By Judy Grahn, poet, writer, and faculty member in the Department of Writing, Consciousness and Creative Inquiry
A poem develops its own life and meaning, beyond the original feelings, understandings, and intentions of the author.
“Detroit Annie” was not a single person; like most of the other “Common Woman Poems” I wrote, she was a composite of the wilder and more spontaneous of the women swirling through my war-driven activist life in 1968 and 1969. Sometime in that horrifically violent timeframe, between the murderous assaults on Black Panther Offices by police and FBI, the rising tide of antiwar protests everywhere, and the battles at People’s Park in Berkeley, a group of young hitchhikers got into the car my lover was driving in San Francisco. Two got into the front seat with me, which meant one of them sat on my skinny-boned lap. She was even more intensely wound than we were, and I was touched by her. She carried some level of fearlessness beyond our stoic determination. She was on her way to Detroit to help organize people against the war, she said. A few days later, we heard that she had gone to that northern industrial city, and then doused herself with gasoline and set the fire of ultimate protest.
Did this really happen? There is no record that I can find of such an event in that place in that year. Perhaps someone threw a blanket around her before the burns became fatal. A pacifist, 82 year old Alice Herz, immolated herself on a street corner in Detroit in 1965, to protest the relentless earlier growth of the war. A man burned himself alive in San Diego, in 1970, over the relentless continuation of the war. And Buddhist protesters calmly burning their “No” into the streets of Saigon, were all over the news. A poetic line emerged from this the night I wrote my Common Woman Poems, “she spills herself all over, like gasoline, and lights it”.
That’s one line of several that are very different, trying to describe a complex, powerful, elusive, fun-loving, dangerous, unobtainably beautiful being.
Ani DiFranco, the great revolutionary folk singer, was born a year after I wrote “Detroit Annie” in 1969. At her first concert following 9/11, at Carnegie Hall in 2003, Ani read the poem to her audience. In 2008 a filmmaker in Amsterdam made an artful video of Ani’s reading, featuring an actress whirling, gesturing on a cold dock lit up with brilliant lights at night as the setting. Here is the link. Scroll down to “Detroit Annie Hitchhiking."
To download the lovely song that Anne Carol Mitchell did, keeping the lines intact, click here, or listen to our new cd, Lunarchy.
Looking back 41 years later, I see the poem as the portrait of someone dancing herself into a new world, as a spiritual/sexual being who sacralizes action and the feminine together. Does this describe the poem? Maybe. Written before the women’s revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, the poem rides on the cusp of a great turning, a turning that will not, and cannot, cease, and that has encompassed people all over the globe.