NEGOTIATING BROKEN BRIDGES: Disability Poetics From Where I'm Sitting
Only after I agreed to write about disability poetics, and curate some poems around the subject, did I realise what a daunting privilege it was. From my vantage point in the UK, if there is a 'disability poetics' movement, it is a light tremor. Nothing has gathered here with the same momentum as in the USA, where poetry is interlocked with our civil rights movement. There are poets plugging away, especially in relation to wider Disability Arts schemes, but they have as yet seemed reluctant to group under the identity tag 'disabled poet'.
There are many possible explanations for this reluctance. British poetry is more post-school than ever; pluralism has won out over adherence to groups, past or present. We like to have a good grasp of history, of course, but we've lost any anxiety about adhering to any particular literary legacy. So, there is also a deep cynicism of minorities that club together with a manifesto. Indeed, we seem to disapprove of 'agendas' more quietly but no less furiously than Americans. Live events are sadly lacking in openly disabled poets, or audiences, for that matter (the lack of disabled access in reading venues, usually pub lofts and basements, is partly to blame). Also, for seemingly ages, our governments have romanticised 'inclusion' whilst facilitating our exclusion from the societal mainstream. Maybe we've just grown tired, lost our voices.
But does a collective feeling exist which could be a catalyst for more? I think so. Since its launch in 2009, the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine (this year judged by US poet Marilyn Hacker and others) has built a bridge between the fields of poetry and medicine, with a particular focus on writing born from the The NHS. In 2011, poets were gathered in the anthology Emergency Verse: Poets in Defence of the Welfare State. They were both disabled and non-disabled; their only common aim was to protest the government's attacks on welfare and the NHS. On 18th April 2012, Social Welfare Advocacy, an online pressure group, posted on Facebook: 'As I type this, hundreds of disabled people are protesting in London. Predictably the news is full of the latest unemployment figures which is overshadowing the protests.' Shortly afterwards, the Guardian described the untelevised event as 'the latest in a series of direct action protests against welfare cuts'. At least in terms of the social environment, I have to conclude that something is afoot (no pun intended).
We might start by defining 'disability' itself. The social model demands that my definition isn't necessarily limited to impairments or conditions. Feelings fluctuate, but for me, 'disability' could describe countless human conditions (the romantic notion of one 'human condition' has always vexed me) which travel back and forth over countless spectrums. 'Disability poetics', then, would simply explore the experience of inhabiting these bodily spaces. Naturally, then, there will be common ground with other poetries in which 'otherness', identity, prejudice and discrimination crop up – queer and feminist poetries, for example.
The poems I have curated attempt to answer the question: 'What might a disability poetics look like?' I'm still answering this for myself. Some poems were submitted following a call for new / unpublished work around the very general theme of non-normative embodiment. Others I commissioned from poets I knew, after realising that I wasn't going to get enough quality work with just an open call. I didn't want to ask poets to identify as 'disabled'; I allowed for writing about as well as from disability. If poets self-identified as disabled, I didn't pry into the nature of their disabilities; the poems themselves had to make me believe in what they said, and how they said it; language and form, body. Most of these poets are British, one is from the USA; I wanted to acknowledge the new disability poetry anthologised in Beauty is a Verb, a genuine inspiration for my own involvement in contemporary poetry.
One could go further than I have. For a start, these poems tend to look like poems; there were more idiosyncratic, experimental pieces I couldn't include. The Internet has limitations, and formatting issues let me down. I wish the number of female poets had been higher, but I was limited to the submissions I received and the few poets I knew writing in this area. These issues notwithstanding, I think this curated set argues for the existence of strong disability poetics from a number of perspectives, in the UK and beyond.
II. The Poems
Water Under the Admin
see I need a bridge into this
* * *
Gas flooded lungs tense;
Unlike the gold rush of cancer
* * *
Manacled to my mother's apron strings,
Freedom was another color, dust-gray,
My spine never flat enough to fit
in sidewalks leading away from doors.
Let rain churn this dust to mortar,
* * *
Hallgrim's Church, Reykjavikfor everyone on the autism spectrum
That church from
south side of Reykjavik
in '59 while all other kids
It has a stair case
and wait for the count down
* * *
I was pain
spilled a glass
so Googled same
but on the brain
* * *
Visiting Vulcano, the ideal of a volcano,
When you feel my chest, my hollow middle,
I took a pleasant photograph of the crater,
Two yellow butterflies pottered across a ravine;
I love you. I might let you in there, sometimes.
* * *
kirkstone pass: who needs olanzapine?
ploughshares beaten to rails to carry slate from 1500 foot. tunnel falls to hillside, arch-locking its origins, tooling where charge was placed. last nights northern lights to make you weep: tag-games in shadow pinks between saint sunday crag and hartsop dodd, ether blues zaggle fairfield to stony cove pike, dreaming tangerine between high street and dove crag. forget my antipsychotics this morning? who needs olanzapine with patterdale at your feet. this land is the roseate of foxes back broken on road below rough edge, the russet of frosted brackens, tarantellas of rust on rails with nowhere to go. up here theyve beaten ploughshares into, but beautifully
* * *
The recovery position may need to be used in many conditions that need first aid
how do I explain morning, the everyness
a dropped stitch, a stabbed finger.
there are swathes or distances I pull
stop: open wide
that childlike, toothless,
III. Thoughts on the Poems
My two poems set a context for the others. Inspired by Larry Eigner's interpretation of Charles Olson's "composition by field", they're an experimental step forward (or somewhere) from my chapbook. 'Water Under the Admin' plays on "water on the brain", a popular description of Hydrocephalus. Taking from Eigner's use of white space to convey small movement, I try to use white space to capture the mind's movement, short-term forgetfulness, hesitant speech, etc. There is imagery from admin and form-filling, notorious blind-spots for people with Hydrocephalus. There's the need to build emotional 'bridges' into everyday mundane tasks due to dry-logic and problem-solving areas of the brain being damaged. My solution to the 'problem', of course, is poetry.
'Absence' is the first poem in Daniel Sluman's Nine Arches Press debut collection, Absence Has a Weight of its Own. It describes the amputation of his leg due to bone cancer when he was a child. The poem begins by plunging us into the operating theatre ('Gas flooded lungs tense') with that deliberate verb choice of 'tense' and the strange imagery of 'going under' into the anaesthetised waking dream. It astral projects into surreal, fragmented vignettes of childhood until 'that smile / ripping a knife / through the linen…' and the final line (which could only have been written by an amputee) where concrete imagery is suddenly, literally, absent.
Laurie Clemens lives in Oklahoma. Her work has been published in Soundzine, though I've been reading and enjoying her poems on an online workshop for some years. She is skilled at delivering heavy, difficult scenes with the lightest of touches. The reader is lulled into a false sense of security until (like me, during my first reading of 'Cracks') they do a double-take, think: did I just read that? The mother in this poem hauls the child 'across cracked linoleum floors', presses her 'plumb to the wall', stands on the speaker's 'humpback' to straighten her crooked spine. But this violence is tempered by the child's curiosity about the wider world. The built and natural imagery of her town become not just coping mechanisms, but markers that help her escape imaginatively from the straightjacket of her home-life, even perhaps her body.
Peter Street's fifth collection, Thumbing From Lipik To Pakrac: New and Selected Poems is published by Waterloo Press. 'Hallgrim's Church, Reykjavik' begins with a warm dedication: for everyone on the autism spectrum. The poem sees through non-normative eyes and understands through a non-normative childlike mind. This is my third poem to immerse itself in childhood (a recurring subject in disability writing, unsurprisingly). The speaker doesn't just compare, but equates, this modern, white church with 'the space-ship / Miss Clarkson / let me draw in her maths class…' This literalism is supported by the clean, straightforward language. The image brings 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' to mind and is a launch-pad for the closing lines, where a child counts down to some small, imminent event.
'Involuntary Movement' was originally called 'Spasm' but I changed its title at the last minute. It captures a quick involuntary movement, again using white space to suggest sudden accident. Many people with disabilities are more or less prone to involuntary movements, so the poem is tongue-in-cheek in a way. But I also changed the title because the poem suggested cause-and-effect generally, and in terms of disability poetics, the elbow, the catalyst for something to spill over into the UK.
Peter Daniels is an award-winning poet whose latest collection, Counting Eggs, was published by Mulfran Press this year. 'The Crater' blends a narrative of a visit to Vulcano, Italy, with evocations of the disabled body, specifically a hollow in the speaker's chest. The turn comes when he remembers 'I stayed away, / though two attractive men went down to look…' The poem then becomes a confession of love: 'When you feel my chest, my hollow middle, / something empty drags at me.' What is a deeply personal exposure still manages to invite the reader in to allow for complete mutual acceptance. Daniels subverts the 'explorer poem' in that he is less the explorer than the explored. Many say that disability is the last taboo; maybe the disabled body is the last inch of land to be discovered. Peter Daniels is my first queer poet, and 'queerness' shakes hands with disability in his poem.
Sean Burn is no stranger to UK Disability Arts. I first encountered his strange, often disturbing work in his third collection with Skrev Press, Wings Are Giving Out, which includes the award-winning 'Tattooing Lorca', about a sectioning. This new prose poem, 'kirkstone pass: who needs olanzapine?' asks us: 'who needs olanzapine with patterdale at your feet.' With an altitude of 1489 feet, Kirkstone Pass is the Lake District's highest pass open to traffic. Fragmented thought and image, lack of conventional grammar and line, all work together to form a disorienting, anxious experience of landscape. The speaker never romanticises mental health issues, but allows us into an (almost) run-of-the-mill journey through its hazardous beauty. As much as anything, 'Kirkstone Pass…' is also a radical landscape poem from a poet well-versed in experimentation.
Sophie Mayer's collection, The Private Parts of Girls, is published by Salt. Mayer is my second female poet, my second poet (to my knowledge) to have lived outside the UK (six years in Canada for a PhD), and my second queer poet. 'Like all bodily fields, there are points of intersection between the social model of disability and queer theory and experience. 'Recovery Positions' evokes some of that intertextuality: 'how do I explain morning, the everyness / of waking, each uncomfortable miracle? ' There's a delight in all the idiosyncratic senses, sounds and images around the poet, experienced half-awake / half-asleep (Mayer is often very interested in fairytale and myth). The poem snakes from left to right over its pages, finding its own 'stress positions' as it goes, inviting us deeper into this 'queerness'. Ultimately, it cannot answer its own question any other way than in its contorting 'body'.