Emily K. Michael
ANSWERING BLINDNESS: A POET MAKES AMENDS
Today I am preparing submissions for two local venues — an online journal and a quarterly print magazine. Each publication asks for a brief cover letter: Introduce yourself and describe your publication history.
Introducing myself is easy. I'm Emily, a college writing instructor and local musician. I sing. I love grammar, especially the grammar of poetry. And yes — I smile to myself — I have a few publications.
My fingers stall over the keys. I recognize my publication history as an act of disclosure. By dropping certain journal names, I'm about to reveal myself as a blind poet.
When submitting to a journal that welcomes and promotes disabled writers, I feel no hesitation. I readily summarize my accomplishments and click "Submit." I do my best to ignore the doubts slinking in — what if it's the disability they want and not me? — because I'm not separate from my disability. I may not be my disability, but I live it. In these places, I feel unmuted; many of my readers will know the irritation of inaccessible texts, the daily reality of shifting abilities.
But when I submit to a journal that doesn't broadcast its dedication to disabled voices, I struggle with anxiety. I feel compelled to specify every feature of the limited vision that I call blindness – and its presence in my work.
Because I find myself in "blindness limbo," I have always felt the pressure to explain my vision. (And here I go.) I have low vision, but I use a white cane. I can read braille, but I prefer to read print. I can travel independently but I like to use a sighted guide in bright environments. I wear dark glasses inside and outside. I can recognize some colors but can't identify them. (More recently than I'd like to admit, I asked an obliging sighted friend to describe the color differences in sunrises and sunsets, so I could deploy this imagery with greater confidence.)
When editors see my list of publications, they'll find a person who doesn't fit the nondisabled standards for blindness, a writer who calls herself blind and employs visual imagery. This ambiguity bothers me because it creates discomfort with an edge of hostility. Most people initially misunderstand my vision; my self-chosen "blind" label makes them feel like they're being tricked. When I call myself a blind poet, they ask, "But you can see, right? You have some vision? You're not really blind."
I begin to soothe them with explanations, feeling that confusion about my medical status will distract readers from my work. I want everything out in the open: no mysteries, no secrets. I don't intend to deceive anyone with my self-description.
Here, my disclosure becomes an anti-poetic gesture — a dependence on the empirical, the linear. But I don't feel safe leaving my visual status to the imaginations of editors. I can't predict what version of blindness they'll concoct. In my dreams, these editors assert that I vivify the tradition of Homer and Milton with a graceful wisdom unique to my twenty-six years. In my nightmares, they interpret me as a Ray Charles-Helen Keller hybrid with a generous measure of Dickensian sentimentality.
I'd better tell them what kind of blindness I have; I need to make my disability accessible, so the editors will actually read my work. I relegate my disability to the cover letter, setting aside all poems that overtly discuss my blindness.
* * *
Some weeks ago, a new acquaintance presented me with her latest publication — a volume of poetry. "I want you to have this," she insisted. "though I'm not sure how you'll read it."
I thanked her for the book and assured her that I had many ways of reading text. Apart from using the bifocals in my glasses, I described text-to-speech software and video magnifiers. But I shouldn't have done this.
I should have offered her the chance to dream, to empathize: "Use your imagination. If you had a print disability, how would you approach text?"
I have never answered in this manner, but I've always wanted to. Whenever people say, "I'm not sure how you do that," their voices trail off hopefully. These questioners crave reassurance; if they can't cure me, they ask me to render my disability nonthreatening, even palatable. By removing the sting from my blindness, I help to heal their hypothetical disabilities.
I ameliorate these fears because I want to show others that I live a full life. I explain away their discomfort, so they won't view me as a tragic heroine: The Poor Blind Girl Who Loves to Read and Can't. So I try to reassure, to comfort, all with an easy nonchalance. Just another day in the life of Emily, the Woman Who Reads with Machines.
So it's no surprise to me that my habit of explaining rears its head when I'm writing cover letters. I want to rectify all the ambiguities of my curriculum vitae, smooth all the wrinkles of my creative-academic fusion. Ultimately, I want to ready the reader.
As a disabled woman, I am always advocating for accommodations, and I achieve the best results when I can prepare others for me in advance. I often find that people are surprised by my disability — shocked when I round the corner and they see the white cane sweeping the ground before me. Accommodations on the fly aren't fun or productive: "I know you need text in size 18, but can you read size 14, just this once?" or "We can't do anything about the overhead lights — maybe you could just keep your sunglasses and hat on."
I want readers to prepare for my work. I want them to feel comfortable delving into the world of a sort-of-blind poet. Then they will hopefully indulge my unconventional images, my blending of color and texture. If I can annotate my own work by claiming my disability upfront, maybe I can avoid that routine awkwardness.
As I arrange these attitudes on the page, I hear a few problems (for Alex of the Macbook reads them back to me). Who can avoid being misunderstood? And how could explaining my blindness, one feature of my identity, prevent all reader-based confusion?
Through medicalized terms, I'm trying to ensure that my readers receive the interpretation I intended; I'm trying to dictate their acceptance. I'm a helicopter poet.
And it has to stop.
* * *
I have recently formed a writers' group with two colleagues. We meet once a month to share short fiction and poetry, finding that these genres add complementary perspective to the revision process. Even among these friends, I feel compelled to resolve all ambiguities. At a recent meeting, I offered them a poem called "Harvest moon":
It was hard to see
They both challenged my description of the sky.
"What is a thin sky? What does it look like?"
"Is it the clouds that are thin?"
I explained that the sky's texture is thin. Like that cheap black material used for Halloween costumes. All the little girl witch costumes are made from it. The sky is sheer, insubstantial — a fabric lining behind the clouds.
In the same poem, my friends asked me to clarify the "reflected fire" of the final line. Feeling like a fourth grade science teacher who hasn't read the textbook in a few years, I insisted, "The moon doesn't produce its own light; whatever light it has is reflected sunlight. The sun is the 'distant fire.'"
I read their questioning as a sign that the poem doesn't work. If my metaphors aren't readily understood, then they must be inept, eclectic, alienating. So I respond with the most effective technique I know: full disclosure. I take my readers through the poem and explain away all the images that don't make sense, talking over any interpretation my readers may have developed. By embodying the skeptical sighted reader, my friends show me how much I don't believe in my work.
I'm afraid some literary authority will recognize — and condemn — how much I'm improvising, embellishing. Someone will say, "That's an absurd metaphor — no sighted reader would understand it!" and I'll have my poet's license revoked. I'll be thrown back across the disclosure line, back to the place of strict binaries that don't fit anyone.
I recognize that I demand too much from my poems: I cannot ask them to reveal my blindness in others' terms, in the convenient disclosure language of social and medical life. Hinging on potential and imagination, poetry must help me circumvent the pressure to explain. I must accept what blindness appears on the page.