A couple of years ago some women put together a program celebrating Audre Lorde and Pat Parker and I had the pleasure of doing some remembering out loud in front of about 1000 people. They were almost all women, those who knew the two writers mostly through their work. But Audre had been my friend…we weren’t besties or anything like that. She was an icon and I was a fledgling. And Audre took many fledglings under her wing so a lot of us have stories about Audre. That’s because she was accessible. She would show up at a reading or event or participate in a community project. She helped found Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, the first of its kind in the US with a multicultural group of women, but then continued to work with it not as a figure head but as someone who understood the importance of the words of all women of color.
My first personal encounter was in 1980 on a telephone. I used an early collection of her poems, “From a Land Where Other People Live,” as the physical model for my first self-publish collection of poetry, “The Lipstick Papers.” I needed to know how to lay things out and the type faces and how to make the poems flow. I lived with Audre’s book in my head and on my desk for months. When it was finally done and back from the printer I (despite severe hand trembling) mailed her a copy.
I came home one evening, turned on my telephone answering machine and there she was…Audre Lorde…mellifluous Caribbean voice booming out in my little flat! I was in shock! I listened to the message countless times. By maybe the 50th I actually heard the words she said—words of constructive criticism, because you could never not expect that; and encouragement because she was always about that for women of color.
Over the years we had a number of conversations both personal (and professional) about almost everything. Lesbian philanthropy, women studies, marijuana, clothes, ego, pornography, flood relief, standing up for yourself, writing poetry. Audre was audacious, fun-loving, and flirtatious. Deep!
I talked to Audre once about my personal conflict in continuing to use the term “African American” after the ‘60s were over. It felt like I was disappearing the Native American heritage of the women who’d raised me. My writing career grew out of the influences of Black Arts Movement and the Feminist Movement but who was I? Audre laughed and said: “I guess you’re just a colored girl.”
In the late 1980s Audre told me she didn’t like short stories or vampires but would read my manuscript. A couple of weeks later, sitting in her car one evening after some event she said she liked it; but she had one bit of criticism and instruction: my book was not short stories so I had to fix that. That’s how “The Gilda Stories” evolved into a novel. And damned if I didn’t find a quote in that same collection of her poetry to use at the beginning of the book: “At night sleep locks me into an echoless coffin/sometimes at noon I dream/there is nothing to fear…”
Maybe because she’s not around to leave me a phone message or for me to hang out with at an event I always turn to her books when I really want to think or be engaged. Whenever I’m invited to do a lecture or a speech I go to Audre’s collections of essays and look for a quote to get me started.
The last time I saw Audre she was in a hospital for one of countless treatments she underwent for the cancer she lived with for more than a decade. She and I were jurors for a NYC poetry contest and despite her health she said we had to meet face to face so I should come across town to the hospital. The first thing she said when I came was: ‘What is that delicious scent!’ I was wearing gardenia oil.
Sitting up in the bed in a colorful sweater, she wore thick glasses (not contacts as she usually did) and it reminded me of how she’d described herself in “ZAMI.” She was so big and so little at the same time. But she was still as sharply observant and thoughtful about those writers’ work as ever. She practically arm wrestled me to make sure the award went to the poet she wanted to win. I was both annoyed and admiring of such a strong spirit.
When we were done I leaned in to give her a hug goodbye and she said: “Umm that’s quite delicious stuff you’re wearing,” in that musical voice. So I took the small vial of gardenia oil out of my purse and put it on the bedside stand saying: “Okay, now you can have the scent of me all night.” That was the last time I saw Audre…maybe that was why she insisted I trek across town to meet in person. We got to hug each other goodbye and hold the scent of each other forever. On her birthday each year (2.18) I put on some gardenia oil, find a quote from her work and imagine her voice.