Michael Northen


In Deaf American Poetry, John Lee Clark argues that ASL poetry and written poetry based upon signs are, in fact, poetry. Certainly, one would have a hard time arguing that Deaf poetry has not brought new form, aesthetics and language to poetry. Can the same be said of disability poetry?

The first two essays in this series have focused on the poetry of writers with disabilities. There can be little doubt, I think, that these poets have enlarged both the content and viewpoints found within contemporary poetry. But have they been able to add to it as a genre? Jim Ferris working definition of disability poetry is worth repeating here. "Disability poetry can be recognized by several characteristics: a challenge to stereotypes and an insistence on self-definition; foregrounding of the perspective of people with disabilities; an emphasis on embodiment, especially atypical embodiment; and alternative techniques and poetics". Writers like Sheila Black and Kathi Wolfe have definitely challenged stereotypes. Paul Kahn, Linda Cronin and others have insisted upon self-definition. Any one of them could be said to emphasize atypical embodiment. The characteristic of disability poetry that has not yet been discussed, and perhaps the most difficult of all,is Ferris’ last characteristic “alternative techniques and poetics.” While difficult, it is one of the most vital. If disability poetry has something lasting to contribute to poetry has a whole, it must be something more than subject and sensibility. (That something more is in the shaping of poetry itself.)

Ferris attempts to initiate the process through his claim of Whitman as disability poetry’s poetic forefather. This claim is not only because Whitman made the body central to his writing or even that he saw poetry as inclusive of a democratic America embracing diversity. It is because the very form of “Song of Myself” is an extension of Whitman’s sprawling physical self. It is the latter, Ferris suggests, that is the key to developing a disability poetic. In an essay in Georgia Review (2004), Ferris proposed that the meter of his own poetry might reflect the meter of his own uneven gate.

This disruption of form as represented by the poets contributing to Wordgathering is probably more apparent when looking back through the reviews of entire books than perusing through individual poems. In Dream Bones Linda Cronin tries to break up the standard structure of poetry chapbooks by inserting prose pieces among the poems. Rather than calling these either prose poems or flash fiction, the latter which would imply some sense of plot, Cronin calls these pieces flash essays. Though having the feel of prose poems they give her the latitude for more didacticism than her poems might contain. The use of prose to break up poems is used less conventionally by Laurie Clements Lambeth in Veil and Burn. This intentional disruption is accomplished through the periodic interjection of prose "fragments" among the poems, intrusioins that remain untitled on the pages in which the appear. In fact, the very title of the book is derived from one of these fragments.

In Hollywood's gold age, the camera was often veiled by a thin piece of fabric to dissolve any harsh features or wrinkles in close-ups. The cameraman burned cigarette holes into the fabric to bring the eyes to sparkle. I have a feeling that my vision is something between the veil and the burn, or that it alternates between the two.

Not only does Lambeth look for ways to disrupt the surface structure of the book, she tries to find new ways of using form within. One particularly nice adjustment of form to content is in "Seizure, or Seduction of Persephone." Initially,the poem's appearance on the page seems to invoke the caesura with all of its Old English associations, but the first few lines reveal the use to which Lambeth puts it.

I convulsed so   hard I broke
open, broke    the earth,
erupted and    pushed out
a narcissus    by the roots.

It doesn't    matter where
the flower    broke on my body,
through the    skin, a pimple,
my head, or    the belly.

I could not    tell you.
What I can    say is this:
my limbs    flailed and seized

The intersecting images of seizure, earthquake and the old Persephone myth provide the reader with metaphors that deepen the content of the poem, but it is in the use of the poems shape to reflect the convulsions of her body that make it stylistically interesting.

A book that matches the inventive approaches of Veil and Burn is Neil Marcus and Petra Kuppers’ Cripple Poetics: A Love Story. For all Lambeth’s creativity and manipulation of form, there is no question that what she is writing is poetry - and poetry of the highest order. The post-modern approach of Kuppers and Marcus, on the other hand, purposely blurs genre lines, forcing the reader to ask, "Is this poetry?" It is a bit like trying to classify a platypus. All of this is quite purposeful, however. Marcus’ dyskensia and physical disabilities also impact upon the way that he uses language. He advocates the

necessity of creating our own language
since ther is no other than our own to be accurate.
it is self described
built on self knowledge

The self-knowledge is the basis for trying to find just how poetry can communicate his own experiences of the world, experiences that offer an alternative to the mainstream . Marcus reflects:

maybe they wou'd have called me a spastic mute in ancient times
I am spastic
I dance
My muscles dance...
Mute, I kind of like mute
its like
A muse.
What does he who rarely speaks and yet who seems to
have so many "voices"
Who chooses his word so carefully and economically
What does HE think ? ?
What is HIS view of the world

This is indeed the very question that provides the rationale not only for the singular phenomenological experiences of the disabled individual, but for disability literature. A few pages later, Marcus tersely builds on this observation:

necessity of creating our own language
since ther is no other than our own to be accurate.
it is self described
built on self knowledge

The manifold forms of written expression Cripple Poetics marshals within the venerable epistolary structure of an Abelard and Heloise-like correspondence argues for the sort of diversity of expression and subjects that, as Ferris proposed might be traced back to Whitman. A cripple poetics is democratic, Kuppers and Marcus seem to argue working horizontally to include previously marginalized groups with alternatives ways of expression and vertically to incorporate such contemporary texts as email and instant message.

Caroline Heilbrun, whose studies of women’s autobiographical writing in Writing a Woman’s Life made such an impact on women writers in the 1990’s, argues that only the work of other writers in a given genre can serve as models. Writers write, according to Heilbrun, in the ways that they have seen previous writers write and when the previous writers are men, this poses a real problem. To a greater extent even than the women about whom Heilbrun writes, poets with disabilities, until recently, have no models. It is for this reason that Wordgathering has been fortunate to have the work of poets like Lambeth – a book review editor for Disability Studies Quarterly, and Kuppers – a professor of disability and arts at the University of Michigan – who can take a broad view, deconstructing an implicitly able-bodied tradition of poetics and reshaping it to represent writers with disabilities.

As important as this broad view is, however, poets can work from the inside out, looking at what makes aesthetic sense with respect to their own disability. A singular example of this is Dan Simpson, who is blind. Earlier in his writing career Simpson confronted the issue of line length. Just as basing ASL poetry on traditional notions of meter makes little sense, worrying about the appearance of a poem on the page, began making little artistic sense to Simpson. While not eschewing visual metaphors, he did begin making the brakes in his line totally on the basis of sound, ignoring how they might appear on the page. He also made audio CD the media for his first chapbook of poetry, rather than print.

Other poets are making small experiments with their poems as well. Stuart Sanderson, a poet with cerebral palsy frequently limits the number of words in a line to the one or two that he is able to speak in one breath. Similarly, Louise Matthewson, who was brain-injured and in a coma for a long time as result of an accident, keeps the lines shorts, breaking each stanza down into manageable bits. Fran Gardner and Sienna Elizabeth Raimonde both of whom use a cane as a result of multiple sclerosis try to incorporate that aspect of their lives into the poem structures. Gardner does this, in the rhythms of such poems as “The Lady with the Green Cane” and “Stumble Song” and Raimonde, through visual appearance in "This Cane."

Finally, Kathi Wolfe, in “Q & A,” the opening poem of Helen Keller Takes the Stage, makes an interesting move that tries to address the issue Heilbrun raises of lack of legitimate model by using some of the techniques of Lambeth, Kuppers and Marcus. The bulk of the poems in this volume are a straight-forward on attack on the pedestal portrayals of Keller, as described in essay one of this series. However, Wolfe also incorporates fragments from Keller’s own accounts of her life. In “Q & A”, the author take an interview with Keller that she found among Keller’s papers and resurrects it as a “found poem.” In effect, she has created a sort of poetic forerunner from one who was not actually a poet at all. Whether or not one accepts “Q & A” as a poem, it’s an inventive strategy.

Disability is a very large umbrella. A list of the anthologies reviewed in Wordgathering in its relatively brief existence reveals some of this diversity: Behind Our Eyes (blind and visually-impaired writers); The Unfold Pinnacle (Impoverished Women in India); After Shocks (survivors of traunatic experience) and Deaf American Poetry. Given this wealth of difference, it is not surprising that no clear cut poetics has emerged that applies to all cases and satisfies all parties. Still, some progress has been made. Prior to the late 1980's even those poets with disabilities who published fairly widely like Josphine Miles, Larry Eigner and Vassar Miller did not feel comfortable acknowledging their disabilities in their poems. Miles did ground-breaking work in language, Eigner became one of the influential Black Mountain poets and Miller even pulished an anthology of disability writing for use by teachers, yet the subject of disability- as influential as it was on their personal lives - did not find a place in their poems. Not only have all the poets mentioned in this essay series been open about their disabilites, but many have worked hard to introduce a whole range of subjects surrounding disabilty. They have tried to undo the damage of sentimentality and and stereotypes by challenging with real and sometimes in-you-face portraits of disability. If a disability poetics still looks a lot like a platypus, at least with writng like that of Lamert, Wolfe, Marcus and Kuppers, we know that something is in the wind.


Michael Northen is an editor of Wordgathering, facilitator of the Inglis House Poetry Workshop and supporter of Chimera Travel. Follow him @ wordgathering on Twitter.