DISABILITY POETICS: CONVERSATION WITH SHEILA BLACK

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  • October 27, 2019

Editor’s Note:

After we have published our first Roundtable Discussion on Poetics And Disability in early 2018 (which was followed up by our Roundtable Discussion on Deaf Poetics) we have received many e-mails, indicating much interest. There were also numerous requests to continue this work. Our response was to start a series of individual interviews with poets exploring Deaf and disability poetics. The conversations with Raymond Antrobus and Josephine Dickinson followed in 2019.

Here, I am especially pleased to present the conversation with Sheila Black.

Sheila has written over 40 books for children and young adults as well as four poetry collections. Among many other accolades, she was the winner of the prestigious 2012 Witter Bynner Fellowship, given by the Library of Congress. In addition to her own important work, she is a passionate advocate of disability poetics, and is the co-editor of the landmark anthology, Beauty Is A Verb: The New Poetry of Disability which she compiled together with Jennifer Bartlett and Mike Northen.

Describing her approach to disability poetics, Sheila states: “Disability poetics is for me a poetics of “negative capability” in all the ways John Keats may have intended it—an upheaval, a defamiliarization, an ability to remain open.”

If you missed our earlier discussion on Disability Poetics, you may find it at this link. Thank you for reading.

— Ilya Kaminsky

 

What is disability poetics for you?

I think disability is very linked to poetry—I mean one of the fundamental projects of poetry, which Michael Davidson expressed very well saying:

“Perhaps the closest link between poetry and disability lies in a conundrum within the genre itself: poetry makes language visible by making language strange”

Though “palpable” might be a better word than visible even.  Part of what disability poetics is for me is the process of making normalcy and ableism visible and thereby highlighting their strangeness. Which makes disability poetry inherently a poetry of liberation/revolution.  But it is more than that for me, I think. When Mike Northen, Jennifer Bartlett, and I first started working on Beauty is a Verb—about ten years ago—one simple instinct we had, which I am so glad we had, was that disability, which in my personal life experience had been overwhelmingly categorized as being “less than” or “deficient”, was in fact just the opposite—it was a source of generative power.  People who occupy so called “non-normative” bodies and minds (is there a division anymore between how we understand body and mind—I am not sure…) have the gift of perspective.  I think for example of how when we spoke recently at the National Book Festival and you said something that I could feel shocked the audience—that silence according to all the Deaf people spoke to, does not exist—there is always movement, image, which is a kind of speaking. You asked them to think about what this means to all our history of writing, music, art, and I could feel the audience drawing in breath.  It was kind of thrilling actually (!) but that’s what I mean – I believe disability poetics is also a poetry of detection and discovery.

Jim Ferris says something similar in his often-quoted definition of disability poetry:

A definition I have given… is “poetry that seeks to explore and validate the lived experience of moving through the world with a disability. Sometimes referred to as crip poetry, disability poetry embodies a disability consciousness; it is informed by and contributes to disability culture.” That is a serviceable definition. But here’s what I left out: the possibility, the edgy potential, the openness and even likelihood of transformation.

I should add that one of the features of disability that makes it a fruitful ground for poetics is that “disability” as a term, a definition of self is frangible; yet this frangibility—even mutability—is perversely a power of its poetics.  I love what Lennard Davis says about this:

Because the category of disability is porous, its contingent nature is all the more challenging to identities that seem fixed. In some sense, disability is more like class, which is more constructed but is not biologically determined. We might say that disability is a postmodern identity because, although one can somatise disability it is impossible to essentialize it the way one can the categories of gender or ethnicity. That is, although disability is ‘of’ the body, it is much more ‘of’ the environment which can create barriers to access and communication….

A good way to sum all this up might me to say that disability poetics is for me a poetics of “negative capability” in all the ways John Keats may have intended it—an upheaval, a defamiliarization, an ability to remain open—and, because—at least for me personally—disability poetics is inextricably bound up with the trauma of having been categorized and mistreated by an ableist world—it is profoundly a poetry of vulnerability.  I mean by that a kind of praise of vulnerability.

How did this change your own work, your process, your view of what is possible in written English?

The short answer to this question is: my process was changed completely.  I was almost forty before I sort of “came out” as a person with a disability—and (I was a slow learner, a late bloomer) I think that is also when I began to write with some degree of authenticity.  Before that I think I was very hampered by the ideas I had internalized that 1. Art was about universal topics and universal did not include disability; 2. My disability had nothing to do with my life as an artist or would-be artist. I am honestly pretty shocked looking back that I believed these things, but I did, and I don’t think that was an unusual reaction because—and I don’t know how to adequately convey this—the attitude toward disability in the 1960s, 1970s when I grew up was so overwhelmingly negative, erasing, silencing. In her review of Jillian Weise’s amazing new collection Cyborg Detective, Cate Marvin says: “With a thrilling lack of remorse, Weise targets the mundane viciousness of everyday hypocrisy like a heat-seeking missile.”  I loved reading that sentence so much, because the words “mundane viciousness” felt so right to me.  I certainly experienced my fair share of mundane viciousness as a child, and I think one of my tasks growing up was to find a way not to become embittered or cowed by that; at the same time, often my way of coping was to simply ignore or deny my disability.

I was lucky that in the late 1990s I was studying poetry at the University of Montana and Lucy Grealy was one of the visiting professors there. We became quite close the semester she taught at Montana. We would go out for endless cups of coffee and cocoa (Montana was cold that year) and have these long conversations about our bodies, our experiences, and it was such an awakening for me.  Lucy was thinking about disability in all these philosophical constructed ways—and I learned so much from her.  Yet (and it feels funny writing this out) it breaks my heart a little how transgressive we felt, how scary it was for both of us to articulate these ideas, though also kind of wonderful.  Lucy’s subsequent death really radicalized me—she was always so enormously kind to me, and after she died, I felt a certain rage that she died in part through having surgeries to fix her face.  That was when I began to truly grasp the ways in which people with disabilities had to move, as Rosemarie Garland-Thompson puts it, from the realm of the hospital to realm of political minority.

And yet—I am still thinking of Lucy here—another thing I learned from her—she was just a tremendously curious person, very committed to examining, always, where she was in the world.  I saw that—the power of observing where you are; the importance of being—and this is such a clinical word, I know—somewhat forensic.  Lucy made me feel excited and privileged in a way to be in the body I was in—that it had allowed me to see/divine/grapple with things I might not otherwise have been exposed to.  We used to talk a lot and very personally about being called ‘ugly’ or considered ‘ugly’ and what we had learned from this.  I think knowing Lucy helped me understand the gift of experience and that one’s work is  rooted in one’s experience-—I don’t mean in a linear way, more what you have lived (the “wisdom” of lived experience as Walter Benjamin would frame it)  has so much to do with the form and expression of how you work.  I sometimes feel that before Lucy, I was kind of playing the part of a so-called “normal” person; after I began to speak more as myself—though I think that is the biggest struggle: What is it to have a true voice?  Was it Roberto Bolaño– I think it was, but I’m not sure–who that said being a good writer is not about writing well—the idea being anyone can do that—it is about the effort to be human? I believe that. I believe, too, that because disability deals so directly with many of the soft, inchoate, under-exposed parts of being alive in the world, it is a rich ground for thinking about this project of being human in genuinely new ways.  Of course, you could ask me what do I mean being human—and that would be a whole other long incoherent answer I’m sure, but it would definitely have something to do with being imaginative and being vulnerable.

What other poets–who might share this perspective, perhaps–have influenced you? As we consider disability poetics today, what new poets and fiction writers might you recommend?

I want to just answer this question with a great long list—because so many great disability poets have had a huge influence on me – Josephine Miles, Vassar Miller, Tom Andrews, Laura Hershey, Larry Eigner, to name just a few.  This is kind of a remarkable moment, because there are so many great disability poets right now.  We are living through a kind of renaissance of disability poetry, I think.

A short—not so short!–list would include my friend Jennifer Bartlett—she is working on a project called for the time being, Jennifer’s Little Book of Traumas—that is hilarious and outrageous and cringe-making and wonderful,  Laurie Clements Lambeth, who writes with such lyric fierceness and fineness; Camisha Jones, who writes poetry that always feels like the best kind of praise poetry to me, Meg Day, who has an astounding ear, Sandra Beasley, who handles questions of form so beautifully,  Jillian Weise—I love that Cyborg Detectivesets itself up as an interrogation/investigation; Jillian is on the case!  I love what Raymond Luczak is doing with his “ASL glosses,” which have such energized poetic language—they are so exciting to read and worth looking out for.John Lee Clark—brilliant and underrated.  I’m a big admirer of the poetry of torrin a. greathouse, who is just a super smart, urgent and beautiful poet. I am a fan of Khadijah Queen, Molly McCully Brown, my witty friend Kathi Wolfe, and Natalie Illum, whose sharkpoems physicalize the disability experience in ways that are visceral, tender, and original.

I also keep re-reading the recent anthology fromthe UK – Stairs and Whispers(edited by Sandra Alland, Khairani Barokka & Daniel Sluman) which has so much amazing poetry in it—Rachael Boast, Raymond Antrobus, and Markie Burnhope to name a few…I’ve been shaped to some degree by all these writers or woken up by them in various ways.

Last but hardly least, I want to call out the Zoeglossia Fellows, who were recently featured in an anthology published by Raymond Luczak’s  Squares and Rebels Press: We Are Not Your Metaphor: An Anthology of Disability Poetry:  Viktoria Valenzuela, Gaia Celeste Thomas, Elizabeth Theriot, Zoe Stoller, Jessica Suzanne Stokes, Margaret Ricketts, Naomi Ortiz, Raymond Luczak, Stephen Lightbown, Stephanie Heit, and Genevieve Arlie.  These poets are all so gifted and represent such a spectrum of the work that is happening in disability poetry.  I would like to urge everyone to read ALL of them.  Their work definitely speaks in thrilling  ways to this project of being human and to articulating—and maybe the excitement in disability poetics comes from the fact that this articulation is fairly new—of a disability perspective that does not accept the premises by which disability has been historically defined as burden, as stigma, as tragedy.  I think it is in the overturning of that that we begin to imagine new ways of describing or defining not just the “disabled” body, but the spaces around it.