Saturday, February 06, 2021

Remembering a Ground-Breaking Contest


2021 marks a decade since the closing of the Inglis House Poetry Contest.  While it is little known even within the community of disabled poets, it deserves remembrance as the first annual contest for disabled poets and disability poetry in the United States. 

The contest began in 2003 and ran until 2011. Each year it not only gave small cash prizes to the winners but produced a chapbook of the thirty or so best poems as determined by the judges, who were drawn from Philadelphia’s Inglis House Poetry Workshop. The chapbooks included such titles as Slow Dancing to Invisible Music, She Asks for Slippers While Pointing at the Salt, and Their Buoyant Bodies Respond. 

Over the nine years the contest existed, the winners included names that are now familiar to many readers of disability poetry:  Sheila Black, John Lee Clark, Ona Gritz, Laura Hershey, Lateef McLeod, Kobus Moolman and Liz Whiteacre.   Many other now familiar names appeared in the chapbooks. 

It is a feature of disability poetry itself that, with few exceptions, those who served  judges of the contests and put together the chapbooks are no longer living.  Nevertheless, their work deserves recognition.  The winners of the final contest in 2011 never made it into a chapbook, but they were published by Wordgathering and can be read in the journal’s archives at

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Ten Books of Disability Fiction You Should Read

With the restrictions brought on by the ongoing covid-19 pandemic, many people are finding themselves reading more than ever before.  As the editor of Wordgathering for thirteen years, I have had the opportunity to read and review a great many books.  While there are many wonderful books that I could recommend, I would like to offer the following list.  All of the following are novels or short story collections either about disability or by writers who identify as disabled.  They are by no means the only ones that I could recommend but I believe that the diversity of the list speaks for itself. 

For each of the books I have provided a brief description.  All of the books, with one exception, have been reviewed in Wordgathering, so links to those reviews are provided to give anyone interested a more thorough preview of the book.  With brick and mortar stores closed, this is a great opportunity to support writer with disabilities – who can certainly use it in these times. Besides, they are all great reads.

Shahd Alshammari – Notes on the Flesh
Faraxa Publishing, 2018
This biomythography explores the impact of disability on women in Islamic culture by following a young Palestinian Kuwaiti woman who is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis – its  impact on her family, her friendships and her prospects for the future.

Ann Finger – A Woman in Bed
Cinco Puntos Press, 2018
From  noted memoirist and fiction writer Ann Finger, this novel almost transcends genre.  Situated in Paris during World War II, it follows the effects of Parkinson’s on a woman who finds herself caught up in the French resistance.  Fingers ability at wordplay, satire and descriptions of the body are on full display.

Suzanne Kamata – Gadget Girl
Gemma Press, 2013
Aiko is a teenager with a Japanese father and an American mother. She also has cerebral palsy. When her artist mother is pulled to Paris for work, Aiko goes along trying to pursue her own dream of being a manga artist and accompanying setbacks along the way.

Maya Augelli – Johanna’s Secrets
Book Baby, (2019)
An aspiring writer moves to New England to work on her first novel  and try to jumpstart her life. She discovers quickly that the house she had rented holds secrets to an unsolved local crime.  In the course of digging for clues, she also begins to regain faith in herself.

Dora Raymaker – Hoshi and the Red City Circuit
Argawarga Press, 2018
The events in this  multi-layered cyperpunk mystery novel are viewed through the eyes of an autistic protagonist call upon to solve a landscape in which those with autism are essential to the maintenance of the cities information info structure while being reviled by its inhabitants.  

J. L. Powers – This Thing Called the Future
Cinco Puntos Press, 2011
Khosi is a fourteen year-old girl who lives with her family in a destitute town on the edge of Pietermartizburg, South Africa.  When her mother is diagnosed with AIDS she is called upon to abandon her dreams of attending medical school to become a traditional healer, confronting  a range of dangers that surround her.

Liesl  Jobson – Ride the Tortoise
Jacana Media, 2013
In a series of complex and powerfully written short stories Jobson explores women’s mental health and the attempts of the female protagonists to  cope amidst the sexual  bias and racial complexities of South Africa.

Nicola Griffith – Hild
Farar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013
A tour-de-force of historical fiction writing, Hild imagines the life of St. Hilda as the seer to a tribal king in ninth century Britain.  Griffith’s mastery of the language use of the time as well as details of the customs and physical environment is mesmerizing. 

Sheila Black, Annabelle Hayse, Michael Northen – The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked
Cinco Puntos Press, 2018
A first of its kind, this anthology introduces readers to the diverse field of disability short fiction by gathering together some of its best fiction both by established writers and new voices.  The wide range of form and subject matter are on full display.

Beacon House Teen Authors – The Day Tajon Got Shot
Shout Mouth Press, 2017
Perhaps even more relevant now than when it was written, Tajon views the shooting of a black teenager through the eyes of a variety of observers.  Co-written by teenage writers at Beacon House in Washington, D.C. it will engage both teenage readers and adult – and provoke some important discussions.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Handing off the Baton

Dispoet had already been running for several years when poets from the Inglis House Poetry Workshop put out the first issue of, a journal dedicated to publishing the poetry of poets with disabilities.   While it originated as a democratic endeavor, the reigns of oversight and default title of editor-in-chief soon fell to me.  Over the next thirteen years the journal evolved to be a true literary journal including not only poetry, but fiction, literary essays, book reviews, interviews and a number of special features.

In December 2019, Wordgathering found a new home with Syracuse University and I ended my run as the journal's editor.  It can now be found at  With that change and more time to concentrating on writing rather than editing, I'm going to try making an occasional return to this blog, that provided me with the space to express so many of my opinions in my early work in disability literature.  The posts coming from Dispoet can not be expected to occur with any regularity and no doubt, from time to time, I will also throw in opinions that have nothing at all to do with disability literature.  I think I will lead off with a poem about Daniel Simpson, a terrific poet, friend and contributor to Wordgathering.

Dan Simpson, Reading

Water laps at the edge of Cooper River
sun just  warm enough to compromise
the breeze  coming off the water.
Rain-blanched  leaves, broken bits of glass,
Twigs stripe of bark, splayed feathers -
winters final graffiti  - rim the banks,
notes-in-the bottle assuring us
that warmth is not far off.

Dan  stands  behind the podium
fingers skimming Braille letters
as though to unlock the poetry held there
or perhaps it’s an organ from which
his own song rises transformed into words.
At the first clap of hands he cautions:
No applause until the end.
He is taking us down a different  river
through bends and cadences he knows well
our noise like gunfire on the bank
jolts us from the journey.
His voice flowing, honest
opens into expanses of coneflower and larkspur,
not our homeland, but familiar.
It’s where we’ve all collaged our memories from
a childhood prank, a father’s words, 
a glimpse of heaven.
Dan  retrieves the  bottle bobbing  beside us,
his  forecast reads:
The yellow sun shines lemonade
Which means the sky must be blue.

Friday, February 07, 2020

Ten Poetry Books for the Twenty-First Century By Disabled Authors

As the editor of Wordgathering for the past thirteen years and the facilitator  of the Inglis House Poetry Workshop for ten years prior to that, I am occasionally asked to what  books of poetry by disabled writers I would recommend to those who were just  approaching the field of disability poetry.    

Here is my list of ten I’d recommend to get started with.  I’m not claiming that these are “the best” or even the most influential, but simply that having read these, a writer will have a pretty good grasp of disability poetry as it has taken shape in the United States.  I’ve listed these in the order of publication because it seems to me that an understanding of what has already been accomplished is important in considering what contemporary disability poetry is attempting. 

1. Jim Ferris, The Hospital Poems (2004)  – This was one of the first books totally given over to disability poetry.  Ferris set the stage for much subsequent writing not only by unabashedly putting himself as a person with a disability but also introducing some of its
basic themes, particularly the medicalization of disability. It is also extremely readable.

2. Kathi Wolfe, Helen Keller Takes the Stage (2007) – Wolfe’s poems rescue Helen Keller from inspirational icon by repackaging her as a sassy real life social activist with all too human impulses.  Written in Keller’s voice, the book is another one that is an accessible read.

3. Jillian Weise, The Amputees Guide to Sex (2007).  Daring when written, Weise’s book put the assertion that disabled women are sexual beings on the front burner.  The recent reissue of its 10th anniversary addition attests to its staying power and tremendous influence.

4. Laurie Clements Lambeth – Veil and Burn (2008). Still unsurpassed in its depiction of the onset of multiple sclerosis, it is a lyric essay on light, photography, pain and sexuality. One of the first books that demonstrates how the experience of disability can impact form.

5. Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black & Michael Northen, Beauty is a Verb (2011) – The only anthology in the list, this groundbreaking book corralled together 36 of the top disabled American poets pairing their work with essays becoming the impetus for subsequent anthologies. It is still a go-to reference.

6. Stephen Kuusisto, Letters to Borges (2011) – It was a toss up between this book and Kuusisto’s first book Planet of the Blind, but this series of epistolary poems charts new territory by illustrating how disability poetry can claim a revered literary pioneer while demonstrating the sophistication/inventiveness that disability poetry is capable of. 

7. Brian Teare, The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven (2016)  – By bringing in Buddhist influences and the art of Agnes Martin, Teare’s poems expose the blurred lines between disability and “normalcy” and challenge the notion that there is only one way to read a poem. Not an easy read, but very rewarding.

8. Constance Merritt, Blind Girl Grunt (2017) – The only poet of color in this group, Merritt’s book reveals the essentially white nature of disability poetry until recently. Her incorporation of blues rhythms and sensibility shows alternative routes disability poetry can take. The poems are mesmerizing and difficult to put down.

9. Molly McCully Brown, The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and the Feeble-minded (2017) – Using the records from an institution for housing the disabled, Brown exposes their treatment, setting it against the notion that born a century ago she would have been one of the residents.

10. D. J. Savarese,  A Doorknob for an Eye (2018) – Savarese work gives lie to the belief that a non-speaking person with autism cannot be a poet.  This slim volume of ekphrastic poems centering on the work of autistic artists provide insights that only one who has shared those experiences and perspecitves can provide.