Minnie Bruce Pratt on Magnified, Making A Home We Can All Be Safe In
Author: Hooper Schultz
May 7, 2021
I first met Minnie Bruce Pratt, a lesbian-feminist activist and writer originally from Alabama, who came out as a lesbian in North Carolina in 1975, at the Southeastern Women’s Studies Association’s annual meeting at the University of Mississippi in 2019.
Pratt’s collection Magnified, out March 2 from Wesleyan University Press, is a collection of love poems to her partner Leslie Feinberg that seeks to draw us all into “the sacred liminal space that surrounds death.”
I’d love to hear a little bit about your process and how Magnified came to be…
I’m very conscious that this book is coming into the world during the time of the pandemic when many people are suffering accentuated loss and the death of loved ones. And I am hoping the poems will speak to them with some breath of hope, because I began to write the poems when my beloved Leslie and I began to understand how very sick she was. This is around 2006. She got sicker over the years. And as her illness intensified, I began to walk outside every day when I wasn’t helping her. And I began to look, as I walked, for a poem. Some image, some metaphor, some words to help me keep going.
And I should just say here for readers who may not know, Leslie, that Leslie was Leslie Feinberg, a trans activist, historian, theoretician, communist revolutionary. And I also should say a word here about pronouns. Between us—between me and Leslie—as lesbian lovers, we both used the pronouns she and her. And Leslie’s identity was more complex. Leslie explicitly named the pronoun she and her, as well as zie and hir as preferred pronouns. So, in our conversation today, I’ll use she and her to refer to Leslie. So, the poems came about because we were wrestling with a terrible illness and I just needed every day to figure out a way to keep going, and poetry was a very big part of my being able to do that.
One Safe Place
When she and I began to live together I understood how important it is and can be to trans people to have one place, one safe place alone or with another person to come home to.
How does queer domesticity, the safety of the queer home, fit into these poems for you?
Well, my assumption that I could have a home as a person was really shattered when I came out as a lesbian in North Carolina in 1975 and my then-husband, a man, was able to take our two children away from me. He asserted custody as their father. He got it, legally, on the grounds that I was an unfit mother because I was a lesbian. And, of course, under the laws of that time—the crime against nature sodomy statutes that were in effect in all 50 states—under those laws, I was a potential felon and therefore an unfit mother.
So that was really the beginning of my thinking politically about home. I began to understand then how many other people did not have a safe home. I began to understand it very intensely as a white woman who’d been born and raised under segregation in Alabama. I began to understand the violence that white supremacy had wreaked on Black people, not the least of the crimes being the destruction of the possibility of safe homes for people of color.
Now, Leslie had a different and complex experience in relation to home. When she and I began to live together I understood how important it is and can be to trans people to have one place, one safe place alone or with another person to come home to. A place where—if you are a trans person—you don’t have to be on guard against possible physical or verbal attacks for being trans.
So, the home that Leslie and I made together was both a refuge from violence and anti-queer attacks, and it was also a very creative place. It was a place to dream together and a place to make a reality that could be a future in the world. You know, we worked all the time, Leslie and me. We just worked all the time at our work, our political work, our writing. But wherever we were living physically, was really our home. It was just the two of us together. That’s what I really miss.
I love the images in these poems. I think you kind of intertwine your political work with your romance. I don’t know if that was something you’ve given thought to, but I really felt that. How part of the romance was the work.
I thought about this a little bit before we got ready to talk, the way that grief and love, romance and politics, caretaking and adventure were all intertwined in our life for almost our whole life together. You know, Leslie’s last words were “remember me as a communist revolutionary.” Those words actually opened a window into why our time together during her illness was what you just said, it was romance, it was work, it was adventure, it was grief. We were always placing the process of illness and even dying in a political context. Which is where we each placed our living. I think the poems in Magnified reflect quite accurately the beautiful ups and the bitter downs of my struggle to live through it and to come to terms with the finality of the loss. The loss we were ultimately faced with, the loss of each other, the loss of our being physically together. Physically, together in the struggle to birth a better world.
A Blow to the Body
In some of the poems, you kind of let us into this writing process. The idea that as long as you’re writing, Leslie will be around. Can you talk a little bit more about that kind of feeling in the process of writing this book of poetry?
I began the poems really as poem-presents for Leslie. I have the earliest poems in a folder now that’s labeled “Leslie’s poems.” And I would give some of them to her on special days and just also, you know, give them to her. I’d have to say in the end, the poems were most crucially a way for me to work through every day, understanding that I might lose her. And what use would poetry be against that terrible loss? So, a lot of the poems deal with the inadequacy of language or the attempt to brave history with language or to outlast death with language.
The loss of the most loved person, is not, first of all, a blow to words or to language. It’s a blow to the body.
You can say to yourself that you understand time, death, partings. But the body only wants the person back. The body is like a faithful dog waiting at the closed door that the beloved person has walked through. The body just waits and waits and howls for the person to come back. You can’t tell the body with words that the person will never come back. The body doesn’t believe it. My body still doesn’t believe that Leslie will never come back to me. There’s no letting go with the body.
So, what I’ve learned, now, at the end of these poems, is only time and sometimes poetry helps the body carry the grief. I hope that’s what these poems do for people now, who might be facing the most awful loss of all. Of someone they love. I hope it helps them. I hope it helps carry them on through. Through the grief, knowing that the grief never leaves you. I hope the poems help with that.
I’ve Really Come to Face the Brutal Truth
You allude to Leslie speaking about this idea of the “terrible beauty of the natural world,” and how the world continues to move on apace while human beings are dealing with this world-stopping grief that you’re describing.
Yeah, the phrase that you mention is from the poem “Hargrove Shoals,” it repeats in the poem a couple of times, the last line is “eternal nature of changing matter, the terrible beauty” which I remember Leslie speaking those words at one time. So, Hargrove Shoals is a stretch of limestone outcroppings in the Cahaba River in my home county in central Alabama, which is where I grew up, and the Cahaba river is the river I belong to.
It’s this place that was very, very deep in me. And yet it’s taken me my whole life to begin to understand the complicated twining of my life with the river and with the lives of the other peoples who have lived there, who are living there still in that place.
I thought a lot about the way I feel about being in the natural world and how some people might see that very distant from theoretical materialist issues, but actually my feeling about being in the natural world and the feeling that’s in the poems, that feeling is intimately linked with being able to theoretically understand what we’re living within. The system we’re living within. Capitalism seizes our labor and estranges us from our work at the same time that it simultaneously alienates us from nature and keeps us from experiencing ourselves as simply one species intertwined with the world and other species.
So, my work, as I understand it, as a poet, is at least in part to try to make poems that reestablish the link between the sensuous external world and our daily human life, which is battered under capitalism.
…The place I came from, the place I love, that was never, ever, really, my land. I’m trying to come to a different relation to that place. I still love Occoneechee Mountain. I understand better what it means to love it and to also, love the justice of reparations.
One of my favorite poems of all time is your poem, “Occoneechee Mountain,” in your very first chapbook collection, The Sound of One Fork, which was written while you were living in Hillsborough, North Carolina. How do you feel your poetry has changed as the landscape around you changed?
To be talking to you about Occoneechee Mountain, and while you are actually living in Hillsborough, it’s just a wonderful serendipity. I lived off Orange Grove Road in Hillsborough at the foot of Occoneechee Mountain from about 1968 to 1974. I’ve been going deeper into my understanding, my relation to the different places I’ve lived on and in, often reflected in the poems in one way or another. I’ve really come to face the brutal truth. That I was able to grow up on and become intimately, deeply attached to a specific place and learn from that place and return to that place over and over, only as the result of the death-dealing injustices of the genocide of indigenous peoples and the subsequent theft of their land by settler colonialists, and also because of the enslavement of African people.
I understand the injustices of history are quite recent. They are not distant and they’re still ongoing. I’ve spent my adult life as an activist attempting to redress those injustices. I looked at that poem I wrote about the mountain and realized I didn’t deal in any way to the fact that it was called Occoneechee Mountain. This is the name of the people whose land it was. They were a small but very well-established trading nation.
I’m Wrestling in my work that I’m doing right now, with my relation to the natural world and the land. The place I came from, the place I love, that was never, ever, really, my land. I’m trying to come to a different relation to that place. I still love Occoneechee Mountain. I understand better what it means to love it and to also, love the justice of reparations.
This comes back around to your question about home—the home that Leslie and I tried to create. How does each of us strive to make a home we can be safe in, and love and flourish in—but never, ever to repeat or reinforce the injustices of the past, never to trample on another’s home, or on the safety or happiness of oppressed peoples? How do we make that future?
That’s the challenge for revolutionary visionaries and activists—and poets.
Magnified By Minnie Bruce Pratt Wesleyan University Press Hardcover, 9780819580054, 88pp. March 2021
Hooper Schultz, Photo Credit: Jen Hughey