Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Sheila Black

We called ourselves cripples
Because that was the word we could not use.
-Sheila Black, “Physical Therapy”

It always exciting to discover a poet whose work speaks with the quiet defiance of personal knowledge but whose artistry raises her above the mere shouts of activist rhetoric. Such is the work of Sheila Black. Black is the real deal.

Black was born with X-linked hyperstomia (XLH) better known as vitamin D resistant rickets, a condition which two of her children also share but which is so rare that she did not meet another individual with XLH until adulthood. Black’s poetry reflects the experiences of growing up with the particular body that she has and with society's reaction to it.

The year they straightened my legs,
the young doctor said, meaning to be kind,
Now you will walk
on your wedding day
, but what he could not
imagine is how even on my wedding day
I would arch my back and wonder
about the body I had before it was changed.

She does not just limit herself to a critique of medical practice which, almost by its very nature, locates disability in the individual body. She goes forward not just to claim, but to love the body that was rejected by standard concepts of normalcy.

the crooked body they spoke of,
the body which made walking so difficult
…was simply mine
and I loved it as you love your own country
the familiar lay of the land, the unkempt trees

While she does not shrink from expressing opinions that run against the current of common thought, you will not find the obligatory buzzwords of poststructuralism in Black’s poetry. Without a single reference to the social construction of disability, she describes the discovery of a sense of community upon for the first time meeting others with XLH like herself.

We could be anywhere but we are
here with our stories. Timidly we pull
them out like rare coins, only to discover
how common they are at this table.

The one disappointing aspect of Black’s poetry is that there is so little of it available. Though her poetry has received recognition by winning prizes both from Main Street Rag and the Inglis House Poetry Contest, her first book, House of Bone, will not be available until 2007. It should be a publication well worth waiting for. This is true not only because of her art itself, but because the field of disability poetry is one in which, when thinking of a significant body of work, the first names that come to mind – Ferris, Fries, Andrews, Kuusisto, Skloot – are men. It would be good to be able to add Black’s name to that list.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Yo, Publishers!

Disability poetry has come of age. With the work of poets like Kenny Fries, Jim Ferris, Karen Fiser, Tom Andrews, Floyd Skloot, Stephen Kuusisto, Paul Kahn, Sheila Black et al, you’d think that publishers would be salivating over the chance to be the first to put together a really top shelf collection of these writers’ works. Sure, there are the old anthologies of the 80’s that strained to find enough quality poetry to fill their pages: Towards Solomon’s Mountain, Despite This Flesh and With Wings. They served an important purpose in trying to carve out a fledging genre, but twenty years later the landscape has changed. Even Kenny Fries’ Staring Back, which has become almost the bible of imaginative literature for Disabilities Studies courses, could only devote a modest amount of space to poetry. There is a big hole on the book store shelves where anthologies of gay, Chicano, feminist and African American poetry sit. If there is a publisher out there interested, I’m volunteering my services to put one together.

Even more important, there is an essential work on disability poetry just longing for publication. It’s Petra Kuppers’ Disability Culture Poetry: Pleasure and Difference. Kuppers is already a well-respected scholar in the Disabilities Studies community, both for her work in drama and her book Disability and Contemporary Performance: Bodies on Edge. In Disability Culture Poetry she combines energy, insight and scholarship in a series of essays that explores the work and themes of many of the genre’s best writers. While it may be true that making one’s way through much disabilities research is a lot like taking brewer’s yeast, Kupper’s work is not only easy to swallow, it is downright delicious. She is able to take advantage of her experiences in teaching to come up with a work that provides something new for both the beginning literature student and the seasoned disabilities scholar. And her style could only belong to someone who knows poetry from the inside out. It is no exaggeration to say that Kuppers work is cutting edge and that there is nothing in disabilities literature quite like it. While I can understand that purveyors of Hallmark poetry may not be interested, it is unfathomable to me that a university press would not want to snap this up – especially one with Disability Studies courses. In the words of one of our American icons, “I pity the fool…”

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Dan Simpson

In his essay “Line Breaks as I See Them,” poet Daniel Simpson relates a story that exemplifies the impact that disability has in shaping the very form that a writer’s work may take. As an emerging poet at the University of Pennsylvania, Simpson became a protégé of Gregory Djanikian, a writer whose work he very much admired. Like Djanikian, Simpson came to subscribe to the idea that even lines in a poem gave it a pleasing look on the page. For the last few years, however, Simpson has been corresponding regularly by email with well-known poet Molly Peacock. In one discussion of his work, Peacock asked Simpson why he wanted his lines to be even.

"Having lines of relatively same length can make a poem look beautiful on the page, but that’s a painterly thing to do. Why do you care how it looks on the page? You’re blind an that seems like a particularly sighted concern. Besides that, you’re a musician. Wouldn’t it make more sense in the context of your life to treat the poem and its line breaks more like a musical score than a painting?"

Peacock went on to say, “And if one line sticks out like a shirt billowing on a clothesline, and the next line hangs like a limp little sock next to it, so be it. What do you care?”

It made a lot of sense. Simpson sat down and wrote the opening lines to his next poem:

His rage hung in the house like a shirt billowing on a clothesline,
her silence
like a sock
beside it

He also went back to examine the images that he had been using in his previous work and realized that a number of things he had written used imagery based upon the perceptions of a sighted writer.

Simpson isn’t revisionist. He does not disavow his earlier work. Nor should he. What he has done…what he is currently contributing are two important aspects of a disability aesthetic. The first is to do what few other poets with disabilities other than Jim Ferris have done, let the form of poem reflect the body from which it comes. The second is to examine the inherited language of poetry and translate it into work which expresses his own experience rather than an assumed one. Both are important tasks, but of the two, the first is more difficult.