Queer Spirituality: What Can Poetry Tell Us? A Conversation with Julie Enszer and Kevin Simmonds

Gay and lesbians have long had a complex and often conflicted relationship with organized religion, sometimes facing exclusion—or worse. But at the same time there is a long history of gay people trying to understand queerness as a divine gift or turning to spirituality to celebrate their love for each other. Queer spirituality speaks out in two recent poetry anthologies (another is forthcoming in the spring). And the editors of these two books, having immersed themselves in some of the work of our best poets as well as emerging voices, share their special insight on the topic in this lively two-part Q & A.

Julie Enszer’s Milk and Honey (Midsummer Night’s Press)  collects poems from Jewish lesbians and Kevin Simmonds’ Collective Brightness (Sibling Rivalry Press) collects “LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion and Spirituality.” (Lawrence Schimel is editing Flamboyant, the gay male companion to Milk and Honey, which will be out in spring 2012.) Both editors speak about the intersection of poetry and spirituality and how to better understand the queer experience of faith in contemporary GLBTIQ life.

First, Julie Enszer talks about how poetry reflects the Jewish lesbian experience, its political

Julie Enszer

sensibilities, its history, its ability to re-see traditional stories (the midrash), and more. She also discusses two camps she sees in the work, one that grapples with “tensions between religion and sexuality” and the other that “foreground[s]the dynamism, the generative synchronicity between the two.”

The table of contents is like a who’s who of lesbian poets. Is there something to be made about so many well-known lesbian poets also being Jewish?

I don’t know. On one hand, I don’t think so; I think it seems like there are more Jewish lesbian poets when you gather them in a collection like Milk and Honey. On the other hand, I do think that the lesbian-feminist print movement during the 1970s and the 1980s did empower a lot of women, including Jewish women, to write and publish. Poets like Marilyn Hacker, Robin Becker, Joan Larkin, Melanie Kaye-Kantrowitz, Joan Nestle, and Ellen Bass all published in small lesbian-feminist journals and with lesbian-feminist publishers during the 1970s and 1980s. The lesbian-feminist small press movement to nurtured their writing. Though, as I say, that is true about a lot of non-Jewish lesbian-feminist poets as well. I wanted to strike a balance between well-known Jewish lesbian poets and newer voices. What I find exciting is the variety of poetry that is written by Jewish lesbian poets. There isn’t a particular “kind” of poem that expresses Jewish lesbian experience rather an array of aesthetic, artistic, creative, cultural, and linguistic influences.

Let’s zero in on the political poetry in the book. Would it even be possible to have constructed this book without politically themed poems? What is engaging about the book is that there’s a kind of a dialogue going on. There’s “13 Ways of Looking at 9/11” with its killer ending. There’s the funny but really poignant and pointed “An Eastern/Western Country Song” in which the poet and her mother talk about not talking about “Zionism.” And I would guess poems like “Orgasm on Yom Kippur” are political just because they exist. But the poem that ends the book, by the inestimable Ms. Hacker, is probably the most nuanced. Can you say a few words about the intersection of poetry and politics for the Jewish lesbian writer?

When I was preparing to read the submissions for Milk and Honey, I reread Nice Jewish Girls, edited by Evelyn Torton Beck, and Tribe of Dina, edited by Melanie Kaye-Kantrowitz and Irena Klepfisz. Both of these books published in the 1980s were ground-breaking in the ways that they shaped Jewish lesbian identities; they were widely read not only by Jewish lesbians but also be lesbian-feminists and taught in a variety of Women’s Studies classrooms. It may have been a mistake to read them—it made the task of editing the collection more daunting. Still, both of these books were deeply meaningful to me as a young reader, and I wanted to return to them as a part of this project.

Politics in Nice Jewish Girls and Tribe of Dina are very different than politics in Milk and Honey. First, there is greater acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jewish people today than there was when these editors were compiling the books. In fact, at the reading celebrating the publication of Nice Jewish Girls in Boston, MA, there were protesters! So the intersection of Jewish and lesbian and politics had different valences in the 1980s. The politics were more about visibility and inclusion in Jewish communities and in thinking through lesbian identity and Jewish identity particularly in relationship to Israel, Zionism, and questions about peace-making activities in the Middle East.

As I write this, in a general way some of the issues about politics and poetry for Jewish lesbians are similar, but as you note, more nuanced. While the macro issues may be similar, the valence of the politics is different today. I think that there is a broadening of discussion about human rights for Palestinian people and increasingly more space to talk about two-state solutions for Israelis and Palestinians. In addition, for U.S. writers in a post-9/11 world, there is a great need to grapple with anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States And Islamophobia. I hope some of that comes through in [what these poets express and care about].

Sensuality and the lesbian body are two big elements we should discuss. I like what you say in the introduction: “Milk and Honey: The literal and metaphoric fluids of women. The sweet and the silky that flows from our bodies and infuses our poetry.” Was this something you’d always wanted to represent or did it develop as you read the work?

Sensuality and the lesbian body are big themes in my own writing and in what I love to read. I’m drawn to poetry that includes erotic writing about lesbian experiences; I am interested how we write about our bodies and the physical and sensual experiences of our bodies. Although I would like to say that I think that this is a hallmark of Jewish lesbian poetry, I think it is more of an idiosyncratic characteristic of me as a reader and editor.

As you were sifting through submissions, did you come to see the “lesbian Jewish experience” as representative of any few things? Any one thing? Or is it too diverse? Do you think the poems show that?

Well, as is always the case when a project is finished and printed and bound, I do wish the poems were actually more diverse. I would have liked to have more poems from lesbians in Israel, for instance, in addition to Maya Kuperman’s fine selections from her longer poem, “Mother Tongue.” I would have liked to have more poems from Sephardim lesbians. One of the things that characterizes the difference between Nice Jewish Girls and Tribe of Dina is Tribe of Dina has a much broader diasporic view of Jewish experiences around the world, where as Nice Jewish Girls is more grounded in U.S. experiences.

Generally, I think that poetry by lesbians today is concerned with the domestic and the intimate and the poems of Milk and Honey reflect that. Lesbian poetry today also makes dynamic political connections, which I think the poems of Milk and Honey do as well.

Eleanor Lerman’s poem’s ending really complicates what we think about God—”Oh yes, Him. The sly Hebrew who is where / He is when.” I noticed she used “God” instead of “G-d.” Is this crucial to understand, this difference? And is there a tradition of Jewish poetry that seeks to complicate God? 

This is an interesting nuance in the book. One tradition among Jews is to not write the name of G-d on anything that is not permanent. A piece of paper or a book might be thrown away. To write G-d is to create a sign for the word, but not the name; thus if the paper is destroyed or the book is destroyed the name of G-d isn’t destroyed. As you notice, different writers handle this differently in the collection. And it has all sorts of fascinating meanings among Jews. To write G-d (without the ‘o’) indicates observance to a set of beliefs. Some people reject this practice as superstition; others just don’t adhere to it. It is connected with different levels of religious observation and for some people with being more conservative or progressive religiously. Lerman spells out God. I don’t think that it is crucial to understand the different ways of writing the word on the page. There isn’t a particular consensus understanding about it that people have. Likewise, there isn’t a particular analysis that can illuminate it. When I was editing Milk and Honey, I was thinking about these varied representations throughout the book. I decided, of course, to leave them as the poet wrote them for visual and metaphorical diversity. What I think is so lovely about Lerman’s poem is the way she grapples with this. The poem is a discussion between her and G-d, who is both present and absent which infuriates and delights the speaker.

What are your thoughts on the difference pulls of sexuality and religion on a writer’s identity.

While I was editing it, one of the things that I thought a lot about is the difference between religious Judaism and sexuality in the poetry and secular Judaism and sexuality. I felt that to be a big tension in editing the collection. I asked myself, what poems speak to secular Jews and what poems speak to religious Jews? I wanted to strike some balance in that, though I do think that it tilts more to secular, or cultural, Jewish experiences than to religious experiences, with some exceptions.

Today, I think we understand people as expressing a series of intersecting identities with different investments and attentions at different times. Some of the poems foreground the tensions between religion and sexuality; other foreground the dynamism, the generative synchronicity between the two.

Not all the poems are “Jewish” with a capital J, so to speak. Ellen Bass’s “Loving a Woman” might be just a beautiful little love lyric in another context. And Jenny Factor’s brilliant poem “A Noah Story,” about being awake to the body at 40, might not be religious if not for the title’s focus. I like that about the anthology. That it doesn’t take “Jewish lesbian” to be some straight-jacket.

You know, this is interesting. When I started thinking about the collection, I thought more about poems that I think of as Jewish with a capital J. Much of this work in my mind is work that is midrashic, that rewrites different elements of religious traditions, for instance, some of Adrienne Rich’s work and the work of Enid Dame, Marcia Falk and Alicia Ostriker. I really enjoy those poems. I admire a lot of the feminist work that rewrites passages of the Torah or is in dialogue with rabbinical exegesis. There are less of those in here than I imagined we would have. In some ways, I do think that work isn’t the most au courant among lesbian poets. Though in researching something else recently, I’m impressed with how younger rabbis are working to make different religious observations relevant to transgender people. That work, crafting Judaism to be inclusive of transgender experience, may be the work that is deeply compelling and timely right now.


Kevin Simmonds talks about moving beyond negativity and queerly ‘redeeming’ religious

Kevin Simmonds

‘institutions, ideas, and ideologies.’ Among other topics, he also suggests the GLBTIQ experience with spirituality and religion—hugely varied—is marked by openness about sharing individual stories and a willingness to reside in uncertainty.

You write in your introduction that you couldn’t have imagined the scope of what you discovered in these poems. Might we say that’s one of our gifts, to widen and deepen what spirituality can mean?

The human experience is wide and wondrous. Instead of appreciating that variousness, many people fear it. In all my work, I aim for discovery and challenge myself and others not to judge. When we stop fearing and judging, new meanings open to us. Simple as that, really. I received poems for Collective Brightness that allowed me to get beyond my own personal experiences of faith, religion and spirituality.

So are you saying that because many gay people experience fear and judgment in their lives, that we know that to move beyond that means richer fields await, so to speak? That this might mean we are more sensitive to religious experiences that foreground love and discovery more than anything else?

I think many of us are tired. We’ve grown tired of hating the haters. We want to build, redeem and “queer” institutions, ideas and ideologies that have been closed or hostile to us. For many in the LGBTIQ community that means cultivating for ourselves, inside and outside of those religious institutions, places to love and edify each other. We appropriate, infiltrate and deviate all at once.

Can you also say more about how poetry can ‘allow us to get beyond’ prior experiences? I think if more people realized that power, more people would read poetry.

Art amplifies life and makes possible a vantage point impossible otherwise. Poetry is art and one of its slowest incarnations. Slow for the poet in creation and slowly deliberate for the reader of poetry. Experiencing a poem once or many times over can’t help but to heighten our awareness and challenge us, woo us outside our limits and boundaries. If the poem, as I’ve said time and time again, is more question than answer, more an invitation to reason together than a directive, then it helps us grow. And growth means pushing through, resisting anything that prevents healthy flourishing.

What might be another ‘gift’ queer people can give to this conversation?

Their presence, alone, is a gift for everyone—and I’m talking about those in and outside of the LGBTIQ so-called community. It’s obvious that people uninitiated to the queer community will benefit from hearing and reading these poems. What isn’t as obvious is all the cultural, social, racial and other distances traveled between those of us in the LGBTIQ continuum. We aren’t monolithic and are divided in terrible ways. I believe this small anthology can help bring some understanding.

When I think of queerness and religion, I have to admit I think of the “devastating rejection, shame, castigation and scapegoating” you mention in your introduction. Were you fearful that such a history with religion was going to be the overwhelming sense produced by the poems? Were you surprised at the ‘collective brightness’ you found instead?

Honestly, I wasn’t surprised. LGBTIQ people are resilient, resourceful and utterly creative. I didn’t receive one poem bashing religion. Not one. That’s too easy and beneath any sophisticated, evolved and evolving poet.

Obviously it’s not always easy as a poet to write in a way that walks the line between criticizing and bashing, but criticizing a hurtful aspect of an organized religion—or even lamenting that faith is difficult to understand and accept—is not the same thing as bashing it. And there are many poets who are critical, radically even, of religion. Ginsberg wants the asshole to be as holy as the seraphim. Adrienne Rich writes about the exclusion of gay and lesbian Jews. And many poets wonder about a God who can create beauty but also allow pain and suffering, that’s a theme across the ages. So why not expect gay poets to explore critically these issues?

Poems have a point of view and it can be oblique or not. I expect poets of a certain caliber to leave room for uncertainty in their point of view, especially when it regards questions surrounding faith, religion and spirituality. These are age-old questions that insist on uncertainty.

I was blown away by the fact that so many of the poets I know and love had written about faith and spirituality. (Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised.) There are so many of our well-known poets in this book, as well as emerging ones. Is this a theme ‘hides in plain sight’ for our community? Does that tell us something about our relationship to these concerns?

The previous question answers this too, doesn’t it? Many of these poems have been previously published. They’ve existed, many of them, for years. Collective Brightness, as the title implies, gathered and amplified them. I will say, though, that I had to nudge some poets when they told me they didn’t have anything “spiritual.” For some, I simply said “send me something!” For others, I defied them with poems of theirs I’d already discovered. Many poets were surprised I read their poems as spot on for the anthology. And once I dispelled whatever hesitations they’d had, many sent me more poems, unsolicited poems, they’d determined might fit. Some of those second and third-wave poems did fit and are included. I’m happy to say that.

But you say some of the poets themselves weren’t aware of their own spiritual poems. That’s what I’m getting at. What accounts for that, or my surprise? Surely that’s one of very reason for ‘gathering and amplifying’? To remind us that these poems exist?

I see all art as a way of locating ourselves and this has spiritual overtones. I believe editors and critics are supposed to see connections and gestures others do not. It’s our job to curate and reframe, interrupting convention. I hope many people are surprised and, indeed, confounded by how LGBTIQ artists, editors, critics and curators redefine issues as daunting as religion and questions surrounding spirituality.

Has encountering this work changed your own view of faith? (You talk about your own journey in the book’s introduction as well).

There’s a copy of this anthology in every room of my place. I’d always wanted a book like this. A book that’s like an affirming prayer book for me, a man who loves men. And these poems, written by gay men and those who don’t love men the way I do, edify me. Because, for so long, I hated myself as reflected by religion, I still have many apprehensions about love, which is an invitation to freedom, messy and earth-busy freedom. Poetry by these contemporary poets [is] choral in [its] witness: you, we, are captives of love and are lovely. Captives of desire and desired. Possessed. The poems express this variously but I’m convinced of the shared thesis.

As you were reading all these poems, did you come to a sense of any defining elements of the queer experience of religion or spirituality, in the most general sense, of course? What was the experience like of reading such charged work?

There’s a collective punch to this book. Its rewards are many for anyone who reads it–in parts or in its entirety.

I guess what I’m asking is pretty parochial, but important nonetheless: as you trace your finger over the table of contents, you who know these poems more intimately than anyone else, are their themes, concerns, prayers, important issues, images and stories that recur or are particularly powerful?

People have stories to tell and, finally, LGBTIQ writers feel less afraid to tell their stories, especially those stories in which they have no simple answer when it comes to reconciling themselves with spiritual and religious institutions.


Julie Enszer:  Photo credit–Charlie T. Photography