A NEW DISABILITY POETICS: SYMPOSIUM IMPRESSIONS
I first heard of the symposium "A New Disability Poetics," from Mike Northen. It would be held, he said, on October 18th, at the University of Pennsylvania. Not long after his email came an invitation from one of its organizers, Orchid Tierney, to participate in a reading which, following the keynote address by Meg Day, would cap off the symposium. Of course, I eagerly answered "yes."
When my wife, Ona Gritz, and I stepped inside the LGBT Center on Penn's campus, which graciously served as the perfect venue for the symposium, breakfast was already in full swing, and I couldn't help noticing how amiable and animated the conversations around me sounded already.
The morning consisted of three panels. The first focused on the life and work of poet Larry Eigner. George Hart and Michael Davidson approached the topic from decidedly theoretical angles, which intersected significantly. Davidson began by talking about what disability poetics might mean or encompass and suggested that it would look at the way bodily impairments define or influence the aesthetic functioning of one's poems. What I found most fascinating was his discussion of "crip time"—the way that time for disabled people seems to be experienced differently—and how that shows up in Eigner's poetry. Hart also considered the element of time in Eigner's work and, like Davidson, argued that we need a new, disability poetics, one that would give us a better understanding of the poetic practices of disabled poets like Eigner by fully embracing their innovations and the particular circumstances that help to generate them.
Since I do not engage with the language of literary theory on a regular basis, I am sure that some valuable insights from Hart and Davidson slipped by me. In fact, I felt like I could have used a little "slow time" myself to parse what I was hearing. It didn't take much theoretical knowledge, however, to sense what enthusiasts both men are for Larry Eigner's poetry and what good allies in the academic world they are for poets with disabilities who can face ablest criticism even from the most innovative and inclusive thinkers.
What I remember most about Jennifer Bartlett coming after two such complex engagements with Eigner's work is how she found a way to address the more casual reader as well as the theoretically advanced one. Reading a chapter from her biography-in-progress, she managed to talk about Eigner and his poetic practices, situating him and his work in the context of his times, even exploring the influence of Charles Olson and his concept of projective verse, without a hint of talking down to the less-informed reader. I particularly love the correlation she drew between Eigner's refusal to walk with the assistance of mobility aids and his ability to achieve that desire for unconstrained movement through poetry by embracing experimental forms, rhyme, and meter.
The second panel, "Disability and Performance," sparked a lot of interesting discussion related to judging and bias in performance poetry. Camisha Jones told the story of the first poem she delivered at a slam and how it received a 6.5 out of 10 from one of the judges despite the fact that the audience was wildly enthusiastic. Afterward, she asked him why he gave her poem that score, and he answered that it was all about womanhood and he just couldn't identify with it. This led her to wonder if some poems about disability score low with able-bodied judges for similar reasons.
torrin a. greathouse, the other panelist, also talked about the slam scene and how poets like them have been pushing back against the traditional privileging of certain voices, especially the inordinate rewarding of loud, high-energy, masculine performers. Just as women have occasionally organized their own slams to cultivate women's voices and be judged by other women, poets with disabilities have been working to carve out places that celebrate and appreciate authentic performances by disabled poets. They also talked about the need to elevate the voices of poets with disabilities within the general slam arena and the need to examine the way random judges with implicit, anti-disability bias are chosen from the audience.
The final panel, "Experimentation and Disability," featured presentations by Sharon Mesmer and Gaia Thomas. (Kathi Wolfe, who was slated to be part of that panel, could not attend due to illness.) Mesmer described the kinds of hallucinatory images and feelings that take her over in rapid succession during an epileptic seizure and related those experiences to her involvement with the Flarf Poetry Collective. She explained that the Collective facilitates the writing of seizure-like work. I had never heard of Flarf poetry before, but I gather that Flarf poets use Google search results to create poems. After they create a poem in this way, they then feed lines from that poem back into Google to create multi-layered poems. Mesmer said she can approximate the experience of seizures by doing something which, like her seizures, is out of her control."Just like the images of my seizures worked spontaneously," she said, so did the content provided by the search engine.
Gaia Thomas spoke of "the uncertain I," referring to the drastically different sense of self she has following her traumatic brain injury. The injury affects her sense of time, her interactions with the world, and her level of consciousness. Her attention span has diminished significantly. "Where before I could call together vastly divergent facts in one moment, I now have trouble remembering what I'm doing from one moment to the next," she said. This more scattered self seems to have manifested itself in her poems by means of self-contained, long lines that don't purport to relate directly to each other. Yet, they give the poem an overall feel of coherence.
I think the most interesting thing that came out of this panel for me is the question of how much biographical information we need or should have when reading a poem. Many of us believe that the poem should stand on its own, without any background help. Hearing both of these poets read and talk about their work, however, left me with the sense that I wouldn't have found my way into their work and, therefore, fully appreciated its pleasures without some background knowledge. It's a conundrum because, on the other hand, given the news these days of male artists who have behaved badly, we can find ourselves wishing we didn't have so much biographical information so we could return to innocent days when we could judge and appreciate art on its own merits.
Unfortunately, the only time when Anne Kaier, Ona Gritz, Mike Northen, Jim Ferris, and I could record our work for PennSound conflicted with Meg Day's keynote address, so we weren't able to attend. Knowing from experience how great a resource PennSound is, I'm thrilled and honored to be included in such an amazing and wide-ranging treasure trove. We had an hour in which to record, so we did a round where we each took from 5 to 7 minutes, followed by a "lightning round" of 2-minute turns. I'm pleased that, for his first turn, Mike Northen gave a brief history of Wordgathering and the anthology, Beauty Is a Verb, which he co-edited. It's good to have an oral history of those contributions to disability poetry.
I have just learned that Kathi Wolfe will be recording some of her work for PennSound as well. You can access the PennSound archives by going to: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/authors.php
The day culminated in a reading by Jennifer Bartlett, Jim Ferris, Ona Gritz, Anne Kaier, Brian Teare, and me. Jennifer opened the event with a wildly funny sestina called "My Little Envoi," which builds on repeating elements that include text messages, Hassidic women, Yiddish, The Beastie Boys, and a Chagall painting. Jim Ferris followed with a long poem entitled "How We Swim," a moving elegy woven together by repeated lines. Then came Ona Gritz with her perfectly-pitched miniatures that, taken together, gave us a clear window into her life with cerebral palsy—from little girl to high school student to wife, to mother of a young, able-bodied boy to her current life with a blind partner—a whole life in seven minutes. Next, AnneKaier read three poems, two of which touched on her disability, ichthyosis. All three featured a quiet lyricism combined with strikingly sensual imagery. After Anne, I read two poems by my brother Dave and three of my own, all of which focused on our everyday lives as blind people. Finally, we heard from Brian Teare. He read from a book of ekphrastic poems whose visual appearance contributes significantly to their aesthetic—poems designed not to allow a singular, unified reading. I mention all these details about the reading, reductive as they may be, in the hopes of conveying some sense of the varied and veritable feast they provided. I came away exhilarated by that variety and bounty.