Not a single woman won a Nobel Prize in 2016. Plenty of articles and op-eds were written pointing out the absurdity of this situation in a world where women have fought for greater equality and recognition of their work and accomplishments over hundreds of years.
One of the most powerful antidotes to this shameful occurrence is to read women’s work, and to keep advocating it.
With that in mind, here are five queer women poets who have changed the world for the better with their art. Whether it is the lyric poetry of Sappho or the autobiographical poetry of June Jordan, it is all passionate, and it is all tremendously political.
Very little is known about Sappho’s life. She was born in the island of Lesbos, sometime between 630 and 612 BC, and may have had a daughter named Cleïs. Much of the lyric poetry she wrote – enough to fill nine volumes – is now lost to us; only fragments survive.
She was a celebrated poet in antiquity, and the power of her poetry continues to beguile audiences centuries after her death. Because of the homoerotic nature of her love poetry, Sappho has become synonymous with female homosexuality.
Stung With Love: Poems and Fragments is a translation of Sappho’s surviving poetry by Aaron Poochigian, and has been introduced by Carol Ann Duffy, herself the first openly LGBT person to become Britain’s Poet Laureate.
I have a small— Translated by Barnard
Cleis, who is
like a golden
take all Croesus’
kingdom with love
thrown in, for her
Born in Baltimore in 1929, Adrienne Rich had a long, celebrated career as one of America’s most powerful and widely read poets.
Although she started publishing in college, it was with her exploration of feminism and politics in the 1960s and 1970s that she burst onto the scene as the deeply reflective, yet provocative voice she will always be remembered as.
The Dream of a Common Language is the first book Rich published after she came out as lesbian in 1976. “This book will probably be labeled ‘feminist’ and even ‘lesbian.’ Both labels apply, though like all labels they are too often used merely for slotting items into pigeonholes so they can be safely dismissed. Adrienne Rich, however, is not easy to dismiss, and her poems, even when they insist on such labels, escape from them,” wrote Margaret Atwood in her review of the collection.
You’ve kissed my hair
to wake me. I dreamed you were a poem,
I say, a poem I wanted to show someone ...
and I laugh and fall dreaming again
of the desire to show you to everyone I love,
to move openly together
in the pull of gravity, which is not simple,
which carries the feathered grass a long way down
the upbreathing air.
Lorde was an African American writer and activist who was born in New York City in 1934. She described herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”.
Her poetry is at the heart of the pathbreaking work she did as a thinker who constantly challenged social injustice. She published nine volumes of poetry in her lifetime, and was named New York State Poet in 1991.
Although she had published a few collections of poetry before it, Coal became Lorde’s first collection of poetry to be brought out by a major publishing house.
“Black, lesbian, mother, urban woman: none of Lorde’s selves has ever silenced the others; the counterpoint among them is often the material of her strongest poems,” said Marilyn Hacker about Lorde’s poetry.
I do not dwell
within my birth nor my divinities
who am ageless and half-grown
and still seeking
witches in Dahomey
wear me inside their coiled cloths
as our mother did
I have been woman
for a long time
beware my smile
I am treacherous with old magic
and the noon’s new fury
with all your wide futures
and not white.
Jordan, a Caribbean-American activist, essayist and poet, was born in Harlem, New York, in 1936. She was deeply committed to progressive politics, especially civil rights and gender equality.
Jordan’s Poetry Foundation biography describes her as one “of the most widely-published and highly-acclaimed African American writers of her generation.”
Jordan was the author of twenty-seven books of poems, libretti, essays, and books for children. She was an accomplished political journalist and taught at some of the most prestigious universities in the USA. She was known as the “Poet of the People” and founded the Poetry for the People programme at Berkeley in 1991.
Alice Walker called Jordan “the universal poet”, and Toni Morrison wrote of her: “[Jordan] has comforted, explained, described, wrestled with, taught and made us laugh out loud before we wept...I am talking about a span of forty years of tireless activism coupled with and fueled by flawless art.”
Directed by Desire: Collected Poems is a posthumous collection of her work, and it won the Lambda Literary Award.
How do we come to be here next to each other
in the night
Where are the stars that show us to our love
Outside the leaves flame usual in darkness
and the rain
falls cool and blessed on the holy flesh
the black men waiting on the corner for
a womanly mirage
I am amazed by peace
It is this possibility of you
and breathing in the quiet air
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
Piepzna-Samarasinha is based in Toronto and Oakland, and is known for her writing about the experiences of queer and transgender people of colour.
Her work has been anthologised in collections such as Colonize This! and A Girl’s Guide to Taking Over the World. She won the Lambda Literary Award for her second book of poetry, Love Cake.
Her book Bodymap examines disability from the point of view of a queer femme of colour. “All of it is personal, all of it is raw, all of it keeps you turning the pages and makes your heart beat and wither and burst,” says an Autostraddle review of the collection.
I want you to love me messy in the morning
the same four year old booty shorts and no bra.
I want you to know
like a 36 year old on her couch
before the shower
what I show you
what I will allow you to see.
I want you to love me
after the lipstick wears off.