WHAT DID YOU TAKE FROM ZOEGLOSSIA?
In 2016, over cocktails with me, Kathi Wolfe mentioned an idea that poets with disabilities could have a space of their own—a retreat and mentorship—like those offered by CantoMundo and Cave Canem. Shortly after, I mentioned Kathi's idea to Jennifer Bartlett, who told it to Connie Voisine. Before long the two of them were hatching plans and telling me that this was something we all had to make happen. We took little steps, then big steps. We formed a board with members Emily Black, Charles Bernstein, Meg Day, Cecil Giscombe, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Alison Hedge Coke, Charles Bernstein, and Octavio Quintanilla. Thanks to Jennifer's heroic efforts, we gained 501(3) designation for our brand-new organization, Zoeglossia. Then Jennifer spoke to Stephen Young, who with instant and miraculous generosity got us enough seed money to hold our very first Zoeglossia conference and retreat. Thank you, Poetry Foundation.
Early this year, we put out an application and selected the eleven fellows who formed the first Zoeglossia Fellows group. The inaugural Zoeglossia retreat was held at Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU) from May 16-19th 2019. We owe a huge thanks to everyone there, most especially Dean Bill Brownsberger, Dawn Morales, Nan Cuba, Grace Sinyard, Dr. Yvette Benavidez, Dr. Leah Larson, and Dr. Octavio Quintanilla, Our faculty members were Jennifer Bartlett, Cecil Giscombe and Ellen McGrath with a keynote by Kathi Wolfe. Connie Voisine and I taught additional classes and facilitated discussions. But all this only gives you the facts, the deeper story is the space and family we forged during those Four days. What is disability identity? How does disability inform and inspire our poetics? How can we reshape the world to make room for us? How can we stop being your metaphor?
I feel so lucky to have experienced four days of Zoeglossia—poetry, more poetry, beautiful poetry, startling poetry, poetics, theory, breakfast tacos, and the sharing of our very diverse and yet intricately connected experiences. We are on cloud nine now—having met so many extraordinary poets and activists, having seen how community truly can grow a space where strength, vulnerability and intense creativity meet. I am so happy to introduce the voices of our faculty and fellows, addressing the question "What did you take from Zoeglossia?"
Jessica Suzanne Stokes
On the Facebook group, before applications for fellows were due, someone wrote in asking how Zoeglossia defined disability. Just how disabled did someone need to be to be considered disabled enough to apply? They received no response. It turns out the organizers didn't answer the question because they didn't see it; their disabilities/their lives made Facebook difficult to constantly check. When a fellow posed the question in person to poet and founder Jennifer Bartlett she explained that she still wouldn't answer. She didn't want to pin a definition down. Instead, she turned the question back on us. How do we define disability? Some of the poets responded with medical/model vs. social model language (impairments they'll always have vs. a disabling society subject to change), some responded in celebration of neurodiversity/mental difference/Deafness/, one poet discussed learning from her wife about language such as mental difference and as she listened writing down each search term (eventually she stopped referring to herself as living with bipolar and instead jumped to claiming the term directly), some responded with early Eli Clare-esque out and proud disability pride, some responded tired and aware that they would always be tired even if the social structures disabling them were removed. Disability isn't one easily definable thing. Disability is in process, in relation.
I have a cognitive impairment, that is frequently invisible. The people I interact with don't see me making up for it all the time. In my mind I am always a few paces behind, hoping that no one has seen me struggling to keep up. I know that in some ways the price of inclusion is passing. I know how people will treat me if I don't. All of this means that I put an immense amount of pressure on myself from inside. While I am forgetting to bring the comb from the night stand to the bed, I am calling myself an idiot. While I was at Zoeglossia, everyone was so cool and I wanted to be part of that group. Everyone was so cool and everyone was disabled. I stopped hiding my disability from myself, I stopped pushing it away. When I would forget that I had just shampooed my hair in the shower I would say, "There's no reason you would remember that, it's the thing you just did." I started seeing my disability as a characteristic of who I am now, not a defect. Not like me before: mangled, unrecognizable, with crucial missing pieces that made me less-than. I started to get over some of my internalized ableism. More than that, I started to see myself now as a whole being in a different sort of way.
Up until age 37 my cognitive profile had been fairly neurotypical. I was an in an accident that injured my brain and carved away large fractions of my working memory. At Zoeglossia I started to appreciate the wise creative person I had generated out of my altered brain. My new damaged mind had its own identity. I liked my quirky inventive patchwork nature.
I wrote after one of our readings that being there made it "10x's more possible to love the world". There isn't a why to that statement, it's just something I felt at the time. If I had to explain it I would say it had to do with the feeling of belonging, of kindness, and of magic. This suddenly was not a resistance but a coming together to actively build and create the thing that we needed. Everyone doing it for everyone else. No one an asshole. Everyone shining. Everyone electric.
The short answer is a community. Being a writer with a disability can be an isolated place to be. I don't often see poets like me at other events and my book shelves are not overflowing with collections from writers talking about the issues I experience. At Zoeglossia I realised I wasn't a minority when I was sat in the room with my fellow Zoeglossia Fellows. I was a majority, the start of a movement and the beginnings of a voice that needs to be heard. I realised it is ok to talk about disability but that doesn't define who I am as a writer. First and foremost I am a poet. I have to remember that, I have earned the right to call myself that and I have a right to be heard. To do that I also have to work at my craft as a poet and Zoeglossia was a brilliant two days of workshopping, learning and growing. I have come back to the UK inspired to write and to help grow this community.
This poem was written during Jennifer Bartlett's Workshop.
Zoeglossia was great. I loved being in community with such important skilled writers that happen to have a diverse level of abilities. Learning from each other about the craft of writing and workshopping has given me new directions in my work. Holding space for one another whether we might be deaf, blind, ride wheelchairs, or have invisible disabilities gave clues to what a truer inclusive society can be like for all of us. I am elated to be a part of this movement.
Ellen McGrath Smith
Community. A sense of belonging. Supportive challenge.
This is at the heart of my experience of the first Zoeglossia retreat.
From the keynote by Kathi Wolfe and the open discussion that followed it to the readings which were among the best I've heard in my life all the way to casual conversations with faculty and fellows touring San Antonio just before our flights home, I felt the sense of something meaningful having been built.
Let me put it this way: I have never in my life been involved with a gathering of serious writers that was completely free of posturing. I have never felt such a sense that vulnerability=strength before. And yet, that formula–vulnerability=strength–is the formula for good, honest, demanding, human poetry at its best.
This is the house that Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black, and Connie Voisine have built. In 2019, a group of us moved into that house, shared its space, rearranged its furniture, filled it with our words. To say I feel lucky to have been there is an understatement.
The final comment goes to Raymond Luczak who is delighted to be able to make the following announcement.
Zoeglossia, a brand-new non-profit literary organization tasked with the goal of fostering a community of poets with disabilities with an eye toward professional development of their craft, will have a kick-ass book called We Are Not Your Metaphor: A Disability Poetry Anthology coming out in June 2019. The 100-page book was edited by Zoeglossia Fellows and will be published by Squares & Rebels. Preorders are available via squaresandrebels.com with the expectation for orders to ship out no later than June 31st, which is the worst case scenario. Profits from this anthology (after expenses) will be donated to Zoeglossia, so direct orders via Squares & Rebels are best if you'd like more of your money to go toward Zoeglossia instead of buying a copy from your favorite online book vendor. The ebook should be available in various formats by June 22nd. The print version of the anthology will be released to all trade distributors worldwide by the end of June. Again: please help support Zoeglossia with a purchase of We Are Not Your Metaphor! (For more information about Zoeglossia, please check out zoeglossia.org.)