Interview with Laurie Clements Lambeth

Interviewed by Tom Fletcher

Laurie Clements Lambeth is a poet from the State of California. She graduated with a Master of Fine Art and a Ph.D. from the University of Houston. Lambeth’s life-writing verse and “fragmented” prose collection, Veil and Burn (2008), was the winner of the 2006 National Poetry Series Award. The collection includes several published poems which have appeared, among other places, in the journals The Paris Review, Wordgathering, Indiana Review, Nimrod, American Letters and Commentary, and the Mid-American Review, and in two anthologies: Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (2011), and A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry (2012). Lambeth is working on a memoir and second collection of poetry, Bright Pane.

In this interview, Lambeth explores how her poetry helps reclaim her embodiment by showcasing the invisible nature of her disability—multiple sclerosis—which she presents as a beautiful component of herself. She demonstrates how her poems highlight an important message: since physical certainty is a myth, we should instead accept and embrace variation across all embodiments. This orientation toward bodies and embodiment would enable us to create a society wherein everyone is accepted, regardless of what shape or form their bodies take.

TF: You have said previously in a blog entry for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society that you are interested in invisible disabilities. You noted, “One of my interests is invisible disabilities…I feel invisible and hypervisible at the same time” (“Laurie Clements Lambeth”). I believe this area of concern and tension remains important and merits revisiting. Could you perhaps expand on what you mean by this concept and suggest ways you convey the notion in your poetry?

LCL: My form of multiple sclerosis is relapsing-remitting, on the cusp of secondary progressive. I sometimes drag my leg, sometimes use a cane, and sometimes walk with ease (with the help of a muscle relaxant and anticonvulsant). I often don’t appear to have a disability at all, even though I may be very tired, have trouble with my cognition, have difficulty swallowing or speaking, feel dizzy, or not sense when my bladder is full. My glasses are tinted to help with glare from optic neuritis, years ago, but people just think they’re sunglasses. In essence, I often pass. Living with an invisible disability, or multiple invisible disabilities emanating from one disease, can make me an object of suspicion, that somehow I am trying to benefit from accessible parking, or an accessible toilet, or that somehow I am lying, and it can also render me a curiosity.

At the Tate Modern I was almost denied an electric wheelchair because they’re for people “who are really disabled.” Conversely, when my hand doesn’t work but the rest of me appears to, and a cashier offers me change in that hand, they don’t know that I can’t sort the coins and bills. And then I hold up the queue, becoming more visible, with other customers’ diagnostic gazes trying to figure me out: what is wrong with her? The diagnostic gaze makes you hypervisible because you don’t fit the image a person has of disability, or of non-disability. You’re just a walking, standing question. This brings us back to what compels me about Wittgenstein and Scarry: people outside a disabled person’s body and mind will always approach the disability or pain with doubt, because they do not feel it. One of the first films ever produced is Edison’s 30-second Fake Beggar, and we haven’t moved far from that mindset of suspicion and disability performance in the intervening years.

When it comes to my MS-related cognitive challenges, it gets more complicated. I appear able-bodied, young enough, and educated, and I am of course a writer, so language should come easily. Sometimes the wrong words will replace other words in my mind, and they will do so persistently, even though they are definitely not what I mean to say. Unaware of this until later reflection, I find myself at sea, and I imagine whoever I said it to is probably similarly confused.

Sometimes it takes a while to say what I want to say and gather the words into a sentence. People often don’t have the patience for this. Once again, I don’t fit the concept of disability or non-disability. When it comes to cognitive difference, I find I am more often dismissed than crafted into an object of curiosity. But it drives my curiosity, nonetheless.

I imagine this liminal state of visible and invisible disability brings me to poetry. I want to investigate it because the experience feels so entirely internal, reminding me that others do not understand my physical state at all—unless I share it. Sometimes I don’t understand it either, so I bring the question to the page and the poem offers answers I may not have anticipated. So the poem (or essay) is both a place I go to express disability encounters or changes and to find out what they might mean.

TF: In your essay “Reshaping the Outline” in Beauty is a Verb (2011), you say that “Poetry helped me investigate and reinforce the blur I felt between body and world, and gave me the space to insist upon the bounding line’s fluidity.” This is a fascinating concept. I am wondering if you could say more about how you feel poetry offers a medium to explore these ideas on representing blurring boundaries.

LCL: Poetry can provide an immediate experience of a different body for readers, moving them outside of their own bodies and into that of the poet, feeling something akin to what the poet feels. Hopefully, it can contain the power to move readers into that blurred state, into uncertainty and perceived shared feeling, which, if they choose to go, could help bridge communities. Hopefully. In the events described in “Reshaping the Outline,” my consciousness of that blur came after I felt it. I felt an absence of sensation that opened my body up to the environment around me. I became permeable. The concept of tenor and vehicle in a metaphor has been absolutely blurred in much of my poetry, and I once spent a very uncomfortable hour alone with a famous visiting poet who berated me and my work for the lack of distinction between tenor and vehicle. It wasn’t until later that I discovered that this blurring is a quality that makes my work unique. But there are still Important Poets who don’t connect to that, and readers who might not.

TF: In your earlier interview with The Atlantic, “‘Hurtful and Beautiful’: Life with Multiple Sclerosis” (2012), you remark on the ability of your mind to help you create poetry to represent the experience of MS. You said, “I like the idea that the wound is the blessing that leads you to create. It’s hurtful and beautiful at the same time.” How do you think your own poetry helps make the case for society to be made more accessible for all?

LCL: I would like to help society perceive disability and difference as beautiful. In the previous paragraph of the interview, I mention, “having some perceptual walls broken down […] helped me become more aware of the body’s variability and oddness.” I hope that those walls can be broken down for readers, so that they understand—whether they are temporarily able-bodied or disabled—that physical certainty is a myth, and that they, too, exist in a variable sense of time and ability, a fact that could be accepted and celebrated, rather than feared and cured. This mind-frame might not immediately make society more accessible, but it could help people understand that access for disabled people means access for themselves at any time, and that the barrier between disability and what is considered the norm is elastic and potentially broken, which is okay—just a new way of dwelling in the world. And if the world is more accessible and open to the multiple modes of accessibility, then that new way of dwelling in the world will feel more natural for everyone.

TF: The poem “Coming Down” explores the experience of being undressed and the intimacy of touch. The private domain of the bedroom is exposed into the public world of poetry. In what ways do you consider your poetry helps us to understand how we exist in public and private spaces and challenges our thinking about how spaces operate and are designed?

LCL: This is such an interesting question. That poem also unites the public event of a wedding with the bedroom, the private space of the fitting room at I Do, I Do, and finally the outdoors, bringing us to the feeling of climbing off of a horse. That’s kind of why it is the first poem in Veil and Burn, because it encompasses multiple strains or motifs that reverberate throughout the book. It’s quite a bold introduction, though. Its space within the book is thereby foregrounded, placing the bedroom and intimacy in the space of a foyer. Putting the next collection together, I am faced with similar challenges, wondering what constitutes the best entry into the world of the book. The space of the body is of course another space we occupy, and I kind of want to argue that this is the most private space, the internal life of the speaker, with her doubts and her fascinations and love, with her disability and independence (getting out of the dress without help) and desire, a space readers can inhabit. The poem serves as an invitation to a very intimate form of empathy. In this and other poems, such as “Hypoaesthesia,” I also want to show that people with disabilities are indeed sexual beings, deserving of touch and desire, while hopefully insisting upon the agency of the disabled speaker and her experience, rather than suggesting objectification.

TF: When discussing “Seizure or Seduction of Persephone” you indicated a “gutter down the middle of the poem” is a key spatial feature and metaphor for representing the subjective experience of MS. I love how the spatial divides help represent the breaking of the persona’s body and the displacement of surfaces and bodily contours. 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 are used to replicate the negotiation of different types of real and imagined, internal and external spaces?

LCL: I’m very much the kind of writer who learns the rules in order to break them. I enjoy writing in form and love letting poems find their own shapes. Reading May Swenson for the first time, particularly her poem “Bleeding,” with its gutter, just blew me away. I thought, I want to do that someday. And really, that kind of interrupted line goes back to the Anglo-Saxon caesura, but it’s more fluid in contemporary poems. The gutter alters the way I read a poem aloud, too, because it offers two potential enjambments per line, a tiny pause. Those enjambments then expand possibilities, with each half of the line, at its best, striving toward being its own unit of meaning.

Did you know “enjambment” comes from the French jambe, meaning leg? So a line break without punctuation is like taking a step. Richard Howard used to tell us (having translated Proust and Baudelaire) that an enjambment (en français) is the moment one leg has stepped and the other knows to start its next step. But that’s a completely different experience for many people with certain kinds of physical disabilities, so why not disrupt it and play with it? So definitely, line length, gutters, prose fragments, stanza breaks, and enjambments serve as opportunities for me to contemplate the body, the space of the page, and breath—all that air around and within the poem. And stanza breaks—for instance, couplets—allow individual lines more space around them to shine and open up potential meanings. The space around a poem compresses it and lets it breathe, and the formal choices the poet makes help her whittle it even further. And more, the placement of poems in a book allows the poems to contribute to larger moods and meanings, bringing continuity or friction, generating new meaning, giving poems that may seem minor to the poet greater prominence. That space is so important, the leap between poems.

Are you familiar with Allen Grossman’s “Summa Lyrica” (1992)? In it, he posits that line lengths are related to the kind of material or mood of the poems themselves, with a short line being more private, a long line, like in Blake or Whitman, being more expansive and possibly reaching for the eternal (or beyond the edge of the page), and the line most common to English speech being blank verse. I don’t know how much I believe that, but it’s interesting. Some of my more private poems have longer lines, but perhaps they are reaching out for something beyond the page, such as “Hypoesthesia.” I do generally count my syllables and try to maintain some semblance of consistency, whatever the line length. Most of my poems are around a ten-syllable line, but I enjoy longer lines, too, generally letting the first couple of lines fall where they will, creating a good first unit of meaning or line break, which determines the shape of the rest of the poem. My poems that go off-margin and tumble down the page usually have more space between lines and might approach a difficult topic from an altered angle, but it’s not a system I negotiate.

It’s more of a feeling, and I’ve noticed this similarity between some of those poems. And the pacing of the poem is determined by its shape. The off-margin poems use all that space to also create pauses in a halting kind of tone. Sometimes I use a large space in a regular, on-margin poem, to indicate a halting quality as the speaker articulates an emotionally difficult conclusion. The concept of a poem being space, or the page being space, is so interesting, not only because a stanza is a room in Italian, but because a poem houses movement, sound, and speed, too. It’s a moving space with associational turns of mind, memory, image, and feeling, with the potential for new associations leaping between lines and across gutters.

TF: In your essay “Erasure as Reclamation” (2012), you define erasure as when “the poet enters a dialogue with the original text, ‘erasing’ or crossing out some parts of it, while highlighting other parts as an act of resistance.” Can you explain your thinking about poetry representing this concept of reclaiming embodiment?

LCL: Erasure is a process of uncovering and revealing (or sharpening) an alternate text, whereas my poems that move around off-margin are originally crafted that way to convey mood and pace. With regard to a medical test result or article, it’s satisfying to cross out and “correct” the original text’s dry misunderstanding of what it’s like to live in a body that doesn’t fit the norm. Medicine tries to correct our bodies, and through erasure a poet can correct their correction. However, one could apply the concept of erasure to the prose fragments throughout Veil and Burn. They were originally part of longer lyric essays. I physically cut out the images, scenes, or paragraphs and taped them to sheets of paper, and then edited down, distilling the language and emotion, honing the voice of these fragments. In some prose fragments, I put scenes from different moments right next to each other, to intensify the interplay between them, as in [Mosaic Fragment] (the clinical experience of taking a color blindness test juxtaposed with viewing a Paul Klee painting at a museum) and [Fragment Dissected and Sewn] (dissecting kidneys in college interrupted by moments from a future episode of urinary urgency). Through the associative links between italicized and non-italicized text, I hope to create some friction and energy, as well as windows through which a reader can enter a different physical experience through other experiences the reader may have shared, such as friendship or dissection during school. Through these methods, I am re-visiting and reframing my own work by rearranging and editing. In general, I find both poetry and lyric prose tremendous vehicles to reclaim and re/present embodiment. There are certain experiences which may be more emotionally fraught, such as vision loss, urinary incontinence, and memory loss, that at the time I was writing Veil and Burn, seemed too emotional or potentially sensational or maudlin for me to address in poetry. There is only one poem (in lines) that contemplates the process of optic neuritis, “Retrobulbar.” I felt more comfortable conveying vision loss and treatment in prose. Similarly, I find art or graphic memoir to be another language through which to convey other experiences that elude voice in my writing. I have since been able to address cognitive challenges and memory loss in poetry. It took a poem in rhyming couplets (“Upon Reading the Radiologist’s Report”) to take me there, and then visiting Jerome Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred (2017) to investigate indigenous forms I could employ to express gaps in memory—which I tried but ultimately returned to the off-margin airiness and halting voice alive in a lot of my poems, and I made “Burn Fragment.”

TF: Are there any particular philosophers, disability studies theorists or perception phenomenologists whose work has consciously influenced your work; and, how have these thinkers influenced your thinking?

LCL: I am not sure how well this might answer your question. I read Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor (1978) as an undergraduate, and I developed a contentious relationship with that book for many years, my multi-colored margin notes disagreeing with the text and with each other. I felt that metaphor played a vital role in conveying physical experience or biology. I didn’t yet understand the deeply embedded cultural uses of metaphor to demonize and mythologize illness and disability. I also didn’t yet understand that metaphor itself cannot be fully trusted to adequately convey experience. And we know her metaphor of illness as a kingdom, which is interesting in that it becomes a space that isolates individuals.

I enjoyed Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953), and I think Elaine Scarry is a sort of inheritor of his language game on our inability to comprehend one another’s pain. Scarry explores the alienation of pain (which I think holds for any somatic experience) in The Body in Pain (1985), which I relied on heavily for some of my academic work in graduate school. Our library had very few disability studies texts, but I was drawn—and still am—to the amazing work of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. I also found some guidance in Irving Zola and Susan Wendell, but otherwise, when attempting to formulate my own theory of disability performance for scholarly work in graduate school, I found myself also turning to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. The idea that certain alien experiences could never be understood by the mainstream makes me think of temporarily non-disabled people’s perceptions of disability; they don’t want to listen or think differently, so communication of physical sensation is nearly impossible (which brings us back to Wittgenstein and Scarry). But, of course, my creative work insists that it must be possible, and I try, hoping for a reader who will absorb the language and dwell in the poems. I think Barthes is brilliant, and I am fascinated by Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (1994). I’m also very interested in Sunaura Taylor’s work uniting animal studies with disability studies. One element of DS that I find very compelling is the way that theorists arrive at observations often through biographical experience, which brings theory into the body and into felt experience, a more private sphere.

TF: In one of your online blog posts “Gaining Access” (2014), you state “What is inaccessible to most readers offers me access to the world of words, to my world, where poetic lines serve as a form of automatic doors, or elevators, or accessible parking spaces, ramps, lowered countertops.” Can you expand on how you envision your work engaging with this opening up of the relationship between poetry, the body, and the body’s representation on the space on the page?

LCL: Aside from the literal access poetry has provided for me and my particular MS-related visual and cognitive challenges, I feel that poetry itself offers an immediacy of feeling—physical sensation and emotion—something akin to Wordsworth’s spots of time, that can provide glimpses of experience linked associatively, gleaning an empathetic response from the reader. I’ve structured a Medical Humanities course—“Lyric Medicine”—around this idea in conjunction with notions of nonlinear approaches to somatic experience. A couple of years ago I was invited, along with poet, The Cyborg Jillian Weise, by scholar Harold Braswell to be part of his panel at a bioethics conference. His idea was that disability poetry can serve as the bridge between bioethics and disability studies, which makes a lot of sense. And with that, it’s easy to imagine the role of empathy for a reader extending to the medical professional.

It is my hope that readers of my own work would get as close to literally feeling and inhabiting the body’s movements and sensations in my poetry and prose. As Veil and Burn was originally my doctoral dissertation, I can offer the observation of poet Kimiko Hahn, who was on my dissertation committee. She said that the poems reminded her of Japanese dance instruction, where the instructor physically positions the dancer’s body. She felt herself being moved in this way, which is what I hope for: a sense that the poems could make the reader feel an inkling of what it’s like to live in this body and help them develop awareness of their own physicality and the subjectivity of the bodies around them. I have heard from some readers, though, a distancing objectification of the speaker in my poetry, the reader unable to cross the line of gender or physical ability to inhabit something different.

TF: As you are aware, a little over thirty years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was introduced. In your blog post “Gaining Access,” you also go on to state, “‘Normal’ is shifting. It’s been a long time coming.” Do you feel you have achieved or set about representing this shift in societal representation of embodiment through your poetry?

LCL: Oh goodness. I don’t know if I have achieved it, but if you look over the preceding answers, I think you’ll find ways that I hope to represent the validity and importance of the disabled body and the primacy of disabled experience. I think books like Beauty Is a Verb (2011) and the New York Times op-ed Disability series, now available as an anthology entitled About Us (2019), are evidence that some progress is being made, but it’s slow. Part of the reason for the slow movement of disability rights, I think, is due to ableism rooted in narratives of disability as tragedy, or narratives of overcoming, rather than forms defying narrative and claiming disability as a unique and beautiful state of being.

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About Laurie Clements Lambeth

Laurie Clements Lambeth is the author of Veil and Burn (University of Illinois Press, 2008), selected by Maxine Kumin for the National Poetry Series. Recent poetry publications include Cincinnati Review, Ecotone, Poetry Magazine, and Zocalo Public Square. Her creative nonfiction has most recently appeared in The New York Times, Ecotone, and Crab Orchard Review. When not at work on several writing projects, she teaches Medical Humanities courses at the University of Houston.

About Tom Fletcher

Tom Fletcher completed a Ph.D. at the University of York in 2020. His Ph.D. dissertation was entitled, Crip Contours: Space and Embodiment in 21st Century American Disability Poetry of Jim Ferris, Stephen Kuusisto and Laurie Clements Lambeth. He is a graduate of Stirling University and has a Masters from Copenhagen University. 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). Tom is currently working at Resume Foundation – a UK charity dedicated to helping marginalised individuals into work.