Sunday, January 04, 2015

Six More Poets With Disabilities

Recently, Sheila Black, who co-edited Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability with Jennifer Bartlett and me wrote a piece for Vela called “Sheila Black’s Six Poet’s with Disabilities.” These poets were selected from among those writers who appeared in our anthology and – no question about it – all of them are writers who deserve to be read.   What is not readily apparent from someone who casually happened upon the article’s title is that, because Vela is a publication dedicated to feminism, all  six poets feature are women.  Ordinarily, my only objection would be that Sheila did not include herself as one of the six, but as the editor of Wordgathering, an online journal of disability literature and poetry, I do have a concern.  It may not be true of high profile, main stream poetry journals, but about ninety percent of the poetry that submitted to me is written by women.  One might easily conclude from looking at a typical issue of Wordgathering that men with disabilities, for whatever reason, simply do not write poetry.  To counter this perception, I am going to offer my own version of “Six Poets with Disabilities,”  this one focusing on male writers.

One  of the criteria by which Sheila selected the women that she discussed in Vela was how high their poetry rated on the badass scale.  While badassery in women comes across has radical and staking out new territory, among men its conjures quite a different image -  a conservative machismo that resists  notions of inclusion and new perspectives.  As a result, the six poets I recommend below are chosen for their past and continuing contribution to disability poetry, a secondary consideration being my familiarity with their body of work.   While they vary widely in their perspectives and poetry, to my mind, they are all essential reading for anyone with an interest in disability poetry.

Jim Ferris
Jim  Ferris is in some ways the father of disability poetry as a genre.  His essay “The Enjambed Body” set forth some initial criteria for what disability poetry might be. Ferris’ book The Hospital Poems , published a decade ago, may have been the first book of poetry about disability that could be considered a best  seller, and his poem  “Poet of Cripples” something of an anthem with its closing lines:

   Look care, look deep
   Know that you are a cripple too.
   I sing for cripples; I sing for you.

One of Ferris’ concerns has been to use the experience of disability as a way to experiment with new forms.  While trying to establish ties between disability poetry and main stream poets, he also seeks to put for points of view which this genre has to offer.

Stephen Kuusisto
Two books of poetry, Only Bread, Only light and Letters to Borges establish Stephen Kuusisto as a major voice in disability poetry.   In the first, Kuusisto  explodes common perceptions of what blindness is like, accomplishing it through both practical and deeply philosophical poems.  In the second, he at once pushes the genre and connects to  a modern mainstream literature figure who was blind as his silent foil.

   You were right:
   Reality is not always probable, or likely.
   A policeman said I was jaywalking
   And I had to tell him
   I couldn’t see.

In addition to being a poet, Kuusisto is a memoirist and prolific blogger on literature and disability issues in Planet of the Blind.

Daniel  Simpson
Dan Simpson and his twin brother Dave are poets and musicians who were born blind. While their poetry chronicles the lives of individuals who attended schools for the blind and use service dogs, it is the humanity with which they infuse their poems that gives readers access to the ordinariness of their  lives.

   I’m just getting to love
   This world for what it is, a flawed place

   With its subway platforms overlooking the third rail,
   Its hay lofts, open sewers  and loading docks,

   And all the strangers who’ve looked out for me,
   Letting me take their arms to walk with them.

The Simpsons took the unusual step of releasing their first collection as an audio CD only.  This past year,  however,  they published print books.  Dan Simpson’s is School for the Blind, David Simpson’s The Way Love Comes to Me.

Stephen Kuusisto asks:

   How do you tell strangers
   That people may live
   Who cannot see?

The poetry of Dan and Dave Simpson gives the answer.

John Lee Clark
When it comes to poetry of the Deaf community, few have done more than John Lee Dlark.  Clark, a deafblind writer, has edited two important anthologies, Deaf American Poetry and Deaf Lit Extravaganza. Clark has worked for the recognition of ASL poetry, which he both composes and translates. Most recently he was able to get mainstream Poetry magazine to include a discussion among writers with disabilities.  In his own poetry, Clark is constantly experimenting, sometimes including ASL syntactical forms.

                                       Sign, do sign
   Better go home we and our hands
   Will make time go suddenly slow.

Raymond Luczak
A prolific writer and editor, Raymond Luczak has been a frequent collaborator with John Lee Clark.  Recently, Luczak established Handtype Press, dedicated to the publication of work by Deaf writers.  In addition,  Luczak has done much to promote the work of the LGBT community.   Much of Luczak’s own poetry reflects his develop and experience as a Deaf gay man, as the title “Instructions to Hearing Persons Desiring a Deaf Man,” one of the poems that that appears in BIAV suggests.

   A deaf man is always a foreign country.
   He remains forever a language to learn.

Hal Sirowitz
Hal Sirowitz is the only poet among the six discussed here who was not born with a disability.  In fact, before  he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Hal was already a well-known, award winning poet.  Since his diagnosis and all of the adjustment for a writer that come with it, he has maintained the sense of double-edged humor that help to bring his work to prominence in the first place, transforming it to take in his new perspective.

   I’ve read somewhere that a cow
   Can only walk up stairs but
   Not down. Even though I have
   Parkinson’s, I’m a step ahead
   Of a  cow.

As I mentioned above, I’ve chosen those writers from the anthology with whose work I am the most familiar.  Other  contemporary writers whose work is included in Beauty is a Verb that also deserves reading include:
                Kenny Fries
                Alex Lemon
                Brian Teare
                David Wolach
                G. S. Giscombe

A final caveat.  One of the limitation that the editors of  Beauty as a Verb placed upon themselves was restricting the poets included in the anthology to American writers.   For those looking for the perspectives from other countries the poetry of Great Britain’s Mark Burnhope, South  Africa’s Kobus Moolman, and Australia’s Andy Jackson are good places to start.


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