This winter I got an email from someone through this blog. A lesbian in California had done an internet search looking for information to include in an obituary she was helping write. At fromwickedtowedded.com, she had found posts of Jacqueline Elizabeth Letalien’s writing about the local herstory, the experience of being a Springfield bardyke in the 1970s . Recognizing we had a mutual friend, Sue wrote to tell me that Jacqueline had died.
Over the next few weeks I met and corresponded with several California lesbians who filled me in on Jacqueline’s more recent life and the details of her death. Sue, who first contacted me, was editor of the Humboldt County lesbian monthly the L-Word , which had published Jacqueline’s “Kulture Klatch” column since 2001. I also heard from a friend and former co-worker of Jacqueline’s at a local library; and a former partner who had moved with her from Oakland to the redwoods land of coastal northern California. I welcomed their insights and reflections, along with the personal details about a woman I had known best back in the 70s.
I hadn’t been in touch with Jacqueline since 2016, when I tracked her down to inquire about republishing some of her bar dyke poems. Though we were not regular correspondents, I find in my files an accumulation of papers she sent me sporadically over the decades from the West Coast. These include document collections of Valley history given to or saved by her and copies of her writing, particularly as they reflected on Western Massachusetts. She was my earliest and closest collaborator in establishing a core record of the beginnings of second wave feminism and lesbianfeminism in the Connecticut River Valley, work that provided a basis for this blog forty years later.
Her ex wondered if I had brought Jacqueline out, an inference from the stories told about me. Although we had fumbled around in bed once, two sort of clueless butches, I didn’t bring her out, at least not sexually. Perhaps I had politically, in a way, by introducing her to the Gay and Lesbian movements at UMass. There is a clear trajectory in her published writing as a student at UMass. She moves from vague poems of abstracted angst signed by “Jackie” in a dormitory publication to coming out in 1971 as “Jacqueline,” lesbian, in the UMass student newspaper in order to point out some homophobic behavior.
Massachusetts Daily Collegian, student paper UMass Amherst, Oct. 1971
By 1973, it was “Jacqueline E.“ who was inadvertently starting her career as a journalist with frequent letters to the editor and articles in the student paper defending, explaining, and/or protesting the War, Women’s Liberation, and Gay Rights. She was living at Green Street by then. In June, when she graduated, a group of us women caravaned from Northampton down to her folks’ backyard in Agawam to celebrate.
The next thing to come in the mail to me after the packet of her clippings were three files of documents. She explained in a cover letter that, after a year in Oakland, she had lived in Springfield, Massachusetts from 1975 to 1977. An envelope of clippings, flyers and mimeoed information attest to a period of activism with feminists there. Two additional folders, which were given to her by a Springfield lesbian and feminist, provided the material for the blog post on WAFs and antiwar protests by active duty service personnel at nearby Westover Air Force Base .
There is also a skinny file with yellowed paper dating from 1978. This is the laboriously typed (pre-word processor days) first draft of what became the Valley Women’s Movement: a Herstorical Chronology, 1968-1978. Notes for correction and additions are penciled in for a final edition that had to be completely retyped. At some point, I will tell a more complete story of the publication, but Jacqueline took my idea and scattered notes and invented a format to hold all the bits of data. She ordered and fit it all together, twice.
Years later, when I thanked her again for this work she had done, she replied that the fact that I had given her that task had saved her life. Another decade went by before I asked her what she meant by that.
Eventually, she replied: “When I returned from California after my 1975 adventure…I was a survivor of a very intense Saturn cycle experience, feeling fragile, exhausted and terrified. I was a woman on the verge. With your assistance (including giving her the chronology task)… I could get my bearings and figure out what I needed to do to begin a healing journey and make closure with the first thirty years.”
One of Jacqueline’s former partners suggests that Jacqueline may also have quit drinking at this point, before there was any support for lesbians in 12-step programs.
Several months before her death in December of 2018, as I was drafting a piece about the early 80s, I came across a flyer for a reading from her work Babelogues at Annabelle’s in Northampton by, as she now called herself, “Jacqueline Elizabeth”.
She later sent me a copy of Babelogues, which she more informally referred to as her Bar Dyke poems, about her gay bar experiences in the Valley at the Girls’ Club, the Arbor, the Pub, the Cellar, and the Arbor II. Part of a larger collection of poems, some of them were published in the Fall of 1981 in the first issue of Common Lives/Lesbian Lives.
She also sent me a volume she published in 1982, Hostages: Underground Lies a Woman Buried. In the introduction, she called it a collage of the Women’s Movement: women’s experience with government terrorism 1974-75. Coming to awareness of these multiple violations was a large part of what hit her at the beginning of her Saturn return. On the West Coast she heard of the experiences of Inez Garcia, SLA women, Karen Silkwood, and Yvonne Wanrow. On her return to the East Coast, she was met by reports on the experiences of Joanne Little, the Watergate women, the women of the Weather Underground, and those lesbians called before the New Haven Grand Jury and jailed. What she saw was that, from coast to coast, being battered was the bottom line for women as a class.
She self-published these two volumes from Oakland in 1981 and 1982, with second and third editions in 1997 and 1999. They are stapled-together photocopied collections of poems. There was a long gap in our communications. It was not until 2001 that she sent me copies of the later editions.
Jacqueline after reading on the main stage at a San Francisco Pride. photo courtesy Dora Abrahams
Along with them came a slim binder of her first seven “KultureKlatch” monthly columns for the L-Word, 2001-02. I love the introduction: “The name of this column is an Herstorical reference to mothers coming together in a coffee klatch with other mothers in the neighborhood to talk about children, husbands, marriage, cooking, dreams; what they live, know.”
The very first column, August 2001, opens with: “Currently a timber company is spraying poisons along the Klamath River, near and on the Yurok reservation.”
Jacqueline in the Redwoods c. 1990, photo by Dora Abrahams
Jacqueline cut her signature long hair about 1999. Here in a characteristic reporter pose, photo courtesy Dora Abrahams.
Another few years passed. I had started doing this blog and tried to find a current address for Jacqueline. Searching online, I found that she had a blog, for one intense year it appeared. It had come and gone in 2011, but there was a contact address for “jacqbear!” (I love this.), and a wonderful photo of her, (unattributed). I left a message.
unattributed photo from her 2011 blog
Four months later, she responded via email. “Sorry, I have a love/hate relationship with computers.” We reconnected one last time in 2016. That time, the batch of files came electronically. I printed out five years of KultureKlatch, Aug 2002-2007.
Rereading this more recent work now, I am struck by her occasional circling back around again to her/our experiences in the Valley in the 1970s. Each retelling gains depth of insight, candidness, and greater narrative skill. She illuminates areas of our lives that it takes a long time to see and understand before trying to share it with each other. She always keeps a radical perspective. Among the many issues she addresses, I note particularly her references to coming to know herself as a woman of color, the problems of drinking in the bar culture, and the violence lesbians do to each other in intimate relationships. The need for truth, for our stories to be told, writing as activism.
I read Jacqbear’s obituaries with great interest. I recognized my old friend in the descriptions given of her stubbornness, magic, love of earth and cats, grumpy bear need for solitude. I very much want, as promised by California sisters, to hear, to at least read, the final cycle of her writing. Those are stories she became known for telling in Humboldt County “that take one on a journey of… the natural cycles of earth, wind and water, the heartbeats of women, and echoing sacred silences.”
OBITUARY: Jacqueline Elizabeth Magdalene Letalien, 1947-2018
Jacqueline Elizabeth Magdalene Letalien
December 29, 1947 – December 28, 2018.
She was born in Lowell, Massachusetts to Lillian and Arthur Letalien and had one sister, Vicky. Her family were French Corsican, Miqmaq, Maliseet, Scottish and Jewish.
Jacqueline was a writer, activist, and poet. She considered herself a crone, an elder teacher, a dream manifester, a truth sayer “I am Ya’akova Elishiva de L’Etoile.”
Jacqueline attended the University of Massachusetts where she began a lifelong process of bearing witness, telling untold stories, and working to make a difference in the various communities in which she lived. Moving to the Bay Area in the 1980s, she wrote for the New Bernal Journal, the North Mission News, the Bay Area Reporter, and began Spoken Word.
Once she moved to Humboldt County she worked for the College of the Redwoods library, then the Humboldt County library, specifically the Kim Yerton Memorial Library in Hoopa, organizing poetry readings in both locations. She wrote a monthly column for The L-Word and Humboldtgov.org described her as: “a spoken word artist known to Humboldt County audiences for her powerful, thoughtful retellings of Native American traditional tales, and her poetry, words from the deep springs of an individual human spirit. Her poems take you on a journey of world mythology, human history, natural cycles of earth, wind and water, the heartbeats of women, and echoing sacred silences.” She wrote poetry and prose for a wide variety of publications and two collections of her work are in the process of publication.
Jacqueline was “grateful to live in this beautiful valley and would like to thank the Hupa people for their warmth and friendship.” She appreciated both the beauty and isolation of this area and the community here, so much so, she stayed on after she retired. Jacqueline created many overlapping families for herself in the various places she lived, and she is missed by many of us. Her final request is for you to continue to enjoy the library and to live peacefully.
In Jacqueline’s honor, an open poetry reading is scheduled for January 19th 10:30 am at the Kim Yerton Memorial Library, all are welcome. Reception to follow at the Straight Arrow Café, 12651 CA-96, Hoopa, CA 95546 530-625-1083.
The obituary above was submitted on behalf of Jacqueline Letalien’s family. The Lost Coast Outpost runs obituaries of Humboldt County residents at no charge. See guidelines here.
L-Word remembrances published in the Feb 2019 issue:
Dora: Jacqueline and I were partners for 6 years, beginning around 1994. We met in Oakland at the Women’s Cancer Resource Center where she was the office manager and I was a volunteer. I was drawn to her immediately, from the first time I heard her talk. She was Butch, keys hanging out of her pocket, long hair, Native jewelry, grounded and solid. She had a presence/a way of speaking that made a room listen. We became friends, fell in love, and saved together to move to Humboldt. I had gone to HSU and planned on moving back eventually. She had visited and hoped to move to Humboldt.
One of the first presents she got me was a tiny plastic deer, a reminder to be gentle with myself. She taught me how to organize my paperwork, encouraged me to get rid of things with difficult energy attached to them, taught me to reward myself after doing hard work, and believed in my strength far more than I did at the time. She was my first live-in relationship, and we were as married as two women at that time could have been. It wasn’t until my relationship with her that I was able to sleep without the covers over my head.
She was not easy. She was a bull-headed Capricorn; a self described “growly bear” at times. She could come across as stoic and cranky but she was a pussycat inside.
She trusted me with her vulnerability and effortlessly told me she loved me very early on in our relationship. One day early in our friendship, a mean ex of mine came into the Resource Center. Jacqueline silently came over to me, put down a chair, and just sat down. She was protective and chivalrous.
She had powerful magic. She lit candles, set intentions, said silent prayers, and situations would shift. She told me about her “bar dyke” days, referring to herself as a “drunk” in those times. She had quit drinking completely on her own. She was a Witch, a Poet, and an Activist. She left far, far too early.
Dora Abrahams 1-23-2019
Sue: Those of you who’ve been to my house know that it’s seldom heated, but most of you don’t know that the only reason there’s heat at all is because of Jacqueline. She’d been to my house and I think realized the problem, so at one point when she was moving she told me she didn’t need her (very nice, new-looking) space heater and brought it over, with a long extension cord so it could go anywhere in the house. It’s made many L-word layouts warmer.
Lori: I met Jacqueline at the first LWord Poetry Reading, at the Expresso Bar in Fields Landing, in the summer of 2010. We submitted and read our poetry, published in the LWord’s “Voices From the Edge of the Continent” (Vols I-IV). Whereas Iwas new to submitting and reading my poems, Jacqueline had been a writer and poet for decades. When Iwas organizing our last LWord poetry reading, Jacqueline emailed back, “I will come anywhere, any time, to read poetry.” It was just a couple of weeks later, in April 2018, that I joined Jacqueline to read our poems at the Eureka Public Library as part of their Poetry Series. Jacqueline was there when I arrived, having come all the way from Hoopa. Her poems and her style were different from mine, often epic in length and mythic in content. Jacqueline read with ease, which I greatly admired and hope to emulate. I looked forward to seeing her at an LWord poetry reading I am organizing this spring. I was saddened and shocked to hear of her passing, so soon after the loss of our fellow poet and writer, Suzanne Moore, as well as the loss of Montanna Jones, whom I always enjoyed seeing at the LWord brunches and song circle.
As announced in the January LWord, please email Sue (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you are a poet, a lover of poetry, and/or would like to read your own or one by Suzanne or Jacqueline. They and Montanna will be missed, and we will remember them through their words and how they touched our lives. I will always be grateful to Jacqueline and Suzanne for their kind words and as role models.
May they all be resting in peace. Lori Cole
Obituary written by friends in the Lost Coast Outpost: https://lostcoastoutpost.com/2019/jan/19/obituary-jacqueline-elizabeth-magdalene-letalien-1/
Obituary and remembrances in Feb. 2019 issue of the L-word. www.lword.mamajudy.com