Jim Ferris


What is crip poetry? How do I know it when I see it, when I hear it?

Here is how I know it: I know it when I feel it.

Poetry is an art form that can be recognized as marks that make a certain shape on the page, as a collection of words put together in certain ways. But that's a definition from people who have forgotten how their fire burns brighter for poems. Coleridge said poetry is the best words in the best order - and the best way to know that these are the best words in their best order is how they feel together. When asked for a definition of poetry, Emily Dickinson famously said, "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?"

That's how to know poetry. And here's how I know our poetry - it comes from a different place than the usual, the ordinary. When society wants us to stay out of sight, to keep quiet, to accept the still-rampant disability discrimination with resignation, with good humor, with pluck - even when we ourselves may most want to be ordinary - crip poetry comes from the outside, it comes from the abnormal, it is centered in the experience of being out of the ordinary. A definition I have given for disability poetry is "poetry that seeks to explore and validate the lived experience of moving through the world with a disability. Sometimes referred to as crip poetry, disability poetry embodies a disability consciousness; it is informed by and contributes to disability culture." That is a serviceable definition. But here's what I left out: the possibility, the edgy potential, the openness and even likelihood of transformation.

Crip poetry centers the experience of disabled people; it shows disabled people taking control of the gaze and articulating the terms under which we are viewed. This is a revolutionary transformation right there, but crip poetry carries in it the potential for an even more radical transformation - a transformation in consciousness, not only the consciousness of the poet and the reader, but the potential to transform the world, to make the world in which we live roomier, not only more transparent and known, but to make more space in the imagination, and so in the culture, for the wide and startling variety of rich and fulfilling ways that real people live and love, work and play in this world. Crip poetry is poetry that has the potential not only to shiver Emily Dickinson, not only to muss her hair, but to enlarge and strengthen the whole culture in the most vital of ways.

Like the rest of the disability arts movement, crip poetry rejects views of disability as a shameful, pitiable, tragic and individual phenomenon. Fundamental to crip poetry is an understanding that disability is a made thing, a social construction. This is not a denial of the pain and functional limitations that may come with our nonstandard ways of being in the world - in fact, disability poetry is often informed by a heightened awareness of those aspects of impairment. But crip poetry is also sharply aware that a major part of the impact disabilities have on lives results from the ways those human differences are interpreted and responded to by society, so often with prejudice, marginalization, and discrimination. Lynn Manning's poem "The Magic Wand" explicitly addresses this point when it describes the transformation the persona undergoes, "from black man to blind man", through the simple act of unfolding his white cane.

Disability poetry can be characterized 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.

One of the major impulses of crip poetry is to resist stereotyping and the limits of the socially imposed "handicapped" identity through a process of self-definition. Disability poetry often explicitly rejects social pressure to pursue a forever-elusive "normality," and instead finds value and strength within disability experience, not in spite of impairments but because of and through them. This can be seen in Cheryl Marie Wade's "I Am Not One of The," in which the persona forcefully rejects the labels that are applied to her:

I Am Not One Of The

I am not one of the physically challenged -
I'm a sock in the eye with gnarled fist
I'm a French kiss with cleft tongue
I'm orthopedic shoes sewn on a last of your fears
I am not one of the differently abled -
I'm an epitaph for a million imperfect babies left untreated
I'm an ikon carved from bones in a mass grave at Tiergarten, Germany
I'm withered legs hidden with a blanket
I am not one of the able disabled -
I'm a black panther with green eyes and scars like a picket fence
I'm pink lace panties teasing a stub of milk white thigh
I'm the Evil Eye
I'm the first cell divided
I'm mud that talks
I'm Eve I'm Kali
I'm The Mountain That Never Moves
I've been forever I'll be here forever
I'm the Gimp
I'm the Cripple
I'm the Crazy Lady
I'm The Woman With Juice

The speaker of this poem rejects the euphemistic labels applied to her by a world which would prefer to not discuss disability and rather simply stereotype her and. Instead, she articulates an identity for herself. She claims a kinship with disabled people through history, including those hidden away, left to die, even executed for their disabilities. Each time she rejects the euphemism, she replaces it with images that confound common expectations for people with disabilities - images of strength, of action, of sexual attraction and pleasure. The poem situates people with disabilities not in the margins but in the center of human experience ("I'm the first cell divided", "I've been forever I'll be here forever"). By the end of the poem, she has claimed negative terminology ("gimp," "cripple," "crazy") for her own, transforming the terms with the final, triumphant assertion: "I'm the Woman With Juice."

Disability has typically been described by nondisabled people. Another characteristic of disability poetry is that it comes from the perspective of disabled people, from what Simi Linton calls "the vantage point of the atypical." Whether from wheelchair height or through impaired eyes or ears, crip poetry foregrounds an alternative perspective. Sometimes that alternative perspective is specifically addressed in the poem, as in "Harvest" by Stephen Kuusisto:

My temporal task is to hear music,
drink a cup of chrysanthemum tea,
admire the white moon of the morning,
even if my eyes tell me there are two moons.

Embodiment is another characteristic of disability poetry. Crip poetry demonstrates an awareness of and sensitivity to the body which may not be unique to poetry within a disability aesthetic but which is certainly present. This is not to suggest that disability poetry is simply participating in a larger poetics of embodiment, which, according to poet Michael Davidson, "foregrounds the body as source of artistic production" but also expects bodies to conform to nondisabled expectations; instead, with its attention to alternative ways of being in the world, crip poetry seeks to redefine what it means to have and be a body in the world.

For this reason, embodying poems through performance is an important part of disability poetry. Disability is centrally about bodies, how they look and act, and how they are construed, so this embodiment is a crucial strategy. People with disabilities are often told to disregard their flawed, unsatisfactory bodies; paying the attention that poems evoke and reward is a powerful antidote, one which is intensified and multiplied through performance. And, as with other disability arts, events which include the performance of crip poetry are an important site for the continuing development of disability culture.

Alternative poetics can be found in disability poetry as well. Anomalous ways of moving through the world can lead to formal differences in poems; for example, using a respirator to breathe has significant potential to influence rhythms and use of the line. In his essay "Missing Larry," Davidson considers the impact of cerebral palsy on the poetry of Larry Eigner, including his distinctive use of space on the page. It is important to note that alternative embodiment, cognition, and rationality do not guarantee alternative poetics, but anomalous ways of encountering the world often if not always influence a disabled writer's poetry in form as well as content.

Emily Dickinson's description of poetry is wholly centered in the body; crip poetry is centered in the body as well, but it is centered in bodies which are themselves off-center, apart from the norm, off where it is easier to see, to perceive, where there is even more to feel.

Jim Ferris is author of The Hospital Poems, winner of the 2004 MSR Book Award, selected by Edward Hirsch. His essay "The Enjambed Body: A Step Toward a Crippled Poetics" was lead essay in The Georgia Review's special summer 2004 issue on poetry. His chapbook, The Facts of Life, was published in 2005 by Parallel Press. He teaches Disability Studies and Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.