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
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.