Jessica Lewis Luck
DISABILITY, POETRY, PEDAGOGY
My first experience with thinking about poetry and disability came while reading the book Silence Fell by Josephine Dickinson, a contemporary British writer and musician who has been deaf since the age of six. As a teacher of poetry, of course, I had always emphasized to my students that poetry is an oral genre, language that was meant to be heard and read aloud. But the rich soundscape of Dickinson's poetry seemed to call into question my limited understanding of how sound functions in poetry. Dickinson's poetics introduced me to a much more fully-embodied way of understanding sound, how language resonates when we read it not only in the nerves of the ear, but also in the mouth, the throat, and even the spaces of the body itself.
Reading disability poetry was such a powerful learning experience for me that the obvious next step was to bring it into the classroom. The logical place in our curriculum was a special topics course on Studies in Literary Diversity, which in the past had covered gender studies, critical race studies, and queer theory. The connection to these approaches was quite helpful to us throughout the quarter, as many terms that the students were more familiar with (sexism, homophobia, civil rights movements) mapped in helpful (if imperfect) ways onto more unfamiliar terms in disability studies (ableism, the Disability Rights Movement).
We spent the first day discussing how and why disability is a more "invisible" form of diversity in our culture. Members of the disabled community are sometimes sequestered away, or kept separate from each other in different clinics or schools; many members of the Deaf community prefer to define themselves as a linguistic minority rather than "disabled," and other people with disabilities "pass" as non-disabled. Indeed, during our discussion of passing, some students in the class "came out" as having invisible disabilities themselves. Though we focused a great deal on poetics, these questions of the politics of disability were always at play in our discussions.
Another important goal in the first week was to destroy what Kathi Wolfe calls the "inspirational pedestal." John Lee Clark's wonderful poem "Barbara Walters is in Awe" was an excellent demolition tool:
Barbara Walters is in Awe
We would be analyzing these poems with many different lenses throughout the quarter, but we would never read them as "inspirational" just because the writer has a disability, though the poems were certainly inspirational to us as fellow critics and writers of poetry.
The first unit in the course was entitled "Extraordinary Bodies," borrowed from Rosemarie Garland Thomson's excellent book by that name. In it we studied poets with physical disabilities, Kenny Fries and Jim Ferris, the Irish poet and writer Christopher Nolan, about whom U2 wrote their hit song "Miracle Drug," and the blind poets Constance Merritt and Stephen Kuusisto. All these poets are fairly open about exploring the experience of their disabilities in their poems, and yet students showed an interesting reluctance at several points to read the poems through a disability lens. By the time we got to Larry Eigner's poems, his relative poetic silence on the topic of his cerebral palsy brought the discomfort that I'd been sensing to the surface. Students questioned our whole approach: "I'm not sure these poets would want us to read their poetry as 'disabled.' Maybe they want to be treated just like any other poet."
Their question was a valid and important one, highlighting issues behind any literary study of diversity, a connection that I tried to make for them. Borrowing a phrase from the comedian Stephen Colbert, I called this the "I don't see race" approach to disability. Colbert, in his ironic right-wing persona on his fake news show, claims to be racially color-blind. He claims he isn't even sure if he's black or white himself. He may be white because he "owns a lot of Jimmy Buffet albums" or he may be black, because he found himself moved by the inauguration of Barack Obama. "Why is this funny to us?" I asked my students. Because of course we see race, just like we can't help but notice gender, and yes, some disabilities, and being "blind" to race or disability is not how one avoids racism or ableism. After all, in literary study we use race, gender, and sexuality as a lens to analyze writers in the past who may not have thought of themselves as a "black writer," a "woman writer," or a "queer writer." These lenses are helpful for bringing marginalized writers to the center of our cultural attention; indeed, one point of these kinds of approaches is to make these groups and their experiences more visible, not less. Yet I also emphasized that the disability lens isn't the only critical paradigm with which we can approach these texts, and many students eventually mixed disability studies with other lenses in their final essay for the class.
The second unit was titled "Neurodiversity and the Poetic Imagination," and we read poets with different mental and language disorders, such as Floyd Skloot and Karen Fiser with forms of aphasia, Hannah Weiner who was schizophrenic, and the young poet Tito Mukhopadhyay, who has autism. If the first unit conjured up the "pretend not to see" reaction to disability, then this unit evoked the opposite tendency--to stare. The students were so fascinated by the disorders these poets have, that I struggled at times to get them to ask questions about the poems instead of, say, the causes and relative onset times of schizophrenia.
One of the most interesting conversations that came out of this unit centered around poetry and its flexible forms of language as a boon to writers with diverse forms of consciousness. Students were baffled by excerpts from Hannah Weiner's Clairvoyant Journals, which consists of a kind of transcription of the written "voices" that Weiner saw on objects, faces, and even words in the world around her. They at first marveled at how difficult it was to read these "conversations" between voices that keep interrupting and questioning one another, but we also wondered whether the act of letting the voices speak in an experimental poem instead of trying to assert only one coherent voice, may have been a relief for Weiner. For Tito Mukhopadhyay, too, the genre of poetry, including the quasi-autistic repetitive form of the villanelle, allows him to give voice to his hyper-visual and perseverative experience as a person with autism.
The class ended with a unit on "Disability Performance and Pedagogy," in which we analyzed the brilliant ASL poetry of the Flying Words Project, and the students, many of whom are planning to become teachers themselves, had to write a plan for a lesson they might teach on disability poetry in their high school classes in the future. A favorite of mine was to have students take photos, in the "FailBlog" style, of places around their town that are not wheelchair accessible, turn one into a postcard and mail it to their congressman, reminding them about the importance of ADA compliance in public places. This is a disability poetics, politics, and pedagogy at its best.