State Poet, 1991-1993
"Poets must teach what they know, if we are all to continue being."
Audre Lorde, poet, essayist, novelist and teacher was born in New York City on February 18, 1934. She grew up in Manhattan where she attended Catholic school. She loved to read poetry, often reciting whole poems or individual lines to communicate with people. When she could no longer find poems that expressed her feelings, she started writing her own poetry. Her first poem to be published appeared in Seventeen magazine when she was still in high school.
Lorde attended Hunter College, graduating in 1959 with a bachelor's degree. In 1961 she received a masters in library science from Columbia University and worked as a librarian at Mount Vernon Public Library until 1963. From 1966 to 1968 she worked as head librarian at Town School Library in New York City.
In 1968, Lorde received a National Endowment for the Arts grant and became poet-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. Her first volume of poetry, The First Cities, was also published in 1968. Dudley Randall, a black critic and poet described The First Cities as a "quiet, introspective book," focusing on feelings and relationships.
Lorde's second volume, Cables to Rage (1970) was published outside the United States. The poems focused on several themes: the transience of human love, the existence of human betrayal, birth, and love.
In 1972 Lorde received a Creative Artists Public Service grant. A year later she published her third book of poetry, From A Land Where Other People Live. Nominated for a National Book Award, this volume portrayed a quiet anger of global injustice and oppression along with more personal themes of nurturing, tenderness and love for her children.
New York Head Shot and Museum, probably her most political and rhetorical work was published in 1974. Writing from the perspective of a city dweller, the poems in this volume express her visions of life in New York City, intertwined with themes of what it is like to be a woman, a mother and Black.
Coal, published in 1976 by W. W. Norton was the first of Lorde's books to be released by a major publisher. A compilation of her first two books, it brought her work to a broader readership.
Her seventh book of poetry, The Black Unicorn (1978) is considered to be her most revealing work and the apex of her poetic and personal vision. Poet and critic Adrienne Rich said of The Black Unicorn: "refusing to be circumscribed by any simple identity, Audre Lorde writes as a Black woman, a mother, a daughter, a Lesbian, a feminist, a visionary; poems of elemental wildness and healing, nightmare and lucidity."
A bout with cancer led Lorde to publish her first prose collection, The Cancer Journals. Chronicling her illness and eventual recovery, The Cancer Journals won the American Library Association Gay Caucus Book of the Year for 1981. Lorde continued her prose writing with Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982), a novel on the difficult relationship between a mother and her daughter, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984), and A Burst of Light (19881).
Her most recent poetry collections include Chosen Poems Old and New (1982) and Our Dead Behind Us (1986).
Lorde has worked intensively with women of color in many different countries and is a founder of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, a press which concentrates exclusively on publishing and distributing works of women of color from various communities. She is also a founding mother of Sisters in Support of Sisters in South Africa.
Lorde was professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City from 1979-8 1. From 1981-87 she was poet and professor of English at Hunter College of The City University of New York where she was named Thomas Hunter Professor in 1987. Her poetry and prose have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies here and abroad, and her work has been translated into seven foreign languages.
BOOKS BY AUDRE LORDE
COLLECTIONS OF POETRY
THE FIRST CITIES. New York: Poets Press, 1968.
CABLES TO RAGE. London: Paul Breman, 1970.
FROM A LAND WHERE OTHER PEOPLE LIVE. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1973.
NEW YORK HEAD SHOP AND MUSEUM. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1974.
COAL. New York: Norton, 1976.
BETWEEN OUR SELVES. Point Reyes, CA: Eidolon Editions, 1976.
THE BLACK UNICORN. New York: Norton, 1978.
CHOSEN POEMS, OLD AND NEW. New York: Norton, 1982.
OUR DEAD BEHIND US. New York: Norton, 1986.
NEED: A CHORALE FOR BLACK WOMAN VOICES. Freedom Organizing Series, no. 6. Latham, NY: Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press, 1990.
USES OF THE EROTIC: THE EROTIC AS POWER. Out & Out Pamphlet, no. 3. Brooklyn: Out & Out Books, 1978. THE CANCER JOURNALS. Argyle, NY- Spinsters Ink, 1980.
ZAMI: A NEW SPELLING OF MY NAME. Watertown, MA: Persephone Press, 1982.
SISTER OUTSIDER: ESSAYS AND SPEECHES. The Crossing Press Feminist Series. Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press, 1984. 1 AM YOUR SISTER: BLACK WOMEN ORGANIZING ACROSS SEXUALITIES. Freedom Organizing Series, no. 3, New York: Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press, 1985.
APARTHEID U.S.A. With OUR COMMON ENEMY, OUR COMMON CAUSE: FREEDOM ORGANIZING IN THE EIGHTIES by Merle Woo. Freedom Organizing Series, no. 2. New York: Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press, 1986.
A BURST OF LIGHT: ESSAYS. Ithaca, NY- Firebrand Books, 1988.
BLACK WOMEN WRITERS AT WORK by Claudia Tate. New York: Continuum, 1984.
BLACK FEMINIST CRITICISM: PERSPECTIVES ON BLACK WOMEN WRITERS by Barbara Christian. The Athene Series. New York: Pergamon Press, 1985.
THE POET WHO FOUND HER OWN WAY by Rosemary Daniell. In New York Times Book Review, December 19,1982, p. 12.
CONTEMPORARY WOMEN'S AUTOBIOGRAPHY. MAYA ANGELOU, GWENDOLYN BROOKS, NIKKI GIOVANNI, LILLIAN HELLMAN, AND AUDRE LORDE by Ekaterini Georgoudake. In Diavazo, April 1990, p. 62.
AUDRE LORDE: INTERVIEW by Karla M. Harnmond. In Denver Quarterly, Spring 198 1, p. 10.
GRACEFUL PASSAGES. [11 of the finest black women reflect on the last 20 years and what they have learned for the future.] In Essence Magazine, May 1990, p. 130.
AN INTERVIEW WITH AUDRE LORDE by William Steif. In The Progressive, January 199 1, p. 32.
SELECTED READINGS ON TAPE AND VIDEOCASSETTE
AUDRE LORDE: THE BLACK UNICORN. Sound cassette. Kansas City, MO: University of Missouri, 1979.
POETRY READING. Videocassette. ARCO Forum of Public Affairs. Cambridge, MA: John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 1982.
TO BE YOUNG, LESBIAN, AND BLACK IN THE 50s. Sound cassette. Los Angeles: Pacifica Tape Library, 1983.
A NEW SPELLING OF OUR NAME. Sound cassette (2). North Dartmouth, MA: Southeastern Massachusetts University Library, Audiovisual Department, 1985.
SHORELINES. Sound cassette. Signature Series. Washington: Watershed Tapes, 1985.
READING THEIR WORK: AUDRE LORDE AND ADRIENNE RICH. Sound cassettes (2). College Park, MD: National Women's Studies Association, 1988.
WOMEN, POWER, AND DIFFERENCE. Sound cassette. University Lecture Series. Iowa City, IA: Iowa State University, 1989.
from the works of Audre Lorde. . .
THE BLACK UNICORN
The black unicorn is greedy.
The black unicorn is impatient.
'The black unicorn was mistaken
for a shadow or symbol
through a cold country
where mist painted mockeries
of my fury.
It is not on her lap where the horn rests
but deep in her moonpit
The black unicorn is restless
the black unicorn is unrelenting
the black unicorn is not
WHO SAID IT WAS SIMPLE
There are so many roots to the tree of anger
that sometimes the branches shatter
before they bear.
Sitting in Nedicks
the women rally before they march
discussing the problematic girls
they hire to make them free.
An almost white counterman passes
a waiting brother to serve them first
and the ladies neither notice nor reject
the slighter pleasures of their slavery.
But I who am bound by my mirror
as well as my bed
see causes in color
as well as sex
and sit here wondering
which me will survive
all these liberations.
NEVER TO DREAM OF SPIDERS
Time collapses between the lips of strangers
my days collapse into a hollow tube
soon implodes against now
like an iron wall
my eyes are blocked with rubble
a smear of perspectives
blurring each horizon
in the breathless precision of silence
One word is made.
Once the renegade flesh was gone
fall air lay against my face
sharp and blue as a needle
but the rain fell through October
and death lay a condemnation
within my blood.
The smell of your neck in August
a fine gold wire bejeweling war
all the rest lies
illusive as a farmhouse
on the other side of a valley
vanishing in the afternoon.
Day three day four day ten
the seventh step
a veiled door leading to my golden
flameproofed free-paper shredded
in the teeth of a pillaging dog
never to dream of spiders
and when they turned the hoses upon me
a burst of light.
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