Imaginary Safehouse (Shane Neilson, Roxanna Bennett, and Ally Fleming, eds.)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

The publication of Imaginary Safehouse is an important event in Canadian disability poetry.  Unlike other predominantly English speaking countries such as the United States (Beauty is a Verb, 2011),  Great Britain (Stairs and Whispers, 2017) and Australia (Shaping the Fractured Self, 2018), Canada to this point had yet to produce an anthology dedicated to its country’s disability-related poetry.   To remedy that, Canadian literary critic and poet Shane Neilson, along with poets Roxanna Bennett and Ally Fleming, collaborated with Hamilton Arts and Letters to put out a call for work from disabled Canadian writers.  The original plan was for selected work to appear in a special issue of HA&L dedicated to disability poetry.  What resulted is much more than that.  Though limited to only 100 copies HA&L through Frog Hollow Press has produced a book that should prove groundbreaking for Canadian disability poetry and impact future attempts by editors of any country who consider producing  anthologies of disability poetry.

Each of the seminal anthologies mentioned above learned from, built upon and adjusted from its predecessors.   One difference that any reader will spot immediately in Imaginary Safehouse, is that prose occupies more space than poetry itself.  Much of this, no doubt, comes from the influence of Neilson who is adamant about the importance of poets themselves reviewing the books of other writers and contributing critical commentary.  Even the most autobiographical of the prose pieces is as much critique and theory about the directions that Canadian poetry needs to take (or not take).   While poetry in any form is hardly a hot-ticket book store item, devoting  much of the poetry to criticism is a chancy one and may account for the limited printing.  Nevertheless, I think it is the right one.  As opposed to Canada and the UK where disability poetry was being written but not gathered, Canadian disability poetry has grown more slowly.  The editors of Imaginary Safehouse are banking on the fact that what this volume will do – rather than simply create an awareness in the public of what has already been accomplished and available –   is to help shape the course of Canadian disability poetry as it begins to unfold.

After short introductions by the editors, Imaginary Safehouse leads off with an essay by Sandra Alland, who many will remember as one of the editors of Stairs and Whispers.  The placement of Alland’s essay is an important.  With the title “My Arrival at Crip:  Poetic Histories of Disability, Neurodivergence and Illness in T’karanto/Taranton/Toronto, 1995-2007” and its introductory quotations, Alland makes (at least) two things clear: disability poetry in Canada does have a history and we owe it to those who paved the way for us to recognize them.  No one gets there on their own. 

Alland braids her own development as a disabled poet and activist with the development of a disability consciousness throughout the nation as a whole.  As she has admonished others to do, she is meticulous about documenting the help she has received from artists along the way – many of whom few people have heard.  Alland’s description of her starting point begins:

I was raised in Scarborough – part of the stolen traditional territories of the Mississauga Nations…I was not taught Indigenous history, nor about my white ancestors’ connections to colonialism, land theft, and the African slave trade in Canada and abroad.  I was also raised without queer or disabled histories or communities.

While this paragraph clearly proclaims her current perspective on a number of points related to Canadian history, Alland also grants that she herself is the product of the culture that she criticizes.  This is an important point because it allows her to tell her story as a sort of radicalized Pilgrims Progress and, unlike many of her contemporaries who preach the same gospel,  she is able to admit that she herself while on the road to enlightenment committed some of those same sins that she now  criticizes others for committing.  Alland also illustrates how this was true of activists from various disenfranchised groups generally.  For example, in organizing a “queer Bermudian poetry night,” she and the other organizers ran up against the issue of accessible space, committing, “Not that this was our priority either; we were unaware of issues like getting a wheelchair onto a stage. It was something we’d never seen.”

Alland’s essay is both a rich resource for those interested in the formation of Canadian disability poetry and a piece that sets the stage for what the other writers in Imagainary Safehouse have to say.

I’d be less than candid if I did not admit that I have a personal interest in Imaginary Safehouse.  As one of the editors of Beauty is a Verb, I was struck by the number of essays in this volume who referenced that volume.  At least four of the writers spilled considerable ink in responding to it.  While all acknowledged (if begrudgingly) the important role that BIAV has played in disability poetics, much of what the essayists had to discuss were the limitations or missteps of the anthology.

Chief among those who took Beauty is a Verb to task was Stephanie Yorke in “Notes Toward an Essay on Poetry and Family Relationships in a Few Canadian Poets.”   Yorke states at the outset that while BIAV is a landmark book, “I was tempted to…go into full upstart mode, and trash it.”    Yorke’s quarrel (or at least one of them) is that BIAV “hazards generalizing from urban and mostly white middle-class people with congenital or fortuitous disability to create a programmatic framework for every disabled artist.”  Setting aside the fact that BIAV editors acknowledged in the book’s introduction certain limitations that they had set on themselves in an attempt to publish a first of its kind anthology, what I am at a lost to grasp is the second part of her statement.  What Yorke seems most upset about is that somehow the nature of the poetry included in BIAV would exclude some important Canadian writers.   She examines the work of three Canadian writers to whom she thinks that exclusion would apply:  Jeffrey Donaldson, Doyali Islam and Roxanna Bennett.   I’ll leave it to readers to examine Wolfe’s arguments themselves and form their own opinions, but feel compelled to add that Roxanna Bennet is an amazing poet and if anyone what to know what I think of her work as a disabled poet they can look at my review Unseen Garden in Wordgathering.

From my perspective, a more interesting discussion of the limitations of Beauty is a Verb is  Dominic Parisien’s “My Body Exists in Another Language,”  which is  really a critique of disability poetry generally.  As a Canadian who speaks, thinks and dreams in French, what Parisien has come to realize over the last two decades is that “Disability studies, disability poetics, the language or pain I learned all of it as an adult, in English.”  Even the metaphors that he would like to use for pain when writing in French are English.  Upon reading the essays in Beauty is a Verb, which he generally had praise for, Parisien says, “What strikes me as surprising, and perhaps telling, omission is on little actual linguistics feature into these discussions.”  It’s a valid observation and a particularly important one in looking ahead to the possibility of an anthology of Canadian disability poetry that would be representative of his entire country. From the viewpoint of French Canadians, being forced as a poet to accede to a dominant English discourse around disability is a sort of cultural imperialism.  As he closes his essay, Parisien takes a few steps towards suggesting how that might be remedied in poetry.

In Shane Neilson’s introduction he informs readers that he asked University of New Brunswick philosopher Sue Sinclair, who often writes about beauty, to contribute an essay to the anthology. The result is Sinclair’s “Too Pretty to Be in a Wheelchair:  On Beauty and Disability.”  With that title and in the context of the anthology, it is almost unavoidable that Sinclair, too,  would at least mention Beauty is a Verb.  She does – but her agenda is much broader.  As Sinclair puts it, “Part of what disability interrogates are concepts of beauty.” It parallels what the panel “Beauty is a Verb” (from which the title of the anthology got its start) in a 2010 AWP in Denver tried to demonstrate to its listeners, but the philosophical  background that Sinclair brings to the essay enables her to take a much more panoramic view.

Recognizing that some disabled writers are willing to dismiss any standards of beauty as “ableist crap,” Sinclair feels that a bit rather more considered analysis is in order. Her discussion of the power relationships involved in staring and even in such hashtags as #CuteinAWheelchair are well worth reading even by those who feel they are familiar with the subject, but beyond that Sinclair goes on to “consider some of the options available to anyone troubled by disabling aesthetic attention.”  She rejects totally embracing the “skin deep” view of beauty or one that sees beauty as something that shines out from within because both are problematic when it comes to disability. While Sinclair does not commit to a final definition, she does conclude that one characteristic of beauty is that it is life-affirming.

The four essays discussed above provide a sample of the prose offerings of Imaginary Safehouse and the way that Neilson, Fleming and Bennett have used them to try to lay the groundwork for framing a Canadian disability poetry, taking into account its historical context and contributors, the work of prior non-Canadian disability anthologies, and the broader philosophical implications of whatever work they decide to include or exclude.  Naturally, they have included sample poetry as well.  The editors showed a generosity of spirit in not including their own poetry ( even though any or all of them deserved to have had their work included) and leaving space for the work of other poets.  They also did not include poetry by Alland or Parisien who are perhaps even better known as  poets than  as essayists.  It speaks to the importance of this volume that despite having edited a journal that focuses on disability poetry for over a dozen years, I was familiar with the work of only one of the ten poets whose work the editors selected for inclusion, that of nancy viva davis halifax.

Given limited space, the editors could not include all the poetry they might have like to.  Having to choose between  a larger look at three poets whose work they felt deserved particular notice and ten whose work could only be represented by one poem, they chose the latter.  The message is, we’ve given you the names, go check them out.  Annie Lepage’ “Bus Circle at Night” is one that will certainly have some readers nodding their heads in agreement with the last line.  It illustrates the search for metaphor to describe their lives that many disabled writers are engaged in. It’s a very accessible poem. Whether or not what appeals to readers in this poem is really representative the poet’s work is something that they are on their own to find out.

The opening stanza of Erin Soros “Effects” should certainly connect much of the recent discussion of “crip time” and how one expresses that in words:

Morning is slow time. Molasses
is a tired metaphor and you are
tired. Your language is tired.
The thick drip of
tired thought.

In addition to these solo poems, the essays by Alland and Wolfe include chunks of poetry  by writers not otherwise mentioned in the book, and two book reviews by Terry Trowbridge also provide a trail of bread crumbs that readers can follow.

There is no need for hyperbole in stressing the importance of Imaginary Safehouse.  Five years from now when Canadian disability poetry is in fuller flower, future anthologists will have to reckon with this volume just as some of the writers here have had to acknowledge Beauty is a Verb.  Shane Neilson, Roxanna Bennett and Ally Fleming in selecting the voices to speak for disability poetry have thrown down the gauntlet. Only the willfully ignorant can ignore it.

Title: Imaginary Safehouse
Editors: Shane Neilson, Roxanna Bennett and Ally Fleming
Publishers: Fox Hollow Press/Hamilton Arts & Letters
Date: 2019

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About the Reviewer

Michael Northen is the former 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 disability short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (Cinco Puntos Press).