I keep many poetry anthologies on my bookshelf, and I am always disappointed when these collections don’t give lady poets their due. Some of my favorite poetry is written by queer women, but most people don’t know about our contributions to the rich traditions of poetry. Here are five queer women whose poems you should go read today.
1. Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651 – 1695)
Juana Inés de la Cruz was the illegitimate child of a Spanish captain and a mixed-race Mexican woman. She is a great example of an early feminist. She fought for her own education, becoming a nun so she could continue her study, and advocated for the education of all women. She even wrote poetry against the patriarchy (translation from Spanish is mine):
Foolish men, who accuse
women, for no good reason,
without seeing that they are the cause
of all which they blame us for;
if you with your overeagerness
earn their disdain
then why do you want them to do good
when you spur them on to evil?
She also had an intense relationship with María Luisa, the vicereine of Mexico. Few historical details are known about the nature of this relationship, but the poems Sister de la Cruz wrote to María Elena speak for themselves.
2. Wu Tsao (early 1800s)
Wu Tsao was born to the merchant class in the late Qing Dynasty. She had an unhappy arranged marriage to a silk merchant, and sought love outside her marriage with a courtesan named Ch’ien Lin. The poems she wrote for Ch’ien Lin are powerfully erotic and lovely.
3. Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)
Emily Dickinson was a reclusive woman whose thousands of poems were only discovered after her death. During her life, though, she kept up her friendships by mail. One of her most notable correspondences was with Susan Gilbert, to whom she wrote 300 letters, and who eventually became Dickinson’s sister-in-law. The exact nature of their relationship is not known, but Dickinson’s letters to Gilbert are passionate.
Oh Susie, I would nestle close to your warm heart, and never hear the wind blow, or the storm beat, again. Is there any room there for me, darling, and will you “love me more if ever you come home”?–it is enough, dear Susie, I know I shall be satisfied. But what can I do towards you?–dearer you cannot be, for I love you so already, that it almost breaks my heart–perhaps I can love you anew, every day of my life, every morning and evening–Oh if you will let me, how happy I shall be!
Emily Dickinson wrote her poems with unusual capitalization and punctuation. Many renderings of her poetry get rid of these unique characteristics. My advice is to read her poems as close to the original as you can find, because it adds a rhythm and texture to her poems that’s lost if you make them look “normal.”
4. Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 – 1950)
I have often described Edna St. Vincent Millay to my friends as “a bisexual super-lover of the 1920s.” I could just as well call her a super-poet, because she earned a scholarship to Vassar by excelling in a poetry contest. Both in college at Vassar and in her bohemian life in Greenwich Village, New York, she was openly bisexual and nonmonogamous, taking lovers of both sexes. One of my favorite anecdotes about Millay (from the book Great Companions, pp. 90 – 91), is that she had a bad headache at a party and a psychoanalyst asked if he could try to help. He interviewed her for a while, and finally said, “I wonder if it has ever occurred to you that you might perhaps, although you are hardly conscious of it, have an occasional erotic impulse toward a person of your own sex?” She replied:
Oh, you mean I’m homosexual! Of course I am, and heterosexual too, but what’s that got to do with my headache?
Her nonmonogamy continued into her marriage, and her attitudes toward sexuality and fidelity are evident in her poems.
5. Andrea Gibson (1975 – )
Andrea Gibson is a contemporary lesbian poet who not only explores her sexuality and gender expression in her poetry, but all kinds of social justice causes, like school bullying and anti-racism. She performs her poems as a spoken-word artist, so her poetry is best experienced in video or audio form instead of written form.