Book Review: We are not your metaphor (Zoeglossia Fellows)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

An important event for disability poetry happened in May 2019, the first annual Zoeglossia writer's retreat. Zoeglossia is an organization founded and spear-headed by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Connie Voisine to develop the talent of poets with disabilities. For three days, the writers – known as Zoeglossia Fellows* – met to attend workshops, discuss their work and write. An almost immediate result of that event was the publication of We are not your metaphor: a disability poetry anthology. The quick appearance of the anthology was possible because of the involvement in the conference of Raymond Luczak, whose Squares & Rebels press published the book.

As an immediate documentation of the work of the Zoeglossia conference, We are not your metaphors is invaluable. Book-ended by an excerpt from Kathi Wolfe's keynote speech, "Metaphorically Speaking" and a post-script describing Zoeglossia, the anthology presents poetry from the eleven Fellows attending the conference. The collection's title derives from Wolfe's keynote, asking conference participants how often they have they have encountered "the ableist metaphors used so often to describe disabilities or those of us with disabilities." Unfortunately, nothing within the book gives readers a sense of what role the events at the conference played in the production of these poems.

One might assume that the poems were the result of the conference workshops. However, this cannot be the case with all of the poems since certain poems – some by Elizabeth Theriot, Naomi Ortiz and Genevieve Arlie … had been previously published. On the other hand, Stephen Lightbown poem "When We Say Goodbye, We Talk Too Fast" subtitled "A Poem that talks to poems of Zoeglossia fellows Zoe Stoller, Naomi Ortiz, Stephanie Heit and Margaret Rickets" and Elizabeth Theriot's poem "An Emergency" with the subtitle "With a line from Jessica Suzanne Stokes are tantalizing indications that there was a dynamic of poetic reciprocity occurring during its composition. It would have been valuable to know about some of the dynamics involved that generated the volume's poems and how collegiality might have spawned creativity among disabled writers. The closest the anthology gets us to an inside look at Zoeglossia's process may be Rickett's poem "The Mansion":

zoeglossia is many things – a poem
exploding across the face and fingers
of ASL, intellect inscribed silently
in the air, the chairs and floors of the
mansion we built with our own hands.

What we have, instead, is a sort of raw data that leaves readers to mine individual poems rather than a sense of process. Nevertheless, those individual poems are valuable in themselves. In a sense, they represent the great variety that is encompassed beneath the huge umbrella of disability itself. In addition, they give a glimpse of some of the writers that disability poetics can anticipate hearing from in the upcoming years and hints at some of the directions that might emerge.

Among the most interesting of these experiments are Raymond Luczak's "ASL gloss" poems. "The Doctor-Poacher" is a poem in stanzas in which the first two lines of a stanza are in English and the second two lines are an ASL gloss of the same idea. It begins:

Look how proud you appear with your leather safari hat.
You won't tell everyone how hard it was to find it in your size.
hands-glide-up-down-you-proud hart-inflate why s-a-f-a-r-i hat leather w-o-w
secret won't announce hat size hours hard find wow-wow

Another Luczak poem "Lips-Kiss-Pray Two-Together-Forever (Two People Kissing for the First Time is Always an Act of Prayer)" is poem totally in ASL gloss complete with stage directions for the placement of hands. Such poems in addition to revealing the structure of ASL as a language – something that in itself should be exciting to those unfamiliar with it – but they suggest possibilities that the cross-fertilization of the two languages might have for poetics. As disability poetry theorist Jim Ferris has often remarked, disability poetry is not just about the subject of the poetry but the way that embodiment can contribute to the structure and possibilities of poetry itself. Luczak's two poems are perfect examples.

Two other longer projects that seem to be in process are Stephanie Heit's "Electrical Work Index Series" and Zoe Stoeller's "After Versed" from which a number of examples are given. Heit's work was based upon a series upon a series of electrical shocks about which she says, "My course (or theirs, depending) was 30 sessions from October 2011 through March 2012." The series is comprised of a sequence of prose poems with titles such as "Waiting Bay," "Treatment Room," and "Recovery Bay."

For those new to disability poetry and perhaps to experimental poetry in general, one of the nicest surprises in the volume is the work of Stephen Lightbown. Lightbown gives us a variety of poems, all of which are thoughtful and show a range of topics, but none of which require readers to have a minor in contemporary poetry. He can be inventive, as in "An Interview With Snow" but also get straight at the heart of disability issues as he does in the first few lines of "Breathless":

It started. A typed question –
Do you have wheelchair access?
Grew. A one sentence reply–
Yes, can they manage one step?
They. I did not correct.

The inclusion of Lightbown, who is a UK based poet, also gives the anthology one point of view that is not drawn from within the continental United States.

For those who are new to disability poetry, it may also be a revelation that not all of the poetry in the volume is directly about disability and most of the poets represented there show their ability to handle both poems that deal directly with disability and those that, on first glance at least, have nothing to do with it. One example is Genevieve Arlie. Here is a section from her poem "Physical Therapy."

It seems my ribs flare: He lays

my hand on his so I can feel
what's normal: his ribcage

on his good side,
on his better side,

not releasing my hand, to show me
how I should have been made.

From the title of the poem onward, it is clear disability is fore-fronted. On the other hand, there is her poem "Ferryman's Matin" which begins:

Since morning I've killed
two houseflies who trapped themselves
indoors only to languish
at the windowsill like house–
wives in the fur and lace
of mourning, licking salt from the lips
of teacups, impregnating melon
rinds in the trash;

While arguably the poem could be view as having been written through a disabilities' lens, nothing in the poem itself asks to be read this way.

Because the Zoeglossia conference was held in San Antonio, it is also worth noting that there are two poets whose work invoke Mexican culture, Viktoria Valenzuela and Naomi Ortiz, a is a self-described "disabled mestiza." In the current nativist/Anti-immigrant political climate, it is more than simply a gesture. Not only does it signal the opposition of Zoeglossia itself to such attitudes, but it goes towards helping to erase an embarrassing fact, that the overwhelming majority of writers whose work is represented by disability poetry are white.

As Kathi Wolfe observes in her keynote address, Zoeglossia has to be applauded for providing the venue "That would give us a chance to discuss the many questions of disability identity, reflect on disability history, and muse about our craft." Raymond Luczak's Squares & Rebels also needs to be applauded for making the work of the conference available. Zoeglossia plans to hold its writer's conference annually and those chosen as Fellows have the opportunity to return three times. It will be interesting to see what they come up with next year.

Title: We are not your metaphor
Author: Zoeglossia Fellowst
Publisher: Squares & Rebels
Publication Date: 2019



*The eleven Zoeglossia fellows incude Genevieve Arlie, Stephanie Heit, Stephen Lightbown, Raymond Luczak, Naomi Ortiz, Margaret Ricketts, Jessica Suzanne Stokes, Zoe Stoller, Elizabeth Theriot, Gaia Celeste Thomas and Viktoria Valenzuela. More poetry by the Fellows can be found in this issue's Reading Loop by Sheila Black, where each of the Zoeglossia poets is invited to contribute a poem.


Michael Northen is the editor of Wordgathering and an editor with Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black of the anthology Beauty is a Verb: the New Poetry of Disability. He is also an editor of the recent anthology of disabiity short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (Cinco Puntos Press).