Book Review: Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back (Sandra Alland, Khairani Barokka, and Daniel Sluman, eds.)

Reviewed by Sheila Black

Full disclosure – I first entered into conversation with Daniel Sluman, one of the editors of Stairs and Whispers five years ago. He got in touch with me when Beauty is a Verb (BIAV), the anthology of disability poetry I co-edited with Michael Northen and Jennifer Bartlett first came out. He expressed interest in and excitement about BIAV and bemoaned the fact that there was no similar UK anthology. A few years later, Daniel told me of his determination to craft such an anthology, and shared with me the call for work for the book that would become Stairs and Whispers. All of which is to say I have been waiting for this book, anticipating this book, eager for this book for some time. Yet as an editor of BIAV, a book which played some part in inspiring this volume, I approached the task of reviewing it with a slight feeling of trepidation. I was worried, I think, that my impulse might be to focus too much or too deliberately on comparing this new anthology with BIAV. I didn't feel this would be right; at the same time, not to compare them seemed impossible. Yet as soon as I began reading Stairs and Whispers I was struck not by how similar but by how different the two anthologies feel to me. And this was exciting.

It was exciting because what I found in Stairs and Whispers was far more than simply a UK version of BIAV, but a volume that seemed to express how much the disability community has grown and changed in the five years since BIAVwas first published. This is the comparison I would like to make—why, this feeling of change, what is it, and what makes this new anthology feel so fresh and important?

Much of the feeling of "change" I feel in this new volume has to do with a changed context for disability poets and writers. Five years ago, when Michael Northen, Jennifer Bartlett, and I began working on BIAV, there was little public discourse around disability outside disability communities. As a result, BIAV seems to me, in retrospect, to have been concerned, and rightfully so, with unearthing and recording an often silenced or buried history of writing by people with disabilities.

As editors, our overt interest was in exploring how disability affected poetics, but beneath that overt interest an argument was being mounted—that the voice of people with disabilities which had so often been papered over or silenced—were important, worthy, of attention and could be unearthed. We felt further that these unearthed disability voices could be positioned in a way that demanded a reconsideration or revisioning of the history of poetry. We were concerned with origins, provenance in order to mount a "coming out of the closet" that took in many facets of disability experience and mounted an active questioning about where disability poetics lives, how it is defined, all the places in which it might be located. Our focus was on "bringing disability experience into general discourse" recasting it in a way more truly reflective of the actual lives and experiences of people with disabilities.

Stairs and Whispers, by contrast, is speaking out in a world in which disability expression feels more sure of its importance as a movement and an identity. For example, while BIAVwas organized into sections such as "Early Voices," and "The Disability Poetics Movement," in Stairs and Whispers, we have sections titled simply "Bodies," "Rules," "Maps," "Dreams," and "Legends," suggesting more of a focus on mapping the psyche of disability poetics from within the perspective of the poet writing from within a non-normative space. The focus is less historical, more inward, but also gazes outward—interested in viscerally considering the intersection of the non-normative with the ableist world and how this intersection or meeting is inherently politicized. As Raisa Kabir puts it in the short explanatory note that accompanies her poems:

"I am interested in how marginalized identities, who often bear the brunt of many oppressions, end up dealing with chronic pain and poor mental health in their lives, and this direct link of remembered violence, trauma, and disability politically placed on the body."

While poems of medical experience played a large role in BIAV, they are even more foregrounded in Stairs and Whispers. Some of the poets here—especially in the section "Bodies,"—take an almost baroque care in documenting precise physical intrusion and the fetishization of the disabled body by the medical profession:

A brittle ampoule is snapped.
Cracks like the crunch
of a beetle underfoot.
Pours Salbutamol, saline,
into a tube-fed chamber.
A transparent moulded mask
links to this reservoir,
shaped to cover mouth and nose.
Provide a tight seal.
(Miki Byrne)

The implication is of a body under assault and the question is opened how the medical profession shapes and "molds" our sense of the non-normative body, and how disability consciousness takes shape under this assault, often in the form of resistance to the ways in which it is contained or "written on" in often violent or uncomprehending ways, or as Holly Magill, one of the poets in this section, puts it: "Those are my papers/I'm taken as read."

The medical assault, or reading, stands in for the assault of the able and ableist world, which does not know how or refuses to read disability and, indeed, perceives it as threat. In the section "Rules," the topics covered ripple outward to take in how this creates boundaries in multiple real-world settings—the office, the home, the neighborhood. In her poem "dlrow" ("world" backwards), for example, Sarah Golightley structures her poem around typical diagnostic phrases—the kind found on medical or government forms—creating a map of a consciousness moving through, in, and around these barriers:

the universal human
hand-outs, not change
we are w/e, hashtag
no hand out either
                             Able to remember three objects after
                        few minutes (normal)

As the anthology progresses into the sections "Maps," and "Dreams," the focus becomes less externalized and more on the experience of living within the non-normative body or mind. Rachael Boast writes of the effort to reclaim a sense of disability beyond its history: "everything stays secret until— one morning-/you put your hands through the touch/of the unfinished light and took it back." The argument that emerges through these sections expresses a radical vision of what real accessibility might mean.

In her stirring essay/manifesto at the heart of the book, "No Body to Write with: Intrusion as a Manifesto for D/deaf and/or Disabled Poets," Abi Palmer opens with a consideration of Virginia Woolf's quote "that the book has somehow to be adapted to the body." Palmer says:

"Whilst acknowledging the shortcomings even in the quote above, I still find myself drawn to this idea of a literary form that must somehow 'be adapted to the body' What of disabled bodies. What type of writing belongs to us?"

The thesis she develops is that disability presents a series of intrusions for the disabled subject; taking Virginia Woolf's famous thesis that to write a woman "must have a room of her own and money if she is to write," Palmer declares that for people with disabilities, intrusion—the confrontation of physical or mental boundaries in contrast with the abled world—is such a part of everyday life that there is almost no hope of fully compensating; yet it is simple the fact of such "intrusion" that forms the revolutionary aspect of disability poetics or as Palmer says: "It is precisely the refusal of 21st century disabled poets to shy away from their everyday intrusions that makes the movement so outstanding."

She argues further that such intrusion, "is the literary driving force for radical transformations in how language and context are applied." Palmer's essay concludes:

"Disability poetics is a breeding ground of innovation and variety; of ruptures and chasms; poetry that performs, and is informed, by the infinite physical and neurological realities of the disabled body. Physical intrusion as an extension of metaphor serves only to extend these performances. We may own it because it has never not been present—like so many aspects of our lived physical and neurological experiences, we have simply been encouraged to dismiss it for too long…. This is a truth that we must continue to reclaim."

Palmer notes that the space of disability poetics allows fundamental questions about what writing is, what a poem is, and how that space might be occupied. This question is picked up by poet after poet in the collection. For example, Markie Burnhope says at one point "I wheeled rather than I walked," suggesting what happens in language when the "intrusion" of disability perspective is let in. This lens allows the disability subject and questions of what a true accessibility for such a subject might mean to become a conduit for new types of poetic and creative enterprise. Abi Palmer again, speaking of the work of poets in the collection, notes:

"Again and again, we are greeted with examples of how much farther 'the book' can be adapted to the body. How by taking these adaptations, these intrusions, as a jumping-off point rather than a necessary obstacle to 'overcome,' we find ourselves faced with the potential of poetry to move beyond the locked room, the unapproachable staircase."

The key phrase here is "jumping-off point," and the key concept the refiguring of obstacles and barriers into a differently-angled "creative field" that raises fundamental questions about the book' as written out of and onto all bodies.

This radical concept of disability identity and accessibility is one Stairs and Whispers enacts not only through the works included, but also by creating and presenting a variety of alternative modes for accessing its content—the volume includes links to audio and video material, as well as a stunning series of "visual poems" by Aaron Williamson that are "clickable" in e-book versions. (These innovative forms of making 'the book' accessible are ones I wish we had thought of with BIAV!)

Indeed, I was struck—and very pleasurably so—as I read and reread Stairs and Whispers, by the ways in which the differences I felt between this anthology and BIAVwere less national—or space-bound—than generational. If BIAVwas a "coming out" book, Stairs and Whispers seems to me a next step in looking at what the implications, impulses, and forms of disability writing might be once that first "coming out" has been achieved. Only in reading Stairs and Whispers did I fully apprehend the exciting ways in which the landscape has changed since BIAV was first released—the flowering of disability consciousness, which allows this new anthology to express a world that perhaps did not altogether know that it existed, or how to write back, but now it does, and what has emerged from this speaking out and back is truly remarkable. Editors deserve kudos for creating a volume that will live long and expand in the imagination, one that truly tells us how we live now, and how we move forward into the next generation of disability poetics, a road-map for writing our bodies and our resistance. I have to say that this book is truly essential. Buy, beg, borrow or steal it. It will change you as it has changed me.

Title: Stairs and Whispers
Editors: Sandra Alland, Khairani Barokka, and Daniel Sluman
Publisher: Nine Arches Press
Publication Date: 2017


Read more about the creation of Stairs and Whispers in an interview with the editors in this issue of Wordgathering.


Sheila Black is the author of House of Bone, Love/Iraq and Wen Kroy, which won the orphic prize in poetry. She co-edited with Jennifer Bartlett and Michael Northen Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, most recently, with Michael Northen and Annabelle Hayse, the anthology of disability short fiction The Right Way to Be Cripple and Naked. She has received the Frost-Pellicer Frontera Award and was a 2012 Witter Bynner Fellow selected by Philip Levine.