Dialogue on Disability Poetry
Wordgathering invited four poets to discuss their writing and the ways in which their writing impacts upon the concept of disability poetry. Participating in the discussion are Linda Cronin (Dream Bones), Ona Gritz, (Left Standing ), Patricia Wellingham-Jones (Don’t Turn Away ), and Kathi Wolfe (Helen Keller Takes the Stage: The Helen Keller Poems). Michael Northen, one of Wordgathering’s editors, posed the questions.
Mike: The earliest mention of disability poetry that I know of was in 1983 by J.L. Baird in an ad in Kaleidoscope where he called for poetry that would undo the sentimental, patronizing poems about disability poetry that pervaded anthologies of the time and replace it with grounded and tough-minded writing. It is twenty-six years later, and all of you are successful poets who have had a least one book published. To what extent do you think that your poetry contributes to the Baird’s efforts to rid poetry of stereotypic and patronizing images?
Patricia: Although I do not write specifically with disability poetry and its standards in mind, I do try to dip deeper than stereotypes and describe individuals with their little traits and foibles. As for sentimentality – yuck! If somebody coos over one of my poems and says, ‘How sweet,’ I get squirmy. That’s not where I wish to go – and I revise the cloying out of it. I really really do not want to ever appear patronizing and hope I don’t. Sympathy is OK sometimes, empathy is good usually, looking down on that poor other, whoever/whatever, no. So guess I’ll have to say my work does contribute to Baird’s efforts to get rid of those troubling images, since that’s one of my goals, too.Linda: I agree with Patricia that I don't write with disability poetry and its standards in mine - that being said my poetry comes from my experiences and imagination and being a woman with a disability plays a large role in those experiences and imaginings. I hope I reach beyond stereotypes and sentimentality by grounding poems in what I know and believe in. I never want to present something that reinforces the stereotypes that so often limit what other people think about when they consider a person with a disability - I want to present the fact that we face the same issues and problems everyone else does - simply with another layer that often adds an additional challenge. Some of my poetry in my first book deals with growing up with a disability and I hope I avoid the stereotypical and sentimental ideas - of poor child - sentimentality limits poetry and any writing and cuts off deeper discussion and a more rounded image of a child or person with a disability. I want to present a whole image and since many of my poems have a narrative quality an incident or experience I show what life is like and it is certainly not a stereotype, patronizing. or sentimental view and at times may show something funny.
Ona: I really like what everyone has said so far and I think I approach my writing from a similar place. I strive for certain qualities when I’m crafting a poem regardless of the subject matter: fresh imagery, an economy of language, a perspective that’s both unflinching and emotionally honest. I guess what I'm saying is I think about disability poetry the way I think about all poetry. Good love poems can remind us of our best, most open and vulnerable selves. But if badly written, a love poem can be the equivalent of a hallmark card with nothing real or recognizable for us to latch onto. Similarly, poems about disability can be rich, diverse and authentic or as cloying and predictable as telethon posters. I love that Baird called for “grounded, tough minded writing” about disability because that’s the kind of writing I want to read and that I always hope to write.
Kathi: I agree with Linda and Patricia about sentimentality. Sentimentality in poetry (particularly regarding characters with or images of disabilities) makes me squirm! I agree with Ona that like Baird I want to write “grounded, tough-minded” poetry.
Sometimes, when I write poetry–when I’m writing poems where there aren’t characters with disabilities–I’m not thinking about disability culture poetry. I’m just writing about falling in love, grief, death, my family, ex-lovers, dogs, cats, dreams or places that I love like New York City and Provincetown. Yet, as Linda says about herself, the fact that I’m a woman with a disability (I’m legally blind) “plays a large role in these experiences and imaginings.”
Yet, when my poetry encompasses characters with disabilities or images of disabilities–then I think often of disability culture poetry. Maybe not always consciously. I’m a creative artist and focused first and foremost on characters, image and story in my poems. But my conscious and unconscious mind is aware of disability culture poetry–of the disability rights movement, of my personal struggle against disability-based stereotyping–of the work of groundbreaking poets with disabilities from Cheryl Wade to poets like Jim Ferris. I spent three and a half years researching and writing my Helen Keller poetry chapbook. Keller is an iconic figure whose true history has been hidden under a haze of “inspiration.” I wanted through my poetry to give Keller an inner life–to depict her as a three-dimensional human being–rather than as an “inspirational,” plaster-saint. I wanted my poems to show her as a person who fell in love, loved to drink Scotch, enjoyed performing in vaudeville, was a Socialist–who also had some flaws. For instance, she supported eugenics.
I wanted to do this by writing good, well-crafted poems. As I delved into Keller’s biography, and read her letters, essays and journal entries, I felt increasingly that Keller wanted to break free from her “inspirational” image. Though Keller sometimes had to trade on this “inspirational” image to survive, it wasn’t how she viewed herself or wanted to be viewed.I hope that my chapbook contributes to some degree toward Baird’s effort to rid poetry of stereotyping and patronizing images of disability.
Since completing the Keller chapbook, I’ve been writing poetry about other characters with disabilities. Some of these poems aim to turn stereotypical images of disability on their heads–to use humor and irony to discredit these images and to create new, non-stereotypical images of disability.
Mike: I’d like to dwell for a moment on the point Kathi raised about working to counter the image of a person with disabilities as an inspiration. It reminds me of a recent poem by deaf-blind poet, John Lee Clark:
Barbara Walters is in Awe
I think that many people, including some writers who have submitted to Wordgathering, don’t see what the problem is with setting someone with a disability on an inspirational pedestal. I would like to hear everyone’s thoughts on this and also ask you, if you can, to give a specific example of how, you have dealt with this issue in one of your own poems.
Kathi: Your question hits on a problem that, I’d bet anything (if not my last dollar, than my stockpile of M&M’s) that all of us (with a disability consciousness who write and or edit poetry) face:
Since time began, different cultures have placed people with disabilities on “inspirational” pedestals. They’ve viewed us as “seers,” visionaries, oracles, saintly, innocent “holy fools.” That is, if they, on the other side of the coin, haven’t wanted to kill us because we’re so evil or pities us because we’re such “poor helpless creatures.” It’s similar, I think, to how women have been viewed through the “Madonna/whore” prism.
This cultural view of people with disabilities is rampant–like kudzu spreading on the vine–in poetry. Despite the disability rights movement, inclusion of kids with disabilities in schools and the Americans with Disabilities Act–we’re still often seen either as “inspirational,” or helpless objects of pity. Sometimes we’re seen as a combo of the two. Poetry with characters with disabilities way too often mirrors this view.
Sometimes it might even be well-crafted poetry. Just as say, fifty or sixty years ago, there was probably some well-crafted poetry by talented poets that contained sexist images of women. When you read it, you can overlook these images in a way because of the time when the poetry was written. It’s not that the sexism was right, but you can say, well there was no women’s movement then and these poets were a product of their time. But, I find this really hard to do when I read ableist poetry–that contains “inspirational” images of disabled people.
When I step back, I think so much of poetry depicting disability is still ableist because the consciousness of the disability rights movement still hasn’t penetrated very far on the cultural radar screen.
Sometimes, I think, that these ableist–“inspirational” images of disabled people are a kind of (metaphorical) comfort food to poets. I mean by this, that they provide poets with a familiar stash of images–that they can use to describe us. These poets sometimes use these images in original ways–without of course recognizing that we, persons with disability, aren’t “inspirational.” Any more than women are madonna-like or African-Americans are “a credit to their race.”
More often, the poets who use such “inspirational” images of persons with disabilities write bad poems. So, in addition to the yuck factor of the “inspiration,” you have annoying, often cloying, badly crafted poetry.
Having said this, I think things are changing a bit. Non-disabled editors and publishers (of mainstream poetry journals and publishers) have accepted my work. Including some of my work that satirizes and refutes “inspirational” images of disability or that portrays decidedly non “inspirational” characters with disabilities. Other poets like Jim Ferris and Stephen Kuusisto are receiving increased attention from non-disabled poetry editors and audiences.
I’m not overly optimistic here. I’m just a bit hopeful that we can break through (if in small bits) this wall of “inspiration.” But, it’s a tough nut to crack.
For the last few years, I’ve read my poetry to audiences of mostly people without disabilities in the Washington, D.C. area. People have responded really well to my Helen Keller poems. They’ve generously given me readings and published my work. They seem to get that one of the things going on in the Keller poems is the debunking of the “inspirational” images of Keller. Yet, at the same time, they’ll still talk, at times, about Keller or myself as being “inspirational.” Anyone who knows me for a nano-second knows that’s not true.
Of course, there’s “inspirational” and there’s inspirational. By that I mean that I don’t find Keller, for example, to be “inspirational” in the ableist sense. She was a human being with many flaws. Yet, I find Keller to be inspirational in some ways. Because of her stand on some political issues–such as her support of feminism and her opposition to racism.
In my poetry, I often have the speaker of the poem use humor to counter “inspirational” images of disability. Sometimes my characters with disabilities play with these images–turn them (metaphorically) on their side or on their heads. Or create their own, non-inspirational images of disability.
One of my Helen Keller poems “If I Drove Drunk” is in the voice of Helen Keller. In the poem, Keller playfully fantasies about what it would be like if she had a few drinks and drove. (I and Keller aren’t advocating drunk driving here. The poem is meant to be in good humor. Keller, who is deaf-blind, is playing with the idea: what if I drove?).
The poem is published in “Helen Takes the Stage: The Helen Keller Poems” (Pudding House Publications):
If I Drove Drunk
The last lines of the poem “How’s that for a Helen Keller trick?” shows how Keller is aware of the “inspirational” images that people have about her. She counters these images by playfully turning this image in on itself.
Currently, I’m working on a new character named Uppity Blind Girl. Uppity is a 25-year-old blind woman who does not want to be seen in an “inspirational” light.
In my poem called “Uppity Blind Girl Confesses” (published in Disability Studies Quarterly), Uppity counters this ableist imagery by saying who she thinks she truly is. “You think I’m musical,/I write opera/for the tone-deaf.,” Uppity says, “In fact, the gods/cut off their ears/when they hear me sing./I stare back/as you gaze into my face,/mining crows feet/for some inner vision.”
It wasn’t by accident that Kenny Fries called his groundbreaking anthology of writing by writers with disabilities “Staring Back.” Maybe, that’s what we poets can do to counter “inspirational” images of disability. Maybe we can metaphorically “stare back” at the images..maybe if we keep staring back..we can get ourselves off the pedestal.Patricia: Kathi, your response was most interesting. I enjoyed the historical perspective, and I agree with your points about the yuck factor of turning disabled people into inspirations on pedestals (especially when the poems are sentimental or poorly written). And yet, I admit to great admiration for people who somehow create a satisfying life while coping with huge physical and/or mental problems. I deal with that in my poetry, whatever its subject or objective, by looking straight at the person/situation then describing it in as clear-eyed, simple, pictorial way as I can. Not offering judgments, leaving interpretation to the reader. If my admiration filters through, that’s OK with me, as long as it’s not patronizing. Here is an example that was published in All Things Girl but I know wouldn’t be published many places. I know that because it bounced back to me a lot of times before being accepted.
Shirley Taught Me Again
I don’t find myself on a pedestal because my piddling little disabilities aren’t particularly noticeable so I’ve had to imagine myself dealing with this problem. Thus, I don’t really have much to offer to this question, I fear.
Linda: I find the fact that many poets and people in general set people with disabilities on inspirational pedestal or else they pity us. I agree with Kathi that either view can do just as much damage. I feel these images prevent people and poets from seeing the reality of the people that we are and prevents them from looking at our situations from a realistic point of view, including the societal and physical barriers that exist in today's world. I realize that access and such issues as PCA and home care have come a long way since the disabilities rights movement began but they still have a long way to go until the disabled will have full freedom. And part of that is breaking down the inspirational images and the attitude of pity involved in so many people's view of a person with a disability. And I agree with Kathi that these views are rampant in mainstream poetry about people with disabilities - we're either inspirational or to be pitied.
I also agree with Kathi that one thing that can help to do that is to make the work of not just disabled poetry but all writing about disabilities by the disabled part of mainstream literature where it can reach a wider audience and break down preconceived notions. I have had poems accepted and performed by mainstream groups however these opportunities are not always common. These opportunities need to become more common until poems by poets with disabilities can be seen in all journals alongside poetry by other writers, This would increase the exposure and breakdown the stereotypes.. Every time I see an inspirational portrait of disabled that appears in these mainstream magazines it reinforces the stereotypes. If poetry by disabled that breaks down the stereotypes becomes more accepted by journals more people can become aware of the humanity of person with a disability and break down the fear factor that exist as disabled as other, And we can begin to destroy the notion of disabled being inspirational or someone to be pitied.
I try to create full vivid portraits that create a realistic idea of people with disabilities and what my life is like with a disability and what it was like to grow up with a disability. I include feelings and issues not normally dealt with in inspirational poetry. I don't want people to be inspired - I want them to understand what life is like with a disability. If they can see that we deal with issues familiar to everyone - desire, anger , love , fear - they can begin to see us as fully human. In inspirational or pitying attitudes distance others from us and make us seem either sorrowful or unreachable. They don't have to realize that anyone of them could be us -a frightening thought to most able-bodied.
I am going to give two examples of poems that show how I try to create realistic and fully realized pictures of people with disabilities and life with a disability. In "A Split Second" I try to create a woman dealing with all the fears and concerns of someone who is recently paralyzed. She is not inspirational and is simply trying to find hope in what is a scary situation for her. In Shower Night I show what is was like for me to take a shower at a rehab - the steps and thoughts involved to do something as simple as taking a shower - something people do everyday without giving it a second thought. The idea is not to inspire people but to show the reality of living with a disability.
A Split Second
Patricia: Linda, I love what you say here - I don't want people to be inspired - I want them to understand what life is like with a disability. That, I would think, is the crux of this whole question. Understanding takes us a long way forward.
Ona: It’s been really interesting hearing everyone’s responses to this question on the “inspirational disabled” and great to read everyone’s poems!
I first became aware of this issue when, in grad school, I came upon a poem by Diane Wakoski in which she said of an acquaintance with cerebral palsy something along the lines of "he exemplifies the human condition." Though I was years away from true disability consciousness, I felt appalled. I have CP and I knew it didn't make me into a symbol for anything, nor would I want it to. Sure, I had struggles but I found them no more daunting than my able-bodied friends seemed to find theirs. If I remember correctly, I threw the book across the room.
Like Patricia’s, my disability is slight enough that it often goes under the radar so I don’t have a lot of experience here. The closest I came to being seen as “inspirational” was when my son’s karate teacher told me I was very brave for going up, along with the other parents, to spar with my kid in class. By day, this man is a firefighter. A man trained to run into burning buildings considered it an act of bravery for me to move my awkward body in public!
What this tells me is that the twin or flipside of being labeled as inspirational is people having low expectations of us. If someone defines us primarily through our limitations, they’re likely to assume we’re more limited than we are. Thus when we surpass their expectations, often by doing something quite ordinary, they see it as a great feat.
I'm echoing Linda here, but I feel the best way to counter this view in our writing is to reveal our lives with candor—our flawed, awkward, beautiful, brave, ordinary and completely recognizable lives. When readers see something of themselves in our work, we’re no longer viewed as “other.” You can’t make a symbol out of someone you understand from the inside out. I'll share a poem here that describes a familiar moment of motherhood that's looked at through a lens of disability, but is universal in the sense that all new mothers feel less than able at times and, almost always, far from perfect:
At Fifteen Months
Mike: Linda and Kathi have both mentioned reading their poetry publicly and some of the reactions they have received. I find this quite interesting and would like to hear all of you comment on it further. Do you feel the reaction to your work is different when you read it publicly aloud than when it appears in print? How so? In your experience does one medium seem to work better than the other?
Patricia: I adore reading my poetry publicly and, because my disabilities seldom ‘show’, and I’m not specifically addressing the subject of disability, I can’t respond on that level. However, reading the work aloud and feeling and seeing the audience respond feels much richer to me than seeing the same poems in print (although I enjoy that too). A room full of people listening hard and connecting with the poems with all their senses just bursts with their energy; I leave feeling quite high. When you hear a sigh or impromptu laughter, you know the poems reached hearts, whatever the subject. Of course, I’ve also had people write and say certain poems in a collection or a journal helped them through a hard patch and that produces its own glow of satisfaction—that the work had a healing aspect, was useful, not mere playing with words on paper (which, by the way, is perfectly OK to do too, for the sheer pleasure of it).
Linda: I have read my work publicly and have had it appear in print and I do think the reactions are somewhat different. When you read poetry aloud whether it is poetry concerned with disability or not, the reader can gauge the reaction of the audience as one is reading, it is a more immediate reaction then when poetry is read on the page. Like Patricia said you know when you make a connection. This is with poetry about disability or other topics. Often times when people read poetry there is a delay between the time they read it and the time they speak to the poet. Of course, this time is negated when the poet hands a poem on a page to someone to read. However I feel reading a poem and hearing a poem are slightly different experiences. When a poem is heard aloud a listener may be more conscious of the music and words and less conscious of such things as line breaks, white space and the shape on the page. All these can influence a person's reaction to a poem. My poetry on disability has been well received both on the page and in a reading. People tell me they have gained a better perspective or idea of what it is like to live with a disability. I have had positive reactions and I think this is partially because of the way I write my poems - like I said in the answer to the last question - I try to give the reader an understanding of what it is like to live and grow up with a disability - I am not asking or looking for pity. I don't want people to feel sorry for me and if some people are made uncomfortable by my honesty that is their issue to deal with, not mine.
And there are also probably other people who are uncomfortable with the disability poems I write and read, but these are not the people who are going to approach you after a poem appears in a magazine or is read in a reading. They wouldn't approach a person with a disability to comment after a reading.
Kathi: Your responses have been fabulous...really interesting to both of these questions! I’ll probably echo much of what you all have said. There are some poets who dislike performing their work, who feel shy about reading their work in public. This isn’t the case with me. I’ll admit it! I’m a ham! I love reading my work to audiences. Sometimes, I think that I don’t have ‘mike fright,” I have “life fright.”
I think that audience at poetry readings react not only to the poetry itself, but to the poet–so they’re reacting to both the words of the poetry but to the poet’s personality, presentation as well as performance.
If you have a disability, audiences are also reacting in part to that. Because, usually, (especially if, as is the case with me, the disability is visible) hearing/seeing a poet with a disability read his or her work is a new experience for an audience, and that, will make some people uncomfortable.
So I think a poet (at least at this point in time) has to make an audience comfortable with his or her disability–in order for people to listen to–take in–the poetry and the performance. If this doesn’t happen, audience members will be stuck at the point of being discomforted by the disability and won’t advance to hearing the poems.
Every poet has to find his or her own way to do this. I usually do it with humor and by making the way that I print out my poetry in large bold type (so that it fills many pages of paper)–part of my performance. Once, at the end of a reading when I was doing a poetry residency in Vermont, I gave some visual artists my pages with large type. They incorporated them into their conceptual art. They made the papers into little mouse and bear like figures. The next morning at breakfast, when I was barely awake, they put one of the paper mice into my coat pocket. “Don’t worry,” one of the artists joked, “it’s not a mouse, it’s just your poetry!”
When I read my poetry, I usually say something before I read a poem (or sometimes before I read a clump of several poems). So the audience gets the chance to learn more about the subject of the poems, the form/aesthetic of the poetry or myself–than they would if they read the poems in print.
There’s always the issue of how much to say or reveal. I don’t want to say so much that people feel overwhelmed by information; and I don’t wish for the reading to become too self-referential. The poetry itself should be the heart of the matter.
On the other hand, when you’re reading poetry aloud, readers aren’t seeing the poems, there’s no white space and people aren’t near Google. Then, it’s important to give the audience some information about the poems – maybe about the subject of the poetry (as is the case when I read my Helen Keller poems) or a hint about why I wrote the poems or where the poems are set (as is the case with some of my poems on topics like grief or love). Sometimes pausing for a few seconds, or saying something–can give the audience the equivalent of the pause offered by white space, or an opportunity to laugh (to get a break maybe from intense poems).
I believe that people in the audience (or at least some) want to read my poems in print after they hear me read. (That’s what they tell me.) Sometimes, as some of you have said, some audience members seem more comfortable with my disability after they hear me read. Whether this transfers into their being more comfortable with other people with disabilities–I can’t say.
Sometimes when I read my poems, the audiences are a mixture of people with and without disabilities. Sometimes, with some of my poems, I’ve noticed, people with disabilities are more comfortable with the poetry–more responsive –that the able-bodied people in the audience. This is particularly, true with poems like my Helen Keller poem “If I Drove Drunk.” Whenever I read that, either some of the people without disabilities don’t seem to get the humor or they won’t laugh until they look around the audience and see someone who’s blind or in a wheelchair laughing.
It’s hard to precisely gage audiences reaction to my poetry in print and at readings. In general, I’d say that I’ve been fairly successful–at least in the Washington, D.C. area. I’ve been asked to read at several reading series where you have to apply to read (including the Library of Congress Poetry at Noon series), and I’ve been invited back to several series after I’ve read once.
I’ve had some beginner’s luck at getting into mainstream poetry publications. I’m not sure what we poets with disabilities need to do to break into mainstream poetry publications–both in print and on-line. For one thing–it’s not fair–but I think we’re kind of where women and African Americans, or maybe gay people were in the 1960's or 1970's. We’re not really on the radar screen. So, since poetry is super competitive for everyone, poets with disabilities have to submit work that’s better than everyone else’s.
One problem that we have is, how do we get a fair critique of our work? How do we get poetry editors to fairly assess our work, especially, if the poems are about disability-related themes–if these editors most likely have ableist attitudes? Do you have any ideas about this?
Linda: I think Kathi is right and part of what the poet's job at a reading is to make the audience comfortable so they can focus on the poems - however I also think some of the role of disability poetry is to make people uncomfortable with their preconceived notions about disability and what it is like to live with a disability so they can realize what the truth is and we can break down the barriers. That is not what I think about when I write a poem though - it is simply a side effect of being honest and expressing my thoughts and opinions. Writing that deals honestly and openly about disability by a person with a disability is going to conflict with some people's preconceived ableist views and if they are made uncomfortable with my reading or my poems in print and begin to rethink their ideas that is a benefit to me - as long as I have made them comfortable enough to listen - which is not always easy. I agree with Kathi that humor can work as well as giving a little background to break some of the barriers down.Ona: I, too, am a ham. I love to read aloud and build a rapport with an audience through my poems. I also find it a helpful tool for deciphering whether a particular poem is finished. I write out loud. That is, I say the poem to myself as I'm working on so that I can hear its music and hear where it falters. Reading it to an audience, I hear it afresh and I can tell from their reaction (or non-reaction) whether a line or an image is doing what I hope it to do. >As much as I love to read and to hear other poets, I also want to say that ultimately it is the poem on the page that matters the most to me. I've heard poems aloud that I've really liked, but when I seek them out in books I find I'm disappointed. The imagery may seem slight, or the language a little flat. When it works solely as a performance piece, I think it is its own valid art form, but its something other than poetry. A monologue? Maybe we need a new name for it. A poemalogue? It's enjoyable but it's not what I strive to write. As for reading poems about disability to audience, when I do, I feel a bit as though I'm "coming out". People may or may not have noticed my gait, so the poems name it for them. I like reading them as part of a mix of personal poems to give a full picture and to place disability into the context of a whole, varied life. As I said in response to a previous question, one goal I have in writing both autobiographical poems and nonfiction is to show myself as recognizable and easy to identify with so as to dispell the idea of other.
Kathi: I agree with Ona. As much as I enjoy reading my poetry aloud, I mainly write my poems to be read in print (whether on-line or in print publications or in regular print format, large print, Braille, screen reader or other alternative formats). Poetry that's read aloud is in a way a different form..or maybe it's poetry, plus performance (or poetry intergrated with performance).
Having said this, I think poetry readings are valuable for both the poets who read their work and for audiences who hear their poems. It gives poets a chance to hear, and viscerally feel how their poetry connects with audiences, and how the craft of the poetry is working. And it gives audiences a chance to hear, feel..maybe obtain is the right word--additional layers of meaning or texture of the poems--that they wouldn't get just reading them in print.
I like, your poem Linda, about disability politics. While I strive to make audiences comfortable with me..with my disability when I read poetry aloud, I don't aim to write poetry that's comforting about disability (or anything else for that matter). Well, I think sometimes poems about grief or love might offer consolation to readers. But I don't believe that that's what we poets aim for when we write the poems.
I don't aim always to make readers uncomfortable when I write poems that have disablity themes. But I know when I write some of these poems--or when I have poems with characters with disabilities--that these poems are likely to discomfort audiences (whether they hear the poems at poetry readings or read them in print). Because these poems challenge the prevailing cultural perceptions of disablity and of people with disabilties.
I know when I write such poems, that I'm challenging readers' preconceptions of disability--implicitly, if not explicitly, calling for them to rethink these perceptions. The prevailing cultural perceptions of disability have been in a way quite comforting to people in this culture--including poets and their readers. So, though I don' t think poets (or at least I don't) usually aim to discomfort people when they write poems about disability, I think this is what usually happens.
This is one of the reasons, I think, why sometimes, poets who write disability culture poetry, sometimes have trouble winning acceptance in mainstream poetry publications and circles. Our poems consciously or unconsciously discomfort poetry editors and their audiences.
One other issue about reading poems at poetry readings, if you're a poet with a disablity, is often accessibility. Many reading series (even those held in recently built venues) aren't accessible to poets with disabilities. For example, I recently took part at a poetry reading at a branch of Poets & Busboys, a new ( a few years old)--progressive reading space in Washington, DC. Busboys has great food and is open to all sorts of progressive political views and divesity. Yet, at this poetry reading, the stage wasn't accessible to performers using crutches or wheelchairs. For myself, as someone with low vision, the lighting is often bad at poetry readings.
So it's an issue for us. And there's the question of how much we can change it..Or how much should we work to change. Because realistically if we ruffle too many feathers , we may not be asked back to read, or some people who run poetry series may not ask poets with disabilities to read. But of course, you don't want to let inaccessibility remain unchanged.
Patricia: I realized, as I listened to your responses, that another reason I do like my poems in print (or online) is because they LAST that way. People can find them later. They may get archived. People sometimes write to me years after a poem was published that they stumbled across it and just had to let me know it touched something inside them. A reading, no matter how fabulous at the moment, is an ephemeral thing and gone as soon as it was heard.
Ona: True. But that's changing with wav files and youtube. I love journals that include an audio option, especially since my partner (also a poet and lover of poems) is blind. What a gift when he can hear a poem in the author's voice rather than the mechanical voice of a screen reader.
Kathi: I agree. I'll take hearing a poem in an author's voice over a synthesized voice anytime! Though, as someone with low vision, I'm happy to hear poetry read with any kind of voice when I can't read print. I think hearing a poem in an author's voice is a gift for everyone. And it's true media like You Tube can make poetry readings last.
Patricia: Now, see, you're way ahead of me. I wasn't thinking (did I even know?) about the new net possibilities and can certainly agree that hearing the poet's voice must be such a pleasure.
Ona: Here is a link to poems of mine in The Barefoot Muse, a journal of formal poetry that includes audio: http://www.barefootmuse.com/archives/issue5/gritz.htm
Patricia: How wonderful, Ona. I'll listen shortly, but wanted to ask, as you seem really up on this, how one goes about getting to read your poems in the places you mention. Such a great idea! … What I mean, Ona, is using the new internet family or whatever to read poems so others can hear them, even if they can't see them. The virtual reality I keep reading/hearing about. And seeing, mildly. I've done a couple of podcasts but think I'm way behind times. The dragon lurking at the lip of the cave... You seem up to date on this, smart woman!
Linda: I didn’t mean to imply that I deliberately set out to make people uncomfortable by my writing - what I meant is it is sometimes a natural by-product of poems about disability by disabled poets because we are challenging conventional views. And I agree with Kathi views people are comfortable with.>I also agree with Ona and the other comments that they primarily focus on the poem in print. I also read my poems aloud as I am writing and I often work with a voice dictation program because of difficulty typing and I have noticed that the poems I dictate are often more musical and there is a greater focus on the sounds of the words. I feel this use of dictation has benefited some of my poems. And I plan to do more of it in the future.
I think it is wonderful when besides seeing the poem in print one can hear the author read it. I have tapes and CD's of well known authors reading their work and it enhances the experience. This is also true for poems about disability. I look forward to listening to Ona's poem in the Barefoot Muse.
Mike: One of the first and most important anthologies of disability literature was With Wings: An Anthology of Literature By and About Women with Disabilities edited in 1987 by Saxton & Howe. That volume strong focused on disability writing by women as an outgrowth of feminist writing. In fact, the book was published by feminist press. To what extent do you think issues of women and disability converge and, more specifically, in your own writing do you consciously pursue what you would consider to be feminist issues? Can you give an example?
Patricia: I haven’t read With Wings but I’d agree yes, issues of women and disability converge and, particularly, the upsurge of feminism stimulated their writings. The goal, at least one of them, is to empower women. Disabled women (and men, of course) need all the power they can find, and putting pen to paper to tell their true stories is an important way to gain a feeling of strength. I’ve been a feminist since I started shaking off my ‘good-girl’ upbringing in my early twenties and, except rarely, don’t consciously pursue feminist issues in my writing, though my beliefs inform everything I write and say. Here’s an example, one of my favorite poems (and I used this voice deliberately).
*First published in The People’s Press, 2006
Kathi: I think that there are many issues in which the feminist and disability movements converge. The disability movement’s models have been the African-American civil rights movement, the gay rights movement and the feminist movement.
I think the disability rights and feminist movements converge on issues of choice and autonomy; on the issues of equality and standing up against unfair hierarchies and power; and on issues centered around “the body” (meaning: the right to define one’s own body and respecting bodies that are different from the “dominant” cultural norm).
There have always been (and still are) conflicts between the feminist and disability rights movement. Much of this conflict is centered around the issue of abortion–particularly, over the way that some feminists have used disability (or the possibility of the birth of a child with a disability) as a way of defending the right of a woman to chose to have an abortion. I’m pro-choice; but have some problems when some feminists use disability in the abortion debate. Sometimes the feminist movement is ableist. In the sense that some feminists still have images of the body and of beauty that are ableist. Having said this, I think that the disability rights and feminist movements have been and still are very much connected.
Asking if I pursue feminist issues in my writing...is like asking if I pursue disability issues in my writing...or queer issues in my writing. As someone who’s a feminist, has a disability and is lesbian–all of these issues are so intertwined in my life–that I don’t pursue them. They’re just always there. Not always consciously in my mind..but always unconsciously there. Kind of like with your computer, where you might be using one application, but where the other applications that you don’t see, are still there. Or like that crawl that’s at the bottom of the screen on CNN.
One of the things I liked about Helen Keller was that there was this strain of first wave feminism that always ran through her. In my poem “Lunch at the Algonquin,” Keller wants to say to a snoopy socialite, “I went to Radcliffe and learned Greek/as well as the Harvard boys.” In one of my early poems “The Blind Woman Talks” (published in Kaleidoscope), the speaker of the poem says, “I am wonder woman with her cane,/Sappho with her Seeing-Eye dog.”
My Uppity Blind Girl character is 25-years old. In some ways, she’s more post-feminist than feminist. Uppity wears stilettos, blogs about perfume and wine, and loves who she loves whether he or she is gay or straight. Yet, Uppity is still a feminist at heart. She first appeared in one of my poems called “Full Disclosure” (first published in “Breath & Shadow”). The speaker of the poem, who’s blind, has just read her poems at a poetry reading. After she reads, a character named Penis Man comes up to her. “How much do you see?/What about color?/Do you make love with your eyes closed?” he asks. As the speaker of the poem is standing there, unable to think of what to say, Uppity Blind Girl appears. “I’ve got Braille eyes/in the back of my head./I’m the Sappho/of the night. I bet your Mr. Johnson/is green with envy over my lavender inner vision./Tell me about your member,/how much do you see with it?” she asks Penis Man.
Sometimes, feminism doesn’t appear overtly in my poems. But, as is the case with disability, it’s always part of the back story.
Ona: One place I see the convergence is in our culture's fixation with physical beauty. As girls, we're taught that attractiveness is what makes us valuable. Yet we're offered such a narrow view of what it means to be beautiful, that most everyone, disabled or not, sees herself as lacking. (Industries like cosmetic surgery thrive on this and diseases like anorexia are born from it.) Those of us with disabilities are that much further from the ideal with our different looking and different functioning bodies. The harmful messages regarding a woman's worth are delivered to us in multiples. There's a feminine ideal and we're not it. In fact, we're the antithesis of it. I've written about this most directly in an essay, Love, Beauty and Disability or How I Became a Heartbreaker, forthcoming in the memoir section of More Magazine. It is also an undercurrent in this poem in which a woman with a disability seeks to understand how she is viewed from the outside :
Those Like You
Kathi: Ona, I agree I think we're converging around the whole question of beauty and disability and our culture's view of it (beauty and disability). When does your essay in More come out?
Mike: I think Kathi is correct in implying that to some extent the last question sets up a straw man (or woman) to the extent that if, as I believe Steve Brown puts it, disability poetry is what poets with disabilities write, then the disability (or feminist or lesbian) aesthetic is not necessarily something a writer consciously produces. Kathi also makes a number of comments, such as the points on which disability advocates and feminists differ, that are extremely important, but could take us well into the night discussing, so I am going to take the easy way out and focus on something a bit more manageable. Ona referred to the ideals of feminine beauty and I think that this is a point where it is easiest to see how disability can be as much a social construction as physical reality.
One of the most powerful examples that I know of is the poet Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals written after her double mastectomy in which she defends her position not to wear prostheses and challenges other women to follow her example. Though Lorde’s book was prose, I think, Patricia, that you deal with some of the same issues in your book Don’t turn Away, and wondered if you would comment on how you tried to address them. Of course, everyone else can weigh in on the issue as well.
Patricia: In Don’t Turn Away I do deal some with the issue of how the woman looks and feels after mastectomy. The book wasn’t written with anything specific in mind; I wrote as I went through the process and dealt with my own traumas, and added stories from other people which wound up in the poems. I addressed this tough subject as I try to address everything I write about—looking straight on and describing what I see/think/feel with as little fluffing about as possible. In the title poem one line says, “Now you want to undress me.” Further down comes, “Then, / when you step back and run your eyes / over my one nipple, across the dented / healing slash, up to my face, / will I see on your skin / the ripple of revulsion, a strained smile, / the cooling of heat?”
Another poem, “Put a sock in it,” uses humor when looking at the thought of a prosthesis: “Yesterday I joined the big time, / had a fitting, got introduced / to the marvels of science / and good engineering.” And yet another, “Rosy Nipples” mulls over the question of reconstructive surgery, again with humor. (Humor helps me survive everything!)
As a woman with resolved issues about myself and femininity, this surgery wasn’t as hard to take as it is for young women and those whose self-image is wrapped tightly around physical beauty and attracting/keeping a partner. We probably all know of devastating things happening—husbands leaving, boy friends saying cruel things, families shunning the subject of cancer and “mutilation” altogether. I find it interesting that, while the book was being written and for a couple of years after, I played the prosthetic game along with everybody else. Then one summer day that all changed, as you can see in the poem here (which came too late for the collection).
Flat-Chested and Free*
*Published in Atlantic Breast Cancer Net, Canada, 2005
I also address the issue of how we look in “Walk of the One-Breasted Women” which you published in Wordgathering in March, 2008 [if you want to provide the link here, great!], also written long after the original surgery but quite pertinent to this question, I think. Every woman must find her own most comfortable solution to this highly noticeable change in her body and, sadly, some do feel disabled for the rest of their lives.
Ona: Patricia, thank you for sharing segments of Don't Turn Away—what powerful, moving writing! Mike, I like what you say about disability being as much a social construct as a physical reality. Well put. One idea I'd like to add to this already rich discussion is that in some ways disability can be seen as a gift here. Now I'm speaking as someone who was born with my disability, but I think we're under less pressure than our able bodied sisters when it comes to fitting in or meeting some impossible ideal. That expectation isn't put on us, so we learn early on to place our attention elsewhere. This isn't to say, we don't wish to be viewed as beautiful, but we know better than anyone that there are all kinds of beauty, the most striking of which radiates from the inside out. Patricia, you describe yourself as someone who has resolved your issues around feminine beauty, and I think we're speaking about the same thing. I believe those of us who were born into disabled bodies are given a head start in learning to accept our physical imperfections.
Kathi: I think Audre Lorde's work is really powerful, and Patricia, I think your poem "Flat-Chested and Free" is really strong and moving.
I think disability is as much a social construct as physical reality for masculine attractiveness as well as feminine beauty. What I mean by this is that the able-bodied, dominant culture perceives people with disabilities--both male and female-as being outside the realm of beauty. Even when, as is the case for example with deaf people, we don't perceive ourselves as having a disability. Or I'm thinking of, say, a man or a female, who has had his or her legs amputated and doesn't chose to use prosthetic legs. Or who uses prosthetic legs. In either case, non-disabled people are apt not to think of that person as being beautiful.
Having said this, I think disability is as much a social construct as physical reality more often with women. Because our sexist, ableist, dominant culture more often associates a particular "feminine" type of beauty with women--and if a woman has a disability--to not see her as being "beautiful." I'm thinking here, too, of say, a woman who has Down Syndrome. Because she has facial features associated with Down Syndrome, she is not considered "beautiful."
This is true, too, I think of women who are blind or have low vision. If our eyes look "blind" (that is not like "normal" eyes)--if we don't maintain eye contact--we're not considered to be "beautiful." If we use a white cane (rather than trying to pass), we're considered to be not "beautiful"-to be impaired--"infirm." Even if, ironically having a white cane, makes us feel free "non-disabled"--because the cane gives us the freedom to get around.
Some of us who are blind, low vision or have other visible disabilities have addressed this issue--this perception of us as not being beautiful or sexual--by developing an aesthetic--a poetics--that emphasizes pride in who we are-or that plays with our canes, wheelchairs etc. as a means to freedom. Sometimes in my poems, I (or my characters) are deliberately ironic about the visual aspects of beauty. Sometimes, the disability aethetic is just there in my poetry, sometimes it's something that I strive for --or consciously work with.
An example of this is an unpublished Uppity Blind Girl poem that I'm working on. In this poem, tentatively titled "Uppity's Happy Hour Nightmare," Uppity, sitting at a bar, is suddenly able to see. Unfortunately, she's only able to see decidely unbeautiful things like a roach and the bartender's hideously Pepto-Bismal coloroed Polo shirt. "Am I getting chubby?" Uppity asks, averting her eyes from the green mold on the tavern's walls, "Am I going gray at 25?/Will I kiss anyone with zits?/Or less than perfect abs?" Munching on pistachios, Uppity ironically says, "I'm ready for my close-up."
I think we all have to find a way to be comfortable with and proud of are bodies in a culture that still devalues people with disabilities. Disability culture poetry plays an important role in this task.
Linda: I agree with a lot of what Patricia and Kathi have said in their replies. The quotes from both Patricia's and Kathi's poems are very strong and powerful. I agree that disability is as much a social construct as a physical reality. But that social construct has been so powerful and impressed upon everyone from such a young age that it influences the way people think about disability and beauty. People, especially women, don't fit the traditional ideas of beauty - I agree with Kathi that the disabled are outside the realm of what is considered beautiful. Our culture devalues people with disabilities and their role in society. Not just their beauty - And that is something that disability poetry and disability writing can discourage by breaking down the myths about the disabled. And by showing our own belief in our inherent beauty and value. It comes down to the power of perception and when you believe in your own beauty and power it gives you a sense of confidence that can strengthen you. Disability poetry can help to break down the traditional view of beauty and show the beauty and power in each of us - disabled or not. The idea of beauty is one I would like to explore more in my poetry. I do have a Flash Essay in my book Dream Bones that is called "Beauty and the Beholder." It deals with the idea of beauty and loving your self.
Flash Essay on: Beauty and the Beholder
Kathi: This response is really powerful. I agree. I think one thing we can do in disability culture poetry is to discourage myths about people with disabilities...and to celebrate non-traditional beauty and diffference. The Flash Essay is really moving and powerful.
Mike: All of you have been successful in getting your work into print in publications such as Breath and Shadow, Kaleidoscope and Disability Studies Quarterly . Can you talk about other print venues or publications where you have had success that readers of Wordgathering who are just starting to look for market for their work might want to approach? Any advice?
Linda: I have published in a number of places both print magazines and online. One place Mike didn't mention that also deals with health issues and disability is The Healing Muse. It is out of upstate NY and connected to a university. I have placed several poems there. It publishes poems, essays, and stories that have some connection to health and disability. Also I have published in mainstream publications - It helps to know what you write and what market fits your work by that I mean do you write narrative, lyric, experimental, - you need a literary magazine that is looking for the type of poetry you write. You need to know the magazine which is much easier today with the number of magazines that have online sites which demonstrate the work they publish. Start out with some more approachable magazines rather than the most well-known. I have published in some smaller magazines and some larger, more well-known. Approach both. Also look and see if the magazine publishes the same people all the time or seems open to new voices. Develop your writing so your poems are the best they can be before you send them out for submission. And only send poems you think are your best - one bad one may turn the reader off and color their reading of the other poems or they may not bother to read the others at all. Readers receive a lot of submissions - you want yours to stand out. Go to readings of literary magazines that you like that are near you. Listen to what the editors say they are looking for and what people read. If your poetry fits, send it in and mention if you talked to an editor or a poem read stood out to you. And if you can afford it, subscribe to journals you like and hope to publish in - it is important to support the places that publish poetry especially the poetry you like to write and read. And read a lot of poetry so you can see what other poets are doing and develop your own writing. You have to know the tradition and environment you are working in.
Kathi: Linda gives really thorough advice to poets seeking publication in disability, feminist, lesbian, other alternative or mainstream publications. I can only echo what Linda says.
I've been published in some mainstream poetry publications (print and on-line) such as Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Not Just Air, Potomac Review, Gargoyle and Innisfree Poetry Journal. I've also read my work on the public radio show The Poet and the Poem. www.poetrymagazine.com has a link to the show that I was on under "Grace Cavalieri Audio interviews."
A couple of the editors of these publications asked me to submit work to them after they heard me read my poetry at poetry readings. I learned about some of these publications from browsing through on-line and print publications or from fellow/sister poets as well as from poetry teachers.
Sometimes I submit to mainstream publications and my work is rejected. But it's a "good" kind of rejection because the editor sends a note with the rejection either saying that they liked some of my work or that I should think about submitting more to their publication. I pay attention to these publications. After what my grandma would have termed a "decent interval," I'll submit again to these journals. You want to be careful, though. You don't want to pass up the opportunity to submit again to an editor who's expressed a liking for your work. But, you don't want to submit so often, that you become a nuisance.
As Linda said, it's a good idea to read journals to see if you think your poems might mesh with their style. When you submit, it's good if you're familiar with the journal and to mention (without gushing) a poem or two in the journal that you particularly enjoyed reading.
Reading your poems as a featured reader at a poetry reading or at an "open mike," is a good way to test how an audience receives your poem. This may give you a feel for how some editors may react to your work.
I agree with Linda. You'll want to submit your best work--as poetry is so competitive and you don't want to lower your chances of acceptance by submitting a poem that isn't your best. Often, a poetry workshop (either a peer-run poetry workshop or a poetry workshop led by a poetry teacher) can give you valuable feedback on your work--before you submit your poems.
Having said this, it's almost a misnomer to talk about "mainstream" poetry publications. As most poetry publications are obscure to the general public. There are really only a few "mainstream" poetry publications--The New Yorker and The Atlantic come to mind. And of course in the poetry world, we all would love to get into Poetry magazine.
Sometimes you might want to think about submitting to poetry magazines that have certain themes or that have issues with a particular theme. For instance, if you've written (let's say hypothetically) a poem about travel--then you might want to submit it to a poetry magazine that has "travel" or "adventure" as a theme. The same if you've written a poem about say, aging, if a magazine has aging as a theme--or with nature, food--or any other theme.
Then, there are literary magazines for certain niches that you might want to submit to. For example, Passager is a good literary journal--that publishes poetry by people over 50. It has a poetry contest every year. If you're over 50, you might want to submit to Passager.
There are also magazines such as Bark--a magazine about dogs. Bark publishes lots of articles about dogs, but it also publishes poems about dogs. Go ahead and laugh, but wonderful poets such as Mark Doty have been published in Bark.
So if you've written on say, dogs, or sailing or whatever subject--you might want to see if any good magazines on the subject publish poems on that topic.
Above all, I'd advise poets to do whatver, within legal and ethical means, it takes to develop and maintain a thick skin, creativity and emotional tranquility--while going through the process of submitting our poetry and, as is the case for all of us no matter how good are poems are, often having it rejected.
I've had a fair number of acceptances in both mainstream and disability poetry publications--but I've had an equal or greater number of rejections. I've learned not to take it personally. That's key. You have to learn not to take rejection personally. The editors aren't rejecting you--they're rejecting your poetry.
Also, I'd advise poets that having a poem rejected often doesn't mean that it's a bad poem. Sometimes, of course, it is a bad poem. But often an editor rejects a poem because it doesn't fit his/her publication's style, it's just not quite as good as the 500 million poems it's competing with-or, as often as not, because the editor has had a bad day (maybe a fight with a significant other or a car break down). Many literary journals are unpaid labors of love for their editors and staff.
I'd advise poets to keep careful records of their submissions. You don't want to submit poems to more than one publication if the submission guidelines say "no simultaneous submissons." Write down when a poem is rejected. Once a poem is rejected, think about whether you think it's good. If you do, send it out to another journal.
I think all of us have had books published. My chapbook was published by Pudding House, a good, small poetry publisher. It's mainstream in that it's not disability related. Generally, to get a chapbook or book published in the poetry world, you have to enter competitions and win prizes. (Though you can submit to a few publishers without entering competitions.) You should read submission guidelines carefully. Here, too, most of us will lose before we win a competition. I lost four competitions before becoming a finalist in the Pudding House competition. You have to just not give up. I know that sounds corny, but I think it's true.
Patricia: Well, Linda and Kathi have thoroughly covered the getting-published aspects of this question. I have only a few things to add. One is that I have a series called "Getting Published" archived in Long Story Short (www.longstoryshort.us/ ) that might prove helpful. Another is, don’t forget anthologies. They are wonderful places for themed poems and often take pre-published work, so your poems, essays and stories get double exposure. And last, I’ve found some writers’ email lists very helpful in finding venues; CRWROPPS-B http://groups.yahoo.com/crwropps is my favorite, though you must delete many listings that just don’t fit your needs. What an interesting time you folks are giving me! So glad to be part of this discussion.
Ona: You've all given wonderful advice to writers wishing to get published and I agree with all of it. The only thing I'd add is that online journals tend to be more open to new writers than their print counterparts. Also, their response time is often much quicker. There's a wonderful article in a recnt issue of Poets & Writers that talks about the benefits of online publishing, the most significant being that they attract more readers than even the most well known print literary journals. From my own experience having published in both formats, while it's lovely to hold a physical journal in your hand, I've yet to get any responses from readers based on publication in print journals while I've gotten a number of "fan-emails" from people who have read my work online. Some have led to invitations to read and one has lead to a deep friendship.
Kathi: This has been such a fabulous discussion! One other newsletter that offers good listings of and information about poetry markets is Duotrope's Digest. It's an newsletter that goes out weekly. For information about the newsletter and on how to subscribe, go to http://www.duotrope.comnewsletter.aspx.
Mike: This has been a great discussion, one that I really wish I did not have to bring to a close, but since I do, I’ll throw out one last question that I hope might be of interest to beginning writers. I think all of us who have written a while can look back at some of those poems that we wrote long ago and would like to disown. With respect to poetry, how would say that you have grown the most as a writer? How is your poetry different now?
Patricia: Since I had no training as a poet, or in creative writing at all (having done academic and scientific writing for 20 years) my first poems were pretty darned awkward, but such a lot of fun! I took classes and workshops and the craft improved. I discovered, as we all do, that no matter how you write, eventually your own voice appears and that’s to be celebrated. The hardest thing for me at the beginning was to stop skirting around the hard topics and just plunge in, go deep, let the pain surface in the words and images. Playing it safe just doesn’t grab the reader or do service to the poem. I’ve learned the joy of revision, plucking out excess words, sharpening images. Critique groups have helped immensely, and still do, as we don’t always see ourselves what our poems need.
How my poems have changed? As I said in my essay in the previous issue of Wordgathering, I’m in a new cycle of my life and the poems reflect that. The poems don’t seem as strong to me now, but the pleasure in writing them remains, and on the occasion that I feel passionate about something, the words ring, too.
Thanks, Mike, for inviting me to participate in this fascinating discussion. I’ve enjoyed every word of it, and have huge admiration (no, that’s not pedestal-making, dear women, merely fact) for my colleagues in the dialogue.
Linda: I have been writing for awhile now and like Patricia many of my first poems were awkward. My writing has improved as I have read and studied the craft, working with various writers and taking workshops and through individual work. I have learned that revision is a carefully crafted practice that refines a poem to the best that it can be. I find reading other poets and reading widely has helped improve my own writing. As has working in critique groups or exchanging work with individual poets. Sometimes other writers can point out something you missed - particularly when you have been working on a poem intensively. I find working with a voice dictation program has helped enhance my attention to the sound of the words and the music of the poem. Again I agree with Patricia that it took me some time to realize what I wanted to say and to dive into the meaty issues like disability. I found there were things I was consciously avoiding and those were things that most needed to be written.
How has my writing changed? I would say my poems have more developed metaphors and images and a greater awareness of language and sound. Much of what I write is a combination of narrative and lyric - taking qualities from both. I am in the process of writing new poems (after finishing the final version of my manuscript and sent it to the publisher) and am working on individual poems but trying to keep in mind a general focus or shape, I find it difficult to shape the focus of what I write - my topics and themes find me. I just hope at the end of it I will have the shape of a book. Many of the poems in my first book dealt with growing up and living with a disability and chronic illness ( For those of you who don't know I developed rheumatoid arthritis at eight) The new poems I am writing are dealing with disability as an adult woman and all that means and entails. Plus other things.
I feel honored at having been asked to participate in this dialogue with some wonderful, intelligent, articulate, gifted poets. I will miss our discussions.
Kathi: I've been writing journalism--news stories, essays and humor pieces for a number of years. And, I've read poetry most of my life. In the late 1970's in graduate school, I took a course from a famous poet. He told me that I had ":little, if any, talent.". Being young and having no emotional skin then, I dropped the course and stopped writing poetry.
I wrote a few poems during the late 1980s, but didn't start seriously writing poetry again until after my partner of 12 years died two weeks before Sept. 11 in 2001. While we were together, Anne would tell me I should write poetry, take poetry workshops, etc. But who listens to their sweetie? I started writing poetry because there was no way that I couldn't write poetry. I began taking poetry workshops. Within a couple of years, I was performing at open mikes and submitting work-doing residencies--entering competitions. I'm telling you this as a way of saying that I still feel like a newbie, even though I know that I'm a step or two above being a "baby" poet.
Thinking back over my work since 2001, I do know though that I've grown as a poet. When I started writing (as is often the case with beginning poets), I wrote only about myself and the personal-emotional events of my own life. Not surprisingly, many of my first poems dealt with grief and loss. Then when I first began going to peer and teacher-led poetry workshop, I had a very thin skin. I wanted to explain everything about every poem--to make sure that all readers and listeners would "get" it. I took every critical comment personally and defended each poem as if I were defending my life.
When I was a beginning poet, I rarely challenged myself. I seldom tried to write in new forms or styles or about different subjects. Though I was telling stories and my poems had "speakers" and characters, I had little sense of how character or narrative worked in poetry. From the get-go I wrote some (at least a few) good poems. Yet, my poetry lacked emotional range. I didn't read enough poetry. I read poetry of poets I liked; but I didn't try to stretch myself by reading poets whose style and voice are way different from my work. When I did read poetry, I didn't read for craft as well as for pleasure (as I do now). I had no sense of what it takes to read poetry aloud well--of the performance aspects of reading one's poetry at a poetry reading. At open mikes, I mumbled or talked way too loud; read with the speed of an auctioner or way too slowly; and my voice was as expressive as a robot reading a sonnet.
I'm still very much of a growing poet. But I'm a better poet than I was when I started. I've developed a reasonably thick hide (a necesary piece of equipment if you're in the "po biz"). When my poetry is being critiqued (by my peers in my poetry group, by teachers, by reviewers), I no longer take it personally (as long as the criticism is leveled at my work--my poetry--and not me--my personal self). Now, once I've written a poem and bring it out in public, the poem has become a being separate from me. So I no longer defend poems as if my life were at stake. I find much criticism to be helpful and am now actually eager for feedback on my work (as opposed to being terrified of feedback when I first started writing poems). I've learned to use criticism that I find useful and not to be weighed down by the rest.
Now, my poetry is driven by character and story. Some of my poetry comes out of my life experiences (how could it not?). But now I love to write poems featuring other characters--characters that are and aren't like me. Characters that have many different lives and points of view.
Today, my poetry has a fairly wide emotional range. My poems are, by turns, poignant, political, humorous, grief-driven, about love, angry, sad, whimsical, etc. I enjoy writing on different subjects. I don't see myself becoming a neo-formalist. Yet, I find it interesting to write in different forms. Unlike in the beginning, when I didn't think much about craft, I now work with sound, voice, diction, tone, point of view etc when I write. And, I think, this is apparent in my poetry.
To echo Patricia, I go deeper now in my poetry. I've learned to write without fear and to go deep. Poets give the characters in their poems an inner life. That's what I do now in mine.
To use food metaphors (my fave kind): In the beginning, my poems were simple meals. Sometimes comfort food like P&J sandwiches. Sometimes undercooked spaghetti. Sometimes greasy French Fries that you wouldn't want as a steady diet. Or bland cheese--Velvetta. Today, my poems aren't yet the great feast I'd like them to be. You know, the perfect dinner party with fabulous guests and a wonderful varitey of dishes --from sweet to sour-to sultry--savory--serious but also deep and sweet.
But, they're getting there.
Ona: As always, I found it interesting and moving to read your responses to this question. Kathi, it saddens me to hear of the discouraging words of one of your early teachers. Because of that person, you lost so much time as a poet! I think it's the responsibility of the mentors we turn to to show us what's good or promising about our work--even if early on it's something small--an interesting turn of phrase, a unique perspective--before they point to our weaknesses. Once we know where something is working, we get a sense of what we're capable of, and it's easier to take in where we need to improve.
I've been very lucky. I've always had encouraging teachers from Mrs. Greenstein, my second grade teacher who gave me my first book of poetry, to famous poets in grad school and beyond. In college, I had a poetry mentor, Harry Stessel, who told me "Great poems aren't written, they're carved" and taught me how to edit out the excess and the expected language in my work. Because of that good training, my poems were concise and well crafted by the time I entered grad school. There at NYU I had the privilege of studying with great poets like Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds and Ruth Stone. From them, I learned to pursue the heat of my material, to brave difficult emotional places and show myself openly in my writing in order to find the universality of my experience. Now, twenty years later, I'd say my writing has both deepened and widened. Motherhood has given me a deeper well of emotion to explore, and writing prose, especially personal essays, has helped me to see a larger array of subjects as 'poem-worthy'--disability among them.
I actually rarely feel the desire to disown my earlier work. I like seeing who I was as a younger woman. When I've read her poems, I've been touched by her vulnerability, her hope and her earnestness. And I see her talent. I'll be interested to see how I respond in twenty years to the writing I'm doing now.
Kathi: A big thank you to you, Mike, for inviting me to be a part of this discussion. And wow, to all of my sister women, who I've been lucky enough to talk with. I'm not putting any of you on a pedestal (I don't even know if I can spell pedestal)..but it's been way cool to talk with you! You have been, by turns, wise, provacative, thoughtful, gentle--you've made me listen and think. I can't wait to read your work and I hope I get to talk to you again! Mike, I know you have to shut this discussion down. But could we have this dialogue again sometimes...maybe in a year or so--with different questions?