Review of “An Audio Profile” by Susanna Sturgis, poet
Reprinted from Sojourner Magazine, circa 1988
Available in CD format $8.00
With occasional exceptions like “Prairie Home Companion,” I use radio for background noise; I don’t consult radio program guides. So it was an unexpected gift almost two years ago when, reading in my living room, I heard Audre Lorde’s name over WGBH-FM. I dropped my book and listened. At the end, I even wrote an enthusiastic letter to National Public Radio.
“An Audio Profile of Audre Lorde” is now available on cassette. After agreeing to review it, I had second thoughts. My only cassette player is the one in my truck, and to me spoken-word cassettes mean “duty” while music cassettes mean fun, lustily singing along with the windows rolled down. But I promised, and so in the last week I’ve driven about 300 miles around Martha’s Vineyard in the company of Audre Lorde, Jennifer Abod, Angela Bowen, Kate Rushin, Adrienne Rich, Mary Helen Washington, Alice Walker, and others.
The tape opens with the sound of Babatunde Olaiunji’s drums, and over them voices, male and female, testifying to Audre Lorde’s importance in their lives. “My writing is about difference,” says the poet in her rich, careful voice, “my writing is about how do we learn to lie down with the different parts of ourselves. . . .” The narrator adds that to Audre, the most important thing is that her work be useful.
Before I left the urban women’s community three and a half years ago, Audre’s work, particularly her essays, was crucial to me, as touchstone, gateway, goad. Since then I’ve drifted from her, and from other lesbian and feminist writers. How to apply her, and their, words in a place where I rarely hear the words “lesbian” or “feminist” or “racism,” unless I speak them myself?
“And when we speak,” I hear Audre read, from “A Litany for Survival.” “we are afraid/our words will not be heard/nor welcomed/but when we are silent/we are still afraid.//So it is better to speak/remembering/we were never meant to survive. ” All at once her words are part of my life again, linked to the fields and forests outside my truck window, challenging me to discover the connections between my island home and the city where I used to live.
This tape has become more than an aural text to be studied and reviewed. I listen to it like music, each time hearing new words and tones, seeing new images, delighting to hear favorite passages again.
|Audre Lorde’s eloquent passion for the language she speaks and writes is something I need to hear.|
Audre Lorde’s eloquent passion for the language she speaks and writes is something I as a writer need to hear again and again. I love the way she translates the particularities of her experience into poetry and richly poetic prose — her extreme near-sightedness, for example, and the fact that she didn’t begin to speak until she received her first pair of glasses at age four and a half, and, more recently, her struggles with breast and liver cancer.
Woven through the poet’s own words is testimony to her tremendous importance to the overlapping circles of her audience: people of color, lesbians, white feminists, and more. No keeper of any canon has to tell me that she is a major figure, because I hear it in the voices of people she has influenced. Adrienne Rich speaks of teaching the poem “Afterimages.” which juxtaposes the flooding of Mississippi’s Pearl River with the murder of Emmet Till, with an audible intensity that compels me to reread it.
Especially inspiring are the stories of individuals affected both by Audre Lorde and the liberation movements from whose intersection she writes. Scientist and writer Evelynn Hammonds testifies to her own courageous decision to speak the truth about the sexual harassment of black women even if it estranged her from the black community. Joe Beam, editor of a path-breaking anthology of writing by black gay men, accepts the challenge Audre Lorde issued to James Baldwin: to speak to black men about sexism and homophobia.
And here is the passage I want to play for my island lesbian friends, the ones who refer to their partners as “friends,” even “cousins,” and insist that their silence about their personal lives is simply a matter of privacy: about why she identifies herself as a lesbian at every opportunity, Audre Lorde says. “I remember what it’s like to be alone, and Angelina Weld Grimke, the black lesbian poet, was living in total isolation and died less than two miles away from where I grew up. What it would have meant to me as a young black lesbian to have read her work and know that she existed, and what it would have meant to her to know that I needed her work.”
What I’ve realized driving around with “An Audio Profile of Audre Lorde” is that the bridge metaphor, developed so powerfully in This Bridge Called My Back and subsequent writings, applies to me. I’ve taken on bridge work myself, as a lesbian feminist removed from the lesbian feminist community and influenced more deeply every day by political and economic realities unimagined by urban dwellers. Could a book, read in the stillness of my own home, have made the point so clearly?
I think not. Not only do I commend this “radio profile” to your attention, no matter how familiar you are with Audre Lorde’s work, but I urge all of you who, like me, never considered buying poetry or speeches or stories on cassette to give it a try.
Ed. Note: “An Audio Profile of Audre Lorde” is produced and narrated by Jennifer Abod, with co-producer/writer Angela Bowen, The CD is available from Profile Productions.
(An Audio Profile was previously referred to as Radio Profile because it was originally produced for radio broadcast)