Audre Lorde was very concerned not to have the range of her poetry limited by the application of labels, what she once called "the myth of sameness." She described herself as "a black, feminist, lesbian, mother, poet," and in her poetry intimate moments of love, for example, coexist in the same poem with the life of the city, the wider world of politics and race in the US or globally, and the myths and traditions of African heritage. Lorde's point is that these parts of her identity interconnect, as a person and as a writer.
Lorde was born in New York City, to West Indian immigrants, the youngest of three daughters, and attended Hunter College after spending 1954 at the National University of Mexico. She graduated from Hunter in 1959. In 1962 she married Edward Ashley Rollins and gave birth to two children (the couple divorced in 1970). She went on to obtain a Masters degree in Library Science from Columbia University, and worked as a librarian in and around New York City until 1968.
She had begun writing and publishing poetry in her teens, was the literary editor of her school magazine, and published regularly in the 1960s. In 1968 she published her first volume, The First Cities. In this same year she made the important decision to spend a year as poet-in-residence at Tougaloo
College in Mississippi. She then went on to teach at a number of colleges, including Hunter College.
Lorde's second book, Cables to Rage (1970), acknowledged her homosexuality, and established her style of protest poetry rooted in intimacy, love, and personal growth. A number of commentators remarked that her writing was less directly confrontational than much black poetry being written at the time. Her well-known poem "Coal" uses the metaphor of coal to suggest the honesty and self-knowledge as well as the hard work and wider awareness needed to make language productive:
Love is a word, another kind of open. As the diamond comes into a knot of flame I am Black because I come from the earth's inside now take my word for jewel in the open light.
"Walking Our Boundaries" (1978) describes two lovers exploring and enjoying their own garden, while "our voices / seem too loud for this small yard / too tentative for women / so in love." They plant seedlings as part of a commitment to growth and the future. "Hanging Fire" from the same year, imagines the isolation of a 14-year-old girl, and her fears and confusion about the desires raging through her body. The sweep of "Sisters in Arms" (1986) moves from New York City to the racial violence of South Africa.
These poems are included in the volumes that regularly followed Cables to Rage. They include From a Land Where Other People Live (1973), which was nominated for a National Book Award, New York Head Shop and Museum (1974), and her first book to be released by a major publisher, Coal (1976). The Black Unicorn (1978) makes particular use of African tradition, particularly female African gods and matriarchal myth. The year 1986 brought Our Dead Behind Us, and two volumes of selected poems appeared in 1982 and 1992. The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance: Poems 1987-1992 was published posthumously in 1993.
Lorde's poetry is always on one level about survival, but it became an even more explicit theme when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in the late 1970s. She writes on her illness and surgery in The Cancer Journals (1980). Six years later she was diagnosed with liver cancer, which she discussed in the title essay of her book A Burst of Light (1988). She died of cancer in 1992. Other prose works are Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982), which combines autobiography, history, and myth, and which Lorde termed a "biomythography," Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984), and A Burst of Light.
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