Recently, Sheila Black, who co-edited Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability with Jennifer
Bartlett and me wrote a piece for Vela
called “Sheila Black’s Six Poet’s with Disabilities.” These poets were selected
from among those writers who appeared in our anthology and – no question about
it – all of them are writers who deserve to be read. What is not readily apparent from someone
who casually happened upon the article’s title is that, because Vela is a publication dedicated to
feminism, all six poets feature are
women. Ordinarily, my only objection
would be that Sheila did not include herself as one of the six, but as the
editor of Wordgathering, an online
journal of disability literature and poetry, I do have a concern. It may not be true of high profile, main
stream poetry journals, but about ninety percent of the poetry that submitted
to me is written by women. One might
easily conclude from looking at a typical issue of Wordgathering that men with disabilities, for whatever reason,
simply do not write poetry. To counter
this perception, I am going to offer my own version of “Six Poets with
Disabilities,” this one focusing on male
One of the criteria
by which Sheila selected the women that she discussed in Vela was how high
their poetry rated on the badass scale.
While badassery in women comes across has radical and staking out new
territory, among men its conjures quite a different image - a conservative machismo that resists notions of inclusion and new perspectives. As a result, the six poets I recommend below
are chosen for their past and continuing contribution to disability poetry, a secondary
consideration being my familiarity with their body of work. While
they vary widely in their perspectives and poetry, to my mind, they are all
essential reading for anyone with an interest in disability poetry.
Jim Ferris is in some
ways the father of disability poetry as a genre. His essay “The Enjambed Body” set forth some
initial criteria for what disability poetry might be. Ferris’ book The Hospital Poems , published a decade ago,
may have been the first book of poetry about disability that could be
considered a best seller, and his
poem “Poet of Cripples” something of an
anthem with its closing lines:
Look care, look deep
Know that you are a cripple too.
I sing for cripples; I sing for you.
One of Ferris’ concerns has been to use the experience of
disability as a way to experiment with new forms. While trying to establish ties between
disability poetry and main stream poets, he also seeks to put for points of
view which this genre has to offer.
Two books of poetry, Only
Bread, Only light and Letters to
Borges establish Stephen Kuusisto as a major voice in disability
poetry. In the first, Kuusisto explodes common perceptions of what blindness
is like, accomplishing it through both practical and deeply philosophical
poems. In the second, he at once pushes
the genre and connects to a modern
mainstream literature figure who was blind as his silent foil.
You were right:
Reality is not always probable, or likely.
A policeman said I was jaywalking
And I had to tell him
I couldn’t see.
In addition to being a poet, Kuusisto is a memoirist and
prolific blogger on literature and disability issues in Planet of the Blind.
Dan Simpson and his twin brother Dave are poets and
musicians who were born blind. While their poetry chronicles the lives of
individuals who attended schools for the blind and use service dogs, it is the
humanity with which they infuse their poems that gives readers access to the
ordinariness of their lives.
I’m just getting to love
This world for what it is, a flawed place
With its subway platforms overlooking the third rail,
Its hay lofts, open sewers
and loading docks,
And all the strangers who’ve looked out for me,
Letting me take their arms to walk with them.
The Simpsons took the unusual step of releasing their first
collection as an audio CD only. This
past year, however, they published print books. Dan Simpson’s is School for the Blind, David Simpson’s The Way Love Comes to Me.
Stephen Kuusisto asks:
How do you tell strangers
That people may live
Who cannot see?
The poetry of Dan and Dave Simpson gives the answer.
When it comes to poetry of the Deaf community, few have done
more than John Lee Dlark. Clark, a
deafblind writer, has edited two important anthologies, Deaf American Poetry and Deaf
Lit Extravaganza. Clark has worked for the recognition of ASL poetry, which
he both composes and translates. Most recently he was able to get mainstream Poetry magazine to include a discussion
among writers with disabilities. In his
own poetry, Clark is constantly experimenting, sometimes including ASL
Better go home we
and our hands
Will make time go suddenly slow.
A prolific writer and editor, Raymond Luczak has been a
frequent collaborator with John Lee Clark.
Recently, Luczak established Handtype Press, dedicated to the
publication of work by Deaf writers. In
addition, Luczak has done much to
promote the work of the LGBT community.
Much of Luczak’s own poetry reflects his develop and experience as a
Deaf gay man, as the title “Instructions to Hearing Persons Desiring a Deaf
Man,” one of the poems that that appears in BIAV
A deaf man is always a foreign country.
He remains forever a language to learn.
Hal Sirowitz is the only poet among the six discussed here
who was not born with a disability. In
fact, before he was diagnosed with
Parkinson’s, Hal was already a well-known, award winning poet. Since his diagnosis and all of the adjustment
for a writer that come with it, he has maintained the sense of double-edged
humor that help to bring his work to prominence in the first place, transforming it to take in his new perspective.
I’ve read somewhere that a cow
Can only walk up stairs but
Not down. Even though I have
Parkinson’s, I’m a step ahead
Of a cow.
As I mentioned above, I’ve chosen those writers from the
anthology with whose work I am the most familiar. Other contemporary
writers whose work is included in Beauty
is a Verb that also deserves reading include:
A final caveat. One
of the limitation that the editors of Beauty as a Verb placed upon themselves
was restricting the poets included in the anthology to American writers. For those looking for the perspectives from
other countries the poetry of Great Britain’s Mark Burnhope, South Africa’s Kobus Moolman, and Australia’s Andy
Jackson are good places to start.