Listen for My Name
Poetry Off the Shelf: Listen For My Name
Helena de Groot: This is Poetry Off the Shelf, I’m Helena de Groot. Today, Listen For My Name. The ’90s were a strange time if you were queer in America. Never before had there been so many zines, presses, activist organizations, bars, clubs, parties, parades. Even the most mainstream of pop culture seemed on board: Tom Hanks accepted the Academy Award for playing a gay lawyer in Philadelphia, and Ellen DeGeneres, then at the peak of her popularity, went on Oprah and came out.
But it was also a decade of extravagant homophobia. Republican senators called gay people “degenerates” and “weak, morally sick wretches.” The 21-year-old student Matthew Shepard at the University of Wyoming was tied to a fence, tortured and left to die. And in between, tens of thousands of mostly gay men died of AIDS.
It’s during this decade, the ’90s, that the first conference for LGBTQ literature was organized: OutWrite. It was held eight times, and attracted both the biggest names in queer literature as well as up-and-coming authors, plus an audience of people happy to find a home for themselves and their letters.
Now there’s an anthology, titled, OutWrite: The Speeches that Shaped LGBTQ Literary Culture. The anthology does a great job bringing to life moments that would have otherwise been lost to history. Judy Grahn reminding the audience that the roots of queer culture go back millenia. The playwright Edward Albee kicking up a storm complaining that as a white, protestant man, he was, in fact, the minority. Allen Ginsberg on a tear against the FCC’s upcoming decision to ban swear words on the air. Plus, poets Melvin Dixon, Essex Hemphill, Cheryl Clarke, Chrystos, and many more writers of all stripes, talking and reading and singing, on the OutWrite stage.
I recently sat down with the two editors of this collection, Julie Enszer and Elena Gross. Here’s our conversation.
Helena de Groot: First of all, I just wanted to know, like, how did this project even come to you? Because as I understand it, neither of you attended the conferences, right?
Julie Enszer: That is correct.
Helena de Groot: I mean, you were too young, Elena. (LAUGHS)
Elena Gross: Yeah, the first conference was the year I was born, so I was not in attendance.
Helena de Groot: Oh! (LAUGHS) So I don’t know who wants to start, whoever makes most sense, like who had it first, basically.
Julie Enszer: So, I had the good fortune when I was researching for my dissertation, lots of women involved in the Women in Print Movement and the women’s liberation movement gave me their archives as they were trying to clear stuff out. They did not regard them as archives. They regarded them as like, here’s some stuff from back in the day that you might be interested in. And one of the things that came to me as a part of that were two or three of these white tapes from the OutWrite conference that were conference recordings of workshops and of keynote and plenary speeches. And I did not have a cassette tape recorder for a while, then finally had one and listened to them a little bit, and was always fascinated by it and thought, “This would be a great book.” Like, these speeches seem like they have something to tell us today, even though they were now 20 and 30 years ago. So, after I finished my dissertation, that was on my mind. And then I had the good fortune to go to the Queer History Conference out in San Francisco, where Elena was on a panel.
Elena Gross: Yeah, so, E.G. Crichton, who was an artist and also was one of the publishers of Out/Look, the gay and lesbian quarterly, she had put together a project in which she invited artists and scholars and activists—she matched each one of us with an old Out/Look issue, and we were asked to respond. So, the issue that I received, I believe it was Issue 18. And what struck me the most was these ads for the first OutWrite conferences in San Francisco in 1990. And I just kind of wrote this essay, this piece responding to it, just imagining what it could be like to be in this powerful but also fantastical space of just, of queer writers. And through that project, I found recordings on YouTube of different plenary sessions, I looked up speeches from the conference that first year, and, you know, kind of wrote about the importance that this conference had and how amazed I was that I hadn’t heard of it prior to being invited to work on that project. And so, for the Queer History Conference, E.G. was like, “I’m putting together a panel, I would love for you to be part of it.” And so I did. And Julie was in the audience, and I feel like there was like, this sparkle, this gleam in her eyes, and we just kind of connected. And she says to me, “You know, this could be a book.” And I think I was sort of like, “Yeah, sure, okay, whatever, see you around.”
Helena de Groot: Yeah. (LAUGHS)
Elena Gross: But sure enough, a couple weeks after that into the summer, she gave me a call and said, “No, really. I think this could be a book. Would you be interested in and working on this?”
Helena de Groot: That is so interesting, especially Elena, because you mentioned that you were born in the year that the OutWrite conferences got started. And so, I wonder also what that was like for the two of you—there’s almost a generation between the two of you, right? I don’t know exactly how old you are, Julie. And I don’t mean to ask, you know, but in a sense, I am asking you, can you give me a ballpark range?
Julie Enszer: Had I not gone to college, it is, it is true Elena probably could have been my daughter—
Helena de Groot and Elena Gross: (LAUGH)
Julie Enszer: So I suppose that qualifies as a generation between us.
Elena Gross: Certainly a queer generation, I would say, you know, queer time, I think sometimes is a little more elastic—
Julie Enszer: Yeah.
Elena Gross: So yeah, I think so.
Julie Enszer: But I never thought of, I just want to say, though, I never think of Elena as a daughter or as a younger generation. I always think of her as a comrade, as somebody kind of interested in the work. And so that’s much more—so I’m 52—much more so than any hesitancy to reveal my age, I just have that sort of always, I think, queer chafing against traditional generational organizing.
Helena de Groot: Mm-hmm. I didn’t mean to make, like, some sort of weird daughter-mother dynamic between the two of you. The only thing that I’m interested in that is that the ’90s are, by some measures, not long ago at all, and by others, like, especially if you look at the cultural context in which we live and in which we organize, you know, there was no—I mean, there was internet, but there was no social media. Everything happened offline, you know? And so I’m wondering, like, while you were digging through these tapes and going to archives and rummaging through people’s, you know, stuff, Julie, as you said, what most marked you about like, how different the ’90s were in terms of what it meant to be queer then? Maybe, Elena, you can start.
Elena Gross: Yeah, I mean, I think, for starters, I think the first thing that really struck me was how the process of working on this was taking place in that, you know, Julie and I were meeting over Zoom and poring over these transcriptions. And it really just, yeah, I think it really just struck me how, at this time that the conferences were happening, this sort of ability to collectively organize across time and space was just so much different. And I think that’s one of the things that ultimately made the conferences so special is that this was an in-person gathering of all of these writers who, some of whom were familiar with each other’s work, some of whom weren’t. So it was both, you know, meeting of colleagues, but also meetings of fans, like, people who were genuinely fans of one another in this way that is very different than sort of a lot of the parasocial relationships we have now, because of social media. And that just seemed really different and special to me. And I felt like as I was, you know, as I was listening to the tapes or reading through these papers and thinking about the things that, you know, these individuals were grappling with, especially the early years of the conference, specifically the devastation that the AIDS crisis was having on the queer literary community, I was just struck by how many similarities, how much hadn’t changed, actually. And yet, how much I am clearly, in my life and my work now, felt like it was being birthed at this conference. You know, like this was, like, creating this world that allowed, that allowed someone like me to exist so many years later. Even though I was, you know, just a twinkle in my mother’s eye, probably, when this was taking place, it felt like, I don’t know, like something shifted and was allowing the space for a later Elena to—and so many other people—to emerge and to do this kind of work. So it felt like both looking back, but also, somehow, being very grounded in the present, and also just imagining what the queer future of literary culture will ultimately be.
Helena de Groot: Julia, I’m going to go to you in a second, but Elena, I just want to pick up on that, because I think it’s so—it’s such a remarkable moment, I think, for all of us when we discover a lineage where we didn’t know there was one.
Elena Gross: Right
Helena de Groot: And I’m just wondering, can you give me an example of something where you were like, “Oh! This created what I am now stepping into”?
Elena Gross: I mean, there were so many moments. I think Dorothy Allison’s speech, there was so much in that speech that I saw myself in. But then there were also, you know, the lesbian and gays’ dissent of Edward Albee’s speech and sort of like, this idea of, unfortunately, how much division that there still is in certain ways between queer people of color and mainstream white queer culture. But then they’re also like, funny moments. Like, a moment that I refer to a lot is in Nancy Bereano’s speech, in which she’s talking about this new gay kind of publishing world, and warning against certain pitfalls that she sees happening in sort of the mainstreaming of queer culture. And she specifically calls out Ellen DeGeneres as sort of like, if we make this person our spokesperson, we have done a grave disservice to everything we’re doing here. And I was just like, “Oh my God, this is right at the time—
Helena de Groot: Foresight!
Elena Gross: This exact critique is, like, finally coming home to roost, and who could have known? And I think that—what year was that, Julie? I think that was like ’97, maybe?
Julie Enszer: I think it was ’97.
Helena de Groot: Wow.
Elena Gross: And so, in reading things like that, I definitely, while I was working on this project was like, this is definitely the right place, right time for me and for the work that I’m doing.
Helena de Groot: Yeah. Julie, what about you? Like, you were more present for the ’90s, but still, it can feel like an alien time, right? Like, what marked you most as like, “Oh yeah, that was what it was like then”?
Julie Enszer: You know, I think the ’90s … I was working for a good part of the ’90s at a gay and lesbian community center in metropolitan Detroit, and involved in gay and lesbian activism in a variety of different ways. But, you know, there’s just, there’s something about this conference that really sparkles in the way people came together. And in their relationships, it enabled seeing bits of literary history on stage. I mean, one of the—if I could go back in time and experience any one of the events at this conference, one of the things I would want to be at is this public conversation between Minnie Bruce Pratt and Leslie Feinberg.
Leslie Feinberg: We are going to be reading to each other from our work. I’m gonna be reading …
Julie Enszer: Leslie’s Stone Butch Blues is out, and Leslie is working on Transgender Warriors. Minnie Bruce, they were just releasing She/He, the memoir that she wrote about the early years of her relationship with Leslie. And when it’s released, they’ve only been together a couple years. And there’s this—you can hear it in the tape of it, there’s this electricity between the two of them.
Leslie Feinberg: So we walked by a corner where these cops were laying into a homeless man, and I stopped and mouthed off to the cops. And they started coming at me with their clubs raised. And suddenly I felt things well up in me I thought I had buried. I stood there remembering you, like I didn’t see the cops about to hit me. Like I was falling back into another world, a place I wanted to go again. And suddenly my heart hurt so bad, and I realized how long it had been since my heart felt anything. I need to go home to you tonight, and I can’t, so I’m writing you this letter.
Minnie Bruce Pratt: Standing in the pit of the auditorium, you are someone I don’t know yet. Debonair in silky shirt and tie, hair clipped close, almost as skin on your fine-boned head. You read a story about the bar raids, a night scene on the street between the butch just released from jail, and the woman who has waited for her, smoothing her shirt, mourning over the indelible blood stains that will never wash out. As you read, I am the woman who touches the shirt, startled to be so translated to a place I think I’ve never been. In the dim light of the auditorium, you see me standing in your past. Your message the next morning says, “So glad to see a femme from the old days.” I write to correct you. To explain about my lesbian feminist political coming out.
Minnie Bruce Pratt: In return, your letter says of me, listening in the auditorium, it was as if we were in a slow dance as I read. I don’t understand what you mean. Me, who begins to wander off in my own direction, halfway through every dance with a lover, my attention and my confidence failing. I reply, dubiously, “Hopefully. I have so much trouble following. Perhaps I haven’t had a skillfull enough partner.”
Minnie Bruce Pratt: (LAUGHS)
(RECORDING FADES OUT)
Julie Enszer: And I just feel like the whole ballroom must have been just taut with this sexual energy between them, as they’re, they’re reading from their book, like, directly. There’s very little conversation, but it’s just so electric. The other moment is at the beginning of Melvin Dixon’s speech.
Helena de Groot: Oh, yeah.
Julie Enszer: Which is an incredible speech. And the opening, you know, like, we captured it in the way that we capture song lyrics in print. But on the audio, Dixon sings. And it’s like midway through the tape, you listen to this long introduction and they do announcements—
Announcer: Some folks from New York City need rides home, and think that some of you from New York City might …
Julie Enszer: And you know, again, nobody can check in on social media and get, like, the room changes for everything, or the cancelation—
Helena de Groot: (LAUGHING) Vibe checks.
Julie Enszer: Like, this speaker has canceled, you know, like there’s all of this other sort of conference apparatus that is on the tape. And then what’s really just majestic is imagining Melvin Dixon standing up there and beginning not by speaking, but by singing to the audience. Dixon knows, he knows how very sick he is. He dies I think about six or seven months later.
When he calls me I will answer,
When he calls me I will answer,
When he calls me I will answer,
I’ll be somewhere listening for my name.
I’ll be somewhere listening,
I’ll be somewhere listening,
I’ll be somewhere listening for my name,
I’ll be somewhere listening,
I’ll be somewhere listening,
I’ll be somewhere listening for my name.
Julie Enszer: And it’s an incredible moment.
Elena Gross: And that moment comes up a number of times in people’s responses to the conference. It’s one of the moments that sticks out most clearly in a number of people’s minds. And the emotion that it brought up for everyone in the room. And people who were like, “I wasn’t in the room at the time, I had gone down the hall,” and then, you know, who are, even now, 30 years later, can’t believe that they missed it. It’s that moment that they can’t believe that they were, you know, in the bathroom or whatever.
Helena de Groot: Yeah.
Elena Gross: You know, it’s, and so, I think that speaks to also how powerful and how palpable the energy of these conferences were, that they’re, they’re moments that people remember really fondly. But there are also moments that people have extreme FOMO about having missed. But feel connected to anyway, which I think is—and, you know, as one of the people with the ultimate FOMO because I wasn’t, you know, like, I feel that, I feel that in working on this project of, I feel connected to it, even though I very much (LAUGHS) missed out on some of those moments.
Helena de Groot: When I was reading, like, the ways that people described this conference, one of the attendees described it as, “dizzying, all-consuming, exhilarating, a near-perfect manifestation of an ideal of community that I have ever experienced.” And that is something that I wanted to ask you about, too, because that ideal of community … it feels like that ideal was simultaneously attained and not. Because, like, yes, this was this historical coming together of fans and writers and people in this one space who had never really met each other often, but there was also, a lot of people felt excluded in various ways. Especially after Edward Albee’s woe-me, white Protestant man speech. And I was just wondering if you both wanted to talk about what it was to encounter people’s frustrations. Julie, maybe you want to start?
Julie Enszer: Sure. One of the things that’s striking to me reading this is the very different conditions that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people lived in in the 1990s. We alluded briefly to the AIDS crisis, and that’s so palpable in all of the papers and all of the stuff surrounding the conferences, of people who would never speak at the conference because they died days before the conference after accepting an invitation. The ways that people feared for their safety, for their jobs, for their wellbeing if it was found out that they were gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer, I think that’s one of the conditions that has really changed today. And to read these speeches is to remember what those conditions were like. And then, that sort of helps us understand what that beloved community was like, as a place of acceptance, right, to really think about what the other days of the years were like. And then to have this space within the conference. But then also, the reality that the space within the conference was contested. And contested in a lot of different ways. We included the protest statement from Lesbians and Gays of African Descent who are objecting to really, you know, a speech that was really just terrible. And I think also, in some ways, designed to kind of provoke people.
Helena de Groot: Sure.
Julie Enszer: But there were other skirmishes that were important, that helped people think about and understand what the stakes of community life were for LGBTQ people. There were questions about accessibility that came up. Chrystos, whose speech is in the book, I think she doesn’t say it in this speech, she says it in another speech, like, she will not include her work if she is the only Native person represented. There has to be at least one other, and ideally more, so that this kind of tokenization does not happen in queer communities. So, there were lots of ways where the community was really cherished and special, but also ways where people were challenging it and wanting it to be better, wanting it to be more inclusive and more special for everyone, sort of more expansive.
Helena de Groot: Elena, what was your sense of kind of the fault lines within the community and how you experienced reading that today?
Elena Gross: There were going to be tensions, there were going to be frictions. People recognized that they didn’t have a lot of time, that this space couldn’t be taken for granted because it may never exist again. And so, now is kind of your moment to make yourself heard, in certain ways. And so, you know, Essex Hemphill rightfully critiques what he considers the fetishization and exploitation of Black gay men by the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who is this lightning rod of controversy. And so it shows these intersections of identity that can’t be teased apart, that have to be talked about and have to be taken altogether. And he’s hissed at. The audience hisses at him. They boo him for what he has to say.
Helena de Groot: What, I didn’t know that, wow.
Elena Gross: Yeah, it’s this huge, awful, awful angry moment where the audience is appalled that he would call out Robert Mapplethorpe for his treatment of Black gay men, while not fully taking in the fact that Essex Hemphill is a Black gay man who will also later die of complications related to AIDS. This is his life. You know, and so, it’s those moments that, theoretically, on their surface have the ability to create this sense that, you know, to tear everything apart. But I don’t think it did. I think there were necessary frictions that needed to happen, because there were these thorny bits of community, these thorny bits of the culture that needed to be addressed in order to, in order to move forward. And, as, I think, anyone looking back at a time period, at a specific time period with so much, you know, multiple crises at once, you also look for the gaps. And anything that’s claiming to represent community, you look for, Okay, then who was left out of this conversation? And I think that’s something that we, you know, Julie and I discussed a lot when we were putting this together. Though we’re seeing this kind of diversity of races, we’re seeing this kind of seeming gender parity in terms of representations of both men and women in these conferences, there are also, you know, issues of access, disability, classism. You know, trans contributors, there are very few of them in the conferences. And things have changed in a certain way that we now live in a culture where, like, you are super attuned to seeing who’s missing at a time when maybe the priorities were a little bit different. But all of those things, kind of acknowledging them, and really looking at them, again, are the only way to ensure that we move forward with everyone included. And, you know, I think the idea of utopia is an ongoing one. It is always in the future. It is always something to be longed for and desired for, never necessarily to be reached. And I think, in that way, that’s still what the conferences did.
Helena de Groot: I mean, it’s interesting that you that you talk about this ongoingness of utopia, you know, I was just wondering what you feel about this particular moment in time where a speaker like Judy Grahn, a white poet, you know, because she’s basically talking about like how, in her earlier days as an activist, as an organizer, lesbians were often just kind of, you know, second thought or whatever, and that she felt like she had to separate from the men, from the gay men, to organize separately, build their own power structures, power bases, and then meet again as equals at the table. And like, in her speech, she talks about, like, how fired up she is that now the time is ripe to, like, organize together again, and what a glorious moment that is. And then it’s kind of contrasted by, yeah, as you say, you know, these people like Melvin Dixon or Essex Hemphill, or the writer, you know, Mariana Romo-Carmona, who are like, saying, yeah, you know, maybe the moment for, like, coming together again because we have our own bases of power, maybe that hasn’t happened for us yet. Maybe we’re still kind of doing this uphill battle when it comes to the distribution of power. And so, I’m just wondering, how do you feel about the possibility of organizing together today?
Julie Enszer: Well, one of the struggles in putting together the book was capturing not all, but some of these tensions. And, you know, Judy’s speech is one part. There was a, not quite a protest, but there was some, let’s just say, a group of lesbians in the San Francisco Bay Area quite disgruntled about the energy that was going into organizing this conference, because they really felt like women still needed to be doing things just with women. So, behind the scenes, there was a disgruntled sort of sense of what is all this co-gender stuff about? The time is not here. You know, so, for me, part of the book is about leaving these little breadcrumbs for people to find, to both sort of see the inspiration of like, here’s something that happened that has shaped part of where we are today, but also, let’s go back and look at what were these flash points about and what can we learn from them? And what do they tell us about how we might think about your question today? And I think that, to me, one of the really wonderful things about defining broad communities is that they give us space to have dissent. And for some people to say, “Yes, let’s work on this together.” And other people say, “Oh, not quite so fast. Like, I’m bringing this experience and I want to, you know, caucus with these people in this kind of way.” We’re always a multiplicity of voices with a multiplicity of strategies for what we want to do. And I think that endures today. And our task is always to open the community wide enough that we can involve enough people and also set our intentions narrow enough that we can actually get some work done.
Helena de Groot: Yeah. Elena, what about you?
Elena Gross: I guess as you were posing the question, even as you were speaking, Julia, I was thinking a lot about Sarah Schulman’s most recent book, Let the Record Show. And how, you know, her framing it as both a political history of ACT UP New York, but also as this, offering this as a guide for contemporary activists now, like, basically saying, you can look at the history of ACT UP to learn from it, to learn from the things that ACT UP did really well, the actions that they that took place. This is how we did it. This is how we strategized. You know, here’s this kind of playbook, but you can also learn from the things that went wrong, and the problems that arose, and the splintering of the groups that then created more groups, and from basically how the whole thing ended, essentially. You can also learn from those things. And yeah, like, in terms of like, let’s all work together, kumbaya, we’re all equal in our, you know, across this kind of marginalized or marginalization spectrum, we can now all work from that place, I don’t think, we’re not there. I mean, obviously, people of color and specifically Black people in this country have had no illusions that racism somehow ended with the election of Barack Obama or any other moment that we want to point to as, like, this evidence of a kind of racial reconciliation. We’ve always been aware that, you know, there are still a lot of—we’re still not speaking the same language when we’re talking about racial injustice in this country. And that exists within queer community. And that is something that I have felt in my personal life and work that I do. I’ve seen that kind of be, not ignored, but kind of like, “Oh, we’ll put this on the side. We’ll table this for—right now, we just really need to work on this, and we’ll get to that later.” And I think there is a lot of obviously queer folks of color who don’t agree. And so are more interested in organizing collectively with one another, as opposed to kind of having to do this compartmentalizing of oneself within queer activism or within queer spaces. So, we’re not there yet. But I do agree that I think what you get from this book and what you get from looking at the conferences in this way, is you get, exactly to Julie’s point, you get breadcrumbs of how do we take what happened before as a model for trying still, you know, trying still for a place where we can all come together, while also learning from our past, looking at, you know, kind of the events of these conferences that were these divisive moments. And how do we not repeat that? Or, how do we do this better? So, I don’t think—there’s no perfect model, obviously, and I think the benefit of the conferences is that I think it shows how many people can and should be involved in creating this community.
Helena de Groot: At the back of the book, you include, like, a few memories of people who attended or helped organize and, you know, people who didn’t necessarily give speeches. Julie, I was wondering if you could read this one. It is on page 274 of the book. It’s basically about like, how the specter of AIDS hung over the entire conference. And I was wondering if you can read that paragraph until the end, from, “I remember”?
Julie Enszer: Yeah.
I remember the calling out of names at each opening plenary when we invited audience members to shout names of the dead to be remembered. But this was the easy, celebratory part of what AIDS meant. More difficult were the phone calls with writers who said they were too sick to come to the conference in a few months or that they were feeling OK now but feared they’d be too sick by March to attend. Harder still with the last-minute, often the day before, phone calls from friends or lovers of writers who said they were too sick or had just died. Even more painful were the notes from friends of random registrants—whose names were only known to us on checks or registration forms—who said they had died and would not be there. This starkly and frighteningly brought home the reality that what made OutWrite great, what made it vital especially in those dark times, was not the writers who spoke, but the enormous community that made their work possible, that gave it life by accepting it into their lives, minds, and hearts.
Helena de Groot: Thank you. And Elena, I was just wondering if you can read another excerpt just so we have, you know, one more voice about this. I was thinking of the little contribution by Joan Nestle on page 282?
Elena Gross: Yeah.
I attended two OutWrite gatherings, in 1992 and 1993. I know many will speak of the excitement of being with so many other queer writers, some already trailing clouds of literary glory, but it is the memory of two men that most captures what my time in attendance meant. Both writers, both dying of AIDS, John Preston and Melvin Dixon. John and I had worked over the year trying to finish up our manuscript for Sister and Brother, and this was a rare chance to be in each other’s presence, for me to be on his home turf of Boston streets. He was surrounded by admirers, but we found time to sit on a Commons bench and just hold each other. “Two pornographers,” he laughed into my ear. All those hotel rooms filled with dazzling writers, but I remember most this and my coming upon Melvin Dixon, the poet, the novelist, sitting alone in a grand empty room, looking, it seemed to me, through walls. Writers can be isolated beings, even at grand gatherings. OutWrite gave us a chance to say hello and goodbye.
Helena de Groot: Thank you. I thought this was so extraordinarily moving, to include these memories of like, how the AIDS crisis was experienced, not as this amorphous blob, but as so acutely specific, you know, sitting on a bench with John Preston or, you know, Melvin Dixon like, sitting alone in an empty room, “looking, it seemed to me, through walls. Writers can be isolated beings, even at grand gatherings.” I thought it was so beautiful that someone captured these people … right before they passed away. In ways that were so … like, the almost unnoticeable ways in which they were present and seen and loved by the people who knew them. And I was just wondering what it was like for the both of you immersing yourself in this material, in these testimonies, what it was like to talk about literature with so much death in the room.
Elena Gross: Well, I think … working on this project in isolation at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when there was so much uncertainty, and every day you were reading in the New York Times that the number of Americans who had died was increasing and increasing and increasing, and that the government was doing literally very little to abate it, or to offer comfort or to offer security to the rest of us. Death was in the room for the attendees of this conference, but death was very much in the room in my apartment that I wasn’t able to leave as I was poring through these transcripts. And I think, of course, you know, I’m reading the words of these literary icons who I’ve admired for so long, and there’s a way that their words are and have always been venerated. But really, it was in thinking about the moment that I was in while reading about this time that they were in and feeling really connected in a human way. It’s one thing to venerate a person’s words, but to really see them as a human being and to see the magnitude of their life as a flesh and blood person with a family, with friends, with lovers, with memories, with, you know, fears. It gave me a sense of understanding how necessary and important connecting, not just through the work that we do, of course, the work that we do is incredibly important, but connecting to one another as individuals and holding each other close. I think that work is just as important as the words, you know, we leave behind on the page, is how we make people feel. Is those memories, exactly as Joan Nestle is describing, those memories that stay with someone long after you’ve passed. Like, how we make someone feel and how they understand themselves and are better themselves for having been in your presence and for having known you. That’s really what it felt like the conferences did for the people who participated and attended, and that’s really what it did for me working on this project.
Helena de Groot: Thank you. Yeah, Julia, how about you?
Julie Enszer: Yeah. You know, I … I think a lot of writers want, you know, people want to write great things, people want to write masterpieces, people want to write to be the Dickens or the Dickinson or the Whitman of the future. And that’s fantastic. But I think also what books like this and pieces of writing that are more occasional pieces of writing, like speeches, like conference presentations, remind us that … that writers do a lot of work over the course of a lifetime. And a lucky few people create something that’s considered a masterpiece over time. A lot more people write something that might be popular, that a lot of people like at a time, but that may fade from memory. But that the real work of being human is the same for writers as for other human beings. And it is the quality of our life and our care for one another. And I felt that, you know, with the death in the room from AIDS, you know (STARTS TO CRY) and I was, as I said, I was active at this time. And so for me, in certain ways, the death in this book is … specific, and it’s tied to other people that I knew, and it’s also about completing, completing this kind of generational work of memory. So, sorry, I was not expecting that.
Helena de Groot: No, take your time.
Julie Enszer: Yeah. But I think that’s the … that it shows the quality of those relationships. And the quality of care that, um, that AIDS and the broader world forced people to, um, show to one another.
Helena de Groot: There’s something that Melvin Dixon said in his keynote address. You know, he had just lost his partner, Richard, to AIDS. He would himself die just a few months later. And the last thing that he said that day on stage was, “You then, are charged by the possibility of your good health, by the broadness of your vision to remember us.” And I’m just wondering, how do you experience this responsibility as, like, keepers, tellers of history? You know, a history that many participants are no longer able to tell.
Julie Enszer: I feel, I very deeply worry about getting things wrong, right?
Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)
Julie Enszer: (LAUGHS) You know, the one thing about telling history when there are not a lot of people still alive who remember it is, there are fewer corrections, right?
Helena de Groot: Right.
Julie Enszer: So, yeah, that’s … I worry about getting things wrong and not having enough people to correct.
Helena de Groot: Yes. What about you, Elena, what did that responsibility feel like, or does it feel like?
Elena Gross: I definitely feel the pressure that Julie’s talking about, you know, the concern about getting things wrong, especially, being a generation or, you know, we’re abandoning these terms, but being removed in a very specific way from the actual lived experience of the conferences. But I also find it to be very, very personal work. I found … I found out more about myself as a person, as a writer, as, through doing this work. And I think, you know, the responsibility of remembering is not just for—I mean, of course it’s for the greater good in a certain way, of wanting to introduce a whole new generation of writers to writers who should be better known today, but who aren’t in large part because of the devastation of the crisis. But it’s also deeply personal for me, like, you know, it’s my own history. And I’ve learned … I’ve found things that I didn’t realize I needed through this process. And I found that I want other people to have that same experience. I take the responsibility seriously, because it feels very personal for me.
Helena de Groot: Can you tell me one thing that you discovered in doing it that you didn’t know you needed?
Elena Gross: That I needed to … that I needed to believe that there were writers who spoke as passionately and as eloquently about politics as they do about their own sex lives. And that taking our pleasure seriously is political work, is important work. And not sanitizing queer literary production is necessary for queer liberation. Which I think I did know, deep down, but it was great to have it reinforced and reiterated so clearly and presently in the work of so many of these writers.
Helena de Groot: Yeah, because it just keeps being like, the same, the same wall keeps being erected—
Elena Gross: Right.
Helena de Groot: Like, the same sanitation keeps—
Elena Gross: The DeGeneres’ing of … of everything.
Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS) What about you, Julie? What is something that you took from it that you didn’t even know you needed?
Julie Enszer: You know, I really, especially as I’ve been rereading the book in preparation to think about its release and talk about it a bit, I really have come to cherish John Preston. Which has … I guess, surprised me in certain ways. I think he was one of the writers I knew the least about. And what I’ve taken from his work that I didn’t know I needed is, he has this great dog story—
John Preston: One of my best friends and one of the first friends I knew who had AIDS raised dogs. As he got AIDS—he happened to have been a very lean and very handsome man—his body was ravaged constantly. He used all kinds of ways to deny what was going on with him. But no one would talk to him about dying. No one would talk to him about what was happening to him. And he was left with a constant search for some kind of miraculous cure or healing. One day after he was in the hospital, and this chaos had spread tremendously, he was brought home, and a whole group of people were with him were saying, oh this is just, this nothing, we’re going through another instance and so on. Treating AIDS as thought it were on hold. And what happened was, that the dog came running to greet him as soon as she heard him come through the door. And she stopped short in the middle of the room. And fell back onto her paws, and whined back to herself on the floor …
Julie Enszer: You know, and the dog just like, runs away, because the dog is like, “Oh no, that can’t be my master,” right? Like, he’s—that person is too ill to be in this house. And it’s both sad and moving and funny, and … Preston’s commitment to telling community stories like that was really, really inspiring to me. Through that speech, he was really—one of the things he said is, it doesn’t really matter if what you write lasts forever, what an honor to tell the stories that matter to your community. And that … that I needed to hear.
Helena de Groot: The anthology OutWrite: The Speeches that Shaped LGBTQ Literary Culture was edited by Julie Enszer and Elena Gross. Julie Enszer is the author of four poetry collections, including Avowed, and the editor of Sister Love: The Letters of Audre Lorde and Pat Parker. She also edits and publishes the multicultural lesbian literary and art journal, Sinister Wisdom. Elena Gross is an independent writer, curator, and culture critic, who currently serves as the Director of Exhibitions and Curatorial Affairs at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco.
Together, Julie Enszer and Elena Gross worked on the OutWrite anthology each from their home, Julie in central Florida, and Elena in Oakland, California.
The audio excerpts you heard were:
* Minnie Bruce Pratt and Leslie Feinberg reading. That audio’s been saved in the archives at Duke University, used with the permission of Minnie Bruce Pratt;
* Melvin Dixon singing, courtesy of the Bromfield Street Educational Foundation records at the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections;
* And John Preston telling his dog story is freely available on YouTube. Just look for “OutWrite 1990.”
If you’d like to know more about OutWrite, keep an eye on the Poetry Foundation website. They’ll soon publish an essay by the scholar Eric Sneathen, about what OutWrite meant for queer writers and queer literature in the midst of AIDS.
The music in this episode is by Todd Sickafoose and Eric van der Westen. I’m Helena de Groot and this was Poetry Off the Shelf. Thank you for listening.
(MUSIC PLAYS AND FADES OUT)
Julie Enszer and Elena Gross on community care, the AIDS epidemic, and OutWrite, the conference that shaped queer literary history.