I Call Your Name Whenever I Can: The Letters of Pat Parker and Audre Lorde
"Beware Feeling You’re Not Good Enough to Deserve It"
Poets and activists Pat Parker and Audre Lorde first met in 1969 and began exchanging letters five later, a correspondence which continued until the year before Parker’s death. While their letters highlight, as Mecca Jamilah Sullivan writes in the introduction to Sister Love: The Letters of Audre Lorde and Pat Parker 1974-1989, “the building of a black feminist literary politics,” they also brim with personal support, generosity, and advice.
November 13, 1985
I do hope you are sitting so the shock doesn’t boil you over. I received a request from Frances Phillips to read with you in February at the Women’s Building.(1) I am always pleased to read with you and I look forward to seeing you. This letter is an informal formal invitation to you to come and stay with me and my family while you are in the area. If you don’t give me too hard a time when you come, I’ll even let you loose on my word processor.
I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to see you while I was in New York, but I felt your vibes, honey. Did Frances go with you? I called her several times and never got an answer, so I thought maybe she decided to hit the road with you for a change.
The tour was probably one of the best things that could have happened to me. I had returned from Europe feeling really down and egoless. I saw a copy of Judy Grahn’s book and discovered I wasn’t a lesbian poet. That hurt.(2) I still haven’t been able to resolve how I’m going to deal with Judy from this point. I really don’t understand what that was about. It’s so contradictory to everything we’ve talked about and done in the past in regards to competition and divisiveness among women poets. In any case, I was feeling low.
Hitting the road turned that around for me. I was very pleasantly surprised by the response of audiences everywhere I went. I was ready to pack up and move to Boston and Manhattan. (That is a joke.) It did make me realize that there are still people out there who believe in me and my work.
So then I got angry. I decided that the way to prevent people from dismissing me and what I’m doing is to do so much more of it that it’s impossible for them to get away with it.
Obviously I didn’t reach this great insight right away. I took all sorts of other diversions. I started some seriously heavy drinking, hanging out in bars and had an affair. I managed to come out of this with my relationship with Marty still intact, bruised like hell, but intact.
Started seeing a therapist with Marty and individually and it’s proved to be quite helpful despite my resistance. It’s hard for us strong Black women types to admit we’re fucking falling apart at the seams as you must well know. Out of all this madness, and I really do believe I was mad, I’ve come to some decisions that are as scary as hell, but at the same time are exciting.
I informed the women at the Health Center that I am leaving effective January 1st.(3) I am going to come home to my machine and do what I’ve always wanted. Write. I’ve talked this over and over with Marty and she is being absolutely wonderful and supportive. She’s helping me compile a mailing list to try and get readings to supplement my income and we’ve worked out a budget and looked at where we can cut back and cut out and off to make it, so that the pressure of earning money isn’t so great that I have to spend all my time hustling gigs and still not get the writing done.
I’m reading everything I can find in the library about starting a small business and taxes, and agents and markets. I would be really appreciative if you could tell me everything you think I need to know around any of these issues and if you think of something I haven’t mentioned, please tell me.
It means I’ll have to give up things like my weekly lobster or crab and I definitely can’t afford to hang out in the bars and drink, but it also means I get to take that shot. I’ve never had the opportunity to write full time and that has me jumping up and down.
Given how fast I usually work when I write, I don’t see any reason why I can’t do a novel in a year as well as a book of poems. It means I finally get to see how good I really am or how bad.
Right now, I’m so pumped up from the excitement that my confidence is soaring, but still have the other voice that says “what if?” Working full time at the Health Center has always been a built-in excuse for not producing. If I fall on my face, I’m not real sure how I’ll handle it. Promoting myself has never been one of my strong points, and I know I’ll have to do a certain amount of it to make this work. I can’t be dependent on Marty for too long.
I know you know, but I’ll say it anyway. I’m going to need your help.
1. The Women’s Building in San Francisco, founded in 1971, is a community space that hosts many cultural and arts events.
2. Parker refers to Judy Grahn’s The Highest Apple, a collection of essays about lesbian poets.
3. Parker worked as an administrator at the Oakland Feminist Women’s Health Center.
December 6, 1985
I sit in this place to write you, wanting to do it in my own hand but wanting also the clear precisions of this machine that becomes like an excising filter, sharp, inexorable. I love the way colored girls always get the message—your call, after this letter was framed and ready to jump out my eyes onto some page. Between its intent and conception after receiving yours, and the present now, has been, as I told you, difficult days for me. But I am strong and feisty and fighting all the way. Did a benefit reading with Cheryl Clarke for a new lesbian magazine the students at Hunter are starting for the University as a whole and it gave me an enormous charge to feel what such an event could mean just in terms of change and the world’s story and us, etc. and looking at their wonderful young faces?(4) I felt very blessed to be who I am and where I was and a part of it all.
I have always loved you, Pat, and wanted for you those things you wanted deeply for yourself. Do not think me presumptuous—from the first time I met you in 1970 I knew that included your writing. I applaud your decision. I support you with my whole heart and extend myself to you in whatever way I can make this more possible for you. I hope you know by now I call your name whenever I can and will continue to do so. But you’re right, you don’t want to tie yourself up with so many gigs you don’t have good solid time to stare at the walls and read the words stitched into the cracks between the nail holes.
Frances was still in Vermont when you were here and I was in NZ. She may be visiting too when I come up to SF in February, in which case we’ll want a nice sound-proofed room with a big bed. Otherwise I will be real pleased to stay with you and Marty—I’ve been wanting to feel you and your family.
When I did not receive an answer to my letter last spring, I took a long and painful look at the 15 years we have known each other and decided that I had to accept the fact that we would never have the openness of friendship I always thought could be possible being the two strong Black women we are, with all our differences and samenesses. Then your card from Nairobi,(5) and I thought once again maybe when I’m out there next spring Pat and I will sit down once and for all and look at why we were not more available to each other all these years. I was overjoyed to get your letter and what it means in your life. There are conversations we need to have, Pat, each for her own clarity, and neither one of us has forever.
Things you must beware of right now—
A year seems like a lot of time now at this end—it isn’t. It took me three years to reclaim my full flow. Don’t lose your sense of urgency on the one hand, on the other, don’t be too hard on yourself—or expect too much.
Beware the terror of not producing.
Beware the urge to justify your decision.
Watch out for the kitchen sink and the plumbing and that painting that always needed being done. But remember the body needs to create too.
Beware feeling you’re not good enough to deserve it.
Beware feeling you’re too good to need it.
Beware all the hatred you’ve stored up inside you, and the locks on your tender places.
Frances and I leave for Switzerland 12/14. If you write to me the address is:
Prof. Audre Lorde Lukas Klinik
I’ll be there certainly until the 7th, probably until the 12th. I’d love to hear from you, and we will talk then. May this coming new year be a rich and fruitful one for you, Pat, and for those you love.
In the hand of Afrekete,
4. The Olivetree Review started in 1982 and continues to publish today.
5. Parker went to Nairobi in 1985 as a part of women’s delegation to raise awareness about domestic violence; she read her poem “Womanslaughter.”
February 16, 1986
I wanted to get this letter off to you while you and my thoughts are still fresh in my mind. Too often in the past, I have put letter writing off, because I thought whatever free time I had had to go to those survival things and if any energy left over would go to writing. However, it does occur to me that letter writing is both a survival thing and writing, plus it is so important to me to continue our conversation.
I can’t ever remember having enjoyed the presence of anyone so much in my home. You really are a bright light and are perhaps the best person in the world for shaking me out of my propensity for laziness and self-pity. Do you think there’s anyway to bottle you so one can simply ingest you when necessary, or is there any way to speed up your move to the West.
I made an assumption here that your move will be to Northern California. You wouldn’t move to Los Angeles or heaven forbid San Diego? AH!!!
Marty was totally impressed with you. She hadn’t mentioned it to me before your arrival, but she was a little scared. Somehow, I had never mentioned to her that Frances was white and she was afraid you would be disapproving of either her or our relationship because she is white. So when she walked into the house and was greeted by your radiant pearly whites she was totally won over.
In the past we have had quite a bit of “black nationalist” rhetoric flowing through here. I was very glad to hear your last poem, and where the hell is my copy?
I went out and found Luisah Teish’s book.(6) Absolutely delightful. Also took your advice and promptly send off for a subscription to “Coda.”(7) It’s obvious to me that I have to turn over a certain amount of money during this year or I will mind fuck myself to death. So, obviously, I am extremely grateful to you for including me in your reading. You can’t imagine how good it felt to give Marty money the night after the reading. I know on one hand that the demand is not there from Marty, but I am such a proud bitch and so used to paying my own way. I also know if I can contribute to this household in some way no matter how small, it will help thwart off some of that self-doubt that us strong Black amazons supposedly don’t have, but as we know sits on the right shoulder constantly talking shit.
Girlfriend, your departure from this state was right on time. We have been hit by a storm that is unbelievable. Had it happened while you were here, we could have taken a row boat to our reading. Flash floods, mud slides, people being evacuated from their homes, power outages for hours and in some cases days, because the repair crews can’t get in to fix the lines. Intense!
We had to bring the dogs in for fear of them being washed away.
I’m going to enclose a copy of your poem with this letter.(8) Know that it will probably change, and when it does, I’ll send you the revisions. Please don’t be too embarrassed, it really was done out of love.
Going to close this up. Please take care of yourself and give my love to Frances. I look forward to seeing her.
P.S. How do you cook beets?
6. Luisah Teish’s book Jambalaya: The Natural Woman’s Book of Personal Charms and Natural Rituals originally published in 1985.
7. Coda: Poets & Writers Newsletter was published by Poets & Writers, Inc., in New York. In September/October 1980, the newsletter featured articles on women’s publishing.
8. Parker included a draft of her poem “For Audre” in the letter.
From Sister Love: The Letters of Audre Lorde and Pat Parker 1974-1989, ed. Julie R. Enszer. Used with permission of Sinister Wisdom. Letters of Pat Parker copyright © 2018 by Anastasia Dunham-Parker-Brady. Letters of Audre Lorde copyright © 2018 by the Audre Lorde Estate. All rights reserved.