Interview with Jillian Weise

Jennifer Habel interviews Jillian Weise for the podcast Dwelling*

JH: This is Dwelling, a poetry podcast from the University of Cincinnati. I'm Jennifer Habel. In the series, we invite poets visiting the University to read and discuss a poem of their choice. My guest today is Jillian Weise and we'll be talking about a poem by Nightengale of Samarkand called "In medical school …" Jillian Weise is a poet, performance artist and disability rights activist. She's the author of two collections of poetry and a novel. Her second book of poems, The Book of Goodbyes, won both the James Laughlin Award and the Isabella Gardner Award. Thank you so much for being here Jillian.

JW: Thank you for having me.

JH: So I like to start by just hearing the poem.

JW: Yes.

JH: If you wouldn't mind reading it for us?

JW: I will read this poem. I want listeners to know that there are quotations in the poem and instead of saying quote, unquote, which could be awkward, I will pause and possibly shift tone when the poet is quoting others.

In medical school
they didn't teach us it was OK to kill people with disabilities

They just lectured us about how people with disabilities "can't function."
And that condition was "absolutely devastating."
(A condition I have, by the way)
And that after people develop disabilities, "life's not worth living anymore."

In medical school
They didn't teach us it was OK to kill people with disabilities

They just rounded on the hospital floors and shook their heads and clicked their
tongues, and said "he has no quality of life"
And "she should be DNR"
And "his poor mother"
And we should "find the circuit breaker" for this room full of babies who breathe with ventilators
And "the best thing for him would be for him to earn his angel wings."
In medical school
They didn't teach us it was OK to kill people with disabilities

They just told the pregnant person to get the blood test so that "if the baby has Down syndrome, you can terminate the pregnancy"
(Where's the choice in that?)

In medical school
They didn't teach us it was OK to kill people with disabilities
They just presented journal articles in Grand Rounds that combined "severe disability and death" under the category of "poor
outcome." Peer reviewed, published journal articles.
Which defined severe disability as an IQ below 70
Or blindness
Or hearing impairment
Or seizures
Or cerebral palsy
There's a lot of living people in those categories combined with the dead ones
And no one in medical school seemed to notice

In medical school
They didn't teach us it was OK to kill people with disabilities

And they would be shocked if someone said they had
They just implied in 100 little ways we might be better off dead
And that others might be better off if we were dead

In medical school
They didn't teach us it was OK to kill people with disabilities

They just emphasized the difference between us and them
That is us and we
I mean, us and me

In medical school
They didn't teach us it was OK to kill people with disabilities

Out loud

They didn't have to.

JH: Thank you. So what are some of the reasons that you chose this poem for our discussion?

JW: I chose this poem because I absolutely adore the critique the poet makes of an institution that the poet is an active member of. So I don't know Nightengale of Samarkand. I don't know who the poet is. I only know this poem from her LiveJournal and I know the poem from other blog posts she's made about being in medical school and also about being a disabled person and I chose the poem because I'm very interested in what poems are acceptable, um, now, and what it costs to risk—to write a poem—and what the risks are with writing a poem, and um yeah, it seems like a poem she cannot write under her name. And yet it seems like a really necessary poem.

JH: Mm-hmm. Yeah, you mentioned when we were corresponding about this podcast that you have a feeling that many of the disabled writers and poets of the area, sorry, this era, find it difficult to publish without censorship.

JW: Yes.

JH: Yeah and I was curious, um, your thoughts on how those writers are silenced or in what ways they're silenced?

JW: Yeah. I think that disabled writers are silenced systemically, that is to say, until maybe this year, Submittable was not an accessible platform for disabled poets, and what does it mean when the main tool for submission of poetry is inaccessible? So there's censorship vis a vis a lack of access. There's censorship in a kind of what-is-poetry-and-who-does-poetry-serve way when the expectation for disability in a poem is generally that a nondisabled poet will write it. So there's that expectation, which I think is changing. And then there's actual censorship. I guess I mean literal censorship when disabled writers are publishing things that get taken down. So I'm thinking of Karrie Higgins publishing something via the Huffington Post and the Huffington Post censored it and removed it. I'm thinking of Bill Peace publishing something in a magazine out of Northwestern and Northwestern shuttered the magazine. And so I also—I'm thinking of censorship from systemic censorship to actual, literal censorship.

And as for this poem, I just am speculating that the poet doesn't feel safe calling out medical school as a student in medical school with this charge.

JH: Yeah.

JW: Mm-hmm.

JH: I don't know if we've said this was published on her LiveJournal. In the comments section, I noticed she said, what I really want to do is send a copy back to my medical school …

JW: Yes.

JH: … that would be shocked. Their exact words to me at the time were "you're being too sensitive" and that's when I started writing things down. Although she doesn't identify on her blog where she went to medical school.

JW: Mm-hmm.

JH: You know so, yeah, she's not sending it back—

JW: Yeah. And I love that there's a kind of poetics with a – a – multiple audiences. On one level, the audience of the medical school. To record and keep a record of their ableism and eugenics to then return to them. On the second level, on the blog, you see other nurses chiming in, so medical professions, saying yes, this is recognizable to me. And then on a third level you have the poetry audience. Um, and, I like any time a poem can transcend multiple audiences. That's always very exciting to me.

JH: Mm-hmm. Have you taught this poem? Or—

JW: No, I haven't. It's new to me. I was bemoaning the fact that – um – there weren't more pseudonymous poets. Or I don't know that I was bemoaning it but I was just wondering aloud, like, who else is playing with pseudonyms? I'm a big fan of Pessoa, and his notion of the heteronym. I have a heteronym, Tipsy Tullivan, and I was wanting company and someone said, "Have you read Nightengale of Samarkand?" and I was like: "Who? No, I've never read this person." Um, and I was just so delighted to read and become acquainted with this poem.

JH: Does she have other poems that you know of?

JW: No, I've never read any of her other work. I don't know who she is. I made an inquiry with the person who suggested this poem to me and they said, "I'm not speaking further about who the poet may be." They were very protective, so …

JH: Mm-hmm. I mean the poem, in some ways, has aspects that are recognizable to the kind of poetry we're used to encountering in an academic setting but in other ways it's not—it's not—it doesn't seem interested in having a pivot or a turn. It's not interested in ambiguity. It's not really interested in image but, on the other hand, it's really effectively lineated and she has this really great sense of stanza, I think, throughout it. And then obviously, it makes use of repetition very effectively. So I don't know. It's kind of like—has trappings of poems that we're more accustomed to looking for in class, and in other ways is different.

JW: Well, and I am always amazed at how excited capital P poetry gets over doctors who are also poets. And I'm frankly just exhausted of reading all of the doctors who are also poets. Um, and so, I'm thrilled to read a poem inside the medical field that isn't by yet another doctor-poet who has come to heal us all. And I'm very ready for the movement in poetry where we don't care about the doctor-poems and we are interested in the patient poems.

JH: Mm-hmm.

JW: And while Nightengale is not a patient, she's in training, I like the way that her poem counters that tradition of the doctor-poet. And you're right. I mean she's using anaphora, obviously, she's using enjambment. The stanzas, for our listeners here, range from a recurrent couplet to quatrains to—is that an octave?—so they range, they fluctuate. And yeah, it has images but strangely they are inside of these heartbreaking quotations like the room full of babies. And yeah, I think I'm very interested in the way we—I even am guilty of thinking of poetry like—what is the poem doing? is it teaching or is it delighting? or is it doing both? And I'm interested in the question what is the goal, as a—as a—disabled person writing poems, how to intervene on poetry which has been, at least in the US, quite cozy with ableism for some time.

JH: Yeah, at the end of your poem "Biohack Manifesto," it reads: "I am sorry if you offended me," which is great, "role of disabled artist. Always be sorry." This is maybe a really obvious question but I'm just curious about your ideas about why that is the role of the disabled artist?

JW: Ah, great question. [Long pause.] Why is it "always be sorry"? You know, the line, for me, is coming from praxis more than poetics. I think I was just thinking of all the times I arrive somewhere, on a campus, and I must ask for my civil rights in a rather apologetic way. "I'm sorry but I need a restaurant that's accessible." "I'm sorry but it would be great if there were elevators." Etc. So the disabled—and it's not that I'm even saying "I'm sorry"—but the unfortunate position of feeling apologetic for my civil rights is quite strange.

And then, in poetry, um, the disabled artist, always be sorry, well, I don't know, even now I'm thinking sorry is functioning on two levels. There's the apology. And there's also like sorry, to be a sorry poet, to be a not-good poet, to be a poet who's only being published because of one's subject position rather than one's craft.

JH: I hadn't thought of that second—

JW: Yeah. So I think that's what I was after but it was such a fun poem to write so thank you for bringing us back to it.

JH: It's a great poem. I kind of hate to ask a writer"what did you mean when you said this?" because often the line just shows up. Maybe that's when you know what you mean or you never really know what you meant but you just know that's the right line. So I was thinking, could you write a version of this poem about education in the humanities? Like you talked about one of the things that drew you to it was the sense of somebody critiquing an institution that they're a part of, and an institution that's claiming to "do no harm," and thinks that it is—and I mean I just started thinking about being part of academia, and how we imagine that we're doing good, and aiming to, but are sort of blind to some of the ways we might be failing. So yeah, I mean, or would you feel unable to write that poem? You know, would you be censoring yourself from writing that poem if you could, or wanted to?

JW: Yeah, um, well first I want to say we had an amazing moment where you said "maybe we would be blind to that failing"—right? So it's just everywhere. It's pervasive. It's completely pervasive as metaphor in poetics.

But yeah, I am writing a novel through YouTube with this character of Tipsy Tullivan who is critiquing the humanities with videos like "How to Rush the Academic Job Market" and with her ongoing protest of the nation's largest creative writing academic conference, so I think I took poetics quite licentiously, and decided to go out towards—I mean, what does it mean to write a novel via YouTube episodes? That's absurd. But I took it as, let's just turn into a different person and critique the humanities. I like how you say the idea is "do no harm" in the humanities, and yet there is harm. So I'm doing it more from an absurdist point-of-view. And I'm not doing it on the page as much. But yeah, I think the interventions that I'm doing on the page right now are—like I have a poem in the next book called "Cathedral by Raymond Carver." So to intervene in that story, re-write it and um imagine "the Blind man" of the story as really not quite noble, and a bit of a jackass, which isn't a reading that's often granted to that character.

JH: Is that because, um, we have a need to see people that are Blind as being heroes—

JW: Yeah.

JH: Or worthy of—

JW: Yeah. What a great guy. You know, for anyone who's not familiar with the story, uhh, it concerns primarily a man and his wife and her boss comes to visit. Strange relationship where they've been sending tapes back and forth to each other for years. And, uh, the way it's taught is as though this great, this great guy came to town, and um, yeah—what a noble guy. And the husband is the jackass. But that just. I don't know. That's never worked for me.

So I was thinking: What are on the tapes? So I just imagined in couplets what were on the tapes from the wife to the Blind man throughout the years including—I mean—sex, including intimate moments between the two, and what does that do? If indeed there was an intimate moment between them, can we still read the Blind man with such nobility?

JH: Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Yeah.

JW: So that's fun. And it's really fun for me to take a genre and mess it, or remix it, in another genre.

JH: Mm-hmm. This isn't exactly censorship but one of the things I was thinking about is: are editors looking for poems by poets with disabilities that talk about disability in a way that's familiar, a familiar way they're looking, they want to see it in this way they already see it?

JW: Yes. Absolutely. And I understand both positions. The position of the editor and the position of my fellow disabled kin. For one thing, people become disabled overnight. So, you know, if someone's a poet and they suddenly become disabled no wonder they want to write what I consider a very elementary poem about the moment of the accident, or the onset of the illness, you know, um, and, I think the editorial expectation can't help but be informed by ableist expectations, in such ways that the disabled person will adopt a speaker very close to him or herself and enlighten us, the nondisabled reader, in some way. These poems just bore the hell out of me, um, and feel very first wave. And so I'm always trying to figure out how to go beyond that or I'm looking for other writers who are going beyond: I-have-this-and-it-makes-me-feel-this-way and then there's some enlightenment at the end.

And I also don't believe there's any such thing as a nondisabled audience. We know now that the CDC has released the new numbers that 1 in 4 people are disabled so this idea of the nondisabled audience is a very useful fiction.

JH: A way to maybe conclude this conversation is to have you read this poem which seems to really connect to what we were just talking about. Yes, thank you, okay—

Nondisabled Demands

It's not fair. You owe it to the reader.
We're trying to help. We have an uncle
with a disability and he always says> exactly what it is. Take it from him.
Take it from us. Take it from them.
You can't expect people to read you

if you don't come out and say it.
Everyone knows the default mode
of a poem is ten fingers, ten toes

with sight and hearing and balance.
When this is not true, it is incumbent
on you to come out and say it.

Here's what. We'll rope you
to the podium and ask
What do you have? What is it?

JH: Thank you, Jillian.

JW: Thank you.

JH: This has been Dwelling from the University of Cincinnati. Thanks for listening.


*This interview is a transcription of a conversation that was recorded for Dwelling, a poetry podcast that is part of The Elliston Project at the University of Cincinnati ( It is Audio hosted here:


Jenn Habelis the author of Good Reason, winner of the Stevens Poetry Manuscript Competition. Her recent work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Barrow Street, The Common, Denver Quarterly, Mid-American Review, and The Sewanee Review.

Jillian Weise's fourth book, Cyborg Detective, comes out this fall from BOA Editions. A poem from the book continues on Twitter: