Interview with Wordgathering Transition Team
In December 2019 the publication of Wordgathering will transition to Syracuse University and its editorship will pass from Michael Northen to Diane Wiener. In the following interview, Jim Ferris discusses these changes with Mike, Diane, and members of the transition team in the context of the journal's history, mission, and our interest in publishing a quality Open Access journal.
Jim Ferris: How did Wordgathering begin, and how has it developed over time?
Mike Northen: Although Wordgathering officially began in March of 2007, it actually had its genesis a decade earlier in 1997 with the establishment of a poetry workshop at Inglis House, a residential wheelchair community in Philadelphia. The IH Poetry Workshop met weekly to discuss poems the members had written and to publish chapbooks, both individual and collective. We also established an online website so that friends and family members would be able to see the writers' work.
One of the problems that the workshop had from the very beginning was finding the work of other more accomplished disabled poets whose writing they could learn from. At the end of the twentieth century there was not much available, so to help remedy this situation in 2003 we began annual contests with cash awards to solicit work from writers around the country and even beyond. We were so happy with the results we received, that rather than just publishing the contest winners, we decided to put out a chapbook from the twenty or so poems that impressed us the most. The contest publication of the a resultant chapbook became an annual event. Some of the writers that we published in those days – like Jim Ferris – eventually became Wordgathering contributors.
Soon, however, even these chapbooks began to feel limiting. We decided to turn our local website into an online journal – Wordgathering. The writers and poems that we had published in the chapbooks became the basis for the first issue. Although the bones of the journal are essentially the same as they were when it first appeared in 2007, there have been many changes along the way. Originally, core members of the Inglis House Poetry Workshop were the journal's editors. In fact, I would be remiss if I did not mention that Stuart Sanderson, one of the journal's founders and the one who came up with the name for the journal, died just last month. My vision was that the editorship would be democratic with all the editors participating equally, but as things moved along, the bulk of the responsibility for Wordgathering fell to me and when I retired from Inglis House at the end of 2010, the journal came with me as its sole editor.
Originally, Wordgathering called itself "a journal of disability poetry." In the very first issue of the journal we stated, "we hope to provide an opportunity for those whose talent in writing poetry converges with an interest in the growing field of disability literature." Because it grew out of the needs and interests of the original poetry group, our original poetic concerns centered around visible physical disability. A quick glance at the current issue of Wordgathering (number 51), shows the ways that we have expanded. In addition to poetry, each issue contains essays, book reviews and interviews, and frequently fiction, art, book excerpts and music. Moreover, the nature of disability as reflected in the pieces that we published has expanded considerably. For example, lately we have been fortunate publish quite a few writers who claim autism as an identity.
Despite appearances, I have been trying to give the "short version" in answering your question, but I do need to mention two other changes quickly. The first is the addition of audio versions for each of the poems published. The second is the amazing assistant editors I've been privileged to work with. In the past these have included, among others, the incredible poet Sheila Black, Jill Khoury who now edits Rogue Agent, the late Linda Cronin who came over from Breath and Shadow, and my webmaster Eliot Spindel who actually made the online version happen using Dragon Dictate, often from his bed.
Jim: Earlier in my writing career disability was seen as something to overcome or to ignore, not particularly a position to write about, let alone a rich set of vantage points to observe and write from. What changes have you seen for disabled writers and in the disability literary scene since those early days?
Mike: The answer to this question is probably a book in itself, but let me give it a try. It is no exaggeration to say that in terms of opportunity and accessibility a young disabled writer in 2019 enters a totally different literary world than the one I entered when I arrived at Inglis House in 1997. At the time, Kaleidoscope was the only literary journal that actively sought and fore-fronted the work of disabled writers. There was also the Disability Studies Quarterly but DSQ was a scholarly journal and beyond the academic abilities of most writers that I worked with. Even by the time of Wordgathering's first issue, the only other journal seeking the work of the poets I worked with was Breath and Shadow, founded by Sharon Wachsler in 2004.
What this meant was that writers who were not in a college setting were essentially on their own. And even then, the resources were limited. As I discovered when I began my own doctoral dissertation, books by poets who actually wrote about their own disabilities in poetry prior to 2000, could literally be counted on one hand. Moreover, even those, like the pioneering poet Vassar Miller who did write about disability tended to make sure that they surrounded these poems by many others that had nothing to do with it. The message this sent to beginning writers – and this was an attitude that I saw a great deal – was that if you were going to prove you were a "real" poet, you couldn't let disability-related writing the central focus of your work. That's why books like Kenny Fries Anesthesia and, a bit later Stephen Kuusisto's Only Bread, Only Light and Jim Ferris' The Hospital Poems were so terribly important. Disabled poets who had shied away from writing about their bodies saw not only that they were given permission but that the resultant writing could truly be literary. I know that, for the first time, the poets in my group saw their own lives reflected in the poetry they read. That seems almost surreal when I think one issue of Wordgathering today features as many disabled poets as a web search turned up then, and, that when a particular poem or story is not right for our journal, I can recommend other journals for the writer to submit it to.
This brings me to another huge change and that is technology. When I first met Stuart Sanderson, the friend and co-editor that already I've mentioned, he used a head stick – literally a pencil attached to a band around the top of his head – to hit the keys to type his poems. Stu had cerebral palsy and was unable to use his hands or, for most practical purposes, to speak. We were fortunate because Inglis House was an innovator in pioneering and testing adaptive equipment for computers so that I was literally over the years able to see how changes really did create possibilities for writers to express themselves. While certainly not without their faults or limitations, today these adaptive technologies make not only writing possible but make accessibility to all of the online books, journals and other resources that have responded to them possible. This is one reason it is important that journals like Wordgathering have people like Kate, who specialize in knowing how to make our work available, as part of our team.
Kate: Accessibility of online text for people with disabilities has certainly improved a lot since 1997. As Michael related, there are many examples out there of computers and the Internet opening new opportunities for disabled people. Ray Ozzie, the creator of Lotus Notes, often shares a story of working remotely with another developer who was brilliant but a super slow typer. They met later in person months later only for Ozzie to learn he was quadriplegic. Technology has certain opened up opportunities for disabled creators to contribute their works. As Mike says, I'll be working to ensure that can continue with Wordgathering as well as ensuring that people of all abilities can read the content in the journal.
Mike: Jim, I know that I have strayed a bit from the original question you asked, so let me get back to it with the recognition that it really contains a multitude of questions within it. Even though around the beginning of the twentieth century disabled writers began to write for themselves rather than simply being written about, they still inherited many of the tendencies implicit in that earlier writing and the medical model to which it was attached, among which was to center much poetry and fiction around the idea of overcoming. There were always writers like Stu who said, "This is who I am. It is the only way I know to be." He was not looking to be "cured." The work of writers like Steve, Jim and Kenny gave him the okay to continue to be himself. But the refusal to look at disability as part of identity still persists and – though I'll probably be publicly flayed for saying this – my experience over years of working at Inglis House has convinced me that this is principally among people with acquired disabilities, those who remember when. I still see the work of those writers as editor of Wordgathering, though it is decreasing as a proportion of submissions.
In several of his essays early on, though, Jim pointed out a differentiation that is important, even for those poets who identify as disabled. If disability poetry is to make a contribution, it has to do more than just be about. Yes, it is important that disabled writers let others know about their lives, but there is a point at which this becomes common enough that as artists we are treading the same terrain again with the same imagery and the same revelations – which are no longer revelations. What we do have to contribute, however, are unique points of views and new forms and language that derive from those viewpoints. Fortunately, disability poetry now has some very strong figures – I'll use Jennifer Bartlett and Jillian Weise as examples - who have led the way on how this can be accomplished. I'm thrilled today when a writer asks me who they should read to be able to point to any number of wonderful disabled poets to help them get their bearings. But it is still an open field. Consider, for example, the work of John Lee Clark with DeafBlind writers and protactile. What potential does protactile have to help redefine what poetry can be?
Jim: Mike, you've been shepherding Wordgathering since the beginning. Why are you handing over the reins now?
Mike: There are several factors, all of which converge on the fact that I'm now 73 and this seems to be a good time. As I've mentioned, I kind of fell into the role of Wordgathering editor, and the rapid development of the field of disability literature has swiftly out- stripped any qualifications that I had in the first place. The one that gnaws at me the most, from an ethical point of view, is that unlike the editors of other comparable literary journals such as Deaf Poets Society, Kaleidoscope or Breath and Shadow, I do not have a disability, and as the field develops, this becomes increasingly problematic. I have no legitimate standing to voice opinions related to the very field I have been working to establish and it really is time for that to end.
There are, however, a number of other more practical factors. As a one man band, I simply don't have the skills, talents or resources to grow Wordgathering beyond what it has already achieved. Until Eliot showed me, I had no clue what html was, so with the rapid development in available technology, I am increasingly out of the loop. My knowledge of and talent for writing poetry is minimal and with talented poetry editors such as Sheila Black and Jill Khoury having gone on to other things, I'm concerned that I may be short-changing both writers who submit their work and the readers. Not being connected with an academic institution, I am not as aware as I need to be about the latest developments in disability literature at a university level. And, of course, any funding for the journal comes out of my pocket and I do not have the funds to pay writers even the token amounts that the other journals I've reference are able to.
Don't get me wrong. I am very proud of what Wordgathering has achieved (and I could wax on about those ad nauseum), but because of those things I have just mentioned and the opportunity that has been provided – spear-headed by Steve Kuusisto's generous advocacy on my behalf – for Syracuse to take over the reins, I think it is time for both the journal and me to move on. I really harbor two main hopes. The first is that the marvelous archive of disability writing published in Wordgathering over the past thirteen years be preserved and accessible to any interested readers or researchers. The second is that with the available resources that the Syracuse University has to offer, the journal under Diane's direction (and with advisement, sponsorship, and support from Amanda, Kate, Rachael through the Syracuse University Libraries, the Open Publishing Services Unit, Burton Blatt Institute and others) will be able to expand and develop in directions that have not been possible up to this point. I'm very excited to see just what Wordgathering is capable of becoming.
Jim: Diane, you've had some real successes recently, with the publication of your fine book of poems The Golem Verses last year and the much-anticipated Fall 2019 double issue of Nine Mile Magazine which brings together the work of an impressive array of Disabled, Deaf, and Neurodivergent poets. What new directions do you anticipate for the journal?
Diane Wiener: Thanks, Jim, for your kind words. I want to start by noting how grateful, excited, and honored I am to become the Editor-in-Chief of Wordgathering, effective 2020, as my esteemed colleague and friend, Mike Northen, passes the torch. Exuberantly and with humility, I look forward (of course not just visually) to working in close collaboration with all of the Associate Editors and other partners and constituents, and, indeed, all of the prior and emerging contributors to this foundational journal of disability poetics and literature. I am also very happy to have such a stellar team at Syracuse University, about which I will comment, below.
One of the ideas of the many that we have in mind is supporting and expanding Wordgathering's national and global reach and reputation. In thinking of disability arts and literature as facets of cultural diplomacy and communication, broadly, Wordgathering is well-situated – because of Mike's and our colleagues' exceptional dedication and steadfast work – to engage actively in and be among the leaders of an ever-expansive discussion and demonstration of Disability, Deaf, Neurodivergent (including Autistic), Mad, and Crip poetics, in the world, today. These words are the "signifiers" that we may use to summarize some of the many constituent groups represented. 23 poets from these sometimes overlapping groups (including you, Jim – and Mike!) have work forthcoming this fall in Nine Mile's Special Double Issue (that I guest edited, as you so kindly mentioned).
We want to assure that Wordgathering and its foundational archive from 2007 to the present is readily searchable by poets, artists, activist-scholars, and anyone who is interested in disability and literature. We also want to do whatever we can to make the journal Open Access and fully accessible, while of course honoring when doing this may not be possible, owing to consent issues with respect to prior authors and contributors who either cannot be contacted or have passed on. Together with my outstanding colleagues at the Burton Blatt Institute and the Syracuse University Libraries, we will make this happen. It really is a great future that will honor a vibrant past.
Access in its broadest and most inclusive, welcoming forms and definitions has been a major priority for Wordgathering, since its inception, over 12 years ago. However, as Mike noted, although he has always worked with an incredible team of partners and constituents, he has likewise often out of necessity been a One Man Band. Mike's ongoing work to assure that all published poems are read aloud either by the poets themselves or by volunteer readers is one of the thoughtful and exemplary facets for which the journal is known. Read-aloud "robot voices" may be necessary, and even awesome, at times, but having poetry, in particular, shared via a decidedly poetic voice, is part of the aesthetic experience, in addition of course to making a greater experience of access possible for a variety of journal readers and visitors.
The vibrant, interdisciplinary collaboration – possible because of a true team of partners – that we have created at Syracuse University, in close connection with Mike, will make it possible to bring greater resources and expertise to bear in supporting and honing the journal's already strong accessibility components, by: 1) broadening the kinds of submissions possible; and 2) emboldening how access works seamlessly within the Wordgathering domain, altogether.
For example, myriad culturally Deaf poets at times craft their poetic and other literary works in American Sign Language (ASL). Over time, Wordgathering would like to make it feasible and seamless for works to be submitted in video format, including in ASL. Multi-format access will happen, too, with transcripts and voiceovers, captioning and descriptive audio; tagging, alt-text, etc. will be augmented and fine-tuned, as well. Perhaps, in the future, we will have each typed poem interpreted in American Sign Language, as well as available auditorily. My colleagues and I have many ideas that we will roll out with thoughtful and strategic planning, over time.
Mike: I think it is pretty obvious from what Diane has just said why I am very comfortable with handing the editorship of Wordgathering over to her, and also how the team at Syracuse is going to be able to greatly expand on what we have been doing so far. The idea of incorporating ASL, for example, is a particularly exciting idea that just could not be realized under Wordgathering current situation.
Jim: That is a promising set of initiatives for Wordgathering – and an ambitious one. How does the new affiliation with Syracuse University and the Burton Blatt Institute facilitate moving forward on those goals?
Diane: The Wordgathering transition to Syracuse University would not be possible without the vibrant, intentional, and committed partnership that we have created between the Burton Blatt Institute's (BBI) Office of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach (OIPO) and the Syracuse University Libraries. As noted on the website, BBI "reaches around the globe in its efforts to advance the civic, economic, and social participation of people with disabilities" (http://bbi.syr.edu/about/index.html). BBI's global engagement across multiple platforms and locations is an ideal home base for Wordgathering, particularly because of OIPO, launched in January of 2019, for which Prof. Steve Kuusisto is the Director, I am the Associate Director, and Ms. Rachael Zubal-Ruggieri is the Administrative Assistant.
As indicated on OIPO's landing page, "The Office of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach will create and advance interdisciplinary, intersectional educational programs, research and pedagogy focused on disability justice, identities, cultures and studies. The office will also engage with a wide array of University constituents to interface, network and collaborate with local, regional, national and global partners, and pursue development and advancement opportunities that underscore, celebrate and enhance the rich and nuanced experiences of disabled people. Disabled students, faculty, staff and alumni – including the significant experience and contributions of veterans – will be at the heart of this initiative" (http://bbi.syr.edu/projects/OIPO/index.html).
The wide-ranging knowledge and dedication that Ms. Amanda Page, Dr. Kate Deibel, and myriad other talented librarians-scholars-activists bring to bear in this endeavor is essential to its success. Frankly, this entire undertaking would not be possible without their wisdom, sophistication, commitment to disability justice, and vast expertise. Open Access values and accessibility ethics are at the heart of this work.
Kate: As Diane said, there is also a big push to continue making Wordgathering an accessible journal. In Libraries, accessibility is a much used word. The most common usage is ensuring that a patron can get to an item both by discovering it in our catalogs and being able to use it. That last bit about using it can involve many concerns from usage costs, copyright limitations, format issues, disability access, and more. The work that Amanda and I do involve addressing these various barriers. For myself, I spend much time on disability access, particular when it comes to digital technologies. Mike (and the people who have helped him over the years) have done a great job making the Wordgathering website accessible. Even they would admit it wasn't perfect, but I won't nitpick. Their hard work should still be commended given so many other sites never give any consideration at all to accessibility.
By moving Wordgathering to a new home, we'll be able to improve the accessibility of its content more and more. Importantly, by moving to a content management system, it makes it easier for us to change the whole site all at once by editing the system's templates. It will take time to convert the older Wordgathering pages into the new formats, but this work is all about steadily making things better. I'm also eager to demonstrate how care and forethought can help make a journal meet accessibility standards while benefiting all users. There are some nifty tech ideas I hope to explore with Wordgathering after we get the new site set up.
Mike: Kate, yes, Wordgathering is very far from perfect – haha! That is why I am so excited to see what you and the rest of the Syracuse team will do.
Jim: Continuing to think about accessibility: there have been many barriers in the submission process for disabled writers, particularly for those who use screen readers. How do you envision access working for writers who submit to Wordgathering?
Mike: I'm glad that you asked this Jim. We have been doing our best at Wordgathering to try to make sure that the submissions process is accessible, but it is one of the reasons that I am especially glad to have Kate, Amanda and Rachael involved with the journal. I think Kate's role is going to be critical in assuring accessibility not just for submissions but for the entire journal. Since Eliot Spindel, our original webmaster passed away earlier this year, this is an area that I have been especially concerned about. I think that Amanda also has some great ideas for how we can make both submissions and the journal itself more friendly to readers.
Rachael Zubal-Ruggieri: Part of the reasoning and work behind of this endeavor is not only keeping Wordgathering active, or "alive," but that we will be doing so in a way that is Open Access and accessible via Word Press. Word Press, the Content Management System (CMS) that we will be using, addresses accessibility in more than one way. First, users do not need an extensive amount of coding or technical expertise to use it. Second, while Word Press already has a great deal of functionality built in, it also has "plug-ins," such as online forms, that can be installed to support accessibility as well. Also important is that there are also edits that can be made to the "back end." Other mechanisms are also available to edit code that can support accessibility.
Mike: We have also been discussing some possibilities that will make life a bit easier for Wordgathering readers. Currently, for instance, there is no way for a reader to print out an entire issue – something that some readers have asked for. Amanda and Kate suggested the possibility of including multiple formats (such as PDF's) to choose from that might eliminate that problem. Currently, I'm not able to do that. That is just one example.
Jim: Will the look of Wordgathering change? What can we expect it to look like in upcoming issues?
Rachael: In terms of any new look for Wordgathering, it is something that will be different, by virtue of using the Word Press user interface. Not only will this CMS allow us to make it accessible, it allows for formatting, such as fonts and imagery, that will help give the site a bit of a makeover, visually. If you would like more information on how this might be done, I can certainly share this.
Mike: Rachael, can you say a bit more about how might this new format affect Wordgathering readers or potential contributors or be different from what they are used to now?
Rachael: Since the new site will be created in Expressions, we will have more flexibility in not only creating a site that is accessible, but one that is appealing. Much of the "coding" that Mike does will not really be necessary any more, after adjustments are made to the theme we decide upon (or even design), as not all functionality it is built into Word Press, but a lot of the technical coding will be eliminated. Kate can expand on technical aspects, I'm sure.
Word Press is marketed as not only a platform or CMS, but a service that has much more functionality, and with its plug ins, sites created with Word Press can be responsive and mobile-friendly (so that it will adjust from computer screens to laptop screens to smart phones and whatever device might be used and back and forth). This is done behind the scenes via technical coding (someone like Kate is quite adept at this) as well as via adjustment of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). CSS are a web design aspect that moves the coding from the text itself to mostly singular areas that style and design can be adjusted. For examples of how text can be modified via CSS, visit CSS Zen Garden. I should note that many of the style sheets here may not necessarily be accessible, but it does show the capabilities of CSS.
Amanda Page: I cannot speak to if the design and formal look of Wordgathering will change. I believe it will, in some way, long term, to focus on readers and usability, best practices and standards for quality publishing and accessibility.
As Mike mentioned earlier, Wordgathering as a journal is undergoing a transformation. As Open Publishing and Copyright Librarian at the Syracuse University Libraries, I am honored to now be a part of the Wordgathering team (since Steve Kuusisto, Diane Wiener, and Mike Northen came to us in November of 2017 with the proposal). I'm thankful to be a part of this moving ahead and really excited to participate in the next phase of the journal.
Wordgathering is a disability poetry journal, and, in my opinion, has long been invested in voice of the author and the disabled poet. In no way will this change moving ahead – as I see it. In fact, by bringing Wordgathering into the fold here at Syracuse University Libraries and BBI, the journal will continue to be a platform for said voice, while increasing the quality of scholarship, Open Access, and publishing workflows to help solicit long term longevity of the journal, and allowing Mike a reprieve in passing forward the editorship to Diane.
The September, 2019 issue is full of good poetry – that is what I am expecting to continue. Other forthcoming work will include changes that may be seen, or simple changes that are not apparent by Wordgathering readers, but will help authors, poets. Eventually, the journal will have a new design, though I am confident it will be one that is user-friendly and accessibile, all while being an Open Access journal.
Mike: I second what Amanda has said, and want to reassure readers that in the interim between this issue and the changeover in December, that they can continue to submit work or send comments and questions just as they have in the past, and we will continue to respond as before, letting them know about any changes in communicating with us as things move along. Though I, myself, will be phasing out, the core of our editing team, Emily Michael, Sean Mahoney, Anne Kaeir and Ona Gritz – all wonderful writers themselves – will continue to play their important role in reading and selecting submissions to Wordgathering. They are familiar with the work of many writers who have submitted in the past and that knowledge will continue as a bridge for writers from the past to the even better journal that Wordgathering can become.
Jim: Thanks, everyone. Congratulations and many thanks to Mike. I expect you will be shy about it, but this is important to acknowledge: through your efforts going back to the beginnings of the Inglis House workshops, you have helped to create disability literature as a recognizable field. DisLit is a thing in significant part because of you. Your labor of love with Wordgathering and your many related projects (including the Disability Literature Consortium) have been a real gift to generations of disabled writers and our readers. Deep, profound thanks to you for what you have been doing for so long on our behalf.
And, with real excitement about new directions, thanks and best wishes to the team that has committed to reinforcing, renewing, and advancing Wordgathering and the work of disabled literary artists and critics. Here's to the next era of the journal.