“Reading Loop” is a close reading or discussion by an invited contributor.
Michael Northen – Wordgathering Poetry: A Prequel
In the thirteen years of its existence, Wordgathering has been fortunate to be in a position to help contribute to the growth of the writing careers of many disabled poets. As reflected in the current proliferation of disability-related poetry in anthologies, special issues of journals, and the publication of poetry by independent presses, what now constitutes disability poetry has become increasingly expansive, sophisticated and complex. At the turn of the twenty-first century, however, that was not the case.
As faithful Wordgathering readers know, this journal, which published its first issue in March 2007, sprang from the annual Inglis House disability poetry contest. In fact, many of those who participated in those early contests like Sheila Black, Jim Ferris, Stephen Kuusisto, John Lee Clark and Laura Hershey are now recognized as among the most important names in the establishment and development of disability poetry as a legitimate genre. Their poems were among the first to be published in Wordgathering. As the journal’s editor over this bakers’ dozen years, I’m proud of this association.
Nevertheless, there were also many poets in those early days who submitted work to the contest but whose names never emerged in our journal. I’d like to dedicate this Reading Loop essay to those writers who helped to provide the footing upon which Wordgathering was built, even though their work may not have appeared in it. To do this, I have gone back through the seven poetry chapbooks published by the Inglis House Poetry Workshop, selecting some of those poems that had a special effect upon me as a fledgling editor. Because there were so many to choose from, I’ve limited myself to selecting from those poems that were first published in the contest chapbooks and never appeared subsequently in the Wordgathering’s poetry sections.
Laura Emerson was one of the first poets to join the Inglis House poetry workshop. Because she has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair, she frequently experienced what so many of her wheelchair colleagues did whenever she went out with someone who was walking. The poem was written in 1998 when few writers were writing directly about their experiences as a disabled person and, while it may seem dated two decades later, its directness and demand for recognition made an impression on me.
Why do people treat me as though I were invisible?
When I go down the street
They look straight over my head
Talking to anyone and everyone except me
Once again leaving a trail
Of invisible footprints across my heart and mind
As though I had neither.
The sound of the phone crashing down in my ear
Because people can’t understand my speech
And don’t want to take the time
Fills me with anger and sorrow
Despite the appearance of things
My steel chair, these electronics
I am not a robot.
I have the same feelings as everyone else.
I have my own hopes and dreams, too.
An education, a career, a home of my own,
Joy to bring and knowledge to share.
I am human. Acknowledge me, please!
What strikes me about John Franklin’s poem “The Hardy Boys Keglers” even now, sixteen years after its publication, is the way that disability is constructed as difference, not in a pejorative way but in a way that sees possibilities for exploring aspects of experience not commonly recognized. John Cage, whose music was certainly different from what most people’s expectation (he wasn’t even a musician) nevertheless opened up important conversations about just what qualifies as music. The comparison to Cage is particularly impressive because at a time when most poems about disability were written by non-disabled writers, as this one was, there is no hint of pity or any attempt to speak for the poem’s addressee. I also like the reminder that while disabilities poetry is now coming into its own with increasingly sophisticated work, most of us who did not have a disability ourselves were the equivalent of “a college boy with panty raids on the brain” with respect to our understanding of disability in the early part of this century.
The Hardy Boys Keglers
John Cage would have loved this
30 lanes of percussion
As the TGIF League for the learning disabled
Lays siege to the Lucky Strike Bowl on Speedway.
I once saw the famous composer hoist a Steinway
Forty feet above a maple gym floor
As if rescuing a flat-topped rhino from a flood
Only to cut the beast loose
And revel in the musical deconstruction.
It wasn’t a tune you could hum.
But what is music?
Where is the line between symphony & cacophony?
I was too young to notice
A college boy with panty raids on the brain.
You are pooped here in the third game
The team down by 67 pins, as if you cared.
What is the music you hear?
Not once have you seen your ball strike the pins
Such is the lure of Coke & fries.
Perhaps you feel the concussions pulse up
From the oiled oak
To a spot on your spine
Where the neurons have been stuck since birth
Cut loose from your brain like an old Steinway
Falling toward a new music
That only you can hear.
Dana Hirsch was one of the founders of the Inglis House Poetry Work, the poetry contests and Wordgathering itself. She was a prolific writer of poetry but one whose cynical undercurrent about how she was viewed as a disabled person was at loggerheads with the antiquated syntax that ran through much of work. Nevertheless, occasionally she nailed it as she did in “Marionette.” Written over thirty years ago, she captures the spirit of ableism before “ableism” was even a term.
The theater’s filled to capacity;
All eyes are on her – watching – waiting –
Silently assuring themselves that her performance
Meets their expectations.
She’s their marionette – they think for her;
She will never have the opportunity to
Think for herself – to make them understand.
How desperate she is to have the strings
That bind her to them cut –
So that she might, finally, be alive.
The lights of the theater are dimming;
She can have these thoughts no longer.
Here she goes…
She is the puppeteer’s marionette!
Tricia R. Owsley
Tricia Owsley’s “What’s Best for Us” was published in the same Inglis House chapbook as “Marionette” and could easily be considered a companion piece. Unlike Hirsch (but like all of the remaining poets), Owsley was not an Inglis House resident. What she brings into the conversation that Hirsch’s poem does not is that disability has a history. Even at the turn of the century, many disabled poets felt themselves to be writing in isolation. Owlsey’s poem suggests that what they have in common is a history of oppression and that this should be a topic for writing. Moreover, it set the stage for the many poets who came after that took particular pains to refute the language of ableism they had inherited, using their own poetry to push back against it.
What’s Best for Us
(since they always think they know)
a blurb included
in an old textbook
written by a doctor
who traveled from institution
to institution giving
many lobotomies in an hour
with an ice pick
through the eyeball
these people didn’t need-wasteful precautions
these people -were too sick to notice
these people-were too sick to know
that they needed treatment
but the raw image haunts us.
the casual photograph of a
being forcibly dragged
to her de-braining
There is always that poem that really grabs you, yet you can’t explain why. For me, Louis Bourgeois’ “The Animal” is such a poem, and I offer it here simply because I can. It is perverse and surrealistic but seems to pounce firmly on attitudes towards disability – attitudes that in this political era are particularly unnerving. Whereas Owsley’s poem plants its feet firmly in fact, “The Animal” heads in the opposite direction but with the same agenda. One thing that I appreciated about the Bourgeois piece in the pre-Wordgathering days was that it was a prose poem. Tom Andrews had used the form in his “Codeine Diaries” and Kenny Fries included some in Anesthesia, but it was uncommon. In much of his writing, Bourgeois’ work flows back and forth between lyrical essay and prose poem. It is the kind of boundary fluidity that seems particularly apropos to disability writing.
A man without arms was eating lettuce in a diner. We all stood around him and watched. He didn’t seem to mind very much. He looked up from the plate with innocent eyes. Someone in the back of the crowd exclaimed, We should kill him for not having any arms. In turn, another said, We should kill him for having such innocent eyes. And yet another said, We should kill him for eating alone. The armless man ordered seconds and the crowd gradually dispersed.
While the above poems could have been written by poets of any gender, Stephanie Noggle’s “Poem No. 3” could only have been written by a woman and signals the importance of feminism in the development of disability literature. In concert with that perspective, it also reflects the role that religion and religious ideas have played in perceptions of disabled people.
For me, Noggle’s “Poem No. 3” is the total package. Unsentimental, it is grounded in entirely in the physical reality of the body. At the same time, Noggle addresses one of the attitudes that disabled people growing up in strongly religious communities face, that an atypical body is a kind of divine retribution.. By calling her a “courageous punishment” such attitudes allow the self-righteous to both distance them self from her while making themselves feel compassionate. Two other social forces that disabled people face also appear in the poem, the medical establishment and patriarchal attitudes towards women. Published in 2008, the poem foreshadows many themes around which entire disability chapbooks were subsequently built.
Poem No. 3
I was born of an old man’s lustful cough
And a trapped woman’s joyful thighs.
But then God turned off
The legs, the lungs, an arm, the brain
And said-walk little thing.
Scrambling all the mismatched pieces
And said-look at the mess I’ve made
While trying to dance in my sisters ballet shoes.
For me there would be no
Some believed me a divine castigation,
The sins of the father
These spiritual eyewitnesses looked at me
And said-what a courageous punishment you are,
But a punishment all the same.
So men in white lab coats
My lungs, my legs, my back, my side
A crucified body rebuilt,
To resemble what man calls woman
If only from the inside.
With the next poem, I am breaking my rule of including only writers whose poems did not appear in Wordgathering and contradict an earlier statement that only Laura Emerson and Dana Hirsch were Inglis House residents. (“Do I contradict myself?/Very well then, I contradict myself.”) Yvette Green, was one of the founding members and original editors of Wordgathering. Having become disabled later in life, she was able to lend her own insight into this later acceptance of herself as a person with a disability into the selection of poems that appeared in the journal. Her death this summer deprived the disability community at Inglis House of a strong advocate. While Yvette’s poem “Hero???” does not have the sophistication of Noggle’s or Bourgeois’, it is emphatic in its call for a change in perception about disability. Even today, disabled writers push against the public assumption that any act of accomplishment by someone with a disability has to be elevated to heroic status. Being label a supercrip is a denial rather than an affirmation of social equality.
So you think I’m a hero?
Cause I’m in this here wheelchair
Legs don’t walk no more
My plumbing’s shaky too
How am I a hero?
You say I’ve been through a lot
Well, yes I have
But no more so than
Those who are still
Walking..with death sentences,
6 months to a year, not even 3 months
Are they heroes, too?
You can’t see their malady
But they’re living, hoping for an extra day
Are they living any different or gallantly than me?
You say I’m an inspiration
Cause I get up every morning
Get dumped in my chair
Fix my hair
You say these things
Cause maybe it frightens you
To know you could someday
Be in a wheelchair
Then you……Wouldn’t be a hero or an inspiration
You would have no choice to be an inspiration or a hero,
You would just be you…..like me.
In the early days of working with the annual disability contest, I discovered Jim Ferris essay, “The Enjambed Body” in which he set out some of the characteristics he felt necessary to a disability poetics. A few years later, when the workshop published its fourth chapbook, On the Outskirts and began to add essays. Jim’s essay “Crip Poetry or How I Learned to Love the Limp” was one of the first included. In addition to embodied poetry, one thing that the essay insisted upon for disability poetry as contributory to the larger poetry world was the use of “alternative techniques and poetics. One poem received in the contests that took a step in that direction was Deborah Brunet’s “Movement in Three.”
Movement in Three
When all the pieces of me
account for themselves
I move to the edge of the bed.
An even count to three, a breath
a perfect pivot, bracing, pushing
These limbs of mine
folds of soft flesh
hanging like elephant skin
mights as well be walking under water
and dragging thick muck
In toe, heal
bad leg, good leg
movements with out rhythm
my limbs catch up – join in
make the connection
carry me across the room
an awkward dance
a clumsy bending waltz
to the memory of motion.
What I liked about this poem is that, at a very basic level, it is constructed in a way that reflects the speaker’s own movement in the way that “The Enjambed Body” urged writers to do. In addition to the three stanza form, it suggests the possibility that atypical body rhythms are poetry as well. While poets such as Laurie Clements Lambeth and Jennifer Bartlett have since developed these possibilities in innovative ways, at the time of Brunet’s poem, the attempt at developing such techniques was rare.
The six poems that I have chosen to talk about so far have all been by American writers, but obviously, an American point of view of disability is a limited and incomplete one. One of the first writers to submit work to the Inglis House Poetry Contest in its early days was South African Kobus Moolman. Moolman’s poem and essays as well as reviews of his books, have been frequent in Wordgathering. At the same time that Moolman began submitting work we received a poem from another South African writer, Kogi Singh.
Know Me for Who I Am
So, I am disabled and I do not look like you:
I do not stride confidently into the distance
Or scurry for shelter from the rain;
Or leap up two steps at a time to reach my goal.
I do not twirl a dancing partner, catch her and match her
As she sways elegantly to the beat of the music.
No, I do not look like you
But we share many things in common.
I see you when you turn away
And try to hide that you’re watching me;
I hear you when you hoot impatiently, as though the sound
could hasten my slow movement across a busy street.
I can sense your feelings of revulsion and sometimes pity,
Your indecisiveness when you are poised between
a desire to offer help and an urge to pretend I am not there.
But I am here.
I raise my head, my hands to the radiance of the sun;
That pours its kind warmth through me, around me and on me.
I savour the perfume wafting from the jasmine and the roses
I sing softly as I wheel my little cart on its way,
Taking me wherever I want to go.
I do not have a wife; I cannot have children
but I am blessed in those who love me:
my little sister who lifts me in her arms, cradles me and places
m e tenderly, carefully into my box;
my mother who tucks bread and an apple and a bottle of water
in whatever spaces she can find between and round my twisted feet.
My legs and body fit easily into my “Chevy” box
and I set off, propelling myself with hands which are my feet.
They wave me off on my daily journey of discovery
and will be there to lift me out when I return,
the children of my sister crowding round me
to hear where I’ve been.
As I move along, I wave or shout greetings to those I know and they wave back.
I hear the joyous laughter of children as they play;
I see the gushing rainbow tinted fountain;
I touch the cool, springy grass
And breathe in its damp earthy smell.
No, I do not look like you, yet I am so much like you.
My withered and distorted legs have not withered my heart
Or distorted my mind.
I have a deep joy in being alive, able to move, able to appreciate.
What Singh’s poem did for me was more than present the obvious – that what constitutes disability in one country is not viewed as disability in another, that social conditions and attitudes are different, or that injury by war and violence may be the highest cause of disability in some countries. It also reminded me that what is valued in poetry in the United States is not necessarily the same as what is valued in other countries, even among contemporary writers. As an editor, I’m often inclined to let my choices of what constitutes a good poem or is more cutting edge in the United States affect my choices of what to accept for publication. What Singh’s poem reminds me of is the need to keep my own cultural biases in check when considering the work of writers from other countries or cultures.
On more than one occasion, I’ve heard disabled writers say, “I’m a poet. It’s not my job to teach.” As a teacher and erstwhile poet for over forty years, however, I can’t subscribe to that point of view. I’m an admitted idealist whose belief is that it is possible to open minds to new possibilities, ways of thinking, and points of view. I distinguish between proselytizing (trying to show why I’m right and you’re wrong) and the old Socratic notion of education as a drawing out. I believe that reading the work of the poets that we publish in Wordgathering provides readers the chance to open to other perspectives. Because of that, one of my very favorite poems about disability is the following poem by Teddy Norris.
For My Disengaged Intro to Poetry Student
I watch you in my early morning class:
twitchy with boredom, the yearning
for the opiate of your I-pod written on your face;
I can almost feel your fingers’ itch
to text someone, anyone, on your waiting cell.
This, while I yearn to have you understand
how even half a poem might knit a heart, explode
a head, memorialize the very hair of the dead,
of be the breaking news.
Later from my office where I am grading your essay,
I see her – also early class, front row – wearing her heavy
book bag, working her way across the snowy lot
with her awkward gait. Not far from her car she slips and
over-balanced, tips like a bowling pin and goes down hard.
Minus sound, the scene seems slowed. At first she flounders
as she tries to rise – there’s no one near – and I can’t hear
if she cries out, can’t hear the sound of her prosthesis
on the pavement.
Soon she rights herself, leans briefly on the nearest car,
as I turn from the window like a voyeur
and wonder how, tomorrow I might tell you
before you amble from my class,
that hers is the poem you have yet to read.
As with any other history, any attempt at a history of disability poetry is going to be incomplete. I’m overjoyed that many of the writers whose work has appeared in Wordgathering are now getting recognition, not only from their colleagues among the disability poetry community but from the reading public at large. It has been the mission of Wordgathering to promote and disseminate that work. At the same time, there are others, like the writer’s whose poems I’ve discussed here, who are part of that history as well. Their poems may now exist only in the handful of remaining copies of the chapbook in which they were published, but they have had their own invisible influence. For the curious, I have listed the chapbook in which the poems in this essay first appeared below. Who knows? One of these may catch someone’s eye and they, in turn, might want to pass it on.
All of the following chapbooks were published by the Inglis House Poetry Workshop:
- Why Can’t You See Me (2003) – Laura Emerson, “Invisibility”; John Franklin, “The Hardy Boys Kelgers.”
- Something Close to Beautiful (2005) – Dana Hirsch, “Marionette”; Tricia Owsley, “What’s Best for Us.”
- On the Outskirts (2006) – Yvette Green, “Hero???”; Kogi Singh, “Know Me for Who I Am.”
- Slow Dancing to Invisible Music (2007) – Louis Bourgeois, “The Animal.”
- Bone and Tissue (2008) – Stephanie Noggle, “Poem No. 3.
- their buoyant bodies respond (2009) – Deborah Brunet, “Movement in Three”; Teddy Norris, “For My Disengaged Intro to Poetry Student.”
Though no poems in this essay were selected from it, Dancing with Cecil was published in 2004.
About the Author
Michael Northen served as Wordgathering Editor-in-Chief from 2007 to 2019. He is 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, with Sheila Black and Annabelle Hayes, of the recent anthology of disability short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (both from Cinco Puntos Press).