UNSUNG FORERUNNERS: THE INGLIS HOUSE POETRY WORKSHOP
In my introduction to the anthology Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability I wrote, "As the fledgling field of disability poetry develops, it is inevitable that some who deserve credit will be forgotten…but they too are here, if barely visible, in the history of disability poetry." One of the criteria for inclusion in the anthology was that poets must have had at least one prior book published, and this statement was a recognition of pioneering poets like Paul Kahn who had never amassed enough poems for a volume, and Dara McLaughlin, whose explosive but ephemeral poetic manifesto A Map of This World has been long out of print.
Almost four years after the publication of Beauty is a Verb, I'm immensely proud of the work that my fellow editors Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and I have achieved in its publication. Not only was it one of ALA's two notable books of poetry for the year 2012, but, according to World Cat, it is now in over 400 public and university libraries. It has been used in numerous college course curriculums to introduce students to work by writers with disabilities that they would never have encountered before and might not otherwise. More than once in conferences on disability literature, I've been introduced to educators who, when I mention the anthology, say, "Of course, it is right on the bookshelf in my office."
Even so, as I look through the list of poets published in Wordgathering's "Authors Index," I'm haunted by names that appear there — and others that do not — who did not make it into the anthology but without which the anthology and Wordgathering itself would never have existed. It is they who I think about when I read the words above — especially the writers of the Inglis House Poetry Workshop.
I first came to Inglis House in September of 1997. Inglis House is a unique place and, while times have changed it, the impression one gets upon entering is still very similar to one I described over a decade ago in an article for ABLE Fieldnotes.
As a visitor walks into Inglis House, motorized wheelchairs zip past, some steered by hand, others by head, some by a straw sipped and puffed, and some even by tongue. Over head, a bright voice calls out the announcements for the day, the birthdays and the activities that will be taking place. The visitor might not suspect that anything especially radical is occurring; yet the resident computer lab, the college programs, and the other activities that occur here are rare among institutions of our kind.
Standing like a small castle on Belmont Avenue, at the western edge of Philadelphia, Inglis House is a skilled nursing facility and the home of 300 adults with physical disabilities, including cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, and spinal cord injuries. A far cry now from its founding in 1877 and original appellation, Home for the Incurables, this community now tries to bring the world to Inglis House and Inglis House to the world through programs that allow residents to work, earn college degrees, participate in community events, advocate for disability rights, and express themselves creatively. The range of the daily events announced are likely to surprise the visitor unfamiliar with Inglis House, and if the visitor is there on a Friday afternoon, one of those announcements will be for the Inglis House Poetry Workshop.
It was not long after I arrived at Inglis House as its educational coordinator, that a small group of residents, spearheaded by Dana Hirsch, approached me and ask if I could resurrect a group for poets that had been many years dormant. In December, the new Inglis House Poetry Workshop held its first meeting. The founding members were Dana Hircsh, Stuart Sanderson, Steven Parker, Gina Minter, and Diana Serviss. With the exception of Diana, none had ever had a poem published.
All members of the group were wheelchair users who wrote poetry, but their subjects, styles and approaches varied greatly. One of our first decisions was what shape the group should take. Steve and Dana embodied the two poles of the group. Steve, generally acknowledged to be the most creative and imaginative of the group, tended to look at his poetry writing as therapy and wrote when he needed to get his feelings out. As he self-describes in one of his poems:
Anger moves through me like a ravenous beast
Ironically, Steve, was an extremely affable man who had amassed a large portfolio of writing, most of which he never looked back at once completed. His attitude towards his work was that it was his and that if others did not like it, then he was fine with that. Dana, on the other hand, burned to be a published author, but was hyper-sensitive to criticism. Like Steve, sh e had a backlog of writing, but where Steve would have liked the group to be a free for all, Dana wanted a more formal group under my leadership that would could critique work and result in her sending it out to publishers. In the end, we settled on compromise, but my bent was always to try to get the group members to take themselves as serious writers and their writing as art, not the bi-product of poetry therapy.
In a very real sense, our poetic haberdashery pre-figured much of what I see coming to me today as editor of Wordgathering. Diana, the most verbally gifted of the original writers and the only one able to manually write out her poems, inhabited a Romantic time warp. Like those who submit "heartfelt" writing to this journal, she could not envision poetry that was not uplifting and full of the images of nature. For Dana, if something did not rhyme of scan it was not poetry. Diana wrote, "I write because I need to connect nature and my feelings about God and how He works in my life." While her poetry could be diabetes-inducing, in the best of her writing, she could voice the aspirations of many of those at Inglis House.
Very different from Diana was Stuart Sanderson, a man of amazing intelligence who, the first few years in our group, communicated through the use of a letterboard. Stu's limited ability to vocalize or use his hands, dramatically shaped his work. Because his speech dropped inflections and semantically superfluous parts of speech, his poetry was haiku-like — compressed with each word counting. His poems, which could be wonderfully sensitive and evocative, could also be direct and unflinching, as in "Experts":
It was this combination of writers that set the wheel spinning for the Inglis House Poetry Workshop, and as time went along it picked up more participants, including writers like Laura Emerson, Tom Johnstone, Mary Tisera, Lisa golden, Denise March and Yvette Green whose writing eventually found publication in small periodicals and venues beyond Inglis House.
In pursuit of Dana's goal to have their work recognized through publication, the group worked on editing and sending out its poetry. Over the next few years, some acceptances came. They were from small, now defunct publications like Zillah and Poet's Fantasy that were willing to give new writers' work a chance, as well as the "Poets Corner" of The Philadelphia Tribune and publications such as Millenium Portals sponsored by the Camden County Cultural and Heritage Commission. Stuart's poem "Maddening" received special recognition in a Triton College poetry contest and Laura's poem "Within the Lions Realm" appeared in ZooOne, a publication of the Philadelphia Zoological Society. Each member of the workshop also began organizing and publishing their own chapbook. Perhaps the highlight of these early years was the publication of Quasimodo's Eyes. This was a professionally printed selection of the workshop's best poetry with each of the writers represented by at least four poems. It had an eye-catching cover and a foreword by regionally known poet Therése Halsheid.
Despite these local successes, what was lacking was a sense of community with other writers with disabilities. Who was out there, if anyone, and how could we connect with them? The preface to Why Can't You See Me?, published by the Inglis House Poetry Workshop in 2003 three describes what happened next:
In the spring of 2003, the Inglis House Poetry Workshop, a group of writers with physical disabilities, launched a poetry contest whose main submission criteria was simply that the poems have some connection with the word disability. The purpose of the contest was twofold - to let others know of the existence of our group and to encourage the writing of quality work on disability.
There was a bit of trepidation on the part of the judges when the submissions seemed at first to trickle in unbearably slowly. By the contest deadline, however, the problem was the exact opposite. How could they choose between so much quality poetry on so many aspects of a topic that needed to be articulated? Naturally, they did choose the winners, the prizes were awarded and the winning poems were posted on our website. Still, it seemed a disservice to our purpose and to the poetry we received not to try to make it available to others in a context that could heighten the awareness of disability issues. Thus, the present booklet was born.
The booklet described, Why Can't You See Me, was the first of eight chapbooks created from the best writing received in the annual contests. These chapbooks eventually went on to include essays by some of the poets and even, on occasion, art. By 2007, however, it became evident that the number of readers that could be reached through dissemination of these chapbooks by mail and the number of poets that could be published in them was limited. The workshop kept a small, reservoir of its own poetry online for family and friends who might not otherwise have access to it, but this too reached only a few readers. The decision was made to meld the two resources and create a quarterly online journal of disability-related poetry. Stu's suggestion of Wordgathering as a name for the journal was accepted and its first issue was put out in Spring of 2007. The need for a community of poets and a body of work that could be called disability poetry that first stirred on a small scale in the Inglis House Poetry Workshop swelled to create Wordgathering and, from there, to help shape Beauty is a Verb. While not one of the workshop poets is represented in that anthology, each added a few drops of water to the stream.
Although, they eventually came around to writing from the point of view of writers who, because they had a physical disability had a something to say and even a unique position from which to say it, most of it took most of the original members of the poetry workshop a while to actually put something from their own experience with disability into their poems. The lone exception, being Stuart Sanderson. Quite likely, some being of the generation of writers like Larry Eigner or Vassar Miller, they too felt intimidated or even embarrassed about putting themselves out there. Others, wanting to feel they were "real" poets and could write about anything, avoided putting the experiences that they knew best into their poems. Eventually, however, the psychological ice began to thaw and poems that gave them a real chance to put their unique viewpoints out to the world started to emerge. With this came the expression of the concerns that a disability perspective has a chance to offer.
One of the common experiences of almost all of the wheelchair users was that, if they had an able-bodied companion, they themselves would be ignored in any social interactions. Laura Emerson's was the first to bring a poem to the group dealing with this issue. The opening lines of "Invisibility" states her dismay plaintively.
Why to people treat me as though I were invisible?
If this attitude seems a bit obvious, Yvette Green targets a subtler form of discrimination: those who use people in wheelchairs as a means of making them feel better about themselves. Her poem "Favor a Return" begins:
One of the theories that is commonly heard over the last decade in discussions of people's attitudes toward disability is that the reason people distance themselves from those with disabilities is fear. A person with a visible disability reminds those who are able-bodied of their own mortality. Dana Hirsch, ferreted out this fear early on in her poem "There But for the Grace of God" with its refrain "I am your reflection. You choose not to notice, but it is so."
Poet Jillian Weise, now a well known poet, made her initial splash with a poem called "The Amputees Guide to Sex." In it, she unmasked the fears and questions about the ability of a person with a disability to have a sex life, making it clear that an amputee is still a sexual being. A common assumption, though, is that sexual relationships are not even on the radar for wheelchair users. Two poems, coming out of the Inglis House Poetry Workshop testify otherwise. First, Stu Sanderson's "Maddening."
Why can't you see me?
The other is Steve Parker's "Quasimodo's Eyes.", which begins:
I look through Quasimodo's eyes
Throughout my time with them, the members of the Inglis House Poetry Workshop unveiled issues and attempted in various ways to articulate a viewpoint that is finally getting recognition. The above poems are just a sample. Unfortunately, most of poets with a disability who who are successful enough to have made gained an audience and whose work is now featured in anthologies like Beauty is a Verb, know little about their efforts. This short essay is my attempt to give them a modicum of recognition.
I'd like to end with a poem by Mary Tisera called "car bombs in fallujah" for no other reason that I like it and think it illustrates perfectly that one can both be a writer with a disability and have something to say about the human condition.
The faces on my tv