In April 2006 the Inglis House Poetry Workshop, a small community of poets with disabilities who resided at Inglis House in Philadelphia, hosted "Disability and Poetry: Unleashing the Art," the city's first ever daylong conference on disability and poetry. At the time, it felt like the beginning of a movement. It seems ironic, then, that with the tremendous growth of disability poetry over the intervening twelve years, it is only this coming that the first university sponsored symposium on disability poetry will be taking place. To say that it is long-awaited and overdue is an understatement.
The "Disability Poetics Symposium" will take place, Thursday, October 18, 2018 at the University of Pennsylvania. The symposium originated as the collaborative efforts of Orchid Tierney and Ariel Resnikoff from the University of Penn and poet Jennifer Bartlett representing Zoeglossia, an organization that promotes the recognition and advancement of the work of poets with disabilities. According to Tierney and Resnikoff, the day-long event will be an opportunity for "collaborative discussions around the relationships between the disabled body and poetic practices through avenues that test the very limits of poetry, publics and performance."
If disability poetry was "unleashed" in the small 2006 conference, the full range of its abilities will be on display at the University of Pennsylvania. Nowhere is this more evident than in the three planned panels. One panel will be dedicated to a discussion of the life and work of Larry Eigner, one of the true pioneers of disability poetry. The recognition that disability poetry has a history and that it has significant forerunners whose work is worthy of scholarship is an important step gained. It is a step heightened by the inclusion of Eigner scholars such as Bartlett and Michael Davidson.
A second panel will include a discussion of experimental poetry and the disabled body. Contrary to public perception, most contemporary disability poetry is neither backward-looking nor soporific. The lived experience of disability opens new avenues of exploration that lead to the use of experimental techniques. At the same time the use of experimental spatial techniques by able-bodied writers may render their work inaccessible or meaningless to blind and visually impaired readers. Inherent in the nature of this panel are opportunities for some provocative discussion.
The third panel will deal with questions of disability and public performance. Augmenting this panel will be the opportunity for symposium attendees and a larger audience to attend public readings by disabled poets. This reading will draw heavily on the strong community of writers with disabilities in Philadelphia.
In addition to what those who attend the symposium will be able to experience, the Wexler Studio at the university's highly-regarded Kelly Writers House will invite a wide range of poets, critics, scholars and Penn students to take part in recorded conversations and interviews. The plan is for these to be made available to the public through PennSound and Jacket2 Magazine.
While the full range of poets, scholars and readers has not been fixed in amber, participants to date include Michael Davidson, Camisha Jones, Kathi Wolfe, torrin a. greathouse, George Hart, Sharon Mesmer, Jennifer Bartlett and Gaia Thomas. Those interested in keeping abreast of the full range of presents and ongoing updates can sign up for the mailing list at firstname.lastname@example.org. It should be an exciting day.
Events like this, of course, do not exist in a vacuum. In addition to being sponsored by Zoeglossia, the symposium is supported by many entities at the University of Pennsylvania including the Kelly Writers House, the Creative Writing Program at the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, the Wolf Humanities Center, Penn English, Program in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory, the Poetry and Poetics Reading Group, and Jewish Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. In a time when support of the arts is especially needed, the help of these groups has been critical.