Interview with Sheila Black

WG: In May of this year, Zoeglossia will be sponsoring its first event ever. Can you describe for readers what will be taking place?

SB: Zoeglossia came about because Jennifer Bartlett, Voisine and I were talking about the difficulty often faced by poets and writers with disabilities in finding supportive spaces to develop and grow their work. It is often hard for people with disabilities to participate in the normal writers' rounds of conferences and workshops and residencies, especially since people with disabilities are often economically marginalized. We began to think about models that have proved successful and all of us noted how much good organizations like Cave Canem and Kundiman and Canto Mundo have been able to accomplish for their communities by adopting a mentorship and networking model to nurture exceptional creative works. The result of all this was our planned Zoeglossia conference in which eight poets with disabilities will be able to work with two more established writers with disabilities–Ellen McGrath Smith and Cecil Giscombe, who both have extensive writing and teaching histories–as well as a third writer–our own founder Jennifer Bartlett, who will deliver a keynote address. The conference, which will go from May 15th - May 19th will include workshops, craft lectures, a keynote address and reading by the chosen fellows and instructors for the public. The idea is to provide a focused intensive learning experience along with multiple activities designed to build community and supportive networks. The readings will be open to the public and will give the fellow-writers a chance to present their work. In addition to craft-focused workshops, there will also be group reflection sessions designed to look at ways of building community and avenues for publication for the disability writing community. One of the aims of Zoeglossia–which is why each accepted "fellow" is invited to return for three years is to begin to define and nurture a community that can advocate for the presence of writers with disabilities across the wider literary field.

While many positive steps are being made in diversity and inclusion in publishing and academic contexts, all too often that push for diversity does not include people with disabilities. We are so excited and invested in the vision of growing a community that can provide creative support and space–that includes space for a wide range of individual and, we hope, very distinct and different voices–as well as begin to create networks that will allow for increased and more powerful advocacy.

We are so grateful to many people for helping this vision come true - among them our amazing teachers–Ellen and Cecil–and, most of all, Our Lady of the Lake University. This school, located on the Westside of San Antonio, has a long history of social justice work across many fields and has an MFA program that focuses on social justice. When we were looking for a home, OLLU–thanks in particular, to Nan Cuba, Yvette Benavidez, Leah Larson, and Octavio Quintanilla, immediately stepped forward to offer us space and resources. We were thrilled that they grasped immediately how our project fits in with a social justice agenda. What I hope will happen with Zoeglossia, however, is that it provide first and foremost a creative space for writers with disabilities to explore together the multiple aspects and potential forms of disability literature.

WG: For the purposes of your May conferences and the fellowships you provide, how are you defining disability – or perhaps I should ask who will qualify as disabled. Will writers with cognitive disabilities or those on the autism spectrum be included or will you be able accommodate those who use Facilitated Communicaton? Will claiming an LBGTQ identity in and of itself qualify someone to participate?

SB: First, we do not consider LGBTQ a disability. Second, the definition of disability–is, and I suspect must be– by nature, somewhat frangible, but include asking the question, what is a disability? There is such a range within the world of degrees, types, modes of disability–that, like Jennifer, I tend to feel the ultimate question is one of self-identification or assertion–the assertion of a non-normative or "disabled" self. Ron Silliman wrote quite well about this in the blog-spot he published when Beauty is a Verb first came out. He said:

For the real question for any project like this has to be: Who is disabled? What is a disability? Just as it’s ultimately impossible to answer who’s black, who’s Italian, who’s gay without gliding over some yawning border chasms, disability proves to be one of the squishiest identity categories. Not, however, for those who must live with one of these conditions. And there’s the rub.

Writers with autism and cognitive disabilities will be included. We are eager in Zoeglossia to open the doors wide, as we see the development or evolution of disability voice and perspective to be very much works in progress. Another point Silliman made when Beauty is a Verb was released in 2011 was that disability was an identity that had been overlooked, not granted attention, silenced and in many ways left undefined. That silencing, blurring, erasure, is the one of the things that excites about the possibilities of Zoeglossia.

Speaking for myself, I am not sure what is meant entirely by facilitated communication. I am not sure it is a technique I understand enough about to offer to provide. Also, I think, since we are about voice, finding voice, providing a forum for voice, the question might be more to recognize and build on modes of expression within the vast realm of the literary that perhaps have not been properly attended to or understood as such–the birth maybe of new disability-centered literary products and forms?

I certainly want Zoeglossia to be a space where writers with disabilities feel empowered to express themselves and experiment with what a disability-centered aesthetic might mean or look like. We hope to encourage, also, a diversity of voices, since one thing I know–disability, the experience of disability is not monolithic but remarkably varied.

WG: It sounds as though the conference is going to be an exceptional opportunity for those attending. Have you chosen those writers selected to be three-year fellows? What kinds of things did you taken into consideration in making the selection?

SB: We are in the process of choosing the writers selected to be three-year fellows and are close to finalizing our selections. We are pretty thrilled and a little humbled by the quality of the applications we received. It makes selection exciting but also difficult–all of the applications we've received have been so wonderful. I would say there are several factors we are taking into consideration. First, the work submitted and the statement of purpose. Like any fellowship in creative writing we are interested in choosing writers with distinct voices and things to say; we are considering the work submitted. The second consideration has to do with disability–mainly how is a disability identity being explored or considered by the writer as part of their work. This consideration can be direct or indirect, but we are definitely interested in selecting fellows for whom a disability identity – self-affirmed – is a strong consideration in how they work with language. We are also looking at creating a group that represents a diversity of disability experiences and also is diverse otherwise. Because a fellowship like this is really about forming a community, we are thinking about these hard choices we have to make in terms of what kind of group will result and how will that group be able to support and expand and reinforce one another. One thing that has been exciting thus far is that we have a wide range of extraordinary applicants. This is why we are still in process!