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.


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