THE ZOEGLOSSIA POETS
I am so excited to introduce this Reading Loop, because it contains the voices of Zoeglossia, the non-profit I helped the indominable Jennifer Bartlett and Connie Voisine get off the ground from 2018-19. The mission of Zoeglossia is to create community for poets with disabilities by hosting an annual retreat in which fellows can participate in workshops, roundtable discussions, readings and other community-building activities. Those chosen to be fellows in Zoeglossia are able to attend retreats over a period of three years and form a supportive network of disability poets and activists.
In May 2019 in San Antonio, Texas we all met at Our lady of the Lake University for our first ever Zoeglossia retreat. There were challenges (even when institutions promise accessible venues, these don't always prove accessible!), there were discoveries large (how ableism has shaped all our experiences in similar ways despite the fact that as a community we comprise a vast range of different disabilities) and small (breakfast tacos are the best breakfast food ever), yet most of all there was the tender, surprising, vulnerable, and creatively energizing birth of a new community devoted to a consideration of the poetics and poetry of disability.
I love that the poems here are so diverse—in their styles, their intentions, that they cover such a wise swatch of humanity and emotion. From the beautiful "White" by Stephen Lightbrown, which makes a marriage moment a surprising and affirmative reckoning with the accident that gave him a new "non-normative" body to Gaia Thomas's generous, ultra-imaginative—and yes,—tender response to reading Stephen's book Only Air, these poems are all speaking with each other.
I am thrilled by the revolutionary things Raymond Luczak is doing with language with his ASL "glosses" which seek to render more acutely for the hearing what ASL language feels like to its speakers. In the poem he contributed to the Reading Loop, he offers stirring testimony to the fact that our languages and our bodies are still dismissed, erased, under attack by the ableist structure of our world, and yet we manage to make ourselves present and defiant:
unarmed with only
I love how his and so many of these poems celebrate our reality and our dangerous and vital presence.
The Reading Loop opens with Jessica Suzanne Stokes' manifesto "This Poem is Universal, I Promise," which with humor and her signature linguistic verve—what a poet!– sets the stage of the landscape these poems will take you through—the varied, marvelous, difficult, and radiant territory of the non-normative experience. This journey includes Ellen McGrath Smith's exquisitely nuanced rendering of the complexities of listening, hearing and understanding in a world that privileges only one kind of listening. Naomi Ortiz's poem "Dear Nikki Giovanni,"which is about the searching for belonging and identity and makes the promise of how the affirmation of a disability identity is one that will enrich all our languages – "poems like thimbles of truth, strung together like clothes on a line."
The journey continues with Viktoria Valenzuela's lyric celebration of motherhood as a strength and a vulnerability in which "Their lamp of life is your apotheosis/and no one will tell you about your own death," and Zoe Stoller's remarkable pair of poems "Sonnet," and "I Will Not be the Pills," which describe the traces of identity evolving and mutating; the struggle to be and become and assert a self:
My sister and I challenge my
This is a theme we also see in Elizabeth Theriot's "After Aubrey and I text about our dying planet," in which the poet asserts "Maybe there is a future for me,/all the cement covered in soft layers of moss. "
In "Turtle," Stephanie Heit connects disability to nature and ancestry, with a celebration of "the slow movement. Middle ground. Ability to pull into a home a shell or my own skin," This is an image that connects the truth of vulnerability as part of disability and assets how it is not a deficit but a source of power, connecting us to the oldest, most basic truths of being alive in a world of time and space.
In fact, vulnerability and connection are the important themes here—the celebration of disability connection and discovery, even in the shadow of a world whose ableist structures continually wound and exclude. We see this wounding and exclusion in the plainsong beauty of Margaret Rickett's lovely poem "I am Learning," and in an excerpt I am so delighted to include here from Jennifer Bartlett's ongoing project "Jennifer's little book of Traumas," a work I keep reading and re-reading, feeling that it is somehow an autobiography for all of us:
"Why are you so anxious all the time? Why are you constantly terrified? What is wrong with you?
Your shoulder hurts. Your back hurts. Your knee hurts. Your legs hurt. Your head hurts. You have to come to realize that you are in pain every second of every day and you can't tell anyone because this will confirm your weakness."
This reading loop combines honesty and what Emily Dickinson called the "thing with feathers." It feels like these are the necessary poems for now. In her poem "For the County that Will Not Bring us Peace" Connie Voisine writes of "the singer who arrived home wet and shivering/to tell no one about the storm," expressing how much would silence the singer, the witness, and allthose who would deliver their true testimony. Only they are here and they are singing. As Stephen Lightbrown declares in the last line of his poem "White," "We happen next."
I hope you enjoy reading these remarkable poems as much as I have enjoyed collecting them.
I also want to add one final note. This is the last issue of Wordgathering that will be edited by Michael Northen. When I realized this, I remembered myself back in 2007 when Wordgathering launched; then I remembered before, around 2003 or so, when Mike, who had been hosting a poetry workshop for people with disabilities at Inglis House in Philadelphia, launched a poetry contest for writers with disabilities. I saw that contest in some call or other and it rocked my world.
I was just starting to claim myself as a poet, but I was a long way from claiming my identity as a person with a disability, even though disability had been one of the primary shaping features of my life.
I wore braces throughout my childhood, had major surgery at thirteen, and I still found it hard to walk. I also don't look like most people — I am short and my legs are crooked. Even so I had no idea how to parse or place my experience as a person with a disability. This was because everything I'd been taught about being a person with a disability, from the mostly abled people around me, affirmed—and over and over again, that the best way to be a disabled person in the world was to behave as much as possible as though you didn't have a disability. Yet when I saw a notice about the InglisHouse contest, I wrote a poem. I didn't submit that year, but two years later I did, and in that two years I began to think—on my own—about who I actually was.
Mike responded immediately when I submitted to the contest. He asked me for poems; he asked me about being a writer with a disability, and I began to wake up and see how fruitless and sad it was, the way I used to say things like "I don't really have a disability, exactly…" Or "my disability didn't really affect me all that much," or "I have a disability, but it is not really that important." These were lies, and they were lies I'd been telling just because it made it easier for the able-bodied people around me.
In 2009, I decided to propose a panel on disability poetry for AWP, which was held in Denver that year. I reached out online, and one of the people who responded was Jennifer Bartlett. The final panel we put forward consisted of Jennifer Bartlett, Ann Bogle, Barbara Crooker, Ellen McGrath Smith, Mike Northen and me. This panel was not high on anyone's to-do list that year. We spoke to a room, which contained a mere handful of people—but among them was the extraordinary Laura Hershey. At that AWP Conference, Jennifer, Mike and I decided to put together the anthology that would become Beauty is a Verb.
I tell this story just to explain how if it had not been for Mike's steadfast advocacy and generosity as an editor, a thinker, and a connector, I don't know how or when I would have come into myself as a person with a disability.
When Wordgathering was launched in 2007, it formed a vital community that led eventually to Zoeglossia and much more.
I don't know what the wider disability community would look like without Mike Northen, but I do know that for me discovering Inglis House and then Wordgathering was how I found my way to a self I had been trained to bandage, bury, conceal, and silence. I also know I am not alone–and so, to Mike–this Reading Loop is definitely for you.
This Poem Is Universal, I promise.
Call me the every man,
This poem is for you.
You and I agree on what numb feels like.
Numb couldn't mean
This is a universal poem, I promise.
* * *
Ellen McGrath Smith
Once, I discovered my brother in the basement
I understandthe feeling.
Even when my ears aren't clogged they're clogged.
Before I knew it was a nerve thing, irreparable,
When you can't hear, you're old when you're young.
Last night, I saw Y. and wanted to write her
Lavage is such a soothing-sounding word. It makes me
As she got older, she gathered more bass
had instructed it to sound less hopeful,
her Yes sounded just like her No to me,
what she'd meant. Another gift, I guess,
in a gauze of unknowing, erasing the shape
the chance to change her mind, whatever
a little longer for her verdict. My child,
* * *
Dear Nikki Giovanni,
I'm Disabled and Latina. Although you probably wouldn't notice it with just a look.
There's so much I'd like to ask you
Now 45 years later I hear the echoes of your voice.
I am a Disabled, Latina activist and I am searching…
See, "us" and "them" is so much larger than one identity, one country or even one hemisphere.
That's why I desire to talk to you.
* * *
I am learning
to walk without a knee
* * *
After reading Stephen Lightbown's Only Air
I have cookies to eat, and a tall glass
* * *
I Reach for my Head the Moon
Despite birth order, we are one age;
i watched the news today
Sucked at my teeth, scribbled a worthy response that might make it all the way to
* * *
Now look you are in my poem
I Will Not Be The Pills
The aunt in the room and
* * *
After Aubrey and I text about our dying planet
I lay out old shirts to make cleaning rags
From autopsy descriptions, I recall
I wore some icy blue velvet boots
Maybe there is future for me,
* * *
Turtle (from Psych Murders)
Turtle is the depression animal. Or rather this was the animal I aligned with when I was finding my way forward or who knows in what direction, some compass dislocated from a ship long splattered in the ocean. A wreck of suicidal ideation and concrete planning I never thought I'd find my way away from alive. This is turtle. The slow movement. Middle ground. Ability to pull into a home a shell or my own skin. A limbic striated reach toward the beach that gave me shore and light. Steady. No acrobatic feats. Simply alive. Pull and extend a bit of push but not too much because I'm tired.
* * *
For the country will bring us no peace
Can we say that this street, strewn with glint
* * *
Battle Preparationsmercury dropping
outside porch window
framing st michaels
rising above birches
my universe was
a stretched atlas
of silver & white
patches worn thin
over edge of ironing board
there my shirt lay
stripes & angles
misted with elixir water
hot button steam
warm as bloodstains
like a priest ready
iron pressing a prayer
flattening chest pockets
weaving around buttons
medaled down the front
shirt tails now wings
tucked inside my pants
hiding my body hearing aids
still a perfect soldier
no wrinkles or lintballs
still at boot camp
with those odd things in my ears
after so many sessions
three times a week
a weird flat accent that never
pinpointed the country
of my nasalities
taught me pay close attention
supposed to lipread better
but kept decoding body language
seemingly encrypted in cipher
easy code to break
my superiors whispering
as they tossed footballs
to each other
glancing my way
just me in shirt & pants
by brick wall
uniformed or not
unarmed with only
no rifle in hand
* * *
Excerpts from Jennifer's Little Book of Trauma
You are born.
You are born, but you are born dead. There was distress and your mother's doctor did not have access to a room for surgery, you are born vaginally. The umbilical cord cuts off your oxygen. Your subsequent death and reviving cause you to have brain damage (although you would never use that word in regular conversation). All this causes you to have cerebral palsy.
You are in the grocery card with your young mother. A woman walks up to your young mother and say "what is wrong with your baby?"
You are in middle school. You have to wait for the bus in the snow and dark because you live in Montana. One of the boys who waits for the bus calls you retard every day. Here comes retard. Here comes retard. Your stepfather has to come out and have a chat with the boy and the boy stops. You are still so proud of your step-dad for standing up for you on that day. Later you become friends with the stupid boy. It turns out he was in love with you.
You are on the subway reading the New Yorker. The people next to you make fun of you and call you retard. As you can best recall, these were adults. You wonder, do they know what the New Yorker is?
You are on the subway. Your five-year-old son is having a fit over something or the other that probably has to do with candy. He is really going at it. One man says to another man, who he is with, why can't she control her kid. The other man replies She can't help it, she's disabled.
You have a friend from college. This friend is brutally attacked by her boyfriend and nearly dies. There is a call out for the man's arrest. You are on your way to work, and you see this man on the city bus, you are rattled. You call the police to report this. The officer says there is some drunk woman on the phone and hangs up.
You are at the public high school where you teach. It is nearly October when they schools remove students from their rosters and bring new students in. Our principal says in a faculty meeting thank God we are not wheelchair accessible, who know what they would send us. The whole faculty laughs. Hardily.
You are in an activist group. You experienced an action in D.C. where you experienced some ableism and non-accessibility. They parked the bus too far from the capitol. You and the other slow walkers were left behind. They didn't tell you where they were going. You were lost and demoralized. Once there, you got a wheelchair so that you could sit down. You are reading in the wheelchair in line to go protest in the Senate. The man waiting behind you moves you in the chair. You were in his way, so he has the right you move you without asking, you are in a wheelchair after all which makes you an object. When you have to leave you give it to a woman who has chronic fatigue. She will return it. A person who has taken the lead in the group asked you what happened to the wheelchair. You say you gave it to so and so because she needed it. The woman says angrily Why did you give it to her? She's not disabled.
You have a big mouth so you want your activist group to speak about this experience. When you do, one woman pushes you off the stage. She later emails you to tell you people cannot cater to your needs and if you can't keep up you should stay home.
People cannot be expected to cater to your needs, and if you can't keep up you should stay home.
After you get pregnant, you go to the doctor. She tells you "You sure know what's going on for someone in your condition."
You left your Paul Auster book at the bar. It's the one that is meta-fiction and you don't know if you like that one, but you want to finish it. You call up the bar. The person screams, " It's that girl with MS or whatever on the phone."
You are envious of people who have cerebral palsy but don't have a speech impediment because they can be on the radio. You will never be on the radio. You could win the Noble Prize and you are not going to get to be on the radio. You started the activist group and the media has never interviewed you, once.
You are told you can't have the teaching job because you will not be able to control a group of students.
You tell the principal that you want to develop a course to teach teachers about disability. She says, No one wants to learn about that.
Someone on a message board tells you they would rather be dead than be like you.
After you have your son, people come up to you often and say Is that your baby? or You had a baby! It's such a big deal that you had a baby, people in the neighborhood remember you and him after he is in high school.
Your co-worker tells you that ableism is a matter of your perception.
Your friend's daughter asked you why do you talk like that.
The same friend told you your son must be really angry because you are disabled.
You got a call for the teaching job. When you call back, and the administrator hears your voice she says, I don't know who called you. There is no job.
You decide Gerry Jewel is your role model. Not because you like her, although you do, but she's the only choice.
Looking for a middle school for your son, you notice a child called it on the bookshelf.
The waitress who cannot understand you asks your husband, friend, comrade, son, president, boss, complete stranger what does she want? What did she say?
You are spoken about in the third person every day in front of you as if you are not there. Every day.
You write an article about struggling with how men desexualize you. You are accused of promoting sexual violence.
The woman in charge of maintenance for the condo board emails you and says, it is not my problem that you are disabled and cannot keep your house clean. No one on the condo message board defends you.
You meet a guy online who insists on meeting. You plan to meet near your house and get a drink. The minute he sees your body, he makes an excuse and leaves.
Your co-worker says her computer is spazzing out.
Your co-worker accidently says that having a speech impediment is not speaking properly.
*Your friend of 25 years gets AIDS. He is self-destructive. He goes on and off of his
medication which is worse than just not taking it. You go to the hospital to visit him for months. For months, you walk up 12 flights of stairs because you are afraid of elevators. You walk up 12 flights of stairs and down 12 flights of stairs, three times a week. He goes home and it's all going to be okay. Then, he dies.
You are accused of speaking for all disabled people. You are accused of not honoring invisible disabilities. You are accused of putting down people with cognitive disabilities because you want people to know you are intellectual. You change and change and examine and ruthlessly second-guess yourself.
You write a blog post about disability. In the comments, people make fun of you and say Is having a small dick a disability. You have an argument with the moderator who tells you she will not censor the comments. Now, she is a famous writer who writes about disability. You are still not a famous writer.
* * *
Duplicitous white snow turns crimson beneath me.
What happens next?
I rouse to the sound of sirens.
We happen next.
Zoeglossia Poet Biographical Notes
Stephanie HeitJennifer Bartlett is the author, most recently of Autobiography/Anti-Autobiography, a book of poems and co-editor of Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Her essays have been featured in the New York Times. She is currently at work on an autobiogaphy of Larry Eigner.
Stephanie Heit is a poet, dancer, and teacher of somatic writing, Contemplative Dance Practice, and Kundalini Yoga. She is bipolar and a member of the Olimpas, an international disability performance collective. Her poetry collection, The Color She Gave Gravity (The Operating System, 2017) explores the seams of language, movement, and mental health difference. Poetry from her current project Psych Murders, a hybrid memoir poem, appears in We Are Not Your Metaphor (Squares and Rebels, 2019), Bombay Gin, Anomaly, In Corpore Sano, and Disability Studies Quarterly.
Stephen Lightbrown was born in Blackburn, Lancashire. He is a spoken word artist who's performed at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool and the Poetry Café and Rich Mix in London. In March 2019, Stephen's first poetry collection, Only Air, was published by Burning Eye Books.
Raymond Luczak is the author and editor of 22 books, including Flannelwood (Red Hen Press) and Lovejets: Queer Male Poets on 200 Years of Walt Whitman (Squares & Rebels Press).
Naomi Ortiz is a writer, poet, facilitator and visual artist whose work focuses on self-care for activists, disability justice and living in multiple worlds (intersectionality). Her book, Sustaining Spirit: Self-Care for Social Justice invites readers to balance activism with self-scare by guiding readers to sink into metaphor and examine their relationship to self, community, and place.
Margaret Ricketts has received grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She has studied poetry with Marie Howe, Nikky Finney, Jacqueline Woodson, Marya Hornbacher and Cornelius Eady among others. She is a fourteen-year volunteer with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, working on issues of economic, social, and environmental justice.
Ellen McGrath Smith teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and in the Carlow University Madwomen in the Attic program. She is the author of two chapbooks and a full length collection Nobody's Jackknife (West End Press, 2016) Her writing has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Los Angeles Review, Quiddity, Cimarron, and other journals, and in several anthologies, including Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Smith has been the recipient of an Orlando Prize, an Academy of American Poets award, a Rainmaker Award from Zone 3 magazine, and a 2007 Individual Artist grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.
Jessica Suzanne Stokes is a disabled poet/performer/scholar currently pursuing her PhD in English at Michigan State University. Jessica is refining the work of her Erasure Cycle. She crafts poems by cutting or covering up medical and literary texts, reshaping them and being reshaped by them. Her academic research focuses on scars, the temporality of performance, and coalitional access.
Zoe Stoller is a poet and recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied English and Creative Writing. She currently works at a digital marketing agency in Philadelphia.
Elizabeth Theriot is a poet and essayist with Ehlers-Danos Syndrome. She advocates for reproductive justice with The Yellowhammer Fund, and is writing a memoir. Reach her at elizabeth-theriot.com.
Gaia Thomas holds an MFA from Mills College. Her chapbook, Aloft Alight, is available via Antiquated Future. Her poetry can be found on the site Dispatches From the Poetry Wars, and in the connection Godiva Speaks.
Viktoria Valenzuela is a creative nonfiction writer and poet, a human rights activist, and a graduate student at Our Lady of the Lake's MFA and social justice program. Valenzeula's work appears in The Poetry at Round Top Anthology, St. Sucia Zine, Mutha Magazine, AMP, The MACLS Journal, and A Prince Tribute Anthology: I only Wanted One Time to See You Laughing. Valenzuela is a community educator, a Macondista, and the organizer of the San Antonio, Texas 100 Thousand Poets for Change.Connie Voisine is the author of the new book of poems, The Bower, a book-length poem about her family's time in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Her previous books, Calle Florista, and Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream are also published by University of Chicago Press. Rare High Meadow was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. Her first book, Cathedral of the North, won the Associated Writing Program's Award in Poetry. She has poems published in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, and elsewhere.