Sunday, January 04, 2015

Six More Poets With Disabilities

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 writers.

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
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.

Stephen Kuusisto
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.

Daniel  Simpson
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.

John Lee Clark
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 syntactical forms.

                                       Sign, do sign
   Better go home we and our hands
   Will make time go suddenly slow.

Raymond Luczak
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 suggests.

   A deaf man is always a foreign country.
   He remains forever a language to learn.

Hal Sirowitz
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:
                Kenny Fries
                Alex Lemon
                Brian Teare
                David Wolach
                G. S. Giscombe

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.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

David Simpson: The Way Love Comes to Me

     It is rare to come away from a book launch somehow feeling a little bit better about humanity, but that was my experience last night attending  the first public outing for David Simpson’s collection of poetry, The Way Love Comes to Me.  Those who know Dave Simpson’s work – which is probably most people likely to be reading this - know that he and his twin brother Dan, both poets and musicians, were born blind.  Several years ago they combined their work to produce a CD called, straightforwardly enough, Audio Chapbook, but the volume being shown off last night was Dave’s first published print book of poetry.
     Dave sat at a table in the front of the room, flanked on either side by poets Molly Peacock and Ona Gritz whose combined efforts had helped to see Dave’s book come to life through Mutual Muse Press. The line forming to  have Dave sign books stretched back to the entrance of the room in Avianna restaurant where the event was held.  Though the room was humming with activity, Dave knew just about every person who came up to have a book signed and told Ona what he wanted written down for each person as she signed the books for him.  Dan, who was serving as emcee for the evening announced, after several attempts to break through all the conversation of the writers, musicians and lifelong friends, that Dave would be reading for twenty minutes or so at about 7:30.  Dan himself was surrounded by people who came up to ask him about his own upcoming book.
     Despite delaying the starting for his reading by about 15 minutes, Dave only made it through signing the books of half the people in queue.  Molly introduced the book, explaining that Dave had chosen the cover and the paper on which the book was printed based upon  the feel they carried and that the print was raised enough to be felt with the finger tips.  Dan introduced his brother.
     Dave pulled the microphone closer to him and began by saying, “As most of you in this room already know, about a year ago I was diagnosed with ALS.”   We did know.  Despite having a lost some of the vivacity and strength of vocal inflection characteristic of his readings, Dave read in a clear voice that reached everyone’s ears.  After reading half a dozen poems, he would need to stop and catch his breath taking drinks of water from the bottle that Ona handed him.  At one point, a listener in the crowd asked  if he could request a certain poem, Dave who was reading from Braille and did not have that particular poem in front of him invited the listener to bring up a copy of a the book and read the poem.  Near the end of the reading, a long time friend came to the front and began to play a song for Dave on a well-traveled trumpet; Dave and most of those in the room sang along.
     What is remarkable about David Simpson’s poetry is his ability to convey a sense of what it is like to be a human being making his way through the ordinary ups and downs of life.  Yes, he asks the big questions and, yes, many of his poems are what it is like to experience life as a blind man, but his gift is to be able to tap into the emotions of everyone in the room. Whether they were blind, able-bodied, or use a wheelchair faces last night as they nod or laugh, knowing exactly what he is talking about.   Any writer with a disability who fears that taking a stand and reading in public about their life experiences will somehow set them apart from their audience should literally take a page from Dave’s book.
     The reading went on until almost 9 PM. Near the end, Dave talked a bit about the invaluable experiences that he had  at the yearly writers workshops he attended at Cape May, how much they had helped him develop as a writer and how it helped him to learn things that would enable him to publish and sell his work. But then he added, though those things important to him, he had forgotten most of it.  What remained for him - what was most valuable - was how much fun it had been to be with all of those other people.   That was the sense that pervaded Dave’s book launch last night.  The people were there to celebrate Dave’s life and work. The atmosphere in the room vibrated with it.  It wasn’t schmaltz. It was genuine.  That’s what made it such a rare event.

Friday, September 19, 2014

In Praise of Disability Literary Journals

I’ve just finished putting out the September issue of Wordgathering.  There is always a mixed sense of excitement and relief when it is accomplished.  As frustrating as it can be to try to be sure that the journal presents the work of writers in a way that makes them feel good about having their work a part of Wordgathering, when I finally see it all out the work – the poetry, essays, book reviews, short stories, interviews, art and music – laid out on line, there is a real sense of satisfaction.

The current issue of Wordgathering is especially exciting because it introduces readers to Pentimento, through an interview with its editors, editor-in-chief Lori Brozek and poetry editor Marie Kane.  Pentimento is a new, hard copy literary journal of disability-related literature.  The journal began just a year ago and plugs up a huge hole left in the wake of Kaleidoscope’s decision to go totally digital.  Moreover, like its predecessor, Pentimento, is not just a saddle-stapled magazine run off at Staples.  It is modeled after The Sun, and, beautifully presented.  For those of us over 30, there is still some truth to the feeling that going to the mailbox, pulling out a professionally published magazine and seeing your work in it provides a kind of jolt that publication in an online journal like Wordgathering just can’t deliver.  Even more important, though, it gives writers with disabilities or those whose work engages disability, a new venue for their writing – raising the number to four.

Raising the number to four: Kaleidoscope, Breath and Shadow, Wordgathering and, now Pentimento.  In a society that prides itself on diversity, that is an embarassingly paltry number.  True, there are academic publications such as Disability Studies Quarterly and Britain’s Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability that produce amazing and much needed work, but these are, in the main, scholarly – written by scholars, for scholars.
Moreover, they use very little of the kinds of writing that the word literature invokes for most people, that is poetry, fiction, the imaginative essay or drama.  

Last year, I wrote up a proposal for a panel on small magazines of disability literature for the annual AWP conference.  The proposal included editors from Kaleidoscope, Breath and Shadow and me (representing Wordgathering) as well as Jim Ferris and Laurie Clements Lambeth, both poets who had worked in an editorial capacity with DSQ. I’d  been on several AWP panels previously and knew that they were looking for panels that had something new to offer.  One would have thought giving the writers of the country’s largest minority a chance to meet and talk with the editors of the few literary magazines that actively sought their work would have been a no-brainer.  It wasn’t. To my amazement, the proposal was rejected, even as panels re-treading previous conference subjects were put on the roster.

Because none of the four disability lit journals is attached to universities, funding is an issue.  Breath and Shadow and Kaleidoscope both receive a small amount of agency funding. Pentimento, did receive a small initial grant, but now is funded entirely by the editor, Lori Brozek, herself.  Because it is a print journal, it also has to get funding through subscribers.  Each of these three gives a small token payment for the work it accepts from writers.  Wordgathering, which depends entirely on volunteers, does not pay.  As the editor, I’m fully aware that once writers whose work I publish find a paying market for their work, that’s were they’ll go.  I don’t blame them.  They deserve monetary recognition.

Despite their lack of glamour or ability to make any real contribution to a writer’s income, small poetry magazines – particularly within the disabilities literature community – do fulfill an important function.  Sure, even the Pushcart Prize committee, is going to throw our nominations into their slush pile. Where we get our satisfaction is when a previously unpublished poet that we’ve championed comes out with their first book of poetry, when a better known poet decides to write a poem about their disability and credits our journal with the first publication in their most recent book or when a book first reviewed in our journal finds its way into a recommended reading list in a college course on disability literature.  Those are the kinds of successes that drive us as editors.

The September issue of Wordgathering is now up and I hope the writers whose work is included there see an ever widening audience.  I hope that some readers relate to Dan Simpson’s poems or that someone reads Michael Uniacke’s essay on writing Deaf historical fiction and decides to take a crack at it.  I like to think someone googling John Milton comes up with the reaction of nine writers with visual impairment to his Sonnet XVI in this issue.  Or that Deaf artist Cynthia Weitzel’s latest work or Ona Gritz’s wonderful review of Jennifer Bartlett’s important book of poetry Autobiography/Anti-Autobiography catch the attention of those already involved in teaching disability studies.  As anyone who spends a few minutes out in a field or roadside this time of year knows, there is no telling where the seeds let loose will land.  You only hope that some find the right soil and flourish.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Kaleidoscope Goes Digital

Perhaps, it was inevitable - the country’s oldest magazine of disability literature and art is going digital. As of January, Kaleidoscope will no longer publishes in hard copy. The magazine that for 30 years has given writers with disabilities the opportunity to see their work arrive in an envelope in the mailbox or see it sitting among the periodicals on a library periodical shelf will now, like its companion periodicals, Breath and Shadow and Wordgathering, be completely online.

 To those for whom publication means having something concrete to hold in their hands, this is likely to feel like a loss, but in another sense it is likely to be a boon in disguise. From their new venue at, the work of the writers and artists it features, will hit a much larger audience. Gail Willmott, the journal’s editor, has widely kept access to the magazine free on line – subscriptions were $12 a year – making it its contents available not just to search engines but to links in Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and other sites. It also potentially resolves problems for visually impaired or blind readers who, unable to read a traditional print journal, will now be able to access it through screen readers (though this is an issue still to be worked out.)

 Kaleidoscope holds an important place in disability literature, being among the first to publish writers like Anne Finger and John Hockenberry, who are now well established. It was also through Kaleidoscope magazine that a call for poetry was put out that resulted in the publication of Towards Solomon’s Mountain in 1986, the first volume of poetry made up entirely of the work of writers with disabilities. Let’s hope the new twenty-first century incarnation of Kaleidoscope proves just as rewarding.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Anthology by Mothers of Children with Disabilities

Although children with disabilities should always be given the opportunity to speak for themselves, parents of children with disabilities also have their own storiesLiz Whiteacre and Lyn Jones of Ball State University have put out the forllowing call for essays and poems by the mothers of children with disabilities themselves:

Seeking Submissions from Mothers of Children with Special Needs for Anthology Project: We believe in the transitive power of story. Our hope is that your stories will illustrate a realistic tableau of the lives of mothers of children with special needs. This anthology is the vision of mothers, writers, disability advocates, professors, and editors Darolyn “Lyn” Jones and Liz Whiteacre. Mothers of children with special needs, please consider submitting previously unpublished nonfiction essays 6,000 words or less (they may be memoir, graphic/illustrated, or photo essays) and no more than 6 unpublished poems that address the challenges you face, empowerment you’ve felt, joy you’ve experienced, or providence you’ve explored. Multiple submissions are allowed. Email Liz Whiteacre at for detailed submission guidelines. Submissions must be received by Monday, April 22, 2012.

Here's an opportunity for women to tell their stories. Take advantage of it.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Larry Eigner Redux

Though their influence may be waning, the name Black Mountain poets and the voices associated with them - Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan - are still familiar to most readers of  twentieth century literature.  One member of this group whose name rarely gets thrown into the mix is Larry Eigner.  Thanks to the scholarship of Michael Davidson, Eigner's name has been rescued from seeming oblivion and his work is now a staple in disability literature courses.  Eigner, who had cerebral palsy, was not physically present at most gatherings of the school of poetry with which he is associated, but his work and associations place him squarely in the same room as the Black Mountain pioneers. At the same time, Eigner had his own distinctive style, one which, though it does not take cerebral palsy as a subject was, as Davidson has demonstrated, profoundly influenced by his physical condition.

Fortunately both for Eigner and for poetry readers generally, Eigner’s legacy is now being given a boost by poet Jennifer Bartlett.  Bartlett is one of the co-editors of Beauty is A Verb, an anthology of disability related poetry which includes among its many offerings a sample of Eigner’s work, a selection from Davidson’s classic essay “Missing Larry” and Bartlett’s own poetry, which shows affinities with Eigner.  Bartlett has embarked on the process of writing a biography of Eigner and his work.  Her first step has been the recent publication of an essay “Anything has to be easy to be done” as a small chapbook through the efforts of Brian Teare – no slouch of a poet himself – and his Albion Press in Philadelphia. Teare takes on only a few carefully chosen projects a year and Bartlett’s pamphlet is one of them.
In the chapbook, Bartlett sets out the basics of Eigner’s background, his mentorship by Cid Corman, poet Denise Levertov’s visceral reaction to Eigner’s physical appearance, and intimations of the relationship between Eigner’s cerebral palsy and his work. Bartlett ends her essay with the following paragraph:

What do I take from this? Though Eigner’s body informed his work, it’s important for a critic not to read Eigner’s poems through the lens of limitations she sees as intrinsic to disability, but which Eigner himself did not experience. Rather than impose an imagined lens of disability on Eigner’s work, Creeley and others take the opportunity to connect it to his bodily existence. And like Eigner, we should focus on what is possible.  We should treat him as equal while realizing that, by society’s standards, he wasn’t, and acknowledge that through the content and form of Eigner’s work derived from his body, they were not determined by it.

This is an important point and in establishing it, Bartlett re-enforces the significance of Eigner’s physical body to his work while holding up a caution sign against attempts to impose current paradigms of disability on the minds of a writer no longer living.  It will be interesting to see what she comes up with next.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Good-bye to a Unique Contest

As April and poetry month begin this year, something will be missing. For the first time in ten years, the Inglis House Poetry Contest will not be putting out calls for submissions. With my own retirement from Inglis House and the unavailability of funding for the contest and its resulting chapbooks, it is time to put this small, unique, important contest to a rest. When the original contest creators and judges, Stuart Sanderson, Dana Hirsch, Steve Parker and I sat down to plan out the first contest, we had no idea just where it would lead. In reflecting back on what I might want to say about the contest here, I came across a “Foreword” written for She Asks for Slippers While Pointing at the Salt, the chapbook from the 2009 contest, that encapsulates the history and spirit of the IH Poetry Contest so well, that rather than try to go it one better, I am simply reprinting it.

In 2002 the Inglis House Poetry Workshop instituted what, at the time, was a rare phenomenon – a national disability poetry contest. The purpose of the contest was twofold, to encourage the work of writers with disabilities and to help to give shape to disability poetry as a genre.

The poetry we received was so diverse that the workshop felt it was unfair merely to recognize the winners and, therefore, we expanded our original contest concept to include an annual chapbook, comprised of the best selections we received. Four years later, we also added essays to the chapbook that deal both with the specific craft of individual writers and with disability poetics more generally, and last year we incorporated art and photography as well.

Once or twice over the seven years of the Inglis House Poetry contest, the editors have been accused of bias and – as with all misrepresentations – there is a mustard seed of truth in this. When we receive a poem by Sheila Black or Ona Gritz, we have high expectations. As when someone learns from experience that at certain restaurants they always find high quality food, we have come to associate certain writers with quality work. This is a direct result of what the Inglis House Workshop through its contests and its online magazine Wordgathering have tried to achieve. One of our primary missions has been to build up a repertoire of poets that come to represent the best of disability poetry. We are proud of the fact that we have done this. Along with Black and Gritz, we have been able to bring to the public a fair selection of the work of Linda Cronin, Ellen LaFleche, Patricia Wellingham-Jones, Arden Eli Hill, Paul Kahn, Kobus Moolman and Trace Estes. If the poems of these writers continue to resurface in our publications, we take this as a compliment and not a criticism.

As with all our previous chapbooks, the poems include a wide variety of viewpoints and topics. One of the more significant themes that emerges is that of inspiration. As John Lee Clark, a poet who is deaf and blind writes:

Can’t I even pick my nose
Without it being a miracle?

This is a point the Kathi Wolfe picks up in her essay “The Disability Pedestal”, which begins, “Since time began, different cultures have placed people with disabilities on ‘inspirational’ pedestals. They’ve viewed us as ‘seers,’ visionaries, oracles, saintly, innocent ‘holy fools.’ That is if they, on the other side of the coin, haven’t wanted to kill us because we are evil or pity us because we’re such ‘poor helpless creatures.’” Wolfe’s point is that whether it is inspiration, fear or pity, such labels are a way a speaker uses to distance themselves from the person with the disability. It is a way of not admitting them as an equal. In addition, as Wolfe points out, “More often, the poets who use such ‘inspirational’ images of person with disabilities write bad poems. So in addition to the yuck factor of inspiration you have annoying, often cloying, badly crafted poetry.”

She Asks for Slippers attempts to counter this image of inspiration by providing the variety that shows disability is too multi-faceted to reduced to easy metaphors. In this volume, for example, you see Ona Gritz with her son:

My son works his way
from the far end of the kitchen,
New to walking, his halting
steps, mostly on tip-toe
resemble my own palsied gait.

Judith Grogan-Shorbs’ depiction of an ex-gang member:

When teeth grasp paint brush,
Carlos transforms the world. No room
for gangs of sorrow, or regrets
for turf-treading

John Mannone’s soldier says:

Doctors said I’d be all right,
but no one warned me
of the demons hanging on
the ends of nerves.

Kathi Wolfe notes:

Susan, a red-haired girl, gave me my first kiss.
I live on the Sapphic
side of the street.

And Nancy Scott recalls of a friend:

We pulled possible from the air
that looked empty
to people who could see.

Poems like these do not reduce people with disability to easy images. They are not meant to inspire. They do not ask for pity. Instead, they give a taste of what disability literature has to offer.

At this point, to my knowledge, there is still not another annual contest that devotes itself to disability-related poetry. Fortunately, the original intent of the contest’s originators is still being carried on in Wordgathering and Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, the best selling anthology whose pages contain among them some of the poems that readers first encountered in the contest chapbooks. Knowing this, the small group that sat in a room at Inglis House ten years ago wondering what they could do to try to kick start disability poetry and bring it to the general public can’t be too unhappy.