TEN MORE POEMS TO KICKSTART YOUR DISABILITY LIT CLASS
In 2014 I wrote an essay for Wordgathering called "Ten Poems to Kickstart Your Disability Lit Class." The purpose of the essay was to give teachers at a school level or above some fairly easily understood poems that would force students to grapple with some difficult issues that society poses for people with disabilities and perhaps even confront their own ableism. For classes that included a disabled student, it might provide a chance for that student's experiences to be given center stage.
The essay appears to have been successful in its purpose and now, three years later, it seems useful to present ten more poems that will up the ante a little. Not only are most of these new poems more challenging to read than those presented in the first essay, but, in addition to presenting some new issues, they also ask students to begin to consider the role of the disabled artist and what contributions their writing might be able to make. While the initial essay confined itself to shorter poems or poem stanzas out of recognition that many of the readers might be new to poetry and lose interest in a lengthier poem, the poems that follow (with one exception) are printed in their entirety. Also as in the first essay, the order of the poems is only suggestive, but a good place to jump back into the conversation about poetry and disability is with Liz Whiteacre's poem involving teacher and students in an English composition class.
1. Does the Teacher Want Your Pity?
COMPOSITION STUDENTS PITY ME IN ENGLISH 101
All term, I gimp around, first with wires poking
I try to make light of my plodding, but their smiles hold pity:
It's awkward…like the teddy bear a man from the community heater
and the students act too, as if they'd pick up dropped chalk for any instructor.
The Monday after spring break, I wait for the students, ready
Highlighting editing marks on the screen, I'm interrupted
My cheeks burn. Flustered. I was told not to talk
stand and lean, hover like bees admiring the diamonds from Kevin's
"Settle down," I say, and they settle into their seats.
They've paid attention in literature classes and want to believe in a theme
joy burning my face, because don't I want to believe that too,
high in the mountains…they applaud, like it's the best thing
Most students have come to recognize the value of diversity in class but how would they feel if their teacher has a disability? What if she were in a wheelchair, deaf, blind, or were bipolar? Would they be resentful ? Would they pity her? Pity is a power dynamic that lowers the person being pitied to a subordinate position? How might the teacher feel about that? Whiteacre also poses the question of happy endings as symbolized by the ring? What is a happy ending and who is entitled to what?
2. And this is Love?
& THIS IS LOVE
she goes limp falls into my arms
& sit the other side of the door
& this is love how we live between
in the plug-hole the morning cigarette
the ambulance when I hear her head smack
How does Sluman's description of love, jive with the idea of happy endings? How would students answer the poet's title question? Though he does not say so in the poem, Sluman himself has a disability. Should people with disabilities “stick with their own kind” in dating and marriage? The poet's final line challenges the idea that there is one normal, right way to be. How do students interpret that?
3. Do I Have a Right to Have Children?
THE DARK QUESTION
When you dream
Five fingers and five toes. Even the dream catcher
The dark question, birth,
Christ opens his mouth all over me. Red
Dare I be
My father and his mother before him. We beget
Our perfection varies.
Whether or not people with disabilities should have children is a contentious topic. How do students answer Linfor's “Dare I…?” Was Oliver Wendell Holmes infamous statement "three generations of imbeciles is enough" closer to their beliefs. Linfor complicates this issue of with the religious contention that human beings are created in the image of God. Just who decides what the image is?
4. Am I To Blame?
call to the stand
dis-order is in the court
recall the forceps, the vaccines, her obvious admission of guilt
she will plead for a series of trials but
her burden is proof
you will judge
for yourself how well she's doing
The poem is set up as a trial. What is the trial about? In the past mothers of children with autism were frequently called “refrigerator moms” whose lack of emotion for their children was the cause of their child's condition. How do students feel about this. Take it a step further. The poet is the mother of two children with autism and whose family carries the Fragile X chromosome. Given this added information – and in light of the discussion of the Linfor poem – does this change students' opinions of her and her situation?
5. What Women Want
"Irreconcilable differences," she says.
"They're crooked. Criminal. Either they go, or I go."
Rigidity keeps them splayed, a cold couple in separate beds.
At six years old, the tension
between them reached such a pitch
my vagina started to fuse shut, went mute.
My mother slathered her daily in estrogen gel
and she exploded.
Now she sings opera—
speaks Hungarian with only just the slightest
Long Island accent, designs her own wardrobe
of eighteenth century gowns
insists all Georgia O'Keefe's flowers
are portraits of her.
She says she's overqualified to work with my legs.
Their bad attitude is affecting the higher ups.
My right hand hooked on relaxants;
my back collapsing into its low self esteem—
she can't work under these conditions.
At weddings, while I dance all night,
my vagina tells me I look like Shakira.
My legs turn me into something like
a baby pony on three shots of Jose Quervo
When my vagina makes my toes curl;
my legs won't let them straighten again.
I have to sit up and pull them like artichoke leaves
When the lady conductor on Long Island Rail Road
asks for proof of my special needs
my legs spasm their shame while my vagina
quips, "my special needs include:
cannoli cream, poems by the Earl of Rochester, and
an orgy with the entire Huston family."
In Times Square last week, a shirtless, drunk fratboy
with a sign around his neck advertising
FREE HUGS AND SEX TIPS
flinched away from my legs,
his douchebaggery silenced.
My vagina bitch slapped him.
She demands to be objectified like any able pussy in America!
She wants to go clubbing; throws
spiked platforms from Trash and Vaudeville
at the wall next to my head while my legs lay stiff
and snoring by the bedroom door.
I try to explain that I can't
apply winged Nefertiti eyeliner or punk faerie
lilac highlights with one hand.
Can't clasp necklaces or keep loose in stockings
I am not the woman
she'd be proud to wear.
The blame for all this falls
on my legs. She calls it a
crippled cunt conspiracy.
But she thinks I am worth more than books,
blogging, and being called cutie pie
by a homeless guy or some gamer with a fetish.
My vagina thinks I'm sexy.
She says it's not her fault
if my legs can't support that. [Liv Mammone]
It is now commonplace to hear women resent male attitudes that represent them as sex objects. While concurring with that view, Mammone's tough poem asks whether women with disabilities have the right to be viewed sexually. In the minds of students, does seeing a person with a visible physical disability automatically cause them to write that person as a sexual partner? How do they respond to the accusation that this is an ableist mindset?
6. What is the place of disability art?
The Humpty Dumpties sit in a row
We get the artists' m.o. —
After reading the first five poems, students have probably begun to feel that disability does have something important to contribute to the discussion of poetry and other art forms. Wing's poem pushes past the pedestrian realization that “the broken can be beautiful” to ask what more disability art can achieve. How does her upending of the Humpty Dumpty rhyme contribute to that discussion?
7. Who is Entitled to Write?
THE VILLANELLE TAKES A STAND
I am so sick of reading poems by people
and how sorry the people feel for them
who have their civil rights and say, Yes,
blown into ditches and across streets
in a magazine that reads You're
are attached at the hip and knee
There is a saying in disability literature, “Nothing About Us Without Us.” Weise raises the question of whether those who have not lived a life without disability can legitimately create a poem about the experience of disability. Do the concepts of creativity and freedom of expression give a “partition of poetry” the right to treat disability like any other subject in the name of art? In light of Schellenberg's thoughts about breakage and art, what does Weise's choice to appropriate the villanelle form contribute to the discussion.
8. The Body is a Poem
to walk means to fall
to fall and catch
the seemingly random
based on a series of neat errors
to thrust forward
sometimes the body misses
with this particular knowledge
a movement spastic
is its own lyric and
tone-deaf to this singing
A key concept of disability poetry is that of the embodied poem, i.e. is that like music, the poem originates and can't be divorced from the body. In listening to themselves walk, most students would hear and feel a kind of bilateral symmetry that translated into meter would have a regular beat. But what about the body that does not conform to ordinary symmetry? Beginning with her own body, how does Bartlett, whose gait is affected by her cerebral palsy translate the knowledge of her body into poetry? What other ways might a physical difference affect a poem?
9. Viewpoint Reversal
Trembling against my hands
Cat has the same voice.
Mother says it's ear waves. Vibrations.
or "finish" in sign language.
When I open my mouth
my mother holds me quick
Karyn Lie-Nielsen is an ASL interpreter and a child of two deaf parents (frequently known as a CODA).
Like Bartlett's poem, Lie-Nielsen's hinges on what her body tells her about the world. In this poet's case,
though, the world of the hearing is not her default environment. Standard assumptions about how one learns to
communicate do not apply. How would students respond if the marginalized viewpoint were now the center and those
who consider themselves the normal had to accommodate to it. What disability-related scenarios can they imagine?
Note that Lie-Nielsen does not attempt to speak for disability but only of her own experiences.
10. What Can Disability Poetry Contribute?
GOLDILOCKS IN DENIAL
Goldilocks was in deep denial and refused to use a white cane
The author of this piece John Lee Clark, is a Deaf/blind writer. In what ways does Clark incorporate the knowledge from his own experience of disability into the poem? Among the many important things to consider about this poem are the meaning of title and the way in which he brings something new to standard poetry by incorporating literal translations from American Sign Language.