The last time I wrote a post I was thinking about the research paper and how the “theory and practice,” textbook has helped me conceptualize this project. I’ve realized how important it is to be doing research on my own contemporaries who are currently writing about the power of embodiment, and are theorizing and engaging poetic literature. I needed my own definition of what disability as an aesthetic in literature brought thematically to a poem, because I found when reading older poems I wasn’t looking for some explicit mention of illness or impairment. I was building on Joseph L. Baird and Deborah S. Workman’s disability poetics or “crip lit,” definition that centered poetry that explored disability without centering sympathy. For too long disability in literature had not really been a space for growth or vulnerability without pity. There was room for the reality of disability which includes impairment, pain, illness, but there was also room for living, thriving, exploration, nuance and just plain joy.
Workman and Baird had edited what is now regarded as the first anthology of disability poetry: Towards’ Solomans Mountain. A few decades later, Jim Ferris in wordgathering establishes disability poetics as “A challenge to stereotypes and an insistence on self-definition; foregrounding of the perspective of people with disabilities; an emphasis on embodiment, especially atypical embodiment; and alternative techniques and poetics.” I found it was also easier to discern how this articulated itself in poetry by reading literature where researchers tried to identify poetry and then work their way to the poet. I found I was uninterested in trying to find the disabled in the poet and more so interested in cripping the literature. I felt there was something about exploring embodiment and “alternative technique,” that could offer that same exploration and self definition to the reader?
The fact that the first anthology arrived in 1986, and Beauty As A Verb the next big anthology, doesn’t include any poets before 1950, made my project of looking for poets before 1960 seem epic and intimidating. I decided to open up my research but keep a special eye out for work during that time period. I also found that it didn’t hurt to read works from Beauty As A Verb, and then scour each for influences before 1950.
A project that piqued my interest that wasn’t necessarily in the time period I first began looking out was “Forgotten daughters : a glimpse of the lives of women with disabilities : report on a study of 150 women with disabilities in Gokwe and Harare (Zimbabwe).” It was exactly the project that I hoped to curate and plan myself in graduate years. I don’t know if I would be in South Africa, since I’m sure there is plenty of work to be done in my own hometown (Chicago), but it was truly inspiring to see a publication of this kind. The book was one half poetry, writing by women with disabilities in two communities in Zimbabwe.
I had so many questions, were these women poets already, or were they encouraged and published through this project? This summer I began thinking deeper about what I could do to encourage people I knew to write about their own experiences moving through the world in their bodies. I thought, I’m spending so much time looking for poetry I could workshop with my friends and family today. The second half of the project was a study with local chieftains and community leaders. The people doing the study asked difficult and culturally specific questions about the roles of women with disabilities and found that often times it was small barriers that created long lasting effects on the self esteem and communal perspective on women with disabilities. This was in 1990 and the same arguments and societal issues I saw creating barriers for women with disabilities then I also found to be the ones I was deconstructing as an intern looking at legislation on Capital Hill.
A captured image from the scan of the publication “Forgotten Daughters,” an anthology project and study conducted by Irene Gross Herzog in conjunction with the ILO. The book cover is colorful and dynamic because of the variety of women depicted with visible disabilities playing, sitting, talking, walking and working with children and other women.
An image of the cover of the Encyclopedia of American Disability History featuring former President Obama and current Senator Tammy Duckworth, an image of two people who use chairs rolling in front of the capital and children reading braille in a classroom.