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  • NYS Writers Institute

Poetry Friday: Judy Grahn

"How to approach Me? First thing, humility;

secondly, service to whatever is alive."

-- Judy Grahn


by Judy Grahn

Black ocean, night sky a garment of flowers,

performing their dances in axial turns.

On earth, mass migration is the new normal,

rippling the robe of life, everyone on the run,

running, twisting from the great devour.

Leaving tent cities, boats capsized, animal eyes

of wonder at increase of trauma,

not knowing exactly how now to be wise.

On earth elite humans hide in their towers,

ordinary folks take a strange faith in guns,

as chemicals, petroleum, metal, fuel turmoil,

smaller-eyed beings fall silent of tongue.

Me, I am Ma, their eons My hours,

scope of My life full of minor turns.

I prevent suffering by making things formal,

more or less steady, more or less fun.

I prevent suffering by balancing, showers

with sunlight, laws of My nature to shelter the land.

Take only as much as you need, think of “ours”

and give back whenever you can.

Once in a while a disruption of powers—

usually collision of meteor runs—

this time, and to their own conscious horror,

this time the grandiose near-tiniest of ones

speeded up, unwrapped My robe of all flowers,

shut down their precious connections to being,

with inflated sense of importance and power,

they, who are tinier to Me, than microbes to them.

For three of My days they’ve been planters and plowers,

given the bounty to burst at their seams.

I wish them a solace in midst of their sorrows,

connections to whole-ness, the hearts of all beings.

No one is ever that far from My bower,

even if all I can offer is calm.

A bit of compassion this current cross-over,

No one is ever that far from My arms.

Me, I am Ma, the cup and the ladle;

fruits of all looms and turns of the sun.

Me, I am Ma, both snatcher and cradle.

My robe is eternal, never will be done.

How to approach Me? First thing, humility;

secondly, service to whatever is alive.

Unconditional love requires permeability;

surrender the ego, have faith. I’ll arrive.

-- In “Crossing” from Hanging On Our Own Bones (Red Hen Press)

Poet, activist, and scholar, Judy Grahn, PhD, is the author of five poetry collections, including Hanging On Our Own Bones (Arktoi Books, 2017), two drama and poetry collections, seven works of non-fiction, including A Simple Revolution (Aunt Lute, 2012), and Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds, (Beacon Press, 1983), one novel, Mundane’s World (Crossing Press, 1988), an edited collection on Gertrude Stein, a compilation of poetry, essays and a play, The Judy Grahn Reader (Aunt Lute, 2016), an antiracist poem with notes, Descent to the Roses of a Family.

Most recently she has published morality tales of an ancient goddess, Eruptions of Inanna: Justice, Gender, and Erotic Power, (Nightboat Books/Sinister Wisdom, 2021) and a collection of stories and essays, Touching Creatures, Touching Spirit: Living in a Sentient World (Red Hen Press, 2021).

For much of her career, Judy Grahn has served as a political force. Her writing energized the feminist, and lesbian-feminist movements in the U.S. and abroad and later the gay movement in the 1980s and 90s.

She has received more than 20 awards, including two Lambda Literary Awards and two American Book Awards. Commonality Institute supports her work and sponsors an artist/scholar residency in New Orleans. In 1999, Judy Grahn received her Ph.D. in Integral Studies with a concentration in Women’s Spirituality from the California Institute of Integral Studies where she is currently an Associated Distinguished Professor.


Our q&a with Judy Grahn was conducted by Moriah Hampton, PhD, an instructor in the University at Albany's Program in Writing and Critical Inquiry (WCI)

Congratulations on the publication of Touching Creatures Touching Spirit: Living in a Sentient World. How do you see this book fitting into the body of work you’ve published so far?

This book may seem to be off the rails as a continuation of my work, markedly different from all that has gone before, because it concentrates mostly on my own experiences with creatures and psychism, spirit visitations and precognition, with stories about how we interact with creatures, whether we save their lives, or they save ours, they help us, or we try to understand them.

Looking back at my own poetry, I see that creatures have always been there. ‘The Common Woman’ poems have a crow, a snake, a monkey, and a golden bird to help carry the imagery about “common women”. Crows show up again in the form of dykes in a bar—crow dykes in a crow bar-- (and the whole time in the late 1980s that I worked on my poetic play, The Queen of Swords, crow feathers lay in front of me everywhere I went—32 of them in all. My eco-novel, Mundane’s World, features a lion, a vulture, and plant characters. But all of that was fictional.

Touching Creatures is a culmination of my various real interactions with nonhuman life, directly documented and told. And also a result of my endless curiosity about spirit, is there intelligent life around us, does something outside us see us, love us, show up to reassure or instruct us? My answers, with very detailed and specific examples are yes, yes, sometimes, and yes.

What was it like for the book to be released during a time of social distancing, given its focus on “creature encounters”?

Spending more time at home gives us more chances for interactions with wild creatures who live in our neighborhoods, and more chances to closely observe the creatures who live in our homes. While some of my stories, gathered over decades, take place away from home, on a southern California ranch or an Andean or New Mexico road or an old Brahmin street in south India, most of them are around or in my place of living. What the encounters most needed was me giving them undivided attention and taking notes so I would remember. Asking myself, was that real? Did anyone else see the same thing?

Why do you think it’s important to write and to read about “encounters” with different “creatures” at this historical moment?

As we know, climate crises rage around us, failed crops for some, higher food prices for everyone, fires, smoke and lost towns here on the West coast, floods and hurricanes in other places. Loss of 75% of insect life. All the plants and creatures are going through this, including we humans whose behaviors are ramping it all up. So anything any of us can do toward helping each other stay conscious, face reality, make better decisions, and not obliterate our presence in a welter of grief and guilt, or denial—is good, right?

Readers tell me that my book makes them happy and more connected, which is what I wanted from it; I too feel stronger and more able to do what’s needed.

A greater understanding of creatures of all sizes as conscious beings, can make us very happy, appreciative, and less lonely. More in love with life on earth. I find it so much easier to make better decisions about the products I buy or the ways I garden in my little raised bed. What issues I support, such as banning chemical insecticides or buying cotton clothing, that used to seem like “should” are now more impassioned, like, “what do my friends need?” I know this sounds sentimental, and it is! I have more sentiment and less knee-jerk judgement toward fellow/sister beings. Over many years I have learned that nature does not set out to attack me. This doesn’t mean I would try to befriend a bear, let’s stay real. But in fact I don’t go into the habitat of bears, just as I don’t want them coming into my habitat. What do you think prevents us from attuning to these “encounters” more often?

Our ideas, what we have been taught and see others doing. The erroneous idea that nature was “given to us” as a “resource” so all of life is just for us, us, us. From this childishly self-centered place we have divided creatures into categories: “food products” and “pets” and “pests,” and then either “beautiful” or “ugly”. Fortunately, these ideas are changing, though not fast enough. We need to change how we relate to other beings, and how we understand them.

Another block that prevents connection, one that is related to the materialism I just described, is the idea that psychic and other metaphysical experiences are “crazy” or “demonic.” So in fear, we reject them even when they are clearly happening to us. But if creatures also have these experiences and use some innate psychic capacity in connecting with us, then such a shared consciousness is a part of nature. My story about the dragonfly sending me a bolt of love, for instance, illustrates this. Because the second part of the title is “Touching Spirit” I dove right into revealing certain metaphysical events in my own life, wanting to encourage others to recognize when such things happen to them, and be bold enough to tell their stories. Together, through encouragement, we can influence (as well as learning from) scientists, economists, city-planners, farmers, and other leaders to think and act more relationally.

In what ways has your own life been impacted by recognizing connections with other “creatures”?

So much of my work has been done for others, for community, for cultural change, and answering my desire for my work to be “of use” to other people. This one is for me! This one is for me in love with creature life and drawn into some of the mysteries; writing it was challenging in ways but also made me very happy. I’m much more careful not to accidentally kill nonhuman beings, pay attention to what I buy, eat, and support.

Several things I learned by writing up the encounters in Touching Creatures really jarred me; jumped me into a whole different understanding of life on earth. Something more akin to the open-hearted approach of my character Clovis, an earlier partial version of myself. (But note I have not myself been held in a mental hospital, though I’ve been close with people who have). As I wrote up the true stories of encounters with both spirit and creature-minds I realized this is a book about more than interesting true stories; it’s also about the nature of consciousness in the world. And that is all about mystery, truth-telling, feeling welcome and at home on earth, and some questions not yet answered.

For those interested in reading more about “creature encounters” and related ideas, what books would you recommend?

Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan, on microbes, What Is Life? Rupert Sheldrake and Sally Carrighar on animal behavior. Donna Haraway and David Abram,more philosophical. Jane Goodall on wild chimpanzees. For experiential accounts of psychism and pets, Karen Anderson.

VIDEO: Why We Need Commonality Now with Judy Grahn

VIDEO: Ani DiFranco reads Judy Grahn's poem "Detroit Annie"


Judy Grahn's books, including Touching Creatures Touching Spirit and the sampling shown below, are available at the local, independent Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza:



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