Jim Ferris


In the recently competed semester I had the good fortune to teach a class on the interrelationship of disability arts and disability culture. The class, entitled "Crip Arts, Crip Culture," explored some of the ways that crip arts not just express but make disability culture as well as the ways that crip culture shapes and informs crip arts. I charged the students—and myself—with taking on the responsibilities of crip artists, making art in response to culture, making art in response to art. The work before us involved identifying the forces that inflect and impinge the lives of disabled people with all manner of impairments and finding ways to mark, respond to, and vanquish those impingements. Vanquish is a big word, but it suggests what I believe is the power of art, to change not so much actions as perceptions, as perspectives, shifting not just the terms of interaction, not just the tenor of engagement but the very grounds of how we encounter bodyminds and the range of differences that they—that we—embody.

Our first step in the class was investigating what crip might mean. We read my "Crip Poetry" essay, among other things. I found myself wishing the essay more clearly differentiated crip from disability. What I want the term crip to indicate is not simply a rejection or even a critique of the defect mindset that is central to the medical model but also a connection to other disabled people, a self-aware and explicit connection with critical disability consciousness and culture, however that might be foregrounded or expressed in a particular community.

But is connection something that the artist does? And is it up to the artist to make that explicit? Or is it up to readers and audience members to connect the dots? Isn't connecting the dots a crucial part of the aesthetic experience?

It is good that these ideas have not hardened into amber, that there continue to be questions for artists and scholars to address. And it is an honor to engage with the six responses to my "Crip Poetry" essay that Wordgathering published in December. The variety of their voices as well as perspectives demonstrates the strength of Avra Wing's assertion: "there is no one narrative of disability." She and the other authors remind us of the deep situatedness from which we write poems, a situatedness that varies significantly from poet to poet as well as poem to poem but still affirms the key idea with which I approach crip arts, especially crip poetry: there is an us, there is a here here, that we disabled people—across the wide range of our ways of being in the world, across all our uniquenesses—do share things, particularly our experiences of being otherized because of our different bodyminds. Unfortunately we sometimes find ourselves otherized by fellow disabled people and even crip poets—perhaps even by ourselves. I suspect this is because shedding the ableism ingrained in us by the culture at large is ever an ongoing, incomplete process. Not to mention shedding the white supremacy, racism, sexism, homo- and transphobia, classism, nationalism, and the other mindsets that form the huge knot of oppressive attitudes that we so clearly need to unravel.

The concept of the bodymind is a relatively recent enrichment to our thinking in disability culture. Margaret Price offers this useful definition: "a sociopolitically constituted and material entity that emerges through both structural (power- and violence-laden) contexts and also individual (specific) experience." A more fully developed crip poetics of bodymind would be more inclusionary toward Shane Neilson and the exclusion he identifies in his essay. Letting go of the artificial distinction between body and mind opens the door not only to greater inclusion of people who find themselves excluded when disability is centered in the body but also to more explicit attention to the ways that the knot of oppressions not only creates but disguises as it perpetuates the violence that surrounds disability.

I find myself wondering if we should consider adding a third component to the concept, bodymindspirit—disabled people surely know the great importance of the unseen, the unheard, of that which is not perceived by the nondisabled, often not even by other disabled people. A crip poetics of bodymind will surely prize witnessing, a political as well as aesthetic act to which poetry is particularly well-suited. We are different in our differences, sometimes quite dramatically, but when we use poetry to witness our differences and those of others we enact some of the profound values of coalition, of community—the things that make an us that, I hope, can be available and useful. Like the politics and the languages around disability, like the shedding of internalized ableism and other oppressive attitudes, that us-ness is a work in progress, to be sure, with disabled people divided by many of the same things that divide nondisabled people in tempestuous times. But this us-ness is something that I hope can be available across as well as among our different differences, something that can give us a measure of hope while reminding us of our strength. Of what Cheryl Marie Wade called our "crippled wholeness."

My father was a carpenter, my mother a nurse; perhaps because of that, I want my work to be useful in some way. The insight, the shock, the challenge and the validation, the moments of beauty and of ugliness—these are some of the uses of the arts. When I read the essays by Travis Chi Wing Lau, Kara Dorris, and Kathi Wolfe, I am reminded of Kenneth Burke's idea of literature as "equipment for living." Kara usespoetry to claim and validate her nonstandard life; Kathi finds and makes a place for herself through and in poetry. The poetics of interdependency that Travis articulates shows a firm step toward a crip poetics of bodymind, recognizing disability as "deeply relational," encouraging a poetry "born out of the simultaneity of our identities percolating and relating to one another, sometimes in tension or in solidarity." This is a poetry that can play a role in untangling the great knot of oppression that binds nondisabled as well as disabled people.

Gwendolyn Edwards asks a provocative question about whether a public stance is a necessary part of crip poetry: "I wonder if I can be a crip poet if I'm not being recognized through my poetry." This is just my idea, but I hope so: crip is a claim that poets and other artists make implicitly if not explicitly before there is any attribution from others. If "showing disabled people taking control of the gaze" requires a receiver as well as a sender (to use Shannon and Weaver's influential if outdated model of communication), the condition seems satisfied to me. The poet's first reader is always her- or himself, and the intrapersonal messages we send to ourselves may be among the most important of messages. And nothing seems more crip to me than erasing texts (including disability theory) "to take back and reclaim language others have used to (mis)represent me."

Reclaiming language. Exposing the myths of oppressive ideologies. Claiming space and taking voice for all the creative, flexible, adaptable ways disabled people move through a world which does not yet love us. I am more than ever aware of the need for the intersectional power of engaged and self-aware crip poetry. And I am moved by the work that these poets and others are doing to make that poetry. Write on.


Work Cited

Price, Margaret. "The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain." Hypatia 30.1 (Winter 2015): 268-284.


Jim Ferris is author of Facts of Life and The Hospital Poems, which Edward Hirsch selected as winner of the Main Street Rag Book Award in 2004. His book Slouching Towards Guantanamo was published in 2011. Ferris, who holds a doctorate in performance studies, has performed at the Kennedy Center and across the United States, Canada and Great Britain. His writing has appeared in dozens of publications, ranging from the Georgia Review to Text & Performance Quarterly, from the Michigan Quarterly Review to weekly newspapers. Past president of the Society for Disability Studies, Ferris holds the Ability Center Endowed Chair in Disability Studies at the University of Toledo.