A Journal of Voice and Vision, 2006
"Memories and Memoir: An Interview with
is the author of three books of poetry, Horses
and the Human Soul, published in 2004 by Story Line
Press, and Trying to Be an Honest
Woman and History
and Geography, published
by Eighth Mountain Press. Her book, Lifesaving:
A Memoir, won
the Lambda Book Award. Judith has taught creative writing at
various universities and summer workshops for the past twenty-five
years and is the author of Writing
the Memoir: From Truth to Art. She also edited the
anthology An Intimate Wilderness: Lesbian
Writers on Sexuality.
A Memoir tells the story of the three years
you spent in Spain following the death of your parents. You were
very young, nineteen, when your parents died, and your memoir
is an exploration of that period in your life from a much older,
adult point-of-view. Can you briefly explain to us about the
difference between a journal and a memoir? How do you make decisions
about what memories to write about? How do you decide which view
of a memory is the one that belongs in the memoir?
Judith: Usually a journal is written right at
the time of events. There's no period of reflection—no time for
the writer to consider the meaning of what happened or to learn
anything from it. I think that the unique aspect of the memoir
genre is retrospection: the writer is not only recounting events
from her life, but also musing on them and letting the reader
into her thoughts about what those events mean, now that she
has had time (usually years) to consider them.
As for what memories to write about: well, I think we just know.
The memories that haunt us and come up over and over as defining
moments in our lives. For me, it was clear that I needed to write
the story of my recovery from denial and later grief, because
that story kept appearing in my poems. One way to think about
it is, perhaps, that the memories which matter most are those
that you want to tell a new lover, not necessarily right away,
but early on, so that person can know who you are.
There are always going to be a number of different views of a
remembered incident. Other peoples', of course, will rarely agree
with yours. But also each writer will see events differently
over time. Current research into the brain, and in particular,
into memory, supports the view that we remember things differently
as we grow older, often in line with whatever aspect of an event
we need to focus on now, even though we may have ignored it,
or not seen it at all, earlier.
Gertrude: Since you are well-known for memoir, do your readers
assume that everything you say in your poems is non-fiction (i.e.
your own life experience)? Do you feel free to invent in your
Judith: I definitely feel free to invent in
poetry. My early poems were often autobiographical, but I didn't
like readers assuming that. Currently I'm writing poems about
the deep ocean—underwater poems—imagining myself a diver,
and talking with marine biologists to get the environment right.
Although there are many true facts in these poems, much is also
Gertrude: Do you think this kind of invention is important
Judith: Yes, I think even poems that are autobiographical need
an element of imagination in order to create the music and the
form which allows a reader to enter into someone else's personal
Gertrude: Is there a piece of writing (poem, chapter, essay)
that you are most proud of? Why?
Judith: I'm proud of Lifesaving:
A Memoir, which was my first
full-length prose book. The length was a challenge for me, having
been a poet until then, or having only written short-story length
memoirs. I'm proud of the persistence with which I rewrote it
and pushed hard to dig into the deeper layers of the story, and
in particular the final chapter which got to feelings I hadn't
know consciously before. Also, I like that it has quite a lot
of humor in what could have been a pretty depressing book—but
isn't at all.
There are a few poems I'm also pleased to have written. One more
recent one is "Souls Under Water" which was published
in a prizewinners' collection for the Bridport Prize in the U.K.,
but has not yet appeared in a collection of my own.
Gertrude: Would you label yourself a 'lesbian writer'? Do you
feel this kind of label is helpful?
Judith: There was a time when I completely embraced the title
of lesbian writer, and have appeared in many lesbian journals
as well as being listed in lesbian writer directories. I am,
of course, still both a lesbian and a writer, but I don't think
that my lesbianism directly informs all my writing. Some poems
are clearly "lesbian poems". I have a series that is
unfolding through my books, with a character (a persona who stands
in for me) called "The Dyke with No Name." There
was a first long sequence with that title, and then another called "The
Dyke with No Name Thinks about Landscape." These are poems
where whatever subject I am talking about is seen primarily through
lesbian experience. Many other poems make reference to my being
lesbian, and some are about homophobia. Lifesaving also made
my lesbianism clear. But sometimes I write without that aspect
of my identity in the foreground, and I hope I can also be just
a "writer" when the lesbian aspect is not important.
I suppose the label is useful for lesbian and gay readers looking
for material that speaks to that part of themselves and I'm happy
to be found by such readers. But it may be irrelevant to many
readers and perhaps even off-putting to others who might steer
away from a book for that reason. Ideally, I'd like to be read
by the lesbian community and also by a wide and diverse general
readership. So many aspects of lesbian life have changed during
my adult life -- how many people are "out," the size
of a pro gay-rights movement, and the number of heterosexuals
who can now talk about and support our goals—that I wonder
if the label will become less important in time. I'm not saying
that we have succeeded in gaining respect and equality yet, but
nevertheless I've seen amazing progress.
Gertrude: Do you ever feel that you have to represent lesbian
life in your work (whether by your own choice or because of labeling
Judith: I do not feel that I have to represent
lesbian life—at least not in my creative writing. I fairly often
write op ed pieces for The Oregonian and other newspapers
in which I take up political or cultural issues relating to gays
and lesbians. In those pieces I feel an obligation to represent
accurately the part of the LGBT community with which I am familiar.
But in my poetry and memoir, I am as truthful as I can be to
my own story as a lesbian, but do not attempt to represent anyone
The thing that makes me crazy is
how much I wanted her —
the simple act of longing
year after year, till finally
she took my hand and held it
pressed to her small right breast.
That kind of longing
turns your whole torso into a cavern
where despair echoes wall to wall
and hope leaps like a foetus.
My complicity confuses the issue.
How to say the word: abuse
when my body tells another story —
not a tale of clenched self-protection
but an epic, my young arm
reaching out for her breast,
my back spreading wide to her touch?
The thing I go back to is
the rain on the window —
water washing all over the pane
as hand moves to breast
and someone seduces someone else.
My complicity clouds the definitions
like that misted window,
one side of its thin old glass
steaming with the heat of breath and skin
while the other
leans into the storm, weeping.
Gertrude: The poem "Body Language" in your most recent
book stayed with me long after I read it. I was drawn in by the
longing at the beginning of the poem, and felt shock and surprise
when I read the word "abuse." I love the image of the
misted window with its two sides of heat and tears. You've written
about this tension between desire and fear elsewhere. In "No
Name" in History and Geography the speaker of the poem says "fear
and sex together / chill her skin / till she does not know which
is which." Was it difficult to write these poems? In what
way are they important or necessary?
Judith: These were poems that, at the time, were difficult to
write. I agonized over that word "abuse," having gone
back and forth many times. The woman in the poem was 20 years
older than me and I was deeply in shock at the time, having just
lost both my parents at the age of 19. Because I was in love
with her, and because I entered more than willingly into my first
sexual relationship with her, I was for many years reluctant
to see that she should not have done what she did. When I was
forty and thought about what it would be like to seduce a nineteen-year-old
who had just experienced a huge trauma, I felt that abuse was
probably an appropriate term.
I think the tension between desire and fear may be widespread
among lesbians who grew up, as I did, in the fifties. I experienced
both fear of recognizing myself as a lesbian, and fear of discovery.
This fear inevitably went hand in hand with sexual desire. That
may be another thing that has changed as younger lesbians become
adults in a relatively more accepting climate.
I hope that these poems speak to some readers, and perhaps comfort
those who are trying to work out confusion or guilt, or feel
that they are somehow "wrong" as I did. They were also
important for me to write. I don't believe in poetry as therapy—or
at least I don't believe in making public poems that are written
for therapeutic purposes, but I did have to write that material
(after dealing with it in therapy) before I could move past it
to other things.
Gertrude: I'm very aware of how the radical right constantly
seeks to demonize non-heterosexuals and invent statistics "proving" that
we aren't decent human beings/parents/mates. Do these political
issues influence your writing?
Judith: These issues certainly concern me, sometimes to the point
of obsession. But I think they influence my writing more, as
I said earlier, in my journalistic efforts than in my poetry.
Some poems, though, do take on such issues. "The Dyke With
No Name Thinks About Landscape" (In
Horses and the Human Soul) was enormously influenced by an early Oregon anti-gay ballot
measure, which tried to write into law that lesbians and gays
are "unnatural and perverse." I was thinking about
being "unnatural" or "not part of nature" when
I wrote that long poem, parts of which directly address the fact
of being written out of the natural world.
Gertrude: Do you think there is a 'lesbian literature'? Does
trying to define this get us into trouble...or does it help to
name and legitimize lesbian identity and experience?
Judith: I think it's difficult to draw boundaries around the
category of lesbian literature. Does it include fiction with
lesbian characters written by a heterosexual? Does it include
books with no obvious lesbian content, written by a lesbian?
These are difficult questions and I don't know the answers. All
I know is that it's important that young people who read can
discover easily that some authors are lesbian or gay, and that
the heterosexual presumption doesn't prevail as in the past.
(Whitman, Shakespeare, Cather, even Stein, etc.: How many students
were told that a good many of Shakespeare's sonnets were written
to a young man?)
Gertrude: How has the work of other writers influenced your writing?
Judith: I was influenced first by early feminist writers of my
own time: Judy Grahn, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath,
and many more whose work encouraged me to tell the truth about
my life and the world as I saw it. I have also been influenced
by the magnificent craft of some of these writers and many others:
Rich, of course, for her poetic brilliance, Grahn for her playful
and musical use of language, and more recently the formal skills
of Maxine Kumin, Marilyn Hacker, Mimi Khalvati, and many Irish
poets such as Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland, and Derek Mahon.
Gertrude: What advice can you give for writers and poets who
identify as GLBTQ?
Judith: Tell the truth (your truth) and learn
your craft. Don't think that your particular subject matter is
enough: It is vitally important, but it will only speak powerfully
to others if you read widely, study your chosen craft, and love
the process of writing, not just for the end result. I think
too many of us (myself included) publish too soon and later regret
it. You need to develop habits that come from loving the writing
itself—the words, the language, the heft of all those who have
shaped the words you love to read.
“Body Language” is reprinted
by permission of the author.