Judy Grahn feature image

Judy Grahn

Lesbian poetry and working-class literature

Susan Padezanin
English 6923: Working-Class Literature
Fall 2003


At a young nine years old, Judy Grahn knew she was a poet, but took sixteen years to act on that realization. It was at age twenty-five, after emerging from a coma after a serious illness, that she admitted her life's purpose. She was determined not to let anything keep her from becoming the artist she envisioned herself to be. This realization was due in part to the horrible treatment she received (beatings and unemployment) after being dismissed from the Air Force for being a self-admitted lesbian--another motivation to succeed at all costs. But Grahn is more than just a writer/poet, she is a feminist activist and the founder of the modern day lesbian movement.

Discussion of author's work

Judy Grahn is a powerful author and poet. Her work spans several genres including fiction, non-fiction, fantasy, and poetry. Grahn is especially known for her work as a feminist, lesbian writer. Her work strays away from the typical lesbian erotica and instead focuses on themes of struggle, acceptance, discrimination, and relationships--all of which are common in working-class texts.

Growing up in a poor, rural neighborhood in New Mexico, Grahn was inspired to make something more of herself. She refused to accept the obligation to marry immediately after high school and realizing she was a lesbian, she set off to discover more about herself and explore the world. After her dismissal from the Air Force, she bounced back to start the Women's Press Collective. She also helped found the Gay Women's Liberation Group, the West Coast New Lesbian Feminist Movement, and "A Woman's Place," the first women's bookstore in the United States.

Realizing the lack of lesbian voices in the area of writing, Grahn followed her dream to become a published author, publishing her first volume of poetry, Edward the Dyke and Other Poems, on a mimeograph machine. From there, she branched out into other genres, all the time keeping true to her working-class roots. Her poetry is sometimes heavily political, leaning toward the connections between the lesbian culture and the everyday "common" woman. She shows how the two face similar struggles in daily life.

In "A Woman Is Talking to Death," the themes of racism and class subjugation combine with sexism and homophobia. This is just one example of how Grahn merges the gay culture with class struggles. She often refers to the discrimination of gays being similar to the prejudice felt by other races such as African-Americans. Her book, Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds, stresses that gay people have a culture, that cuts across class, race, gender and even national and tribal categories. In any case, Grahn's work fights to break the stereotypes that women, lesbians, and working-class people face and are limited by. Her powerful words show that underestimating women is a serious mistake and forces them to work harder to be equal to men.

The struggles Grahn witnessed while growing up and experienced as a young woman inspired her to become a better person and write about those happenings. She has the ability to turn the negative aspects of discrimination and oppression into a positive learning experience. It is no wonder that Judy Grahn is recognized as one of the most successful writers of her time, not only in the working-class or lesbian genres, but in all categories.

Annotated Bibliography

Author's Selected Works

Grahn, Judy. Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984.

A look into the complicated world of lesbians. From discovering your sexual identity to coming out to friends and family, Grahn shows us the daily battles of fitting in among the "normal" world.

---. Blood, Bread and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.

An extremely detailed, emotional, and sometimes grotesque look into the process of female menstruation. Grahn speaks of the shunned topic in an open and very honest way.

---. The Words of a Common Woman. Oakland, CA: The Women's Press Collective, 1978.

A set of eight poems, each focused on the individual difficulties and personality traits of a particular woman.

---. The Queen of Swords. Boston: Beacon Press, 1987.

Second and best known in a series of four books of poems involving a fantastical world where the suits of the Tarot rule. The main character, Helen, travels through history where well-known places are transformed into lesbian themed locations. The book was written for performance of the plays.

---. Woman is Talking to Death.. Oakland, CA: The Women's Press Collective, 1974.

Nine poems including the major title work. These poems are darker than Grahn's usual fair. Many discuss death or suicide as a regular, everyday occurrence.

Works About Author

Avi-ram, Amitai F. "The Politics of the Refrain in Judy Grahn's A Woman is Talking to Death." Women and Language 10.2 (Spring 1987): 38-43.

An intellectual essay that dissects Grahn's works in a very literary process. Grahn and her works are discussed in a new light and focus is on the reader's reaction versus the writer's intent.

Backus, Margot Gayle. "Judy Grahn and the Lesbian Invocational Elegy: Testimonial and Prophetic Responses to Social Death in 'A Woman Is Talking to Death.'" Signs 18.4 (1993): 815-837.

Backus analyzes Grahn's best known poem. The emotional content and feelings of hopelessness and despair are talked about as well as the way Grahn portrays the lesbian society.

Carruthers, Mary J. "The Re-Vision of the Muse: Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, Olga Broumas." The Hudson Review 36 (Summer 1983): 293-322.

A complimentary essay that compares Judy Grahn with many famous female authors. Carruthers calls Grahn a "working-class poet" and an idealist. She is also quick to point out Grahn's departure from the tradition erotic lesbian forms of poetry.

Case, Sue-Ellen. "Judy Grahn's Gynopoetics: The Queen of Swords." Studies in the Literary Imagination 21.2 (Fall 1988): 47-67.

Case discusses the second book in the Tarot series of poems. Lesbians as mythical goddess figures are analyzed along with the way Grahn incorporates realism with fantasy.

Pearlman, Lois. "Poetry is Still First Love for Judy Grahn." Argus Courier 17 Sept 2003.

Nice summary of Grahn's progress from struggling poet to successful author. Details the beginning of the Women's Press Collective and Lesbian Feminist Movement. Article has several key quotes from Grahn herself.


"About Judy Grahn." Modern American Poetry

"Grahn, Judy." glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture

"Judy Rae Grahn." The Living Room Biographies