Throughout my life as poet with cerebral palsy, I have been aware of the academic inclusion model of poetry publication and academic hiring. I have followed many conversations pertaining to gender and the imbalance of women’s poetry to men’s as well as those concerning sexuality, transgender, race, and class. Recently, women have been at the forefront of the movement to rectify these imbalances. Although many anthologies and journals focus on women, editors work to include all historically suppressed voices. As I read – and enjoy – these books and periodicals, I have become concretely aware of the reason for my conflicted feelings of such movements. My discomfort derives from the realization that the same anthologists, publishers, editors, and universities who mean to follow the politically correct model of inclusion aren’t even aware that they have a blind spot. The conversation has yet to include poets and academics with disabilities on any level.
The feminist movement itself has been startlingly negligent in considering women with disabilities. Throughout my studies in feminist literature, activism and poetry I have only seen disability mentioned twice. In her recent interview with Danielle Pafunda on the concept of the Gurlesque, Arielle Greenberg points out, “One might well ask similar questions about class, ethnicity, ability, and other issues of power and privilege. Where are the Gurlesque poets writing about these things, or where are the _____ poets who are writing the Gurlesque?” In the new introduction to Of Women Born Adrienne Rich also touches on the subject in regard to forced sterilization for women with disabilities. Third wave feminists have started to acknowledge lapses in communication in regard to race, education, and class. However, a brief perusal of feminism blogs, magazines and women’s-only anthologies show that disability is not on the radar, period. (The exception is able-bodied mothers discussing their children with disabilities.) Likewise, at a recent feminist art panel at the Brooklyn Museum, “Beyond the Waves: Feminist Artists Talk Across the Generations,” one panelist made a point of noting that the discussion had covered all bases — racism, gender, ageism, feminism, sexism, and transgender.
The tendency is to consider this lack a benign oversight, and yet one is not so sure. The body remains an intensely personal space. It is how we define ourselves. It is what accounts for attraction, movement, the ability to have and rear children. The feminist thought and poetics seem at a loss of how to deal with disability issues. The difference in experience may account for much of the oversight. While an able-bodied feminist fights against motherhood-as-a-given, the woman with a disability is expected not to have children. While the able-bodied feminist fights against being sexually objectified, the woman with a disability is sexually dismissed. While the able-bodied feminist fights for equal academic pay, the woman with a disability has to argue to get even considered for a position.
Although the universities have adopted affirmative action when employers ‘encourage minorities to apply,” they concretely mean women or racial minorities, not academics with disabilities. With an approximate unemployment rate of 77%, theoretically, people with disabilities should be the first in line.
When I have pointed out these inconsistencies in various forums, the topic is met with dismissal at best, hostility at worst. Men and women who so avidly involve themselves in other civil rights debates are awkward, nervous, or disinterested. While blogs such as Ron Silliman’s and the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet are hotbeds for the gender/race debate, disability is rarely brought up. Silliman points out “Nope. I can’t see that there is anybody who wants to debate that.” If, as Spahr and Young note, a publisher/anthology/prize/university employs/publishes say 25% women, one can estimate that number becomes 5% for non-whites and 0% poets/academics with disabilities.
Historically, poetry has been a place for human fragility and yet most experimental ‘movements’ veer away from the lyric. They are grounded in a more masculine humor or a girlish sexiness. In attempting to diverge and satirize the typical, they keep the able-bodied status quo. So-called experimental poets and editors may make the assumption that all works by poets with disabilities are narrative/identity poems. To make the argument that these poets do not exist – or do not write in various forms – is to make the same argument society made/makes against women, homosexuals, and non-whites.
One only has to take a look at Larry Eigner’s work to find that the experience of the different body is the ideal landscape from which to write poetry that is broken, disjointed, or fragmented. It is not despite Eigner’s cerebral palsy that he was an innovator, but because of it. The different body slows the corporeal down, so that the poet is able to see as others cannot. A similar voice can be found in the recent work of Norma Cole. After a stroke, Cole lost and regained her ability to speak. She used her experience with temporary aphasia and slurred speech to compose a poem of a list of words that she could no longer enunciate. The result of her reading this work was alternately hilarious and devastating. Cole laughed at the ridiculous condition of a poet losing words, and the audience laughed with her. Yet, the poetry wasn’t as simple as that. Although the audience laughed, they were also visibly uncomfortable. From the sophistication of Cole’s work, one can guess that this dichotomy was no accident.
Some places that have acknowledged the different body are Drunken Boat’s ASL issue and Reginald Shepard’s presence on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog. Ironically, most Deaf people do not self-identify as ‘disabled.’ Nor do many consider Shepard’s health problems (HIV and cancer) disabilities – although they certainly can be much more debilitating than say, cerebral palsy or MS.
This is not meant as an attack. I am a champion of women’s poetry and respect all the fine anthologies that have been put out in the name of ‘equaling the playing field.’ Nor do I have a desire to make disability the minority du jour. I realize it is not completely fair to single out feminists – men are complicit too. This is more of a wakeup call. I would, ideally, like the movers and shakers who follow the inclusion model to realize it is faulty until people with disabilities are put on the radar. I want able-bodied poets and editors to move away from feeling nervous about entering the discussion.
Jennifer Bartlett is the author of two poetry books, Derivative of the Moving Image (UNM) and (a) lullaby without any music (Chax). She was a 2005 NYFA Fellow. Her articles on disability have been published in Feministing and Delirious Hem and forthcoming on the WILLA website.