Alta, Irreverent Feminist Poet and Small-Press Pioneer, Dies at 81

Shameless Hussy Press was a shoestring operation in 1969 when the poet known as Alta began publishing books from her house on a hand-cranked offset printer. She was having trouble getting her own brash and sensuous free-form poetry published by the mainstream companies, as were her friends, and when she learned how simple offset printing was, she decided to do it herself.

Few bookstores were willing to carry Shameless Hussy’s publications, not just because of the content — there was not, at first, an appetite for such bold feminist writing — but also because of the format: spineless, stapled chapbooks, like zines. (Many of its titles are now collector’s items.)

Still, Shameless Hussy (the name was a phrase Alta’s mother used for women she didn’t approve of) would go on to publish works by some of the most notable feminist writers of the era, including the Black lesbian poet and activist Pat Parker and Mitsuye Yamada, whose pieces about her childhood in a Japanese internment camp, “Camp Notes and Other Poems,” were first published by Shameless Hussy in 1976.

Alta, who founded what is believed to be the country’s first feminist press — and who went by her first name only, so as not to be associated with the surnames of her father or husbands — died on March 10 at home in Oakland, Calif. She was 81.

Her daughter Kia Simon said the cause was breast cancer.

Alta published Ntozake Shange’s landmark poem, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf.” Ms. Shange had conceived the piece as what she called a choreopoem — a mix of dance, music and the spoken word — weaving together the voices of women who have endured sexism, racism, rape and more. Originally performed in bars and coffeehouses, it went on to fame as a play, first at the Public Theater in Manhattan and then on Broadway.

Alta recalled being bowled over by “For Colored Girls” when Ms. Shange sent it to her. “I was just stunned,” she said in an oral history conducted for the University of California Santa Cruz. “I just kept reading it and reading it.”

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