Kathi Wolfe


"A dog trying to write a poem on why he barks/That's me, dear reader!" writes United States Poet Laureate Charles Simic, in his poem "My Turn To Confess."

That's how I feel when I try to say why I write poetry or what type of poet I am. I know that like a dog scratching furiously at the door-demanding to be let out-some poems demand to be written. Other poems, as crooks going on the lam to avoid the cops, hide when they see me coming, and may take years to write or completely escape the clutches of my muse. Pinning down the reasons for this is more elusive.

But, if a Zen master asks me to say, in one sentence why I'm a poet, I'd say this: because it would be impossible for me not to be a poet.

It's not for the glamour or riches of the field. Any self-respecting poet will tell you that the Po Biz provides competition, rejection slips from any number of distinguished publications, poverty, and, as a freebie, lack of status in some strata of our society.

True, poetry-in public readings and print and on-line journals-has become cool in some circles. Yet, some people, don't know what to make of poetry. My cousin thinks it's my therapy and my brother believes it helps my cash flow. On a recent date, my companion was as much bewildered by my being a poet as she was by my being visually impaired.

Nor, do I write poetry for the ease of the game. Sure, occasionally, my muse is my best friend, and gives me a first draft of a poem-that, with only a tweak or two, is nearly ready for publication. But, when this happens, it's just the poetry gods luring me in to the arduous work of the creative process. (This is similar to what grocery stores do when they seduce you into buying expensive items by offering a few "loss leaders.") I know that, usually, after I've written the first draft of a poem, will come the seemingly endless process of revision.

What then compels me to write poetry, as if the metaphors are shaking me down? I'm a poet because, as a crip and queer, I'm an outsider in this culture, and poetry, with its powers of observation and vast reserves of irony, is a fabulous perch for an outsider looking in.

I've been legally blind since birth and an out lesbian since my 20's. I use the word "crip" to refer to anyone with any type of disability and the term "queer" to refer to anyone with other than the majority sexual orientation. I use both terms with pride as a way of reclaiming pejorative epithets.

Of course, most poets (with our love of words, narrative and compulsion to observe-to distill) are outsiders. Sometimes, our poetry has nothing to do with pop culture or political issues, because we've become so disengaged from society that we've withdrawn aesthetically. In other cases, our work is infused with iconic cultural references because we both love and loathe popular culture. Some poets write poetry on political issues such as the war in Iraq.

But, to paraphrase George Orwell's satiric novella Animal Farm, where some animals "are more equal" than others, some poets feel themselves to be outsiders more intensely than others.

This is how I feel about myself.

If I had no disability and were straight, I'd be a poet, and I'd still strive in my work to observe and distill my inner life (my hopes, grief--loves) and the life of the culture (it's wars, gods, customs, ironies-injustices).

Yet, by virtue of being crip and queer, I'm even more of an outsider.

Sure, whether I am an able-bodied hetero or a visually impaired lesbian poet, I'm looking in through the window pane at the culture.

If I were straight and able-bodied, as well as white, middle class and under 65, most people on the other side of the window, wouldn't be discomforted by me. True, they might be put off by a poet, but they usually won't be frightened by my socio-political status.

But, because I'm queer and crip, I often run into overt or subtle forms of discrimination (ableism or homophobia). This runs the gamut from being asked to leave a deli because the manager felt the other patrons would be depressed by seeing a blind woman eat a tuna sandwich to being informed by a poetry workshop colleague that he didn't "associate blind people with poetry."

While such discrimination is often painful, this cultural bigotry, if you're on good terms with your muse, is a mother lode for poetry. It can be the catalyst that gets you over writer's block, propels you to finally get your manuscript together or hands you wit, irony, metaphors, forms from haiku to sestinas-the many hued costumes of poetry's wardrobe.

In my case, being crip and queer, though not the whole, play an important role in my poetic sensibility.

As someone who's lesbian and legally blind, I've run into people who want to "heal" me because of my disability and my sexual orientation. I've had my competence questioned because of my vision impairment and my morality questioned because of my sexuality.

This has not been without its complexities and ironies. Though I encounter homophobia, I face ableism far more frequently. My white cane is the first thing that anyone notices about me (whether they're queer or hetero).

Like others who are crip and queer, my presence frequently, to put it politely, disconcerts, many in the queer community. A few years ago, I went to a potluck dinner at the home of a "liberal" lesbian couple. About 20 people were there. Four people moved to the other end of the table, when I sat down; one well-meaning, but clueless woman insisted on cutting my meat for me; and one of the hosts marveled that I could walk from the front door to her driveway.

Perhaps, because I've come up against ableism more often than homophobia, disability plays more of a direct, explicit role in my poetry, than same-sex love.

I'm not ashamed of being queer and I don't deny my sexual orientation in my work or the role that sexuality plays in life.

I started writing poetry seriously six years ago, after Anne, my partner of 12 years died. Many of my poems are about love, grief and about my relationship with Anne, as well as relationships between fictional characters.

In some of my poems, such as "Love and Kumquats," the sexual orientation of the speaker is directly stated. Yet, in many other poems, the sexuality of the narrator and/or other characters isn't made explicit.

Perhaps, the reason why I haven't felt the need to be so explicit or so political about same-sex sexuality in my poems, is that homophobia is (though there's a long way to go) on the cultural radar screen. And there are, and have been, many queer poetic voices.

Yet, a queer sensibility exists in my poems, even when sexual orientation isn't made explicit. This emerges in the wit, the "camp,"-the gay sexual references (from Tallulah Bankhead to Betty Boop) that run through my work.

Maybe because ableism, even nearly 18 years since passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, hasn't hit the cultural radar to the extent that same-sex prejudice has, a good deal (though by no means all) of my poetry deals with disability. Not with disability as a medical problem, but with disability as a cultural issue. From my poems about Helen Keller to my new character Uppity Blind Girl, my work imagines those of us with disabilities as who we are.

Of course, many of my poems have nothing to do in their ostensible subject with my having a disability or being lesbian. Yet, like the crawl that runs on the bottom of the screen on CNN, my queer and crip sensibility is there beneath the work.

My poem "Love and Kumquats" is an example of how being crip and queer informs my work. While only loosely autobiographical, it grew out of my experience.

The first stanza expresses the ableism that the speaker of the poem encounters growing up in Southern New Jersey. "Even blind girls get the blues,/I tell my mother when she wonders/why I expect to go to the senior prom/ when no one would ask someone/like me," the narrator says.

The second stanza shows the ableism the speaker runs into when she goes to a gay bar on Christopher street in New York City. The narrator is looking for love and sex. But, a woman there sees her as someone "disabled"-to be admired-not as a sexual person. "I love Helen Keller!" she tells the narrator, then asks, "but what are you/ doing in a place like this?"

The speaker of the poem has found love in the 3rd and final stanza. She's with her lover at a Chinese restaurant. A woman tells her partner (referring to the narrator), "You should watch her! She might fall!" Her lover turns ableism on its head, when she whispers, "I do/and I enjoy it."


Kathi Wolfe

Love and Kumquats*

Even blind girls get the blues,
I tell my mother when she wonders
why I expect to go to the senior prom
when no one would ask someone
like me, and why I can't be happy
spending Saturday evenings curled
up with a large print book. In southern
New Jersey with no wheels, I'm
hermetically sealed in the Pine Barrens.

At a gay bar on Christopher Street,
vamping like Tallulah on a tear, I'm
checking out the red-haired woman
who, surely, will be the next love
of my life. "I love Helen Keller!"
she says, "but what are you
doing in a place like this?"

In Cleveland, full of love
and kumquats, we leave our
favorite Chinese place. "You
should watch her! She might fall!"
a prune-faced woman growls. I do
and I enjoy it, you whisper.

*Previously published in the Potomac Review


Kathi Wolfe was a finalist in the 2007 Pudding House Press Chapbook Competition. Her chapbook Helen Takes the Stage: The Helen Keller Poems is just out from Pudding House Press. Wolfe's work has appeared in Beltway Poetry Quarterly (www.beltwaypoetry.com), Gargoyle, Harrington Lesbian Fiction Quarterly and other publications. A recipient of a Puffin Foundation Grant, Wolfe has read at the Library of Congress Poetry at Noon series and appeared on the public radio show "The Poet and the Poem."