Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Map of This World

Occasionally it is useful to look back at how far we’ve come – or haven’t come. When A. J. Baird placed the first call for poetry by writers with disabilities in an issue of Kaleidoscope in 1983, his intent was to replace the pity-filled and patronizing poetry that turned people with disabilities into poster children with “Tough-mind poetry grounded in physical fact.” Now in 2010, when poets like Sheila Black or Laurie Clements Lambeth write nuanced poetry that is not only artful but explodes the older patronizing images of disability, it is easy to forget that their work rests on some intermediary writers whose poetry may not have been quite as sophisticated but which was never the less barrier-breaking. One of the most impressive of these was Dara McLaughlin, whose book A Map of This World, now almost out of print, should probably be required reading for any poet who thinks she has something new to say about disability.

Any reader opening McLaughlin’s book does not even have to get as far as the first poem to realize that this writer is out to change some perceptions about disability and that she is not going to be subtle about it. The first heads up comes table of contents announces such titles, "The Exact Color of My Pubic Hair," "Twenty-Two Stupid Things to Say to a Crip," and "Yes, the Paralyzed Girl Can Have Babies." She also makes a point of politicizing the dedication, “Dedication: For Santo, Marla, Daina raised by a wheelchair mom and we did fine.”

McLaughlin works in two directions. The first, as the titles suggest, is in content. She is not offering easy solutions. There is no glossing over the realities of depending upon a wheelchair rather than her legs, but she also avoids platitudinous images.

Some mornings
damn them
some mornings I forget

I unfurl my pillow, turn around
and there it is
the "chair", sitting there, waiting

the necessary demon -
empty until I shake my hear free of demons
slip out of bed to nestle my body into its curve

Though McLaughlin does to some extent sound her barbaric yawp, she also is searching for new possible forms of expression for disability in poetry. This is the second direction in which it works. The book experiments with list poem, haiku sequence, odes, prose poems and forms with no particular names. Not all of these are successful, but that is what experimentation is about.
Her use of the term "Staring Back" in a poem title references Kenny Fries’ anthology of the same name, very popular when McLaughlin was writer. It is a move that disability theorist David Mitchell suggests is necessary for writers in this new field.

A Map of this World was McLaughlin’s only book of poetry, but it is sufficient to warrant her consideration as an important voice in disability poetry during the 1990’s. You will probably have to find a used copy on line somewhere, but if you can do it, the book is well worth the effort.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Beauty is a Verb

This year’s Associated Writers Programs (AWP) conference held in Denver, Colorado next month will include at least one panel discussion on disability poetry. The title of the panel is, Beauty is a Verb – The New Disability Poetics and is described by itself organizer, poet Sheila Black, as following:

“This panel will discuss how the poetry of disability seeks to tackle and refigure traditional discourses of the disabled around an interrogation of "normalcy" and of the notions of beauty and function that have been so foundational to Western culture and aesthetics. The panel will focus on poetic strategies, including the subversion of historical discourses and the decentering of the subject through which a range of disabled poets have sought to address these issues.”

Black will be joined the panel by four other poets/scholars Barbara Crooker, Jennifer Bartlett, Ann Bogle, and Ellen McGrath Smith . Michael Northen, an editor of Wordgathering will moderate the panel. The panel promises to be exciting with this opinionated and diverse group. It is a chance to hear first hand about many of the issues raised in disability literature by the writers themselves. Sample poetry from each of the panelists can be seen in the current issue of Wordgathering.