Travis Chi Wing Lau
TOWARDS OUR CRIP POETICS
"I love poems, too, far more than I can say here. And if I can make poems that others come to love, what a wonderful thing."
I remember first encountering Jim's work during my sophomore year of undergrad. It is hard to believe that was almost a decade ago. It was a turbulent period marked by joyous but also difficult confrontations with my own body–its desires, limitations, and capacities–and with histories I was not allowed to learn. (Growing pains: the good kind of hurt.) With the guidance of one of my TAs, I had begun to voraciously consume the work of gay writers, particularly of AIDS poets like Paul Monette and Timothy Liu who wrote unabashedly about bodies marked by stigma and disease. At eighteen, I felt a deep sense of both guilt and a responsibility for these gaps in my understanding of my own intersecting identities, in my own self-knowledge as a gay, disabled, person of color: how do I even begin to make up for lost time?
Unsurprisingly, I spent it all in the reading room. I became enamored by the thickness of queer grief: bodies at their most vulnerable afforded quiet dignity, a gravitas in resistance. Melancholia with a purpose, with a politics. At the time, I didn't know lyric could do this. I didn't know bedsides could be spaces for resistance or that bodies in pain bore a special kind of language. In these breathless verses were forms of care I had never seen before, forms of intimacy unique to the sick. Jim's The Hospital Poems (2004) gave me a vocabulary for understanding the precarious experience of recumbent bodies in hospital rooms, a crip grammar. In his memoir in verse, I found unexpected kinship–"a companionship of breath, and shared sleep,"2 to put it in Petra Kuppers' words–with the crips flourishing in spite of doctors that reduced them to a diagnosis, a set of symptoms. Survival with such grace: what our community has done for decades.
My pain would worsen over the years. It would change the way I walked, breathed, even thought. I took to poetry because it felt like the only thing I could do from bed. It felt (and still feels) like the form best suited to witnessing this pain I coexist with–its arrthymia, its fleeting states. I spent so much time writing against pain, trying to make it otherwise. But if I've learned anything from Jim's work, it is that pain itself does not need beautification–the gloss and dressing of what I had long been taught as the "poetic." There is an aesthetic inherent in the description of the "lived experience of moving through the world with a disability," in deliberately inhabiting the discomfort of a world not built for you. Rather than disavowing everything that made me limp, I learned to write beside it, through it, with it. Crip poetry is as much a set of forms as it is a set of methods, strategies for reimagining embodiment beyond the narrow ways we, as a culture, tend to confine it.
I recently had the pleasure of sitting with Jim alongside Kay Ulanday Barrett, Susannah Nevison, and Jillian Weise this past 2018 Split This Rock Poetry Festival. Our panel, "Hacking Norms & the Contested BodyMind," offered us an opportunity to think collectively about the state of disability poetry and its possibilities in an era of unprecedented assaults on the lives of disabled people across this country. Jim asked us about how our lived experience of disability "percolated" with race, gender, class, and sexuality in poetry and how this percolation produced a poetry that intervenes in oppression. For the first time, I felt numbered among the disabled poets I had long admired from afar. But most powerful was our collective understanding of disability as deeply relational: "crip poetry seeks to redefine what it means to have and be a body in the world" by drawing attention to a body's myriad relations: with other bodies, with spaces, with institutions, with histories. Rather than poetry produced from the subject position of a singular identity category, our work is born out of the simultaneity of our identities percolating and relating to one another, sometimes in tension or in solidarity. I don't like to think of bodies as violently riven by different axes of identity that cut through flesh and lived experience; rather, we are messy, shifting assemblages of these things. We write in and from these interstices, and I think this is what best characterizes disability consciousness and its "edgy potential" that Jim reminds us of in his essay.
As a disabled poet who has just begun to share his work with the world, I am learning the power of relinquishing control and ownership over some of the most intimate articulations of my own disabled experience. There has recently been such inspiring energy surrounding disabled writers and disability experience, but I think there has also been a pressure for these writers to speak definitively about disability as a means of intervening politically: This is what it means to be disabled. This is why disability matters. Such articulations are necessary and timely, sure, but I think they often miss what disability poetry has most to offer as a unique form of what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson has called "sitpoint theory."3 I find myself turning to Jim's reflection on writing about disability for disabled readers:
When I consciously undertook writing poems with a crip audience in mind, I let go of the myth of universality, or at least of a universality that I could consciously name and understand. That's what I meant about my role being to make poems as well as I can and then let them go; I don't get to control what people do with them, I don't have much say in the "outcome." Once poems are out in the world, they are out there, they are not mine anymore. With luck, they become ours. And this is one of the ways disability culture is made and conveyed, little bit by little bit.4
Disability poetry's most radical capacity is in its exposure of universality as a myth. That one size does not fit all, that a single way of being in the world cannot be the standard by which we all define ourselves. In turn, if we are, as disabled writers, to speak truth to power, we cannot presume to be speaking the truth for all disabled people. What Jim's work continues to model for me is an ethical poetic practice that does not revel in its singularity but in its connectivity, in its indebtedness to others. Rather than seeing my poems published, Jim has challenged me to think about how they might become ours. This is a poetics of interdependency that we need now more than ever and have every opportunity to realize.
1. The Georgia Review. 58.2 (2004): 219-233.