For women, then, poetry is not luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.
Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.
I first read Audre Lorde’s essay Poetry is Not a Luxury a few years ago and knew at that moment: the “quality of light” she referred to was exactly what propelled me as young child to turn to poetry.
I don’t think I owned a book of poetry until I was much older. I also don’t remember the first poem I ever read. My mom said that my birthday cards to her consisted of drawings with poems, but I’m not sure if they actually were or I was just being liberal with spacing.
As soon as you’re eight years old in my old elementary school, you had the option of joining a club for extracurricular activities. I joined the school paper, The Blue Quill. It must’ve been through TBQ that my interest for poetry was nurtured, exchanging naps during siesta time with a pen and paper.
I wrote love poems, poems about nature, story-poems, more love poems all the way to high school. I was in awe of poetry’s utility, its form and the flexibility it gave me. I marveled at the way I was able to string words together that reflected my thoughts and emotions — at times being generous, at other times purposefully ambiguous.
I remember 3am poems written with a drunken stupor, and the hearty laughs that followed in the morning upon discovery. Poems written hurriedly in class, verses on the bus. I love how you can also put poems in your pocket, how surprisingly easy it is to commit one (or some) to memory. How certain poems can tell the story of your life, or how some can create the conditions for the life you’ve been longing for.
Audre knew and articulated all of it so succinctly: “poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.” As a queer woman of color, I’ve turned to the following poets and their work countless times and they’ve bookended and/or started different moments of my life. I’ve lived and returned to them over and over again, drawn to the power they created that I started to feel within myself.
In honor of National Poetry Month, here’s a list of poets I’ve repeatedly turned to — women who have shaped words, hearts, worlds:
Yes, fusion is possible
but only if things get hot enough –
all else is temporary adhesion,
It is the intimacy of steel melting
into steel, the fire of your individual
passion to take hold of ourselves
that makes sculpture of your lives,
–The Welder (link for full poem)
and you tried to change didn’t you?
closed your mouth more
tried to be softer
less volatile, less awake
but even when sleeping you could him
traveling away from you in his dreams
so what did you want to do, love?
split his head open?
you can’t make homes out of human beings
someone should’ve already told you that
if he wants to leave
then let him leave
you are terrifying and strange and beautiful
something not everyone knows how to love.
–For Women Who Are Difficult to Love (link for video + full poem)
When I pronounce the word Future, the first syllable already belongs to the past.
When I pronounce the word Silence, I destroy it.
When I pronounce the word Nothing, I make something no non-being can hold.
–Three Oddest Words
The trunk opens. The Mario Andretti look-alike fills the other woman’s arms with sable-sheared cattails. Five feet high & badly in need of sunlight & proudly stolen from across five states. The woman with no children of her own pulls their twenty pounds in close, resting them over her Peter-Panning heart. Her lungs empty out, then fill, then fill again with the surge of birth & surprise. For two years, until their velvet bodies begin (and end) to fall to pieces, every time the driven-to woman passes the bouquet of them, there, in the vase by the front door, she is reminded of what falling in love, without permission, smells like.
–Cattails (link for audio + full poem)
But women have survived. As poets. And there are no new pains. We have felt them all already. We have hidden that fact in the same place where we have hidden our power. They surface in our dreams, and it is our dreams that point the way to freedom. Those dreams are made realizable through our poems that give us strength and courage to see, to feel, to speak, and to dare.
Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.