Sacred Wonder

Writer Alexis Pauline Gumbs ’04 dives into the gifts of Audre Lorde, lessons from sea mammals, and the Barnard writing community

By Marie DeNoia Aronsohn


Alexis Pauline Gumbs ’04 has called herself a queer Black troublemaker, a Black feminist love evangelist, and a time traveler and space cadet. Critics have called the award-winning writer of narrative poetry and creative nonfiction “compassionate, inventive, and politically astute.”

Most recently, Gumbs was awarded the Windham-Campbell Prize for poetry. In 2020, Gumbs published Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals. The book, which won a prestigious 2022 Whiting Award, was a response, she says, to the profound grief she suffered upon her father’s death. All her saltwater tears led her to investigate what marine mammals can teach us.

Undrowned,” says Gumbs, “is a ceremony for me to say, ‘Okay, everyone. I am a marine mammal apprentice. I am surrendering to learn whatever it is these mammals have to teach me. And I actually think maybe all of us have a lot to learn from them too.”

Gumbs is now at work on a biography of iconic writer, feminist, and civil rights activist Audre Lorde. She invites her readers on a journey of discovery into the very heart and power of this self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.”

Why is Audre Lorde someone you’ve taken such profound interest in?
I first learned about Audre Lorde when I was in high school, attending a weekly writing workshop for young women at Charis Books and More, the oldest feminist bookstore in the Southeast. As soon as I read Audre Lorde’s poetry I knew I needed her. I could feel her open a door for me and more importantly opening a door in me, toward being my freest self.

Writing this biography is a practice of gratitude. It is also a process of self-love because every part of who I am has been supported, nurtured, and made possible by Audre Lorde’s work in the world and the work her writing has done for my own life as a queer Black feminist.

What do you want readers to grasp from your writing on her?
My deepest wish is that the people who read this biography will feel like they got to sit with Audre. I hope people feel like they got to be with her in vulnerable ways and to connect to who she was as a person, not just an icon or a historical figure but as a vulnerable disabled child, a teenager in the throes of so many crushes, a daughter who doesn’t know how to grieve her father, a mother wondering how to raise children in a feminist way, a terrified
and determined cancer survivor, and more.

So actually, it’s less that I want people to grasp something about Audre Lorde than that I want people to open their hearts and find the place where their wondering and tender life experiences meet hers. And at the same time I want the wondering this book opens up to be huge. Because Audre Lorde wondered deeply and broadly and researched everything from the structure of the planet to the cosmos. I think the scale of the life of this poet is the scale of the planet. But I want you to feel so close to Audre, so related to her life experiences that you realize that — spoiler alert — the scale of your life is also the scale of this planet. And what if you loved yourself like that? Audre did.

Are you still learning from marine mammals?

Oh yes. I don’t think that will ever stop. And even if I could ignore the fact that my ancestors cultivated lifelong relationships with marine animals, no one will ever stop sending me links and photos and facts about marine mammals on social media. Every day my inbox is full of marine mammal information that makes me wonder even more. That’s one of the great gifts of sharing a heartfelt writing process — people really know what you care about, and they send it your way!

When you were an undergraduate, how did you envision your writing life?

I didn’t take any creative writing classes as an undergrad, but I was joyfully immersed in a community of brilliant and brave poets of color at Barnard and Columbia. I had this feeling that if I followed what interested and inspired me and continued to collaborate with curious people, there would always be something to write about, and there would also be some way to share it with the communities who needed it. And I let myself believe that without knowing what form it would take. And I was right.

What message would you share with aspiring writers at Barnard?
Oh you lucky Barnard writers! You are surrounded by the energy and legacy of so many phenomenal and brave writers. I can’t even list them all here. But the fact that Zora Neale Hurston, Ntozake Shange, June Jordan, Edwidge Danticat, and so many others went to Barnard was a big part of my desire to put myself between those Barnard gates. I would say listen to yourself. And trust yourself. And the big question for you is, What are the practices that allow you to listen to yourself most deeply? What are the practices that support you to trust yourself more than you trusted yourself yesterday?

Back to Audre. What have you found surprising about her?
I will be curious about Audre Lorde forever. I could answer this question with a million small wonders. But here is one: Did you know Audre Lorde hated tomato sauce? Despised it. To her it looked like congealed blood. That’s one of those things that I will always wonder about. What was that about for her? And I myself have never been able to tolerate ketchup.

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