THE CRIPPLES STILL SING
" I sing for cripples, I sing for you," Jim Ferris wrote in "A Poet of Cripples," the opening poem of his 2004 collection The Hospital Poems.
No matter how often I reread this poem, these stunning, Whitmanesque words still electrify my brain.
When I first read this poem, I was just beginning to write poems and to dare to think of myself as a poet. Legally blind, I wondered if Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson would want people like me to even consider the Hallowed Halls of Poetry. I didn't know what I'd do if I couldn't see to have the lines break the right way in my poems. Or if metaphors and images of colors, sight and blindness from myself, a visually impaired poet, would resonate with able-bodied readers and poets. Would I have the courage to write out my body and my imaginings as they are rather than as able-bodied people imagined them?
As I read "A Poet of Cripples," my head lit up. I began to see that I wasn't a "space cadet" – alone in left field. There were other crip poets out there – who were brilliantly "singing" about our lives and telling our stories. There was a community that I could dare to be a part of.
When I read Ferris' essay "Crip Poetry or How I Learned to Love the Limp" in Wordgathering in 2007 it nearly knocked my socks off. I'd bet my best slant rhyme and my copy of Leaves of Grass that it knocked off Whitman's and Dickinson's socks. In this seminal piece, Ferris defined what many of us were doing (or striving to achieve) in our poetry. Ferris describes how crip poetry comes from "the outside" – "the abnormal." He wrote that crip poetry is "poetry that seeks to explore and validate the lived experience of moving through the world with a disability. Sometimes referred to as crip poetry, disability poetry embodies a disability consciousness; it is informed by and contributes to disability culture."
More importantly, Ferris wrote of the "possibility, the edgy potential, the openness and even likelihood of transformation" embodied in crip poetry. This helped me (not only myself but a generation of poets with disabilities) to envision how I could work toward possibility and transformation in my own poetry. He wrote what many of us poets with disabilities intuitively knew: "Disability has typically been described by non-disabled people."
"Like the rest of the disability arts movement, crip poetry rejects views of disability as a shameful, pitiable, tragic and individual phenomenon," Ferris wrote, "…This is not a denial of the pain and functional limitations that may come with our nonstandard ways of being in the world – in fact, disability poetry is often informed by a heightened awareness of those aspects of impairment."
But, he added, "crip poetry is also sharply aware that a major part of the impact disabilities have on lives results from the ways those human differences are interpreted and responded to by society, so often with prejudice, marginalization, and discrimination."
Ferris' essay on crip poetry kickstarted my own journey in poetry. It encouraged me to take Helen Keller out of the able-washed realm of hidden history – to write poems in Keller's voice – from her perspective. In my book, Helen Takes the Stage, Keller is far removed from the Keller of popular myth. Keller falls in love, stands in a picket line, gets arrested and has hangovers.
His essay compelled me to write The Green Light, a book of loosely based on my family set in mid-Century during the Mad Men era. Bolstered by the poetic urging of crip poetry, in that volume, I told the story of Rita, a woman with diabetes from a disability perspective. While lively – she does the Twist (a 1960s dance), rides bumper cars, is a quiz show contestant, and smokes cigarettes like a chimney – she's no saintly hero.
Ferris' searing exploration of crip poetry mid-wifed the birth of my Uppity Blind Girl character. Spurred on by my newly discovered crip poet identity, Uppity defined herself as a "blindista," scorned ableist images of blindness and maintained control of the telling of her story.
As I reread Ferris' essay in preparation for writing this piece, I wondered if his piece would still seem so searing – if his definition of crip poetry would still feel so perfectly apt. I found that Ferris' essay still "sings of cripples" to me – that his thoughts on crip poetry still ring true.
We, poets with disabilities, are still outsiders from the culture at large and from the culture of the poetry world. Ableist metaphors and images are still abundant in the poetry written by non-disabled poets. Inaccessibility – from the lack of sign language interpreters to inaccessible websites to lack of wheelchair access to lack of sensitivity to the needs of folks on the autism spectrum – is still a big problem.
This is slowly beginning to change. New groups of disabled poets such as the Deaf Poets Society are writing and publishing disability culture poetry.
In 2008 a year after Ferris' essay was published, Split This Rock, a Washington, D.C. based national poetry organization that works for social change, was founded. I was on its first planning committee. At that time, and for several years, I felt at times as if I were virtually alone in working with Split This Rock to make itself accessible. Today, Split This Rock, is one of the most accessible organizations that I've encountered. A number of people from Camisha Jones, its managing director, to its volunteers work to ensure that the group is accessible.
Raymond Luczak, a Deaf, queer writer who identifies with disability and Deaf culture, will be a featured writer at AWP in 2019.
A few years ago, I had a margarita one night with poet Sheila Black in Washington, D.C. I told Black my dream: that one day there would be a group of poets with disabilities similar to Cave Canem, Canto Mundo and Kundiman. I forgot about my daydream. But Black, poet Jennifer Bartlett and poet Connie Voisine brought my daydream to life. They've started Zoeglossia, a literary organization seeking to promote an inclusive space for poets with disabilities.
Thanks to Jennifer Bartlett and Peter Catapano, the New York Times, as part of its series On Disability, has published poetry by poets with disabilities. (I was one of the poets whose work was published.)
Of course, it's been more than a decade since Ferris' essay on crip poetry was published. While Ferris' definition of crip poetry is still true now, some things have changed.
The biggest change I've seen is that many of us have become increasingly aware of how disability intersects with other facets of our identity – class, sexuality, gender, race, age, etc. There's been an effort to include more queer, disabled poets and more poets of color with disabilities in leadership roles in poetry groups and publications.
In 2015, QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology, edited by Raymond Luczak was published by Squares & Rebels. The volume contains poems and essays by queer and disabled poets and writers defiantly being themselves in a world filled with "inspiration porn."
As a poet, I increasingly write poems from a disability and queer perspective. Non-disabled readers may focus more (or only) on the disability aspect of the speaker of the poem. But as a writer, I can no more get rid of the poem's queer perspective than I could cut myself in half.
In my poem "One Day" the intersectionality of my queer and disability identity can be seen in these lines:
I won't be asked
While not denying societal prejudice toward disability, some poets with disabilities are writing more about the physical and emotional pain that can go along with being disabled.
In recent years, I've had increasingly physical and emotional pain from decreasing vision. This doesn't mean that I'm giving up my crip identity or suddenly dashing off to the nearest faith healer. It means that I've come to see that it can be vital – for crip poets dealing with this pain – to make it into art.
"This body is one long moan," writes Camisha Jones in her poem "Ode to the Chronically Ill Body," "My fee a landscape of mines/My legs tow full pails of water…My hands a scatter of matches ready to spark into flame."
Despite these changes, eleven years on, Jim Ferris essay on crip poetry still makes Emily Dickinson shiver.