Audre Lorde's home-office "force field"

"I have a study upstairs, and I pull it around me like a blanket."

It’s National Poetry Month! Last week, we looked at Robert Lowell, supine poet. This week, Audre Lorde on writing at home.


Audre Lorde (1934–1992)

“I looked around when I was a young woman and there was no one saying what I wanted and needed to hear. I felt totally alienated, disoriented, crazy. I thought that there’s got to be somebody else who feels as I do.”

This is Lorde in 1979, describing the fundamental impetus for her career as a poet—or, as she famously described herself, a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” A few years later, Lorde was asked what elements she considered essential to creating strong poetry. “I think there are two things that are most important,” she replied.

First is a genuine commitment to living and to feeling. It is not easy. Everything in our lives works against our dealing with our feelings in a creative and constructive way. The same tendency works against our dealing with our differences.

The second thing that I think is important for creating strong poetry is being committed to breaking the silences—not simply speaking of things that have already been said in a more elegant fashion, but speaking of the contradictions in our lives with a language that can fire us.

But finding this language while being at the center of a bustling family life was not always easy. For many years, Lorde worked in a small study on the second floor of the spacious neo-colonial house in Staten Island that she shared with her partner and her two children from a previous marriage. To keep her poetry separate from her domestic life, Lorde erected “a force field” around her work room, she said in 1978.

I have a study upstairs, and I pull it around me like a blanket. There’s a force field around it. I deliberately kept it small because I’m forever gathering bright shiny objects and the more room I had, the more objects I would have collected. . . . If I’m working in my study, the children come to the door and they stand there are they talk [laughs]. The force field keeps everyone out unless they’re invited in. I love it.

Inside, Lorde tended to work via “little piles,” and she used different colored paper to keep track of drafts. “I love papers and I love pens,” she said. “When things are in a certain stage they’re on green, then yellow, then pink, and finally on white.” (She reserved blue paper for prose.) “Because I live in such chaos upstairs,” Lorde continued, “I have to be able to put my hands on things. If I forget things that I jotted down, when I pick them up, the color paper will indicate what stage of writing I’m in.”

At the end of the day, however, Lorde was less interested in the poem as a finished product than in the process itself, in poetry as “a way of living.” Poetry “is a ritual,” she said, that “has always served me to underline for myself and for other people the sources of my power.”

Source: Joan Wylie Hall, ed., Conversations with Audre Lorde (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004). Photo by Elsa Dorfman.

YOUR QUARANTINE ROUTINE

Last Friday, I tried an experiment: an open discussion thread in which I asked you all to share your quarantine routines. And I was genuinely delighted by your responses, which included escapist reading, voluntary ironing, a daily reminder to be kinder to oneself, and a men’s necktie as a “totem” of work time.

The thread is still open—you can read everyone’s replies, and add your own, here. I’d also be curious to know if you’d like more discussion threads like this in the future; you can let me know in the thread itself or by replying to this email.


THE PLEASURES OF ISOLATION

I found this article on New Yorkers self-isolating in their studio apartments unexpectedly beautiful and inspiring—especially the first part on Gerald Busby (below), an 84-year-old composer who has lived in his 200-square-foot room in the Chelsea Hotel for 40 years.


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