Reviewed by Liz Whiteacre
Nine Mile Books & Literary Magazine has historically highlighted “the best work [they] receive from authors whose work, energy, and vision seem to [them] most deeply entangled with life.” The double-issue of its literary magazine out this fall, which showcases twenty-three writers who identify as Neurodivergent, Disabled, Deaf, Mad and Crip poets, does not disappoint. Editors Steve Kuusisto, Andrea Scarpino, and Bob Herz team up with guest editor Diane R. Wiener with the goal to curate a diverse collection of contemporary work. In her introduction, Wiener suggests this issue explores “[h]ow we choose to perceive ourselves, as compared to how others think about us.”
As both an educator and a poet, I find myself appreciating not only the beauty of these poems as a collective set, but also the varied styles of craft represented and the poets’ commentaries on their work, which provides interesting context for the editors’ theme of diversity. Kara Dorris writes, “I realized my disability colors the way I perceive the world and my role inside it; consequently, my poetics lean towards erasing, running, and eventually disassembling illusions” (p. 154). Poets tackle not only issues related to disability, but also social justice, relationships, aging, careers…universal themes that readers will find relatable—and compelling when seen through each poet’s unique lens. The connection between the poets’ agendas, which are identified in their statements, and their poems’ messages/forms create interesting moments of tension. For example, Karen Christie’s “Writing in English” (p. 121):
The language is blameless
Like the oppressed,
It needs liberating.
Is a small victory.
What it means to be a Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad or Crip poet is highlighted, but as Emily K. Michael observes, “the poet’s job is to build a little world where the reader can step in, move around, and find the answers for herself” (p. 359). As the speakers in these poems explore the complexities of relationships, aspirations, or past traumas—all things that, at their core, allow readers to place themselves in each poem—readers are invited to “move around” and explore. I find it easy to connect with poems in this collection. For example, the fragile moment when a lover lets down their guard in Pamela J. Kincheloe’s“Deaf at Night” (p. 87):
You form words in the dark
And they float toward me across the bed
In trembling bubbles.
I try to catch them in my hands
But they break, unheard.
Better to put your mouth to my ear
And drop the words in gently,
One by one.
In moments like these, readers are invited to put their own worlds under a microscope and consider how identities and relationships are shaped by their experiences. These poems offer opportunities to consider what makes us who we are, as when Michael Northen reflects in “Seconds” (p. 313):
those who know return to the orchard
to the small, misshapen fruit rejected by the pickers
[…] and sink their teeth in until all
that pent up sweetness oozes down their chins
redeeming the old fear that whatever is forbidden,
marginalized or thrown away is most delicious.
While this collection offers poems that explore what it means to be “entangled with life,” it also presents readers and writers a primer in craft. I found myself bookmarking many poems that model interesting forms to use as writing prompts, which suggests, at least to me, how successful this collection is in engaging readers with poetics. Here are just a few of the model poems I bookmarked and plan to use in future poetry classes with both beginning and advanced poets:
- Sheila Black’s “Poetry” (p. 48) – Write an arspoetica poem
- Raymond Luczak’s “My First Phone Call” (p. 90) – Write a poem about a first experience.
- Elyssa Hyre’s “Senses of Grey” (p. 109) – Use metaphor and simile to describe a sense or emotion.
- Kara Dorris’ “[for & against] Wisdom” (p. 147) – Write a poem using anaphora. Extra challenge: explore the idea of failing at something or failing to do something.
- Dylan Krieger’s “haziest corpus” (p. 182) – Write a poem that uses sensory detail/poetic leaps (in the tradition of Robert Bly) to describe something abstract.
- Nathan Spoon’s “The Carpet Is Making Me Anxious” (p. 191) – Write a poem structured by caesuras.
- Jim Ferris’ “Difficult” (p. 198) – Write a poem that offers a conversation and/or two perspectives simultaneously.
- Jeannine Hall Gailey’s “Time Travel Is Really Hard to Write” (p. 233) – Write a poem about something that is really hard to write about.
- Melissa Hotchkiss’ “A Poem Written Two Days Before My Father Died” (p. 238) – Write a poem whose title provides significant context for its observations.
- Kenny Fries’ “The Canoe Ride” (p. 270) – Write a poem that reflects on an event. Extra challenge: explore a subject that engages couplets in a meaningful way.
- Daniel Simpson’s “Sure You Can Ask Me a Personal Question” (p. 288) – Write a poem that provides responses to a question as suggested by the poem’s title. Extra challenge: create a list poem.
- Chris Costello’s “What My Heartbeat Says in the Dark” (p. 334) – Write a poem that employs personification/persona.
- Emily K. Michael’s “A Phenomenology of Blindness” (p. 351) – Write an “it’s not” poem. Describe something that’s defined by what it isn’t.
For educators looking for an updated collection of poetry that explores diversity, identity, and universal themes, this would be an excellent addition to a course—whether it has a focus on disability literature or not. As Daniel Simpson shares in his writer’s statement, “Disability is only part of our stories. We wrestle with politics, religion, death, and loss in our works, just like everyone else. We write about love. We dream ourselves into unimagined worlds. In short, we take on the whole of life in our writing. We walk a balance beam of identity” (p. 294). The collection offers a wide range of topics, form, and experience. It is a pleasure to read work both by poets already recognized by the developing canon of disability poetry and by emerging poets. As Wiener observes in her introduction, “Variety is [these poets’] banner; their poetry is for everyone.”
A small disappointment in the collection, for me, was the “Appreciations & Asides” that started the collection, a selection of “notes and quotes from artists and critics” that the editors “love on art, literature, and life,” which they find “curiously engaging.”At the start, I imagined this list of quotes might serve as a touchstone for the themes included or help create an organizing principle for the collection, since they, in a way, introduce the poets’ work. I do not see intentional connections drawn between these ‘muse quotes’ and the poems, and it seems like a missed opportunity. Perhaps readers can consider these quotes as inspiration for new discourse, prompting poetry that might find its way into future editions of Nine Mile.
Overall, it is the gems like Ona Gritz’s “Sister Hands” (p. 259)
Don’t you have to break a geode
before it has facets, before you get
that jagged beauty and shine?
that kept me turning pages. Gregory Luce, in his poem “New Pen,” offers an appealing invitation to writers and readers: “Spill it then, stain/the page, risk everything/one more time” (p. 66). I finished the magazine motivated to sit down and write myself and share what I learned from it with other writers. People will be compelled by different poems in this collection: it will speak in different ways to different readers and writers, and that is what lends it charm and accessibility. The editors succeed in presenting us a diverse collection of voices and experiences. Though readers might pick the issue up because it offers interesting lenses for a variety of disabilities, they will return to it again and again, because in the end, it offers interesting perspectives on what makes us human.
Title: Nine Mile Magazine (Vol. 7, No. 1 & 2)
Editor: Diane Wiener
Publisher: Nine Mile Arts Corporation
Publication Date: Fall 2019
About the Reviewer
Liz Whiteacre is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Indianapolis, where she teaches creative writing and co-advises Etchings Press. She is the author of Hit the Ground (Finishing Line Press) and co-editor of the anthology Monday Coffee & Other Stories of Mothering Children with Special Needs (INwords Press). Her poems have appeared in Wordgathering, Disability Studies Quarterly, The Healing Muse, Breath and Shadow, and other magazines.