A portrait of lesbian poet Heather McPherson (1942 – 2017)
In Ireland I grew up on the benefit, but I wasn’t allowed to discuss that. When I was a year and a half, I lived with my parents and older brother in a house my parents had recently bought. My dad ran a successful painting and decorating company and my mum had just given up her job at an electrical shop, where she had worked since she left school as a teenager. Then my dad had a car accident and became a quadriplegic, disabled from the neck down. He spent the next six months in Dublin while we were in West Cork. When I was nearly five, we moved into a council house, a bungalow. My parents still live there. Our two-storey inaccessible house became the property of the council in some exchange I do not understand. We were sent to school on the bus with all the other children from council houses.
Years later I came across newspaper clippings from the time my dad was in hospital. His friends organised a fundraiser for us. Inside a toy post office, I found food stamps, scribbled all over. My mother gave them to me to play with rather than face the shame of claiming them. Our neighbour worked for a charity that organised Christmas hampers for families in need and tried for years to give my mother one. I only find, or am told, snippets. My dad recounts comedic tales about his time in hospital, the same practised stories. My brother and I grew up working class, and for my parents that is the greatest shame, and our greatest silence.
In 2017, I started at PhD on lesbian poetry from Ireland and New Zealand at the University of Otago in Dunedin after years of seasonal work, living in the outback of Australia and the damp corners of Cork and Dunedin, working everywhere from K-Mart to the bank. In one meeting with my supervisors, Jacob Edmond and Emma Neale, I told them that Mary Dorcey was the first out lesbian poet to be published in Ireland. Emma told me that Heather McPherson, with the release of A Figurehead: A Face, was the first out lesbian in Aotearoa/New Zealand to publish a poetry collection, also in 1982. Emma lent me the anthology Yellow Pencils: Contemporary Poetry by New Zealand Women edited by Lydia Wevers, published the year I was born, 1988.
& hold hands praising
dry & bloody bodies
& stroking lately
– from “remembering early”
Every day that I worked on Heather’s poetry, I played a sound recording of Heather from 1982 reading and talking on Lauris Edmond’s show A Poets Choice, digitised by the Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision. I met with Judith Collard to discuss an article she had written on the Spiral Collective. She led me to Bridie Lonie who gave me copies of the Spiral magazine and a poem typed by Heather. Bridie then led me to Marian Evans. In June this year, Spiral launched the eChapbook i do not cede, a collection of new poems by Heather McPherson.
I am a lesbian by choice. I do not believe I was born this way. Connecting lesbianism to biology allows for people to accept queerness only on the basis that that queerness is something that can’t be helped
Marian Evans, Biz Hayman and I formed a Spiral collective to publish i do not cede. The process is collective. For every publication, a new Spiral forms to continue the work of Spirals gone before. Marian, Biz and I discussed not only the poems in i do not cede but the language surrounding it. What, for example, are we three as a collective? Women, lesbian, queer? We made choices.
I am a lesbian by choice. I do not believe I was born this way. Connecting lesbianism to biology allows for people to accept queerness only on the basis that that queerness is something that can’t be helped. This belief positions queerness as inherent, as a trait and therefore insinuates that nobody would willingly choose a queer life. I choose to be a lesbian every day through the endless daily moments when I have to correct assumptions about my life, or pronouns, or trying and failing to explain chosen family arrangements. Language fails every day.
haven’t you got a tongue
in your head
O yes O yes
a tongue in my head
– from “pussy got your tongue”
I was also drawn to Heather’s work because of her open discussion around class. She began and ended her life on the benefit. I find liberation in Heather’s work, in her class shamelessness. She opened a space in my creative work where I could examine my troubled relationship to class, and how writing about it might cause further shame and harm to my parents. Like my dad’s stories, Heather’s poems are a result of a practice, a feminist reorientation, a raised consciousness.
are you us
– from “who is this”
Fostering a collective life was part of the philosophy of community participation and activism that was central to Heather’s life, to Spiral, and The Women’s Gallery. Through reading Heather’s work and working with Spiral, I have thought a lot about my expectations of community. I was, and am, a stereotypical ‘townie.’ In Cork, this means someone not from the city, but also not from the country, someone liminal to urban and rural space. I grew up in a small community, in Bandon. I knew and loved my neighbours, I spent weekends with my aunt and grandad, I started working at 15 and worked with all ages and people in the local supermarkets and pubs. At 15, I also met my closest friends. We were wild and fearless and loud and drunk. I didn’t understand until I left Ireland in 2011, that I was a ‘community’ minded person. Working with Marian and Biz to create something beautiful to capture Heather’s work and celebrate what would have been her 80th birthday was priceless. The fact this is all happening after Heather died is often devastating.
and stars kept trying to pin back night’s
dimensions and we to pull out the pins
and let expansions fly
– from “crossings in the southern hemisphere”
Heather’s sexualised language eroticises the everyday, making the domestic not a constrained place but a place for sex and joy.
a rose-wet cave between warm thighs
the lotus in the lilypond a sun’s egg
throb inside cupped hands –
– from “of course, she says, the vagina might be also”
I learnt dykeness from Heather as she had from Gertrude Stein, Ursula Bethell, Adrienne Rich, and others. Lesbianism functions as its own culture within the broader community of queerness. Queerness has undergone swathes of social change and is constantly challenged from within and without. Place within the lesbian community is often dictated by the young, the outspoken.
Feminism ignited a fear of the sexy erotic power of feminist poetry …The fear of the red fist of lesbianism, the fist that might dissuade wives from their husbands
At one time in Aotearoa, Heather and her friends and lovers were those radicals, changing the face of literature and art through feminism. Some of these women have become homeless in the poetic tradition, just as some lesbians have become homeless in the tradition of pride. Lesbians are often those who the Pride movement is ashamed of because lesbianism is a herstory fraught with horizontal oppressions. Heather writes from the intersection of multiple social locations, as she was known to identify as a lesbian single mother on social welfare. Her poetry strives to show the reader that privilege exists and is unequally distributed or disavowed. Her feelings of societal and poetic displacement illuminate creative passageways that open wounds on the page so that previously unimagined space becomes possible.
you shake out
of sites & times
– from “sister, when you pick”
Second wave feminism drove the movement of the personal as political, a movement concerned with equal rights, especially equal pay. The mantra that ‘the personal is political’ is a revolt against the idea that the domestic environment is not important, that domestic work or work in the home is not work. Poets in particular seized on this idea to promote the area of so-called domestic poetry, poetry concerned with the everyday, the daily lives of women which had largely gone ignored or was a source of embarrassment in the literary community.
In New Zealand, Heather McPherson was one of the foremothers of women’s poetry, especially lesbian women. Feminism ignited a fear of the sexy erotic power of feminist poetry and therefore women, especially lesbian woman. The fear of the red fist of lesbianism, the fist that might dissuade wives from their husbands. This fear projected lesbian women as deviants with ample sexual prowess, to reference Alison Bechdel, they were dykes to watch out for. Heather writes about childhood sexual abuse and the demons that haunt the private and public space of a young woman’s life. I keep thinking about the phrase ‘in harm’s way,’ how all the circumstances of life mean that some of us are more often in harm’s way.
he loiters under the trees
half-bent & shadowy
looking & waiting for me
– from “monster”
Yet, when I think about Heather, I think of lovers. Of embrace. Of all forms of love and desire. I think of formative relationships. I learnt love in a rural small town. Love has dictated the path of my life. I’ve left and returned to New Zealand because of lovers. I’ve allowed love to be the reason behind many decisions in my life and I have no regrets about that. Love was the entire reason I did a PhD. Love was the reason I fell for Heather’s poetry. Love is the reason I’m writing this. The reason I am writing.
In Ōtepoti and Aotearoa, being loud about being common is mortifying. Deadening. Talking about class is frowned upon because it’s awkward for the majority. I thought I’d seen the back of small-town prides, like keeping up appearances. And I read somewhere that love is the opposite of shame. So, I write with love about things thought shameful because I don’t want the story to be told without me and without love.
All poems quoted in this article are from Heather McPherson’s I Do Not Cede (Spiral, Kindle Edition), available to buy now as a genuine bargain online.
Emer’s story was commissioned by Talia Marshall, who is guest editor at ReadingRoom this week. Tomorrow: Becky Manawatu on Jacqui Sturm