Book Review: Laura Hershey: On the Life & Work of an American Master (Meg Day and Niki Herd, eds.)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
The publication of Laura Hershey: On the Life and Work of an American Master in The Unsung American Masters Series is an important event in disability literature. Bringing the work of Laura Hershey back to light by the books editors, Meg Day and Niki Herd was a Herculian task. One thinks of Alice Walker's resurrection of Zora Neil Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, its impact on subsequent literature and what would have been lost without it.
In assembling this volume, Day and Herd faced daunting challenges among many other smaller ones. The first was getting the work of Laura Hershey recognized as a valid candidate for the Unsung Master's series. Hershey herself was an activist, not an academy poet, and many of who held sway over publication decisions did not consider her work suitable. It also meant that even if accepted, there were constraints on what the editors would be allowed to do. The second was that because of the activist nature of Hershey's writing, almost none of Hershey's work was available on through the Internet. Day had to travel the Denver Public Library archives and search through, "pamphlets, newsletters, magazines, newspapers, chapbooks, zines, musical scores, posers, placques, buttons, tshirts, multi-media art sets, cassette tape, radio and video,"* most of which had never been previously transcribed.
The book that all of this work resulted in contains introductory essays by Meg Day and Niki Herd, a generous selection of Hershey's poetry, one prose essay by Hershey, photographs, and essays on Hershey's work by four writers and scholars representing the varied field disability literature Constance Merritt, Eli Claire, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and Declan Gould.
Of all of the contributors, only Day actually knew Laura Hershey personally. Because of that, the other contributors can only approach Hershey as text. Perhaps that is as it should be in a book packaged for academic consumption, but allowing Day the opening piece in the book puts a human face on a writer who was very much of a face-to-face person. It also helped her to work together with Robin Stephens, Hershey's long time partner, who played an important cooperative role in the book's coming together. What Day's essay reminds us of is the messy beginnings of disability literature that activist/writers like Hershey existed in. Years before anthologies like Beauty is a Verb had amassed enough disability poetry that disabled poets could theorize about what disability poetry was or ought to be, Hershey was in the trenches using whatever voice she had to try to effect change. As Day reveals in the piece titled from Hershey's own words, "'Stairs Start to Crumble All Over at America with the Scratching of a Pen,'" "Laura Hershey was the first out queer disabled poet that I'd ever read on paper." They were the poems of witness and experience.
The choice of Constance Merritt as the lead off essayist to discuss Hershey's work is a satisfying one. Like Hershey, Merritt has come into the disability poetry world by her own path, with her collection Blind Girl Grunt standing as one of the genre's most significant books. As such, she is in a position to be able to say: "For Hershey, writing poetry is a form of resistance born of psychological and existential necessity; but vital and necessary as writing is, it is not without its risks."
The risks include that not all of the poetry will hit the mark and that some of the language may be ambiguous or seen by later writers as questionable in the light of today's writing. Merritt's essay explores several of the poems that she feels are important to understanding Hershey's contribution to disability poetry including "A Call to Arms," "Translating the Crip" and "How to Write a Poem."
If anyone is expecting Hershey hagiography in this collection, they will be disappointed. If Merritt is careful to focus on Hershey's contributions and ignore poems that might be easy targets for poetry critics, Eli Claire is a little less deferential. Claire is not known for following the pack and while as a disabled genderqueer poet he acknowledges Hershey's importance in establishing LGBTQ pride, he also takes her to task for separating those poems that seem concerned with disability from those that focus on her experiences as a lesbian. Referencing the homophobia in the disability rights movement back in the 1980's and 1990's, Claire tells Hershey "you and I navigated that terrain in such different ways." Claire makes some valid points that he is able to substantiate with the poems that he offers as evidence, but at the same time, he also substantiates Merritt's concern about the risks that a poet like Hershey takes. There is always the danger of Monday morning quarterbacking.
While as Meg Day points out, the sheer volume of Hershey's work and the inaccessible state of much of the material make any kind of a "complete works" impossible, the work that they did select does an admirable job of representing Hershey's poetry, including over 70 poems encompassing a wide range of subjects and styles. Even as someone who had previously reviewed The Spark Before Dark here in Wordgathering and published several of Hershey's poems I was amazed at what I discovered in the poems that the editors provided. If they know any of Hershey's poems, most readers will recognize "You Get Proud By Practicing," but it would be a mistake to think this can stand-in for all of Hershey's poetry.
My personal favorite among Hershey's poems is "Telling." I say that because whenever I have done poetry readings that includes the work of several different poets, even in a crowd that tends towards lackadaisical, "Telling" is the one poem that everyone stops and pays attention to:
What you risk telling your story:
As Hershey's poem unfolds the audience's identification with these lines builds until she hits:Those with power can afford
to tell their story
Those without power
risk everything to tell their story
Boom! She's nailed it.
Everyone will have different favorites. Piepzna-Samarasinha, who says that Hershey is the only white poet she teaches in her online writing class, favors "Translating the Crip." Hershey's when "I say ____ I mean_____" form lends itself to an exploration of language and the recognition by disabled writers that "nondisabled language is abled language," ignorant of itself. It's a poem full of chutzpah, ending with the line "When I say ally I mean I'll get back to you. And you better be there."
Gould, whose work focuses on disability metaphor, finds the poems "Delving," "Sentence," "Petunias" and "canyon" ripe for exploration. As Claire notes, there are poems such as "Insomnia" and "A Day," dedicated to Robin Stephens, that speak to intimate personal experience. There are even those poems whose titles such as "The Ones Who Go to Jail" and "Why I Am Not A Christian" that tie the poem to another well-known literary work. It's a diverse collection, well chosen by the editors.
It is hard to imagine that the library of any college that teaches disability literature would not want a copy of Laura Hershey; it provides primary material in the field available no where else. There are others, also, for whom the book is important. These include both students of disability literature, for which this provides historical and cultural contexts, and disabled poets themselves. Hershey's poetry is a well that new poets can return to both to re-energize their own work and to avoid the frustration of trying to rewrite what has already been done. Finally, because Hershey's poetry speaks with a common tongue, her work will find many readers – disabled or not – who can understand and be moved by it. Meg Day and Niki Herd's accomplishment in making this work available is a significant one.
Title: Laura Hershey
*For a conversation with Meg Day and Niki Herd about the process of creating their book, see the interview with them in the June 2019 issue of Wordgathering.