Minnie Bruce Pratt: Rage Against the Money Machine

Political Reality, Poetic Justice

Everywhere we look, work is happening. People are laboring. Goods and services are generated, distributed, bought and sold. A woman working in a laundromat.  A woman on the telephone handling a service call. A woman at the toll booth. Manicurist. Cashier. Security guard. These are the people that populate Minnie Bruce Pratt’s newest collection of poetry, Inside the Money Machine (Carolina Wren).

The book and the poems are teeming with people and the stories of their labor, the stories of people and work in hard economic times. As a whole, Inside the Money Machine calls to mind the words of Meridel Le Sueur: “Hard times ain’t quit and we ain’t quit.”

Working-class men and women are not usually a part of poetry and poetic conversations. Although for thirty years, Minnie Bruce Pratt has been writing poems about things left out of usual conversations. Poems of lesbian love and desire. Poems about losing children because of sexism and homophobia. Poems about labor. Poems about people left behind in an unjust economic and political system. Pratt’s choice of material for her poetry is one of the reasons I admire her as a poet. In fact, I expected to love a new book by Pratt, but I didn’t expect to be so inspired and moved.

Inside the Money Machine is an extraordinary accomplishment. Deeply informed by politics and an analysis of the socioeconomic system in the United States today—and it’s flaws—Pratt doesn’t deliver a polemic (though certainly there is a polemical reading to these poems for those who desire), but rather a carefully observed and deeply transformative vision of people doing work in the United States and around the world today.

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Minnie Bruce Pratt
Carolina Wren Press, January 2011

Minnie Bruce Pratt’s first collection of poetry was a chapbook, The Sound of One Fork, published by Night Heron Press in North Carolina. The chapbook was published a year and a half after Pratt completed her Ph.D. in Renaissance literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Cris South, a printer, activist, and novelist, began Night Heron Press in 1981 to publish books by lesbians living in the American South without access to traditional publishing. The Sound of One Fork is one of two chapbooks published by Night Heron press. While South printed the book, Pratt and her two young sons collated, stapled, and trimmed the books by hand.

When The Sound of One Fork was completed, in late May of 1981, Pratt was teaching classes at local colleges to scrape together a living to do the lesbian-feminist activist work that fueled her. She was a member of the Feminary collective, publishers of a southern journal with an emphasis on lesbian experiences, and an organizer of a variety of literary activities as well as political activities, during a time when the distinction between literary and political for feminists was minimal. In some ways, The Sound of One Fork, with sixteen poems and forty-two pages, is a conventional chapbook. In these early poems, the humanity of Pratt’s poetic vision shines. She concludes the poem, “Love Poem to an Ex-Husband,” with this strophe,

I am separate now and far away,
yet sometimes I still stand with you
in the evening by the road
and watch the fireflies light the alders
in the dim green down beside the pond.

In these lines, Pratt asserts her autonomy even as she and her ex-husband stand together and witness the natural world; Pratt affirms their shared humanness. Similarly, in her poem, “My Mother Loves Women,” Pratt observes her mother walking “every evening down our hill” with her friend Margaret. “They pick up loose hub caps and talk/about hysterectomies and cataracts.”

Here, readers experience Pratt’s poetic ear early in its development through the delightful consonance in “caps” and “cataracts.” Although her mother embraces intimacy between women, she is “afraid to ask me about my life. She thinks/that I might love women too.” In both poems, Pratt examines two fraught relationships—one with her ex-husband, one with her mother—within the context of the women’s liberation movement. Pratt’s generous spirit infuses the poems, which, while insistently prioritizing lesbianism and lesbian experience, still convey deep compassion and respect for all around her.

One notable aspect of The Sound of One Fork is the material context in which it was published. The Sound of One Fork reflects a period in lesbian-feminist publishing in which lesbians, feeling the urgency for their voices to be heard and shared, particularly voices that were marginalized for multiple reasons, learned the trades of printing, publishing, and book distribution to make books available. The labor of South, Pratt, and her sons to create the physical artifact is representative of two decades of publishing activities organized by lesbians beginning with the Women’s Press Collective in Oakland, CA in 1970.

What is most extraordinary about The Sound of One Fork is the way Pratt sold it: she traveled around the country doing readings and events in women’s bookstores, homes, and other lesbian-feminist spaces. Like today, distribution, that is getting books into the hands of eager readers, challenged lesbian-feminist presses. Women in Distribution, a woman-owned company founded in 1975, collapsed in bankruptcy in July 1979, leaving a vacuum for lesbian-feminist book distribution.

Pratt persisted, however, selling the book herself and later in conjunction with distribution services through The Crossing Press and Firebrand Books. By 1990, she had sold 2,000 copies of the chapbook, hand-to-hand, person-to-person. The personal distribution of The Sound of One Fork reflects Pratt’s commitment to her work and to a life as an independent, working poet; this commitment continues to characterize her work throughout the subsequent decades.

Pratt’s first full-length collection, We Say We Love Each Other, has long been my favorite of her published books. Poems in We Say We Love Each Other capture interpersonal intimacy among friends, the power of feminism to express women’s lives, and lesbian erotics. In the poem “Not a Gun, Not a Knife,” Pratt writes about rape: “I don’t want this to be happening again, and to you.” She despairs at how little “this paper of words” can offer; it is “not a gun,/not a knife, not the muscle of club by your bed” and “not even the skin of a love letter like those I once wrote you.” It is what she has to offer, though, and she affirms for the “smart-handed” woman receiving the poem that she “can put any scrap to use.”

Putting scraps to use, putting pen to paper in service to women is part of Pratt’s work in this collection. Her sly and open references to lesbian sexuality continue to delight me, like this poem, “Blueberries.”

Love, I know you well: how you look, desiring,
upper lip lengthened when you look at what you
want: some wet fat blueberries heaped in bowls, or
me, at times, wet too.

In another short fruit poem, “Plums,” Pratt writes,

I love the way you
give me cold plums. I love the
way you give me tongues.

This exuberant expression of lesbian sexuality is tied to a profound yearning for radical changes in the social and political structures of the United States. In the opening poem of the collection, Pratt writes,

We locate forbidden places, the kind marked dangerous
swamp, unknown territory on the old charts.
We plot change. We love one another.
Our bodies become lodestones to the future. We imagine
a place not marked yet on any map. Between us
words tremble and veer, like the iron needle
of a compass, a guide to what we are making real.

Throughout the poems, Pratt searches the material world for remnants—charts, an iron needle in a compass—that affirm her existence as a lesbian and a feminist. We Say We Love Each Other is a guidebook for understanding these signs with a vision of making lesbian-feminism real.

Pratt’s second collection made her famous in the mainstream poetry establishment and marked a watershed for feminist publishing. Crime Against Nature won the Lamont Prize from the Academy of American Poets in 1989. In Crime Against Nature, Pratt wrote the difficult narrative of losing custody of her sons during her divorce.

“Crimes against nature” is a euphemism for sodomy laws, which were on the books in many states particularly in the south, until the United States Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional in the 2004 Lawrence v. Texas case. While this legal framework provides a context for the collection, it doesn’t begin to describe the poetry of Crime Against Nature. Pratt explains her situation in the poem, “No Place.” She writes,

One night before I left I sat halfway down,
halfway up the stairs, as he reeled at the bottom,
shouting Choose, choose. Man or woman, her or him,
me or the children. There was no place to be
simultaneous, or between.

In these lines, Pratt animates the epistemic space that she yearns for throughout the collection and makes the space visible to readers with the image of her body perched in the middle of a staircase.

The links between physical and emotional spaces are mapped repeatedly by Pratt in her work. We Say We Love Each Other is organized with three poems titled “Maps” that link external and internal landscapes. The emotional terrain of Crime Against Nature is mapped similarly, but this is a journey through shame and anger. Pratt writes, in the poem “Shame,”

++++++++++++++If I had been
more ashamed, if I had not wanted the world.
If I had hid my lust, I might not have lost
them.    This is where the shame starts.

If I had not been so starved, if I had been
more ashamed and hid.     No end to this blame.

Painful emotions recur throughout the collection, refracted in different ways. In the poem, “In the Waiting Room at the Draft Board,” Pratt recounts a conversation with her older son about the circumstances of the divorce. “I tell stories/about how I fought him, some funny.” The hint of humor suggests a lessening of the immediacy of pain, but in the final couplet, Pratt confesses, “I don’t know where he is bruised from when/I paid for my freedom with my children.”

By the end of the collection, the relentless shame and blame transform into a testament to the strength that feminism and poetry offer to resisting homophobia and sexism. In the fifth part of the final—and title—poem of the collection, Pratt writes about a visit with her teenage sons. “Last time we were together we went down to the river,/the boys and I, wading.” Readers see Pratt and her sons in the natural world—the space Pratt invokes to demonstrate resilience from the crushing effects of oppression. She writes,

+++++we three are clambered onto a fist of rock,
edge of the river.    You can’t see the signs that say
Danger No Wading, or the water weeds, mud, ruck
of bleached shells from animal feasting, the slimy
trails of periwinkle snails.    We are sweating, smiling
in the sun, clinging to keep our balance, glinting
like silver fishes caught in the mouth of the moment.

Although Pratt and her sons are smiling, danger still lurks around them; they must hold to one another to keep balance. It is a moment of familial intimacy, caught in a photograph, just as the poems capture intimate moments of fear, shame, and longing.

Pratt concludes Crime Against Nature with these lines,

+++++++++++In the end my children visit me
as I am. But I didn’t write this story until now when
they are too old for either law or father to seize
or prevent from hearing my words, or from watching
as I advance in the scandalous ancient way of women:
our assault on enemies, walking forward, skirts lifted,
to show the silent mouth, the terrible power, our secret.

Pratt connects her own life narrative with a broader history of the oppression of women, reminding readers of the power that women have when they embrace their own “scandalous” ways and expose the source of their power. The recognition of Crime Against Nature with its explicit lesbian and political poetry by the American Academy of Poets was significant; Crime Against Nature was the first book from a feminist press to receive the Lamont Prize[1]. Crime Against Nature is currently out of print and that is a blemish on the publishing industry.

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Pratt’s work isn’t limited to poetry. With Barbara Smith and Elly Bulkin she published Yours In Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Semitism and Racism. This book, originally published by Jan Clausen’s Long Haul Press in 1984 and later reissued by Firebrand Books, is a series of three essays thinking about anti-Semitism and racism in conjunction with feminism.

Women’s Studies classes used Yours In Struggle as a key text for many years. The essays not only enact the politics that they advocate—alliances across race and ethnicity—but also the political values of openness, critique, and collaboration. During the 1980s, the influence of Yours In Struggle was so great that critic Adrian Oktenberg, writing for the Womens Review of Books, in an otherwise scathing appraisal of Pratt’s poetry, notes that Pratt’s essay in Yours In Struggle is “lively, funny, charming, and smart”[2].

Pratt’s collection of essays, Rebellion, was published in 1992 by Firebrand Books. Rebellion gathers Pratt’s prose from a decade of writing and organizing as a lesbian-feminist. The lucidity of her political vision in the essays and the care with which she writes about lesbian’s political lives is extraordinary.

The real testament to Pratt’s work as a prose stylist is her 1995 memoir, S/He. S/He is perhaps one of the most lyrical explorations of gender and sexuality written to date. In S/He, Pratt meditates on the constructions of both gender and sexual desire and explores the identity formations of lesbian and transgender. The immediacy of Pratt’s personal writing combined with her poetic ear make S/He on of the most compelling and artistic books of the past century.

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I share this history of Pratt’s career not because it is essential to reading and enjoying the poems of Inside the Money Machine, but rather as an exegesis of her lifetime commitments to poetry, to writing, and to politics. It is this triumvirate that is essential to Pratt’s work: a commitment to poetry and poetry with a narrative, an urgent narrative, about the world. That is essentially what politics is, an urgent narrative about the world.

Prior to Inside the Money Machine, Pratt published Walking Back Up Depot Street (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999) and The Dirt She Ate: Selected and New Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003.) Walking Back Up Depot Street, like Crime Against Nature and S/He, was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. The Dirt She Ate won the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry in 2004. The poems of Walking Back Up Depot Street prefigure Pratt’s recent work.

In Walking Back Up Depot Street, Pratt’s poems are attuned keenly to the voices of history and working class people. At the center of the collection is the narrator, Beatrice, named in a gesture to Dante; Beatrice observes the world with insights altering between sharp, compassionate, and caustic. For me what distinguishes Inside the Money Machine from this earlier collection is that shedding of the narrative apparatus of Beatrice in favor of Pratt’s insertion of herself as the poetic “I” in the poems and as a sharp narrator recounting the stories of others.

Pratt tells us stories in these poems about women reading the classifieds looking for work, women retired and hating it, women working as telemarketers. She combines these depictions of work with stories of resistance and political action. In “Passing Food Up and Down the Table,” a woman talks about work—first in an auto plant then in home health care. She says, “like any job it’s got its pros and cons. . .but she gets to do exactly what they want to fire her for, the phone calls, the press releases.” Then passing “szechuan bean curd,/noodles, and steamed salmon with rice,” she says, “This fish gave its life for us, / the least we can do is eat every bit.” Pratt observes her “forking over the fretwork of bone,/and opening her mouth to taste the last shred of tattered flesh.” In this poem, Pratt enacts a philosophy about work and its purpose in life: to work for justice. She also gestures to a way of living with respect and integrity by paying homage to things, large and small, that make our lives possible.

Pratt’s first person poems in Inside the Money Machine lend emotional weight to the other poems. Pratt writes about being laid off in the poem, “Getting a Pink Slip.”

Mine is electronic, item 13 in a memo, then the phone,
and then the legal letter from the school’s president:
You’ll be missed. He’s mis-spelled my name.

In this tercet, the overkill of being laid off, with three notifications, echoed in the structure of the poem, is combined with the dark humor of the message from the school president. In a move that might humanize being laid off through personal contact from the president, the personalization is rendered meaningless through the misspelling of Pratt’s name; the institution fails to know her as a human being.

Throughout her accounts of her own work and unemployment, Pratt resists seeing her work, her labor, as different from the work of the other women in the book. Educated, a poet, working in jobs many would describe as “professional,” Pratt still aligns herself with workers, equating her labor with the labor of all people.

In “The Unemployment Office,” Pratt writes about being unemployed. Even this experience has been automated, she notes there are “more computers than people/in the room,” and when she replies to the automated questions, “fear squats in my belly,/takes out its pinchers and sets to work. My throat chokes.”

In describing her experiences with unemployment, the uncertainty, the fear, Pratt brings truthfulness and humanity to all of the people in the collection as they engage in the activities of the money machine—buying lottery tickets, filling out job applications, reading classified ads, mourning lost jobs.

Inside the Money Machine drives to an imagined, utopic ending. In “Waking to Work,” Pratt writes:

How do we go on? Longing for something bigger than us.
But not this now, not this buying and selling. If we could each
make what we can, take what we need, and that be enough—

Pratt captures the human experience of wanting something bigger, something meaningful, something important. Pratt imbues in all of the characters in this collection this desire for meaning, but the desire is never fulfilled and can never be fulfilled in the current economic structure. Still Pratt proffers a vision of how it might be achieved. In the final poem of the collection, “If We Jump Up,” Pratt writes,

Let new words leap out of our mouths.
Let our hands be astonished at what we have made, and glad.
Let us follow ourselves into a present not ruled by the past.
If we jump up now, our far will be near.

Here activism, which Pratt has portrayed throughout the book—people protesting collectively, learning new words, experiencing joy in work together—, is the jumping up, the possibility of a new future, nearer through our own imaginations, our own work.

Inside the Money Machine is a timely and urgent book of poems as news headlines cover the continuing effects of the U.S. financial crisis, though timely and urgent are adjectives that apply to all of Pratt’s work. As we begin to assess her long career, however, this temporality transforms. We find in Pratt’s poems, not an archive of past urgency, but a collection of poems and language that continues to gather power.

Pratt’s work is a witness to our lives in the past and to the experiences that bring us to this present moment with vision for a future we can imagine and work to make real. Minnie Bruce Pratt writes in the tradition of Meridel Le Sueur, Genevieve Taggard, Muriel Rukeyser, and Judy Grahn, women writing about working-class people using the finest literary and aesthetic tools.

Muriel Rukeyser’s words provide the epigraph to Inside the Money Machine, “The only danger is not going far enough.” For Rukeyser, danger is not in speaking but in not going far enough with our speech and our action. Rukeyser commends the audacity of speaking out poetically against injustice; her bodacious legacy is to write, unconstrained, about the political realities of the world. Pratt fulfills Rukeyser’s legacy; although danger may continue to lurk, with Pratt’s continued literary and political engagements, we are not in danger of losing poetry that speaks truth, resists silence, and proffers visions of justice.

Note: Information about the publication and sales details of The Sound of One Fork was compiled from the Minnie Bruce Pratt Papers, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University. I am grateful to the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture for supporting my research there.

[1] Other lesbian and feminist poets had been recognized with the Lamont Prize including Marilyn Hacker, Ai, Sharon Olds, and Carolyn Forché, but books published by feminist and lesbian-feminist presses had not been recognized; in 2009, Jennifer K. Sweeney’s second collection, How to Live on Bread and Music, from feminist publisher Perugia Press was selected for the James L. Laughlin Prize, the successor to the Lamont Prize, from the Academy.

[2] Adrian Oktenberg, “A Quartet of Voices,” The Women’s Review of Books, Vol. 3, No. 7 (April, 1986), 17-19.