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‘Survival’ Depicts Life of ‘60s Poet Lorde

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The dynamic cultural era between the Beatniks and the Reagan era can be measured in terms of events, or, more interestingly, in terms of individual lives. Karl Hess, who went from writing speeches for Barry Goldwater to being one of the first white members of the Black Panther Party, is one. Allan Ginsberg, one of the original Beatniks, is another.

A poet peer of Ginsberg’s, Audre Lorde, is definitely another, as seen in Ada Gay Griffin and Michelle Parkerson’s biographical film “A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde,” for the “P.O.V.” series.

Raised by West Indies-born parents in Manhattan and apparently driven to be a rebellious “bad girl,” Lorde was attracted to the underground lesbian subculture of downtown New York when it was tiny, quiet and suppressed in the 1950s. She admits that her early poems were sorry stuff, but managed to sell one to Seventeen magazine before she was 17.

Poetry, though, was a private, reclusive project for her; money jobs included working as a night nurse or in X-ray-filled assembly plants.

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Before American politics hit the streets, Lorde found that being black, female and lesbian made her “triply invisible.” Lorde tells Griffin and Parkerson that her life was fundamentally changed witnessing civil rights clashes in the Deep South firsthand while teaching at Mississippi’s Tougaloo College in the watershed year of 1968.

Poetry, she realized, had to become public, political and expressive of change as much as of inner sensibilities.

Her colleagues Sonia Sanchez and Adrienne Rich perhaps explain best what made Lorde’s evolution special. Like Neruda and Whitman before her, Lorde melded a passionate, erotic vision with an eloquent, bluesy verbal music toward explicit political ends. (We are able to hear Lorde read many wonderful poems that are unusually easy to hear in this context.)

Her trajectory was that of ‘60s civil rights movements, from obscurity to fame. If poets can ever become leaders in the United States, Lorde became one. “Goddess” and “mother” are terms attached to her by her admirers, terms that didn’t seem to embarrass her.

Griffin and Parkerson stitch together Lorde’s many lives, from raising her two children to be “warriors,” to speaking at rallies, to leading university poetry workshops. Part of that stitching includes a brilliantly edited soundtrack of Lorde’s voice, period sounds and music montages.

Lorde’s last battle was with breast cancer for 14 years, and the camera follows her from robust health until she is bald and raspy-voiced, though still talkative.

Before she died in 1992, Lorde told the filmmakers something that encapsulates her personality: As motivation during cancer therapy, she would envision her cancer cells as white South African policemen. Apartheid’s cancer, at least, was finally beaten.

* “A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde” airs at 10 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28.

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