Republishing the instalments of She Is Still Burning is having a peculiar effect on my psyche: I’m moving constantly between the past and the present, between then and now. It’s a little like rocking in a boat, just before you start getting seasick.
In the August 2001 “Dear Friends” letter below, I’m reporting on a trip to North Carolina to visit Catherine Nicholson, with whom in 1976 I co-founded the journal Sinister Wisdom. In 2016, Sinister Wisdom celebrated its 40th year of publishing, but Catherine didn’t live to see that anniversary happen. She would’ve been so pleased about it.
SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
8 August 2001
“Women and poets believe and resist forever:
The blind inventor finds the underground river.”
– Muriel Rukeyser, “Letter to the Front,” published 1944
It seems a long time and a lot of mileage since the last installment of She Is Still Burning. The first two weeks of May I spent in Durham, North Carolina, visiting Catherine Nicholson, voraciously trying to read everything in her apartment, browsing the bookstores on 9th Street, seeing an exhibit of Stanton Macdonald-Wright’s paintings and a new play about Lou Andreas Salome, being wined and dined by old friends and new friends, listening to life stories of every woman I met, enjoying sun and warm air and the scent of flowering magnolia trees.
At one point, Wynn Cherry, who is completing a book about Southern U.S. lesbian writers, asked to interview me about the experience of publishing Sinister Wisdom with Catherine in North Carolina in the mid-70s. When she arrived with her tape recorder at the sidewalk café, I had a sudden vision of myself as a dinosaur who had somehow escaped extinction (I’m not used to being interviewed), but then I forgot the tape recorder and we were launched into one of those long passionate conversations that to me have always been the hallmark of Real Life: 1976 … 2001; then … now; what has changed … what remains the same. At the end she asked me, after my wild hand-waving attempts to convey what it was like to live for a movement, Was it worth it? It took me a few moments, but finally I said, Yes, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. And that felt like the true answer.
One of the books I discovered on Catherine’s coffee table (a prime source for reading material I’m unlikely to run across in Saint John) was Feminist Interpretations of Mary Daly, edited by Sarah Lucia Hoagland and Marilyn Frye (Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 2000). Marilyn and Sarah are old friends from Sinister Wisdom days, but, more to the point, both are philosophers who have written feminist classics (Frye’s The Politics of Reality and Hoagland’s Lesbian Ethics). And Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father was a primary inspiration for the creation of Sinister Wisdom in 1976, while her most recent book Quintessence was likewise a primary inspiration for the creation of She Is Still Burning twenty-four years later. So a volume titled Feminist Interpretations of Mary Daly and edited by Hoagland and Frye was guaranteed to capture my attention. It lived up to my hopes too. It’s philosophy done in a way I used to dream that philosophy might be done (ought to be done) when I was a thoroughly lost, mute and alienated undergraduate, majoring in philosophy.
The book on Daly’s pre-Quintessence work is part of an entire series published by Pennsylvania State in which feminist philosophers reinterpret the works of Hannah Arendt, de Beauvoir, Foucault, Derrida, Kant, Kierkegaard, Aristotle, Plato, Hegel, Nietzsche, the list goes on. Scanning that list, I felt half-ecstatic and half-anguished. What if this series had existed in the mid-1960s? I would have cried for joy at discovering it in the university library; it would have set my mind on fire; I would have flung myself into the collaborative making of meaning like a young Fury. It would have altered the world for me. But in the mid-1960s there was no such series (the closest thing I could find to inspiration was the later Wittgenstein and a few fragments from the pre-Socratics), and there were no feminist philosophers. Imagine how precious, how precious and how fragile, their existence now is.
Speaking of the precious and the fragile brings me to my second key discovery on Catherine’s coffee table: the glossy March 2001 issue of Girlfriends, with its excellent article by Kathleen Wilkinson, “The Closing of the Feminist Press,” wherein I learned that Feminist Bookstore News had ceased publication, for lack of revenue. Merde, I thought. Carol Seajay, the moving force behind FBN, has done as much as one human can in a single lifetime to help create and sustain the international networks of women writers, publishers, librarians and booksellers that have been central to the transformation of feminism into a global movement. That FBN has run out of support is, to understate the matter, not a good sign.
The women interviewed by Wilkinson point to a variety of reasons for the unraveling, at least in the States, of a women-in-print network, but the remark that struck me most was made by Nancy Bereano, former publisher of Firebrand Books, who said, “I think we underestimated the capitalist maw and we were swallowed up by it.” In the brief time since October 2000, when I put out the first installment of She Is Still Burning, that same capitalist maw has 90 percent swallowed up the Internet too, in great part thanks to a predatory Microsoft monopoly. (Ho, Billygate, you win again: those millions spent on wooing politicians … ) To put it briefly, we’re in merde up to our ears and on all fronts. Add to that my belated discovery that publishing on the Internet can be as complex and arduous a process as publishing on paper, and you have the reasons for a brief plunge into the bitter-bitter-blues on my part.
My spirits picked up again, though, when my partner, Bert O’Brien, solved the 5-megabyte problem. (Five megabytes for a personal website is what you’re allowed when you pay for your e-mail address; 5 megabytes is comparable to a broom closet, but paying for a larger, commercial-size website was out of the question.) In a technological tour de force, he redesigned the entire website, still within that 5-megabyte limit, so that you can now read and VERY easily download to your computer all installments of Burning. In other words, She Is Still Burning becomes on the web what I’d originally intended it to be: an expanding reader.
In closing, let me say that I habitually keep one ear to the ground, and it seems to me I’m detecting the beginnings of a faint rumble. Though I don’t have “proof” beyond that furnished by intuition, I think that the next volcanic eruption of women is coming, it’s coming soon, it’s coming in the midst of circumstances that are the most dangerous humans have yet faced, and few of us will be able to rely on our usual paper or electronic or telephonic means of communication. Wherefore, let’s polish up our survival skills, dear friends, our telepathic skills too. And let’s create up a storm, because when we create, we’re in synchronicity, one with the other.
Bon courage (and happy reading),
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada
IN THIS INSTALLMENT
•Notes on Our Time (excerpts from Maureen Dowd, Toni
Morrison, Mary Daly)
•”Three Slaves by Michelangelo Buonorotti” (poem by Camille Norton)