STILL PRESENT TENSE: THE POETS OF BEAUTY IS A VERB
In 2011, I was fortunate to work with poets Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black in the creation Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Lee and Bobby Byrd of Cinco Puntos press took a chance on the anthology and published it. Shortly after its publication, poetry guru Ron Silliman predicted that it would be one of the defining collections of the twenty-first century. Whether or not that comes to pass is still to be revealed, but according to World Cat, which tracks book distribution, Beauty is a Verb is now in over 440 libraries world-wide – primarily in colleges and universities – and has taken its place in disability studies and literature courses around the country.
One of the things that made BIAV so exceptional was talent and diversity of the poets who contributed to it. As might be expected, writers with the kind of creativity represented in the anthology have been not been staying still for the past six years. As a group, many have collaborated to help further the cause of disability literature. Jen Bartlett, Sheila Black, Jim Ferris, Jillian Weise and Ellen McGrath Smith were driving forces in establishing the D/deaf and Disabled Writers Caucus at AWP that continues to lobby for greater inclusion of and accommodation for disabled writers. Jen, Sheila, Jillian, Jim and John Lee Clark* have been able to command the attention of the mainstream journal Poetry, resulting in the inclusion of the work of many more writers with disabilities in both its hard copy and online offerings. Since the publication of Beauty is a Verb, the annual Split This Rock Festival in Washington, DC has ramped up its efforts to spotlight disabled poets, and, as Sheila Black notes, "One of the best results of BIAV also has been that other people have put together other anthologies that touch on disability in new and very creative ways."
Nevertheless, as the anthology itself made clear, these poets are a very diverse group and their individual careers have fanned forth in a myriad of directions. As the editor of Wordgathering, I've invited all of those writers still living whose poetry was included in the anthology to send a sample of the kind poetry they have been working on these days and a few lines about what they have been up to since the publication of the anthology. Amazingly, sixteen of them responded. Their work continues to be remarkable and the point of this essay is to share it with the disability literary community at large. While there is no particular order to what follows, it does make sense to lead off with my two co-editors, Sheila and Jen – both of whom, I'm thrilled to point out, have been headliners in subsequent Split This Rock Festivals.
Since the publication of BIAV, Sheila Black has taken the job of running a literary center in San Antonio. She collaborated with Annabelle Hayes and Michael Northen to produce another anthology, The Right Way to be Crippled and Naked: The Fiction of Disability. She has also authored several books of her own poetry, none of which have had much to do with disability. Sheila says she is still always surprised that I not infrequently meet people who have read and been somehow empowered or given permission by BIAV and, has mentioned above how many new anthologies are making their appearance. She is quick to add, "I know many of these would have happened without BIAV, but I also know a few cases – such as the forthcoming UK anthology, Stairs and Whispers:D/dead and Disabled Poets Write Back, edited by Sandra Alland, Khariani Barokka, and Daniel Sluman, where encountering BIAVand the writers in it, helped pave the way."
I was interested to find in the Old West texts I read—oral histories, mostly, the accounts of Plains newsmen, the women described as if injured or incomplete "what their frail bodies will not bear," that kind of thing, and the ferocity of the girl kidnapped by the Cayuse Indians after the Whitman Massacre who says the neighbors would like "to stick pins in me for telling a simple truth." On the senate floor today in Austin, woman stand in their bodies telling their most private and painful stories. It is not explained why they must do this—the bodies they hold in front of themselves, traced in signs that read "My abortion hurt," or "I am proud to choose." The girl who survived the massacre said she preferred the knife to the gun, any pain that is simple to "the complex tortures civilization devises for us." She listed among these "horsehair sofas and corsets." I read books about persons missing a limb, often it will ache, they will feel a space around themselves where it had been or should be. I have never understood why Adam is believed to forge Eve from his own spare rib or why this became a joke in the sixties when I was a child—some kind of shorthand for sexual play, an approved Playboy wit. In some early stories, there is the first woman God made, who went rogue; the stories about her have a taboo air, much as the plain naked body of a woman is usually seen as somehow dangerous and/or unclean so that you could take Sophocles' description of Philoctetes' famous foot and make it a text about what a girl should do to keep herself from shame with the exchange of only a few simple pronouns or maybe the odd conjunction. In my friend Bernie's hometown in Ireland, a woman who has borne a child is polluted and must be "churched" in the side chapel before she can take mass in the main sacristy. This has never been otherwise in Bernie's memory and because of this almost no one finds it strange. On the news I see a woman sob with the camera pointed in her face. Her body she holds in front of her has become a legislative problem, an agenda, an obligation. To reframe it we would have to unmake so much. I search for mentions of Lilith—who is she, mud-woman, snake-woman, in the trees, drunk in the garden as over-ripe plum with only her name, an obligation, heavy on her rib-cage, to point out and rename each thing?
For the past five years Jen Bartlett has been concentrating a lot of effort on a biography of Larry Eigner, the first draft of which will be completed this summer. Some of her writings, Eigner-related and others, have been published in the Poetry Foundation's, Harriet blog. Among the other things that Jen has collaborated with Sheila Black on is the foundation of Zooglosia, an organization dedicated to providing retreats and workshops for writers with disabilities. Though Bartlett's own poetry has not been her major focus lately, she has been working on her next book, called In The Country of Absence. The following poem comes from that manuscript.
It is nearly Easter, smack down
Among the poets in BIAV, Raymond Luczak is surely one of the most prolific. As the Publisher of Handtype Press (and its imprint Squares and Rebels) he has focused on seeing that the work the work of D/deaf writers gets into print and made available to the public. Raymond recently published Kristen Ringman's I Stole You (see the review of the book and an excerpt in this issue) and plans to publish work from Kelly Davio, Jon Christopher Heuer, and Ian Young this year. Raymond has been busy as a writer as well. Two of his one-minute plays will be performed in St. Paul this month and he has been commissioned by the National Technical Institute of the Deaf (NTID) to write a new full-length play for 2018. A collection of his stories, The Kinda Fella I Am comes out in November and he is working on a new book of poetry "that re-imagines our world from the perspective of inanimate objects who are never considered as beings." Here is one of Raymond's recent poems.
Each story is a tattoo that I show and tell
A frequent past colleague of Raymond and his interest in Deaf literature is John Lee Clark. John is without a doubt the most vociferous critic of Faulkner's famous statement "the past is not dead, it isn't even past." He says,"I asked Mike Northen about throwing out the poems he, Jennifer Bartlett, and Sheila Black had accepted for Beauty is a Verb. He said it was too late. This was terribly disappointing, for when I get into something new, the old is dead, dead, dead! Or at least it is to me."
True to his word, John has worked on new forms of poetry, one – his own invention – called the slateku for a new manuscript. In 2013 he published the anthology Deaf Lit Extravaganza and in 2014 a collection of his essays Here I Stand. In 2015 he was a runner up for Split This Rock's Freedom Plow award. Progress on other projects include a huge survey of DeafBlind literature, two selected poems volumes, a biography and his second essay collection. He's also been deeply involved in the protactile movement and travels regularly to give trainings. At home he teaches Braille. John says, "My family is doing great. Our oldest son will soon turn eighteen." Though he no longer embraces the poems published in the anthology, one positive outcome of being associated with it is becoming involved with its community of poets. As John puts it, " I am now sort of othering the abled.… addressing my own community, sometimes explicitly by using someone's name. �Jillian, you won't believe what happened to me yesterday!' The public is not my audience, though it is welcome to eavesdrop." He offers the following as a sample of his recent work.
The Three Frenchmen
They sailed to America as their native son had done one hundred years before. They asked to be taken to his grave, but their American hosts wanted to show them where the Gallaudets were buried first. The Gallaudets slept amidst rolling greens dotted with white tombs and statues. "Yes, very nice," the three Frenchmen said, "but where is Laurent Clerc? " They were taken to the other side of Hartford, to a small cemetery. They found the small headstone. When they read the words "Born in Le Balme, France, " they broke down. They unwrapped two plam leaves made of gold with long stems and planted them at the head of his grave. Their American hosts told them they couldn't leave the gold palm leaves there. "Someone will steal them. " The three Frenchmen looked at each other and nodded. One of them knelt on the ground and carefully pulled out the palm leaves. Another pulled out a flask of wine and poured it over the ground. He said, "These Americans"–here his fingers made the crude corners of a log cabin–"do not understand wine. All they ever drink is filthy water. "They laughed and wiped away their tears.
Kara Dorris' take on the role Beauty is a Verb, is quite different from John Lee Clark's. In fact, her thoughts on the experience are published as a separate essay, "The Beauty of Beauty is a Verb" in this issue of Wordgathering. Kara continues as the editor of the online poetry journal Lingerpost. Having earned her PhD in literature and poetry, she now teaches at the University of North Texas. Kara has published two poetry chapbooks, Elective Infinities and The Night Ride Home. Her work appears in the short fiction anthology The Right Way to Be Naked and Crippled as well as numerous poetry journals.
Sara says, call me Paladin. Have Gun, Will Travel. We always loved that gentlemanly fisticuff spitting tobacco & quoting Aristotle. & who are we now, but ladylike gunfighters trying to create order, to believe – ruin is what you make of it. But it could also read: Have Blowtorch, Have Mask, Have Hush, Have Band-Aids. Any catch phrase that says, coming to a town near you–ready for wisdom that embargos & enflames on slow days. It could read: Have Hands, Have Desire, Have Viewfinder. Any catch phrase that says, Hey Boy, Hey Girl, ready for instincts that lead into other. Asunder. Have Memory, Have White Flag. Yes, any catch phrase that says, failure is a great lover. Yes, that's it. Here's my card. Have Ruin, Will Travel.
When BIAV was published, Jim Ferris' poem, "Poem With Disabilities" was posted on the Cinco Puntos website as the book's manifesto. And for good reason. Jim's previous advocacy of disability poetry as a legitimate genre had been long-standing. Since the anthology's publication, he continues to teach and hold the Ability Center Endowed Chair in Disability Studies at the University of Toledo, where a baccalaureate degree in Disability Studies is offered. He is in his second year as chair of the Disabled and D/deaf Writers Caucus,which was formed at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs ("the dread AWP") in 2016. Jim is in continuous demand as a panelist and speaker on disability issues. Recently, his work has been published in Poetry, Wordgathering and other venues.
I want to ride an airplane
Along with Jim Ferris, two other writers, who have been actively involved in the Disabled and D/deaf Writers Caucus are Ellen McGrath Smith and Jillian Weise. While promoting her book Nobody's Jackknife, Ellen has been closing in on a project that she started just after 9/11: Shaken: A Re-Cycle. As Ellen describes the project, " I write poems that engage in some way with the first line of Shakespeare's sonnets, whether thematically or heuristically. In the later half of the cycle, I created a form in which each line of my poem needs to consist of words beginning with he same letters as those in the first line from a given Shakespearean sonnet. It is a challenge to do this, and forces some unexpected diction and syntax. As much of the final 'push' at the end of project has taken place during our highly unusual presidential election, the formal constraint I'd established served as a code-filter through which I could reflect on the political scenario without falling into the usual rhetoric. 'Shaken 148 (O me! what eyes hath love put into my head!)' captures the struggle of centering on positive emotions when so much bitterness is in the air. And ends on the simple fact that we find our comfort and strength in our connection with others."
Shaken 148: O me! what eyes hath love put in my head
Or maybe we each hoard light, preventing its mighty hagiography,
As almost anyone with a disability who attended the AWP conference knows, Jillian Weise did more than just take part in the meetings of the caucus. Her heteronym Tipsy Tullivan lampooned conventional attitudes towards disability and writing that groups like ADP sometimes display in the creation of a series of webvideos. In 2013 her book of poetry The Book of Good-byes appeared and in September, Soft Skull Press will publish a 10th Anniversary Edition of The Amputee's Guide to Sex. This year her essay, "The Dawn of the 'Tryborg'" appeared in The New York Times. Much of Weise's work critiques ableist assumptions and metaphors as she does in the following answer to Maggie Smith's recent poem, "Good Bones," asking "What if one doesn't have 'good bones'?"
Catullus Tells Me Not to Write the Rant
You don't like the poem. So what?
For many in the disabilities literary community, one of the most exciting and joyful events of 2015 was the wedding of two poets whose work appeared in BIAV, Ona Gritz and Daniel Simpson. If a book is ever written describing the literary history of disability, the uniqueness of the ceremony itself deserves a prominent place. Ona and Dan have long served as each others literary sounding boards but they have been particular productive lately. Since the publication of Beauty is a Verb, two books of Ona have been released: a poetry collection, Geode and a memoir, On the Whole: a Story of Mothering and Disability. Her essay, "It's Time", was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays, 2016. She and Dan were poetry editors for Referential Magazine from 2013 through to it's final issue in 2016. Their joint poetry collection, Border Songs: A Conversation in Poems, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.
Despite her status as a poet, Ona has concentrated on essays and memoir writing in the past few years. One of the focuses of her writing has been disability and motherhood, as in the following essay.
It was my three year old son who showed me how to see the top of the Empire State Building from our living room window. I stood beside him, tilting my head so that my body formed a lowercase r. There it was, behind the squat familiar buildings on Hudson Street. The needle in its dome and the beginning edges of concrete.
Unique View of Manhattan Skyline, I could advertise if I wanted to sell our Hoboken apartment to very short people. But I love this town. Tree lined blocks of brownstones. Old factory buildings converted to artist lofts. Outdoor concerts on summer evenings. The wide main street where grocers and bank tellers fuss over my son, their accents comfortingly similar to the New Yorkese I worked so hard to lose when I left for college from Queens. [To continue reading click here.]
Dan Simpson's collection of poetry, School for the Blind was published in 2014. Like Ona and other writers in this essay, he has had an essay published in the influential New York Times disability series – in Dan's case, two essays. With Ona he is currently editing an anthology of poetry, prose and writing prompts for Murphy Writing Seminars and Diode Editions. He still sings with the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and works as a Technical Support Specialist for the Library of Congress.
Much of Dan's focus in the recent past has surrounded the life and art of his identical twin brother Dave, who died of ALS in December, 2015. Even through the earlier stages of Dave's ALS, the twins continued to enjoy performing their show for schools, libraries, churches and conferences, which combined music and poetry and told the story of their development as artists. His tribute to Dave appeared in Wordgathering. The epistolary poem below reflects their relationship.
Letter across the Border
By this point in the essay, it is obvious that one of the most important recent literary events, not only for the poets of BIAV but for disability writing in general has been the series of essays in The New York Times, which has reached thousands of people. Credit for the impetus for this event goes to Anne Kaier who originally contacted the series editor and whose essay was the first to be accepted for the series. Her second essay has recently appeared in the series as well. Like several of the other writers in the anthology, Anne has focused primarily on prose writing recently. Her memoir Home with Henry was published in 2015 and she is her currently in England where she hascompleted the first draft of a new memoir about my time in Oxford in the late 1960s. Anne has not abandoned poetry, however, and is also circulating her finished a poetry manuscript, How Can I Say It Was Not Enough, from which the following poem comes.
Saint Jerome often ponders near an ancient skull, polished
Kathi Wolfe has continued to work primarily in poetry. Her collection The Green Light published by Finishing Line Press in 2013 is an imaginary look back at how disability and other human differences fared in the "happy days" of the 1950's. Kathi's collection The Uppity Blind Girl Poems, winner of the 2014 Stonewall Prize, was published by BrickHouse Books in 2015. Her poetry has appeared in Poetry magazine and other publications. She continues to be a disabilities advocate, particularly in the areas surround Washington, DC.
I Could Not See to See
the child standing
Shortly after the appearance of Beauty is a Verb, Denise Leto collaborated with Amber DiPietra, also from the anthology, to write the experimental book Waveform. One of the most diverse and risk-taking artists to take part in BIAV, Denise has since then been involved in cross-genre performance and collaboration; poetry and text art for Your Body is Not a Shark exploring feminist articulations of physical and vocal difference through dance, sound art, and music. Denise has awarded the Orlando Prize in poetry, a fellowship and residency in Sicily and the inaugural Lez Residency at Sugarloaf. She continues participating in choral readings as a co-panelist or visiting artist. Her new manuscript explores the politics and poetics of loss and grief through embodied geographic and imaginary terrain.
She lay down with her, she laid with her
When asked if he would contribute a poem to this essay, Stephen Kuusisto quickly obliged, as he always does. The comments he sent about his own accomplishments, however, are woefully understated. To it: "Stephen Kuusisto teaches at Syracuse University and is the author of numerous books of nonfiction and poetry." As the editor of two anthologies in which Steve's work has appeared, I feel compelled to jump in with my own biases. For starters, Steve authors what is perhaps the most popular and recognizable disability blog going, Planet of the Blind. His poetry collection Letters to Borges is a must read for anyone who takes disability poetry seriously. Not only does he teach at Syracuse but he is responsible with several of his colleagues for continuing to grow what is one of the country's longest standing and most dedicated disabilities programs, providing increasing opportunities for disabilities students and artists. He is as willing as any writer I know to help other writers with disabilities, while at the same time feeling no hesitation in breaking ranks with the majority of his colleagues about what disability writing should or should not be. A new writer recently wrote to me as editor of Wordgathering to tell me that he how privileged he feels to have his work appear in the same publication as Stephen Kuusisto. �nuf said.
Spectacles, or, "The Giant"
My first pair I buried in our garden
Hal Sirowitz and Petra Kuppers. the two remaining poets who responded to call for an update, were both widely published prior to their appearance in the anthology and have continued their work. Expressing a common concern of virtually all of the writers in the anthology, Hal says "Things have been good for me but bad for the country under our new President, Donald Trump. He's a builder who does not believe in building bridges but dividing people. I've written a series of poems taking him on. The anthology and Wordgathering have been very good at showing for each challenged community, there has been a fighting back. I'm still getting published frequently in magazines, such as Hanging Loose, Mudfish, Lips, Typos, Failbetter.com, but feel so annoyed at President Trump that it's hard to enjoy my success."
In lieu of a poem, Hal has given us a glimpse into his life with a short piece called "Adventures with Parkinsons."
> Having Parkinson's disease is like being on a roller coaster ride. You wonder why you ever paid admission. Then, you remember you had no choice. Whether you've gotten Parkinson's from a gene or from the environment, it doesn't really matter. You find out you can't get off. You're stuck on the ride forever. The ride stops in mid-air. You realize it's always going to be like this – a personal battle to regain your balance. What was once easy – like standing – becomes harder to do. [To continue reading click here.]
Much like Kara Dorris, to Petra Kuppers at the time of her inclusion in BIAV, engaging feminist experimental modes of writing in a disability environment felt risky. However, these days she finds much space in creative writing as a way of witnessing embodied experiences. Explaining her poem "Court Theater" she says.
In the poem "Court Theatre," the site of this drifting is the courtroom, as a space where everybody waits, where memory and re-memory are at stake. I use this court room drifting to support life in the aftermath of a sexual assault by a bodyworker during a massage session in Ann Arbor in 2015. I went to court, with much help from friends and strangers, and the man did get convicted, but the sequence of events shifted my life.
I thank the bowl of my hips
As the tremendous productivity of the writers above testifies, the growth in disability poetry is both vigorous and diverse. When Sheila, Jen and I first began planning the anthology over seven years ago, we had no idea of just how far its impact would reach. As Sheila mentioned, one of the major events for disability poetry this year will be the appearance of an anthology of British Disability poetry whose impetus came from reading Beauty is a Verb and seeing just what was possible. Wordgathering will be reviewing that anthology in its September. It is gratifying to see just how far our efforts have carried.
*Author's notes: (1)Though I make it a practice to avoid referring to writers by their first names, the collegiality that has developed among many of the writers in this anthology makes using surnames seem unnecessarily formal. (2) In the interest of space and ease of reading and because of the length of this essay, several of the longer pieces have been truncated after the initial paragraph with a link provided to the entire piece. (3) A few pieces have been previously published. Ona Gritz's essay was published in Quiet Mountain Essays and Anne Kaier's poem appeared in Referential magaine. As noted, some of the poems are from the writers' own books.