This essay explores the Disability Rights Movement and searches for a poet affiliated with that movement. The sit-in at the San Francisco Federal Building in 1977 marked a defining point in the movement. The sit-in resulted in the ratification of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and paved the way for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. What poetic conversations were created by the sit-in and disability culture of the 1970s? How do those conversations persist in the contemporary moment? Who is writing disability in persona? And who is writing disability from an authentic perspective? Finally, what is the future of disability studies within the field of poetry?
"No one seems to like people with disabilities," writes David Pfeiffer in an essay titled, "The Disability Movement: Ubiquitous but Unknown." Pfeiffer considers why such distaste continues to be prevalent today.
"Disability is seen as a personal tragedy, a disgrace to the family, and/or a punishment from God. People with disabilities are to be pitied and they are regarded as a burden to society, to the family, and to themselves. [...] These attitudes are due to the fact that people with disabilities are diagnosed. They are viewed as having a deficit named in that diagnosis. Unlike members of other social movements they are not allowed to self-identify."
Given these perceptions of disability and the lack of self-definition associated with disability, it is easy to understand why poets with disabilities might be reticent about self-identifying. Here's a personal example. I was at the Book Fair of the AWP Conference in Austin, Texas, standing beside Jim Ferris, who wrote The Hospital Poems, when a woman approached and without any introduction, asked, "Are you a crip poet?" I didn't know what to say. I know what a crip is, and I know what a poet is, but I'd never heard the term 'crip poet' before. I answered "yes" because it seemed like that was the answer she wanted, and it also seemed like to answer "no" might get me in some hot water, perhaps an argument on whether my poems were crippled enough, or whether I was, and these are not typically things I discuss upon meeting someone. I don't know what would've happened if I had answered, "No, I'm not a crip poet." I answered "yes" and then she gave me a big hug and it seemed I had just been initiated into something without knowing what it was.
My reservations about the term 'crip poet' are similar to my reservations about the terms 'disabled poet' or even the politically correct term 'poet with a disability.' What does any of it mean? Ferris published an essay on defining 'crip poetry' in the June 2007 issue of Wordgathering, an online journal of poetics. In the essay, titled "Crip Poetry, Or How I Learned to Love the Limp" Ferris writes, "Crip poetry centers the experience of disabled people; it shows disabled people taking control of the gaze and articulating the terms under which we are viewed." Ferris cites characteristics of 'crip poetry,' which include "a challenge to stereotypes and an insistence on self-definition; a foregrounding of perspectives of people with disabilities; an emphasis on embodiment, especially atypical embodiment; and alternative techniques and poetics."
While it's encouraging to begin to have acknowledgment of poets with disabilities, I find it also discouraging that these first efforts are essentializing, seeking to brand a common disabled experience, and define the work according to a grid, rather than simply opening the field for disabled poets to enter the conversation on their own terms. For the purposes of this paper, I will dispense with Ferris' definition. Instead, I define 'poet with a disability' as exactly that, a poet who has a disability.
When I began researching this paper, I was hoping to find a poet affiliated with the Disability Rights Movement. The movement reached its apex in 1977 when the disabled and their advocates took over the fourth floor of the San Francisco Federal Building for three and a half weeks. During this protest, people with disabilities and their advocates received support from the American Legion, the Black Panthers, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Organization for Women, among others. The protest resulted in the ratification of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits any federally funded program from discriminating against persons with a "qualified handicap." Section 504 paved the way for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The Disability Rights Movement has been called "the last inclusion." I expected to find someone who wrote poems in tandem with the movement, and who appeared at sit-ins and demonstrations, since poets are commonly known for their famous acts of solidarity: Ginsberg walked into the Stonewall Inn and shouted, "Gay Power! Isn't that great!" After the assassination of Malcolm X, Amiri Baraka packed his bags in the Lower East Side and moved to Harlem and the Black Arts Movement was born. Adrienne Rich refused to accept the National Book Award individually, and instead banded together with Alice Walker and Audre Lorde to accept it on behalf of all silenced women. These examples show two main things that the Disability Rights Movement lacks: 1) poets whose work reflects the time and culture of their movement and 2) a sense of community.
Since the Disability Rights Movement has no such spokesperson, I'd like to consider Josephine Miles as a foremother to the movement. Miles is a poet with a disability whose life and work has been instrumental in my understanding of what it means to be a poet and a woman and a disabled person and a teacher and an activist. "I felt sort of on the sidelines," Miles says in an interview conducted by Ruth Teiser and Catherine Harmon and published as Teaching Poet: An Oral Autobiography.
Miles was the first woman to receive tenure (1947) in an English Department. She taught at the University of California, Berkeley where she founded the Berkeley Poetry Review. She produced thirty-three books of poetry and literary criticism. In books such as The Vocabulary of Poetry: Three Studies (1946) and The Continuity of Poetic Language (1951), she traced the usage of words as they appeared in poems, and created charts to report which words were en vogue, out of vogue, or recurring.
Mobility was always an issue for Miles, who used canes, walkers, and wheelchairs, though she did not address it directly in her poems until her final collection titled Coming to Terms. She lived at the height of activism in Berkeley in the 60s and 70s, but she did not align with any one faction. When questioned about 'women's lib' Miles said that "They [the feminists] didn't ask me to be a part of this because, as I say, I think women always take the attitude toward me that if they'd lean on me, I'd fall over."
In an earlier section of the interview, Miles describes the layout of her high school and how it contributed to her development as a poet.
"The high school was divided by floors. The science and the languages were on the second floor. I had to climb up one flight of stairs. English and history were on the third floor, which was really very hard for me to get to. I could climb stairs then, with help, but it was awfully hard. So I postponed as much of English as possible and did a lot of languages and sciences—whatever I could on the second floor. I remember writing a poem at the end of my junior year which was called 'To Dr. Edwards, On Going to the Third Floor.'"
After high school, Miles encountered resistance when she wanted to attend UCLA. The dean of women advised against it.
"The dean said [...] I'd have to ask too many favors, and she thought it was right that I should go to a small college where I could be protected. So I was weeping heavily as I went out the gate. The cop had let me in, and so this cop—I guess he was waving us on, and then he sort of stopped and said, 'What's wrong? Why are you crying?' I said, 'Because the dean of women wouldn't let me come here because I'd ask too many favors.' He said, 'What favors do you have to ask?' The ones that were on my mind, of course, were very trivial. It was just a matter of registering. I said, 'I'd have to stand in line to get registered, and I'd have to get permission to drive on campus.' He said, 'You get somebody to stand in line for you, and I'll let you drive on campus.'"
Miles experiences predate the Disability Rights Movement. And while that movement brought changes to public policy, issues of access are not entirely resolved. Likewise, the attitude that the disabled 'ask too many favors' remains prevalent. Perhaps this year's greatest achievement toward access for the disabled happened just last month when an appeals court ruled that the government must issue paper currency with Braille.
I'd like to read a poem of Miles' from her final collection Coming to Terms. Prior to this collection, Miles work engaged the quotidian details of life—in such poems as "Market Report on Cotton Gray Goods" and "Apartment" and "Shade." She seems like the granddaughter of Wordsworth by including fragments from everyday speech in her poems. In Coming to Terms, Miles presents her disability along with her usual touchstones of everyday life.
Earlier, what I remember: a small
Flame of arthritis in the midst of fields
In the Euclidian Sunday mustard fields
And the mud fields of the potted palm,
In Jackie's airy room,
And at the fire station
All the brass
And all of us
Feeding the gulls.
A fresh salt breeze and foam
Around a plaster leg.
Away from the chloroform intern, joy
Of the long journey when I ran
Free of the plaster, and got back
Down those long hills, spent out.
Where had I been, oh tell me.
Under those vast sunny
Apricot trees in the front yard?
Go tell Aunt Rhodie the old gray goose is dead.
What I like about this poem is its frank interrogation of Miles' childhood experience of disability: frank in its beginning, 'what I remember' and interrogative in that line, 'Where had I been, oh tell me.'
For comparison's sake, I'd like to take a look at a poem by Louise Gluck who uses similar subject material. Unlike Miles, however, Gluck is not disabled. She puts on a disabled persona. The poem is from her 1969 collection Firstborn. Here is how Kirkus describes the subject material of Firstborn: "She [Gluck] deals in wastelands. . . the lost lives of cripples ... the hopeless and loveless."
The Cripple in the Subway
For awhile I thought I had gotten
Used to it (the leg) and hardly heard
That down-hard, down-hard
Upon wood, cement, etc. of the iron
Trappings and I'd tell myself the memories
Would also disappear, tick-
ing jump-ropes and the bike, the bike
That flew beneath my sister, froze
Light, bent back its
Stinging in a flash of red chrome brighter
Than my brace or brighter
Than the morning whirling past this pit
Flamed with rush horror and their thin
Boots flashing on and on, all that easy kidskin.
While I'm not going to linger on these two poems and the different ways they address disability, I'd like to note the different ways the poets use the word "tell": Miles writes, "Where had I been, oh tell me," engaging with the reader, while at the same time not completely disclosing; and without a question mark, the line reads as if Miles expects no answer. Gluck writes, "I'd tell myself the memories / would also disappear" in a self-reflexive tone, turned in rather than out. Her imagination of this disabled experience is much more explicit and objectifying.
I wonder what we think of these two poems? Certainly Gluck isn't alone in personifying disability (Bidart's Book of the Body gives us plenty of examples as well). Why do able poets write from this perspective? Before I began seeking poems written from a disabled perspective, I found plenty of poems written on the subject of disability, and in persona, from an able perspective. I can hardly pick up a journal or collection of poetry without coming across blindness or deafness or madness as metaphor. I used to count the number of "phantom limbs" that cropped up in poems; the phantom limb is typically a metaphor for the loss of a loved one. This has always struck me as funny because my phantom limb is ticklish rather than painful.
When I had a colleague read this paper, she commented that one of her writing teachers actually used the term 'phantom limb' as a way to describe the writing process. It was the same writing teacher who was African American and protested to the use, any use, of the word "dark" as a negative.
In an essay titled "Feminist Disability Studies," Rosemarie Garland-Thomson notes the "major aim of all of my work in both literary and feminist studies is to show that the always overdetermined metaphoric uses of disability efface and distort the lived experience of people with disabilities, evacuating the political significance of our lives and mitigating the influence of disability culture."
More and more people are self-identifying as disabled. With the explosion of the blog, disabled people have a new medium in which to exchange ideas and act towards social change. Temple University's blog touts itself as "cool stuff in the world of geography, disability studies, and educational leadership". I find this tagline particularly intriguing for three reasons—1) disability has only recently been considered "cool" 2) the use of "geography" advances the disabled as a mobile and far-spread group and 3) the mention of "leadership" acknowledges the disabled in a role of power rather than victimhood. I'd like to see more studies, within the field of poetry, that consider the long history of disability and literature. But first, I'd like—in my most utopian of mindsets—for us all to know the poets with disabilities of the 20th and 21st century. Until we know who we are, who wants to be included and who does not, how can we further integrate disability studies in the field of poetry?