Interviewed by Tom Fletcher
Jim Ferris is the author of two poetry collections The Hospital Poems (2004), and Slouching Towards Guantanamo (2011). Ferris’s first poetry collection was winner of the International Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award, and its subsequent success made him widely known as a so-called “poet of cripples.” His articles “The Enjambed Body: A Step Towards a Crippled Poetics” (2004), and his 2007 essay “Crip Poetry, Or How I learned to Love the Limp,” are recognised as seminal works in developing a critical theory of disability poetry. Ferris is employed as a Professor and Ability Center Endowed Chair in Disability Studies at University of Toledo. In this interview, Ferris outlines the progress made since he first wrote these essays. He also considers how the COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic shows disabled people are still all too easily marginalised by government policies and societal attitudes.
TF: Your landmark essay “Crip Poetry, or How I Learned to Love the Limp” (2006) has been widely acclaimed for its initiation of the debate on the function of disability poetry and its potential agency in challenging conceptions of disabled individuals. What progress do you see having been made 14 years on from the original points made on how disabled individuals are perceived by society?
JF: Some progress has been made, to be sure, though disabled people around the world continue to be subjected to oppression, ranging from violence and abuse to the “softer” oppression of low expectations and limited opportunities. Disabled people have been able to claim more of a place in many societies: more than a hundred countries now have national organizations of disabled people, disabled people are somewhat less likely to be restricted to back rooms and institutions, and somewhat more opportunities for education are available. Real progress has been made; at the same time, there is so much more to be done.
Disability culture is ignored at best, misunderstood or maligned. If we just look at how people are being positioned during the current coronavirus pandemic, disabled people are again among the last to be considered. The current reassurances that are being offered: “Be careful but don’t worry, old and sick people are at most risk.” Disabled people is what they mean. “Don’t worry, it is most likely to kill the people we are least interested in saving anyway.” This is not to overlook the work that many nondisabled as well as disabled people are doing to safeguard vulnerable disabled and chronically ill people, but to the society at large we are still easily overlooked, a nuisance or worse. I told my Disability Studies students this week “This is not a drill. Situations like this—life and death situations like this—are all about disability, and they are exactly why the work we do in Disability Studies is so important. I was speaking with a friend yesterday who suspects that with her compromised immune system she will not survive this pandemic. I know that when it comes to deploying resources (like who gets to use a ventilator and who doesn’t), I don’t want those decisions made by people who think that the lives of people with disabilities are not worth living. I want those decisions made by people like you, people who are committed to recognizing the value of every life, who are committed to learning and doing the work to maintain the systems that disabled people and everyone else need to live a full life.” As I noted above, I do think we’ve made some progress, but there is so much more that is needed.
Maybe this is the heart of the problem: nondisabled people don’t recognize that disabled people are the most creative people on the planet, because we have to be. When the water rises, when the electricity goes off, disabled people have to be creative and determined and imaginative and help each other out, and then do it again tomorrow, because we live in an ableist world that isn’t even perceptive and imaginative enough to recognize the huge contributions disabled people make just by living every day. If you want to figure out how to get something done, how to solve a problem, how to work around barriers, ask a crip. They think the blind leading the blind is a bad idea, but who knows better how to negotiate the world as a blind person? To quote the great Mr. T from “The A Team,” “I pity the fools”—but I also know to be wary around them.
TF: In the essay you add that crip poetry has “the potential to transform the world, to make the world in which we live roomier.” Can you indicate the different ways you consider your poetry achieves this aim and/or communicate this process?
JF: I hope that my poems help to create a space in the social consciousness for disabled people to be—and be recognized—as full, whole human beings. I hope my poems assert the rich and fruitful presence of a wide range of ways of moving through the world. Some of my poems advance an explicitly disabled persona using language to engage with complex world. An example is “How We Swim,” which is on one level an elegy for the late scholar and activist Paul Longmore, while on another level it is about disability activism and the disability rights movement—about crips insisting that we belong in the world. Other poems may seek to poke holes in the tissue of attitudes, assumptions and practices that serve to otherize and impinge on the humanity of disabled people. Still other poems are not “about disability” in any overt external sense, but the simple presence of poems by a disabled poet helps to claim space in the world for disabled people and their rich and varied perspectives.
I also recognize that my disability experience deeply informs how I encounter the world, how I think and feel as I inhabit each day in whatever place I am in on this complex planet. I am using that disability experience whether I write “about disability” overtly or not.
TF: Your essay also discusses how your writing aims to “validate the lived experience of moving through the world with a disability.” Can you elaborate on your choice of imagery and your use of spatial motifs in general? Perhaps you can also touch on how the typography and verse form of your poetry is used to replicate the negotiation of different types of real and imagined spaces?
JF: What the poem looks like on the page, and what it feels like in the speaking, hearing, and reading are all part of the music of the poem. And music is always different from space to space, from the shower to the living room to the concert stage to the recording studio. I hope my poems create the opportunity for some space in the reader’s or listener’s mind, which is not separate from the body. Opening space for experience, making a bit of space for this moment, as fleeting and precious and irreplaceable as it is. I think more consciously about voice than about space in a poem, usually, but sometimes a poem just has to have room for the air to get under its wings.
Typography, line breaks, stanza breaks, indentations, columns—I try to make use of all the tools available to create—to open, to allow, to engender—the effect I seek. Or some effect. The word is not the thing, the map is not the territory—but each word is a thing, the words together are both things and a thing, each poem is a territory. I hope my poems create or allow room for people to move around in. Everything is a happy accident; nothing is by mistake. Except for mistakes, which I will realize later.
TF: So, for example, the poem “Exercise of Power” describes how visible forms of “God’s mistakes” need to be fixed. Which poetic techniques do you most consciously employ to convey the visibility of your disability?
JF: Line lengths and the deployment of white space on the page are the chief techniques I use to reflect something of my atypical perspective. There is an interesting conflict between conforming to the generic expectations of what a poem should look like and trying to create for the reader and listener an experience that reflects what I’m seeking to engender. In a real way the poems are not about me. They may draw heavily on my lived experience; they are certainly shaped by my thinking and feeling and sense of language; but for a poem to really work, it has to in some way not only be accessible to the audience but also to be in some unexpected way about the audience. I hope my poems create an experience for the audience. And when my poems are really working, they stop being mine and they become yours and ours. There may be times when I need the audience to read a poem with my impaired body in mind, but mostly I hope to push past that, maybe, ideally, somehow with their own once and future impaired body in mind. Or in bodymind. It’s always good to remember that bodies and minds are not separate things, however much we yearn to give in to the restrictions and narrownesses we have been taught.
TF: Your wonderful poem “Poet of Cripples,” refers to how crip poetry enables readers to reconsider the “space to grow in ways/unimaginable to the straight/and the narrow, the small and similar.” Can you indicate more about how you see poetry as an aid to this process? How might your poetry be thought to be an expression of embodiment as a varied, fluid shape, allowing individuals to expand their notion of different bodies?
JF: Poetry offers readers and listeners new opportunities to feel, think, experience something in this world that we share. When we’re lucky, poems give us not only new opportunities but new ways of feeling/thinking/experiencing. It’s impossible to truly engage with a good poem and not be changed a little, and not have a new sense of how someone else feels in the world. And each of those experiences add to our sense of what is possible in this world of pain and promise. I’m probably mangling someone else’s concept, but I think of the cultural imaginary as this giant storehouse of all the images and associations that are available within a particular culture.
Each poem, as well as each other form of art, has the potential to contribute to that great cultural storehouse of possible images—which includes possible ways of being in the world. Each time we contribute to that great storehouse, we have the potential to enlarge the range of what is possible to imagine in that culture. Poems can help make the world more possible. What could be a greater gift than that?
TF: I love your poem “Return to the Ward” where the persona experiences a sense of dislocation: patients navigate the closed off world of the hospital juxtaposed with exposure to life outside. In what ways do you consider your poetry helps us to understand how we exist in public and private spaces? How do you use poetry to challenge our thinking about how spaces operate and are designed?
JF: Thanks for nudging me to reread “Return to the Ward.” I wonder what has become of the guys I came to know well during my many stays on the ward. I also find myself thinking about the distancing we experienced, that was a central part of that experience – especially in light of the direction for social distancing as I write this in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. And I wonder how different they are. Distancing at the charity hospital was in part about infection control, ostensibly, but it may also have been about sheltering us or quarantining us away from a society that was afraid of us, even though it might not want to realize let alone admit it. And now social distancing to control the spread of the contagion. I don’t resist that distancing, because it seems like an important part of controlling the viral menace. And yet we are once again being taught to fear our fellows, carriers may not even know they are infected. You may already have won—or lost.
The way poems lay out on the page can be a challenge to the conventional ways spaces are designed and operate, not unlike the exciting dance that Alice Sheppard and her collaborators are doing. What else can we do with this space, with this page? It can be fun to find out. Generic expectations give us boundaries to lean on as well as to push against. When does a piece of writing cross from poem to prose or monologue? Or visual art, painting, sculpture? Interesting question, even if it is ultimately constricting. But constriction is how the boa eats. Feed me.
TF: The poems in your second collection Slouching Towards Guantanamo (2011) can be interpreted as documenting the establishment of an imagined disabled nation space. 30 years after the ADA, in what ways do you still think the accessible nation is an achievable reality or a distant utopia? How do you think your own crip poetry has to evolve in the next two decades in order to continue to help make the case for society to be made more accessible for disabled people?
JF: I think the accessible nation is achievable, but I think continuing to that goal will require something akin to a change in paradigm: the recognition that access is not about some of us but about all of us. This feels comparable to me to the people who may recognize that climate change is happening but who think that it’s really somebody else’s problem. It’s really all of our problem, and access is all our problem and opportunity as well.
How does my own poetry have to evolve? I’m not sure evolution is best planned; and I am leery of attempts to engineer a better poem—or poetics. Progressive ideals gave us eugenics and prohibition along with woman suffrage and educational reforms. Greater access and opportunity for disabled people is a crucial goal, but for poems to work they can’t be propaganda. And we have to be careful about being too directive with these delicate but powerful things.
TF: Your poem, “Manifest Destiny,” for example, cites many political and cultural references from various people and periods of American history. I was wondering if you could share your thoughts on representing the shift in societal representation of embodiment through historical citation?
JF: I wrote “Manifest Destiny” in response to an unvoiced challenge from the Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef. I was reading Khaled Mattawa’s translation of Youssef’s poem “America, America” on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq. I had joined thousands in marching to the state capitol in Madison to tell the US government not to start another war, not to indulge the blood lust that we too often are pulled by. While reading Youssef’s poem I was struck by his embrace of my country and its ideals while not holding back for a moment from his clear-eyed critique of our failures to live up to those ideals. I was also struck by his use of a refrain drawn from patriotic song, which led me to the idea of drawing upon American commonplaces, images and phrases so central to the American mythos that they would require no citation. I think I was wrong about the 1968 quotation from Chicago Mayor Daley, by the way (“the policeman isn’t there to create disorder, he’s there to preserve disorder”). But the power of those commonplaces, at least for those of us who grew up on them—and maybe for Youssef—is compelling. I read that poem at a poetry reading at a university in the American South just a couple weeks ago, and it still has power for me: at one point toward the end of the poem, I always feel like crying. Recognizing both our recurrent, deep, pervasive failures to live up to our ideals, while still asserting the hope in the ideals—that was the challenge from Youssef. Maybe someday I will get to show him the poem.
TF: Are there any particular philosophers, disability studies theorists or perception phenomenologists who have consciously influenced your work; and how have they influenced your thinking?
JF: Consciously? No, not really. I find myself using ideas and language from existential phenomenologists like Merleau-Ponty, but I’m leery of too explicitly committing to any theorist’s ideas—I think I’m afraid that will inhibit the poem from jumping wherever the hell it needs to go.
Disability studies theorists present another question, I think. Disability studies is still something of a cottage industry. The field has grown by leaps and bounds (running with the jumping metaphor in the paragraph above), but it is still relatively small. It was never quite true that we all know each other, and less true now, but the ideas that constitute disability studies theory developed in community and collaboration among a bunch of people trying to puzzle our ways through thorny questions. I think it’s fair to say that most everybody who might qualify as a disability studies theorist has helped to shape and enrich my thinking; I hope I’ve given as good as I’ve gotten.
TF: Can you comment on the ways your recent poetry engages with issues of disability, race/ethnicity and social justice in America today?
JF: I was raised to think of myself and my family as white, which at that time meant to think of ourselves as not really even having a race: race was something other people had. Trying to learn how to be a good parent to my African-American stepdaughters made me start to confront some of the ways their experience would be contextualized by the usually implicit but seldom if ever absent racializing that is standard in U.S. society. I wish I had been quicker off the mark to recognize how my own experience had been no less contextualized by race—contextualized very differently, but race was no less part of my experience than of theirs. As we were trying to be a multiracial family, as I was learning far too slowly to think about what I had only partially glimpsed before, I learned something else: that my maternal grandparents, who I thought I knew well, were categorized black and only began passing for white less than a hundred years ago. Much of what I have written the last several years has been in part probing the fabrication of race in actual lives, thinking about how I have been implicated in this system, pondering the interleavings of race with disability, and wondering how my family’s hidden black history shaped our experience for all its unspoken-ness.
The past few years I have been working on a performance project around these questions. It’s called “Is Your Mama White?”, which comes from a question one of my ex-wife’s young cousins asked me as she was trying to figure out where I fit in the larger and more clearly black family. It was a good question; still is. Where did my mother fit in the nation’s race scheme? Where do I? How did my family’s particular racialized standing influence my disability experience? How do we talk about charged topics in productive ways? The performance asks more questions than it answers, and it changes every time I do it, but it always includes at least a few of these poems.
At an artists’ residency some years ago I met a painter whose project during the residency was a series of self-portraits. That series, in particular one close-up of him peering at his face in a mirror, has stuck with me for years. As the pandemic lockdown was having its way this spring, it occurred to me that it might be an interesting project to write a series of self-portraits, myself. A conversation with the dancer and choreographer Alice Sheppard got me thinking about how the self-portrait poems could continue to probe my occluded family history and the ways that I and my family have been racialized—and have participated in racializing—in a profoundly racist society. Portraits, including Riva Lehrer’s compelling portrait of Alice, have played an important role in the development of disability culture in the U.S.; disabled bodies, however they are racialized, have seldom been considered fit subjects for portraiture.
And portraits, whether they are made with paint or words, are always about society at least as much as they are about a person. Audience is an essential element of a poem or any work of art—the circuit is incomplete without that connection, even if the initial audience is conceptualized to be the self, a seemingly inanimate object, or the void of the universe. I think this is true: there is no art without an other.
As I work to educate myself and to oppose racist structures and practices in the community where I live, I hope my poems reflect what I learn and what I perceive in the complex and uneven world around me. A poem is not propaganda, but it can make a claim in and on a tough world. I hope my poems do that.
Two poems on self-portraits by Jim Ferris (included with the author’s permission):
Self-Portrait with rain
(listen to the poem, read by the author)
I look like the rain in winter—not
personal but it feels personal,
especially under your collar,
there is a person involved, looking
and writing and painting and seeing
and looking away, and forgetting—
will the portrait remember the eyes
that have looked, the photons that have waved
and gone on, I fall, later may freeze
but will thaw sometime after,
scarcely recognizable, but what
of that, you will know me when you see
me, you’ll ask yourself is that how he
looks now, but you’ll know, and know you know
even as you mistrust your knowing,
this is why I need the portrait, you’ll
think and maybe even say out loud
you hand me words when what I most need
is vision, I knew you once, you’ll think,
rain in winter falls, we guard against,
why aren’t you snow, why aren’t you ice, sleet,
how is it that I miss your warmth
(listen to the poem, read by the author)
are the last thing I expected to
write about. Almond cookie,
golden raisins for eyes. Half ginger
snap nose. Al dente soba noodle
mouth making the faintest crescent down,
but not like a frown, contemplative,
a contemplative noodle,
but one of these is not like the rest,
the proportions are all off,
the portrait is too sweet anyway.
Begin again. Flat oatmeal cookie,
not too lumpy. Milk chocolate eyes,
raisins hint at nostrils neath
a black walnut nose—my mother loved
black walnuts, we would be driving through
the country like white folks and she’d spot
one—we’d stop, gather nuts if the time
was right, don’t worry about the brown
staining your hands—it’ll wear
off, I hadn’t meant to write about
race, it just comes out, I’d say sorry
but as an American I can’t
seem to help it—my mom liked to bake
snickerdoodles, maybe that’s the right
color once they are dusted
in cinnamon-sugar. Twice.
A little more cinnamon never
hurt, molasses and ginger
too, and there are many shades of brown.
When can we take them out of
the oven—how long must we let them
cool? How can we tell when they’re ready?
Will we ever be ready?
About Jim Ferris
Jim Ferris is the author of the poetry collections The Hospital Poems (2004) and Slouching Toward Guantanamo (2011). Ferris’s first poetry collection was winner of the International Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award; its subsequent success made him widely known as a “poet of cripples.” Ferris is Professor and Ability Center Endowed Chair in Disability Studies at the University of Toledo.
About Tom Fletcher
Tom Fletcher is a 29-year-old fourth year PhD student at the University of York. He is a graduate of Stirling University and has a Masters from Copenhagen University. His PhD is entitled Crip Contours: Space and Embodiment in 21st Century American Disability Poetry of Jim Ferris, Stephen Kuusisto and Laurie Clements Lambeth. He is a wheelchair user with Cerebral Palsy. Tom’s article “Planet of the Blind (1998) A Memoir by Stephen Kuusisto” is featured in the published book, Disability Experiences: Memoirs, Autobiographies, and Other Personal Narratives, edited by G. Thomas Couser and Susannah B. Mintz (2019).