Polly Stewart was a folklorist, feminist, LGBTQ scholar, and LGBTQ icon from Utah. She worked with the LGBTQA Section of the American Folklore Society and Qualia Festival of Gay Folklife, and was a major intellectual architect in design of the Qualia Encyclopedia of Gay People.
Polly Stewart was born on July 27, 1943 in Salt Lake City to Martha and Justin Stewart. A gifted singer, Stewart also acted in plays and musical productions. She earned her PhD at the University of Oregon, and was the first graduate student of renowned folklorist Barre Toelken. Stewart spent the better part of her professional academic life at Salisbury University in Maryland, and worked with students to form the first campus LGBT organization. Besides a commitment to the Gay community, she did scholarly work in folklore, feminism, local history, and on the importance of lived experience narratives.
In 2004, Stewart returned to Salt Lake City, and helped create the Urban Pioneers 1960′s Folk Music Revival Concert, in part due to her own experiences performing with Utah Phillips in her youth. She was also an avid participant in the Qualia Festival of Gay Folklife, quickly becoming a dear friend of and counselor for Qualia coordinators Kevin Mason and Mickey Weems. Because of her dedication to Qualia, her name (as well as Joe Goodwin’s) was incorporated into a scholarship for performance-presentations sponsored by Qualia since 2011: the Goodwin-Stewart Award (PoJo) in which she and Goodwin were among the judges.
Commitment to Scholarly Excellence
Stewart gave the 1985 commencement address at Salisbury University entitled, “What Parson Weems Didn’t Tell You: Intellectual Crisis as a Mark of Liberal Education.” Her advice to the students was not to fear the uncertainty that comes with education:
Hand in hand with the excitement of intellectual discovery goes the discomfort of confrontation with the virtual impossibility of intellectual certitude. The result is intellectual liberation…
Just as growing is painful for the learner, so also is it painful to the learner’s significant others, particularly the family. It is not untypical for a freshman to come home after several weeks of college, bursting with new ideas, some of them counter to the values and beliefs and expectations and desires of the family left behind. Some students discover that they are angry at their parents because of what they’ve newly learned; some are in the process of discovering that the educational goals they were so sure of a few weeks before may not be what they wanted after all. Both students and parents have to try to be ready for the conflict that may arise because of the college experience. College provides one way of growing up, and growing up is not easy, either for the ones who have to do it or for the ones who have to let them.
Let me briefly say again the most important thing I want you to remember from this address: You have come to college to have your minds opened up, whether you knew that or not. In the process you will doubtless undergo intellectual stress, but most of you will experience intellectual growth of a sort that will never let you down when, through life, you are faced with difficult and many-sided issues. In this way you will be able to avoid being either intimidated or taken in by the anti-intellectuals of this world. So grow, then, and please know in the coming years that my best wishes are with you.
The full text of her speech is given in the article, “FolkWitness: ‘What Parson Weems Didn’t Tell You’ by Polly Stewart.”
Stewart was a strong supporter of LGBTQ students. David Lyberger, a student who was inspired by Stewart’s convocation speech who then asked her to be his academic advisor (she accepted), described one incident that epitomized her dedication:
When I was an undergraduate in the 1980s, I was one of the students involved in organizing Salisbury University’s LGBT student group. It was sometimes dicey, and at one point I was concerned about some faculty that didn’t approve of LGBT people, and who might make my academic career difficult. I talked with Polly about my concerns. She leveled her gaze at me and said, “If any faculty or administrator says anything about you, David, I will become a mother tiger. Have you ever seen a mother tiger protect her cubs?” During my time at Salisbury University as an undergrad and grad student, there were a few instances unrelated to LGBT issues that did arise. She did turn into a mother tiger.
Qualia Encyclopedia of Gay People
Stewart was also crucial voice in the conception and design of the Qualia Encyclopedia of Gay People. In the “QEGF Introduction” (a collaborative effort between Stewart, Joe Goodwin, and Mickey Weems), she eloquently put into words the most radical thing about the encyclopedia: the practice of bypassing the typical vetting process for knowledge certification:
An encyclopedia does not normally create new knowledge but rather epitomizes knowledge already created. The chain of academic certification starts with research and theorizing and it leads to oral presentation in scholarly meetings and graduate seminars. New knowledge is at the start of the chain. An outgrowth, an article in manuscript, is submitted for consideration in a journal only after having been vetted and debated in graduate seminars and in floor critiques at conferences, and it does not get into print until it has been read and commented on by journal referees…
Because of the newness of Gay folk, Gay folkways, and a visible and vibrant Gay folklife, there is a dearth of published LGBTQ folklore scholarship at the middle of the chain – journal articles and books. In addition, because following the chain may take years, knowledge in a middle source may have been superseded by emerging forms even before it sees print. Those of us who write articles for the Encyclopedia of Gay Folklife often find it necessary to leap over the middle categories so that lag time can be reduced from years to months, and in some instances, minutes.
The Qualia Encyclopedia of Gay Foklife is the result of curation: an understanding that new knowledge comes to us by means of textual, visual, and auditory artifacts, including netifacts (internet artifacts). We access video and audio recordings, blogs, official websites, and emails from the cornucopia of information sources available on the internet.[“Netifacts” and “curation” are concepts introduced by Weems in consultation with Goodwin and Stewart.]
Polly Stewart died on February 3, 2013 in Salt Lake City from intestinal cancer. Before she had died, Joe Goodwin had written her this poem:
The Bottle Tree
I remember the bottle trees
From my youth in the South —
Blue bottles on sawn-off branches —
Warding off evil spirits
While being memorials to those who have gone before.
I keep a clear bottle on an altar for you
Because the future is not obscured:
You are with us now and always.
During the 2013 meeting of the American Folklore Society in Providence, Rhode Island, Stewart was remembered during the LGBTQA section meeting in a tribute sponsored by Qualia called “Mother Tiger.” Participants were encouraged to wear “feather leis/boas or tiger gear” (feather boas and leis had been featured in two of the PoJos) Poems by Joe Goodwin, including the one cited above, were read, and Kay Turner performed a song. The master of ceremonies, Eric Morales (assisted by Goodwin and Turner) gave a feather lei to Marilyn White for her work on improving the Qualia Encyclopedia of Gay People, and a feather navigation lei to Stewart’s daughter. Morales also danced a hula dedicated to Stewart to a recording of “Aloha ‘Oe” by Hawaiian Queen Lili’uokalani, and sung by Robert Cazimero. The song choice was especially fitting, as Mickey Weems observed: “It was a song written by a queen and sung by a queen” (Cazimero is Gay).
Altman, Ross. “Folk Revival in Salt Lake City? Folklorist Polly Stewart Talks About Utah Phillips and Rosalie Sorrels.” Folkworks, July-August 2011 folkworks.org/all-columns-by-/40229-polly-stewart-salt-lake-folk-revival. Accessed April 2013.
Sieve, Heather. “Polly Stewart Interview.” Minds at UW, 2011, University of Wisconsin minds.wisconsin.edu/handle/1793/52561?show=full. Accessed April 2013.