The young writer struggles with self-definition. So many incredible reputations hover above us, casting sparks in all directions. Every established literary presence is crisp and luminous, an identity in complete control of its own labels.
So I ask my poetry for this control, and it withers. I find I possess nothing worthy of a poem. What could be poetic about my unestablished self? About my identity testing its limits?
I ask my poetry to be perfect, to appeal to everyone, to help others feel what I feel when I read Rilke. Rilke advises his young poet: “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator, there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.”
I ask my poems to be round and lively, filled with knowledge that transcends my individual experience. And as I reach for this transcendence, this selflessness, I realize just which parts of my self I am sacrificing.
I am concerned that others will read my work and see only disability: a dismal vision that makes them turn away rather than turn toward me. I am concerned that their fear of blindness—so widespread in common culture—will tell them, “Close the book, and it will never happen to you.” I worry that any “blindness poems” that don’t offer some nugget of nonvisual bliss will tap into the well of pity carried by people who don’t really know me.
“That must be what it’s like to be her. Poor thing.”
So I ask my poetry to silence the part of myself that helps me interact with the world. I ask my poetry to censor disability so that it will appeal to more nondisabled readers. I cut off part of myself—and then I’m surprised when my poetry wants spirit and individuality.
I didn’t realize how thoroughly I’ve been silencing myself. My prose is flowing smoothly, but I’ve only written 5 poems this year. Last year, I wrote 67. In 2013, I wrote 97. The prose is steadily coming, but the poems are being choked off. I’m telling myself the usual things: I’m not in the mood to write poetry, not all those poems last year were good, numbers don’t mean much when it comes to Art.
But inspiration only works if you value the craft that asks for it.
A year ago, I wrote an essay that helped me define myself as a poet. The essay happened in the midst of April—I was celebrating Poetry Month by trying to write some kind of poem every day. I was playing with forms: pantoums, villanelles, sonnets, sestinas. The exercises and the essay worked on paper. So I published the essay, framed the thoughts, and forgot to engage with them.
About a month ago, I applied for a slot in a series of local readings that will occur in November. I offered myself as a poet whose poetry would discuss “writing as embodiment and sensory experience”—a neat way of saying “blind poetry” without using the word. I didn’t see the fancy words for what they were: a cloak. Just in case the panel of judges would freak out over seeing “blind” on the page.
I wanted to read my poems instead of my prose because they are generally shorter and won’t provide as much of a visual challenge. I’ve never felt overly confident about my ability to read aloud.
My poems don’t mark me as a blind poet in as much as my essays mark me as a blind writer. My poems focus on minute experiences, rarely stopping to explain that they were written by a blind woman. But my essays are longer explorations of important aspects of my life: music, teaching, disability, dogs. In my essays, I don’t avoid the blind label: they flourish because of my perspective.
So why do I hold poetry to a different standard, a standard of erasure? I can puzzle out a few reasons. I’ve met few blind poets on the page, though of course they exist. I even have several works by blind poets sitting on my poetry shelf.
But poetry hinges on a paradox. We expect it to bloom with human experience—particular, poignant, real. And at the same time, we imagine that such a high and beautiful art must come from the minds (not bodies) of high and beautiful people. Prose seems to us the writing of everyday life—even if this is an unfair judgement. Prose can certainly be beautiful, graceful, evocative. But prose is the place where you discuss how to clasp the belly-strap of your guide dog’s harness; poetry is the place where you describe the wild warmth of meeting his large brown eyes—perhaps the first pair of eyes you’ve ever been able to meet.
It is an unfair binary that segregates these two genres, and practicing this binary has helped me to make war on my writing self. I didn’t see it until I read it in a piece by Steve Kuusisto, a blind poet: “Its possible to have a disability and live your life pretending you don’t have one. Plenty of people have done so. But getting away with this charade in literary terms means the imagination has been suborned—bribed—you’ve tricked yourself into thinking there’s a pot of gold that will be yours but only if there isn’t a hint of physical difference in your work.”
I am an advocate, an activist, a scholar, a teacher. I contemplate all day, and often into the night. I never imagined I could be so thoroughly tricked by the same myths that silence other disabled poets. I’ve been helping to sequester my own experience, and effectively telling others that it is nothing of value—all to avoid being misunderstood, pitied, alienated.
Kuusisto echoes Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, saying: I’m a poet who not only admits the defective body into literature—I think the imagination is starving for what that damned body knows.” But the difference is, he’s talking about me. I didn’t know Rilke was talking about my experience, too. And I couldn’t ask.
I could’ve questioned poetry itself, but I didn’t have the courage or the imagination. If I didn’t ask for admission, I couldn’t be turned away.
I’m going to stop asking my poetry not to come.
I’m asking all poetry: Are you talking to me?