homereadings and workshopsbooksinterviewsetcetera
biopress kitcontact



A Journal of Voice and Vision, 2006

"Memories and Memoir: An Interview with Judith Barrington"

Judith Barrington 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.

Gertrude: Lifesaving: 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 poetry?
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 imagined.
Gertrude: Do you think this kind of invention is important to poetry?
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 story.
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 by others)?
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 else.
Body Language

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.