Alta Dies At 81 – Poetry News May 20th

We begin another week here on My Poetic Side with a look at the poet who founded the first feminist press in America.

Feminist poet Alta Dies Aged 81

The feminist poet Alta, who is believed to have started the first feminist press in America, Shameless Hussy, has died at the age of 81.

Known only as Alta – in an effort to not be associated with either her father or husband, the poet founded the shoestring printing operation in 1969 from her home, using only a hand-cranked offset printer. She had been having difficulties getting her brand and sensuous poetry published by more mainstream companies and, learning that she was not the only poet in this position, decided to do something about it.

There were not many bookshops who were willing to carry Shameless Hussy’s books. The bold feminist writing did not appeal to them nor did the format of the books which were stapled, spineless chapbooks (many of which are not collector’s items)

The name Shameless Hussy was the phrase used by the poet’s mother for those women she didn’t approve of, and seemed apt for a company that would go on to produce work by some of the era’s most notable feminist writers. Pat Parker, the Black lesbian poet, and Mitsuye Yamada were amongst some of the first poets Shameless Hussy published.

Alta was also responsible for the publication of poem By Ntozake Shange. The work bowled Alta over when she received it and she often mentioned in interviews how she couldn’t put it down.

“Remember Our Fire” was a debut collection for the publisher and brought together a collection of 10 poems all written by women who Alta found. She held a reading to celebrate the collection but all of those who had been published refused to attend. Julia Vinograd felt it was just a group of women reading whilst Diane di Prima was confused about the mission behind the feminist movement.

Whilst the first reading was a failure, there were others and people did turn up in their numbers. Eventually, the book appeared in bookstores and began selling and with that other women began to approach Alta with their poems. By 1977 it is believed that 82 feminist presses existed across the United States and Canada. This was also the year that “For Colored Girls” was tracked down by a mainstream book store, who wanted to stock it because they had customers “clamouring” for it.

Alta was often described by her peers as being a “female Charles Bukowski”. She enjoyed crossing the lines with her poetry.

Born on 22nd May 1942 in Reno Nevada, Alta (Gerrey) grew up with her parents who ran a piano store from the family home. She was taught piano from an early age, something which helped with sales. Both her father and brother were blind, and they eventually moved to California so her brother could attend a special school.

Alta was married twice with both marriages ending in divorce. She is survived by two daughters and a granddaughter.


  • Narayan Gadagkar

    Very sad to know the death of poetess Alta .My heartfelt condolences .

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