Thursday, March 29, 2012

From Poetry to Action

When Dan Simpson gives a poetry reading, it's almost always a success. He walks up to the podium with his dog Chandler, lays out the Braille text of poems that he reads from, and begins reading in a voice that exudes both compassion and strength. His poems speak of his experiences as a blind man growing up in the United States, and frequently, when he reads poems like “Broken Reverie” - a political poem about why he does not write political poems – the audience will burst into applause as it did last week when he read at Arcadia University.

Last month, however, Dan’s reading was of quite a different kind. In a rally in the parkway in front of the central branch of the Philadelphia Free Library, he spoke out against the state of Pennsylvania’s plan to drastically shear the services of the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped by cutting the staff to a minimum and shipping all of the cassettes tapes used by its Philadelphia patrons to a much smaller library in Pittsburgh. Dan’s speech was an impassioned one, and for good reason. Not only have he and his twin brother David (also blind and a poet) used the library for over 50 years, but he helps to provide technical assistance for the blind to the library itself. Dan followed his speech with a written article in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

There are, of course, poets who still consider their work ethereal, a product of the mind that has no connection with the physical body nor with any obligation to take action. If their work is to mean anything, writers with disabilities still cannot afford that luxury. We’re lucky to have poets like Dan Simpson, who puts his actions where his words are.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Anne Kaier

Philadelphia Poet Anne Kaier was the subject of a recent article in the Montgomery News. It’s about time. Kaier, the author of In Fire and a contributor to the recent anthology: Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability has a take on disability that is quite unusual. In her own words, “I have a rare skin condition called ichthyosis in which the skin does not shed normally, but clots and peels perpetually. It’s genetic, chronic and inelegant.” Kaier’s condition, then is not one like cerebral palsy or blindness, that would inhibit ones mobility nor make it difficult to function in situations which most people would consider ordinary. Nor is it like autism or schizophrenia that affect one’s cognition, emotional responses or ability to communicate. In this sense, though it certainly involves a medical condition, Kaier’s disability is almost totally a social construction. As such, she is possibly the contributor to Beauty is a Verb for whom the entire title of the anthology is most appropriate.

At the beginning of In Fire, the poet sets the stage and context for the standards against which beginning in childhood, she will be measured:

My mother
Works at her mahogany table,
Sketching brows and painting eyes;
After years as a practicing beauty,
She deft.

Her mother, though doing what she has to do to provide for her daughter, is conscious of her own disappointment in her daughter’s appearance, justifying her elf at the dinner table by saying, “I could have let you die when you were born.” In her poem “Mother Love” Kaier writes:

I could not please you
I could not make my arm…
Clean, soft, pretty.

Among many other issues, Kaier also explores the role of that medical field plays in making people with disabilities objects of what Irving Goffman called, “the gaze.”

Like Susanna with the elders,
I tell my story,
Swinging my legs against the metal table.

In childhood, standing in Dr. Shelby’s office,
I stretched my arms to his soft, scientific gaze.
My body came along with me who looked and saw and did not see
But now on this day,
I sit on the edge of the examining table, nakedly me.
The ridges in my skin stick
To my arms and I am one with them
I sit whole on the table edge, Case #18.
Kaier is Harvard graduate, has written and had poems published on many subjects, and teaches at several colleges, so she could simply distance herself – as some writers do – from identification with disabilities poetry on the basis that she does not want to be categorized as a niche writer. Fortunately, she has not. As she herself says,

I have broken the old taboo,
Named my affliction,
Called it mine.