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  • Catherine Kelly

(ARCHIVE FEVER) Martha Shelley and digital traces of Lesbiana - part 1

In the inaugural Archive Fever piece, Catherine Kelly encounters Martha Shelley's 1974 poetry collection Crossing the DMZ, reading it as a text embedded in the literary networks, autonomous social centres and small press culture of a lesbian literary and activist scene. Rereading poetry that can 'record, fantasise and polemicise with the speed and ease of a struck match', Kelly also highlights the labour and frustrations of delving into archives in danger of disappearing under the pressure of large internet retail platforms.

If you want to read the poetry of the Gay Liberation Front co-founder, Martha Shelley, you have a few options. You could go to an archive (although you might have to get on a plane). You could scavenge the odd poem from digitised copies of queer magazines from the ‘60s and ‘70s, like The Ladder, and Come Out! You could try contacting Shelley directly – these days she writes frequently on her blog and responds to comments. Or you could do what I did, and find a copy of her 1974 collection, Crossing the DMZ, while trawling through the ‘Lesbiana’ tag on the website of Bolerium Books, a San Francisco bookshop specialising in “rare and out of print books, posters and ephemera on social movements.’ Borrowing from ‘Americana’, Lesbiana is a term for literature, artifacts and ephemera relating in some way to lesbian life. This is not necessarily material created by lesbians – many of the 1950s and ‘60s pulp novels for sale were written by and for straight men – but rather objects that have played some role in the collective lives and imaginations of lesbians, particularly late twentieth century North American lesbians. Among the roughly six thousand items tagged as ‘Lesbiana’ on Bolerium Books’s website are a Gay Softball League membership card from 1990, a 1962 lesbian pulp novel masquerading as a medical case study and the entire archive of the San Francisco leatherdyke scene photographer Shelby Cohen. The product description for Cohen’s archive describes her, appropriately, as “overlooked”, but this seems unnecessary. Aside from a couple of well-known names like Winterson, or the dykes of the modernist canon like H.D., Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein (but not Woolf, who is fodder for more mainstream antiquarians), this term could apply to every writer whose work is listed in this catalogue. Lesbiana is by definition overlooked, marginal, ephemeral. This is where you’ll find forgotten lesbian classics like Gale Wilhelm’s We Too Are Drifting, along with posters advertising readings by poets who seem to have left no other trace, in bookshops that have long since folded. Unlike other categories of rare books, where an author’s signature or a first edition can double or triple the asking price, traders in Lesbiana often don’t bother to mention if a copy is signed, or from a first print run. In this way I’ve accidentally ended up with many volumes of literary Lesbiana that carry handwritten dedications by the author, often to other writers – Maricla Moyano’s Beginning Book, (“For Peter and Eleanor Taylor, with love from Maricla”) Bertha Harris’s Confessions of Cherubino (to Gil and Chris and Vicky with much love, Bertha), Shelley’s Lovers and Mothers (To Eric with thanks for a lovely evening, Martha Shelley). Since copies of these small press publications are scarce; each copy passes through many hands and bears the traces of these encounters. These are not names that raise prices, but they do map friendships and collaborations that have faded from the literary record.

A picture of Oakland Women's Press Collective over a press. From left, Wendy Cadden, Anita, Judy Grahn, Martha Shelley, Felicia, and Willyce Kim.
Members of the Women's Press Collective, Martha Shelley is third from the right.

Among these names, Shelley’s is less obscure. She continues to be interviewed about her role in the Gay Liberation Front, and because she’s a living witness to that most mythologised moment in US queer history, the Stonewall Riots. For Shelley, the riots couldn’t have come at a better time. Weeks before, in June 1969, she had quit her secretarial job at Barnard College and moved to the East Village in Manhattan to work part time as a type setter and devote herself to political activism. In the immediate aftermath of the riots, she had the time, skills and experience necessary to help found the Gay Liberation Front, and its newspaper, Come Out!, which she wrote for, type-set and distributed in bars and on street corners. Shelley was part of a new guard of politicised queers who had grown weary of the homophobia of the New Left and the liberalism of gay civil rights groups like the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) and the Mattachine Society. In ‘Gay is Good’, a manifesto published in the underground newspaper, Rat , – and reprinted in Crossing the DMZ – she announced the new queer radicalism: “Look out, straights. Here comes the Gay Liberation Front, springing up like warts all over the bland face of Amerika, causing shudders of indigestion in the delicately balanced bowels of the Movement.” This announcement was directed as much at Rat itself as its readers: Shelley was part of a collective of women, including members of WITCH (the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) who staged a feminist takeover of the formerly male-dominated newspaper in 1970.

Stonewall may have helped to set queer liberation on a more radical path, but Shelley was already part of an existing lesbian movement that had been humming in the background for more than a decade – holding meetings, mailing newsletters, recording police harassment. She had been involved with DOB, since 1967, acting at times as aspokesperson in radio interviews about lesbian issues. In fact, she owed her name to DOB. Since the activities of DOB were heavily surveilled by the FBI, older members of the group advised her to avoid using her birth name, Martha Altman. ‘Shelley’ was anickname given by a high school girlfriend, she recalled later, “because I wrote slushy poetry to her that reminded her of Percy Shelley.” In the late 1960s and early 1970s, she published under this name – essays and poetry in DOB’s literary magazine, the Ladder, as well as in Come Out! and Rat. Over time, this pseudonym became her ‘real’ name, as she sloughed off protective anonymity and let poetry and political work absorb her life. In an early poem in the Ladder, ‘Office Hours’, she marks the frictions between the tedium of her working life and the propulsive desires – political and sexual – that animate her life as a lesbian activist:

The papers pass beneath my hands The bleak fans Labor to unwind the August air In smoky streams Tapping of a typist's keys Tapping of a woman's heels And a flash-by-silk blouse. And in my ears the beating of insensate blood

This tension is more explicit in Crossing the DMZ, published by the Women’s Press Collective, in which she writes:

the aunts i hadn’t seen in seven years asked me what i did to live; i knew they meant for career, for money; but i said “to live – i am a revolutionary.”

It’s clear that by the time the later poems in Crossing the DMZ were composed, Shelley had taken the advice of her friend, the poet Marge Piercy, to “cut the literary crap” and write more openly about her life as a lesbian, a feminist and an anti-war revolutionary.

Something is missing from the history of a social movement if its poetry is too hard to come by. Women’s liberation and queer liberation were, to paraphrase the title of a Jan Clausen book, movements of poets. Shelley and her peers at the Women’s Press Collective – including Judy Grahn, Willyce Kim and Pat Parker – wrote poems that seem to record, fantasise and polemicise with the speed and ease of a struck match. Shelley’s poetry provides her with a space in which to live differently – to hold the binding threads of waged work and domestic life at bay, at least for another week or another line. The back cover of Crossing the DMZ reads “Martha Shelley is a certified public hitch hiker. She wrote these poems as an alternative to the draft.” These lines play with the real routes that Shelley’s generation took to avoid dying in Vietnam: escaping to Canada or Mexico, getting married, enrolling in university, claiming that your work was too essential to abandon, risking honesty about your sexuality or your political allegiances. Against work, marriage, institutional education and institutional pathologisation, Crossing the DMZ proposes drifting poetic and political practice as its own kind of education, its own worthwhile way of life. Many of the poems in Crossing the DMZ feel like they were written on the move, on the way to somewhere else – jotted down in subway cars after work, in phone booths along a highway, while reading a letter from a comrade in Hanoi, or in moments of revolutionary optimism. Hers is a poetics of forward momentum, of short, tripping lines that, as she writes in ‘Transcontinental Breakdown’, carry you,

across another timezone, Set your watch back one stop check the oil stick wipe the bugs off.

‘Transcontinental Breakdown’ is part of a series of poems called ‘Hitch hiking’, in which Shelley charts her travels across the US, ending – for a while – in Oakland at the Women’s Press Collective.The nervy rhythms of these poems hinge on moments of recognition and misrecognition, recording encounters with soldiers, draft dodgers, relatives and strangers. In a section called ‘Pacific Coast Maneuvers’, two young lesbians are stopped by a state trooper near a Californian military airfield, who is “lonely”, and strikes up a conversation:

I asked him then “What kind of golden grass is this?” “The dry kind,” he said. “We don’t get rain but we get arsonists. The hills are burning – you can smell the smoke. Be careful, ladies we get real queer folk round here.” He drove away.

Other encounters with police in Shelley’s poetry are more threatening, but here the two hitch hikers take pleasure in the misguided warnings that signal their ability to move undetected in a burning landscape of outcasts, arsonists and queers. It may seem dismissive to call Shelley’s poetry ‘Lesbiana’, as if its sole quality is lesbian-ness, or as if it falls among badges, posters and other objects on the scrap heap of social movement history-turned-kitsch. But to me this term is not a relegation or a complaint that her work has failed to gain her a serious literary reputation. Instead, it’s a word that deliberately puts her as one among many; in a tangled map of queer life and queer writing. It makes visible the networks that allowed her to move relatively freely across the United States. For Shelley, hitchhiking involved not just relying on strangers to carry you from place to place but also turning up unannounced at a women’s centre or a feminist bookshop in search of a bed (or a floor) for the night. That this was possible is testament to the communal structures of the women’s movement in the 1970s – almost none of these spaces exist anymore. It’s the more ephemeral forms of Lesbiana – resource books like Ginny Vida’s Our Right to Love, newsletters like Carol Seajay’s Feminist Bookstore News, flyers for fundraisers, switchboards, community groups – that tell the story of the material structures that allowed women like Shelley to devote much of their lives to writing, publishing and organising. But even in the early 1970s, many of these institutions contained fissures of paranoia, political tensions and financial precarity. By the time Crossing the DMZ reprinted poems from Come Out! and the Ladder, the Daughters of Bilitis, and the Gay Liberation Front – along with its feminist splinter group, the Lavender Menace – had fallen apart. You might find a home in the movement, but you had to be ready to pack your bags and move on.

A page from Ginny Vida's 'Our Right to Love: A Lesbian Resource Book' (1978)
Our Right to Love: A Lesbian Resource Book (1978)

In Oakland, Shelley traded her part time, paid type-setting job for an unpaid, full time one at the Women’s Press Collective, in return for a room in the lesbian separatist house of the poet Judy Grahn. In a photo taken for Dyke magazine, Shelley stands with Grahn and other members of the collective, including Willyce Kim, next to the hulking Gestetner mimeograph machine that they operated by hand. The women who worked in the adjoining bookshop recalled a permanent wafting smell of coloured ink. Remembering these years, Grahn writes in her memoir, A Simple Revolution,

we had a ferocious commitment to each other, and we made some kinds of alliances with feminists of every description. We had built an architecture of love – erotic, loyal, and sometimes contentious, but more often than not enabling us to set aside our differences for a while.

Shelley immersed herself in the gruelling, intimate and at times ecstatic work of the press. In her poem, ‘Installing a Fan at the Women’s Press Collective’, she describes this work:

Cutting a hole to build in a fan to move out the air of the pressroom. Each task is the first time and now, I told a friend if men jail me I can break out. They have and you did, she said.

So who could resist scanning shelves, online catalogues and finding aids for traces of this energy and this architecture? It’s one way to see the contours of a vast, vibrant lesbian literary ecosystem, evidence of the “ferocious commitment” that Grahn describes. There are questions, though, about what it means for the history of Lesbiana that so much of it is only available through the dubious digital spaces of antiquarian booksellers, or through the odd copy that makes its way onto Amazon or Amazon-fronts like Abebooks. Two rare copies of The Lesbian Estate by the brilliant, self-described “card-carrying anarchafeminist” poet Lynn Lonidier are currently available on Amazon for more than $900 each. Who is the audience for these extravagantly priced collector’s items, written by economically and socially marginalised poets like Lonidier? These are the very corporations that played a large role in destroying the remaining alternative print institutions in the 1990s - small lesbian presses, women’s bookshops – and there is something ghoulish, if unsurprising, about their ability to profit off the ghostly traces of twentieth century lesbian literary cultures. In the next part of this essay, I’ll talk about strategies of democratising and preserving Lesbiana in other digital spaces. In the meantime, you can read my copy of Crossing the DMZ, digitised and uploaded at the Lesbian Poetry Archive.

A page from Lynn Lonidier's 'P O T R E E' (1967)


Text: Catherine Kelly

Images: Catherine Kelly

Published: 12/4/22


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