When I was a kid with what is usually called “a visible disability,” braces on my legs, the only books people ever gave me about disability were biographies of Helen Keller (in which Keller always appeared to be some kind of saint) and a book called Karen by Maria Killea about her daughter who had cerebral palsy. Karen was always kind even though everyone was mean to her, excluded her, made fun of her. “Not for me,” I thought. I wanted to be more Patti Smith or Rimbaud. I wanted to be a badass disabled writer. And to practice I dressed all in black, bought a pair of silver combat boots, and wrote all my poems in purple ink. Which did not make me a badass writer—not really. Badassery in writing is something else altogether: a willingness to be unprotected, thoughtful, inventive, open—but also in control.
When Jennifer Bartlett, Michael Northen, and I began working on Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, one of our goals was to turn upside down the common perception of disability poetry as sentimental, apologetic, dutiful, tame, institutionalized. We had a wild surmise that if we got the right writers, we could express a non-tragic view of disability, one which did not stress disability as being lesser or untenable; was honest about the difficulties faced by people with disabilities; but also presented non-normative embodiment as a site of unique knowledge, flux, invention, and radical transformation.
In a world increasingly pearled with machines and technical accoutrements of all kinds, questions of embodiment have never been so urgent, complex, or richly layered. A strength of disability poetics is that it forces a questioning of many of the values that seem so much an uninterrogated part of our thinking today—the emphasis on “beauty” and “belonging,” and the emphasis on certain sorts of production, even in our habits of thought. The badassery of the disability perspective is that it forces a destabilization of the status quo in ways that—while similar to those of other disenfranchised groups—are uniquely rooted in somatic experience, how the body is connected to our thinking and feeling in the world. The women below all express this in their work. They are, in a word, badass.
Full disclosure: Jennifer Bartlett was my co-editor on Beauty is a Verb and is a dear friend, but that is not why you should read her. She writes a mean muscular lyric—deeply informed by the Black Mountain and Open Field poets but made extraordinary by her almost childlike openness. I think of Bartlett as a kind of Mary Wollstonecraft figure: with tremendous tenderness and clarity, her poems always express what you think or wonder, but never dare say or ask. A few lines from her recent collection Autobiography/Anti-Autobiography:
This is my body
I am its light
a mere shadow remains
so that, the body is erased
I am all motion and
this motion is neither weak nor hideous
this motion is simply my own.
Bartlett, who has cerebral palsy, is currently at work on a biography of poet Larry Eigner that is sure to be groundbreaking. Beg, borrow buy or steal her books if you can. You won’t be sorry.
Laurie Clements Lambeth’s first book Veil and Burn won the National Poetry Series prize in 2008. It is a luminous collection—remarkable for its lyric intensity and formal acuity. I think of Lambeth the way I think of poets like Christina Rossetti or Emily Dickinson—or more recently Lynda Hull. Her words always have about them a whiff of eternity alongside a vivid sensuality that suggests somehow she is experiencing life at a slightly higher pitch than most people. Diagnosed in high school with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis, she maps the body’s interchange with the external world with ferocity and love. Her work—like a perfect little black dress—is drop dead gorgeous. From a recent poem “Chronic Care: ‘Broken Leg’ by Keith Carter, Photograph” (which recently won the Marica & Jan Vilcek Prize for Poetry from Bellevue Literary Review):
The girl in black dress and tights stands behind the fawn,
hands clasped, their white blur forming almost
a heart. Her head’s nothing more than faceless smudge,
but she wants something. Her non-eyes plead through glass.
3. Denise Leto
Last year, Denise Leto lost her mother and sister in a single six month period; out of this devastation she created a body of work that comprises an extraordinary meditation on the somatic experience of grief—reconfiguring grief as allied to disability or perceptions of disability. Brilliant, philosophical, and passionately engaged, Leto’s work sinks into my brain and won’t let go. While performing all the chores of my ordinary life in Texas (buying gas, purchasing groceries) I often find myself repeating this clutch of lines from “Interlude,” in her most recent collection, Your Body is Not a Shark:
Your hands, your lips, your aural torso
bring a quiet down upon us
with her fingers on the strings that tell you;
the body of your body is not a shark.
I have mulled over these lines for a long time, the meaning of “not a shark,” and I have enlarged my grasp of flux, the body, and grief in the process. Leto, who has a form of vocal dyskinesia which makes it impossible for her to control the production of her voice, is fascinated by presence and performance. Her poetry evokes body as motion and peril, memory and trace. Collaboration is integral to her writing practice—she joins so often with other writers and artists that her work puts forth a communal model as a vital part of feminist and disability poetics.
The longer I am involved with poetry—and specifically with disability poetry—the more I am interested in the interstices where words dissolve or radiate against each other to create new meanings, where poetry slides into other things—performance, action, fresh ways of thinking. DiPietra’s work, like this quote from Waveform, a collaborative chapbook she wrote with Denise Leto, always gives me a feeling of fresh air:
Unarticulated at the junctures. Where words come out. Peripatetic. In natation. I only really articulate in water. Dream myself on the sidewalk and the bus in a fish tank on wheels. Rolling briefcase sloshing across Market Street. Fear and desire, a crashing back. Like the airliner into the Everglades. Impacted into limestone. Smooth and rich, coming up again, moving with new carbons, flowing to a third coast, intercoastal.
Recently I went to a conference at the Naropa School of Disembodied Poetics where I watched DiPietra rivet an entire room with a combination of a massage demonstration, pieces of poems, and an off-the-cuff meditation about why she had left “Poetry World type work” to become a sexologist. She describes herself as “a performance artist whose performance straddles the line between sex work, radical disability image advocacy, intimacy coaching, poetics and holistic health.” This for me is a kind of primer about why DiPietra’s poetry matters to me— its focus on our need for touch, the tactile, the particular, the embodied and how so often this need is not answered.
5. Lisa Gill
A New Mexico poet, who has struggled with severe multiple sclerosis for some years now, Lisa Gill is a prodigy. There is nothing—no form, or not as far as I can tell—that she does not write with diamond-like brilliance and uncommon grace. Plays, stories, poems, graphic novels; they all flow from her pen with equal authority. Among her must-read works are The Relenting: A Play of Sorts, the poetry collections Red as a Lotus, Mortar & Pestle, and Dark Enough and her recent graphic memoir Caput Nili: How I Won the War & Lost My Taste for Oranges. Emotionally alert and formally ambitious, hers is the work of a truly original mind. Gill is a spiritual poet and a philosophical one—not in any facile way but in terms that are rigorous, expansive, and utterly fearless. The body in extremis becomes in her poems a way of glimpsing the patterns of spirit beneath:
When I placed a stone on my tongue, a friend told me
not to be too hard on myself, as if the stone were in my hand
and I was using it to bash my head. But my mouth is not gored,
wind and sand have worn the stone’s edges smooth, so I did not
try to explain, and the rock in my mouth didn’t even whimper.
I have been talking for decades now, and maybe my voice
is nothing in the sea of words, just one more small abrasion
but my friends’ ears must be ringing and what have I said?
If silence is more awkward than speech, it is because finally
we feel the weight that is always on our tongues. So I am
a slow learner and need a reminder to become quiet and
even then, my thoughts run like a deep spring. If I cannot go
into the desert to become a hermit, I will take the desert
into my mouth and begin to practice with friends.
(Excerpt from Red as a Lotus: Letters to a Dead Trappist Dedicated to Thomas Merton)
6. Violet Juno
Violet Juno is a performance artist—dancer, visual artist, musician—who also happens to be an extraordinary writer. Her performances, which build from prose poems juxtaposed together, spring from a highly original practice, one she describes as follows: “I create performance using what I call a ‘Campo style’ of development…the Spanish word ‘campo’ means literally ‘field’ or ‘countryside’ and can also reference a migrant camp or outpost. I like this very much–that a ‘campo’ could be a natural field, a field of operations, a moving camp, and also—in the case of artists moving from place to place—a field of inquiry.” I feel that Juno’s focus on this notion of a “field” or a “collective space” speaks to a key part of the way in which disability poetics frames and considers the body. Her performances often use fabric and wire and other appendages to create indelible images of the body’s fragility and also often super-charged capacities. Her work is hopeful and revolutionary.
Additions to the List:
To paraphrase one of my all-time favorite heroines of literature, Anne Eliot of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, we are living through a great age of disability poetry, I think. The poets below also deserve attention; they are all in different ways extraordinary.
Ellen McGrath Smith
I know I have been a better thinker, a richer person from reading every single one of them.