KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 2: Winter 2015
Commentary: 890 words [R]

Exit Through the Gift Shop

by Jennifer Bartlett

Often, so-called disabled poets are faced with how to address, or whether to address, their minority status as part of their poetics. This question is applicable in terms of context, form, and marketing (a term I use lightly, as poetry is rarely successfully marketed). Further, what responsibility does the poet have, if any at all, to question and/or resist stereotypes? For me, the question of ethics arises, all good intentions aside, in that poets with disabilities risk the danger of consciously or unconsciously manipulating their difference to promote work in a world where there are many poets, few readers, and even fewer poetry teaching jobs.

Ethics and disability is something that has haunted my life. I want to be equal in the job market, but I want to have access to a seat on the subway too. I question certain “privileges” that come with slower movement: a half-fare subway card, teaching in classrooms near my office, and so on. Things I could do without, but make life easier. I always dwell on my own concept of “fairness.” Should I be taking advantage of things that I am capable of doing without?

Poetry is something slightly more complicated than my half-fare subway fare. The marketing of my work as an identiy poet has never been something with which I’m comfortable. It strikes me as disingenuous. (I’m not even comfortable with po-biz in general, and like to think of poetry as a vocation: a spiritual blessing and/or curse.)

Do we need more poets with disabilities? A resounding yes! However, I want my work to be strong enough to exist on a level playing field. I want to be, like Larry Eigner, a good poet who happens to be disabled. This does not mean that I won’t even address disability in my poems. Nor does it mean that I will stop questioning the exclusion of people with disabilities. But, it means that I’ve given a lot of thought to how I want it to happen. I don’t believe art is merely to entertain. When I read a poem, I want to work, to feel, to be challenged, to learn something about language or something about life. If I want to be entertained, I would watch Law and Order. For me, entertainment is about checking out: poetry is about checking in. I think, perhaps naively, that poetry is meant to change the world.

So, when I do address disability in my work, I want to present my vision of what it means to have cerebral palsy. I feel that, as a poet with a disability, I have an ethical responsibility to challenge the norm of how society perceives disability: that it has been the most difficult thing in my life (hardly)! That I would prefer to be able-bodied (not really). That I do not love my body or am less than. Nor would I want reviewers to use the typical words that are markers for disability disempowerment: afflicted, invalid, diseased, and so on. As a poet, I cannot always control who criticizes my work, but I can have some control over who publishes the poems and how they are presented. That may require decisions that others might deem sacrifices. But, most of all, my work needs to reflect the integrity of my struggle for civil rights, along with maintaining the integrity of the poems themselves, which always comes first. This is not to say that I have always followed my own ethics. Yes, I have noted that I have a disability on my NEA application, when submitting poems to mainstream journals, applying for jobs, and so on. The irony is that it has rarely, if ever, helped.

At first, I avoided writing about/mentioning disability at all. Throughout my twenties, denial was my attempt at finding equality. In my thirties, I changed. I wanted equality not in spite of who I was, but because of who I was. In short, I didn’t have to “pretend” that I wasn’t disabled anymore because I realized there is nothing wrong with my disability, on others’ perception of it.

As I delve into my next project, which is directly about disability, I am back to the question of ethics. Typically, disability is viewed as a tragedy. In my experience, even many people with disabilities want to cling to the negative aspects of disability. My new work challenges those stereotypes and asks society to look at the misnomers they have applied to disability.

This is not to dispel the real pain, physical and emotional, that derives from being disabled—although I would argue that most, if not all, of the abled people I know are in chronic physical and/or emotional pain of some form. People with disabilities do have any host of difficulties, but these difficulties are constantly exacerbated by a society which gears itself toward ableness—in architecture, the media, the job market, the housing market, and yes, even academia. (How many first-year-writing programs include disability as part of their multicultural curriculum?) I would argue that all of my “pain” surrounding disability has derived from prejudice. Still, for me, there is also a happiness in having cerebral palsy. Yes, my life has been really hard in terms of aversion. But, it has also created what David Byrne calls specialness and who doesn’t want that?

—From Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black, and Michael Northen (Cinco Puntos Press, 2011); republished here by author’s permission

Jennifer Bartlett’s
Issue 2, Winter 2015

most recent book is Autobiography/Anti-Autobiography (theenk Books, 2014). She also co-edited, with Sheila Black and Michael Northen, Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Bartlett has received fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, Fund for Poetry, and the Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut. She is currently writing a full-length biography of Larry Eigner.

More on the Web: By, About, and Beyond

Bookmarked: Sheila Black’s Six Poets with Disabilities in Vela Magazine (10 December 2014)

Disability and Poetry: An Exchange, by John Lee Clark, Jennifer Bartlett, Jillian Weise, and Jim Ferris in Poetry Magazine (1 December 2014)

Jennifer Bartlett in conversation with Jane Joritz-Nakagawa in Jacket2 (August 2014); includes, among many other topics, a discussion of the book Beauty Is a Verb, disability poetics, and Bartlett’s work on Eigner’s biography and his letters for publication

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