Interview with Shane Neilson, Ally Fleming and Roxanna Bennett of Hamilton Arts and Letters Magazine

WG: It was great to learn that Hamilton Arts and Letters is going to be putting out a special issue focusing on the work of writers with disabilities. I'm sure the disabilities community is happy to know about that as well. Can you talk about what prompted you to consider doing this issue?

SN: The full answer to this question from my end would need to include a lengthy personal history in which my invisible disability is consistently discounted, ignored, and sometimes even challenged by people operating under ableism's program. Since I figure Wordgathering's readers are already familiar with what such a process might look like, I'll spare them the particulars. My practical answer settles here: in the field of literature, Canada is behind our American neighbours when it comes to representing disability. One day I got terminally frustrated with the rhetoric of "diversity" that was, hereabouts, code for race, a rhetoric that either misunderstood or erased disability. Wanting to create space in a way that Wordgathering has, I initiated the AbleHamilton Poetry Collective and asked Paul Lisson and Fiona Kinsella, the senior editors of Hamilton Arts & Letters, if they would publish the first disability-focused issue of a literary magazine in Canada. They agreed, and I asked Roxanna and Ally to help.

AF: I think Shane's point about personal history with ableism as motivation for this issue is an important one. So many of us have heard from an early age that what we have to say is too much, too hard, or too far off from a normative experience to have value. How many disabled writers have been silenced from the start by ableism, let alone the ones who 'make it' but are discouraged and disparaged all along the way, or else molded into something palatable to the mainstream? I'm interested in a space where disability experience is prioritized - I don't think we see that often, especially in Canada – and being invited to work on the Disability Issue of HA&L gives me the opportunity to help facilitate and shape that space.

I also agree that our concept of and, critically, our discourse around diversity needs to include disability. So-called "inclusive" conversations, spaces, and publications often exclude disabled people in their appeals for diversity, and that's accepted, that's the norm. Well, I don't think it's acceptable, and this issue is my opportunity to build something that showcases the diversity of mind, diversity of body, diversity of thought and experience that infuses our narratives with the richness of human experience. I think what we have to offer, collectively and individually, is too valuable to be dismissed any longer.

RB: As Ally and Shane have both pointed out, there is a severe underrepresentation of disability in any form in Canadian literature. There is a seemingly continual discussion, often quite contentious, around diversity and inclusion in Canadian publishing. A lot of work has been done to be more inclusive of race and culture and gender identity and expression. But it still isn't unusual to host a book launch in an inaccessible space, or for work, or for the person who created that work, to be dismissed because they require accommodation of some kind. I have witnessed the most liberal-minded left-leaning intellectual poets in this country say the most egregiously ableist things about other poets or their work, and not set off the kind of firestorm that it would have had they made a remark about someone's race or gender expression. Ableism flies under the radar in Canada.

A few years ago I was in a workshop with a group of poets, many of them fairly well established, most of them very well educated. I was searching for representations of disability in Canadian poetry. I asked the group if they could please point me in the direction of any Canadian poets who are disabled, I was looking for work that spoke to my own lived experience. I assumed that, as someone who is not terribly well educated, that I just hadn't dug deeply enough or was ignorant and overlooking obvious works … I was met with silence. Not one person in the workshop spoke a name out loud. They couldn't think of a single disabled poet. That shocked me deeply. That silence is the reason this issue of Hamilton Arts & Letters is so crucial. I am very grateful to Shane for asking me to take part.

WG: Ally and Roxanna both mentioned the prevalence of ableism in Canadian literature as one of the motivations for your collaboration on the special issue of HA&L. If, as Roxanna says, "Ableisim flies under the radar in Canada," I think it is probably safe to assume that is in part because many people do not recognize it. How would you define ableism and are there any forms of it that you think might be particular to or more common in Canada?

SN: Ableism is a constellation of ideas, beliefs, and practices that marginalize ill, non-neurotypical, and non-normative bodies. Ableism prefers not to be called what it is, mainly through the organization of social space such that persons who are unwell, or who require certain physical accommodations in order to participate in that space, are not present, leaving those inclined to detect ableism out of the room. The physical fact of ableism in the course of Canadian life is obvious, something that can be seen at a glance at ubiquitous, non-AODA-conforming structures. This tactic segregates social space very well, and Canadian disability justice organizations like CripCanLit are agitating against the common practice of holding readings in non-accessible spaces.

More subtle is the preference of the well for the well, the normate preference for others of their kind. This subtler form of ableism means that people like me, people who are profoundly uncomfortable around others, who lack "social graces," whom are "socially awkward," who might say something odd, strange, or unwelcome, or who might seem angry or intimidating, who have affective illness that radiates out of them, are discouraged from being present in many different ways, most of them unspoken, but occasionally by direct, public means. Social media is a powerful tool of ableism, speaking in the Canadian literature context, and I am repulsed, weekly, by its use on the part of shame merchants who wish to use stigma to further their ableist ends. The trick for my fellow disability justice activists is, I think, not to resort to the same strategies of stigmatization.

RB: Waitaminute, there's an organization called CripCanLit? I must learn more.

I think Canada has until recently been very much in love with its idea of itself as a "nice" country, where people are polite and generally well behaved. I think Canadians like to think of themselves as people who wouldn't discriminate against someone with low vision or a wheelchair user, we are trained culturally to create physical space for people using mobility aids. But we are not culturally trained to create space for people who express themselves "differently" or who act in a way we perceive as strange and therefore threatening. We are not culturally trained to greet strangers, each other, with compassion or curiousity but usually with suspicion and contempt. We might say "sorry" but we rarely as a nation feel it. We don't like to think of ourselves as rude or intolerant. I think how that manifests generally is in our cultural tendency to ignore anything or anyone that is "none of my business". We are a cold country, I think the climate has influenced our basic human decency in that most Canadian's reflexive reaction to any situation that might require help or intervention is to look the other way. We may be polite but we are not friendly, or kind. This is not a culture of open hearted welcoming. I don't know if it's a leftover from our British legacy, but we are a nation of uptight, repressed, judgmental, small-minded meanies. We have an idea of ourselves as a country that will welcome refugees but we are only now admitting that we are a country that also commits genocide. So. We're confused in Canada.

Ableism in Canadian literature is a subtle aggression, it's the silent disapproval, or being rejected or ignored or left out of conversations, spaces, publications, awards, prizes. As Shane mentioned, there are the physical spaces that are difficult to access. Ableism is also the refusal to acknowledge that other people have different lived experiences and might not express themselves the same way or share the same ideas or opinions as the normate, or whatever the popular opinion of the day might be. It's taking the time to craft mission statements for diversity and inclusion but overlooking 'disabled' as a category that requires inclusion. It's asking for submissions from disabled writers and then rejecting the work as strange or unpolished or needing workshopping or…"raw", whatever the heck that means. It's requiring letters of recommendation to attend workshops when many disabled writers have never had the opportunity to attend post-secondary school and have no network of professional contacts to draw upon. It's requiring people who might not be able to leave the house or who have overwhelming social anxiety to stand up and perform in front of crowds of people because that sells books. Or to not take into account that not everyone can stand, not everyone can speak, not everyone is able to get up on a stage or move about freely in public. It's the blank looks when you ask if a space is accessible, or about captioning, or anyone of a number of basic accommodations. As Shane said, social pressure to conform, to act "normal", to act, period, is ableist. And as Shane pointed out, social media, which can be such a powerful tool for connection, is used as a weapon to shame and silence anyone who doesn't fit whatever we have decided is the ideal model of a citizen that day. I don't use social media any longer for this reason.

WG: It is quite likely that many readers of Wordgathering are not familiar with some of the Canadian journals and other media sources that might be publishing the kinds of writing that you are hoping to receive in your call for submissions. I can think of the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies, under Jay Dolmage's editorship. Can you give us a few more?

AF: I'm not personally aware of any Canadian publications that prioritize pieces by or about disabled writers. When established publications put out calls for submissions, they may include a line about preferring work from marginalized writers, but the instances of disability being explicity stated as included under this term are very rare, in my experience. I don't think it's implicit, either. I should add – there are two Canadian publishers that I know of that call for and solicit work by disabled writers – Frog Hollow Press and Gordon Hill – and they are both Shane's initiatives.

RB: Sadly, not only can I not think of any but I was unaware of the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies, so thank you for bringing that to my attention.

SN: My silence thus far on the topic is an alternate embodiment of the broadcast silence in Canada regarding venues that support disabled writers, though I do recognize Jay's work and direct any poet who is so inclined to seek out "Between the Valley and the Field: Metaphor and Disability," a crackerjack paper in Prose Studies from 2005. (Among much else Dolmage.)

Ally's spot on about the additional erasure under the sign of diversity. We're "included" if a complaint is made, I suppose, there is that insurance, but disability is usually not designated up front. I think this is getting better over the past couple of years, though; and the venue question should be broadened to include funding bodies and literary support/diversity organizations. Disability is one of the groups targeted for support by the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council, like racialized identities (but not gender or sexuality - interesting, eh?). The AbleHamilton Poetry Festival is one such beneficiary of targeted funding, for without the Ontario Arts Council and League of Canadian Poets' financial support, our festival would have been … modest. And I heard today that one of the "visibly" disabled writers included in the AbleHamilton Poetry Festival, stoked in disability solidarity as a result of being asked to participate by us, wrote an application for a creation grant to the Canada Council using the frame of disability … and was successful! This makes me happy. When the Canada Council is giving out money in this way for our people, things WILL change. Slowly. And not only funding bodies will change things, as reflected in the first domino to fall with the aforementioned writer who was asked to be a part of the AbleHamilton festival. WE WILL CHANGE THINGS.

When I discuss disability privately amongst poets, the common move is to bring intersectionality into the discussion. I recognize the usefulness of this move but also its pitfalls in the disability discussion, in which the largest demographic of disabled persons in Canada are immediately placed lower on the identity hierarchy; in addition, disability is thought of as a thing that can only be included within the hierarchy as long as it can be fenced off from white people. (God, stay away from me if you're thinking white supremacy and Trump here, barf. Totally on side that other forms of marginalization plus disability accumulate! Most of my own marginalization has come at the hand of straight white males.) Disability is often misunderstood as not a thing in itself, but rather a subcategory of experience … the question becomes how can it be enfolded within more oppressed experience? This strategy has some problems.

I suspect this opinion is unpopular, but I have a long history of critiquing dominant ideologies. For example: one of these days I might write about how, once upon a twenty-year time, I wrote "negative" aesthetic assessments of straight white abled men, in the main, and spoke truth to that power as a means to stay alive, to write the world as I thought it. I did a lot of work in this regard. Now I am compelled by literary organizations like Canadian Women In the Literary Arts (CWILA) to improve my reviewing practice's gender balance in an era in which the "negative" reviews that are being written concern books that are politically unpleasant, meaning that they contain overt or unconscious racist/homophobic/transphobic representations of marginalized persons. To write a negative review from the point of view of beauty or craft is especially unwelcome now after the scholarly turn in reviewing, but these are the reviews I think are necessary in artistic fields (while not eliding the fact that "aesthetics" is a slippery thing that can be used to oppress and ignore the marginalized.) This is a bind, one I'm solving at the moment by writing "positively" on female disabled poets whose work I admire. Which I love doing in my old defiant way, because CWILA (unlike VIDA) doesn't include disability in its mandate. See and scroll down to the bottom of the page, where you'll see that they bring "relevant issues of gender, race, class and sexuality into our national literary conversation." I've tried to engage them about the idea that disability matters, but no dice. (There are disabled women, right? Ally? Roxanna?) If CWILA changes, it'll be at the behest of disabled trans persons and women, but I bet that the change will be incorporated within already established hierarchies of oppression – disability co-opted as per my argument above. CWILA's figure to include disability is awful, in my view. But you know me. Straight white dude, who am I to say? I hasten to add that is my opinion only, not Roxanna's or Ally's insofar as I've not surveyed them about it.

I am sure there is a lot happening in Canada where "the literary" and "disability" meet. Roxanna, Ally, and I are like everyone else: partially informed. We'll probably learn of a host of cool things we didn't know about after this interview appears. At the same time, I point out that this information sharing will likely occur as a result of publication in an important American disability poetics forum.

RB: I live under a rock so have learned so much already from this discussion. I absolutely vehemently agree with Ally re: submission calls, and wow, what Shane said about CWILA I hadn't realized -and now I'm furiously angry and it's not even lunch time.

WG: I'm going to boomerang back to the original question that I asked about the special issue that the three of you are working in for HA&L. Your call for submissions is actually quite informative and any writers who are thinking of submitting definitely need to be directed back there, but I am wondering if, for the benefit of those reading this interview, you can just give some specifics about the kinds of work you are looking for. It may be helpful also to let readers know what you are not looking for. (I take it, for example, that you are not looking for work from caregivers or stories of overcoming.)

RB: I am interested in work that resonates as authentic. Give me your weird, uncomfortable, unlikable, prickly work that you believe no one else will understand. Challenging, experimental work particularly, although I love and admire formal poetry as well. I would love to experience more poetry created by people who identify as neurodivegent or neuroatypical because I think that point of view is woefully underrepresented.

RB: Personally I don't feel it necessary to state what is not being looked for; I believe that rejecting out of hand stories of caregiving and "overcoming" is rejecting the lived experiences of other people. Caregiving is often part of the reality of living with other human beings on this planet. Some people take great pride in having overcome what they perceive to be as obstacles in their lives; who am I to judge or minimize anyone else's lived experience? I do recognize that those are the popular narratives that dominate much of the conversation around disability and that imbalance needs correcting, of course. But not at the expense of minimizing or shaming other people. If someone writes an aesthetically wonderful poem about overcoming and caregiving, and that poem resonates with me as a piece of art, I would be hard pressed to reject it.

WG: Thanks for the clarification about writing from caregivers. When I read "we invite all poets who self-identify as living with a disability or as disabled" on your call for submissions, my assumption was that the call was limited to poets who had disabilities themselves. As a quick look at any issue of Wordgathering will tell you, we frequently publish work by caregivers. I'm glad for the opportunity to correct my misperception.

RB: I don't think it's a disagreement at all but a personal distinction! I want stories from people who are disabled but if that story includes caregiving or overcoming, and it's a great piece of art, I personally would have a hard time rejecting the piece. I was speaking for myself only. As a disabled person who is also a caregiver I think that was my personal reflexive feeling of being rejected and shamed preemptively spewing personal opinions all over our professional email. I apologize.

AF: What I'm looking for in submissions to this issue, personally, is unflinching work that elucidates some truth(s) about lived disability experience in an artful way. I expect the best of these will come from disabled writers, though I acknowledge that in certain cases, as Shane mentioned, some of that light can be supplemented by the experiences of parents or caregivers. But it is not their stories I'm primarily interested in, I don't personally wish to centre them here. I think disability narratives have been written from the outside for much of history, and that our stories, our perceptions and our needs ought to be considered a priority, especially in spaces like the HA&L disability issue, if we are to even begin addressing this imbalance. "Nothing about us without us," isn't just a that-would-be-nice disability justice slogan, it's a reaction to centuries of being written out of our own narratives and the erasure, dehumanization and abuses that have resulted from prioritizing others' voices, however well-intentioned, over our own when it comes to expressing disability experience.

RB: Well put, Ally!

WG: Since the purpose of your publication of the special issue of HA&L – at least partially – is to help acquaint readers with quality literary work by Canadian writers that relates to disability, I wonder if you can suggest some Canadian writers whose work you would recommend to readers of Wordgathering.

RB: Shane's work, obviously, his Affect Trilogy is required reading. My recommendations are: San Alland, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Lynx Sainte-Marie, Adam Pottle

SN: don't know where to begin. I am sheepish about doing the stage equivalent of pointing at my co-editors and ostentatiously bowing, as they bow back, and everyone's so humble etc etc but, what the hell: I didn't want to do the HA&L issue without co-editors whose work I respect. Ally's chapbook, The Worst Season, from Anstruther Press, and Roxanna's The Uncertainty Principle from Tightrope are important works that more Canadians/Americans should read and, if I may, Roxanna's Unseen Garden from Knife:Fork:Book is superb, a work that consciously engages with poets in the American crip canon — if that's a thing? I don't know. You tell me, Mike! (Canons are under vigorous attack in Canada, but I think the attack is misguided. I hope a disability canon springs up hereabouts.)

I'm going to mention New Brunswicker Travis Lane in this discussion because she is an octogenarian, has problems with mobility, is vocal about accessibility issues around readings, and continues to write poetry that also might appeal to an American audience, she being a Cornell Ph.D. graduate and former grad student of Nabokov! (So cool, I am so jealous.) I'd point to her long poem collection The Witch of the Inner Wood from Goose Lane Editions, mostly because of the character Pearl in the poem "Divinations." I say this rarely about poems emanating from Canada, but: masterwork. Just total, absolute genius. I do happy dances when I think of it.

Roxanna's picks are good ones, I second them, and I might add that Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha's Care Work from Arsenal Pulp is essential reading for everyone.

There's this kid – do I get to say kid, being a hick from New Brunswick and being 43 now? Anyway, there's this kid, Dominik Parisien. I like his work … he published We, Old Young Ones with Frog Hollow this very month! (I hope you got my little joke w/ "kid" now …)

I'm learning more and more about persons who self-identify as time goes on. I like to think that this might be because stigma is lessening but I figure it's at least also in part because writers are organizing around the disability flag in Canada — finally. So I can't name everyone and some people have just been named in conversations with friends, I'm loathe to suggest names when I'm not certain of their designation.

I hasten to add that I'm sticking with poets in this answer.

AF: I'm cheering along with Shane and Roxanna's choices! Personally, reading Marc di Saverio's chapbook, Crito di Volta, and his full-length Sanatorium Songs, as well as Shane's On Shaving Off His Face, part of the Affect Trilogy, absolutely changed my life and how I conceived of my own disability. I also highly recommend Roxanna's chapbook, Unseen Garden, and Anton Pooles' Monster 36.

RB: Marc! I second, third, fourth Marc di Saverio. I just ordered Ally's chapbook and Monster 36. Jim Johnstone. Amanda Leduc. Dominik Parisien. Robert Anderson's The Hospital Poems. San Alland's Blissful Times

A fun game I like to play is to go on Canadian poetry publisher websites, type 'disability' into the search box, and wait for nothing to load.

SN: Jane Eaton Hamilton. Stevie Howell? Not sure she self-identifies, but I love her work anyway, and transgress by writing her name down here. I mean LOVE. Big fat heart to her work, I left nothing inside on purpose is magnificent.

With reference to Roxanna's comment, Book Hug & Anstruther Presses mention disability in their submissions guidelines, found at and

I wonder if "disability" is tagged in metadata for the presses Roxanna surveyed? It strikes me that, in Canada, disability as an identity category has been very late to the table and using the word might not dredge up results. It will, though – eventually! I promise …

Some places, though, see us, like the ones I mentioned above. Palimpsest has published Travis Lane before (and will again). They've also published me, in a memoir (Gunmetal Blue) that's entirely about mad experience, and will publish the first book of disability-centred literary criticism in Canada (Constructive Negativity). I plugged "disability" into Book Hug's site and came up with Bent at the Spine, a book of poems by Nicole Markotic who is also a Canadian disability studies scholar.

WG: Thanks to all of you for your great recommendations. I'm glad to be able to say that Wordgathering has published a few of these writers – Adam Pottle, Sandra Alland and Dominik Parisien as well as a review of Shane's book Dysphoria – but this give both the editors here and our readers a lot of starting points for exploring the work of Canadian poets. Of course, there are also a number of recent non-poetry books, such as Jay Dolmage's recent Disabled Upon Arrival about Canadian immigration policies that provide a good deal of fodder for poetry.

Roxanna's point about searching "disability" on publisher's websites is a good one and – as I think one of you mentioned – part of the problem is that even among publishers that promote diversity, disability is often absent from their list. There have been efforts by disabled writers lately to point this out to publishers lately, as well as the fact that the use of Submittable excludes some writers because of accessibility issues, but this seems to be slowly changing.

I think that your publication of the disabilities issue of HA&L will certainly be helpful in that effort. Before we wind-up this discussion, is there anything that any of you would like to add to what we have already said.

SN: I deliberately waited until Jan. 30th, infamous "Bell  LetsTalk" day, to respond. Online I've been trying to carry the message that giving the middle finger to corporate destigmatization PR campaigns is an easy cop out; that applying an economic/Marxist lens to stigma is welcome but limited; that, ultimately, what matters is what we do ourselves to alleviate the suffering of others, and that such acts start with those closest to us. Basic stuff, I figure, but worth getting out there.

What I want to happen someday in the future:

  1. (1) all disabled children will be loved, appreciated, supported;
  2. ( (2) stigma dies
  3. ( (3) health care systems live up to the dream of free, quality care for all

Yet I know that these things will never happen, and I'll die with the dream, also knowing that I did a little bit to make the dream materialize; that poems are the dream left behind, of the future.

RB: I would like to thank you all for your time and energy. I've learned a lot from this conversation and have a lot of new poetry to read.

Maybe not all disabled children will be loved, appreciated and supported, and maybe stigma takes several lifetimes to die, and maybe the health care system needs to spend some time psychoanalyzing itself before it can live up to the dream, but now is all we ever have. And in this moment, you are working on the dream, we are working on the dream, and the poems are moments, breaths, sending the dream into the world.

WG: Good luck to you with putting out the special issue of HA&L. I hope that you will have a lot of writers checking out your submission guidelines and sending their work.