TALKING ABOUT JUDITH
Born and raised in the Great Lakes region, living now in the Pacific Northwest, Judith Arcana is a writer of poems, stories, essays and books. Praised by writers and readers, reviewers and community leaders, Judith’s work is published in many collections and journals, online and on paper. Links to and information about her published work are on this site's WRITING page.
Judith Arcana is a Jane, a member of the Chicago underground service that helped more than eleven thousand women and girls get safe illegal abortions before the US Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade in January of 1973.
She's a skilled performer/presenter who has worked with audiences in the US, Britain and Canada, often visiting campus and community groups to talk about reproductive justice and perform her powerful writing. Judith appears in the 1995 documentary Jane: An Abortion Service (dir. Nell Lundy/Kate Kirtz) and the 2014 documentary She's Beautiful When She's Angry (dir. Mary Dore).
A longtime teacher of literature, writing and women’s studies, Judith has a PhD in Literature, an MA in Women's Studies, an Urban Preceptorship in Preventive Medicine and a BA in English. She’s taught in high schools, colleges, libraries, living rooms, a state prison and a county jail.
Her first and last teaching jobs were for students at Niles Township High School in Illinois (in the original building - her own alma mater - now gone), and Union Graduate School, a national university-without-walls that has since become a conventional online program. At Niles, Judith taught English, Creative Writing and Humanities, the latter as part of an experimental team of students and teachers. At Union, where she served as a dean, Judith advised doctoral candidates, led residential seminars, and was founding director of the Center for Women in Washington DC.
Her writing has been supported by the Puffin Foundation, Rockefeller Archive Center, Institute for Anarchist Studies, NW Oregon's Regional Arts and Culture Council, Celebration Foundation, Union's doctoral faculty, the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and Oregon Literary Arts – and fostered by residencies at Soapstone and MilePost5 in Oregon, the Montana Artists Refuge, Ragdale in Illinois, the Mesa Refuge in California and the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in New Mexico.
Judith’s poems, stories and essays have been published widely for more than forty years, on paper and online - in literary journals; political, cultural and medical magazines; newspapers; academic journals; anthologies; and textbooks. See the WRITING page for more information.
She began to study and read the Tarot in 1970, the same year she got fired from her teaching job, joined the underground abortion service, and drove from Chicago to the Pacific coast and back on a political/philosophical road trip - a quest with many stops, occasional passengers, and a probably-obligatory flat tire in the desert. 1970 was a watershed year in Judith's life.
In the early nineteen-seventies, I had two experiences that turned me into a public person, put me out in front of an audience. I’d not been looking for or anticipating that change, though you could say (and I would, now) that teaching is public speaking; teaching requires a certain amount of performance for an audience - and I’d already done that for six years. Audre Lorde said teaching is front-line work; I learned that the hard way.
In 1970 I was fired from my teaching job (despite tenure), accused of unorthodox methods and attitudes. That decision by the school board catapulted two other teachers and me into a startlingly bright spotlight for nearly eight months. Then, in 1972, I was one of seven Janes arrested by the Chicago police; that pushed me again - more widely - into the public sphere, and ratcheted up the level of my sociopolitical education by many notches.
Those experiences were part of a great wave. Teachers were being fired all over the USA, accused of various kinds of disrespect for tradition and law. Many thousands of people were taking street-level action to protest and counteract the effects of bad law and bad policy. A notable chunk of that action was around reproductive justice and women’s rights; these things were front-page news. Everyone was learning from the courage and intelligence of the civil rights movement, which had likewise fostered the anti-war movement.
By the middle of the nineteen-seventies, I was no longer a high school teacher. I was talking and teaching about women’s health and sexuality, pregnancy, childbirth and nursing, abortion, adoption and other motherhood themes. I had become a mother and was learning what it means to consciously accept responsibility for a tender human life. I’d started work on my first book and was teaching women’s studies at local colleges (in those years, women all over the country were doing the necessary research and inventing courses) as well as writing workshops in my living room.
Writing (doing it and teaching about it) was moving into the center of my life. My first two books came out in 1979 and 1983. Even though I went to graduate school from 1984 to 1989, I did manage to publish some poems and stories in those years. Along with all that came performance; I read and talk in bookstores, libraries, college lecture halls, living rooms, cafes, galleries - and sometimes outdoors, in streets and parks and, in 2015, on an organic farm! I write, I publish what I write, and I perform what I write. I work in the theater of writing, wanting my words to rise from page and screen with the energy of spoken language. At the same time, I’m committed to understanding relationships between art and action, poetry and politics.
It’s dicey for anybody in the postmodern era to care about meaning and truth, about the value and use of literature, but I do. I’m a woman who began to be conscious at the end of the sixties in the USA, and began to grow into myself in the seventies. Before that time, though I was intelligent and competent, I didn’t really know who I was – or what the world was. More important, I had no idea I didn’t know those things. Luckily, I was educated by powerful social movements created by people struggling for liberation and justice. Like Oliver Wendell Holmes (of all people), I too can say: Through great good fortune, in youth my heart was touched with fire.