of ache + condensation & the face of ardent transient amnesia. In those cervices that might speak about what you want + what you might forget. Poetry is ardor without compensation. An immoral law that you invent for yourself so that others may come to know that you are most mournful when you are no longer savages. Poetry is an offspring of time, but not a mistress of fiction (though who has the authority to contradict?) This is poetry, folks. 

What is lesbian poetry? 

Words making love (or fucking) in a U-haul

Language cutting nails (translucent keratin) in preparation for seduction and seclusion. What is protection without translucency? 

Words watching “The L-Word” and sometimes “The Handmaiden.”

In the The Vanishing Point of Desire, do you create a “body of language?”

I create a language, but not necessarily a body. More concretely, I create an aesthetic, a raw form of intimacy that subverts time and its memory of desire. I create an experience of existential mourning between desire and its non-vanishing absence of such desire. My novella, like most of my work, is a place where a person in love could go to if they find themselves ambushed by tender rage, appetite and art. 

In Swans in Half-Mourning, do Cynthia and Veronika love the six brother swans, or are their lives disrupted by the swans, by the sewing and the silence?

Duty towards family is the highest and probably the noblest form of existence. Cynthia and Veronika were purely and sapphically exhibiting a museum of their nobility through their sacrifices. 

About

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, and Subtropics.