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Julie R. Enszer

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Gone But Not Forgotten: The Afterlife of Lesbian-Feminist Chapbooks

Posted: 03/ 5/2012 6:45 pm

Chapbooks, literally cheap books, are popular among poets. Chapbooks are often a poet's first book, although established poets often publish chapbooks with a small corpus of work. Some publishers create finely crafted chapbooks using a letterpress; others assemble equally delightful chapbooks inexpensively using a desktop computer and printer. Poet/publishers Kristy Bowen of dancing girl press and Ron Mohring of Seven Kitchens Press make gorgeous handmade, handsewn chapbooks with limited-print runs.

But what happens when chapbooks go out of print? Yes, copies are held by collectors, libraries, and often the poet herself, but some chapbooks need an afterlife -- a new way to reach readers. For this reason, the Lesbian Poetry Archive reissues chapbooks by lesbian-feminist poets from the 1970s and 1980s as e-books.

The second chapbook in the e-book series at the Lesbian Poetry Archive is by Stephania Byrd. 25 Years of Malcontent and A Distant Footstep on the Plain, the two chapbooks by Byrd in the new e-book, are wonderful collections of poetry that situate Byrd as a vibrant American poet worthy of more attention.

There are many excellent poems in these two chapbooks. Byrd's poetic voice, grounded in personal experience and amplified through the craft of poetry and the intention of poetry to transform the personal into the communal, theorizes using metaphor, imagery, and allusion. Many poems in the collection will delight readers, but "The Earth's Poor Relations" is especially timely as Americans grapple with increased economic separation between the very rich and the rest, popularly described as the 99 percent.

Byrd opens "The Earth's Poor Relations" with these lines:

All these maladjustment problems

add up

to one thing

work will get you money

but I seems

to find

that this

this receipt

of pay

isn't enough

After this opening, Byrd notes that there isn't enough money; "we always feudin" about small amounts of money that are "totally unrelated" when the "need for not 10's or 20's / but thousands." Through these lines, Byrd excavates the conflicts that emerge about money. Another voice reminds the speaker of the poem about "how cousin allie / made do on $40 / a month," which she refutes as being "40 or more years ago." The poem continues referencing "Andrew Young or Cicely Tyson/ they making baskets of dough, / even millions." While many of Byrd's poems explore the tension between white people and African Americans, here she excavates class conflicts within the African-American community, demonstrating how these conflicts are both interracial and intraracial.

"The Earth's Poor Relations" concludes with this stanza:

just to give niggers like me

the chance to print up my own words

but the folks don't know that

you gots to pay somebody

just to learn to ask right or

you gots to screw and I ain't talking messing

it's about your whole body and mind

and I don't whore for art or money

and I don't like giving them any more

than I have to to survive

but some how the fights

they break out and we cry

the animals howl along in tune

and my mind can only reach towards

thousands because

the millions would cost us too much

Questions of scale are central to this poem, from the scale of Byrd's particular location to the Earth overall, from the question of $40 a month 40 years ago or $400 a month today, from "reaching towards / thousands" or "the millions," the question is what the scale, or register, necessary to understand these economic questions might be. This example demonstrates how A Distant Footstep profiles a maturing poet exploring the power of lyricism and craft -- and how timely these poems are.

The Lesbian Poetry Archive is pleased to publish a new electronic edition of Byrd's work combining both chapbooks into a single ebook. Download Stephania Byrd's two chapbooks, and join me in finding delightful provocation, extraordinary craft, and sublime reflections on race and sexuality in her poems.