STILL LEARNING TO LOVE THE LIMP
B.H. Fairchild once said to me, your poems are mediocre with moments of brilliance. We were sitting in his office at the University of North Texas. It was an offhand statement, probably forgotten as soon as he said it. But the kernel was seeded. It was like he said something I knew to be true deep down but feared to realize. I'm not sure why I've kept writing. Okay, that is actually a lie: I was too scared to quit. I am validation's bitch, as Melissa Brody says in her essay collection So Sad Today. I was year two into a five year PhD and to admit defeat to the world seemed impossible. I wish I could say I didn't quit because poetry is in my blood, which it is, or that I don't know how to interact with the world without poetry, which I don't. But my belief in the power of poetry, in myself to wield it, was not strong enough. The fear of telling my loved ones, the world, that I had failed, was stronger than my faith. I didn't quit. I passed my comp exams, defended my dissertation, and graduated. But still. Even now, when I'm a Visiting Assistant Professor at Illinois College with four chapbooks, and my first full-length collection coming out–my PhD dissertation manuscript no less–I hear Fairchild's words: mediocre with moments of brilliance.
I'm not here to discuss our responsibility as teachers to nurture or to hate on B.H. Fairchild. I don't particularly care why he said it, or what he saw in my poems that inspired that phrase. And his words had nothing to do with my disability, at least in his mind. I believe that. So, why, for the past 5 years, have I been fighting its influence? Not just that one moment, but the power I've given it? What inside me allowed this moment to take hold, to spread, to taint? That question, whatever its answer, is the point of this essay. And a truth I've known but have failed to articulate, by which I mean failed to separate from my skills as a poet.
Before I ever became a poet, the seeds of less than, of mediocrity sank in when I looked at other girls and my body didn't measure up. When the tumors on my knees and ankles knocked together. When I tried to play tennis, piano, and flute but failed because my left arm was three inches shorter than my right. So, when Jim Ferris points out that disability is a social construction, I think, yes, that's right. And, over the last decade or so, I've realized how deeply it has shaped me.
I haven't learned to love the limp. Not fully. The woman I imagine in my head is not the woman the world sees–I hide my insecurities, sure, but I also don't see myself as disabled. I am able–I usually accomplish what I set out to, what I need to, in my own way, in my own time. The fear, worry, doubt comes from the image I imagine the world constructs of me. At some point, I can't tell you exactly when, I started to become ashamed of my body, of myself, and the woman I imagined myself to be morphed into the woman I feared others saw.
For the longest time, I expected my body to "conform to nondisabled expectations," and was disappointed when it didn't. As I've learned, read more disability literature I realize I've been trying to "redefine what it means to have and be a body in the world" when everything we experience is seen through a lens of self, through experiences greatly determined by the bodies we inhabit.
Yes, disability and perception greatly influence my writing. But to hide from this self-realization, from addressing and acknowledging it, I had unconsciously placed my insecurities onto my poetry, my intellectual ability, playing into the fear that nothing I did, nothing I tried would ever be good enough, that it was impossible to ever be a great poet, like it is impossible that I will be a great tennis player or a great ballerina. Fairchild's words–mediocre with moments of brilliance–seemed to belittle my accomplishments as accidental or temporary, as if I had, only briefly, overcome a nature of mediocracy.
Whether I knew it or not, I believe most of my life I have been using poetry to "explore and validate the lived experience of moving through the world with a disability." To validate–to myself and to the outside world–my life, to show, despite my imperfections, my life is a life worth living. But I didn't have the right words, the right frame. Not until I consciously acknowledged it, in my life and in my writing, did I understand the "possibility, the edgy potential, the openness and even likelihood of transformation." Through poetry, more than anything else, more than hiding within layers of clothes or isolating myself, I have been able to take "control of the gaze and articulat[e] the terms under which we are viewed."
I wish I had said something to Fairchild that afternoon in his office. I wish I could have articulated how these words, so careless, would go on to live inside me, multiplying each time a poem was rejected, a manuscript lost a contest, or a job application went nowhere fast. But that day I didn't have the words. Five years later, I'm still not sure I do. I do know that I needed to tell this story, and not until I began a dialogue with Jim Ferris's essay did I realize this hurt–pain, insecurity, self-doubt–never had anything to do with my poetry, but the way I had learned to view myself long ago. So, thank you, Jim Ferris. Thanks to every poet who has been brave enough, insightful enough to give me a frame, to show me the way. I kind of feel like Cheryl Maire Wade's "woman with juice," not afraid to be "an epitaph for a million imperfect babies left untreated." And it's kind of sweet. Okay, honestly, maybe it feels kinda badass.