WHEN DISABILITY (un)ERASES (CRIP) POETRY
I sheepishly tell people that I used to be a poet. Through my undergrad and master's, I took more poetry workshops than I did nonfiction, my declared genre. I wrote more poetry than I did nonfiction. I read more poetry than I did nonfiction. Poetry, my boyfriend joked, was more important to me than him—a statement he made while laughing, though we both knew it to be true.
And then I stopped writing poetry. It had nothing to do with a lack of desire or inspiration; it had to do with how I experience disability.
It's often the case that disability is thought of as physical. And while there are physically disabilities and impairments, there are also cognitive disabilities and impairments as well as disabilities and impairments that come with illness, especially mental "illness". I inhabit two of these "categories": a significant hearing impairment which affects how I process and interact with the world, and severe anxiety, which, because I'm in a PhD program that offers to pay my health insurance, I can now find some relief for. This relief—the ability to function, to go day to day able to do my work and not have panic attacks and intrusive thoughts, to be able to teach, and write, and have a stable, healthy relationship with my partner—comes with a price. The medications I'm on inhibit my capacity to write poetry the way I want to.
I didn't even realize I'd fallen out of my ability to write poetry until two things happened. 1) I began writing a disability memoir, and in trying to show the way I interacted with the world, realized my prose was not embodying my experience. It felt bland, washed-out, akin to the type of writing I employ when composing in the typical academic vein. It seemed I'd lost my connection to language, to style, to image, that I remembered being so prevalent in my poetry. I went back and looked at some of my poems—the metaphors, the prosody, the feel of language as both individual expression and embodiment—and discovered that was what was missing in my prose: the poetry.
I tried to write a few poems. I attempted one centered on mishearings—the meaning I create when I have not correctly heard what someone has said. I wrote another about mouths and how I have to study them in ways that reveal how many people don't know they're performing themselves. I wrote a poem in which I imagined a world in which there are no words, and we must all try to communicate with our bodies and actions. They all failed. Or at least, I felt they failed.
The medications I take affect my mind; literally, they reshape and redesign my brain chemistry. And in that process, something no longer fires the way it used to.
This was, and still is, terrifying. Not only am I wondering what I will continue to "lose" with my deteriorating hearing loss and continued aid of medications, but now I'm losing a way to communicate who I am.
Jim Ferris says that that crip poetry "shows disabled people taking control of the gaze and articulating the terms under which we are viewed", which implies a reader-writer relationship. I harp on the word show; to show means that someone is receiving. I wonder then, if there's room for an aspect of crip poetry to be private and not made public? No one says crip poetry has to be public, but the underlying understanding, or assumption, seems to imply that it is. Does crip poetry have to go out into the world as words, line breaks, and visual experimentation, or can it be held in the body and mind as a memory, a protean attempt, or a failure?
When I think of crip poetry I think of my friends, and of other individuals, who make themselves known to others and I celebrate these writers—who express themselves and their experiences unapologetically. But I also mourn; I fear I will be unable to do the same with my poetry since one of my disabilities inhibits the writing of it. I wonder if I can be a crip poet if I'm not being recognized through my poetry.
I suppose one way to approach this is to remind ourselves, in this world of publishing, that there is space to write for oneself—writer and reader as the same person—private conversations that take place among words and space of one individual.
Lately I've taken to creating erasure poetry. Right now, it feels like the only kind of poetry I can write, and even then, I feel shame that I must lean on others to provide me with words.
I look to other disability writers to help me—emotionally and intellectually—with this new pursuit. I think especially of two writers, both previously published in Wordgathering, when I enter into a conversation about crip poetry and the spaces it opens and closes. Kara Dorris, in her essay "Some Notes on the Body as a Text of Erasure", directs us to Elizabeth Brasher's poem "Black Burqa", which "points out only two options for the female body: ‘To be desired. To be erased.'" Dorris then asks, "Where is the in between?"
I too wonder what the space between extremes is—public and private—and how we can identify these spaces, and perhaps, widen or close them. If I can't make myself more "visible" because my poetry falls away from me, then perhaps one between I can occupy could be the dialogue between poetry and the criticism and essays about it.
Laurie Clements Lambeth, in an essay titled "Erasure as an Act of Reclamation", says "…erasure stretches my mind and my work…it makes me read differently… it distances me temporarily from my native narrative-lyric impulses".
I reveled in this word: distances, though I think for different reasons than Lambeth. Distances implies what I feel about poetry right now. Lambeth writes that "erasure is for me a project in excavation," and though she seems to speak of uncovering new ways of reading (and new ways of writing), I've found erasure poetry to be a form of reclamation that allows me, as an unknown, "faceless" individual, to dialogue with disability theorists whose works I find problematic. Like Lambeth, who seeks to explore how she is constructed through medical records and what that this means to her, I've found erasing disability theory texts a way for me to think about how I am constructed by scholars.
I feel I am able to un-erase: to take back and reclaim language others have used to (mis)represent me. When Ferris says that "disability has typically been described by nondisabled people", I hope to dialogue with this observation in a way that recovers our abilities to represent ourselves, to productively usurp a text that does not reflect us, and to use it to make us—in different capacities—known.
With trepidation, then, I offer a new poem, based on Ato Quayson's book Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation, a text which I find problematic. Not only am I unsure of how Aesthetic Nervousness offers a lens different from David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Synder's Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse, but many times in reading the book I was wondering how Quayson stood in relation to the many disability communities he writes about. I often found myself thinking that Quayson was writing to and of instead of with or for. This is not to say disability scholars who are not disabled or impaired cannot write about disability communities; rather, the observation I make calls for a greater attention to scholars making their subjectivity more transparent, a move I think still think is discouraged by academic training, the peer-review process, and by some publishers.
Through this poem I seek to speak with (or to) Quayson about his framing of, and writing about, disability. I want to re-center the conversation. Mayhap in supplying this poem I undermine my own questions above about whether crip poetry must be made public, but perhaps the question and my attempt exist in the same space: one paradox in a life full of them.