“Gatherer’s Blog” is an invited feature that provides emergent as well as seasoned writers with opportunities to reflect upon aspects of their own writing processes.
Emily K. Michael
The Blood and Candor of Craft
I stand at the register, ready to swipe my credit card. My groceries are being collected into crinkling paper bags. Because my guide dog can sense my preoccupation, he sniffs for derelict crumbs under the counter. I ask him to sit, so I can use both hands to finish paying.
“Your total is $57.50,” the cashier says. She leans over the low counter. “Your dog is so handsome!”
I feel for the chip on my credit card and insert it into the machine. “Thank you, he’s a good boy.”
The machine chirps, and she retrieves my receipt. “So, how exactly does he help you?”
“He’s a guide dog.” I stretch out my hand for the receipt. “I’m blind, and he helps me travel safely.”
“But, you can’t be completely blind,” she protests. “You’re looking right at me. So you must have some vision.”
I slide my wallet into my purse. “You know I can hear you, right?”
Behind me, another customer chuckles. The cashier, still uncomprehending, sputters, “Well, yes, but—”
I deliver my parting shot with a big smile: “It’s not hard to figure out where you are, unless you can throw your voice.”
She has to laugh. Everyone else is laughing. Even the bagger is cracking up. But I walk out of the store, wondering if my response actually taught her anything.
Maybe I should not expect her to understand and accept my blindness in this five-minute encounter, but I can’t help resenting her disbelief. Strangers often say, “You can’t really be blind,” as the preamble to something they think blind people can’t do:
“You can’t really be blind. You dress so well!”
“You can’t really be blind. You walk so confidently!”
“You must have some vision. Your résumé is so organized!”
The cashier touched a nerve, a tender spot she may know nothing about. And my irritation grows when I think of all the enjoyable conversations we might have had. Instead of focusing on the part of my blindness that didn’t make sense, she could have taken me at my word and asked more about how my dog guides me safely. She could have guessed what I was planning to cook with fresh kale and ground turkey. We could have compared notes on almond milk and Icelandic yogurt. But we got stalled in a conversation about the nuts and bolts of my vision.
This exchange with the cashier is an exhibit at the Disability Museum, my label for interactions with intrusive or persistent strangers. At the Disability Museum, I am called upon to explain how a blind person shops, cooks, puts on makeup, or loads the dishwasher. Rather than occasions of gentle wondering, these meetings are shaped by an insatiable fascination that disregards my need to safely cross a street, carry a hot coffee, or get my restless dog outside.
The Disability Museum is frequented by strangers who have not earned the right to personal details about me. Here are some questions they like to ask:
“How much vision do you have? Can you see me?”
“Has your vision gotten worse? Is that why you use a dog?”
“How do you match your outfits?”
“What are your dreams like?”
“Is your condition genetic? Was it a birth defect?”
Usually I give these conversations a chance to turn productive, especially if the stranger is earnest and respectful. When someone opens with, “I’d really like to ask you a question, but I don’t want to be rude,” I am more willing to listen and answer. But I try to impress upon these strangers that sometimes I need to finish ordering my coffee before explaining how I manage. I have learned to say, “If you’ll give me a minute to complete this task, I can answer your question.” Genuinely interested people take the hint and step back, allowing me to pay for my latte and move to the pickup counter. Disability Museum patrons march huffily away, grumbling about my bad attitude: “What’s her problem? I just wanted to ask one question!”
I have no hope of escaping the Disability Museum. I wear dark glasses and walk beside a big black Labrador. In most rooms, I am the only blind woman, and my pup is the only service dog. For many people, I am the first blind person they have ever met. So the need for education is real, and the curiosities are valid. But the heedless fascination is exhausting, because knowing my visual circumstances does not bring others any closer to knowing me.
Encounters in the Disability Museum are one-sided: the disabled person is bombarded with questions and expected to discuss only their disability. Nondisabled people receive a genuine shock when I try to turn the conversation in another direction. The whole process feels like an interview with a pushy reporter, where I am pressed for confessional details about my physical experiences. I want to overrule this pressure and set it aside, because it coopts not only these chance meetings but the deliberate depictions of disabled people.
I have worked as a poetry editor for Wordgathering for three years. As a journal dedicated to disability literature, Wordgathering publishes poetry by disabled writers and poetry about disabilities. And it’s no secret that estimable journals often reject at least two thirds of the submissions they receive. What troubles me is not the quality of the submissions we receive but the angle they choose.
As I review submissions, I notice how often poets write about the medical aspects of their lives. Blood, bones, gore, surgeries, insensitive doctors, unraveling bandages, scars, invasive treatments. Many writers orbit the doctors’ offices, emergency rooms, gurneys—as if only a medical context can illuminate what it means to be disabled. They are willingly entering the Disability Museum, finding places on a stage created by curious outsiders.
For some of us, disability is a highly medical experience, where hospital stays and medical treatments are more common than the non-medical aspects of daily life. But a catalogue of medical circumstances is not necessarily a good poem. A description of surgery doesn’t take readers into a surgical experience.
For me, being blind isn’t about what my retinas are doing or what my eye doctor tells me. It’s about the feel of my guide dog’s harness or the smell of coffee. I can talk about blindness. But I can also talk about birds, butterflies, salted caramel, chemistry, and new crochet patterns. My blindness is not the most interesting thing about me.
When I published my first book, the journalists who interviewed me often tried to use this angle: “She writes about more than her disability.” This approach seems like a plausible literary profile only because the Disability Museum haunts our steps, demanding medical answers from all publicly disabled artists. We can be tempted to honor the urgency of this demand, to think that if we supply a little of what they want, they will stop roaring for more. But when we give in, we render ourselves as patients conveniently charted, not people living significant lives.
Blood alone is not enough. The scalpel is not sufficient. Even medical trauma does not equal poetry. It is how we transform these experiences that makes us poets.
About the Author
Emily K. Michael is a blind poet, musician, and writing instructor from Jacksonville, FL. Since 2016, she has edited poetry for Wordgathering. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Wordgathering, The Hopper, Artemis Journal, The South Carolina Review, The Deaf Poets Society, Nine Mile Magazine, Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics, BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog, Barriers and Belonging, and AWP Writer’s Notebook. Her first book Neoteny: Poems is out from Finishing Line Press; it includes a finalist for The Atlantis Award as well as a nominee for The Pushcart Prize. Emily’s work centers on ecology, disability, and music. She develops grammar workshops for multilingual learners and delivers poetry workshops for writers at all levels. She also curates the Blind Academy Blog. Emily is passionate about grammar, singing, birding, and guide dogs. Find more of her work at http://emilykmichael.com.