LOOSELY IDENTIFIED, A ST. LOUIS WOMEN’S POETRY COLLECTIVE
In the fall of 1974, a group of women poets met at a Women’s Arts Fair in St. Louis and formed a feminist workshop that still serves the region’s women poets. Known then as the St. Louis Women’s Poetry Workshop, this group met first in the Women’s Counseling Center behind the University City Post Office and then at the Women’s Self-Help Center on Newstead. Sitting on the worn couches and cushions of these women’s “safe places,” the Workshop forged the collective values that remain its ideal today: facilitating each others workshops, sharing the artistic support all writers need but women writers may not find in a conventional literary arena.
From the group’s beginning, feminist consciousness-raising worked in tandem with artistic expression. One member rode to meetings (and from an abusive husband) on her motorcycle, bringing a friendly white dog in her sidecar. Another felt empowered by poetry’s public voice to organize her co-workers for equal pay and equal rights. Both are still writing and publishing. The group began its tradition of public readings, performing at Frank Moskus in Exile, the University City Public Library, the Dead Dog Gallery on Delmar, and the Women’s Eye Bookstore on DeMun. Its network of supporters stretched from poets at Washington University, particularly Donald Finkel and Constance Urdang, deep into the city’s feminist and lesbian communities.
Since 1974, more than eighty women have participated in the Workshop, now called “Loosely Identified” (LI) for its friendly but free associations wherever women’s poetry may contribute and be served. Buffeted by the anti-feminism of the Reagan years, the Workshop gained new energy in the 1990s from poets at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and St. Louis Community College. It now has strong affiliations with the St. Louis Poetry Center, Southwestern Illinois College, and River Styx, among other settings. Its members engage with NOW, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and Poets Against the War. They work in community gardening and independent media. They are students, artists, actors, businesswomen, educators, Peace Corps alumnae, and elder activists.In April 2004 the group’s twenty-one members published a collection of their work, Breathing Out: Poems by Loosely Identified. Consulting in small groups, working in teams toward the physical and financial making of the book, the women of LI gave their poetry material form. Gaye Gambell-Peterson contributed original cover “poemart,” Linda Beaver contributed design and layout, Rebecca Ellis and Nanora Sweet served as managing editors. Martha Ficklen coined the title, echoing feminist poet Muriel Rukeyser whose first book began, “Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry.” Each member holds a small “share” in the enterprise. The book appears from Cherry Pie Press (Glen Carbon, Illinois), begun to support this publishing effort.
Launched April 5 at a River Styx reading at Duff’s and stocked at Left Bank and other bookstores, Breathing Out quickly sold out its first run of 300 books. By June 1 a second printing of 300 appeared, featuring endorsements by Donna Biffar, Pat Schneider, Steve Schreiner, and Charles Guenther. Priced at $5, Breathing Out sells at group readings and at Left Bank, Subterranean, and Dunaway bookstores in St. Louis, Piece of Mind in Edwardsville, and the campus bookstores of U.M.-St. Louis and SIU-Edwardsville. To order, call Left Bank at 314-367-6731.
Behind Breathing Out lies a history in St. Louis of independent book-making by women poets. With Sara Teasdale a leading member, The Potters made art books in the early twentieth century. In the 1970s the St. Louis Women’s Poetry Workshop shared members with “Women Energy,” a consensus-based group that gave its name to a 1976 collection. Leading up to Breathing Out, Workshop members contributed to books made by other women’s groups. Helen Eisen edited a volume for the Jewish Lesbian Daughters of the Holocaust, Carole Cohen debuted a multi-author booklet This Wild Garden at the Kirkwood Public Library, and Jane Holwerda contributed to the finely produced essay collection Guilty Pleasures mentored by Catherine Rankovic. Rachelle Hosty came to LI from an effort to create a small press among alums and faculty at U.M.-St. Louis.
Launched successfully, featured and reviewed in the Post-Dispatch, Breathing Out has brought new visibility of women’s poetry in the region. Yet the women of Loosely Identified realize that most literary institutions, including those of their friends, are still led by men, even as they know that few literary groups are as wide-ranging as their own. Investing carefully in themselves, the poets of LI aim at independence and sustainability. Their book has brought new growth. In response, member Gloria Gordon has led a retreat, an “Advance” actually, to broaden group support and activity. Subgroups are now workshopping online, considering chapbooks, and studying books by currently publishing St. Louis women poets.
Above all, Loosely Identified remains an artistic setting, anchored in its monthly workshop. As long-time member Rebecca Ellis writes, “it has been a brace and pulley, hauling me out of my own depths. It has reminded me of the valuable treasure of surprise, whether found in someone else’s poem or my own.”
Loosely Identified profits from continuity, with seven members from the 1970s still participating in the new millennium. It benefits from fresh energy, as newer members Karen Mondale, Cassandra Bannon, Marilyn Probe, and Mary Ruth Donnelly track members and books, support meetings and readings. Despite the anti-feminism of the Bush era, LI has grown and given support to activist members like Myra South, who organized the Poets against the War readings at Riddles in 2003. Loosely Identified aims to preserve a collective identity in an individualist age.
Taken together, Loosely Identified and Breathing Out express women’s immersion in art and engagement in history over a thirty-year span. These years have felt the twin pulses of collectivism and anarchism, and in its identity politics and impromptu, opportunistic practices, “Loosely Identified” reflects both.
Anyone interested in LI, its book, or its readings should visit www.looselyidentified.com. Burgeoning in members, the group still talks to women poets interested in this group or perhaps another of their own: call 314-516-5512.
A member of this Workshop since 1975, Nanora Sweet teaches Romanticism, poetry, and women’s writing at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
A version of this article was published in Figure in the Carpet, an arts newsletter from the Center for the Humanities at Washington University, St. Louis. See http://cenhum.artsci.wustl.edu/fitc-oct04.htm.