A Book, A Box, A Pallet: Loving Pat Parker Across Generations
Author: Julie R. Enszer
January 29, 2017
Among the first dozen copies of The Complete Works of Pat Parker that I mailed were five copies to former Sinister Wisdom interns. All five of these young people helped make the book; they were among the first people in the world to hold the new edition of Parker’s work, formally released on October 15th as the fourth Sapphic Classic in the series co-published by Sinister Wisdom and A Midsummer Night’s Press.
Pat Parker was a renowned and revered lesbian-feminist poet based in the San Francisco Bay Area from the late 1960s until her death in 1989. Born in 1944 in Houston, Texas, Parker was the youngest of five children. She chronicled part of her childhood in the extraordinary poem, “Goat Child.” Immediately after high school graduation, Parker moved to Los Angeles, where she studied journalism at Los Angeles City College,met, and married the playwright Ed Bullins. Parker and Bullins moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1964 and divorced shortly thereafter. During this period, Parker’s radical politics emerged; she was a member of the Black Panther Party and studied communist and socialist political and economic thought. She began writing seriously and performing her work in front of local audiences. In the late 1960s, Parker came out as a lesbian and joined the Women’s Press Collective, a printing and publishing enterprise.
Parker was both an extraordinary poet on the page and a riveting performer of her work. Her long poem, “Movement in Black,” was first performed in Oakland in December 1977—and performed many times thereafter to appreciative audiences. Friend and colleague of Judy Grahn and Audre Lorde, Parker died in 1989 at the age of forty-five from breast cancer. Her work was widely available from Firebrand Books until the early 2000s, when it slowly began to fall out of print. Now all of her published work—and a significant selection of unpublished work including two plays and dozens of poems—is available in The Complete Works of Pat Parker with a new introduction by Judy Grahn.
The first intern worked on this project more than two years ago—before I even had a signed contract with Parker’s heirs to do the project. The project was a glimmer in my eye and the intern, Rachel, was willing and able to start work. Rachel was a Sinister Wisdom summer intern based in Vancouver, BC. She and I chatted weekly on Skype during her internship, reviewing her projects and talking about the editorial and publishing work behind the journal. Rachel created manuscript copy of Movement in Black and Jonestown and other madness from used copies of these books. When I say manuscript copy, I mean that she typed all of the poems from the books into a Word document, word by word, line by line, page by page. Creating manuscript copy is a mind-numbing, even when the words and lines and pages are from the venerable Pat Parker. Even with OCR (Optical Character Recognition), Smart Scanning, and other technological innovations, retyping–by hand and with the human mind–continues to be the best, most thorough, and error-free way of creating manuscript copy. While I knew this to be true, when Rachel and I would meet on Skype, I sympathized with the tediousness of the task. We both knew it was important, however. Without a Word document, it was impossible to create a book. She typed and typed and typed all summer long. That August, she delivered two manuscript files and those files became the basis for The Complete Works of Pat Parker.
The next summer another intern compared those manuscript files to the book, looking for errors. While editing the book, I compared edition to edition of Parker’s masterwork, Movement in Black, looking for changes and additions, then I made choices about what would constitute final copy for this edition. When the page proofs arrived this summer, I mailed another former intern in Portland, OR the spiral bound page proofs. Ze pored over them looking for errors and sent me a page of corrections. Many hands, young and old, have been a part of the making of this book.
The Complete Works of Pat Parker is my biggest editorial project to date. The book is nearly 500 pages, and is the result of hours of archival work I did in Parker’s papers, which are now housed at the Schlesinger Library. While Parker’s two published books form the corpus of this work, there are about one hundred pages of unpublished poems, two plays by Parker, and more than a handful of short prose pieces. I worked through Parker’s archival material methodically, but still up until the last moment I dithered about a variety of decisions. How should I organize the unpublished poems? Was I missing any prose pieces? Surely there would be errors, but was I finding the big ones?
During the last weeks of reviewing the final pages and preparing the book for the printer, I desperately wanted an intern. I wanted someone else’s eyes to review the work with me, search for errors, find them, and ensure that all corrections were made. This madness at the end of the projection corresponded with my family’s move from our temporary encampment in Michigan to a new permanent home in Florida. I finally transmitted the book to the printer when we were all (my wife and I, our two 135-pound dogs, and our one small cat) in a hotel in Florida watching reports about Hurricane Hermine, the first hurricane projected to make landfall in Florida in eleven years. My temporary control over Parker’s work was ending with a squall of wind and rain.
In retrospect, it feels fitting for that atmosphere to have been swirling around me as I finished the production phase of the project. For many, many months, I fretted about editing the book. I worried that I was not up to the task, that I would be a poor steward of Parker’s work. One morning, I woke early and started reviewing the manuscript again, worried as usual that I would never produce the book that Parker would have wanted. That early morning, before the dogs were up, with just the cat sitting by my side, I realized that the truth is Parker did not want this book. I realized that my worry was for naught. Parker did not want this book—she wanted to live. She wanted to see her two children Anastasia and Cassidy graduate from high school; she wanted to see her children go to college, date, marry, have children. She wanted to vacation with her partner, make love to her partner, fight with her partner, eventually, most likely, marry her partner. She wanted to see political struggle and political triumphs; she wanted to witness President Obama’s inauguration, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the continuing struggle for racial and economic justice. She wanted to write new poems. She did not care about this book; she had other desires. I was the one who wanted her work back in print. I was the one who wanted to share what I learned about her from working with her papers. That realization facilitated my completion of the project and the eventual final transmission of the book to the Michigan printer.
Four weeks later, the Pat Parker books arrived on a pallet. It was a special delivery for UPS, not the usual neighborhood truck and driver. Someone from UPS called in advance, “Ma’am,” he said, “we have a large load. Will you be there to receive it? Do you have space to store it?” Generally, I formulate the print run of Sinister Wisdom so that most copies are mailed immediately to subscribers. Usually two boxes are delivered to my home; the balance go to the mail house. Then, one year from the issue publication date, all of the copies are sold or distributed; the issue is out of print. Yes, I have a lot of stuff stored for Sinister Wisdom, but I try to be smart about space. The call from the UPS carrier frightened me.
Of course, The Complete Works of Pat Parker needs to last longer than a year. We hope that many people will read and fall in love with Parker; we hope that people will think about this book and Parker’s work; we hope that people teach this book and introduce Parker to new generations of readers and writers. We made a bigger order than usual. When the bill of lading (the term for shipping) arrived with the news that thirty-five boxes of books would be delivered within a week, I did not fully grasp what that entailed. A pallet. Thirty-five boxes weighing about thirty-five pounds each. Stacked tightly together on a wooden pallet, wrapped with thick plastic shrinkwrap.
Using his pallet jack, the driver plopped the boxed books in the middle of our garage, right where my wife parks her car. It took three weeks for me to move them all from the garage into storage in my office. The handcart could carry four boxes at a time. With each load, I had to move around more things in the storage area to figure out how to wedge in all of these boxes. It wasn’t lost on me that while I was moving the boxes from the garage to the office, over the next weeks and months I would be moving them one by one back to the garage, to my car, to go to the post office. This is what publishing is: packing books, moving books, mailing books.
I imagined more glamour, more glory in publishing. I never imagined the muscle it requires. Part of the original vision for the Sapphic Classics series, which I cooked up with my friend and co-publisher Lawrence Schimel, was to bring these books of lesbian poetry that I loved, and particularly loved discovering as a young reader, to a new generation of readers. The Complete Works of Pat Parker is our fourth Sapphic Classic.
Over the past four years of the Sapphic Classics series and in my six years as editor and publisher of Sinister Wisdom, I have learned how challenging it is to get books out into the world and particularly to reach younger readers. The truth is I imagined pressing books into the hands of undergraduate students and having them return to me a week later saying that this book changed their lives but more often I have asked young people what they are reading and found new books that have changed my life. I do not confide this fact to undermine the project of the Sapphic Classics, nor to suggest that The Complete Works of Pat Parker is not going to be life changing for some young women (and men and non-binary people!), but rather to affirm that the project of reading, of putting books out in the world, is not a linear one. It is a communal one. It is a labor of love for the sake of words and writers and ideas and beauty. Mailing out those first five copies to young people across north America I was reminded that this is a kind of love we share across generations.
Now that the Parker book is here, physically incarnated with a spine, a cover, and pages with ink on it, I miss Parker even more. I know that her voice, her performative being would help the work get into the world more effectively than anything I can do. I feel again like a poor substitute. I can almost hear her whispered taunt: I did not want this book; you did. I wanted to live. Yet, I committed to editing and publishing The Complete Works of Pat Parker. So even without Parker and her promotive zeal, I scheduled events in Washington, DC, New York, and San Francisco to launch the book. I hope that fellow travelers will organize additional events in Atlanta, Durham, maybe even Austin and Chicago. Many people are like me: we carry love in bound packages. We want intergenerational conversations. We want our beloved writers to continue to live in bound pages and are willing to carry the weight of books to make that happen.