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Dead Lesbian Poets: A Meditation in Six Parts

Dead Lesbian Poets: A Meditation in Six Parts

Author: Julie R. Enszer

July 8, 2020

“Song is a persuasive thing: let girls learn to sing…”
“Sappho to Phaon,” Ovid, translated by Judith P. Hallett

I. Leucadian Cliffs

Patron to both poetry and lesbians, the ancient Greek poet Sappho is the tenth muse. Sappho wrote her poems to be accompanied by a lyre, hence the term lyric poetry. Lyric poetry voices sentiments in the first person and often is grounded in human emotions expressed with a musical quality. Mythology about Sappho tells contemporary readers that she lived on the Isle of Lesbos with a chorus of female lovers who inspired her poetry; today, Sapphic describes sexual, erotic, and emotional intimacy between women.

Sappho (c. 630 B.C. – c. 580 B.C.) was a contemporary of Stesichorus and Alcaeus; by many accounts, she was the most illustrious female poet of antiquity. Little is known about her life, though much is imagined and created by a myriad of writers inspired by her from the poet Ovid in the first century BCE to popular lesbian writer Rita Mae Brown in the 1970s. During her lifetime, Sappho was prolific; in the Alexandria library, nine volumes of her poetry lined a shelf, arranged according to meter. Today only fragments remain. Anne Carson’s recent rendition of Sappho translates 192 fragments. Wondrous and beguiling, these fragments invite more fantasies about the Greek poet. Classicists and lesbians delight in reinterpreting the Sapphic fragments that remain.

While lesbians derive intimate pleasure in sharing Sappho with poetry, there is also a challenge. Myths about Sappho have her life ending when she throws herself from the Leucadian cliffs to a watery suicide. In Ovid’s epic “Sappho to Phaon,” her death was a result of unrequited love for Phaon, a man. Alexander Pope’s rhymed translation records a naiad crying out, “Haste, Sappho, haste, from high Leucadia throw / Thy wretched weight, nor dread the deeps below.” Urging Sappho to throw herself to her watery death, the naiad promises a release from the pain of love and life in the waters beneath the Leucadian cliffs. 

In poetic narratives, Sappho’s life and love link indelibly with death, a powerful image for women who dedicate their lives to other women yet a problematic one. How do we understand the word lesbian, and the concept of a lesbian poet, when both are imagined intimately with Sappho throwing herself off the Leucadian cliff and ending her life by suicide? Whether Sappho’s heart despair was about one of her woman lovers or Phaon as Ovid suggests, the association between suicide and lesbian desire echoes repeatedly through lesbian literature. 

It took thousands of years and millions of words to imagine a lesbian life that did not end with despair and suicide. While the inevitable yoke between lesbian and suicide has broken—multiple stories portray a variety of lesbians and lesbian lives untouched by suicide—the legacy remains. The effects of these connections are not only literary; in real, lesbian lives, women reenact Sappho’s life and death, metaphorically and literally. How does Sappho’s story shape the lives of lesbians—and lesbian poets? How can lesbian stories acknowledge dead lesbian poets, including suicide, and also imagine life and death differently? How can the fullness of the Sapphic stories inform our lives and our literary traditions in ways that reach more to life and less to death? How can the Sapphic imperative voiced in Hallett’s translation of Ovid (“Let girls learn to sing.”) become an imperative for lesbian poets: more singing, less falling? How can lesbians and lesbian communities have more song, more poetry, and more life? 

II. Lakeside Illinois

The shores of Lake Michigan produced an active and vibrant lesbian literary scene in Chicago during the 1970s. Lavender Woman newspaper kept local lesbians abreast of activities, covering national developments in feminism and lesbian-feminist politics. From 1974 through 1976, a group of women organized annual lesbian literary conferences with keynote addresses from Valerie Taylor (the author of a number of popular lesbian pulp novels), Barbara Grier (the former editor of The Ladder, a monthly lesbian journal), and Beth Hodges (the editor of an influential issue of Margins covering lesbian presses). Womanpress, a local feminist publisher, issued these keynote addresses as small chapbooks.

Claudia Scott was a part of this vibrant Chicago scene. Scott, a white American of European descent, presented workshops at the lesbian writer’s conference and worked on Lavender Woman. She published two chapbooks of original poetry, Portrait (1974) and In This Morning (1979), with Lavender Press (and later seems to have reprinted them under the name Tree Frog Press, a publishing imprint of her own). The original printing of Portrait features a photograph on the front and back; in each photograph, a woman looks at another woman in a large, ornate mirror, smiling, announcing the project of seeing lesbians. In the fall of 1976, Scott moved to Philadelphia to pursue a relationship with Frances Hanckel, a lesbian she met that summer at the American Library Association meeting where both were a part of the Gay Task Force. In Philadelphia, Scott volunteered at the bookstore Giovanni’s Room, the Lesbian Hotline, and the Free Women’s School, a network of women offering workshops and training (Scott taught a woodworking class). 

Scott’s engagements are emblematic of many women’s activities in the 1970s with the women’s movement and lesbian-feminism. Born on a farm in Oregon on October 31, 1948, Scott was the oldest of seven children. She left Oregon to attend Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri. At college, Scott came out as a lesbian and became estranged from her fundamentalist Christian, politically conservative family. Feminism and lesbianism offered a new way of life. Sinister Wisdom and Conditions published poems by Scott in 1979 and 1980; her work was beginning to find an audience within the communities where she made her life. Scott was one of the “movement of poets” described by Jan Clausen. These women created dreams and visions of a world without sexism and homophobia, and they worked through poetry to make that world a reality.

Like Scott, these poets drew on a rich history of lesbians that they uncovered themselves by reading, talking, and networking together. Scott dedicates the poem “Not Moving” to Stephen Gordon, the protagonist of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, indicating one way these imagined lineages operated for these poets. In the poem, the speaker describes her mother as “not moving / steadfast in her mother’s faith / her eyes do not accept my journey here,” emphasizing her feelings of pain and rejection. The poem continues:

from her images, her stories of the men and women of
my family I have drawn pride, inherited my strength
she claims strength only in her husband
from her lord, who, incidentally, made heaven and earth
her eyes flash, I have no right
so to misinterpret memories.

Linking the family’s past and her life as a lesbian and feminist enrages her mother, leading the speaker ruefully to conclude “my mother is not moving / and the history of god is on her side.”

Challenging patriarchal families and encounters with religion animated many of the poems by lesbian-feminist poets during this era; writers took personal experience and rendered it visible to raise consciousness and challenge systems of oppression. In the poem “Coda,” Scott explains the power of language in this transformative process. She writes, “I choose words / begin a poem” and the poem accrues to an accomplishment “the importance / of what happened[.]” When parents were hostile and G!d was on the side of oppression, poems were a place where lesbian-feminists could begin to describe what happened and mobilize resistance and future alternate visions.

Naiad Press published Scott’s full-length collection Lesbian Writer: Collected Work of Claudia Scott in 1981 with praise from Becky Birtha, an African American writer in Philadelphia, Gingerlox, the author of Naiad’s successful novel Berrigan, and Adrienne Rich. Birtha wrote “the poet’s wit and her love of words shine forth;” Gingerlox observed that Scott writes “as if turning a favorite stone in her hands, as if memorizing shadows and shading, of the day and emotion: the sounds we wimmin make and the silences we take.” Rich praised her work as clearly depicting “the powers of the heterosexual family, the energies extracted by it from the woman who tries to live both within and beyond that connection.” Scott’s poetry speaks to the contemporary lesbian-feminist formations of the late 1970s and early 1980s and reaches back to a Sapphic imperative of persuasive song. Each of these writers might have written, “Let the woman sing!”

For Scott, the Sapphic imperative collided with the Sapphic legacy: Scott’s full-length collection of writing was not released until after her death. On December 22, 1979, Claudia Scott killed herself. Sitting in a running car in an enclosed space, she died from carbon monoxide poisoning. The story of Scott’s life ends with her tragic death in a contemporary reworking of Sappho’s suicide. Does enduring recognition of lesbian happen only after an untimely and tragic death as it did for Sappho? Or does tragic death lead to general obscurity as it has for Claudia Scott?

III. A Michigan Park

Sinister Wisdom 51 (1993/4) features a photograph by Terri L. Jewell of two African-American lesbians, Consuela and Jera, in Pinckney, Michigan. The photo shows a warm embrace of the two women laughing. Both women face the camera, one encircles her arms around the other in a warm, playful embrace, a silver thumb ring visible. Both women are smiling, the one being held is laughing, mouth wide. Her eyes are likely sparkling, though they are behind sunglasses with sunshine glinting off them. The photograph is familiar, as though an intimate snapshot taken by a friend. Yet, familiarity belies defiance. On the cover of Sinister Wisdom, this photo insists on the presence of lesbians in rural, midwestern spaces; its existence asserts the significance of lesbian lives outside of coastal enclaves. Jewell’s photograph demands attention to Black lesbians. The appearance of everyday celebration in a friendly snapshot unites with transformative political work through Jewell’s hands.

The work of creating powerful visual and literary representations by, of, and for African-American lesbians is legion. During the 1980s, when Terri Lynn Jewell was coming of age, she recognized the significance of this work and dedicated her life to it. The biography in her published chapbook, Succulent Heretic (1994), states that Jewell’s “work has appeared in over 300 periodicals and in many anthologies in the U.S., Canada and abroad.” In 1993, Crossing Press published the book, The Black Woman’s Gumbo Ya-Ya, a compilation of quotations by African-American women. In 1994, Jewell published her chapbook through the self-owned Opal Tortuga Press. Around the same time, Jewell received an award for her activism in the Lansing community and an individual creative writer’s grant for poetry from the Arts Foundation of Michigan. In 1996, Crossing Press published Our Names Are Many: The Black Woman’s Book of Days.

Jewell’s work regularly challenges conventions, including lesbian ones. In “Armed Recruit,” a poem published in Sinister Wisdom 28 (Winter 1985), Jewell narrates the story of a young military recruit holding a weapon, crying in formation. The poem concludes:

The rifle,
    utterly clean/richly oiled
like skin under her eyes
spoke its well-rehearsed lines into
  the CO’s brain. He fell like
    leaves back home
and the red Georgia rain
    oozed into dirt at her
    precisely-spaced feet

In another essay “Call to Black Lesbians” in Sinister Wisdom 35, Jewell challenges colorism in Black lesbian communities, exhorting women to recognize that African-Americans have great variety in skin tones, and all, from light to dark, are black. Jewell wrote, “We cannot afford to continue the dance into the fires of misconception and psychic self-mutilation” (12-14). Dancing around these fires was part of Jewell’s work as she struggled with depression.

Jewell’s chapbook Succulent Heretic (1994) explicitly discusses mental health.  In the poem “Psychiatric Prescription From an Educated Man,” Jewell writes,

Last Saturday
the doctor told me
I was

Jewell then continues with his medical solutions.

He asked if
I wanted drugs.
I said to him
I wanted to write.
He told me
not to write
since words
only served
as extensions 
of my pain.
  I went home
  and did not write
    but grew
because I could not bring 
myself back to life
on sheets of fragile paper

Writing is a balm for pain. In other formulations, self-determination and autonomy are. In “All I Want,” Jewell writes about longing for her lover concluding:

All I want is you
    as I want
        my own life.

While Jewell grapples openly with depression, it is not at the heart of her creative work; celebration is. She writes vibrantly about life as an African-American lesbian, celebrating her identities and reveling in African-American vernacular. In “How to Suck Them Neckbones,” Jewell opens declaring, “Them necklines is something else / if done right.” 

Part of Jewell’s celebratory work claims a genealogy among Black women writers including Audre Lorde and June Jordan. The incredible list poem “Moving In” outlines the many possessions of a lesbian as she prepares to move in with a lover. In “Celebrant,” Jewell revels in her “love of women / and their saucy ways, / their ruby-sharp minds.” In “No Others Genealogy” Jewell celebrates the individuality of women by naming matriarchal lineages, “Evelyn, / Daughter of Mildred. Sorceress and child.” Genealogical history shapes her other two book projects, compilations of quotations and anniversaries. Cultural work was significant in feminist and lesbian communities during the 1980s and 1990s—and continues to have value today.

Jewell dedicates Succulent Heretics “To the lovers and friends, ‘M & M,’ and that special Gemini.” The special Gemini was Jewell’s lover, Stephania Byrd, another extraordinarily creative African-American lesbian poet who died in 2015. Jewell inscribed my copy of Succulent Heretic on December 10, 1994. I recall that I purchased the chapbook after she read at the Detroit Women’s Coffeehouse. She wrote in the inscription, “Enjoy the wildness here!” She underlined wildness. I remember at twenty-four years old admiring her enormously and wishing for a similar life for myself: performing poems, publishing chapbooks, contributing to lesbian-feminist culture.

Like Claudia Scott, Terri L. Jewell engaged in vital conversations in lesbian communities and assembled an impressive array of publications. Vibrant lesbian communities nurtured both Scott and Jewell, supporting their literary work and recognizing their contributions. Yet, this recognition was not enough.

Jewell ended her life with determination and violence. She drove to a state park near Lansing with a gun; she died on November 26, 1995 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Many years later, I was in conversation with Stephania Byrd, Jewell’s lover at the time of her death. With Stephania, the conversations of Jewell’s life continued. Those conversations continue today, though diminished without Jewell’s words as a growing, maturing artist. Terri Jewell was a lesbian writer; she made important contributions that ended abruptly with her early, violent death. She would have turned sixty-five on October 4th  in 2019. Imagine what she might have been created had she lived. Imagine what conversations we might be having if Jewell were with us today.

IV. Cliffs of San Francisco

Lynn Lonidier was one of many creative, innovative, and visionary poets in the San Francisco bay area to emerge within lesbian and feminist communities during the 1960s and 1970s. The author of five poetry collections and a handful of unpublished—and provocative—novels, Lonidier, a white woman of European descent, is a forgotten foremother of lesbian poetry. She linked her life and her work to many icons of lesbian creativity, including Sappho.

Lonidier’s poetry sits at an intersection of many exciting poetic schools in the second half of the twentieth century. She interrogates and challenges the very structures of language and considers ways to rewrite epic narratives that shape human lives. She titled her final book Clitoris Lost, a playful turn on Paradise Lost, centering women and lesbians while also exploring a figure of great interest to her: Hermaphrodites. She engages in rewriting myths, examining dreams, and interrogating the nature of gender and sexual relationships. Lonidier invokes Sappho in an early chapbook, The Female Freeway, with a poem titled “I was a Teenage Poet Age Thirty-Two.” The poem begins, “If Emily Dickinson comes to town tell me    Town where Sappho / jumped into the sea.” Lonidier imagines herself following Sappho with her “muscular camera” until “she (dissolved)Body slowly going backwards.” In this poem, Sappho is both the muse who jumps into the sea and the poet who dissolves in history and is lost as Lonidier tracks her with a powerful camera.

In another poem “Go Gently into That Good Night,” from the collection Clitoris Lost, Lonidier combines an homage to Dylan Thomas with an invocation to Sappho. The poem begins:

Aroused by Sappho’s ease-stricken poetry
stride, how like her, you, I were, letting
rain break the world of the burst grape.

In opposition to usual metaphors about fall (associating it with winding down and endings), the poet asserts, “I intend to gather joy.” This love poem addresses a lost beloved who “tossed your heart at me and made a cornucopia of a snake, my crown.” In spite of the upheaval, the poet asserts that she will not “shake / like catalpa trees” rather will give only “gentle words.” The two lovers unite as “children with feelings big enough for history” and together they turn to “Sappho’s oft-felt violet Autumn.”

Lonidier’s posthumous collection, The Rhyme of the Ag-ed Mariness, contains her most full-throated tribute to Sappho. Titled “Isle of Lesbos,” the poem opens

Retsina sings the throat
like horsehairs pull ribbons
from the bodies of Aeolian violins….

“Isle of Lesbos” narrates a series of observations about Sappho in the modern world, including heterosexual couples “at the Sappho Hotel” who, Lonidier wily notes, are “dressed risqué in /gowns and ties.” It is not only heterosexual people in search of Sappho, however; women are on Lesbos looking for her. Lonidier writes: 

  Between Sappho’s poetry
and a Mary Wollstonecraft novel
love remained quiet between women
two-thousand four-hundred years.
Sapphotown is restless, keeps moving.

These invocations to the past, not only to Sappho but also to Wollstonecraft’s novel Mary, create an imagined history for lesbians where they are “restless” and keep “moving.” Lonidier wanted to write herself into history and to rewrite history favorably for lesbians. She confides that “Word has it / She [Sappho] didn’t jump off the cliffs of Leucadia / for love of a sailor,” affirming for lesbian readers the centrality of women’s love and desire in the Sappho narrative. In addition, Lonidier asserts that the poet is still present “under a pile / of pottery fragments.” She concludes “Isle of Lesbos” with this tercet:

Knee-high boots and a permit,
Her dusty heart is Yours pounding
to dig down.

In the final metaphor, the heart of Sappho is the heart of “yours,” the readers, as she digs down deep into their lesbian being.

While Lonidier pays tribute to Sappho throughout her oeuvre, Lonidier’s death is the starkest homage to the poet, a tribute befitting performance art. In 1993, Lonidier suffered a terrible mid-life depression. She tried suicide once and failed, landing in a hospital in San Francisco. A few days later, Lonidier checked out of the hospital against medical advice and called a cab to take her to the San Francisco cliffs. There, Lonidier, like Sappho, plunged to her death, recreating Sappho’s death with her own.

While I acknowledge Lonidier’s final, fatal homage to Sappho, another event on Leucadian cliffs aligns Lonidier more with Sappho and more with an imaginary of lesbian life and creativity that can energize lesbian literary and creative work today. The other event on the Leucadian cliffs happened in the early 1970s.

Lonidier’s passions for poetry and women intertwined in the 1960s. Perhaps the most passionate and influential relationship of Lonidier’s life was the one she had with Pauline Oliveros. Oliveros was a composer of electronic music and a professor. The two met in San Francisco then moved to San Diego when Oliveros accepted a professorship at the University of California, San Diego. They bought a home in the community of Leucadia, named after the Ionian island of Lefkada in Greece. The two shared a life there briefly, then separated. Oliveros had another lover, whom she married on the Leucadian cliffs on January 1, 1971. Jill Johnston covered this lesbian wedding for the Village Voice. Lonidier organized the wedding, and her brother Fred documented it with gorgeous, lush photographs of lesbians and wedding attendees romping on the beach of Leucadia. 

This Lynn Lonidier, celebrating on the beach, reveling in lesbian love, in a then-subversive challenge to the heterosexual institution of marriage, is the Lynn Lonidier fashioning herself after Sappho. This Lynn Lonidier, accompanied by her ex-lover, her brother, and dozens of other people on the beaches of Leucadia, is the mythic Sappho to celebrate. As she wrote, Sappho’s “dusty heart” pounds in the hearts of all lesbians, urging us “to dig down” into the meanings  of our lives together. Can you feel it? Can you feel the steady pump, pump, pump of oxygenated blood through the body carrying life, creating language, writing poems? That is her dusty heart, high on the cliffs of Leucadia. Calling to you. Knee-high boots. Let girls learn to sing. Horse-hairs pull ribbons. Retsina sings. Her dusty heart is yours.

V. Sapphic Dialogics

“I beg you/do not break with hard pains,/O lady, my heart”

These lines from Anne Carson’s translation of “Fragment 1” by Sappho announce a conventional apostrophic poem. “I beg you,” the speaker addresses the beloved. The direct address continues in the third line, “O lady,” where the beloved merges with the speaker’s heart. If lesbians take their name from Sappho and wish to decline the legacy of Sappho’s suicide, what else might be of use? While biography holds a powerful allure for story and myth, in its absence, Sappho’s poems offer a process: Sapphic Dialogics. Rather than focusing on the narrative of Sappho’s life, Sapphic Dialogics offers not death in the waters off the Leucadian cliffs but lesbian life.

“Fragment 1” hints at a dialogue between the speaker and the beloved. Other fragments demonstrate fully developed dialogue. Consider “Fragment 94.” Sappho begins,

I simply want to be dead.
Weeping she left me
with many tears and said this:
Oh how badly things have turned out for us.
Sappho, I swear against my will I leave you.

The turn comes in the next line, “And I answered her:” The poem continues,

Rejoice, go and 
remember me. For you know how we cherished you.
But if not, I want

to remember you [
] and beautiful times we had. (Editor’s Note: Carson’s bracket indicates the location of missing text from the original papyrus.)

After the dialogue between the lovers, the poem concludes with Sappho’s soliloquy of beautiful times shared. The occasion for this poem, like “Fragment 1,” is the loss, yet it contains a direct dialogic exchange between Sappho and the lover. The poem opens with a lyric meditation, “I simply want to be dead,” and continues not with death but with dialogue. In the third stanza, Sappho responds telling the lover to “Rejoice, go and / remember me.” This give-and-take, this dialogue within a lyric moment, is foundational for how twentieth century lesbian writers and communities of readers engage Sappho without the legacy of suicide.

In the poetry of Scott, Jewell, and Lonidier, the struggle for Sapphic Dialogics continues. Apostrophic poems hint at dialogue, conversations between intimates, but often they are unidirectional. Scott’s poem exemplifies how the apostrophic leans to dialogue but often falls short. Scott seeks dialogue but is unable to engage actively because her mother is trapped by patriarchy and the power of G!d. Terri Jewell’s poetry engages more actively with Sapphic Dialogics. Jewell acknowledges the power of a lineage and stages dialogues from conjured traditions. Lonidier also imagines Sapphic Dialogics with Sappho, Dickinson, and Wollstonecraft. Sapphic Dialogics, real and imagined conversations among women about their lives, their legacies, and their heritages are the alternative to watery deaths.

IV. Back to the Leucadian Cliffs

From the cliffs of Leucadia to the shores of Lake Michigan. From a park in mid-Michigan to the cliffs of San Francisco and back again to Leucadia, not in Greece now but in California. The frisson between land and water foments creativity and possibility. 

At age thirty-two, Claudia Scott had just begun her life and just begun to find an audience for her voice when she ended her life. At forty-one, Terri Jewell already had made many contributions to lesbian literature. Lonidier committed suicide at fifty-six. The diversity of ages and experiences among these women suggests that there is not one simple narrative of lesbian poet suicide, as the ur-narrative of Sappho suggests. Lonidier had a full and active creative life. She was an accomplished musician, performing the cello and always relating her creative work to music. She achieved success as a poet (modest, though I would argue all poets’ success is modest). In addition to her creative work, Lonidier had meaningful, remunerative work as a teacher to young children. Similar stories of success and meaning and satisfaction can be drawn from the lives of Jewell and Scott. In spite of these stories, all three are dead. Three dead lesbian poets.

I want to tell their stories. Claudia Scott. Terri Jewell. Lynn Lonidier. More than three dead lesbian poets, we risk forgetting them, rendering them three forgotten lesbian poets. What links them together here is their suicides. A problematic legacy. Thinking about the suicides of these three lesbian poets and Sappho’s suicide requires balance like a teeter-totter. I do not want to romanticize suicide; I do not want to suggest it offers anything other than a cruel end to life, a truncation of work and an end to possibilities. Imagine what Claudia Scott might have written. When I read her work, I wonder what possibilities she might have created for herself in the 1980s, the 1990s. I wonder what might have come to pass if she had time to develop her craft, hone her vision. What might she have thought seeing two lesbians on the cover of Newsweek? What would she have made of Ellen? Of The L Word? What conversations might she be engaged in today? When I read Terri Jewell, I wonder what else she might have done. Might Jewell have edited letters of Pat Parker and Audre Lorde? Might she have written obituaries for her lover Stephania Byrd and essays about Toni Morrison after her passing? What would Jewell’s first full-length collection of poetry have been? And Lynn Lonidier? What if Lynn Lonidier’s opera had been produced? What would she have thought about Fun Home, the musical? Each of these women missed so much in the changing, evolving world of lesbians. I miss these elders. Perhaps selfishly, I wanted more from them: more life, more work, more art.

Beyond the tragedy of suicide, I recognize the incredible anger and power that these women summoned to take their own lives. Especially these three suicides, each woman chose to die, angry, defiant, decisive. Straddling a teeter-totter, I drift back and forth, up and down, wondering how to make meaning with the stories of these lives, with these poets’ legacies.

It must be said: lesbianism does not prompt suicide, depression does. What prompts depression and what nurtures it is difficult to pinpoint. Certainly, the conditions of virulent homophobia and heterosexism under which all three of these lesbians lived (and under which lesbians still live today) contribute to depression. Many people live under the conditions of virulent homophobia and heterosexism (and racism and classism and colonialism and other forms of oppression) and are not gripped by depression, and many people live with depression and do not commit suicide. There are many vexing, contradictory truths.

Ultimately, the deaths of Claudia Scott, Terri Jewell, and Lynn Lonidier are contemporary tragedies to observe, map, remember. Each woman died as a result of pain—deep, profound, life-ending pain. Traces of pain are in their creative work, but understanding the magnitude of their pain requires not reading, not thinking, but being. One human to another, imagining suffering. The death of Sappho is a mythic tragedy—a myth lesbian poets engage and occasionally recreate.

Sapphic Dialogics offers an alternate option for engaging the legacy of Sappho. Rather than engaging the legacy of Sappho through suicide, Sapphic Dialogics invite lesbian poets to engage in dialogue with themselves, with one another, with lesbians of the past. I want to shout from the rooftops: have conversations, lesbians! Be in dialogue! Do not linger on the legacy of suicide! Ultimately, there are no easy answers for lesbian poets other than LIVE. Like the frisson between land and water, where the swirling of air suggests blending, the frisson between the possibilities of Sapphic Dialogics and the definitiveness of Sapphic suicide can create new possibilities for lesbian communities and lesbian creative work. Embrace the complex, messy legacy of Sappho standing on cliffs alive, writing words in dialogue, in conversation with one another. Remembering Lonidier riffing on Sappho: Her dusty heart is ours.

Image: “In the Days of Sappho” (1904). John William Godward (British, 1861–1922) via Wikimedia Commons.

Julie R. Enszer photo

About: Julie R. Enszer

Julie R. Enszer, PhD, is a scholar and a poet. Her book manuscript, A Fine Bind, is a history of lesbian-feminist presses from 1969 until 2009. Her scholarly work has appeared or is forthcoming in Southern Cultures, Journal of Lesbian Studies, American Periodicals, WSQ, and Frontiers. She is the author of two poetry collections, Sisterhood (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013) and Handmade Love (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2010). She is editor of Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2011). Milk & Honey was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Poetry. She has her MFA and PhD from the University of Maryland. She is the editor of Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal, and a regular book reviewer for the Lambda Book Report and Calyx. You can read more of her work at

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