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Amodern 10: Disability Poetics
December 2020

DIFFERENT SEEKING SAME

Playing with Aesthetic Distance in Disability Poetry

Jonas-Sébastien Beaudry

Why do I like it under the trees in autumn when everything is half dead?
–Norma Cole1

Introduction

The scaling of aesthetic distances is a helpful notion to analyze some of the work that disability poetry does. For the purpose of this essay, I understand “aesthetic distance” to denote degrees to which an audience will psychologically identify with, or dissociate itself from, the phenomenon, experience or character artistically represented before them. As Wayne Booth explains, “[i]n any reading experience there is an implied dialogue among author, narrator, the other characters, and the reader. Each of the four can range, in relation to each of the others, from identification to complete opposition, on any axis of value, moral, intellectual, aesthetic, and even physical.”2 Considering the particular case of disability, Booth adds: “Does the reader who stammers react to the stammering of H. C. Earwicker as I do? Surely not.”3 Applying this idea of widening or bridging “aesthetic distance” to artistic performances within crip culture, Jim Ferris writes that “disabled performers, through the management of aesthetic distance, may be able to expose the fiction of disability, transforming the closed look of the stare into a more open look that is both receptive and creative.”4 Ferris is commenting on artists with disabilities choosing to stage their disabilities in ways that either emphasize commonalities with the audience or, on the contrary, “actively remind the audience of their physical difference, [and] direct attention to the body and mark that difference clearly.”5

This essay examines how one of the distinctive functions of disability art is to perform or display sameness and difference between bodies and subjective outlooks on, and experiences of, the world. I will explore this thesis in the context of disability poetry by analyzing some scholarship in disability poetics and certain poems drawn mostly from the 2011 collection of disability poetry, Beauty Is a Verb, to consider these two overlapping dimensions of disability poetry.6 One consists of emphasizing physical or cognitive differences to achieve various goals, such as expressing one’s experiences and feelings truthfully, or ridiculing or destabilizing expectations of shame or assumptions about disabilities. The other consists of creating sameness, identification, empathy, and intimacy, either by emphasizing a shared human fate or by disarming an ableist imagination of impairments. The former tends to jolt readers by making the impaired body salient, threatening, exotic, defiant or alien; the latter tends to cajole readers by interpreting disability as a habitual, familiar or inoffensive state of affairs.

 

Sameness, Difference, and The Master’s House

The practices I am considering here formulate sameness and difference (in body, mind and socially enabled capacities) in reference to standards of “normalcy,” which I take to be culturally constructed and deployed within discourses that naturalize differences between dominating and subordinated social groups, thus making them seem necessary and politically neutral.

To be sure, there are unresolvable differences in certain poets’ engagement with sameness and difference. Focusing on “sameness” and “difference” explicitly or implicitly is not a distinctive feature of all disability poetry. Nor is there a unique or better way of steering a path between those poles: some may emphasize sameness, some may emphasize difference, some may strive towards a synthesis, and some may be engaged in a wholly different poetic practice.

I am not advocating that disability poetry ought to beg for empathy from dominant groups or target a non-disabled audience, perhaps even one presumed to have antagonistic responses, by using or deconstructing assumptions familiar to that privileged audience. Indeed, even when used within subversive discourses and claims, for instance, minority rights claims, an emphasis on “differences” characterizing minorities/oppressed groups and distinguishing them from the norm reasserts the hierarchies (normal/abnormal; oppressor/oppressed; male/female; black/white; non-disabled/disabled, etc.) risks reasserting the “otherness” of the minority claiming rights and respect.7 In the words of Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”8

Disability poets may well be uninterested in addressing a privileged audience or contribute to their moral education by inviting them to imagine a shared identity between non-disabled and disabled people. For instance, their poems may incite readers to adopt an imaginative starting point that is not, precisely, privileged; or their audience may be other people with disabilities who will feel complicity or solidarity in recognizing their own experience in the poem. Thus, a poem describing an experience common to people with disabilities (say, a difficulty to move or communicate in a socially disabling world) may be read as “sameness” by a person with disabilities and as “difference” by a person with no, or with different, disabilities. Shared identifications and experiences are also complicated by the facts that writers and readers may be multiply and differently marginalized. Audre Lorde is a case in point: she was a self-described “Black lesbian feminist” poet, who was legally blind and wrote about her experience of cancer.9 Readers may well simultaneously experience feelings of identification with her and certain dimensions of her work, while differentiating or distancing themselves from other aspects of Lorde’s experiences.

Still, exchanges between subordinated groups and their willful or unwitting oppressors do take place, and sometimes take a poetic form. Crucially, not all displays of sameness and difference need take the form of a plea for a shared humanity giving rise to empathy: such exchanges can be very biting, prideful, and attack, rather than befriend, oppressors. Resistance to power inevitably addresses the power it resists. Even a language that deliberately steers clear of oppressive expectations and norms at least negatively define itself by reference to said norms. Emancipatory poetics can certainly take other forms than what we may call, after Hilde Lindemann Nelson, “counterstories,” but a counterstory – “a story that resists an oppressive identity and attempts to replace it with one that commands respect” – remains a valid form of emancipatory poetics, allowing for precious “narrative repair.”10

In other words, speaking to the master about his house need not imply using his language (his “tools”), but it can imply a discourse directed, at least rhetorically, at the masters and an awareness of their assumptions (and of the feelings buttressing those assumptions).11 Any such starting point will seem immediately suspicious to many marginalized poets, but awareness does not mean deference. If anything, an awareness of the “master’s feelings” becomes an awareness of how those shared cultural (e.g. ableist) feelings infiltrated the consciousness of oppressed groups.12 Moreover, speeches that are formally addressed to an entity (e.g. a politician) may actually be addressed to others (e.g. voters, reading an open letter addressed to a politician). The master’s language is powerful and mainstream enough to be a worthwhile target of emancipatory art, and speaking it with a crafty rhetoric showcasing the absurdity of its implications can sometimes be more efficient in debunking it than gesturing at utopias (something poetry should indubitably keep doing as well).

This caveat may still not convince every poet and scholar skeptical of the very endeavor of building communicational bridges between oppressed and oppressors. To them, I can only repeat, first, that such bridges are not necessarily conciliatory: they may be drawbridges forced open for outsiders to take over the “master’s house,” or the master narratives, that is, the (e.g. ableist) “stories found lying about in our culture that serve as summaries of socially shared understandings.”13 Second, disability poetry sometimes does explicitly or implicitly take the form of a reflection about (ab)normality, (in)capacity and expectations or experiences of difference and sameness. They deserve to be analyzed as such. It is certainly important to renew and develop disability poetry in ways that defy, for example, traditional understandings of disability as a tragedy. However, it is important to remember that such tragic outlooks are just as much a part of a history of disability, and that feelings of misery and (internalized) oppression found in this poetic history are not “invalid.” Properly contextualized, they may further anger readers beholding the impact of internalized oppression. Improperly contextualized, they may comfort ableist beliefs. Jennifer Bartlett wrote that her anthology of disability poetry did not include poems depicting “disability as tragedy,” not because such poems are not “valid,” but because the editors wanted to promote an alternative.14

Both poetic endeavours examined in this essay – displaying sameness and difference – overlap in fostering solidarity, empathy and respect, but they do so in different ways, by modulating aesthetic distance, using literary devices, and presenting disability as a visible difference or as a universal feature of human life that ableist lenses blow out of proportion. The same poem can incorporate both kinds of strategies, scaling up and down the distance and identification between readers and characters in order to manipulate the reader’s affective responses to potentially destabilize their assumptions about disability or about themselves.

Anyone with a disability, or indeed any minority, will find that these artistic strategies mirror life skills that have become second nature to them, as they learn to play with the tropes of difference and sameness, of pity and pride, of empathy and confrontation, to negotiate their interactions with others and manage expectations of normalcy and affective responses to them. As such, these two dimensions sometimes found in disability poetry mirror a fundamental tension – never quite stably synthesized – in the lives of disabled people, disability scholarship and activism more generally.15 The dance between sameness and difference is not exclusive to disability aesthetics; it is a hallmark of the ethics, law, and the politics of disability.

At this point, a reader may ask whether there is a difference between disability poetry and other types of poetry describing the experience of marginalized identities or about other forms of being denied access to narratives of normativity. It is far from clear whether the poetic interplay of otherness and identification represented in disability poetry is fundamentally distinct from the poetic difference/sameness present in poems about race, gender, and other marginalized identities, or poetry about non-normativity generally. Certainly, we cannot differentiate disability poetry from other kinds of “non-normate”  poetry on the basis of often being anchored in a close inspection of corporeality or on the basis of struggling with or against dehumanizing metaphors and social practices.16 Skin colour and sex are also embodied realities, just as they also have been historically used as dehumanizing metaphors. It is not clear either to what extent it could be desirable (or not) to interpret other marginalized identities (e.g. womanhood) as “disability.” A more thorough treatment of this thorny question must wait for another time.

For now, I find it more interesting to answer this question by pointing to how similar, rather than to how different, disability poetry is to other non-normate poetry, that is, poetry through which authors explore (de)humanizing, oppressive and emancipatory tropes. Tobin Siebers, a theorist of disability aesthetics, goes so far as to suggest that “[d]isability is the master trope of human disqualification, not because disability theory is superior to race, class, or sex/gender theory, but because all oppressive systems function by reducing human variation to deviancy and inferiority defined on the mental and physical plane.”17 This may explain why certain experiences of marginalization (e.g. solitude) may be echoed across differently marginalized identities. Familiarity with other people’s experiences may be deceiving, of course, because of the limits of imagination, a tendency to project own one’s history and emotions onto others, and the unavoidably private or incommunicable aspects of human experience. Yet, a feeling of solidarity in experiencing otherness may create an affectively fecund aesthetic proximity. In other words, poets and readers may share experiences of the same “faces” of oppression (e.g. powerlessness, violence, cultural erasure)18, while the roots, symptoms and harms of its materialization belong to idiosyncratic histories.

 

Exploring Poetic Affects

Crippling Romantic Bridges

Intimate relationships may become harrowing sites of exclusion for people with disabilities. While discrimination is formally policed in the workplace by legislative measures, it has much freer rein in the domain of personal relations like friendship and love. The dignity of oppressed minorities is not only threatened by cutbacks to welfare programs and policies of universal design. It is constantly eroded through personal interactions, omissions, judgments, labeling gazes, distasteful stares, and a myriad of behaviours and preferences that liberalism cannot coercively rectify. Rejection as a romantic partner is a common topic in disability poetry, through tragic, subversive or empowering narratives. How poets choose to speak to this reality is a good illustration of the use of sameness and difference in disability poetry, and will therefore constitute a central focus of the following discussion.

Gendering and disabling prisms can be applied to disabled poets of any gender or sexual orientation. For example, Vassar Miller, writes:

my womanhood

too seldom used. Have you ever viewed me this way?

No, none of you ever have. I’m either a monster

in search of a horror movie to be in,

or else I’m a brain floating within a body

whose sides I must gingerly touch while you glance

discreetly away.19

Jillian Weise, also referring to a fear of fragility, and mocking it in the context of sex, writes:

Mobility is key. If they see the half-limb then they become inhibited,

nervous. They think: “Will it hurt like this? Would she tell me if it did?”

Mobility shows confidence.20

Kenny Fries’s poem “Excavation” also examines the idea that impairments stand in the way of being loved or sexualized:

Tonight, when I take off my shoes:

three toes on each twisted foot.

 

I touch the rough skin. The holes

where the pins were. The scars.

 

If I touch them long enough will I find
those who never touched me?21

The sexuality and gender of people with disabilities raise both overlapping and distinct issues. For instance, masculine identities are often moulded by “traditional conceptions and traits of hegemonic masculinity, such as physical power, autonomy, self-reliance, and emotional detachment,” making it difficult for people who identify as masculine to recompose their identity as “disabled people,” especially when this involves processing feelings such as mourning previous identities or having to rely on others for care.22 In the case of feminine people with impairments, just as the identity of able-bodied women and femmes is often tied to expectations of motherhood and heterosexuality, the identity of the feminine disabled person is often culturally tied to notions of loneliness, pity, and asexuality. In short, “women with disabilities commonly find themselves precluded from performing the major life functions commonly assigned to women.”23

Miller’s and Fries’s poems, above, do not present their body as an exotic or threatening “other” (understood here as an identity different from one’s own, and through which one make sense of oneself – as being different from the other). On the contrary, they invite disabled and nondisabled readers alike to share their experience of being othered. This include the experience of being desexualized and dehumanized as simultaneous and mutually reinforcing.

Authors may build on this empathy to construct more opportunities for empathy, identification and “sameness,” such as an invitation to accept vulnerabilities and variations of human bodies as part of our shared human condition. This strategy is present in many disability poems, including those about romantic encounters.  For instance, Vassar Miller regrets that men will keep their distance from her excessive fragility. Miller refers to mortality as a unifying feature of all lives.

I wish you’d learn better before we all totter

into our coffins where there’s no straight way to lie crooked.24

Sheila Black, in her poem “What You Mourn,” also invites able-bodied people to consider her point of view on labels, and how alien they are to her embodied experiences, that is simply unique, like everyone’s. I interpret the “blue flies” in the closing verse as referring to a shared mortality.

Crippled they called us when I was young

later the word was disabled and then differently abled,

but those were all names given by outsiders,

none of whom could imagine

that the crooked body they spoke of. . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  . . . .

was simply mine,

and I loved it as you love your own country,

the familiar lay of the land, the unkempt trees,

the smell of mowed grass

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

and the blue flies that buzz over them.25

Other poets do not efface the distance between themselves and their companions, but instead ponder on the contrast between their bodies and those of their lovers. Clements Lambeths, a poet with multiple sclerosis, for example, speaks to her companion, who woke up during her tremors, in her poem “The Shaking”:

Your left hand pressed upon my aching

thigh as it kicked and flailed; how compare

your strength to synapse whims, wild shaking?26

The poem is addressed to her lover (“you”), which may trigger different kinds of aesthetic distances, depending on the reader’s own identity, as readers may identify with the poet and/or with the companion to whom the poet speaks. Lambeths expresses incredulity, doubt, or fears that her companion may not always put up with her disability and congratulates them for staying. Both dimensions could be read as conveying a tragic view of disability. This does not necessarily mean that insisting on embodied differences will necessarily lead to an ableist hierarchical structure, but this poem illustrates how certain impairments may lead to expectations of being romantically abandoned rather than to more positive outlooks.

Kenny Fries’ poem, “Beauty and Variations,” is precisely about the question that Miller’s poem leaves us with. If we are all vulnerable, dying, potentially disabled beings, why do we attribute beauty and desirability to particular kinds of bodies? Fries contemplates his desires, affects, beliefs, and assumptions about beauty, and the tension between them:

I want to break your bones. Make them so

they look like mine. . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

 

. . .Then, will your lips still beg

for mine? Or will that disturb the balance

 

of our desire? Even as it inspires, your body

terrifies. . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

 

What is beautiful? Who decides? Can the laws

 

of nature be defied? Your body tells me: come

close. But beauty distances even as it draws

 

me near. What does my body want from yours?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

 

. . . each night, naked on the bed, my body

 

doesn’t want repair, but longs for innocence. If

innocent, despite the flaws I wear, I am beautiful.27

Some disability poets extend an inviting hand to prospective non-disabled lovers and ask them to forgo expectations of normalcy to overcome differences and ableist obstacles between them. In “Instructions to Hearing Persons Desiring a Deaf Man,” Raymond Luczak write:

You are a difficult language to speak

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

 

Entire lives have been wasted on you

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

 

His eyes will flicker with a bright fire when

you purge your passport of sound.

 

Let your hands be your new passport, for

he will then stamp it with approval.28

H.N. Beckerman’s concise poem “To: The Access Committee” most literally illustrates the social model of disability in remedying obstacles to the romantic lives of disabled people in a way that also alludes to the universality of needs to love and be loved:

To:

The Access Committee,

Attention:

Handicapped Romeo

There is now a suitable ramp

installed at my balcony.

Impatiently,

Miss Juliet29

Not all disability poetry wishes to build such bridges or convey a hopeful tone. Some disability poets have expressed bleaker ideas, such as a sense of hopelessness. For instance, William D. Crago expresses despair at his own condition, which he analogizes with war, death and castration, and a castration that does not even yield the benefit of “keeping [his voice] sweet”:

Gestapo troops of cancer

Blitzkrieged my spine

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

 

So, now, this temple

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

 

holds communion only in the balcony

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

 

. . . this castration

Quiets my choir,

Stuns my spring.30

Deborah Kendrick critically describes how people react to her “foreign otherness” by imposing a status of confidante upon her. This familiarity or hastened intimacy may conceal a lack of respect, a desexualization and instrumentalization. She mocks her suitors and the people who exploit by using her as a confidante by disclosing their secrets, stanza by stanza:

Younger women crowd into rows with me at seminars.

They laugh hollowly of. . .

affairs with married men, lesbian tendencies

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

 

Old men bring me flowers.

Some reek of cheap wine and decaying garment;

I remind them of some daughter who probably never

existed.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

 

Flabby teenage boys whisper conspiratorially

of hearts they wish they’d broken

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

 

Pretty people tell me things, too.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

 

I am easy to talk to they all say.31

 

Curating Scars

The body and its scars abound in disability poetry. As Petra Kuppers notes, “they are everywhere, full and empty, sad and sexy, but always a little other, a little beyond and too much to bear.”32 A focus on “scars,” impairments, or bodily differences falling under the umbrella concept of “disability” can be used to modulate aesthetic distance. For instance, difference could be described in a defiant, unapologetic way, as when Marilyn Hacker asks, in Cancer Winter:

Should I tattoo my scar? What would it say?

It could say “K.J. Truck Stop” in plain En-

glish, highlighted with a nipple ring33

A narrator may “enfreak” themselves as an act of resistance, simultaneously counter-attacking expectations that they would feel shame, and perhaps even flirting and sexualizing their bodies in spite of ableist expectations of asexuality. “The freak,” Elizabeth Grosz explains,

is an object of simultaneous horror and fascination because, in addition to whatever infirmities he or she exhibits, the freak is an ambiguous being whose existence imperils categories and oppositions dominant in social life.34

Characters in disability poems may refuse to be boxed in by imaginary interlocutors, both by displaying otherness of body and modes of functioning ostentatiously, and by insisting on sameness of aspirations, capacities, and sexuality. In resisting the divide through which potentially ableist interlocutors can comfortably relate to them, by simultaneously claiming sameness and (over-)performing otherness with either pride or self-acceptance, they can thus create a discomfort in able-bodied interlocutors. Both able-bodied people and people who acquired disabilities are susceptible to suffer from an “aesthetic anxiety,” which disability scholar Harlan Hahn defines as “the fears engendered by persons whose appearance deviates markedly from the [non-disabled] human form or includes physical traits regarded as unappealing.”35 This kind of discomfort has been described by philosopher Margrit Shildrick as an anxiety induced by a threat to one’s identity, as the disabled narrator refuses to remain an “Other” by which the non-disabled person asserts their own normalcy. More specifically, Shildrick suggests that:

when we experience anxiety in the face of overt corporeal disorder in the other, we do so not because such disorder is an unknown quality, but precisely because it is always already our own repressed experience of embodiment.36

The romantic nature of the encounter would only heighten the sense of anxiety felt by the able-bodied character in the poem, as the prospect of a sexual relationship would threaten the self with an imagined form of merging with a “spoiled” identity.37

Disabled poets can express anxiety at the thought of “merging” with able-bodied partners. Kenny Fries’ poem Beauty and Variations illustrates this point by questioning his partner’s motivations: “What attracts you to my legs? Not / sex. What brings your fingers to my scars is beyond / desire. Why do you persist? Why do you touch me / as if my skin were yours?”38

Other poets offer a more caustic critique of able-bodied people’s expectations, thereby asking to be loved on their own terms. For instance, Jilian Weise’s aforementioned poem “The Amputee’s Guide to Sex” describes an amputee having sex in a way that completely hides prosthetics and missing limbs and thus problematizes the default habit of many able-bodied and disabled people to hide shameful bodies. Similarly, Raymond Luczak employs the same formula of giving instructions, but this time to non-disabled people desiring a disabled person. He expresses concerns over a potential partner’s motivations, as the anxiety of merging with otherness can offer a thrill that disabled people like the narrator in Luczak’s poem may well decline to provide: “His long beard is thick with distrust. / You are another curiosity seeker.”39

The images of decaying, abnormal, leaking bodies and limbs in disability poetry are not necessarily meant to trigger anxiety and certainly not to compound ableist assumptions about the “ugliness” of human vulnerability. They can be exaggerated and mocked; they can also be brandished as a sign of strength, of disability pride. Simply restating insults and labels – without shame or with an implicit awareness of their ableist history – blunt their sharp edges. Consider Sheila Black’s poem, “What You Mourn,” quoted above in this essay, and Kenny Fries’ verses from “Excavation”:

Freak, midget, three-toad

bastard. Words I’ve always heard.

 

Disabled, crippled, deformed. Words

I was given.40

Declaiming ableist clichés does not necessarily reduce disabled people to those clichés; it can criticize the naiveté of those who subscribe to them. They may be used hyperbolically to emphasize their absurdity or to ridicule the medical culture that created them. Emphasizing one’s disability can also mock or parody the familiar language of one’s culture. Exaggerated self-criticism serves both to preempt humiliation as well as to deflate any such future criticism, either by ridiculing it or by showing intellectual mastery over it.41 A classical illustration of this in the context of “abnormal” looks is Cyrano de Bergerac’s tirade about his prominent nose in Edmond Rostand’s play, reciting twenty wittier repartees Cyrano’s interlocutor could have used to mock him. Let me turn to the theme of humour in more detail.

 

Disability Poetry and Identity

Metaphors or allegories of disability may seem dangerous for reasons outlined by Susan Sontag’s reflections on metaphors for illnesses.42 Oppressive narratives are susceptible to highjack metaphorical renderings of biological conditions. This risk seems heightened when disability is represented as a vague category (“the disabled”) and becomes the object of totalizing metaphors. Such metaphors would broadly demonize or animalize all types of disability. Consider the poem on “bad babies” by Miller Williams, “The Ones that are Thrown Out”:

One has flippers. This one is like a seal.

One has gills. This one is like a fish.

One has webbed hands, is like a duck. . .43

The list of animals goes on, offering a seemingly global animalization (that is, dehumanization) of disability, though the list is ultimately meant as a criticism. Such all-encompassing figures of speech may also be used, however, to contradict ableist assumptions. For instance, in his poem Less, Robert Fagan uses a narrator that has multiple disabilities to criticize the very idea that “disabilities” are disabling:

Now that I’m deaf I’m listening to music

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Now that I’m crippled I take long walks in the country

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Now that my memory’s gone I remember more

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Now that I’m impotent I make love a lot44

Similarly, one may worry about the broad metaphor of a disability as a “country”, as summoning, for instance, the historical era/country of institutionalization that, surely, no one wishes to belong to. Yet, Neil Marcus’s famous poem “Disabled Country” uses the shared identity or experience of disability as a location one inhabits in an empowering way. His poem, like many other disability poems (consider Black’s “What You Mourn,” quoted above), begins with an acknowledgment of internalized oppression (having had to deal with a belief that it was important to leave Disabled Country) and moves on to an increased awareness of a shared experience of disability as difference. Disability as “difference” denotes “difference from the norm,” and said norm is often the culturally dominant idea that non-disability is a preferable and superior state of affairs. The lifelong struggle described in Marcus’s poem is one through which “disabled” and “non-disabled” dimensions of life are no longer placed along an ableist scale. The metaphor of disability as a land with a potentially global “citizenship” opens the door to a politicization of this identity, and claims for recognition of one’s “differences from the norm” as equally valid ways of being in the world:

“If there were a country called disabled,

I would be from there

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I would say she has immigrants that come to her

From as far back as time remembers.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I am one of its citizens.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I often want to forget.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

In my life’s journey

I am making myself

At home in my country.45

The list of goods that citizens of Disabled Country enjoy all bear the mark of disability (“I live disabled culture / eat disabled food / Make disabled love / cry disabled tears / Climb disabled mountains and tell disabled stories”).46 I interpret this as a criticism of an ableist construction of goods enjoyed by nondisabled people as somehow inherently more desirable. All those activities, even being human, are, in a sense, metaphors. While people in situations of power may decree that their ways of being human are more “centrally” human, it is merely a cultural fiat. This idea is connected to longstanding disagreements about the ethics and meanings of “normalization” and identity politics to which I now turn.

Before the emergence of disability poetry, disability in poetry was often sentimentalized and treated with the kind of pity that made early disabled poets avoid associating themselves with it. Disability poetry came of age in the 1990s and “eschewed sentimental poetry that made disability the object of pity or charity, and [poets] rejected the image of the supercrip, the inspirational hero who overcomes insurmountable odds.”47 Instead, as poet and scholar of “crip poetry” Ferris remarks, disability poetry “seeks to explore and validate the lived experience of moving through the world with a disability.”48 Similarly, Katerina Tsiokou writes that “disability poetry demonstrates a conscious intention to create representations of the disabled body that offer conceptions of embodiment beyond hierarchy and discrimination.”49

Although crip “identity poetry” is now a legitimate, respectable practice, “identifying oneself as a writer of disability poetry or even admitting the legitimacy of a body of work that could be called disability poetry itself is still a bridge that many poets themselves are reluctant to cross.”50 “What about poets, much like myself, who have a disability, but do not align themselves with identity poetry or the disability poetics movement?” Jennifer Bartlett asks.51 Evelyn Glennie, a successful percussionist, worries that a crip identity may prevent recognition of her talents:

I hope that the audience will be stimulated by what I have to say (through the language of music). . . If the audience is instead only wondering how a deaf musician can play percussion then I have failed as a musician.52

Poets and performers with impairments thus experience both disability pride and the residual specter of the individuating medical model of disability. Some worry that the disability community will separate individuals from the larger (non-disabled) community. Others find a disability community to be “affirming, empowering and generative.”53 Much depends on how disability and community are defined. Petra Kuppers advocates “a more poetic concept” of disability, without which this “strange label” is doomed to denote exclusion and loneliness since its heterogeneity prevents it from creating unity around a single embodiment, “origin story” or “diasporic experience.”54

Whether a resistance to identifying as “disabled” constitutes an internalized form of oppression or the sheer complexity of (negotiating) one’s identity is of ongoing controversy amongst minority identities more generally.55 Upon being confronted with a stigmatizing label, oppressed minorities face the catch-22 of identity politics: risking self-effacement by becoming nimble enough as to prevent any label from grafting expectations to their skin, or reappropriating the label and risking that the prejudiced majority will further marginalize them. Being disabled, a disability poet reminds us, “has only recently been considered ‘cool.’”56 Historically, when disability meant nothing but a tragic medical condition, dissociating oneself from that label through displays of cheerfulness and strength, defying expectations of misery and dependency was a form of resistance. In such contexts, social or poetic practices that challenge the content of harmful labels may be culturally unimaginable or politically unfeasible. Susan Schweik, for instance, discussed poetess Josephine Miles’s life and poetry “backing off from the strangeness of disability” and seeing the Independent Living Movement as “largely irrelevant to her concerns.”57 Miles grew up and entered academia before the 1950s, still in an era where the disabled “are designated in order to be made to disappear. . . spoken in order to be silenced.”58 In an interview concerning an inaccessible library building, Miles said: “They didn’t build it personally for me, that’s all.”59

The “social model” of disability conceptualizes disability as an obstacle imposed by society on top of impairments rather than as a kind of medical problem or individual tragedy.60 From its activist debut in the seventies to its gradual mainstreaming culminating in the latest United Nations convention (CRPD), it changed the playing field and disability has become a potentially empowering identity and literary topic. However, dilemmas posed by identity politics mutate and endure, and resisting identity politics is far from outmoded. Ferris himself says that he did not mean disability poetry to be only the poetry of a community with a close culture, but also a bridge with the larger poetic community and the larger culture. He envisioned a poetry that “didn’t have to be ‘about disability’ all the time but didn’t shy away from it either,” and a poetics “that valorizes the wide range of ways of being in and responding in the world, that claims space for alternative, non-normative experience, language, thought and feeling.”61 This vision goes a long way in answering concerns about identity politics. It mirrors the ideal of universal design aimed at integrating human beings of various capacities and needs without previously asking them to endorse a minority identity to negotiate their prior entitlement to speak and make demands.

 

Conclusion

This essay explored how and why disability poetry curates the disabled body/mind in ways that create both proximity and distance. The dance between difference (this is me, in my otherness) and sameness (I am you) is both anxiogenic and enlightening; disconcerting and soothing; threatening and comforting; fearful and hopeful, when it is performed as a single waltz: This is me, and I am you, as expressed by Jim Ferris’s poem, “Poet of Cripples”:

Let me be a poet of cripples,

of hollow men and boys groping

to be whole, of girls limping toward

womanhood and reaching back,

all slipping and falling toward the cavern

we carry within, our hidden void,

a place for each to become full, whole

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Look with care, look deep.

Know that you are a cripple too.

I sing for cripples; I sing for you.62

Strategies of performing one’s distinct identity and inviting empathy, simultaneously or not, constitute a productive tension within disability poetry. To be sure, negotiating tensions between difference and sameness through a variety of affective and literary devices is not all that disability poetry does, but it is one of its distinctive accomplishments. There are as many facets to disability poetry as there are to disability theories and models, each of them offering different ways of thinking about the body and its place in culture, and this essay only focused on the creation of affective opportunities for experiencing sameness/solidarity and difference/otherness.

The agility with which disability poetry plays with aesthetic distance – sways, jolts, waltzes and wiggles between abjection and love, tragedy and humour, exoticism and familiarity – does not make it an exceptional kind of poetry as much as it makes it an exceptionally memorable and innovative one. Monroe Beardsley suggested that poetry is especially “semantically thick,” in the sense that there is more to poetry than meets the eye, “as if dwelling on it further would turn up new meanings, as if it were, for all its liberality, always holding something in reserve.”63 In a sense, therefore, bodies that are different from the norm are inherently poetic. Their existence invites society to look at human bodies and what they can do differently. They counter the blinding conformity of unreflective normalcy and praise universal humanity through idiosyncratic corporeality. This is essentially why disability theorist Tobin Siebers argues that disability itself is an aesthetic value, and one at the heart of modern art.64 If poetry trains us to see the previously unseen in ways susceptible of transforming us and our apprehension of the world, then the critical standpoint of disability poetry simply points poets in the direction of what poetry does best. “I’m not sure if I want all poems to limp,” Ferris writes, “but. . . all the interesting. . . lovely ones do, in one way or another.”65


  1. Norma Cole, “Speech Production: Themes and Variations,” in Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, eds. Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Michael Northen (El Passo: Cinco Punto Press, 2011), 261. 

  2. Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, 2nd ed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 155. 

  3. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, 155. 

  4. Jim Ferris, “Aesthetic Distance & the Fiction of Disability,” in Bodies in Commotio, eds. Carrie Sandahl and Philip Auslander (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 56. 

  5. Ferris, “Aesthetic Distance,” 57. 

  6. Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Michael Northen, eds., Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (El Passo: Cinco Punto Press, 2011). 

  7. Martha Minow, Making All the Difference: Inclusion, Exclusion, and American Law (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990). 

  8. Audre Lorde, Your Silence Will Not Protect You (UK: Silver Press, 2017), 91. 

  9. Lorde, Your Silence, 89. 

  10. Hilde Lindemann Nelson, Damaged Identities. Narrative Repair (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 6, 20. 

  11. Sara Ahmed, “Introduction,” in Audre Lord, Your Silence Will Not Protect You (UK: Silver Press, 2017), x-xi. 

  12. Nelson, Damaged Identities, 21. 

  13. Nelson, Damaged Identities, 6. 

  14. Jennifer Bartlett, “Preface,” in Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, eds. Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Michael Northen (El Passo: Cinco Punto Press, 2011), 16. 

  15. I am using the term “disabled people” over person-first identities (“people with disabilities” or PWD) in order to conform with the editorial preference for this issue of Amodern. I agree with the editors that the expression “disabled people” carries a history of political and social activism. I am aware that no terminology is without problem.  

  16. I am using the term “disabled people” over person-first identities (“people with disabilities” or PWD) in order to conform with the editorial preference for this issue of Amodern. I agree with the editors that the expression “disabled people” carries a history of political and social activism. I am aware that no terminology is without problem. I borrow the neologism “normate” from Rosemary Garland Thompson, Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), p.8: “The term normate usefully designates the social figure through which people can represent themselves as definitive human beings. Normate, then, is the constructed identity of those who, by way of the bodily configurations and cultural capital they assume, can step into a position of authority and wield the power it grants them.” 

  17. Tobin Siebers, Disability Aesthetics (Ann Harbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2010), p.27. 

  18. Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), chap.2. 

  19. Vassar Miller, “Dramatic Monologue in the Speaker’s Own Voice,” in Toward Solomon’s Mountain: The Experience of Disability in Poetry, eds. Joseph L. Baird and Deborah S. Workman (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986), 119. 

  20. Jillian Weise, “The Amputee’s Guide to Sex” in Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, eds. Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Michael Northen (El Passo: Cinco Punto Press, 2011), 145. 

  21. Kenny Fries, “Excavation” in Staring Back, ed. Kenny Fries (New York: Plume, 1997), 146. 

  22. Riki Thompson et al, “Poetry, Masculinities, and Disability,” Journal of Poetry Therapy 25, no. 2 (2012): 106. 

  23. Jenny Morris, Pride against Prejudice: Transforming Attitudes to Disability (London: The Women’s Press, 1991), 97 ff. Anita Silvers, “Reprising Women’s Disability: Feminist Identity Strategy and Disability Rights,” Berkeley Women’s Law Journal 13, no. 1 (1998): 86. 

  24. Miller, “Dramatic Monologue,” 120. 

  25. Sheila Black, “What You Mourn,” in Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, eds. Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Michael Northen (El Passo: Cinco Punto Press, 2011), 212. 

  26. Laurie Clements Lambeth, “The Shaking,” in Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, eds. Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Michael Northen (El Passo: Cinco Punto Press, 2011), 179. 

  27. Kenny Fries, “Beauty and Variations,” Staring Back, ed. Kenny Fries (New York: Plume, 1997), 146-50. 

  28. Raymond Luczak, “Instructions to Hearing Persons Desiring a Deaf Man,” in Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, eds. Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Michael Northen (El Passo: Cinco Punto Press, 2011), 225. 

  29. H.N. Beckerman, “To: The Access Committee…” in Toward Solomon’s Mountain: The Experience of Disability in Poetry, eds. Joseph L. Baird and Deborah S. Workman (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986), 113. 

  30. William Cargo, “…where late the sweet birds sang,” in Toward Solomon’s Mountain: The Experience of Disability in Poetry, eds. Joseph L. Baird and Deborah S. Workman (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986), 115. 

  31. Deborah Kendrick, “Me and Hercule Poirot,” in Toward Solomon’s Mountain: The Experience of Disability in Poetry, eds. Joseph L. Baird and Deborah S. Workman (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986), 94. 

  32. Petra Kuppers, “Scars in disability culture poetry: towards connection,” Disability & Society, 23 no. 2 (2008): 141. 

  33. Marilyn Hacker, “Cancer Winter,” in Staring Back, ed. Kenny Fries (New York: Plume, 1997), 154-59. 

  34. Elizabeth Grosz, “Intolerable Ambiguity: Freaks as/at the Limit,” in Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, ed. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 57. 

  35. Harlan Hahn, “Politics of Physical differences: disability and discrimination,” Journal of Social Issues, 44 no. 1 (1988): 42. 

  36. Margrit Shildrick, Dangerous Discourses of Disability, Subjectivity and Sexuality (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 33. 

  37. The term “spoiled identity” is borrowed from Erving Goffman, Erving. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963. The suggestion that anxiety is the result of a perceived threat to self is Shildrick’s (Margrit Shildrick, Dangerous Discourses of Disability, Subjectivity and Sexuality (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). It evokes Julia Kristeva’s description of abjection: a psychological process of self-individuation, germane to the feeling of disgust, through which individuals reject otherness, a mechanism of protection that reasserts division between self and other in the face of threatening liminalities (Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982). 

  38. Kenny Fries, “Beauty and Variations,” 146-47. 

  39. Raymond Luczak, “Instructions to Hearing,” 225. 

  40. Fries, “Excavation,” 146. 

  41. Miller, “Dramatic Monologue,” 119-20. 

  42. Susan Sontag, Illness and Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors (New York: Picador, 1990). 

  43. Miller Williams, “The Ones That Are Thrown Out.” In Despite This Flesh, ed. Vassar Miller (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985) 61. 

  44. Robert Fagan, “Less.” in Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, eds. Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Michael Northen (El Passo: Cinco Punto Press, 2011), 56-57. 

  45. Neil Marcus, “Disabled Country,” New Sun Newspaper 1996 (page number unknown). 

  46. Marcus, “Disabled Country.” 

  47. Michael Northen, “A Short History of American Disability Poetry” in Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, eds. Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Michael Northen (El Passo: Cinco Punto Press, 2011), 20. 

  48. Jim Ferris, “Poetry,” in Encyclopedia of Disability, ed. Gary L. Albrecht (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2006), 1253. 

  49. Katerina Tsiokou, “Body Politics and Disability: Negotiating Subjectivity and Embodiment in Disability Poetry,” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, 11 no. 2 (2017): 220. 

  50. Northen, “Short History,” 23. 

  51. Barlett, “Preface,” 15. 

  52. Evelyn Glennie, “Hearing Essay.” Personal Website, 1 January 2015, <evelyn.co.uk/hearing-essay/>. 

  53. Jim Ferris, “Keeping the Knives Sharp,” in Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, eds. Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Michael Northen (El Passo: Cinco Punto Press, 2011), 91. 

  54. Petra Kuppers, “Toward a Rhizomatic Model of Disability: Poetry, Performance, and Touch,” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, 3 no. 3 (2009): 228. 

  55. Nick Watson, “Well, I Know this is Going to Sound Very Strange to You, but I Don’t See Myself as a Disabled Person: Identity and Disability,” Disability & Society, 17 no. 5 (2002). 

  56. Jillian Weise, “The Disability Rights Movement & the Legacy of Poets with Disabilities.” in Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, eds. Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Michael Northen (El Passo: Cinco Punto Press, 2011), 144. 

  57. Susan Schweik, “The Voice of Reason,” in Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, eds. Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Michael Northen (El Passo: Cinco Punto Press, 2011), 70-73. 

  58. Henri-Jacques Stiker, A History of Disability (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 134. 

  59. Schweik, “Voice of Reason,” 69. 

  60. Mike Oliver, Social Work with Disabled People (London: Macmil­lan, 1983). 

  61. Ferris, “Keeping Knives,” 91-92. 

  62. Jim Ferris, “Poet of Cripples,” in Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, eds. Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Michael Northen (El Passo: Cinco Punto Press, 2011), 94. 

  63. Monroe Beardsley, Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1958), 129. 

  64. Tobin Siebers, Disability Aesthetics

  65. Jim Ferris, “The Enjambed Body: A Step Toward a Crippled Poetics,” The Georgia Review, 58 no. 2 (2004): 232. 


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