Interview with Gail Willmott

WG: Gail, as editor-in-chief of Kaleidoscope, the country's oldest continuing magazine featuring the work of writers with disabilities, you have quite a legacy to continue. How did you first happen to become involved with Kaleidoscope?

GW: Kaleidoscope is published by United Disability Services of Akron, Ohio. I had volunteered in the adult program of the agency after returning home from the University of Illinois in the mid 70s, and I got to know several of the clients and some staff members pretty well during that time. Carson Heiner, the Academic Enrichment teacher for the adult program, was the first editor of Kaleidoscope. One of the other staff members told Carson about my background and I received a call from him in May of 1982. He told me about this magazine he had started which featured the work of writers and artists with disabilities. Beginning in 1979, the first four issues were composed of writing and art by clients of the agency. Issues #5 and #6 were the first ones published with a grant from the organization, now known as VSAarts, which allowed the magazine to expand its scope nationally, both in terms of contributors and readers. Issue #5, which featured the work of poet, Larry Eigner, had just gone to the printer. Carson asked if I would be interested in working on the magazine. With a degree in English education, a life-long interest in literature and art and a personal connection with disability issues, this was perfect for me. Yes, I was interested! My title was Public Relations Assistant, because as I said, there was a desire to expand the reach of Kaleidoscope. However, I also had the opportunity to do interviews and write for the magazine. My first interview was with artist, David Sampson, of Georgia, and I've been here ever since.

WG: It must be satisfying to be part of a magazine that recognized the work of Larry Eigner so early on. I'm sure that the philosophy of Kaleidoscope has changed over the years, but can you tell us what you look for in the work that is submitted to you. What is your philosophy behind selecting the work that you choose for the magazine?

GW: Kaleidoscope's subtitle is Exploring the Experience of Disability through Literature & the Fine Arts and it says in our general call for submissions that the material chosen for Kaleidoscope challenges and overcomes stereotypical, patronizing, and sentimental attitudes toward disability. These two statements seem to me to encapsulate our mission. I believe we present snapshots of different forms and aspects of the disability experience and at the same time challenge some long held perceptions of people with disabilities. I think that we succeed most of the time. In addition to these broad philosophical questions, I consider things that most editors look for when reading submissions. Am I drawn into the work? In fiction and creative nonfiction is the story well told with vivid characters? Do I care about the people, real or fictionalized? Of course, "caring" is a two-edged sword, because sometimes it is difficult to separate the circumstances of a situation from the style of the writing. In poetry, does the writer create an image that I can see and feel? Outstanding work is recognized right away. There's sort of a eureka moment when I know that a piece just has to be published. It's equally easy to recognize and discard the very poor work. It's that large amount of material that falls between the two extremes that can be the most challenging and sometimes perplexing. In addition to the opinions of in-house staff, our manuscript review panel is extremely helpful with those "in between" works. Do our manuscript readers see what I see in a work, and perhaps more importantly, do they see something I don't see?

WG: Will you elaborate on what you mean by challenging long held perceptions of disability by giving some examples of those perceptions and how Kaleidoscope challenges them?

GW: In my experience there are two main perceptions or misconceptions about disability that are on opposite ends of a continuum. At one end, people with disabilities are seen as "poor souls" who have a difficult life and from whom not much is expected. On the other end, those with disabilities are seen as sainted and heroic people who can overcome all obstacles. In between those two views lies the fear and discomfort that some people feel around those with disabilities. Kaleidoscope challenges those views and feelings through what we choose to publish. Over the years we have told a wide range of stories through memoir, fiction, poetry, and visual art, both difficulties and joys. We avoid work that pities or sentimentalizes disability. If someone is recounting a difficult aspect of disability, are they doing so in an honest and forthright manner without self pity?

We have featured some pretty amazing stories such as John Hockenberry traveling in a very inaccessible Middle East to report a story or Mark Wellman who climbed mountains before he was hurt in a climbing accident and who found a way to climb again, just two people with a tremendous determination and desire to achieve. They too would probably say they are just living their lives and doing what they need to do. Time and again, we've had writers and artists from various walks of life tell us that they must do the work that they do—both those who have a disability from early in life and those who became disabled later in life. Through what we have chosen to publish over nearly thirty years, we want to show that people with disabilities are living their lives and achieving their desires and goals just as those with no physical or cognitive challenges do. Everyone has value no matter what the range of their abilities and need not be pitied or sainted or feared.

WG: I can't help but comment that the description or the kinds of work that you are looking for at Kaleidoscope could equally stand in for a description of the sort of work we would like to see here at Wordgathering and would also essentially describe what the editors over at Breath & Shadow are looking for as well, so it is really great to hear you express it as work that avoids sentimentality. I also think that asking your question, about whether the work recounts an aspect of disability "in an honest and forthright manner without self pity" could almost serve as a litmus test for writers who are contemplating sending in work. What other advice would you give to writers or artists who are thinking of submitting to Kaleidoscope? Are there things you would tell them to avoid?

GW: In addition to what I've already mentioned, I would say that at Kaleidoscope we lean more heavily toward fiction that is strongly character driven as opposed to action oriented stories. In the genre of memoir or personal essays, one mistake writers often make is to give a simple recitation of the facts of a situation"this happened, then this, then this"and I am left saying, and so? Tell me a story. Let me know how you were affected by the situation. What did it mean to you? How did it change you?

WG: In 1983 Kaleidoscope featured a call put out by J. L. Baird for a new tough-minded kind of disability poetry that did not perpetuate the traditional patronizing or sentimentality. This resulted in Towards Solomon's Mountain, which may have been the first collection of disability poetry in the United States. Since that time, amazingly few anthologies of disability literature have appeared, the most notable of which is probably Kenny Fries' Staring Back. Has Kaleidoscope published or considered publishing an anthology of disability literature based upon the work that has appeared in the magazine?

GW: Both the anthologies you mentioned, Toward Solomon's Mountain and Staring Back, are most impressive collections. The closest we have come to an anthology is Issue #49, published in July 2004, celebrating our 25th year. That issue was a reprise of selected works of fiction and poetry covering the better part of 25 years of Kaleidoscope. What a task that was! There were so many wonderful choices. The final ones were in part determined by the authors that we were able to locate to obtain permission to republish their work, and partly by our space constraints. Issue #49 was our usual 64 pages in length.

We are planning to do something special to commemorate our 30th year, with the the January issue of 2010. It will be something similar to Issue #49 and perhaps include some visual art. The exact parameters of that issue have not yet been determined. There are always monetary and space concerns.

WG: How would readers go about getting a copy of Issue #49?

GW: We have relatively few copies of Issue #49 available, perhaps 25 magazines at $6.00 a copy. Interested readers should send a check to:

AKRON, OH 44311-1019

WG: We've been focusing on your role as the editor-in-chief of Kaleidoscope, but I don't want to skip over your own writing. What kinds of writing have you done? Any published work that we might be interested in?

GW: Truthfully, most of the writing I have done in the last years has been for Kaleidoscope. I did profiles on our visual artists for many years and enjoyed meeting them by phone. We now have an artistic coordinator on staff, Sandy Palmer, who does an outstanding job with our visual artists. I frequently do the editorials and sometimes it's like pulling teeth to get them right. I do have an interest in children's literature and have done a couple of pieces for my own enjoyment but have not as yet been brave enough to submit them for publication. They still need a lot of work.

WG: I know that you are busy with the upcoming issue of Kaleidoscope, so I really appreciate the time you are taking for this interview. Kaleidoscope is such an historically important magazine in disability literature, that I'm glad our readers have a chance to find out more about it from you first hand. Is there anything else that you want to add that we may have left out?

GW: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk with you. When Kaleidoscope began, we were unique in the field of disability studies as a literary and fine arts publication. I'd like to say that I am happy that there are now some other publications focusing on disability through the literary arts such as Wordgathering and Breath & Shadow.

Some years ago one of the editors of Mouth wrote to us and said, "I don't get it. What's your purpose? What are you doing?" It was as if to say, "If you're not doing straight political advocacy, then why bother?" I believe that we perform an important kind of advocacy through literature and the arts by affirming the struggles, joys, hopes, and dreams and creativity of people with disabilities.