ZOEGLOSSIA KEYNOTE ADDRESS*
Greetings. Thrilled to be here at Zoeglossia! Thrilled to finally meet all of you!
A few years ago in Washington, D.C, Sheila (Black) and I had a drink. We hadn't seen each other for awhile, and we wanted to catch-up. Maybe, it was the delicious margarita, I was sipping! Maybe, the salsa and chips kicked-in. I began to dream.
It would be great, I said to Sheila, if we, poets with disabilities, could form a group like Cava Canem or Lambda Literary Foundation. A group that would help us to have a seat at the table in the poetry world. A group where we could find our tribe. Where we could talk about everything from what it's like to identify as a poet with a disability to how our disabilities impact our writing. Where we could dream, create and work for change.
Let me tell you why I had this dream: I'm a legally blind poet and writer. I've been visually impaired since I was born. I wrote some poetry when I was in college in the 1970s. But, I really began writing poetry after my partner Anne died in 2001. My grief counselor encouraged me to take some poetry workshops. Gradually, I gained some skill as a poet. And, I began to write about not only grief, but falling in and out of love, disability, and what it's like to be disabled and queer.
Thankfully, before I begin to become too pompous about being a poet, I'm brought down to size. Recently, I was on the phone with tech support. "Are you Kathi Wolfe, the poet?" the IT guy asked. "Yes!," I said excitedly. "I hate poetry," he said, "I only use it to get girls."
Like most poets, I've had to deal with stage fright before readings, weather rejections and give up on poems that, no matter how hard I try, simply won't behave.
And, like many poets and writers with disabilities, I've run into ableism – overt and subtle disability-based prejudice. Barriers of access and attitudes.
In-your-face ableism: There was the time, I was in a poetry workshop at a university in Washington, D.C. Before the first class began, the teacher spoke to me. "You can stay in the class," he told me, "as long as your blindness doesn't make unreasonable demands or upset the other students."
I was furious, but I stayed in the class. Our work as poets is to make art. I channeled my anger at the prof into this poem.
Subtle ableism: Sometimes ableism is so embedded in our culture – that it's hard to for folks to recognized that it's there. Getting people to be aware of it, is like asking people to think about the air that we breathe in. It's subtle. Often, unconscious and not meant to be hurtful. Yet, it often perpetuates untrue and demeaning images and stereotypes. That can fester and, without conscious awareness, form misperceptions about disabled people.
For poets, one example of this is the ableist metaphors that are used so often in poetry to describe disabilities or those of us with disabilities. How often have you read poems that use blindness as a metaphor for spiritual ignorance, unthinking faith, or moral failings? Or deafness used as a metaphor for isolation, aloneness – a failure to emotionally communicate? Think: world of darkness. Deaf ears. Crippling rage.
I don't want to come down too hard or to rigidly on this. Our language wouldn't be language without metaphors. I doubt that we could write poems without metaphors. Different poets have different takes on this. Some poets don't mind the metaphors. I sometimes try to reclaim the metaphors – to use metaphors in a way that's authentic to my disability. But, it's fair, I think, to say that too often all of us, including me, tend to use such metaphors without thinking.
Accessibility: I don't know any disabled poet who hasn't had to deal at some point with some type of inaccessibility. From a lack of a ramp leading up to a stage to a lack of sign language interpreters. For me, as someone with low vision, inaccessibility takes the form of inaccessible websites and submission portals. What has this meant in practical terms? I have to have someone submit my work for me. This often takes extra time–because people can only assist me when their schedule permits. Fortunately, my friends are kind and way helpful! But, I sometimes miss submission deadlines.
Back to my dream of Zoeglossia: I've shared these moments of my life with you not because they're extraordinary. But, because I believe that many other poets with disabilities have had similar experiences.
Like all of us, I'm not only a poet with a disabilitiy. I belong to more than one community. Lambda Literary Foundation is an LGBTQ group. It fosters queer writers and LGBTQ writing. In 2008, I was a Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging Writer fellow. That year, I went to a Lambda Lit retreat for the fellows. I found the experience to be energizing and helpful: I got to meet other queer writers and to be part of some workshops let by queer poets. It made me feel that I wasn't alone: I was part of a tribe.
Over the years, I've been so lucky! I've worked with, read the work of, and formed friendships with wonderful poets with disabilities – including Raymond Luckak to Jennifer Bartlett to Ellen Smith. This has enriched my life personally and creatively. I am honored to be among the contributors to the groundbreaking anthologies QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology edited by Raymond Luczak and Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability edited by Michael Northen, Sheila Black and Jennifer Bartlett. These anthologies have not only brought the work of poets with disabilities into the wider culture. They've fostered a sense of community.
Change has been slowly happening. Poetry Magazine, for instance, has published valuable discussions about disability poetics. VIDA has had panel discussions and published essays by poets with disabilities.
Yet, I've still felt, as I think many of us have felt, isolated in the poetry world – that we, poets with disabilities, haven't had a seat at the poetry table.
As I sat with Sheila, munching chips and sipping my margarita, my feelings became focused. Into a longing – a dream: Could we create a group for us – poets with disabilities – that would be similar to Lamdba Literary Foundation or Cava Canem? A group that would help us to find our tribe. That would help us to be a force – to be seen and heard in the poetry world. So that we could speak as a group about accessibility. Because it's more difficult for editors, the academy, folks coordinating poetry readings and events – to ignore a group than to turn away from an individual. That would give us a chance to think about, talk about (among ourselves): questions of disability identity, to reflect on disability history – to muse about our craft.
After visiting with Sheila, I put my dream aside and got sucked up into nitty-gritty of my life. But, Sheila, didn't forget about my dream. A shout-out to Sheila, Jennifer, Connie for making Zoeglossia happen!
I don't think there's ever been anything like Zoeglossia for poets with disabilities. Let's make history! Let's make art.
*This keynote speech was delivered at the historic first-ever Zoeglossia Conference from May 16-19, 2019. To read reactions of the conference participants, see "What Did You Take from Zoeglossia" in this issue's Response section.