Capp Street and ‘The Common Woman Poems’ © 2012 Judy Grahn
In this last stretch of my memoir I enter a phase that is both exciting and nerve-wracking. My doubts, always present, redouble themselves — can I keep it readable all the way through? Can I pull the threads together so it all makes sense? Will the many people who have been in touch with me since I began the research now be angry over the ways I have portrayed them? Can I stand firmly in everything I have said? My dreams are anxious, and wake me repeatedly.
Yet this is also the most exciting part, with editors and friends helping on every side, finalizing the manuscript becomes my personal Olympic dash. The series of deadlines make writing seem like a series of qualifying athletic events that require the very best the writer can give it. So grateful to have them with me on this run, as we scribble notes back and forth in the margins and make ink marks in three colors all over the pages.
This is also the time to review the bigger picture: what did I learn, and what were the main questions raised by the story, like these from Wendy Cadden:
My days were taken up with a job at Presbyterian Hospital with a woman boss whose brittle style I did not like. What was I doing that mattered, I wondered. Earlier, when we were getting to know each other, Wendy had asked me one of the most important questions I’d ever been asked: “Why don’t you come with me?”—why didn’t I just drop everything and get in the car with her. An invitation to engage with her life, a life utterly different from anything I had ever experienced, a path to the volatile and exhilarating Left movement, and a peek at the liberal, successful, literary, confident, upper-middle-class. More than this, a path to a love that wanted change, wanted to participate, wanted to be a force in the world, and knew how to connect with like-minded radicals.
Now, as we entered our artistic and political dramas in SF, she asked me the second most important question I’d been asked. She suddenly stopped me in the middle of one of my enthusiastic gushes on the subject of poetry. She got her dark-eyed serious face, tightened the muscles in her cheeks and said: “Just why is it that you write, what is it for?” I was astounded, stopped in my forward rush. A moment of pure consciousness ensued. I realized that poetry could be more than a gift, more than a way to get attention, more than emotional expression to save my life, more than a ride on the breath-horse of the times. Poetry could be directed purposefully. Her question has never left me, though my answers have gotten more complex.
What was poetry for? Wendy’s astute and sharply driven question would haunt me, still haunts me. Poetry has a purpose, is for something. Art is not simply for its own sake, not even when it is a gift to the cosmos or to one’s neighbor. Art is for something, even when it is deeply personal, in service to the poet’s own psychology. A poet of the world is of use in the world. An activist poet stirs the world to action. Would the world find a use for me? I hadn’t written anything I really liked since “Asking for Ruthie” in Albuquerque, and that wild play The Cell at Antioch, and now my life did not seem the least bit artful. Wendy, at least, was taking photographs for Leftist organizations, but what was I doing?
Summer brought a terrible shock as the Charles Manson gang exploded onto the national scene with a series of horrific murders in Los Angeles, which they crudely attempted to pin on the Black Panthers. And by December, nihilistic, disaffected Weather Underground children of the upper middle class would endorse Manson’s actions as “revolutionary”. That part of the radical white left was unraveling as a force of moral leadership, though it could hardly compete with the acceleration of the war in Vietnam for immorality and unthwarted violence, as U.S. planes dropped napalm (Agent Orange) on civilians in villages, and on soldiers from both sides. We were beginning to hear that body bags of soldiers were returning to the U.S. with sacks of heroin stashed in them for resale in the increasing market of disaffected young people, in concert with disaffected soldiers. Soldiers were so alienated, we were hearing, that some were murdering their own officers, incidents called “fragging.” I wondered if my friend Larry Jones was in the battle zones, and how was he faring? Like the rest of the youth movement, my grief escalated into outrage as the war spread and grew ever more violent.
In an attempt to get my writing voice moving again, I joined a lovely writing group of Gay men who had gathered around the wonderful poet Robert Duncan. Robert never made it to the meetings but that did not deter the rest of us. This group included Paul Mariah and Richard Tagget, who put a magazine together with the Gay men’s title Manroot, and I was gratified that they included some of my work, though my attention was going elsewhere, toward women.
Our friend Beth had been married to a “star” in the white left, Carl Oglesby, whose anti-war speech had so stirred me at the SDS peace march in Washington, D.C. in November of 1965. Beth had put us up on her sun porch when we first arrived in San Francisco. Now a year later in summer of 1969, when this competent, smart mother of three called to invite us to a consciousness-raising group meeting, we said yes. She had left Carl and joined with several other leftist women who had turned away from the dominance of their men in the deteriorating and splintering antiwar movement in order to make a sharp turn. Women of the Left began to intensely discuss with each other the real circumstances of their lives, breaking the injunction of family secrecy—the age old iron bit in the mouths of women like my mother, warning me never tell anyone that your father drinks (or that your mother is nuts and dangerous, or that your brother and your uncle sexually used your body, or that you have known you are a lesbian since the age of 12 at least), or anything else that might threaten the structure, the precariously out of balance family structure.
Now in groups organized by Judy Knupp, Beth Oglesby, and Lynn O’Conner, among others, women at last spoke truths to each other. Wendy and I split up to join separate groups out of a pragmatic sense that we could then be more honest. This was probably a mistake as I had no idea what a lethal bomb I was dropping by saying, “I am a lesbian.” No one in the small group said anything to this, though I am sure the leaders welcomed the diversity, and adamantly wanted to intersect with working class women like me. But afterwards a woman said she had waited through the meeting for me to “jump on her”. Though she meant to convey that her fear had changed after hearing me, her fear passed over to me, and I felt terribly vulnerable, and dropped the group. Nevertheless Beth had recruited me into feminism, and like all the other women, my life took a sharp turn and new commitment.