Rediscovering the Warrior-Poet: Finding Audre Lorde at the Library of Congress

The following is a guest post by Megan Metcalf, a reference librarian in the Library’s Humanities & Social Sciences Division.

One weekday afternoon, I found myself sitting across the table from the self-proclaimed Black, lesbian, feminist, and warrior-poet Audre Lorde. To be clear, I wasn’t actually in the same room with Audre Lorde, who passed away November 17th, 1992. I was sitting in the Motion Picture and Television Reading Room at the Library of Congress watching raw footage from the documentary entitled A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde.

Audre Lorde, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front.

Audre Lorde, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front [between 1970 and 1978].
//lccn.loc.gov/97511285

My first introduction to Audre Lorde was in college when I was assigned to read her essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” I rediscovered Audre Lorde, and her poetry, right here at the Library of Congress. My journey began with a simple catalog search, which quickly retrieved numerous books of poetry and non-fiction authored by Lorde, as well as the biography of her life written by Alexis De Veaux. After inhaling a few volumes of Lorde’s poetry, including Coal and The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance, I decided that a better understanding of Lorde’s political life and work would be necessary to truly appreciate her poetry. I did a little research in the hopes of finding resources which would illuminate the context in which Lorde was writing her politically charged poetry and prose. Here’s a list of interesting and unique Audre Lorde resources that I found right here at the Library of Congress:

Chrysalis: A Magazine of Women’s Culture

Audre Lorde was poetry editor for the feminist periodical Chrysalis: A Magazine of Women’s Culture. In fact, Lorde’s famous essay, “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” first appeared in Chrysalis (1977, Volume 3) under the title “Poems Are Not Luxuries.” Although Chrysalis was published in California, all the poetry submissions were sent to Audre Lorde, who was living in New York. In a 1976 letter in which Lorde detailed her editorial approach, she described women poets as warriors and declared, “the poets are our modern amazons—riders defenders explorers of the loneliest outposts of our kingdoms” (De Veaux, 2004, p. 177).

Publication of Chrysalis began in 1977 and ended in 1980. In addition to poetry, Chrysalis included essays and commentary on feminist activism and organizing, holistic healing, and reviews of books, poetry, film, and art. The Library of Congress owns the full run of Chrysalis, which forms part of its general collections and is available to all researchers with a valid Reader Identification Card.

Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press Publications

Audre Lorde is reported to have said to Barbara Smith, “We really need to do something about publishing.” Smith and Lorde had both dealt with racism in the publishing world, and in 1980 they co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the first U.S. publisher created by women of color, for women of color. According to Smith (1989, p.11), the name was chosen because “the kitchen is the center of the home, the place where women in particular work and communicate with each other.” While Audre Lorde and Barbara Smith served as co-founders of the press, Kitchen Table operated as a grassroots collective from the beginning. The Library of Congress owns many of the titles published by Kitchen Table. In addition to many volumes of poetry, the general collections also houses the popular Kitchen Table editions of Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, edited by Barbara Smith (1983), and Cuentos: Stories by Latinas, edited by Alma Gómez, Cherríe Moraga, and Mariana Romo-Carmona (1983).

Audre Lorde’s “Coming Out” poem in Ms. Magazine

Biographer Alexis De Veaux (2004) describes the salient moments of Audre Lorde’s transition to a public lesbian identity. During a 1973 poetry reading, Lorde gave a performance of “Love Poem,” which her editor had previously refused to publish because of the explicit lesbian content. While coming out is often more accurately described as a process, rather than a singular moment, it is true that “Love Poem” marks an important transitional period for Lorde’s public presentation of her sexuality. Lorde’s sexual identity became increasingly more visible when “Love Poem” appeared in the February 1974 issue of Ms. magazine. In case you were wondering, the entire run of Ms. magazine is available to all researchers here at the Library of Congress.

Audre Lorde Reading Her Poems at the Library of Congress, Feb. 23, 1977

To hear Audre Lorde read and comment on her poetry is to know that these poems are much more than static words sitting on a page; they are a powerful force of politics, raw emotion, and expression that beg the reader to jump in to action. Audre Lorde (1984, p.37) describes her conception of poetry as a “revelatory distillation of experience” and argued that “as they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas.” In my opinion, one of the most touching aspects of Lorde’s writing is the call for everyone, but especially women and other marginalized groups, to call into question the meaning and power visible in our everyday lives. And from there, Audre Lorde reminds us that we are all powerful enough to make change.

I will leave you with a quote from Lorde’s essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury”:

We can train ourselves to respect our feelings and to transpose them into a language so they can be shared. And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it.


References

De Veaux, A. (2004). Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Lorde, A. (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press.

Smith, B. (1989). A Press of Our Own Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 10(3), p.11-13.

4 Comments

  1. Jurretta J. Heckscher
    November 17, 2015 at 10:59 am

    What a beautiful commentary! And how much information– and inspiration– is packed into its brief span . . . much as in a poem. Thank you.

  2. CW
    November 17, 2015 at 11:35 am

    Great post! I particularly enjoyed the audio of Lorde reading her poems. The first poem that she reads, “Power” is so heartbreaking and angering, and just as relevant to our society today as it was when she wrote it. I completely agree that Lorde’s words beg the reader to jump into action.

    Thank you for introducing me to such a wonderful poet and human being!

  3. Sari Grandstaff
    November 19, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    I am thrilled that LOC has her work. Lorde was a New York State Poet Laureate from 1991-1993. She was so important and groundbreaking. I would love to be able to look at copies of Chrysalis if I ever get to visit the Library of Congress.

  4. EriksPavlovskis
    April 12, 2018 at 8:24 pm

    Really enjoyed your post. Thanks!

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