A SHORT HISTORY OR DISABILITY POETRY
In 1983, a brief article appeared in Kaleidoscope in which Medieval scholar A. J. Baird condemned the current poetry written about disability as super-sentimental, self-pitying and eliciting superficial sympathy, a poetry that failed to rise to acceptable artistic standards and was deservedly ignored by mainstream literature (Baird, 1983). He put out a call for poetry about physical disability that was tough-minded and grounded in concrete, physical fact. The result was Towards Solomon's Mountain, published in 1986. While few of the writers in that volume went on to produce major collections, Baird's collection showed what disability poetry could be. It would not be an exaggeration to call the publication of Towards Solomon's Mountain, the birth of disability poetry as a genre.
Of course, the writers in Baird's anthology were not the first American poets with disabilities to be published. Josephine Miles, Larry Eigner and Vassar Miller all had modest success with their writing, but had said little about their own bodies in their work. Because of this, Miles and Eigner, though known in literary circles, were overlooked by the first anthologies of disability writing.
Miles began writing in the 1930s when the public model was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who hid his disability and projected an image of great capability. As a result of this climate, it was not until Coming to Terms in 1979 - thirty-five years after the publication of her first book of poetry - that Miles directly refers to her own disability. At the beginning of that collection, she wrote ten autobiographical poems, among which several refer to her disability:
This is a hard life you are having
Larry Eigner was a member of Charles Olson's Black Mountain school, whose work was brought to prominence by Robert Creeley. Because of his cerebral palsy, unlike the other members of the group Eigner, did almost all of his writing from what he could observe from his own front porch. To an even greater extent than Miles, his poetry is devoid of reference to his own body, but the limitations under which he wrote did affect the content of his work and the unique sense of space he developed in his writing.
The Independent Living Movement initiated by Ed Roberts in the 1970's, did a great deal to spur on interest in disability and writing about disability. Individuals with disability began to see themselves as members of a larger group asserting their rights like African Americans and women. In the mid-1980's two important and anthologies of disability writing occurred which began to cull these individual writings. The first Despite This Flesh was edited by poet Vassar Miller, whose own writing career was roughly contemporary with Eigner and who, until the publication of her own If I Had Wheels or Love in 1991, kept her own disability out of her poems. What Miller did do, however, was to offer up a collection of writing by writers with disabilities designed to provide materials that teachers of literature could use. The second anthology, With Wings edited by Marsha Saxton and Florence Howe, was a much more political mix of disability poetry and prose. It became a seed book for many disability writings that followed. Neither of these books, as important as they were, advanced the manifesto for disability poetry to the extent that Baird's book did, and it was not until the 1990's that single author books of poetry that openly confronted the issues of disability appeared.
The passage of the ADA in 1992 seems to have been a watershed for disability poetry. Of the over three hundred poems Millers lifelong collection, If I Had Wings or Love, published in 1991 only 3 poems mention disability and only one, "Dramatic Monologue in the Speaker's Own Voice," gives a direct expression of the impact of experience upon her as an adult:
I'm either a monster
After the passage of the ADA many outstanding books of poetry by writers with disabilities began to emerge: Karen Fiser (1992), Words Like Fate and Pain; Tom Andrews (1994), The Hemophiliacs Motorcycle; Floyd Skloot (1994) Music Appreciation; Kenny Fries (1996) Anesthesia; Stephen Kuusisto ( 2000) Only Bread, Only Light; and Jim Ferris (2004), The Hospital Poems. While there was great variety in these works, all writers agreed on one thing - they eschewed sentimental poetry that made disability the object of pity or charity, and they rejected the of the image of the supercrip, the inspirational hero who overcame insurmountable odds.
For two reasons, Kenny Fries may be the single most powerful representative of this group. First, his physical impairments are the greatest and, second, his physical impairments are the most observable. As a result, of all the writers in the above chronology, the body and the aesthetic of the body dominates his poetry the most. Interestingly the third section of his book, Anesthesia, "The Healing Notebooks," published independently in 1990 (i.e., before the ADA in 1992) is the least graphic about his physical body. The poems deal more specifically with love, his feelings as a gay man, and AIDS. Without prior knowledge, one would not know the nature of his disability or even that he had one. By contrast, the two poems he chose to put up front in Anesthesia hit one immediately upon opening the cover. Such a move, in this 1996 work points to an obvious shift in emphasis for Fries. In "Excavation" he says:
Tonight, when I take off my shoes:
I touch the rough skin. The holes
If I touch them long enough will I find
who did? Freak, midget, three-toed
Disabled, crippled, deformed. Words
Not only does Fries put his own body out in public view - something that Eigner and Miller, much less Alexander Pope - could never do, he also questions the socially and culturally constructed nature of our concepts of beauty. Though Fries knows "No words unbend my bones./ Beauty is a two-faced god," (p. 74) he ends the poems with the assertion:
So each night, naked on my bed, my body
doesn't want repair, but longs for innocence. If
In doing so, he rejects the moral blame for his situation, a blame that in the past was often attributed to those with disabilities. He is not asking to be fixed or made normal, thus rejecting the medical or rehabilitative model. He is asking instead for a redefinition of beauty and of the way that disability is perceived. He is at once an individual in his own particularities and part of a larger community asserting its right to self-definition.
Fries not only challenged social constructs of disability in his poetry, autobiography and personal essays, but also edited, Staring Back, the first anthology of disability literature since 1986 and the first to draw on the literary work of disability writers in the last decade of the twentieth century. Like Baird's work, Staring Back has become a manifesto for disability literature that is now widely used in college classrooms.
If Baird sounded the call for an honest, unsentimental poetry of disability and Kenny Fries showed how that call could be answered, Jim Ferris came up with the first book of disability poetry that could reasonably be called a best seller: The Hospital Poems.Like Fries, Jim Ferris puts the body, in particular his body, right at the center of his poetry. The lead off poem in The Hospital Poems (1994b), "Poet of Cripples," is an anthem in Whitmanesque language proclaiming "let me be the poet of cripples." Just as Whitman (1881/1955) focused on his own body, attempting to eradicate the boundaries between himself and others, Ferris says to the average person who looks askance at the disabled. "Look with care, look deep. /Know that you are a cripple too. I sing for cripples; I sing for you." (p. ix) By invoking Whitman in this opening poem, Ferris is able to align himself with the great American poet of the body, and is able to plant the seeds for an aesthetic of disability. He is also able to center his poems within the context of the democratic spirit.
As the title suggests, Ferris focuses in on what the medical establishment and medicalization of the body does to a child who grows up in its throes. In doing this, Ferris recalls for the reader some of the models of disability, including the medical and charity models, both of which make objects of the disabled person. For all who try to make disability the subject of their gaze, he says.
This world is not open to you -
Addressing the tendency to view the disabled as symbols, heroes who overcome adversity, he writes in the title poem of his second book, The Facts of Life:
We are not signs,
Of all the poets with disabilities, Ferris has perhaps worked the hardest to come up with a critical formulation of disability poetry. In his seminal essay "The Enjambed Body," Ferris provided the first attempt at a disability poetry aesthetic. Though the emphasis is on atypical embodiment, he also seeks to link his work to canonical literary figures like Whitman, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson whose famous definition of poetry declared that poetry should make your body feel unbearably cold and your head feel as though it will physically blow off.
In a recent article in Wordgathering, Ferris offered the following formulation:
Disability poetry can be recognized by several characteristics: a challenge to stereotypes and an insistence on self-definition; foregrounding of the perspective of people with disabilities; an emphasis on embodiment, especially atypical embodiment; and alternative techniques and poetics.
Each of the poets with a disability who was able to get their writing into print during the 1990's and early years of the 2000's contributed a new perspective. Kuusisto's poetry was able to portray the perceptual imagery and daily experiences of a person who was functionally blind. Andrew's captured the rhythms of a life with hemophilia. Fiser and Skloot wrote poetry that, in very different ways, examined the loss of memory that accompanied acquired disability. Patricia Wellingham-Jones' Don't Turn Away explored issues of disability in breast cancer.
A quarter of a century after Baird threw down the gauntlet, disability poetry is starting to take shape as a genre. In addition to Kaleidoscope, magazines such as Breath & Shadow and the Disability Studies Quarterly regularly publish poetry by writers with disabilities. For the past five years the Inglis House Poetry Workshop has held an annual disability poetry contest. Petra Kupper's Disability Culture Poetry: Pleasure and Difference is the first collection of essays to focus strictly on disability poetry, and in March 2007, Wordgathering appeared, dedicating itself primarily to the publication disability poetry.
There is still a long way to go, however, before disability poetry gets the attention that it deserves. While the poets above show the increased tendency of poets with disabilities to view physical disability as a social construction, it should not be thought that the saccharine and paternalistic poems about disability have ceased to be written. Just as the charity and medical models of disability still hold sway in the American mind at large, they also continue in poetry about disability. The poetry of Mattie Stepanik is a case in point. Much to the chagrin of Disability Studies activists and scholars, the poems of disability that the average bookstore browser is most likely to run into belong not to Fries, Ferris or Kuusisto, but to Mattie Stepanik and his ubiquitous Heartsong series. This is not the place to explore how commercialization cashed in on Stepanik's disability and death. Suffice it to say that Stepanik has become the new literary Tiny Tim hoisted on the shoulders of the American public to reinforce the stereotypes of the disabled as objects of charity and courageous hero. That's Stepanik's books and those like them occupy the space that could offer the works of the poets discussed here demonstrates just how important it is to support the work of these writers. It also shows how equality important is the selection of disability poetry by teachers and the importance of introducing students to these poets by incorporating their work into the curriculum.
Many fresh faces are coming onto the disability poetry scene. Among those are writers like Sheila Black, Ona Gritz, Paul Kahn, Daniel Simpson, Linda Cronin, Kobus Moolman and Patricia Wellingham-Jones. We need to support their work. Just as the Harlem Rennaisance lead to the development of African American literature and the 1960's to feminist literature, we are in a seminal period for the genre of disability literature. One day, perhaps, our children or grandchildren will look back at this decade, studying it in literature classes in the same way that we view the emergence of those other genres. It is an exciting time and we have a chance to be in on the ground floor.
Andrews, T. (1994). The hemophiliacs motorcycle. Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press.
Baird, J. L. (1983) En-abled poetry. Kaleidoscope. 7, 3-5.
Baird, J. L. & Workman, D. S. (1986). Towards Solomon's mountain: The experience of disability in poetry. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Eigner, L. (1972). Selected poems. S. Charters and A. Wyatt. (Eds.) Berkeley, CA: Oyez Press.
Ferris, J. (2004a, Summer). The enjambed body: A step toward a crippled poetic. Georgia Review.
Ferris, J. (2004b). The hospital poems. Charlotte, NC: Main Street Rag Publishing.
Ferris, J. (2005a). The facts of life. Madison, WI: Parallel Press.
Ferris, J. (2006). Crip poetry, or how I learned to love the limp. On the outskirts (pp. 67-71). Philadelphia: Inglis House Poetry Workshop.
Fiser, K. (1992). Words like fate and pain. Cambridge: MA: Zolan Books.
Fries, K. (1996). Anesthesia. Louisville, KY: The Advocado Press.
Fries, K. (1997). Staring back: The disabilities experience from inside out. New York: Plume.
Kuppers, P. (2007, June) Petra Kuppers Interview. Wordgathering. 1 (2).
Kuusisto, S. ( 2000). Only bread, only light. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press.
Miles, J. (1979). Coming to terms. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Miller, V. (Ed.). (1985). Despite this flesh: The disabled in stories and poems. Austin, TX: University of Austin Press.
Miller, V. (1991) If I had wheels or love. Dallas: Southern Methodist University.
Saxton, M. & Howe, F. (1987). With wings: An anthology of literature by and about women with disabilities. New York: Feminist Press.
Skloot, F. (1994). Music appreciation. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida.
Stepanik, M. (2000). Heartsongs. New York: Hyperion.
Wellingham-Jones, P. (2000). Don't turn away: Poems about breast cancer. Tehama, CA: PWJ Publishing.