Michael Northen


For the past six years, I have edited Wordgathering and five years prior to that served as the facilitator for the Inglis House Poetry Workshop, which held annual contests for disability-related poetry and published chapbooks. Recently, my co-editor, Sheila Black alerted me to Tony Hoagland's essay, "Twenty Poems that Could Save Poetry" in the current issue of Harpers. According to Hoagland's forthright diagnosis poetry is moribund in the American classroom — and everyone knows it. He attributes this not to bad poetry or negative attitudes on teachers' parts but to two major factors: the poetry being taught is not making any connection with today's youth and teachers' tendencies to draw and quarter a poem deprive the poem of any original interest that it might have held.

For the past year and a half, I've been fortunate to have the chance to visit colleges, book fairs and book stores to read from Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability with Sheila Black, Jennifer Bartlett and many of the book's poets. The reception that we have received has been enthusiastic. Nevertheless, Hoagland's point is right on. If poetry is to make any impact it has to be relevent to the youth of today, and it needs to begin at the high school level.

We are fortunate to be in a time when disability-related poetry is blooming. Nevertheless, like poetry in general, disability poetry needs to engage its readers right from the beginning. John Milton's "Sonnet XVI" (sometimes titled "On His Blindness'), wonderful as it is, is probably not the place to start. I'd like to propose ten poems, all drawn from past issues of Wordgathering, that I think make a good place to begin.

1. I Won't Break


The first one is always most awkward, hesitant,
a one sneaker in the store lace-up to see if it fits,
a try it on in the mall dressing room squeeze.
You will not break me, my shirt should read.
Slap a shipping sticker on me. Non-fragile.
No glass enclosed. Handle with carelessness.
Like toothpaste, laundry, salad dressing and
potato chip bags, I could come with directions.
For best results squeeze from the bottom, tumble dry,
shake well before using, grab both ends and pull apart.
And don't forget that shampoo mantra, repeat if desired.
I need a good marketing agency. Yes, smaller than
expected, he's our concentrated formula,
use less and wash the same amount of loads.
Environmentally-friendly packaging.
New and Different look.

The title of Michael Morrell's poem alone is an ice breaker. Most people who have not lived with disability feel awkward with someone in a wheelchair or with an unconventional body. By labeling his poem "Instructions," Morrell lets the reader know that he recognizes this. He's safe. He won't break. It's okay. How have the readers themselves reacted in social situations with adults of unusually short stature? Wheelchair satirist Mike Ervin jokes that if you want to clear space for yourself in a room, bring along a friend with a disability. Readers who have family member with disabilities probably have heard feedback from them about how they want others to react to them when meeting them for the first time. What have the responses been?

2. Passing

Given the uncomfortable situation that Morrell's poem pictures, the pressure on people with disabilities to hide their differences if they can and appear "normal" can be overwhelming. The phenomenon of passing is familiar to most readers either in discussions of light-skinned African Americans in pre-Civil Rights days or Jews in the Hitler era world. It is a denial of identity in order to assimilate into the culture of the dominant society. Gritz, who has a mild form of cerebral palsy, describes her experience as a teenage girl at a dance.


She walks as if favoring a sore foot
and her one hand can't distinguish
coins from stones. Mostly, she imagines,
no one knows. At last week's dance, a boy
with sleek hair kissed her in the corner.
Tonight, her youth group is doing a yearly
good deed. Leaning on a wall, she watches
guests crowd the gymnasium in wheelchairs.
Skewed legs wrack with sudden currents.
Arms lay folded and stiff like cooked wings.
Her friends hold the twisted hands in their own
then sway, grace among the wheels. She'll choose
a partner among the palsied strangers
when there's a song she can get lost in.
It will be like dancing with her secret self.

Who wouldn't want to pass? Readers, no doubt sympathize with her. At the same time, what Gritz recognizes is that her actions are a disavowal, a standing apart and not wanting to associate with those who have no choice to accept such a disability identity. What is the right thing to do?

3.. Why Can't You Look at Me? One of the persistant stereotypes of people with physical disabilities is that they are essentially asexual, i.e., that they have no real interest in a sexual relationship. To an extent, this is a mirror effect. Not seeing people with physical disabilities as sexually appealing themselves, they assume the person they are viewing actually embodies that representation. Stuart Sanderson's "Maddening" and Linda Cronin's "Flash Essay; Beauty and the Beholder" give readers a chance to discuss this.


Why can't you see me?
I see you, in your bikini,
My eyes touching your sexy body.
Look at me! Look at me!
To you, my wheelchair is my body.
And your bodyfriend is made of muscles and oil.
I don't mind, I understand.
But once, I would like your eyes to touch my body.

Sanderson addresses the female reader directly, putting her on the spot and insisting that she look at him. Could she ever feel attracted to him? Could she ever envision herself in a sexual relationship with him? If not, what are her standards for attractiveness?


The Spanish Romeo tries to flirt, although he cannot look at me as he tells me my name means pretty. His eyes roam above my head, search for somewhere safe to land, away from my twisted body. He does not want to see the curled and knotted joints rebelling against my name.

I want to reassure him, to say its all right. I have learned to accept this body that betrayed me, that continues to betray me each time another part fails. I want to tell him not to worry there is more to life than being pretty, being desired. I know the thoughts of touching my deformed joints repels him, but that's all right because I have come to love who I am, with my curves and bends in unexpected places.

I want him to know my body is not my prison, my soul soars through life free as an águila finding more love and beauty in the faces of strangers and the eyes of loved ones than he'll every know.

Cronin recognizes that even though her name is clearly the Spanish word for pretty, this Romeo cannot bring himself to bring up this obvious ploy. To what extent can male readers say they would react to her body, as the narrator desribes it, any differently? Even though Cronin, like Sanderson, recognizes the situation, should she be forced to look at things "philosophicallly"? And to what extent can we believe that it really doesn't matter to her? Almost all readers will have felt on the short end of the beauty/sexual attractiveness spectrum at one time or another. How fair is it that one's physical appearance is the gatekeeper to deeper relationships?

4. Why Should I Be the One to Change?

Disability is an umbrella term – and a permeable category at that. The ADA may define disability one way, soicetal values may define it another. Deaf culture challenges the perception of a non-hearing person as disabled. Christopher Jon Heuer interrogates the notion that deaf persons should have cochlear implants and simply assimilate in these lines from his poem "Enhancements.y"

One day a woman I barely knew said
You should get an implant then,
if you're so worried about communicating
with your son!
I wanted to say You should get
breast enhancements, then, if you're so worried
about being alone!
Had she slapped my face,
I would have called her a Man-Hater—

How do readers feel about his analogy between a woman having to enhance her breasts to be accepted by societal standards of beauty and the admonition that hearing people should have their hearing enhanced if they want to communicate? Is telling ASL speakers that they should "speak English" rather than sign compabable to telling all Americans that they have to speak English in this society.

5. It's Not Fair!

If the acceptance of a disability identity is problematic for some with congenital disabilities like cerbral palsy, it is even more difficult for a person with a disability acquired later in life. Unlike the person with CP who is not looking for a cure (to be fixed), someone with a spinal cord injury that suddenly finds themselves in a wheelchair or who has received a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis looks back to a former life, one they considered normal, one that was "really them." The ambivalence of accepting the new person they are is expressed wonderfully in Marke Kane's "Radio Interview."

Her missionary voice beams from some NPR studio across inaccessible stars and blue-black space while I drive on in the coming dark, anxious to arrive home before my vision fades, before my leg brace constricts my calf, before leg spasms. She crows— I have no MS symptoms and haven 't for ten years — and credits rest, healthy meals, acupuncture, and reflexology with her symptom-free life. Why, she feels protected from that evil, eating fruit and whole grams and resting with her feet up on a cushion (sometimes she just HAS to stop and rest), while I grimace and regret the ice cream, rue the wine, lament those missed naps. No daily or weekly shots for her; steroids are hideous and the hope of stem cells? (Stem cells— uttered like a loathsome curse.) Well, she hopes research halts before anymore innocent lives are taken in the name of science. I can envision her heeled shoes winking as her rose-tipped toes slip in before she is launched back home to ride Byron, her show horse. (The riding, she asserts, fights fatigue and stress.) Then I am yelling at the radio, pounding the steering wheel at that nail-driven-home voice so much like the roaring page, the bastard blues — 1 want to propel Byron through an unlatched gate, his tail a free flag in the wind, push that smiling voice down a flight of stone steps until the jeweled shoes fly, and punch my hand through her smug assumption that she knows exactly how to manage MS, never acknowledging that my MS might be a different animal all together. Finally, lights on our cedar trees appear and disappear in the growing wind; I turn onto our gravel driveway, silence the car, clamber awkwardly out, stand supported by my quad cane and leg brace, and admit that I so desperately want, oh how I want, oh, oh, with my heart in my mouth, oh, how I want to be her.

How do readers feel about Kane's reaction to the woman's recovery? Is her reaction fair? If not, what about the implications for those whose conditions don't improve? Does it imply that somehow they have not tried hard enough or that they somehow deserve their situation? Do some of us still secretly believe that people in these circumstances are somehow being paid back by God? Is it Karma?

6. It's For Life

A disability whether coming later in life like MS or at birth like cerbral palsy, affects not just the person whose body it touches, but family members as well. For some families it is not only life altering but life-defining. Perhaps for no condition is this truer than autism. Barbara Crooker is a poet whose work has chronicled her life as a mother with a son on the autism spectrum. In "45s, LPs" Crooker writes:

My autistic son listens to the oldies,
digs that old time rock 'n roll rhythm & blues.
My husband says it's like our teen years
are hanging out in his room, coming from the radio—
When the night is dark, and the land is far
and the moon is the only light you see—

What misfired neurons cause him to shake
and fidget his fingers before his eyes,
call out in class when the teacher's talking,
be out of synch with everyone else?
Up on the roof it's peaceful
as can be, and there the world below
can't bother me.
When we're gone, what then?
What slot will he fit into like a quarter
slipping in a jukebox for three plays,
slow songs you could dance to all night long?

How does it feel to be a parent of a child who is "different"? What do readers imagine the dynamics in the family are like for siblings of the poet's son? Towards the end of the poem, Crooker poses the question "When we're gone, what then?" How is that question to be answered?

7.. What Could I Have Done?

Crooker's poem reminds us that not all disabilities are physical. In "To Margaret," Linda Benninghoff describes a bleak state of mind that may be familiar to some readers.

When I heard that news
I walked for hours,
remembered how we settled five years ago
in that red row house,
hunched over meals,
slipped out in the sloppy rain,
after cigarettes, drinks, men.
I remember
your smile, that some days
believed in itself completely,
your dark hair and eyes like mine,
Mondays in the pizza parlor
called Never on Sunday,
Tuesdays in the dark local bar.
Up and down
the New Jersey Turnpike
I thought of you—
yet we were never close friends,
and in those days
I could never like
my own resemblance.
For years we were roommates,
yet only rarely looked up
at the moon, blinked
at the sun, only rarely
remembered what it is
that people do when they know
that they, too, can feel.
But the railings on these buildings
are iron and cold.
The rain rings
like tambourines in my ears.
In summer
the dust falls
speck by speck,
and I know
we were uprooted,
went everywhere hard,
yet never strong.
like flowers that swung
in a wind too full of its own longings
to hold us—
living and striving
in this gray city called Baltimore,
the city where you died
on a winter day.
You could not feel
that we loved you,
as we did,
yet only as other travelers can,
never quite at ease
in these loud streets, never singing.

It is a rare person who has not felt at some point in their life that somehow they were on the outside, that possibly "something was wrong with them," or even considered whether it made any sense to continue living. The speaker in the poem obviously feels some kinship with Margaret, but ultimately is unable to keep her from dying. Should she, could she have done anything to stop her? Do readers consider bipolar disorder or depression to be a disability?

8.. Bomb Damage

In the United states, Canada and Great Britain we tend to see disability as cogenital (spina bifida), the onset of a disease process (multiple sclerosis) or the result of accident (spinal cord injury). In many countries of the world, however, the major causes are still malnutrition and war. During the Balkan Wars of the 1990's, poet Peter Street — disabled himself — visited a hospital in Zagreb. In lines from "Bomb Damage," he describes what he saw:

Then I made my mistake
and looked at a face,
a kind of no-face with holes for eyes
nose, mouth,

legs missing from the knees down
still stuck to all those bits of shrapnel
somewhere, which banged her life apart.
A little girl, bandaged

in mummy, almost pretty.
Some nurse had taken an age
getting each lap perfect
so proud that when we look

we might still see a person,
someone whole.

It's not hard for American readers of the past decade to relate to war as a cause of disability when they view amputees returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Their presence raises a number of questions. As Street's poem points out, it is not only those who signed on to be soldiers who now find themselves in a category they never imagined – disabled. It is civilians as well. What responsibility do we as a people bear for this situation? From the Civil War on, soldiers who were injured in war have been viewed as the "deserving disabled" whereas until the latter part of the twentieth century and the passage of the ADA, those born with a disability have not been similarly valued. How do readers feel about this? Is it a case of, as George Orwell put it, some being more equal than others?

Americans need not go to Zagreb or Africa to view the effects of social inequality on disability. Krip Hop artist Leroy Moore points to a situation much closer to home in these lines from "Buried Voices":

Black, young and disabled
Always been labeled
Home was not stable

Elders set in their ways
They want to lock us away
Can't teach old dogs new tricks

Christopher, Seth and Dion
Black disabled boys can't grow up
to be Black disabled men

To what extent do readers agree with Moore that the triangulation of "Black, young and disabled" is a three strikes situation? Disability studies advocates continually points out that disability is a social construction and requires a social solution, rather than a blaming of the individual. How do we feel about that with respect to the population that Moore represents?

Social Acceptance, physical appearance, sexual relationships and feelings of self-doubt are themes that most younger readers and readers making their first forays into disability poetry can relate to. The ten poems above provide a portal into the landscape of disability literature through the discussion of these shared concerns, and, with luck, a springboard to more complex poetry.

Following the lead of poet Kevin's Stein's essay "Playing Favorites," I want to be clear that this is not a "Top 10" list. It is not a pronouncement on the best craftsmanship or even the most topically important poems to have appeared in Wordgathering. Many important subjects have been left out. I could have included Dan's Simpson's "Vigilance and Dissemblance" on blindness, Ellen LaFleche's "Angel with Parkinson's," Jimmy Burns' poems on recovery from stroke or any of a number of topics that greatly need to be discussed. What the poems do provide is a good place to start. They address the needs for timeliness of topic and inherent interest not requiring professorial exegesis that Hoagland notes are essential for engaging younger readers in poetry. Once the appetite for the journey has been created, there are many possible paths to take.


(Editor's Note: More work from these writers can be found by going to the Author Index to locate the name of poems and the issue that they appear in Wordgathering and then clicking the link to the Archives. The poems by Ona Gritz and Stuart Sanderson in this essay were published by the Inglis House Poetry Workshop, the forerunner of Wordgathering, while Marie Kane's "Radio Interview" was a winner in the 2010 Inglis House Poetry Contest. Credits for any other previous publication are listed with the first appearance of the poem in Wordgathering.)


Michael Northen is an editor of Wordgathering and one of the editors of Beauty is A Verb: The New Poetry of Disability.