Interview with Philip Dowd

WG: Philip, you are doing your doctoral research in the field of disability poetry. That is a rather unusual area to research. Can you talk a little bit about what motivated you to make that choice?

PD: As a poet myself and a friend of a poets like Maine poet Patricia Ranzoni and Dara McLaughlin, among others, I was curious to know why there was no poetry about the physically disabled experience by disabled people before the 1970's. I think this question is important and deserved answering. While there were poets and writers with disabilities before this, very few actually wrote about disability.

I think poetry is a more accurate way of reaching truth than history. We have this literary tradition of biography, most people can name at least three books of biography/lifewriting/autobiography/history written by or about a disabled person, it has been studied to death, but we have this whole new literature. I thought nobody was looking at the poetry and metaphors that disabled people were writing as an expression of a new consciousness.

I wondered why the poetry was a major vehicle for this new consciousness. I got excited by finding that there is probably more than twenty poems that address in some way Freda Kahlo, for example I think Freda has assumed an almost iconic status among the poets. Then there are the pain poems, poems that tear apart the curtain that surrounds the medical system, lay it bare, that we have been writing. So we have this major body of writing and I kinda see it as untapped.

WG: It is interesting that you have found so many poets who have been drawn to Kahlo. I know we have seen some of that here at Wordgathering, but twenty is quite surprising. I wanted to follow up with your idea of examining poems about pain that "tear apart the curtain that surrounds the medical system." While a number of poets with disability certainly take aim at the medical establishment through their poetry, I am interested in how you feel that poems about pain specifically accomplish this.

PD: Plato argued that poetry comes closer to truth than history. History poses problems, for example, an accusation has been made, that a great deal of modern autobiography, is more or less autothanatography, that is that it is primarily about death and/or the personal experience of dying. However, I argue disability culture is about living with disability and pain is a part of that experience. Thus autothanatography can never accurately portray disability because it is neat and orderly and deals with the process moving towards death. This is a problem that poetry doesn't appear to have. I think one of the difficult areas poetry is able to address is pain as an element of life that biography fails to address and experience without saying life is over, for example, Steven Brown writes of his experience growing up with pain in Tablets, while in Contradictions: Tracking Poems Adrienne Rich writes to her self of her pain. We also find David Citano in his The House Of Pain (1997 p. 22) starting with a description of the ancient Greeks and how they dealt with pain, then ending with writing about the philosopher Kant.

Kant was able for one night
to will away his pain,
five loud toes of gout,
by sitting close as he could
to the fire and studying

the speeches of Cicero
but Kant, after all was Kant.
For most of us, if pain
chains and locks us in,
we will study no one else.

But Kant was after all, (the greatest philosopher of his time) was Kant. To look at just one small area that of getting a needle there are there are three poems Patricia Ranzoni writes of her experience of getting needles every two weeks and the need to find an un-collapsed vein, comparing her skin to her embroidery. Yvette Green says in her poem called "Hard Sticks"

They pick you and poke you
Hit and slap
Hoping to find a vein to tap
A vial of blood for God knows what
I know it's for my own good but-
Why oh why can't they create
A painless needle for goodness sake

Whilst Perillo (pg 47, 1999) in her poem Needles tries to count the needles she has received over the course of her life she starts this poem with

So first there's the chemo: three sticks, once a week,
Twenty-six weeks,
Then you add interferon, three times a week
And then there's the blood tests. How many blood tests?
(Too many to count.)

A major theme of disability poetry revolves around medicine and their treatment of their patients for example The Body Mutinies by Lucia Perillo(1996 p.30) deals with the issue of the doctor-patient relationship when the news isn't comforting. Cobalt Blues (1999, p. 16), by Dara McLaughlin is as blunt as you get aimed straight at the medical profession. Ms. McLaughlin was made paraplegic by the radiation therapy she was given for cancer, and later died from the long term effects of the treatment. In this poem there is no room for sweetness. We seem to be critiquing the medical system in poetry.

WG: I think to the list of poets who have explored pain from a disabilities perspective we could also certainly add Karen Fiser in Words Like Fate and Pain and Laurie Clements Lambeth with Veil and Burn. As I think of those two works which are sixteen years apart, I wonder if you have seen any changes over time in the ways that the poets you have studied have approached the subject of pain.? You mentioned previously that few poets wrote about their disabilities prior to the 1970's, so is there a sort of quantum leap there, or do you see a more gradual pattern? I also am curious to know if you see any difference in attitudes towards pain in poets with congenital disabilities as opposed to writes with acquired disabilities.

PD: I agree with you about Karen Fiser's and Laurie Clement Lambeth's poetry. I See the subject of pain as a move toward a poetry of embodiment, as such, pain places us within our bodies at a deeper level than anything else. We can't ignore the fact of the body in pain, at least not for long. Pain is the one experience that pervasively places us in the body. It demands we act. As long as the pain continues to demand our attention to quote, the last Three lines of David Citino's poem,"The House Of Pain" from Broken Symmetry

For most of us, if pain, chains and locks us in, we will study no one else.

Pain isn't new, but physically disabled writers are. I doubt whether I would have lived past age one before modern medical practices. People with pain and severe physical disabilities were rare until the development of modern medicine; we died or the societies we were born into killed us or we were locked in the backrooms. We had to free ourselves from the institutions of social control such as nursing homes and institutions. The next problem we had to overcome was the lack of education. If disabled people did survive without technological developments, and did get educated, they would have lacked the technology such as computers or electric typewriters to record their poems. Another problem we had to deal with was what Virginia Woolf termed in the feminist sense quot;a room of ones ownquot; and the money and time to experiment.

One of the questions I am interested in is, if all these poets and poems are considered together, rather then as singular isolated incidents, do they all link together into what Johnstoncalls a supertext that has been in process for 40-50 years. I think if we consider the ground-breaking work of these poets, as building on each other, developing common themes, we might make the case for such a supertext. It's about looking for common themes that disabled poets draw on. Important figures such as Hellen Keller and Frida Kahlo feature as major figures of this poetry. A few of the themes are pain, critiquing medicine and health professionals such as therapists, the affirmation of life with a disability as worth living, history, and the meaning of disability.

I think the poetry isn't as clearly divided between acquired and congenital disabilities as most people think it would be. For example my CP is congenital but caused other problems as I aged that are progressive.

WG: The concept of the supertext is certainly a useful one and one that publications such as Wordgathering, Breath & Shadow and Disability Studies Quarterly are attempting to add to in order to see what emerges. Scholar David Mitchell has gone so far as to say that it is incumbent upon writers with disabilities to reference each others works and themes in their literary work and that those who don't can't really consider themselves members of the disabilities writing community. In other words, he would exclude them from the supertext. As a poet yourself, how do you feel about this? Assuming boundaries are implicit in any body of text, what parameter would you draw?

PD: What ever is truth is mine. As soon as we start referencing influences on our poetry we cease writing poetry to become cataloguers of influences. A question is where do you draw the line, and is it a line that can be drawn, and that actually needs to be drawn. Do we expect other feminist poets to list their feminist poetic influences, or black poets to list other black poets influence on their poetry, or Goth poets to list the influences on their poetry? As soon as we start to list the influences on a particular poem we run into trouble. Like I have an experimental poem that at one point draws on a cartoon by a disabled artist its a poem that grew from a reading of Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress from a disabled perspective, I borrowed the line quot;The valley of the shadow of deathquot;, how many influences can you see, I see the epic poems the Odyssey, the Mahabarata, Dante, Divine Comedy (Part 1 Hell), some inluence from Patricia Ranzoni, the play Prometheus Bound, the song "Stairway to Heaven" and that's just the end 15 lines. The poem is over 60 lines.

in the valley of the shadow of death
between the living and the dead
sitting at the bottom of the stairway to heaven
there's millions of us on scooters and wheelchairs
waiting for the ramp to heaven they promised to build
millions of years ago might as well been yesterday
claim tied up in costly celestial court cases
and will be for the foreseeable future
Song title rights can't be changed
("stairway to heaven" sounds better than "ramp to heaven")
for a few crips, Dante would be proud (yeah right)
in the valley of the shadow of death
Prometheus was right chained to his rock
Defiant of destiny, ranting, raving
is all we can do in the valley of the shadow of death

How do we actually tell what influences a poem. And do we need to list them. You can't expect us to list influences just because we are disabled poets to prove our credentials as disabled poets. If we expect a poet to list the influences just sticking to disabled poets, Homer was supposed blind, how far back do we go. Can we really trace back the influences on a particular poem or poet through other disabled poets. I adore Dara McLaughlin's and Patricia Ranzoni's poetry BUT I write nothing like them. I think Adrienne Rich Tracking Poems have influenced me as have other poets but to say that I need to list all the poetic influences by disabled poets just to be considered a disabled poet appears to be impossible, because we draw on to many other influences the we weld together. The Story of Isaac has been used by four poets counting me, two of whom are disabled that I know of. We didn't know each others interpretations, I knew Owen's anti war poem and Leonard Cohen's song, I think if we are only influenced by other disabled poets we loose the vibrancy in the writing.

WG: My impression is that Mitchell was not talking about listing your references, but taking into account the work other writers with disabilities were doing so that the self-referentiality was essentially a communal one. For example, in her short story collection Human Oddities Noria Jablonski alludes to the novel Geek Love, Todd Browning's movie Freaks, etc. Certainly African American and Feminist writers did this. Speaking of influences, though, you mentioned that you felt your work had been influenced to some extent by Adrienne Rich. Are there other poets that you feel have influenced your work?

PD: Firstly, a major perhaps the greatest influence on my poetry and the thesis is Patricia Ranzoni. She's a major treasure often missing from the collections of American disability poetry. I don't understand this. I am trying to save enough money to get back to Maine to visit her again. I sometimes wish I could write as freely as she does. I especially like this Patricia Ranzoni poem, "SURVIVING SALEM", with a movement disorder and several witches' tits' in Women With Disabilities (1993, p. 211),

The Samuel Parris preachers
are still fooling the faithful
from beyond Bible proof: "I name
my text." Still condemning,
condoning, by ego, design,
however divinely inspired. Still
rending families, towns, from behind
belief to control, play, manipulate, steal;
deciding good, evil, on their terms.
Seeing Satan where they want to,
witches where they choose, Sentencing
to guilt in the name of fear. Thank God
for more Sarahs daring to defy
our need for devils, Lord knows
I'd have swung from the hanging tree.

Two other poets for different reasons are Dara McLaughlin and, Barbara McGee. One poem I think has had a major influence that has still not worked its way into my work but is guaranteed to is, Ann Macfarlane "Watershed" from What Happened To you? , a collection of writing by British disabled women edited by Lois Keith. There are some really good British poets. I think I want to write a poem from the child's perspective. Sorta try to get inside the child's head as she is drowned by the staff and the other children watch knowing that their turns are coming. It won't be a pretty poem. As I said, there are some really good British poets.

WG: Since Wordgathering is based in the United States most of our readers are probably not familiar with the work Australian poets and novelists with disabilities. Can you talk a bit about some of the writers that you think it would be valuable to read?

PD: As for Australian poets, the bush poets have influenced my use of Aussie lingo, and critiquing politically correct language which I tend to argue says nothing I think. Link in the early days was good giving disabled poets a place to be seen but crip poetry has lost it.. Link now is dry and uninspired. There are now a couple of poets but too few and far between in Australia. The market is small, we have the highbeam festival here in my state dedicated to disabled arts and artists but its never had a serious poetry component. We need a major publication to start up dealing with the whole disabled arts movement in Australia there a some great visual artists around and some short story writers. But they lack the market of the U.S.A.

WG: Philip, I want to thank you for taking the time to give us some perspective on your work in disability poetry - both your research and your own poems. Is there anything else you would like to add before we wind things up?

PD: We as disabled poets need to start exploring and exposing the humorous side of living with a disability. We have poems that explore the nasty, the stuff that has been swept away into the back of the cupboard. We need to do this but we need to find a balance, to learn to write poetry that looks at disability with humor, or the message we give confirms the Pete Singers of the worlds view that disability is too serious. Where are the humorous poems? I can name a few and have written some fluffy fun poems, like the "Poem to the Plates I Have Broken and the Ones I Will Break and Drop." The British are particularly good at this. We need a balance for every serious poem we write. We should at least try to write a couple of lines of humor, to balance the serious.

WG: Perhaps some of our readers will take up the challenge - well-written poems combining humor and disability. Thank you for the interview.