Julie R. Enszer’s archival instinct

Julie R. Enszer was born in Saginaw, Michigan in 1970, where she became an avid reader of poetry at a young age.  Today, she lives in University Park, Maryland with her partner, two dogs, and a cat.  The founding curator of the Lesbian Poetry Archive, Julie has an MFA from the University of Maryland, where she is now working toward her PhD in Women’s Studies.  Her first poetry collection, Handmade Love, was published by  A Midsummer Night’s Press earlier this year.

JMW: What drew you to poetry and, specifically, poetry with lesbian themes?

JE:  I’ve been reading poetry since I was a young reader. Children have a special relationship with poetry because sound, meter, rhythm, and rhyme are important elements in children’s books. From that very early reading, my affection for poetry continued to grow.  One of the first poets that I read as a pre-teen was May Sarton (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_Sarton).  I became aware of Sarton first as a Unitarian Universalist poet (I was raised in a Unitarian Universalist fellowship in Michigan). Then on reading more of her poetry, I realized that she was a lesbian, and for me in early adolescence, this was a wonderful find, both comforting and affirming.

As I read more and learned more about poetry, I was drawn to poetry that expressed my own growing feminism and to poetry that was written by lesbians. My early discoveries included Marilyn Hacker, Audre Lorde, Elizabeth Bishop, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Karen Brodine, SDiane Bogus, Kim Vaeth, Pat Parker, and many others. Poetry is deeply personal and reflects the inner life of the poet. I wanted to see my personhood and my inner life as a lesbian reflected in poems, especially as a younger reader.

JMW: What has your graduate work and involvement in academia done for you as a writer?  What are the pros and cons from your POV?

JE: Writers need are time and space. These are two gifts for poets in academia.  When I entered the MFA, I had been working for nonprofit organizations for over fifteen years. I had done a fair amount of writing while working full-time. I was often scribbling on the train on the way home from work or closing my office door for fifteen minutes to type up something. The first poem of Handmade Love (“When We Were Feminists”) was written before I entered the MFA program.

I had taken short classes with poets that I admired like Minnie Bruce Pratt and Robin Becker. Robin Becker suggested to me that sustained study with a “master poet” would help my writing. I found that “master poet” in Stanley Plumly. Even now, working on a poem, I hear his advice and counsel. When I write something that Stan wouldn’t like, I cringe; when I write something he would approve, I want to rush off to show him.

Like the MFA, the PhD is an opportunity to engage with poetry by lesbian poets I love. There are downsides, though. Many have been explored at length elsewhere: the current state of the academic job market, a “blandifying” of contemporary verse, the risk of losing the beauty of language amid theoretical concerns. For me, graduate study has been an opportunity to think and write in sustained ways, and I am grateful for that.

JMW: Tell us about your new debut collection.

JE: Handmade Love is a collection of twenty-six poems that I put together in conversation with Lawrence Schimel, the editor and publisher of A Midsummer Night’s Press.  Lawrence was looking for a book for his “Body Language” imprint, which is devoted to books that explore questions of gender and sexual identity. When I focused on that rubric, Handmade Love quickly came together. I selected poems of mine that were about the body and that were concerned centrally with contemporary lesbian life. I wanted poems that were sexy, bold, and erotic, individually, and sharp and shiny as a full collection. Nearly 75% of the poems had been previously published in poetry magazines and journals. The collection as a whole is tighter and leaner because of Lawrence’s editing acumen.

JMW: Tell us about the Lesbian Poetry Archive and how it came about.

JE: The Lesbian Poetry Archive is a labor of love of mine. I love so many of the small chapbooks and journals that characterized the lesbian-feminist print culture during the 1980s and 1990s and found that increasingly they were difficult to find for people without access to academic libraries and that they were being forgotten by the lesbian community as a whole. I wanted to create an online space that would preserve our memories of these poems, journals, and books, which are so meaningful to me.

One of my advisors at the University of Maryland is Martha Nell Smith, the editor of the Dickinson Electronic Archive.  She encouraged me to think about digital archives as a way to preserve this work and to think about it in my own research and writing. At first, I designed the Lesbian Poetry Archive using the simplest of tools – iWeb on my Mac. Martha arranged for the Lesbian Poetry Archive to be hosted at University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. Through IATH, I have been able to use the content-management system Drupal for the Lesbian Poetry Archive. I use the University’s scanner to create digital images of the documents and my own personal computer to log and store the files before preparing them to be hosted at IATH. Ultimately, the Lesbian Poetry Archive is an unfunded project that reflects my passions and obsessions.

JMW: How extensive is the archive and how do you go about collecting so much poetry?

JE: At this time I’ve organized the archive into a section that reproduces books or parts of books, a section dedicated to bibliographies which I am building to include publishing activities with a particular attention to books, chapbooks, and other print items that are “orphaned,” or not included in library databases, and a section with additional resources and ephemera. I’ve found the materials in a variety of ways. The library at the University of Maryland has been important for the collection there as well as for interlibrary loan. I’ve also tracked down a number of publications through used book sites like Alibris. When they are reasonably priced, I buy them for myself. I’ve also been the recipient of other’s generosity. People send me books and chapbooks from their collections and many folks email me suggestions and books to look for or events that were meaningful to them that I should research. I’m grateful for this type of support. I am happy to receive copies of books and chapbooks for consideration on the archive.

In adding materials to the archive, I want to respect author’s copyrights, which are still in force. A part of my work then is to find the authors and obtain permission to digitize their work and include it in the archive. Some people I’ve not been able to find so I try to indicate that and encourage people if they see it to contact me. This is a balancing act between keeping the work visible and in circulation to readers and respecting copyright. It’s one of the central issues facing publishers of all sorts in the next decades.

My hope is that the archive will continue to grow over the next years to be a repository for information and books of lesbian poetry, which I do define quite broadly. I’m interesting in all types of lesbian and feminist print products between 1969 and 1989 for inclusion in the archive. If readers of this interview have ideas or materials that they want to share, I encourage them to email me at JulieREnszer@gmail.com.

JMW: As a poet seeking publication, how open do you find mainstream markets to lesbian-themed poetry?

JE: First, I think it is important to acknowledge that there are many lesbian poets who are open about being lesbians and their work is being published in a variety of journals and presses. Currently, the poet laureate of the United States is a lesbian and the poet laureate of the United Kingdom is bisexual. One of the best-selling poets in the United States, Mary Oliver, is open about being a lesbian. So on a macro level, poets can be out about their sexual orientation and publish in mainstream markets and find devoted readers for their work.

I do think, though, that there is a difference between poets who are lesbians and lesbian-themed poetry. Lesbian-themed poetry, work that reflects a true engagement with lesbianism, lesbian life, and lesbian sexuality, still faces barriers in publishing, at all levels, from small presses and independent collectives to large, commercial presses. In general, lesbians and the lesbian community are not reflected in consistent and meaningful ways in publishing. The exception to this, of course, is the small lesbian-focused presses like Arktoi, Bywater Books, Bold Stroke Books, and others like that.

Now, if I may stand on the other foot and recite a different view, there is a lot of lesbian poetry being published in journals as well as in mainstream houses. Maureen McLane’s debut book, Same Life, was published by the mainstream publisher, Farrar Straus & Giroux, and poets Adrienne Rich and Marilyn Hacker are published by Norton while Minnie Bruce Pratt and Robin Becker are published by the University of Pittsburg. Many of the widely respected journals like American Poetry Review, Poetry, Kenyon Review, and others publish poems by lesbians and poems that are lesbian-themed on occasion.

I think that this paradox reflects the overall political and cultural milieu for lesbian and gay people more broadly. Gains, yes, new visibilities, yes, more equality, yes. Barriers? Yes. Partial representations? Yes. Unequal treatment? Yes.

JMW: What about lesbian poetry that is more frankly erotic?  What are the barriers, if any?

JE: This is an interesting question. I think that there are many books of poetry by lesbian poets that contain a handful or fewer of erotic poems. I think of Liz Bradfield’s new book, Approaching Ice (Persea 2010), which has this masterful weaving of her lesbian relationship with the marriages of other explorers of Antarctica, or Stacey Cassarino’s wonderful new book, Zero to the Bone (New Issues Poetry & Prose 2009). At the same time, erotic books of lesbian poetry like Olga Broumas’s Beginning with O (Yale University Press 1977) or Marilyn Hacker’s Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons (Arbor House 1986) are less common these days. Some of the erotic poetry published in the late 1970s and 1980s continues to dazzle me. I read less erotic poetry in contemporary poetry by lesbians. I’m not sure if that is a result of the tastes in publishing right now or the overall milieu in which lesbian poets are writing.

JMW:  Can you list some of the more established and/or active publications for lesbian poetry, both lesbian specific and nonspecific?

JE: I think some of the most exciting books of lesbian poetry are being published by small, independent presses such as Arktoi Books, Redbone Press, Perugia Press, Soft Skull Press, Coach House Press in Canada, and others. In the case of Arktoi and Redbone, the women running these presses are committed to finding and nurturing new and emerging lesbian poets. If you are a lesbian poet and you are reading this and you haven’t purchased every title you are able to from these small presses, you should go and do that right now – don’t even finish reading this interview! They depend on us to buy books, know the poets, and support them.

I’m excited by the lesbian work coming from Canada right now. Sina Queyras, of course, as a former Lambda Literary Award winner, but also Tara-Michelle Ziniuk, Kate Eichorn, and Rachel Zolf. These are exciting poets who don’t receive as much attention in the United States as I think they deserve. There is a long history of feminist and lesbian publishing in Canada as well as governmental grant support for the arts. Lesbian poets in Canada, like in the United States, are published now less by lesbian- or feminist-specific publishers and more by publishers without a feminist or lesbian mandate like Coach House Press and Arsenal Pulp Press.

In terms of literary journals, I’ve found a number of supportive editors at journals like OCHO, So to Speak, Room of One’s Own, CALYX, and Dancing Girl Press, among many others. The tip for newer writers is of course to buy the books that you like and look at the acknowledgements page for journals that have previously published the poems. I do that all of the time. I keep a list of journals where I really want to have my poems published and haven’t yet (including pms, Florida Review, BLOOM Magazine, and the Gay and Lesbian Review); many of these journals are where poets I admire have published their work.

For poets interested in publishing, I’m a big fan of Duotrope, a free, online resource for writers of fiction and poetry.  Its website aggregates information about a variety of journals and presents it in a way that is easy to search and learn more about the journal. Duotrope also provides an online system for tracking submissions. I use it and find it a wonderful resource.

JMW: Any advice for aspiring poets out there in terms of the art and craft?

JE: At the end of the day as a writer, you need to love the work. Every morning, every evening, every minute spent writing, you need to love the work. Even when what you are writing is not right or difficult or frustrating, you need to love the process of moving through the difficult to the words and lines that will satisfy you. That’s what writing is about. Loving the work that you are doing. I think it also helps to find, appreciate, and love the work of others. Publishing is exciting and worth celebrating, but the amount of time one spends publishing is miniscule compared to the amount of time one spends writing. That’s my advice, love the work because that love will sustain you and help you to persist for the long haul.