Interviewed by Tom Fletcher
I recently had a chance to catch up with Daniel Sluman, the 33-year-old British poet and disability rights activist. Named in Huffington Post’s Top 5 British Poets to watch in 2015, Daniel is the author of two poetry collections: “Absence has a weight of its own” (2013) and “the terrible” (2015), published by Nine Arches Press. Daniel has recently edited a new anthology of British disability poetry, Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back (2017), again published by Nine Arches Press. Outside his success as a published poet, he has an MA with distinction from the University of Gloucestershire and is currently pursuing a PhD in creative writing at Birmingham City University.
Daniel’s early success came as part of the British group of “Atos poets” publishing an award-winning on-line poetry collection “Fit to Work” (FTW). During Coalition government welfare reforms in 2010-2015, Work Capability Assessments were carried out by a private company called Atos. These non-medical professionals used questionnaires to determine an individual’s capacity to be “fit” for work. The Atos poets composed verse to highlight the struggles of welfare recipients and to campaign for a fairer welfare system. One of Daniel’s most important Atos poems is “Shove Ten Pounds of Sugar in a Seven-Pound Bag (A Manifesto for Disability Poetry).” Originally published on the discontinued “ftwpoetsagainstatos.files.wordpress.com” poetry blog, it is now once again available, reprinted in the Stairs and Whispers collection.
TF: Given that the Atos poetry online anthology was compiled as a response to specific changes in British welfare policies, has that online group now disbanded? Did the group evolve? Are there similar issues still in play?
DS: Yes, the group came about as a reaction to the Conservative benefit changes in 2013. Sophie Mayer, Madelyn Burnhops and myself put out a call for submissions from disabled, D/deaf, and chronically ill poets for work that could act as a protest against the Fit-To-Work culture, that we could collate in one place online. We chose a website to keep these poems as we could all edit it, and it was accessible and free. I think we were all surprised at the influx of work we received, and we managed to bring together a lot of wonderful poems that came at a time when protest against the Tories felt like it was really gaining momentum. After a while the project quite naturally ran its course; all three of us had our own health to look after and separate projects to complete, and none of the FTW blog was funded or supported in any way by any external organisations. The policies of the Conservatives are much more severe now than they were back in 2013, and there is still a real need for more disability poetry to be made accessible, and I really do hope others can make similar projects to FTW: Poets Against Atos.
TF: Did all the Atos “Fit to Work” poems from the group get put into the Stairs and Whispers anthology? Were there any copyright/editorial conflict issues?
DS: After the success of FTW I had a conversation about creating a disability poetry anthology with Jane Commane at Nine Arches Press, and a little while later we had the green-light to make this book. I co-edited the anthology with Khairani Barokka and Sandra Alland, and Madelyn Burnhope also co-edited with us for a large portion of the development stage and helped us immeasurably, so there was this common strand of Madelyn and I moving from the FTW blog to Stairs and Whispers. By the time we actually got to the stage of collating poems for the book we had received a whole batch of new work, and apart from a few pieces (including ‘Shove ten pounds of sugar…’) from FTW, it was completely different. As far as I can recall there weren’t any copyright issues and I was lucky enough to work with extremely gifted co-editors, and we all respected each other’s point of view enough to talk through each poem we received and make group decisions on what we wanted included.
shove ten pounds of sugar in a seven-pound bag
(Note: This poem is reprinted with permission)
(listen to the poem, read by the author)
the poem is an artefact
made from words
& the space that exists
between & around the words
are the negative of the words
part of a reciprocal
with the words
( without the spaces
there are no words )
i am human
the shape of my body
exists within space
there are gaps & absences
within & around my body
every human has a unique set
of absences created by their body
( without the absences
there is no body )
are perhaps more apparent
than other people’s
i have an absence
where my left leg should be
as a reader / passer-by
you will notice the absence
of my left leg
will be more powerful
than if my leg was there
( shove ten pounds of sugar
in a seven-pound bag )
the absence forces you
to ascribe meaning to it
forces you to project
your own emotional /
within the absence
( mommy why has that man’s leg
fallen off ? )
i am a walking signifier
the page is a canvas
the poet reflects
( disassembles )
on the page
each space is apt
each word is placed
like ice in water
as a crippled writer
you can put your body
into the poem
with all its faults
they’ll dry like ink
from the damp notation
of your self
the disabled writer
turns the page
into a mirror
reflecting the reader’s
own mortality their fears
nightmares the i couldn’t live like that
we are on the fine end of a wedge
we can see aspects of societal behaviour
which they may not (wish to)
a dead russian writer once said
that all good writing
that all good writing
will get to the heart of an object / concept
( make the stone
stony again )
& turn it into art
disability defamiliarizes life
forces you to question
could i do that ?
bonecancer at 11
& the disarticulation of a limb
has been a blessing
i would thank in prayer
every day if i believed god
was listening because
i know all this
immediate noise & fizz
is bunk / nothing / zero
& i would not be who
i am now without
that wonderful magic trick
see his leg has disappeared !
a trick so real
no one stands to applaud
TF: I love your poem “Shove Ten Pounds of Sugar in a Seven-Pound Bag (A Manifesto for Disability Poetry).” Can you tell us anything about what your thinking was for this poem? Why, for example, you selected the bag of “sugar” motif?
DS: One of the driving ideas behind this poem is that there is an otherworldly kind of magic that happens when able-bodied people are forced to pay witness to disability and its metaphorical power, as well as the ways it pierces and transgresses the ideologies they’ve ascribed to, often subconsciously. In this poem I write about being an amputee, that ‘i have an absence / where my left leg should be’ and that this absence ‘will be more powerful / than if my leg was there’, and what I’m saying is that this process of normalisation and aspiration to a kind of bodily performance (the hours in the gym, the size of your chest, the length of your hair, the symmetry of your face) that most able-bodied people feel the need to engage with, which on many levels works to stigmatise and further disenfranchise disabled people, is actually less powerful than the mechanism of disability it is warring against. Some of the power of seeing my absent left leg is initially a form of novelty, but this hole in reality that you see ‘forces you to project / your own emotional / intellectual self’ within it. What I mean by that, is that what you’ve been taught, or told, and what you believe (even subconsciously) about disability and embodiment, will be forced to come to the surface of your mind when you see my amputation. A lot of people won’t want to confront their thoughts about these things and so there is a real power of transmutation in people being confronted with images of disability and ‘deformity’.
When an amputee walks towards an abled person it can bring their pre-existing ideologies about embodiment and wellness to the surface and create a dissonance that many find too difficult to fully confront. This is what brought about the metaphor at the centre of the poem; this is what shoving ten pounds of sugar in a seven-pound bag is like. It doesn’t work, it’s messy, it provides a semantic and emotional excess that can’t be accounted for and that hopefully leads people to investigate it further. The image of putting more sugar in a container than it can hold was the simplest and most universal way I could find to make this work. A further secondary reading could also be made about the type of pity and infantilization that is the heart of many people’s opinions towards disability, and the choice of ‘sugar’; something excessively sweet, and potentially damaging,
TF: In “Shove Ten Pounds of Sugar in a Seven-Pound Bag (A Manifesto for Disability Poetry)” you refer to the “the shape of my body/exists within space /there are gaps & absences/within & around my body.” I am wondering if you could say more about how you feel your poetry offers us a medium to explore ideas on representing the spaces “within & and around” body boundaries.
DS: The physical absences and gaps of my body, from the very cathartic lack of a leg, to the gaps in my hip muscles due to underuse, or the absences of matter in my spinal vertebrae that cause me pain, are for me, both physical and semantic at all times. My poetry and my poetics come from a practice that is very much focused on my life as a disabled person, and the experiences I encounter. These include chronic pain, the side effects of powerful medications, as well as the intersection of my disabled body with my wife’s. Because of this, my poetry is all I can do to give the reader the opportunity to understand how different the disabled experience is from a non-disabled one, and how social narratives often deny the disabled body the freedom we all deserve. The spaces within and around my body, my experience, and my mind, are imprinted the best I can in poetry for somebody else to understand.
TF: Do you still feel there is an “absence” of recognition about the reality of your lived experience? What are your pet hates about how others/society perceive or respond to your particular disability?
DS: Absolutely. There is not only a real lack of knowledge about the types of lives disabled people like myself live, but there is also a lack of desire to understand these lives. Representation of our lives seems to only exist in these two polar-opposites; that of a person who is bed-bound, without any real ‘adult-life’ and the relationships, friendships, and careers that is implied by that, and the ‘striver’ on the opposite end that does all the things able-bodied people do, seemingly through the power of willpower and ‘positive attitude’ alone. The reality is that my lived experience is complex, messy, and falls through a number of privileges and disadvantages that throw up the kind of mirror to most people’s lives that they don’t want to look at.
With regards to my particular disability, the highly visible nature of my hip-level amputation produces a similar set of behaviours formed around pity or disgust. I’ve had many hands pressed on my shoulder with pity, and many people have told me I’m ‘brave’, but I’ve also had many people unable to hide their terror at seeing what they would consider my deformity, and I even once had somebody perform a prayer as I passed them in the street! This is why I refer to my disability as a mirror in some poems; it really does reveal people’s unguarded opinions, anxieties, and fears to me in a way that makes them very vulnerable.
TF: Would you say that your more recent poems are driven by a similar political agency?
DS: The current collection of poems I’m writing are all written from the day-to-day life of being disabled and living with a disabled partner, so yes, they are all political in a very personal way. Overtly political poems can exist on a real knife-edge between success and failure and can so easily sound smug or glib, so I decided to write only about the things that happen to my wife and I. I’m hoping that by showing the reality of being disabled in the UK at the current time it will be enough to have an effect on people and cause them to question the government practices that define the parameters disabled people live within.
TF: Are there any particular poets, philosophers, disability studies theorists or perception phenomenologists etc who have consciously influenced your work; and how might they have influenced your thinking/poetic style?
DS: The Disability Studies Reader edited by Lennard Davis, is a book of essays I come back to again and again, full of circled quotes, and important points marked with sloppy inked asterisks. That book introduced me to some of the best contemporary thinkers in disability studies, and taught me a whole genre of knowledge against the grain of the ideologies I have been taught as a child. The book still seems as exciting, revolutionary, and esoteric now as it did when I first opened it.
Mitchell and Snyder, Tom Shakespeare, Robert McRuer, and Susan Wendell are just a few of the names whose work influenced me from that book, and pushed me to find their work elsewhere, with McRuer’s Crip Times being particularly engaging. A lot of these names have influenced my general knowledge about disability in a sociological context, and how aspects like stigma and othering work within it. More specifically within poetry, Petra Kuppers, and poet-critics like Sheila Black and Jennifer Bartlett have influenced the ways I think about disability and poetry together. Because this is such a new emerging area of theory, a lot of the more influential theorists for me before that were from the periods of structuralism and new criticism. Roman Jakobsen and his work on defamiliarization is especially a big influence for how I think about words and how poetry works in the reader’s mind.
TF: What poetic techniques do you consciously employ to convey re-imaginings of the visibility of your disability experience? Can you elaborate on your choice of imagery and/or use of spatial motifs in general?
DS: The majority of techniques I employ are chosen because they support the need for confessionalism, and usually revolve around contrasting ‘poetic’ imagery with quite simple and conversational language that builds together towards some resolution. I love the magical realism of poets like James Dickey, and that motivates me to find unique and new ways of entering and framing poems whilst keeping the content personal. One of the richest techniques I’ve developed for exploring the disability experience is the use of medical language within new and usually unrelated contexts. The medical gaze is so inextricably linked with the disability experience that anything that works to invert or transgress this connection produces exciting new possibilities.
Image is very important to me within poetry, as I believe this is the sense we are most overexposed to in contemporary culture, which in itself produces exciting possibilities to create new meanings. Space is of great interest to me both within the content of poetry, but also in terms of spatial aesthetics and poetics. The work of Larry Eigner in representing his daily life and world through white space on the page is a massive inspiration to me, and I have been using space rather than punctuation in my poetry for as long as I can remember. Using space in the way poems are written and read is one of the many ways we can encode the disability experience in poetry, and I’m highly conscious of trying to represent this experience in white space myself. With regards to motifs, and especially in ‘shove ten pound of sugar in a seven-pound bag’, space is discussed in different ways to talk about the idea of embodiment and the implicit leakiness of disabled bodies.
TF: Could you perhaps also comment on how the typography and verse form of your poetry is used to replicate the subjective negotiation of different types of real and imagined spaces and situational contexts?
DS: Leading on from my last answer, space and spatial contexts in the page seem to provide a way of exploring disability that hopefully a lot of people will understand. Compared to an imaginary ‘ideal’ body that we see everywhere around us in advertising, bodies affected by physical disabilities often spill over or pull back space, as in the case of amputees, or people with conditions such as muscular dystrophy, or even elephantiasis. The differences and potential for variety in the way bodies inhabit spaces is something that I like to reflect in my verse, as I believe in art we are always to some degree replicating life. My motivation to reflect disabled bodies and lives in my work means opening up space more than most writers may think of doing, and utilising different areas on the page for words, rather than keeping everything indented left automatically. In some cases, there is not much I can say critically to give you a specific reasoning behind the choices I make, as a large amount of this is based on an instinct that I have been trying to hone for the last decade of writing
TF: How do you envision your work engaging in the opening up of the relationship between poetry, the body and its representation on the space on the page? Do you see any distinctions in the ability of prose and/or poems to achieve this?
DS: I hope that the way I utilise form over the body of the page does some work in disturbing norms and forces a questioning in the reader that might lead to thoughts about disability and bodily representation. The majority of my content is about being disabled now, in a period where stigma and access are still issues disabled people encounter every day. I’m by no means the only person writing this, but I really hope that this mixture of confessionalism and form help open up differing ideas about how bodies take up space in the world as well as the page.
Whilst I don’t read, write, and know enough about prose, I do know that poetry seems to be a great fit for exploring disability. Life is messy, complex, and full of ambiguities, and the potential in using a more expansive form in poetry means there is a lot of room to represent different forms of disability.
TF: You said once that your poems adopt a confessional tone when refashioning subjective experience. In what ways do you think your poems are also written to help us imagine future spaces by re-imagining new/utopian spaces we might one day inhabit?
DS: A lot of that depends upon the reader. When a writer shows you a sub-optimal experience of a human being, one that is terrifying, painful, and consistently maintained through the implicit actions of society, your response as a reader and as part of that society, is usually to empathise, but the next step forward is where things become political. That is what I think of when you talk of imagining future spaces, whether utopian, or merely just less oppressing, for disabled body-minds. I like to push & pull the boundaries on what we define very neatly as body, and by doing that you naturally bring up ideas about spaces where all bodies are included and made allowances for.
The reader’s response need not be political with a capital P, but just by changing the reader’s understanding of disability we can make a real impact on the way the world makes space for us. This in itself can become a radical act, as the majority of people without disabilities will never deeply think about the structural inequalities that maintain the oppression of disabled people, and so, to change that would be incredibly powerful. I do have a realistic attitude about poetry and how the reader can be affected, but in just changing the way a reader engages with other disabled people they know that could be a subtle but powerful difference in some people’s quality of life. This is not why I write, but it is one of the biggest reasons why I believe in the value of writing.
TF: What project(s) are you working on at the moment in your poetry?
DS: My third collection of poetry is the main thing I’ve been writing since 2015; a book about being a disabled person living with another disabled person, and what that entails during a time of political austerity. I have also been writing a 400 odd page document of thoughts about writing and disability that is somewhere between a diary, journal (with pictures) and a manifesto or declaration of poetics. I have no idea if it will be something that could be put in a publishable form, or if anyone would want to read it, and it may be just for me, but it is most definitely helping me work through each day with more intent towards exploring disability, collecting all the little thoughts that would otherwise slip through the net of brain fog.
TF: Is there anything about your own poetry/disability poetry that you have been interested in talking about but no one has asked?
DS: I’ve been very fortunate to have this conversation with you. Without questions asked of myself so many of these things I feel strongly about would become unsaid and lack any musculature, and surely disappear from my own thinking. I think a lot about what I am doing with regards to writing, but a lot of my own views, technically, politically, and creatively are all the more formed and defined because we’ve had this exchange, and I can only thank you for your curiosity.
I am grateful to Daniel Sluman and Nine Arches Press for giving me permission to reprint the poem “Shove Ten Pounds of Sugar in a Seven-Pound Bag (A Manifesto for Disability Poetry).”
“Shove Ten Pounds of Sugar in a Seven-Pound Bag (A Manifesto for Disability Poetry)” is published in the poetry anthology Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back by Nine Arches Press (2017).
About Daniel Sluman
“Daniel Sluman is a 33-year-old poet and disability rights activist. He co-edited the first major UK Disability anthology, Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back, and his second collection, the terrible, was published by Nine Arches Press in 2015. He has appeared widely in UK poetry journals and he was named one of Huffington Post’s Top five British Poets to Watch in 2015. He is currently writing his third collection of poetry, about living with disability and chronic pain, to be published by Nine Arches Press in 2021/22. He tweets @danielsluman.
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).