Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Disability Artist?

Steven Brown of the University of Hawaii has thrown out the question, “What is Disability Art?” He also provides an answer. His answer is that it is art whose central theme expresses the lived experience of disability. Brown extends the meaning of lived disability to include those who are relatives or caretakers of a person with the issue of disability constantly. When asked if he is a disability artist, Brown replies that he is always an artist with a disability regardless of the topic, but he is a disability artist only when his writing has directly to do with disability.

While Brown’s answer may appear at a quick glance to provide straight some straight forward answers, on closer inspection, it may raise more questions than it answers. The first is a question of degree. As Kuusisto points out (see last post), blindness is not necessarily just a dark or light proposition. Even ignoring social context for the moment, how limited does a person’s sight need to be for it to be a disability. If he is an artist, at what point does he become an artist with a disability?

A second question that arises is whether a writer like Kuusisto or Jim Ferris (see previous post) is really only a disability writer producing disability art when they intend to do so. By analogy does a writer who is African-American or a woman or gay only produce African-American, feminist or queer art when they consciously make otherness a central theme of their work? Certainly, not all of Kuusisto’s poems in Only Bread, Only Light deal with the topic of physical vision, yet a good case could be made that it affects his vision as an artist in all of his work.

Finally, what about Brown’s laudable – from my point of view – attempt to make the definition of disability art broader by including those on whom disability has had a profound affect. Certainly, Barbara Crooker’s poetry exploring autism after twenty years of raising an autistic son (see previous post) would seem to qualify her work as disability art and Brown’s definition provides for that. On the other hand, can a straight, white, male ever be said to produce queer, African American or feminist art, regardless of the subject?

Brown’s definitions provoke these questions and while one may feels this is counting angels on the head of a pen, if anyone is to claim that there is a poetry of disability or that poets with disability deserve consideration in the same way as other minority groups in the United States, they are questions that need addressing.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Only Bread, Only Light

Stephen Kuusisto's book of poems Only Bread, Only Light is an amazing book in many ways. As Kuusisto explains in his acclaimed autobiographical work, Planet of the Blind, he was born with extremely limited sight - 20/200 in his best eye on a good day. Blindness is not always total blackness as many suppose; it is often an almost surrealistic vision comparable to living permanently behind a toy kaleidoscope that continually turns. What Kuusisto does, particularly in the first section of Only Bread, Only Light is to give us some sense of world that world is like and how it shapes his art. He says in the title poem:

At times the blind see light,
And that moment is the Sistine ceiling

Grace among buildings - no one asks
For it

As with Milton, light and grace are key players in Kuusisto’s poems, but music is never far away either,

the music lets me stand -
Freed from opinion into guess
A place I need as some need ends.

This sense of music and grace inform his understanding of poetry

As I get older
The incidental lyric slips
Through the dark trees
But honestly I can't tell
What it means -

As one reads these poems a certain feel, an aesthetic emerges that seems inseparable from the person writing. Like Kuusisto, I can't honestly tell what it means either, but it takes the reader into a world that I think only this poet could guide you through. Of course, any one who weaves Juliana of Norwich and Pascal into his poetry and comes up with a poem entitled "Dante's Paradiso Translates Poorly in Braille" has got me hooked from the start.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Toward A Crippled Poetics

Jim Ferris’ essay, “The Enjambed Body: A Step Toward a Crippled Poetics”,which appeared in the Summer 2004 Georgia Review surpasses anything else I have read that discusses poetry and disability. No one who has not lived with a disability could have written it. It is not just that Ferris brings both personal and academic knowledge to the piece, but that it is immeasurably more creative than the sort of pedantic pieces one tends to expect from literary theorists. My prediction is that if a significant amount of disabilities literature if ever amassed to make it a recognized literary field (as African-American or Gay/Lesbian literature has), this essay will be one of its classics.

Ferris’ basic image is a comparison of his own feet to feet in poetry. Poetry grows out of the body and one can look at poem as a body. Ferris own legs were of increasingly different length as he grew; they were uneven. This leads naturally to his image of uneven feet in a poem and further to enjambment. His is an image of protest against traditional forms to which one is supposed to adhere. While that is hardly a case that needs much arguing in modern poetry, Ferris insight is to tie that protest to the concept of disability, and the fact that by its very nature, disability goes against what society takes to be its norms. Just as the poet is measured against conventional constructs of what poetry should be, i.e. certain forms, the person with a disability is measured against norms of bodily appearance or function. For Ferris, the insistence on a poet’s forcing his own natural style of writing poetry into the constraints imposed by structures inherited from the past is comparable to his experience of physicians forcing his own unconventional legs into braces in order to make them conform to a structure that was not their own.

The essay is a braiding together of physical facts about Ferris’ own body (e.g. the measurements of his leg length), his own experiences of these facts, and quotes from poets on poetic theory. The construction itself is uneven in a conventional sense and this unconventionality allows a secondary metaphor comes in. Ferris looks to the molecule, specifically to the molecules in polyprophylene, a resin that has a remarkable flexibility and strength. The molecules in this polymer are “tightly ordered but unsymmetrical” and it is this arrangement that when excited by heat allows it to be flexible and shaped into whatever is needed. The application to poetry, of course, is obvious.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

A Poetics of Disability

As philosopher Susan Wendell points out in her pioneering work, Rejected Bodies, aside from a common label, there is little that all persons who are considered disabled can be said to share. Rather than being defined by what they are, individuals with disabilities, tend to be defined by what they are not - that mythical average person. Because of this, it is difficult to say that there is a disabilities point of view. Wendell believes, nevertheless, that there are perspectives that the disabilities community can lend to the mainstream merely by virtue of their having lived through experiences that by definition, the non-disabled have not lived through.

A similar question might be asked about a poetics of disability. Are there experiences that a writer with disabilities can bring to a poem that an able-bodied writer can not? Poet Stuart Sanderson hints at this in his poem, “Experts”:

They know everything about you,
Except your name.
You don’t communicate
With other people well
Therefore your are retarded.
Education, forget about it.
You can’t have any feelings of love
Towards another human being
Because you are in a wheelchair.
The Experts read their textbooks
But their books are filled with cold words.
Instead, you know within
You are smarter than
The Experts.

Though Sanderson’s poem is immediately about the medical establishment, his point could apply to poetry as well. Obviously, he has the inside track on what it is like to have CP and be in a wheelchair, but can someone with a disability contribute a perspective to poetic theory that someone without a disability cannot? Can there be a poetics of disability?