Donna Gary: Disability Poetics at the Library of Congress

table covered with various items (papers, folder, and scarf)
More To The Story

I spent too much time reading poems in my academic career that were upheld within the literary cannon but were written by people who didn’t look like me. I knew that couldn’t be quite right. Where were the black poets? Where were the queer poets, (who didn’t need to use that word to be what that word means to me). Where the disabled poets, (who didn’t need to use that word back then to exist as folks with embodiments societally considered non normative)? I remember the days I read about Phyllis Wheatley as a kid. She was a black women writing poems in the years of slavery in the United States. Could she have been the only one? Surely there were poets of color, living and experiencing the world with disabilities. Hell, there had to be poets that dared to have relationships that today we might consider queer expressions of love. This summer became the chance to begin to dive into these inquiries with the support of my university.

  The View from Gelman Special Collections Library

DC Here I Come

When I first arrived in Washington, DC my project had already changed from my original proposal to hole up at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago. I had was fresh off the news that I was going to be a full time Victory Congressional Intern working with Legislators in the House of Representatives. I was placed in a radical office of a rising star Representative from New York. I asked to come in on Mondays at 1pm to spend more time at museums, or libraries that had limited hours on weekends or after 6pm on weekdays. The Reps office welcomed my research needs with open arms. The program sponsoring my housing, transportation and stipend; Victory Fund was also incredibly supportive of my research. They made it possible for me to focus on my research, articulating my policy interests, and just showing up. My placement in the program gave me a sweet intern badge. I spent my lunch breaks, and evenings after work traversing the short walk underground through the Capitol Hill tunnels to the Jefferson Library of Congress. I spent my Saturday and Sundays at the Gelman Special Collections by appointment.

 Me In Front of the Capitol in D.C.

Who Know What Disability Looks Like in 1860?

The librarians at the Gelman Special Collections and the Library of Congress have been more than generous with their time, energy and research skills. Before I had arrived I was really shooting into the dark with Gelman archives. I reached out and described my project to their special collections team. They linked me to the extensive list of their poetry works offsite. As per their request I thoughtfully made my time period more specific.  I spent the week before I arrived reading the descriptions of over fifty boxes that were held offsite. I picked ones that included poems, manuscripts, and contained the works of people I knew little about. My first time sorting through those documents, I realized how tedious the whole process was going to be. How would I know what to keep, what to save, what to scan? My faculty advisor and the Library of Congress librarians were truly helpful. I spent hours in the libraries flipping through the dustiest most fragile books I had ever seen. I wanted to learn more about poets with what we might call disabilities who wrote right after the Reconstruction era and just before the Harlem Renaissance.My guide became the incredible and brief (the most extensive to date) collection of poems by people with disabilities called Beauty Is A Verb, edited by Jennifer Bartlet, Michael Norton, and Sheila Black. Their timeline started around the 1960’s but I was committed and reached out to Norton for advice.

 Documents from the Gelman Special Collections, Beauty As A Verb the book ,and the Poetry Research Guide for Gelman.

Reaching Out and Growing

The Librarians of Congress also suggested I reach out to Jim Ferris, a poet, essayist and activist with disabilities who had done encylopedia work on disability poetics. Both have been kind in the list of researchers, poets, and rocks to look under for more information. So far I’ve found poets in South Africa, England, and the Americas, who were club footed, blind or deaf but few have been people of color. This has encouraged to me further expand my research to the African disapora, and to learn more about how specific disability is to the context in which it arrives. I look forward to narrowing my research within the coming month, but have been primarily focused on acquiring an archive of books since I cannot take them back with me to Chicago or New York.

 A screenshot of my phone from when I was reserving a book at the Library of Congress during my lunch break.