Born 26 January 1943, Los Angeles, California
Daughter of Walden and Sarah Colvin Griffin; married John Levy, 1966
A self-defined radical feminist, Susan Griffin graduated from San Francisco State University (B.A. 1965, M.A. 1972). She has been variously employed as a waitress, switchboard and teletype operator, house painter, teacher, assistant editor of Ramparts, artists' model, and an actor and director in San Francisco. She is a supporter of the Feminist Writers' Guild.
In Like the Iris of an Eye (1976), which includes her three earlier volumes of poetry, Griffin writes in a first-person, conversational style underscoring the intensity of the poems' emotional content. The first section—"Early Poems" (1967-73)—includes the title poem, "Love Should Grow Up Like a Wild Iris in the Field" and it deliberately and ironically rejects the romantic stereotype to locate love in "the iris of an eye," which is probably watching out for a child, checking a cooking dinner, and seeing the tame, familiar, and restricted life that is the antithesis of a wildflower. Most of the poems in this section are concerned with contradictions either between stereotypes and reality or between expectations and reality. The woman whose feelings Griffin identifies recognizes her affinity with the black American slave ("I like to think of Harriet Tubman"), Native American ("White Bear"), war protesters ("To Gather Ourselves"), and political revolutionaries ("Letter to the Revolution," "Poem in the Form of a Letter"). She is an outsider whose search for power leads her into conflict with unaware men who "won't know the half of it, not in a million years" ("An Answer to a Man's Question, 'What Can I Do About Women's Liberation?"').
The second section—"Family" (1967-76)—is a verbal portrait album; descriptions are almost visual in the ordering of heretofore insignificant details that assume mythic proportions in linking four generations of women and some of the men who shared their lives. The six poems of section three—"The Tiredness Cycle" (1973-74)—reflect disappointment and disillusionment, which are allowed neither to deepen into despair nor to vanish through avoidance ("I dwell on the line"). Structurally more varied than the earlier sections, the works of the final group—"New Poems" (1973-76)—focus primarily on self-discovery and acceptance; on evolving a vivid understanding of the woman-self. Though varied, the experiences examined are central to women's existence and awareness; Griffin's works bear witness to the common base of women's real lives.
Griffin's Emmy award-winning radio drama Voices (1975) presents five women whose ages (nineteen to seventy) and experiences span 20th century American life—as it is allowed to women. Despite their differences, the characters share underlying fears and frustrations; at the conclusion of the play, speaking in chorus they identify themselves with womankind, from slave to socialite. Only Rosalinde, the youngest, seems not to share the others' feelings of suppression, but to remain apart she must employ tactics of deliberate avoidance. Her exaggerated life-sketch and her impassioned rejection of the emotions of the others only underscore reality's threat, which she subconsciously recognizes. The women finally reject death-suicide-endless sleep, and the vitality of the play's poetic form emphasizes the resilience and renewal of the women's spirits.
Uniting feminism and ecology, Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (1978) is an elegant prose poem, and its design allows for both continuous reading and random sampling. In the four sections—"Matter," "Separation," "Passages," and "Her Vision"—Griffin blends science, literature, history, religion, myth and more, to reexplore the limitations of patriarchy and the limitlessness of the woman-centered universe. "Matter" compares and contrasts patriarchal judgements about nature and women with ludicrous and absurd conclusions; "Separation" focuses attention on the enforced distance between humans and nature. Moving through "Passages" to "Her Vision," Griffin describes a new way of seeing a woman-identified view of nature and women which challenges and encompasses the reader.
The power of Griffin's works comes from the clarity of her perceptions of the role, conditions, existence, and aspirations of ordinary women. The domestic details, the historical stereotypes, and the contemporary dilemma are carefully integrated in her well-crafted, fully accessible poetry, drama, fiction, and essays. She neither excuses nor accuses; she investigates with sympathy and understanding, and she speaks for the experience of us all.
Griffin's career has included a range of genres: poetry, plays, stories, and essays. By 1980, after almost a decade of publication, she had garnered such awards as the Ina Coolbrith Prize in poetry and a National Endowment for the Arts grant, as well as her Emmy for Voices. Her work in the 1980s and 1990s engaged with subjects of a global nature—rape, pornography, and war.
Emphatically feminist in politics and writing, Griffin has increasingly become a theorist and interpreter of women's condition. This trend is especially clear in Rape: The Power of Consciousness (1979), a collection of essays, and Pornography and Silence: Culture's Revolt Against Nature (1981). Rape includes a version of her well-known 1971 essay, "Rape: The All-American Crime," in which, like Susan Brownmiller, Griffin analyzes rape as the chief tool of patriarchy in maintaining power: a crime carried out by a few men on behalf of many. Calling it "a male protection racket" where a woman is made to feel unsafe and therefore dependent on "her man," she also connects the crime of rape with national aggressions, such as American imperialism, particularly in Vietnam. Her other essays look at encouraging changes in the attitude toward the prosecution of rape since the women's movement in the 1970s but warn the crime of rape is still statistically increasing. In Consciousness she closes on a hopeful note, choosing "hope over dread," with a vision of the possibility of change for women when they learn to confront and overcome fears keeping them from full self-realization: "I have tasted freedom from fear, a world we imagine, and this small taste means more to me than large fears."
In Pornography and Silence, a groundbreaking work, Griffin denies the conventional notion women are subservient and enjoy subservience and argues forcefully that women do not welcome domination—a necessary message at the time. She also interprets the male psyche, perceiving it as separated from emotion and, ultimately, from women. This disassociation, as well as the belief in the subservience of women, creates the environment for pornography. Although some critics argued the ferocity of Griffin's tone and language diminished the impact of her message, her work was prophetic, opening the way to a feminist analysis of pornography.
A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War (1992, reissued 1994) is a moving and profoundly multilayered meditation on history—especially the history of war and weapon making, on family secrets and the connections between public and private, and on the destructiveness this silence and denial create, both in war and in families. Firmly joining the personal to the global, Griffin ranges over wars and countries to demonstrate connection. "As social concepts, war and gender evolved together," Griffin once told an interviewer. "To change either, we have to change both." The stones of the title are a paradoxical symbol: though silent, they "reveal traces from fires suffered thousands of years ago." So, too, human beings carry "our own history and the history of the world embedded in us, we hold a sorrow deep within and cannot weep until that history is song."
Griffin has also published essays on such topics as chronic fatigue syndrome. In addition to writing, she sought a doctorate degree at the Starr King School of Ministry.
Dear Sky (1971). Let Them Be Said (1973). Letters (1974). The Sink (1974). Made from This Earth: An Anthology of Writings (1983). Unremembered Country (1987). Gourmet Expose: Revealing Favorite Restaurant Recipes of the Wasatch Front (1994). The Eros of Everyday Life: Essays on Ecology, Gender and Society (1995, reprint 1996). Bending Home: Selected & New Poems, 1967-1998 (1998). What Her Body Thought: A Journey into the Shadows (1999).
Has contributed to the following books: Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism (1990); Revisioning Philosophy (1992); Ecofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature (1997); Women on Hunting (1994); Images of Women in Literature (1991); Transforming a Rape Culture (1993); Issues in Feminism: An Introduction to Women's Studies (1995); and Readings in Ecology and Feminist Theology (1995).
Freedman, D. P., "Writing in the Borderlands: The Poetic Prose of Gloria Anzaldua and Susan Griffin" inConstructing and Reconstructing Gender: The Links Among Communication, Language, and Gender (1992). Howe, R., ed. No More Masks!: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Women Poets (1993). Shima, A., Skirting the Subject: Pursuing Language in the Works of Adrienne Rich, Susan Griffin, and Beverly Dahlen (dissertation, 1993). Ysunza, A., "Embracing Chaos: A Literary Analysis of Susan Griffin's Women and Nature" (thesis, 1989).
CA 49-52 (1975). CANR (1981, 1989). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). Women Writers of the West Coast (1983).
NYTBR (22 Nov. 1992). PW (10 Aug. 1992). Whole Earth Review (Summer 1989). LJ (July 1987).
—KATHLEEN GREGORY KLEIN,
UPDATED BY LINDA BERUBE
AND NELSON RHODES