Whenever the work of Judy Grahn is discussed we describe it as being “of use” – poetry of use – philosophy of use. Grahnian philosophy, though often beautiful, reaches beyond finding pleasure in the art form and is grounded in creating positive impacts for the way we live, learn and relate. Grahn’s world is one where social systems, economics and spirituality are all transformed to be of use for the common good.
An exciting and diverse international body of changemakers are using Grahn’s work to transform how we see the world and ourselves. We invite you to discover some of these folks and to get to know some of Judy’s most important collaborators.
Ntozake Shange was born Paulette Williams into an upper middle-class African American family. Her father was an Air Force surgeon and her mother a psychiatric social worker. Cultural icons such as Dizzie Gillepsie, Miles Davis, and W.E.B. DuBois were regular guests in the Williams home. Shange attended Barnard College and the University of Southern California, earning both a BA and MA in American Studies. While earning an MA degree, she reaffirmed her personal strength based on a self-determined identity and took her African name, which means “she who comes with her own things” and she “who walks like a lion.” Shange would go on to a successful triple career as an educator, performer/director, and writer whose work drew heavily on her experiences of being a Black female in America. Shange was perhaps most famous for her play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf (1975). A unique blend of poetry, music, dance and drama called a “choreopoem,” it “took the theatre world by storm,” noted Jacqueline Trescott in the Washington Post, as it “became an electrifying Broadway hit and provoked heated exchanges about the relationships between black men and women. … Its form—seven women on the stage dramatizing poetry—was a refreshing slap at the traditional, one-two-three-act structures.” Mel Gussow, writing in the New York Times, stated that “Miss Shange was a pioneer in terms of her subject matter: the fury of black women at their double subjugation in white male America.” The play uses female dancers to dramatize poems that recall encounters with their classmates, lovers, rapists, abortionists, and latent killers. The women survive abuse and disappointment and come to recognize in each other the promise of a better future. The play received both enthusiastic reviews and criticism for its portrayal of African American men. However, “Shange’s poems aren’t war cries,” Jack Kroll wrote in a Newsweek review of the Public Theatre production of For Colored Girls. “They’re outcries filled with a controlled passion against the brutality that blasts the lives of ‘colored girls’—a phrase that in her hands vibrates with social irony and poetic beauty. These poems are political in the deepest sense, but there’s no dogma, no sentimentality, no grinding of false mythic axes.” The play received an Obie Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, and the AUDELCO Award as well as Tony, Grammy, and Emmy Award nominations. In 2010, director Tyler Perry adapted the choreo-poem into a feature-length film.
Inspired by Grahn’s 1969 collection, “The Common Woman,” in the summer of 1974 Shange began writing a series of poems about seven nameless women that would become For Colored Girls, exploring the various trials that black women often confronted, from rape and abortion to domestic violence and child abuse. The first piece was called “one,” and is about a seductress who can be herself only in private. After making love to a pickup, the woman rises at four-thirty in the morning:
Hilton Als, Columbia University writing professor, former Editor at Vibe and a staff writer and the Theater Critic for the New Yorker goes in-depth on the life and work of Shange in a New Yorker profile here.
Listen to the Broadway cast recording of For Colored Girls here.
Widely considered a feminist icon, Grammy winner Ani DiFranco is the mother of the DIY movement, being one of the first artists to create her own record label in 1990. While she has been known as the “Little Folksinger,” her music has embraced punk, funk, hip hop, jazz, soul, electronica and even more distant sounds. Her collaborators have included everyone from Utah Phillips to legendary R&B saxophonist Maceo Parker to Prince. She has shared stages with Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, Kris Kristofferson, Greg Brown, Billy Bragg, Michael Franti, Chuck D., and many more. Her most recent studio album Binary was released in June 2017 on Righteous Babe Records. Her memoir No Walls and the Recurring Dream was released in May 2019.
Ani DiFranco delivered remarks on the impact of Judy Grahn on her work at a presentation to the Tennessee Williams Literary Society in March 2019. See her remarks here.
Ani DiFranco read one of Judy Grahn’s best known Common Woman poems, Detroit Annie Hitchhiking, as part of the live recording of her 2002 Carnegie Hall concert. Hear her reading here.
Comrades, traveling together for readings, evaluating each others work, the impact of Pat Parker on Judy Grahn and Judy Grahn on Pat Parker cannot be overstated. Where Would I Be Without You, the first and only poetry recording from Olivia Records, offers a glimpse into the powerful friendship and artistic collaboration between poets Pat Parker and Judy Grahn. Grahn and Parker met in Oakland, California in 1970, beginning an artistic collaboration and a powerful friendship that endured through Parker’s death in 1989. Grahn’s and Parker’s work spread the good news of poetry; they were integral to how lesbians imagined their voices in the world. Grahn wrote a sweeping recollection of their relationship for the Introduction to Sapphic Classic’s, Lambda Literary Award winning, The Complete Works of Pat Parker, edited by Julie Enszer.
The Complete Works of Pat Parker from Sinister Wisdom is available here.
Learn more about Olivia Records here.
Vipin Vijay is an Indian contemporary film director and screenwriter. A post graduate in film making from the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute SRFTI, Calcutta. He received the Charles Wallace Arts Award for research at the British Film Institute. His works are made under independent codes and defy any categorisation eluding all traditional genre definitions and merge experimental film, documentary, essay, fiction all into one.
The documentary “Poomaram” (A Flowering Tree 2007) based on Judy Grahn’s work Blood Bread and Roses contemplates female menstruation and its connection with Hindu rites and beliefs. While in Brahmin Orthodox culture the period of menstruation is considered to be impure and women are not supposed to cook or touch any food prepared for other family members, the main character in this film evokes old menstrual rituals and places them in ancient Indian culture.
The winner of the Indian prestigious Sanskrit Award, who became recognized in his own country after having been discovered by the Rotterdam Film Festival, which has screened all his films so far, is trying to maintain his enigmatic, associative narrative style which gives to the viewer a freedom to identify with the story in his/her own, intimate way. The filmmaker points out that this docu-fiction is: ‘an attempt at constructing a male edition of the audio-visual dictionary on menstruation. Of how menstruation created the world, unravelling the metaformic theory, postulated by feminist author Judy Grahn. A new relational origin story that women’s menstrual rituals are the roots of human culture and that in human evolution women and men have markedly different relationships to blood.’
Appearances by Vijay and screenings of the film can be arranged through Public Service Broadcasting Trust here.
You can view the film Poomaram here.
Linda Garber and the term “identity poetics”
Linda Garber is associate professor in the department of English and the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Santa Clara University. She is the editor of Tilting the Tower: Lesbians/Teaching/Queer Subjects and the author of articles on lesbian literary criticism and lesbian studies.
Have we arrived in the post-queer era? What is it about lesbian feminist writings that has endured? The answer can be found in the poetry of the age, and in Linda Garber’s book Identity Poetics: Race, Class, and the Lesbian-Feminist Roots of Queer Theory. Garber has written a smart, readable, wide-ranging examination of five poets whose writings helped to define early lesbian feminist theory and who, according to Garber’s account, deserve some credit for their contributions to the current body of queer theory.
Garber dedicates a full chapter to each of five poets: Judy Grahn, Pat Parker, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Gloria Anzaldua. In addition to addressing formal aspects of their poetry, Garber complements her close readings with well-documented historical background from interviews and other commentary. Garber presents each poet’s work with respect to its place in various literary and political movements. She also provides information about performance, publication, and critical reception of the work. The writing moves smoothly between the dense formulations of postmodernism and the easy flow of personal narrative. This racially diverse community of poets knew each other intimately, worked together often and influenced each others poetic voice and core philosophical ideas.
What Garber sees in the poetry is “a sort of postmodern identity politics” that she calls “identity poetics.” The book has become a collector’s item in poetry and social justice circles, but is easily available in digital format for kindle here.
Jessica Curry composer and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain
Curry is a BAFTA-winning composer of contemporary classical music and is also co-founder of renowned games company The Chinese Room. Her work has been performed in diverse and high-profile venues such as The Old Vic Tunnels, Sydney Opera House, The Royal Albert Hall, Great Ormond Street Hospital, The Wellcome Trust, MOMI New York, The Royal Opera House, Sage Gateshead and Durham Cathedral. The Washington Post has described her music as “stupendous” and The Guardian praised her “gorgeous orchestral score” for Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Curry’s music has had extensive airplay on Radio 3 and Classic FM in the UK, as well as on radio stations and in concert halls around the world.
In 2019, New Music Biennial commissioned Curry to use two texts written by Judy Grahn and fuses them into a compelling and innovative 15-minute choral work sung by the National Youth Chamber Choir of Great Britain. The piece is written at a time where women are questioning the world they have been told to accept, reconsidering history and community, and celebrating the power of the female. Simultaneously, young people’s voices are emerging as the most powerful, positive force for change in global politics.
Listen to Ben Parry conduct the National Youth Chamber Choir of Great Britain perform Judy Grahn’s She Who as composed and arranged by Jessica Curry here.
D’vorah Grenn, founder of The Lilith Institute
D’vorah J. Grenn, Ph.D., Kohenet is Founding Director of The Lilith Institute (1997), a San Francisco Bay Area-based producer of women’s spirituality/study circles, public and private rituals and a variety of lecture series. She served as Co-Director and then Chair of the former Women’s Spirituality MA Program at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology/Sofia University in Palo Alto, California, and was the founding kohenet/priestess of Mishkan Shekhinah, a movable sanctuary honoring the Sacred Feminine in all spiritual traditions.
Dr. Grenn has been engaged directly with Grahn in a longtime conversation around the Sacred Feminine, the use of origin stories and Metaformic consciousness. This conversation began when she first studied with Grahn in 1998, continued through such articles as “Connecting With Deity Through a Feminist Metaformic Thealogy” and “Metaforms of a Monotheistic Religion: The Menstrual Roots of Three Jewish and African Rites of Passage: Khomba, Bat Mitzvah and the Mikvah”, both on Grahn’s Metaformia: A Journal of Menstruation and Culture. It continues today through her deep engagement with Grahn’s work, currently with her “They Say She Is Veiled” poem, a portal through which Grenn writes about Shekhinah, the female aspect of deity within rabbinic and mystical Judaism. It is writing which, inspired by Grahn’s work and teachings moves from dialogue/duologue to narrative discourse and back again. Along with Metaformic philosophy, it is a piece of Grahn’s work that Grenn brings into her women’s wisdom circles and college classes at every opportunity.
Dr. Grenn’s dissertation, “For She Is A Tree of Life: Shared Roots Connecting Women to Deity” was an inquiry into Jewish women’s religious/cultural identities, beliefs and ritual practices among South African Lemba and United States women. Her other writings include: Lilith’s Fire: Reclaiming our Sacred Lifeforce (Universal Publishers, 2000), “How Women Construct And Are Formed By Spirit: She Who Is Everywhere In Women’s Voices, Kol Isha, Maipfi A Vhafumakadzi” (She Is Everywhere, Volume I, Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, ed., iUniverse, 2005), “Creator Woman – Deity, Snake and Life-Giving Waters: The Active Female Principle in the Fertile Crescent, Carthage and South Africa” – She Is Everywhere, Volume II (Annette Williams, Karen Villanueva and Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, eds.; Authors Choice Press, 2007.), “Lilith’s Fire: Examining Original Sources of Power, Re-defining Sacred Texts as Transformative Theological Practice” – Feminist Theology journal, September 2007; “Claiming The Title Kohenet: Examining Goddess Judaism and the Role of the Priestess” – Paper presented at “Women and the Divine” Conference, Liverpool and later published in Women in Judaism Multidisciplinary Journal, 2008; “The Kohanot: Keepers of the Flame” in Stepping Into Ourselves: An Anthology of Writings on Priestesses, (Anne Key and Candace Kant, eds., Goddess Ink Publishing, 2015) and the Lilith and Priestesses entries in Encyclopedia of Women in World Religions: Faith and Culture across History, (Susan de-Gaia, ed., ABC-CLIO, 2018).
Her most recent book is an anthology of the sacred writings of 72 women from 25 different spiritual traditions: Talking To Goddess, a collection of blessings, prayer-poems, chants, meditations and invocations available here.
To engage more fully with Dr. Grenn’s work you can visit the Lilith Institute here.
Johana Dehler Fragments of Desire
Feminist scholar Johanna Dehler used her Fulbright Scholarship to trace the influence of Sappho’s fragmented literary legacy on three 20th-century women writers – H.D., Judy Grahn, and Monique Wittig. Fragments of Desire won the coveted Siemens Award for Best Dissertation in the Field of American Studies. later published in book form this original scholarship discusses ‘Sapphic fiction’ as a genre that emerged throughout the 20th century. H.D., Grahn, and Wittig represent three movements that have shaped the approach to the sexual subject and her desires: modernism, cultural feminism, and poststructuralism respectively. H.D. responds to Sappho with an imagistic style that resembles Sappho’s terse and clipped lines. Grahn recreates the idea of Lesbos as a model for a women-centered society. Wittig, writing from a poststructuralist background, alludes to Sappho in her fierce critique of myth and language.
This study draws on recent debates about the history of sexuality, the body, and the construction of the self, and is meant as a contribution to the ongoing debate on how gender is constructed in modernist and postmodernist discourse. Fragments of Desire is available here.
Calvin Hampton was arguably the most skilled American organist and a sacred music composer. His long-running Fridays at Midnight concert series at Calvary Episcopal Church in Gramercy Park and organ spectacles at LaMama renewed popular interest in compositions for the organ. Hampton also composed music for the church and the concert stage. Before he died of AIDS in 1984, Hampton completed a score of music to accompany Grahn’s I Will Be Your Mouth Now for mezzo soprano. The work was performed and recorded live at Lincoln Center in 1995 by mezzo Sarah Young, flutist Andrew Bolotowsky, clarinetist David Hopkins, French hornist Allison Sniffin, and double bassist Charles Tomlinson. Listen to the recording below.
In The Search for Origins in the Twentieth-Century Long Poem: Sumerian, Homeric, and Anglo-Saxon, an ambitious study of contemporary poetics, Joe Moffett, faculty at HBCU Kentucky State University, deciphers the twentieth-century long poem, searching for a better understanding of why long-poem writers are preoccupied with a search for origins.
Moffett focuses on issues like postcolonialism, nationalism, modernism, and postmodernism. He conceptualizes his theories by using what he calls “originiary moments”: historical periods or specific events from which a poet contends our culture descends. These moments enlighten and inspire the modern poet to use origin or “source” as a way to examine present culture and social conditions.According to Moffett, the long poem is appealing because it “lacks strict conventions that govern other genres.” Using a wide variety of poems to support his arguments, Moffett revisits the search for cultural origins, which preoccupied major poets throughout the twentieth century with a focus on long poems by Armand Schwerner, Derek Walcott, Geoffrey Hill, and Judy Grahn, The Search for Origins in the Twentieth-Century Long Poem: Sumerian, Homeric, and Anglo-Saxon is available here.
Common Woman Chorus
Derived from the Grahn poem that reads, in part, “a common woman is as common as a common loaf of bread . . . and will rise.” Common Woman Chorus began in 1983 as a feminist chorus. A statement from the Chorus: “We celebrate our heroes, reflect on the personal and political struggles of women and the disenfranchised, and are committed to musical excellence and social change. Membership is open to all woman-identified, gender-nonconforming, and transgender individuals, with a goal of diversity in ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, interests and beliefs. The Common Woman Chorus unites a choral community of richly diverse voices to nurture high quality musicianship and to be a beacon for justice, equality, and love through the healing power of music.” You can find information on upcoming projects and performances here.