Interview with Laura Hershey
WG: Laura, you are known as both an activist and a poet, two roles that some people tend to thing of as mutually exclusive. Which of these vocations did you come to first – or is that a chicken/egg question?
LH: Well, I can remember writing poems (bad ones) when I was in grade school; and my process of becoming an activist occurred very gradually through high school, college, and especially after graduation from college. So I suppose I was a poet first. But the two really came together in important ways around 1985, when I went to the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) Forum on Women in Nairobi, Kenya, as an advocate for disabled women's issues. I was blown away by so many things about this experience: the vast array of feminist organizing, the exclusion of disabled women, the international solidarity among these women, the beautiful and complex African setting.… When I came home I started writing poetry. I wound up with a series of poems that I self-published in a chapbook entitled The Prostitutes of Nairobi. Then I wrote more disability activism poems about my involvement with ADAPT. People in the disability community responded powerfully to these poems – maybe because at the time, there weren't that many people writing poetry about the disability rights movement.
WG: When you write poetry as a disability activist, what is it that you are trying to accomplish? Stated a bit differently, what is it that you want the poem to do?
LH: I once asked Grace Paley, the late great writer and activist, for her thoughts about writing activist poetry. She said something like, Just try to tell a good story. So that's one thing I do try to do. I also try to convey a sense of the emotions I've felt when engaged in social change work. But mainly, just like with any other poem, I try to create art through words. I want the poem to sound good, and to move the reader.
WG: Can you describe what the process of writing a poem is like for you?
LH: It usually starts with a couple of lines that come into my head, that I play around with mentally for a while. Sometimes they just go away and that's the last I hear from them. But sometimes they stick around, and I eventually put them on my screen. (By the way, I do all my writing with Dragon NaturallySpeaking, a voice activation program. I speak into a microphone, dictating the words.) Using those two or three lines, I start working on related lines, to rhyme with those first couple of lines or not. I just keep building toward the bigger work that I've started envisioning, the poem. I write and rewrite lines, delete them, rearrange them. When it feels mostly done, I let it sit for a few days. If I feel like the poem has some promise, I like to show it to another poet before I start sending it out for publication. I have several friends who I respect highly as writers and critics, with whom I have arrangements to exchange our work. I wait for their feedback, and I take it seriously, incorporating some suggestions, or at least making some rewrites to address concerns they have raised. After that, I consider the poem finished. I don't keep revising it every time I look at it. I consider it ready to go out into the world.
WG: Do you think that your physical disability and the way that you compose influences your writing style and the structure of the finished poem? I am thinking, for example, of Jim Ferris' famous essay, "The Enjambed Body" in which he discusses how his limp affects the meter of his poetry or Dan's Simpson's discussion of how, being blind, he eschews concerns about visual line length in favor of sound.
LH: That's a hard question to answer, since I don't have anything with which I can compare my composition process and style. But I do think that the amount of "downtime" required by my physical disability, that is, the time I spend either resting, or waiting for an attendant, or having my personal care done, does create a space for me in which I can do some of the "work" of poetry – observe, contemplate, reflect, compose, etc.
WG: In general, how well to you feel your poetry has been received? What has been some of the reaction to your writing from others?
LH: That's somewhat hard to measure. I have received numerous rejection letters from editors, but I think that's true for every poet. When my poems do get published, people read them outside of my view, so I have no idea whether they like them or not. I have performed poetry readings for audiences ranging from 3 to 200 people, and in that context, I've received very enthusiastic responses. And I do sometimes get e-mails from people who want to tell me that my poems have moved them in an important way. That's always gratifying. I think that because I'm writing about disability in a deep and honest way, my poetry reaches that particular audience pretty powerfully. I'm not an academic poet, nor part of the traditional poetry " scene" – though lately I am moving a bit more in that direction, wanting my poetry to be seen by people who enjoy literature for its own sake. Still, I definitely identify as a socially engaged writer, and people who can appreciate that perspective respond more positively to my poetry. It's not everyone's cup of tea, and that's okay.
WG: Can you give a specific example of a poem that evoked a strong experience in an audience or a particular reader? What was the reaction?
LH: My poem "You Get Proud By Practicing," which I wrote in 1990, has made its way to all kinds of people and places. It seems to evoke strongly positive responses. It has been turned into a poster, a choral arrangement by a women's chorus in Minnesota, a group reading for the recent Disability Pride celebration in Chicago, etc. It's been read at disability rights demonstrations, LGBTQ pride events, community organizing conferences, incest survivors' groups, and more. And it's been reprinted widely in newsletters and websites. I think it speaks to a deep need that people have for self-respect, and also their need to understand why that self-respect can be so hard to come by in our society.
WG: How do you think that your poetry now is different than when you first began writing? Perhaps another way of asking the same question is, how do you feel you've grown as a poet?
LH: That's a great question. There are literally dozens of people I could name, but I'll just give a few examples. Of course my partner Robin, whom I met through the movement, has been a huge influence on me in terms of personal growth and poetic subject matter! Many of the other activists have inspired me – a charged term, but one I use deliberately and specifically to mean that they shaped my politics and my motivation to try to bring about real change for our people. Just a few of these people would include Eleanor Smith in Atlanta, who has spent decades working for visitable housing, accessible public transportation, protection against assisted suicide, inclusion in lesbian/feminist communities, and many more.