As an academic field, disability studies is fractured: few scholars agree on the model and definition of disability, let alone the proper terminology. As a movement, disability rights activism occupies an uneasy position in the struggle for social justice. People with disabilities are often criticized for being unable to participate in marches and grassroots activism that inherently require some physicality. Poets and writers with disabilities exist within this quagmire. Even in literature, disability isn’t respected or proportionately represented when compared to other lenses for critical and identity-based analysis.
Ableism isn’t exactly uncommon in poems and essays. Romantic era poets valorized the senses as the critical conduit for understanding the human condition in relation to the world. As poet John Lee Clark remarked in the December 2014 issue of Poetry magazine, “English poets are especially fond of romanticizing and demonizing both deafness and blindness, equating these with silence and darkness—and death.” Many Romantic era pieces identify different disabilities as obstacles disabled people can heroically overcome or an affliction to be cured. The reality of disability directly opposes these reductive ideals. Indeed, “mainstream writers tend to reflect the predominant view of disability as tragedy,” writes Jennifer Bartlett in the preface of the anthology Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. To many, only the able-normative subject can properly be the human subject of a work.
Considering the pervasiveness of linguistic and structural ableism in the world at-large, the ablenormativity present in literature isn’t surprising. Even after the Americans with Disabilities Act, buildings remain difficult to maneuver. Disability isn’t typically considered an identity category. Disabled people are often told by their parents, friends, and medical professionals to hide their disability in order to appear more “normal.” We constantly use “crazy,” “insane,” or “dumb” in our vernacular to describe ordinary events without considering the violent connotations of these words, all of which originally referred to people with mental, psychiatric, or speech-related disabilities. The widespread integration of this discourse in our daily vocabulary demonstrates just how little consideration is given to disability.
So, what is the role of disability poetry?
In the same preface, Bartlett explains the variety of disability poetics that exist. Some poets with disabilities embody their identity and embrace the label of “crip poetry.” In their poetry, they often center politics, thus “[creating] a narrative that speaks to and celebrates identity.” Other poets choose to embody their disability in different ways—instead of focusing on disability, poets may simply use a narrative form to inform their work or experiment with lyrical and poetic forms to establish new understandings of coexisting with disabilities.
For many poets with disabilities, experimenting and narrating their lived experiences provides an empowering moment. When normative society shunts disabled people to the side, an embodied poetics seeks to reclaim that personhood. As journalist and writer Lizz Schumer details in a Ploughshares blog post, “disability poetics allows the speaker to subvert expectations. It taught me that I can write about my body without letting it speak for me, bringing both of us more fully into the conversation…. We are so much more than blood, bone, and brain.” The same sentiment is shared by Jim Ferris, one of the foundational writers of “crip poetry.” “Crip poetry’s” challenges to the tropes of disability that engender pity have “the potential to transform the world” by reframing the “gaze…under which we are viewed” and by imagining new spaces for disability consciousness.
Yet, the strength of disability poetics comes in its celebration and acknowledgement of the differences inherent within the community. To different audiences, differences breed disagreement, and disagreement breeds irreparable fissures. But integral to the agenda of disability studies and disability poetics is a deep-rooted respect of the different sorts of conditions of people with disabilities. Just as important is the intersection of disability with other analytics of identity that modulate a person’s sense of belonging within normative societal structures.
This is not to say that the work of disability poetics has resolved the broad strokes of ableism. In 2018, problems with publishing and acceptance within the literary community remain widespread. At a larger and inescapable level, structural barriers still exist twenty-eight years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Writers with disabilities who presence their disability are sometimes disrespected and pushed to the margins of their respective fields. In this reality, then, “poetry is a way of being in the world that wasn’t made for us,” as Jennifer Bartlett aptly titled her New York Times column.
Five works by poets with disabilities:
1. Poems with Disabilities
By Jim Ferris
I’m sorry — this space is reserved
for poems with disabilities. I know
it’s one of the best spaces in the book,
but the Poems with Disabilities Act
requires us to make all reasonable
accommodations for poems that aren’t
normal. There is a nice space just
a few pages over — in fact (don’t
tell anyone) I think it’s better
than this one, I myself prefer it.
Actually I don’t see any of those
poems right now myself, but you never know
when one might show up, so we have to keep
this space open. You can’t always tell
just from looking at them, either. Sometimes
they’ll look just like a regular poem
when they roll in — you’re reading along
and suddenly everything
changes, the world tilts
a little, angle of vision
shifts. You remember
your aunt died of cancer at just your age
and maybe yesterday’s twinge means
something after all. Your sloppy,
fragile heart beats
a little faster
and then you know.
You just know.
And the poem
2. The Lady with a Green Cane
By Fran Gardner
Just be, you say
There—have you inhaled
The fragrance of being?
The lady with the green cane
That’s walking for you
That’s writing for you
A slow walk
A slower walk
A stop walk
How many gardens
How many leaves
How much living
Before life becomes being
The lady with the green cane.
No big words—
Just a stumble
As she walks.
3. Red Shoes
By Sheila Black
Someone buried red slippers under the floorboards
and the mice nested in them. The floors splintered no matter
how many cans of deck paint we used. And one night
at the Embajada I broke a tooth, and the very next
night three teenagers were shot dead as they sat at
a booth by the window eating mofongo. The neighbor
woman used to sing a funny song from the forties
about a “road” and “clear day,” a fast car and a woman
with a pistol. You could see her back had been broken,
and she dragged her left foot behind her down the
stairs to the mail room. And Junior began smoking
crack after his church on Columbus failed and started
going by his birth name which was Jesus, until he
fell in love with Irma of the hideous rabbit-fur-and-
white-leather jacket, who stopped the cars by waving
her watery hands, smoothing her moth-bitten hair
from her moon-pale face, the violet lipstick she
always wore, until she wound up drowned in the East
River, and no one would say if it was suicide or
murder. But Junior said there were eels inside her and
began preaching again, doped on the corner. Mr.
Rodriguez fired him, though he didn’t want to, and after
Mr. Rodriguez often looked sweaty and pale as he
labored to move stuff to the basement, which he had once
done with Junior to help him. We painted our rooms
cinnamon, Aegean blue, repainted them eggshell, gris-perle.
We fought, and you tore all my letters and diaries and
sprinkled them out the window where they landed on
the roof of your car, plastered there by a violent
summer storm. It took hours to scrape them off; I wept
and Mr. Rodriguez gave me a small plastic-wrapped
packet of Kleenex and a month later you wound up in St.
Luke’s on lockdown and Junior caught pneumonia,
died that November. He was thirty-eight, though we
had believed him older. They buried him in Calvary
Cemetery in Queens. Once I rode a cab out that way —
we got lost, so many ticking minutes among the
slender white spikes of the graves. The red slippers —
they must have been for dancing, thin soled as if with
mouse skin, a powder inside that might have been talc,
rosin, or years of plaster dust, a piece of broken ribbon,
black at the edges as if burned off or torn and smeared with
shoe polish. Or the mice had gnawed it. And you
said “The name of the film,” and I said I thought it was a
story older by far, a girl who puts on the shoes and cannot
get them off, who skips down a road, then another and
across the world, until her feet fall off, and her hands
and they make her wooden ones.
By Khairani Barokka
hailstorm thundering the rooftops of basilica di santa maria novella.
laughing to myself as american tourists disgustedly traversed
the streets outside, the glittery ice debris. magician drafting lady, slim,
in girldress to skip and assist him, all to sustain a crowded gasp,
collective, into the night. guitar by lovers’ locks on the bridge, a friend.
i knew i’d walked too far, and hurt’s too spiteful yet i’d stayed a little,
just come on, come on now don’t let it begin.
ached and on the train to rome i burst, all hell gone loose and fraying out,
pulsating wound i’d always hoped would be delayed, one year away from
future medicine, body silently screaming for palliative skies, palliative earth,
come meet me at some understanding, again, train passengers saw
no hail, no brimstone, strange girl, lone in her seat, frame slightly squirming,
stock still in a moment, hidden, a feeling unmerciful,
fire wash over and
over, over, over,
in jaggedy-moving capsule bringing me rome, a few days’ amuck in fiery lake,
until subsided, until decision to explore the colosseum. provided wheelchair,
my arms excited at lifts and remnants of ancient beasts, old hurts, beginnings.
5. From Autobiography/anti-autobiography
By Jennifer Bartlett
I am merely curiosity; your own small freak show. Drag my bones out to Coney Island, and feel free to make an example out of me. Perhaps people will pay a nickel to get in; I’m tired of giving the show out for free. Drag me through the field of saints. Bless me, pray for me, rub my head for good luck. I am the product of bad karma. I am punishment for my mother’s aborted able-bodied children. I am the one nature meant to throw away.