“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.
In early elementary school, I was given an award for what the district administrators called “heroism.” All the winners were asked to make speeches for audiences from various local schools about whatever life experience had gotten us nominated. Then we were presented with plaques. The lineup consisted of two high school students who had volunteered in a disaster zone, a member of the high school faculty who had been born blind, a classmate of mine whose father had lost his life in the line of duty as a firefighter, and me.
Family and teachers were proud of me. There was cake and presents. I was pleased because everyone was pleased, but I did not feel proud of myself. All the other winners had done something that benefited someone else. The teacher who presented me with my award had told me the committee had elected me unanimously. Why? To me, heroism implied that a person had the choice to do something easier or safer and decided to do the harder, better thing. All I had done was live.
A decade later, I was just beginning to perform my poetry locally on my college campus, finding much praise, joy, and solace in working on my craft. There was one young woman at every open mic I attended who would race up to me afterwards as if it was the first time we were meeting and say the same thing in a saccharine gush.
“It’s just so good to see someone like you up there doing your thing!”
Someone like me. By now, I knew what she meant. I had been accosted in many a grocery store, train station, or elevator by strangers, some who would quite literally begin to cry, watching me do some perfectly innocuous task they had decided was beyond me. At one event, after this interaction had played out with this girl for the fourth time, I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.
“Thank you!” I said, trying to match her sweetness, hoping I was wrong. “I really appreciate you always taking the time to tell me you are enjoying it. Tell me, which poem do you like? What’s resonating with you?”
The too-wide smile, too-bright eyes, too loud, too slow tone of her voice didn’t slip at all as she answered.
“Oh, just seeing you. It means so much to me. It’s so good. You’re so brave.”
This moment put into sharp clarity what I had only instinctively felt after my grade school speech: people’s perceptions of me as I brought my disabled body up to a microphone were blotting out anything I was actually saying. I was thought of as a sad, brave, little clown rather than an artist putting in work. It did not matter how well I was trying to do something because most of my audience had no expectations of me. I decided I was not going to compound the dog and pony show feeling by writing about being disabled. It was obviously all my audience expected but I didn’t think it was what they deserved. If I was going to be seen as nothing but my disability, I wasn’t going to share the intimacy of my navigation with those who could not respect me beyond it. I committed to becoming so good a poet that who I was would not matter.
I continued my education in poetry in grad school, pursuing my MFA from Queens College. I could have majored in fiction, but knew I had more to learn as a poet. Good thing, too, because I found myself writing very dead poems. Nothing I was writing at that time mattered to me and everyone could tell. The only thing I did my entire first semester that I was proud of was a project where Roger Sederat tasked us with moving poetry off the page. I wrote a line personifying each of the twenty-five surgical scars across my body, then wrote them in eye pencil across the corresponding incision in photographs. Roger and the class were moved, but, more importantly, they saw me casting off a great deal of fear and triumphing in my own work. I wasn’t afraid to speak my body’s injured truth in the insular environment of my classroom with these people I admired so much. I was not concerned that they would look past the craft and only pity the subject.
At the end of the semester, I had a meeting with Nicole Cooley–the head of the program–to discuss moving on to my thesis. We spoke about my feeling that my work was not alive. She asked about the photography project and why I had not tapped into my disability as a subject. Before I’d arrived, she had placed a copy of a large, blue paperback on the desk. She slid it over to me then, smiling as I took in the cover photo of a woman in a wheelchair scuba diving at the bottom of a pool. The title was, like all good poetry, something I had never known I needed articulated until it was: Beauty is a Verb.
“You have a voice,” Nicole said then. “It deserves to be heard.”
Years later, I realized that, though the compliment had been important to me, its wording was what really changed everything. It wasn’t, others deserve to hear it. It was, it deserves to be heard. I have grown to be a teacher through my poetry. I have become part of the lineage that anthology provided. I used it very directly to build a community. I have been told by other disabled people that they see themselves in my work the way I saw myself in those authors after so many years of living with a longing I didn’t know I had. We have to exist for one another. I have also given nondisabled people new perspectives into a way of life they haven’t yet accessed. While not my goal, it is helpful. Putting my life into my writing made me a more empathetic person, understanding how identity impacts all aspects of life. But performing is no longer about whether my readers deserve exposure to my truth. I deserve to expose it. I cannot control what reaction forms in the minds of people who see me; whether pity is part of that and whether they choose to tell me so. Those reactions, at the mic or the bus stop, will always attempt to lessen me. But only through expressing the full human range of my emotions, limitations, and accomplishments can I combat other people’s myopic perceptions. I was a fool to believe I could remove my disability from my poetry because, whether I am engaging it as a subject in an individual poem or not, I am disabled so that will color my perception. These days, I am engaging it directly most of the time simply because I thought I shouldn’t for so many years.
Poetry is a magnifying of the momentary. This current phase of my life as an artist, especially as I put together my first collection, is about allowing myself the messy, contradictory, faceted feelings of any human.
My goal over the last several years, my goal most days, is to lean into the full range of my heart and use my work to combat assumptions. I seek poetry by investigating everything I am and see. I am the principal character, hero in its truest definition, in my own life. I must no longer be afraid to use poetry to see myself.
About the Author
Liv Mammone is an editor and poet from Long Island, New York. Her poetry has appeared in Wordgathering, Monstering, Wicked Banshee, The Medical Journal of Australia, and others. In 2017, she competed on the team for Union Square Slam as the first disabled woman to be on a New York national poetry slam team and appeared in the play The Fall of All Atomic Angels as part of a festival that was named Best of Off Off Broadway by Time Out Magazine. She was also a finalist in the Capturing Fire National Poetry Slam in Washington DC. Her editorial job on Uma Dwivedi’s poetry collection, They Called Her Goddess (we named her girl), was nominated for a Write Bloody book award. She is also the editor of the speculative fiction series Margins and Murmurations by author and activist, Otter Lieffe. Currently, she works as an editor at Game Over Books and a reader for the literary magazine Anomaly.