Interview with Meg Day and Niki Herd
MD: Laura and I had corresponded for some years prior to meeting as Lambda Fellows in 2010. As a queer crip poet and activist, she carried the burden of representation for many of us coming up amidst the tension between the fight for disabled civil rights and queer anti-assimilationist liberation; there weren't many out LGBTQ+ disabled poets, but she was prolific and public and internet-savvy! I learned a lot from her, and had great respect for her, even before I considered her kin. I come from a lineage of poets that prioritizes homage and honoring elders, but too often the tending happens only on the level of the poem: the epigraph, the borrowed line, the tribute. I didn't feel moved to participate in that tradition in a more significant way until after Laura died. I was angry that she was gone and angry, too, that there wasn't a full-length collection of her work already in the world. Laura was the first dis poet to explain to me that "Nothing About Us Without Us" didn't simply mean there should always be disabled representation—it also meant that without us, there would be nothing about us. Our obligation to our kin is our fortune and our joy. I'm grateful Unsung Masters was the series to sign on to that charge.
NH: The poetry of the Black Arts Movement was incredibly important to me. When I came across the work of poets like Ntozake Shange and Amiri Baraka , it was one of the first times I actually heard poetry—meaning it was the first time poetry spoke to me. Hershey's poetry reminds me of that movement with its directness and urgency; and with its focus on giving voice to the marginalized. Not surprisingly so, there are still academic programs that don't find this kind of work valid, so I was happy to see the University of Houston's involvement in supporting the project, which is how I got involved. Each year, Unsung Masters chooses a University of Houston Creative Writing doctoral student to co-edit the series volume. I had wanted the opportunity to work with Unsung Masters for some time, but it wasn't until I came across Hershey's poems that I knew I should apply. Fortunately for me, I was chosen to co-edit.
WG: As Meg mentioned, there was no full length collection of Laura's work and —especially since Laura was such an activist — I imagine that you found her writing in many different locations. How did you set about collecting the material that you needed and being sure that you had what was important to the collection?MD: Yes! Pamphlets, newsletters, magazines, newspapers, chapbooks, zines, musical scores, posters, plaques, buttons, tshirts, multi-media art, cassette tape, radio, videos—I've found Laura's poems just about everywhere, in many different mediums and translated into a variety of languages. What's more, multiple versions of poems appeared unexpectedly: newer, older, edited on purpose by Laura or altered by accident in reproduction. I spent the first six months of this project in correspondence with Robin Stephens, writing to folks in activist and poetry circles with different archival access points, querying potential essayists, and digging up as much as I could from databases online. It was important to me that the essays consider differen t aspects of Laura's work and life, even if the content veered from traditional academic analysis. It was also important to me that the people involved identify as disabled, queer, or both.
Last year I clocked a lot of hours at the Laura Hershey archive in the Western History Collection of the Denver Public Library, comparing drafts and photos and personal papers. It was a really labor-intensive and emotional experience to go through Laura's papers, to begin to understand the breadth and depth of her oeuvre. Niki hadn't yet come on board as the co-editor, but Jillian Weise—disability rights activist and poet—met me in Denver and was crucial in helping to sort through the priorities of the project in its earliest stages. As disabled poets, I think we're overtly aware of the fact that we are expected (by nondisabled readers) to write only of our disability; yet when we write about other things, we can feel the pressure of a missed opportunity for representation or are misread as having shame instead of pride. A lot of the early decisions about this project felt very political, especially since the UM series hadn't yet featured an out disabled queer poet. I'm so grateful to our essayists: Eli Clare, Declan Gould, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, and Constance Merritt.
NH: As Meg notes, I came on as co-editor some months after the project officially began. In the fall of 2018, I flew to Colorado and spent three days there in Hershey's archives. Because I didn't know Hershey, and because there is virtually no scholarship written about her accessible via traditional research databases, the trip was as much about getting a sense for who she was, as it was about the work of collecting. Let me say—I needed much more than three days in Denver. At the time I was both teaching and taking my own classes, one of which happened to be a graduate archival seminar at Chicago's Newberry Library. Despite the trek from Houston to Chicago weekly for two months, I was grateful for that seminar; without it, the size of Hershey's archive would have been daunting. In terms of the actual material that made it into the volume, I think Meg and I had a similar eye for what was important to document: specific poems, photographs, articles, handwritten notes, etc… In the end, Meg organically focused on the poems to be included, while I placed a bit more energy on editing the four essays.
MD: Working with Unsung Masters meant that we inherited series guidelines, which both limited and shaped the collection. Because UM volumes typically include a sizeable sampling of poems, a section of photos and ephemera, and critical essays, we didn't have the page count to include everything we wanted to—and even that would have been a very small percentage of what was available. Even though Robin has assured me that there's far more work that isn't available through public access, the limitations of this volume really forced us to prioritize UM's mission: to re-introduce a poet whose work has been unjustly neglected and familiarize readers with their work so it might gain a larger readership and critical attention. What you see in the volume is a fraction of the work Hershey produced.
WG: I have to admit some jealousy in listening to you. It must be every poet's dream to be granted access to the archive of a writer whose work is under-represented and be given the opportunity to decide on just what writing is going to represent that author. It's also, of course, quite a responsibility. What interests me is that Niki came in with no particular preconception of Laura's work whereas, obviously Meg already had some idea of the nature of Laura's work, who she was as a writer and what she would find. I'm wondering, Meg, if going through that work changed your view of Laura at all?
MD: I like that you're using the phrase "granted access." What is access? Laura Hershey's archive is located in a physically accessible building in Denver and open to the public. Some of it is digitized and available online (http://digital.denverlibrary.org/cdm/search/searchterm/WH2274/order/nosort). One might argue that's enough. But time is an access issue and travel is an access issue. If you can get in the door (a big if), the archives are mostly paper and are, therefore, uncaptioned and inaccessible to folks using screen readers or requiring Braille. The folders contain aging originals, thin and small pieces of newsprint; they require manual dexterity while the archive room itself requests a kind of etiquette of focused stillness. Online, the images and PDFs of documents are often not transferable to an accessible form.
I thought about this a lot when I was in Denver because I did, indeed, feel lucky to have Laura's work and life open to me in this way. But there's also a whole section of Laura's archive that are interviews, poetry readings, and other recordings on audio cassettes. As a Deaf kid, these are wholly inaccessible to me. The DPL staff helped me get really creative with possible approaches to accessing the audio cassettes (at one point we had the speaker rigged to a cell phone that was on a conference call with a CapTel live-captioned call in another room) but in the end exhaustion and embarrassment won out. No access. The cassettes aren't transcribed, and transcriptions is very different than simply knowing a summary of what was talked about, what poems were read aloud. What important material did I miss, given our conflicting access?
All of this is more observation than complaint. When the disabled editor can't access the disabled poet's work, I think we've landed in a really complex web of gratitude and inequity. A disabled editor! In a public library with the papers of their archived disabled poet kin! It's already a fairytale. Ableism makes us grateful for so little. Even so, archives are inherently biased; I don't trust them as reliable or accurate reflections of who is important or what about an individual's life is valuable. While I feel confident our contemporary approaches to archive are changing swiftly—and there is a fresh generation of librarians, historians, archivists, and information tech specialists building on the work of radical document mavens from the '70s— there'salso the question of "worth" that extends beyond the infrastructure (academic or otherwise) that currently supports bias in archival work. For example: who feels socio-politically validated enough to imagine their life and life's work is worthy of active archive and preservation? Who has the access, time, money, space, and training to preserve their own papers and ephemera? Which writers have their papers archived, but also had their disability erased in the process, considered unimportant or disparaging their memory? I'm so incredibly grateful to Robin Stephens for donating Laura's papers to the Denver Public Library and to the Western History Collection for housing them so well. I know Laura differently and better because of it. Hopefully the Unsung Masters volume will help others know her, too.
WG: As someone who has worked with Wordgathering for the past dozen years in an attempt to make the work of disabled writers available to larger audiences, I was particularly struck by how fitting your phrase "a really complex web of gratitude and inequity" is. I think it is a point that deserves a much wider conversation than we are able to engage in here, but I'm glad that you have surfaced the issue and indicated some specific areas that need to dealt with. At the same time —I do think that the others need to be cognizant of —and, yes, appreciate —- all the time, work, effort that you have put into rescuing Laura's work from possible obscurity.
Having said that, I want to ask what plans the two of you have for making sure that the results of your work becomes known and as accessible to as wide and divergent an audience as possible?
MD: Accessible versions of the text are obviously a priority. The team in Houston has been really responsive about making sure that the volume will come out in a digital version whose font size can be manipulated and is compatible with screen readers and other text-to-voice or text-to-Braille programs.
NH: The official publication date is August 1st and both Meg and I have done interviews together and individually to promote the volume. We just finished an interview with Pleiades Press and we'll both be collaborating with The Rumpus in August. In October, Meg will be in Houston discussing the work at the Lawndale Art Center, which is an alternative art space in the city known for supporting the community. We also spent a great deal of time sending the book out for review to specific journals committed to disability civil rights. Obviously, I'd like to see the work reach both the audience Hershey directly addresses in her work and those spaces considered more "literary" —whatever that means. Needless to say, social media will be an important platform to tap into—especially in reaching the younger generation of crip/radical/feminist/LGBTQ readers. This is a book they need to read.
WG: As I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, I think the release of this collection is an important event and am delighted that it will be out soon.
MD: Thank you so much for taking the time to interview us about this exciting book!