Friday, March 16, 2018

Zoeglossia and Conferences for Writers with Disabilities

When this blog began in 2005, there were few resources for writers with disabilities. There were two literary journals dedicated to disabled writers, Kaleidoscope and Breath and Shadow.  AWP was resistant to accommodations at their annual conferences and the Deaf and Disabled Writers Caucus advocating for writers accessibility there did not exist. Literary anthologies - Beauty is a Verb, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked, Stairs and Whispers, Structuring the Fractured Selves or those put out by John Lee Clark and Raymond Luczak such as Deaf Lit Extravaganza - that gave writers the chance to acquaint themselves with the range of writers working in Deaf and disability literature had not been published. There were no Presses like Handtype or Reclamation Press and the Disability Literature Consortium that distributes the published books of  writers with disabilities had not even been thought of. There was the annual Society for Disability Studies Conference but this was oriented toward scholarship and activism, not toward literary work.

Thirteen years later, there are many more opportunities for Deaf and disabled writers and much has changed.  One thing that has not changed, however, is that there are still no conferences or writers retreats dedicated solely to the work of disabled writers.  That is, until now.

Zoeglossia began two years ago as the brain child of writers Sheila Black, Jennifer Bartlett and Connie Voisine acting on a suggestion by poet Kathi Wolfe.   It set as its goal “to pioneer, a new, inclusive space for poets with disabilities.”    It’s vision was to set up a series of retreats for writers with disabilities that would allow “poets from all backgrounds will have the opportunity to learn and develop from prominent, established writers who also have disabilities,”  modeling itself on organizations like Canto Mundo and Cave Canem. 

Bartlett, Black and Voisine have been joined by other disabled writers at poetry readings and conferences to put out the word about Zoeglossia.  They’ve established a website and Facebook page for interested writers and this year they have a chance to see the concrete results.  Two Zoeglossia generated conferences are in the works.  Both are still in the planning stages.  The first will take place at the University of Pennsyvlvania on October 16 of this year. Three panels and a reading are already set and more information will be coming out soon.  In the second instance,  Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio has agreed to provide their campus as a location for our conference, scheduled for May 20-23, 2019.

The realization of these two conferences will be an important achievement for disabled writers and disability literature, but, of course, anyone reading this knows the punch line.  It takes money to make these things happen and in the political climate funding for things like the arts and disability, not to mention their intersection, are incredibly hard to come by. Zoeglossia needs as much financial support as it is able to get to provide these opportunities. They are glad for whatever you can give.    You can help out by donating on the Zoeglossia website at 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

For Linda Cronin: A Tribute to Her Work

While it may be true that we stand on the shoulders of giants, it is equally true that the giants are only giants because they stand on the shoulders of those who never achieved their success.  Far too often, those who were among the first in a marginalized population to try to let their voice be heard do not have the connections to an academic institution, the friends in the know, or the literary sophistication that opens the doors to public acclaim.  This was brought home to me sharply a few days ago when I heard about the death of Linda Cronin, my poetry co-editor at Wordgathering.

Linda’s work first came to my attention in 2005 when I was involved with the Inglis House Poetry Workshop, reading through the submissions on work for our annual contest for disability related poetry. The poem she submitted described a time in her youth when there was a popular theory that wearing copper could help alleviate the pain she experienced from rheumatoid arthritis.  Linda continued to submit her work to the contests, and I got the chance to meet her in person when she showed up at the workshop’s first (and as it turned out, only) Disability Poetry Conference, coming down to Philadelphia from northern New Jersey.

One of the poems that she wrote at that time, published in the Inglis House chapbook Something Close to  Beautiful  is typical of  her  work  at the time,  drawing from her own life experiences and  in expressing concern over  the attitude of the medical  establishment towards people with disabilities.
In my hospital bed, waiting for my dinner,
already an hour late, and sure to be inedible,
I hear a medical resident waking
the old woman in the next bed.
He struggles to talk to her,
realizing she doesn't speak English,
and he can only rely on his Spanish for Hospital Employees,
the required class for all personnel,
to help him. I smile, try not to laugh out loud,
as he confuses dinero for dinner,
barely catching his mistake,
correcting himself swiftly
in English, waving his hands,
repeating No money, No money
as he searches for the right words,
needing to explain she can't eat tonight,
needs to have surgery.
I find the situation funny,
until I imagine the woman,
in pain and scared,
not understanding a word
this man in white says,
pointing at x-rays,
and I wish to comfort her.
Explain we're all frightened and lost
in this medical maze of terminology,
antiseptic corridors filled with
diseases and procedures, always
no big deal to doctors and technicians.
But to us, everything,
the difference between
our lives yesterday and today,
and the terrifying discovery
of the uncertainty of tomorrow.

Linda went on to become part of Sharon Wachsler’s team in getting Breath and Shadow, one of the country’s first literary journals for disability, up and running as part of its poetry editorial team. During that time period Linda continued to write her own poems, which ultimately were collected in her chapbook Dream Bones, published by Puddinghouse Press . 

In her book, Linda expressed those fears growing up  that are recognizable by so many disabled people of her generation.  In her poem “Shame” read:

The shadow I could not name
was the shame I felt each time my body
failed to do what I wanted.
The shame I faced years ago
when Brian called me a cripple
in the lunchroom.

And  in “Sunday School Lesson’s” :

I hear the whispers, I must be doing
something wrong because God wouldn’t
punish me if I was good like they are.
They must wonder if I pray.

However, while she voiced those fears, she alsos came to value her own body, and most often her poetry ended on a hopeful, even Romantic, note.  She shows this in one of most affecting pieces: “Flash Fiction On: Beauty and the Beholder.”

The Spanish Romeo tries to flirt, although he cannot look at me as he tells me my name means pretty. His eyes rome above my head, search for somewhere safe to land, away from my twisted body. He does not want to see the curled and knotted joints rebelling against my name.
I want to reassure him, to say its all right. I have learned to accept this body that betrayed me, that continues to betray me each time another part fails. I want to tell him not to worry there is more to life than being pretty, being desired. I know the thoughts of touching my deformed joints repels him, but that's all right because I have come to love who I am, with my curves and bends in unexpected places.
I want him to know my body is not my prison, my soul soars through life free as an águila finding more love and beauty in the faces of strangers and the eyes of loved ones than he'll every know.
In 2011, Linda joined the Wordgathering staff as one of its associate poetry editors.  In the company of more widely published colleagues, Sheila Black and Jill Khoury, who favored riskier work, she tended to champion the more plain-spoken work that was accessible to the less academic readers, while at the same time working to wean out poetry that perpetuated stereotypes or were calculated to elicit pity.

One of the problems with the emergence of any literature connected to a group whose work has been suppressed is that those who are among the first to put their experience into writing are caught in a squeeze. Disability poetry is no exception.  In putting themselves out there in ways that witness their   own lives and breaking stereotypes in the process, they risk censure from the very communities that one would have thought would be most likely to embrace them. To those in the   world of academic disabilities studies, Linda’s work still appears too close to the medical model because in writing about her own experiences, she did not give enough prominence to the socially  constructed nature of disability.   For those who thought of themselves as poets first and foremost, Linda’s work was too traditional and lacked the innovation and highly skilled manipulation of language that is in vogue.    If this sounds accusatory, then I will point out that I am complicit - exhibit A in this academic snobbishness. Having the chance to include her work in Beauty is A Verb, the anthology that recognized the best and most important work in disability poetry, I did not.

Still, if the truth be told, Linda’s work is probably much more likely to connect with the majority of people in this country who have a disability and who have felt discriminated than many of those writers who reach an acclaim that she never did.  She spoke the language they spoke and expressed their concerns an d feelings in a language that did not require frequent trips to a thesaurus  or a course on postmodernism.  She worked for them.  In a democracy, that is worth a lot.  And she deserves our thanks.  

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Dis Lit Consortium

Over the past decade, there has been a proliferation of literary writing by  people with disabilities.  Small literary magazines such as Kaleidoscope, Breath and Shadow, Pentamento, and Wordgathering continue to provide venues dedicated to disability-related writing; even the venerable mainstream Poetry magazine dedicated a portion of its December 2014 issue to a round table by noted poets with disabilities. A large enough body of disability literature has amassed that professionally published anthologies such as John Lee Clark’s Deaf Lit Extravaganza and Kathryn Allen’s upcoming Accessing the Future are possible. Poetry Festivals including Split this Rock and the Dodge Poetry Festival are going out of their way to seek out poets with disabilities and even large conferences like AWP and MLA are leaving the door slightly ajar to allow panels and readings of writers with disability to trickle in. 

In the midst of this genre emergence, writer Sean Mahoney, who co-edited the anthology series Something on Our Minds and has MS himself, made an interesting observation while attending this year’s AWP conference in Minneapolis.  Among the hundreds of books sellers and presses hawking their wares, Bellevue Literary Review was the only publisher of disability literature represented and there was no one booth or table dedicated to disability literature in general.  Upon returning from the conference Mahoney contacted the editors of small literary magazines that focused on disability writing – Gail Wilmott (Kaleidoscope), Chris Kuell (Breath and Shadow), Lori Brozek (Pentimento),  and Michael Northen (Wordgathering) – and asked if they would be interested in working together to secure a booth at the 2016 AWP conference in Los Angeles.  They were. Under the title Dis Lit Consortium, this group will set up a station where those who have an interest in disability literature will be able to stop and not only find out information about the publishers’ journals, but buy new writing from various authors with disabilities. Conference attendees who have just heard a panel or reading related to disability literature will be able to head to a place to explore work that might have excited their interest.

Of course, even something as modest as a conference table can mean expenses that small non-profit journals like shoes that make up the Dis Lit Consortium find hard to come up with. To help make  the needed funding the consortium, under Mahoney’s leadership, has set up an online site on indiegogo at to explain the project and help raise the necessary money. It is easy to brush off such requests - in all probability anyone reading this blog comes home everyday to find half a dozen solicitations by deserving charitable organizations – but the Dis Lit Consortium provides a unique opportunity to introduce disability literature to a large group of readers who are eager to find and buy new work that excites them.  It is a project well worth your support. 

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.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

David Simpson: The Way Love Comes to Me

     It is rare to come away from a book launch somehow feeling a little bit better about humanity, but that was my experience last night attending  the first public outing for David Simpson’s collection of poetry, The Way Love Comes to Me.  Those who know Dave Simpson’s work – which is probably most people likely to be reading this - know that he and his twin brother Dan, both poets and musicians, were born blind.  Several years ago they combined their work to produce a CD called, straightforwardly enough, Audio Chapbook, but the volume being shown off last night was Dave’s first published print book of poetry.
     Dave sat at a table in the front of the room, flanked on either side by poets Molly Peacock and Ona Gritz whose combined efforts had helped to see Dave’s book come to life through Mutual Muse Press. The line forming to  have Dave sign books stretched back to the entrance of the room in Avianna restaurant where the event was held.  Though the room was humming with activity, Dave knew just about every person who came up to have a book signed and told Ona what he wanted written down for each person as she signed the books for him.  Dan, who was serving as emcee for the evening announced, after several attempts to break through all the conversation of the writers, musicians and lifelong friends, that Dave would be reading for twenty minutes or so at about 7:30.  Dan himself was surrounded by people who came up to ask him about his own upcoming book.
     Despite delaying the starting for his reading by about 15 minutes, Dave only made it through signing the books of half the people in queue.  Molly introduced the book, explaining that Dave had chosen the cover and the paper on which the book was printed based upon  the feel they carried and that the print was raised enough to be felt with the finger tips.  Dan introduced his brother.
     Dave pulled the microphone closer to him and began by saying, “As most of you in this room already know, about a year ago I was diagnosed with ALS.”   We did know.  Despite having a lost some of the vivacity and strength of vocal inflection characteristic of his readings, Dave read in a clear voice that reached everyone’s ears.  After reading half a dozen poems, he would need to stop and catch his breath taking drinks of water from the bottle that Ona handed him.  At one point, a listener in the crowd asked  if he could request a certain poem, Dave who was reading from Braille and did not have that particular poem in front of him invited the listener to bring up a copy of a the book and read the poem.  Near the end of the reading, a long time friend came to the front and began to play a song for Dave on a well-traveled trumpet; Dave and most of those in the room sang along.
     What is remarkable about David Simpson’s poetry is his ability to convey a sense of what it is like to be a human being making his way through the ordinary ups and downs of life.  Yes, he asks the big questions and, yes, many of his poems are what it is like to experience life as a blind man, but his gift is to be able to tap into the emotions of everyone in the room. Whether they were blind, able-bodied, or use a wheelchair faces last night as they nod or laugh, knowing exactly what he is talking about.   Any writer with a disability who fears that taking a stand and reading in public about their life experiences will somehow set them apart from their audience should literally take a page from Dave’s book.
     The reading went on until almost 9 PM. Near the end, Dave talked a bit about the invaluable experiences that he had  at the yearly writers workshops he attended at Cape May, how much they had helped him develop as a writer and how it helped him to learn things that would enable him to publish and sell his work. But then he added, though those things important to him, he had forgotten most of it.  What remained for him - what was most valuable - was how much fun it had been to be with all of those other people.   That was the sense that pervaded Dave’s book launch last night.  The people were there to celebrate Dave’s life and work. The atmosphere in the room vibrated with it.  It wasn’t schmaltz. It was genuine.  That’s what made it such a rare event.

Friday, September 19, 2014

In Praise of Disability Literary Journals

I’ve just finished putting out the September issue of Wordgathering.  There is always a mixed sense of excitement and relief when it is accomplished.  As frustrating as it can be to try to be sure that the journal presents the work of writers in a way that makes them feel good about having their work a part of Wordgathering, when I finally see it all out the work – the poetry, essays, book reviews, short stories, interviews, art and music – laid out on line, there is a real sense of satisfaction.

The current issue of Wordgathering is especially exciting because it introduces readers to Pentimento, through an interview with its editors, editor-in-chief Lori Brozek and poetry editor Marie Kane.  Pentimento is a new, hard copy literary journal of disability-related literature.  The journal began just a year ago and plugs up a huge hole left in the wake of Kaleidoscope’s decision to go totally digital.  Moreover, like its predecessor, Pentimento, is not just a saddle-stapled magazine run off at Staples.  It is modeled after The Sun, and, beautifully presented.  For those of us over 30, there is still some truth to the feeling that going to the mailbox, pulling out a professionally published magazine and seeing your work in it provides a kind of jolt that publication in an online journal like Wordgathering just can’t deliver.  Even more important, though, it gives writers with disabilities or those whose work engages disability, a new venue for their writing – raising the number to four.

Raising the number to four: Kaleidoscope, Breath and Shadow, Wordgathering and, now Pentimento.  In a society that prides itself on diversity, that is an embarassingly paltry number.  True, there are academic publications such as Disability Studies Quarterly and Britain’s Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability that produce amazing and much needed work, but these are, in the main, scholarly – written by scholars, for scholars.
Moreover, they use very little of the kinds of writing that the word literature invokes for most people, that is poetry, fiction, the imaginative essay or drama.  

Last year, I wrote up a proposal for a panel on small magazines of disability literature for the annual AWP conference.  The proposal included editors from Kaleidoscope, Breath and Shadow and me (representing Wordgathering) as well as Jim Ferris and Laurie Clements Lambeth, both poets who had worked in an editorial capacity with DSQ. I’d  been on several AWP panels previously and knew that they were looking for panels that had something new to offer.  One would have thought giving the writers of the country’s largest minority a chance to meet and talk with the editors of the few literary magazines that actively sought their work would have been a no-brainer.  It wasn’t. To my amazement, the proposal was rejected, even as panels re-treading previous conference subjects were put on the roster.

Because none of the four disability lit journals is attached to universities, funding is an issue.  Breath and Shadow and Kaleidoscope both receive a small amount of agency funding. Pentimento, did receive a small initial grant, but now is funded entirely by the editor, Lori Brozek, herself.  Because it is a print journal, it also has to get funding through subscribers.  Each of these three gives a small token payment for the work it accepts from writers.  Wordgathering, which depends entirely on volunteers, does not pay.  As the editor, I’m fully aware that once writers whose work I publish find a paying market for their work, that’s were they’ll go.  I don’t blame them.  They deserve monetary recognition.

Despite their lack of glamour or ability to make any real contribution to a writer’s income, small poetry magazines – particularly within the disabilities literature community – do fulfill an important function.  Sure, even the Pushcart Prize committee, is going to throw our nominations into their slush pile. Where we get our satisfaction is when a previously unpublished poet that we’ve championed comes out with their first book of poetry, when a better known poet decides to write a poem about their disability and credits our journal with the first publication in their most recent book or when a book first reviewed in our journal finds its way into a recommended reading list in a college course on disability literature.  Those are the kinds of successes that drive us as editors.

The September issue of Wordgathering is now up and I hope the writers whose work is included there see an ever widening audience.  I hope that some readers relate to Dan Simpson’s poems or that someone reads Michael Uniacke’s essay on writing Deaf historical fiction and decides to take a crack at it.  I like to think someone googling John Milton comes up with the reaction of nine writers with visual impairment to his Sonnet XVI in this issue.  Or that Deaf artist Cynthia Weitzel’s latest work or Ona Gritz’s wonderful review of Jennifer Bartlett’s important book of poetry Autobiography/Anti-Autobiography catch the attention of those already involved in teaching disability studies.  As anyone who spends a few minutes out in a field or roadside this time of year knows, there is no telling where the seeds let loose will land.  You only hope that some find the right soil and flourish.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Kaleidoscope Goes Digital

Perhaps, it was inevitable - the country’s oldest magazine of disability literature and art is going digital. As of January, Kaleidoscope will no longer publishes in hard copy. The magazine that for 30 years has given writers with disabilities the opportunity to see their work arrive in an envelope in the mailbox or see it sitting among the periodicals on a library periodical shelf will now, like its companion periodicals, Breath and Shadow and Wordgathering, be completely online.

 To those for whom publication means having something concrete to hold in their hands, this is likely to feel like a loss, but in another sense it is likely to be a boon in disguise. From their new venue at, the work of the writers and artists it features, will hit a much larger audience. Gail Willmott, the journal’s editor, has widely kept access to the magazine free on line – subscriptions were $12 a year – making it its contents available not just to search engines but to links in Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and other sites. It also potentially resolves problems for visually impaired or blind readers who, unable to read a traditional print journal, will now be able to access it through screen readers (though this is an issue still to be worked out.)

 Kaleidoscope holds an important place in disability literature, being among the first to publish writers like Anne Finger and John Hockenberry, who are now well established. It was also through Kaleidoscope magazine that a call for poetry was put out that resulted in the publication of Towards Solomon’s Mountain in 1986, the first volume of poetry made up entirely of the work of writers with disabilities. Let’s hope the new twenty-first century incarnation of Kaleidoscope proves just as rewarding.