Four Questions with Editor Sheila Black, Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability


Sheila Black, editor, is the author of two poetry collections, House of Bone and Love/Iraq (both CW Press) and chapbooks, How to be a Maquiladora (Main Street Rag) and Continental Drift with painter Michele Marcoux (Patriothall, Edinburgh UK). In 2000, she was the US co-winner of the Frost-Pellicer Frontera Prize given to one US and one Mexican poet living along the US-Mexico Border. She recently co-edited with Jennifer Bartlett and Mike Northen Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (Cinco Puntos Press, September 2011). She lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico.


Sheila Black will be reading from Beauty is a Verb at Alamosa Books, 8810 Holly Ave NE, Ste D, Albuquerque, on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2-3pm. Also scheduled to read is anthology contributor, Lisa Gill. Call 505-797-7101 for more info.


1. Can you give us a definition of "Disability Poetics?" Is it the same as "crip poetics?"


Oddly enough, this first question is by far the hardest for me to answer—I think because a lot of my thinking about disability has been about thinking my way out of certain ideas I was given--including ideas of how my disability effected my poetry. For me disability poetics and crip poetics are NOT the same. Disability poetics is the larger term—I think it refers to all the varied ways in which an experience of a non-normative body might impact or influence or help create a poetics—or a way of writing (which encompasses a way of thinking).  Crip poetics is an important part of disability poetics—it’s a specific movement formed—I’d say really after 1990—by Jim Ferris, Petra Kuppers, Neil Marcus and others that sought to lay out the disabled identity in a celebratory way and to challenge and re-vision the traditional limited narratives that have been offered to people with disabilities—some of which Michael Northen mentions in his introduction, “A Short History of American Disability Poetry.”  Short answer--the anthology includes crip poetic for sure—however, doesn't create any steadfast idea of “disability poetics.” Instead, it provides multi-answers.  I think that is really important—the idea that a disability poetics concerns itself with embodiment (and "disability") but allows for multiple ways of conceiving of and thus responding to these terms.

2. Would you consider "Disability Poetics" a new movement? And what drew you to it?


I think the crucial part is not whether it is new, but that writers with disabilities have had virtually no voice and within that, VERY very few writers have been able to produce work that is intelligent and sexy--rather than exploring disability as tragedy—which  is certainly the predominant view in our culture. Which is to say, yes, crip poetics started over 20 years ago & has been ignored since then. I guess I'd say that in making this anthology we see our  exploration of "disability poetics" as an opportunity to ask/explore key questions about disability rather than to answer them—we were very conscious of wanting to avoid a didactic or orthodox vision of what disability might be or mean.  But I think it is worth remembering in this context something Jillian Weise (one of our contributors) said recently in an interview, which was that people with disabilities only really got their civil rights in 1990 with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act—so , yes, it is all pretty new.

As to what drew me to it--well, there's a lot I like in the kind of crazy answer I sent you yesterday, but the simplest answer, the most honest would be—and  I'm sort of uncomfortable saying this even though  (or because) it is true—the cruelty and exclusion I experienced, mostly as a child, but also a little as an adult, as a person with a visible disability—and  the thinking, in turn, that made me do about questions of discourse, art, poetry, and power.  I am speaking individually here, but I think my co-editors would agree. I still believe we write as poets not just for each other, but really, in the most fundamental ways, to challenge and change the world as it is.


3. If there is any one thing you would like the reader to grasp upon reading this anthology, what would it be?

That people with disabilities are people with full multi-dimensional lives and ideas.  That a person cannot be reduced to their particular bodily difference.  Also, I would really like the anthology to open questions regarding disability, the body, and types of poetry.  What we mean to do—as I say above—is generate ideas without any didactic answers, but also in ways that challenge the status quo.  I think, as I wrote yesterday, that disability is interesting precisely because, in its very nature, it tends to challenge received ideas about beauty and function.  I feel at this cultural moment that's really important—I  guess because I see us living in a moment where being "productive bodies" is being made paramount in multiple ways that stifle diversity and individual being. 

4. What would you consider to be a positive thing about contemporary poetry? What would you consider to be a negative?

I love that in the US right now we are in such a fluid moment for poetry—a lot of the old gatekeepers are gone and there are so many opportunities and spaces from numerous kinds of poetics and numerous levels of publishing. The fact that anyone can start a magazine in order to put forth the work they love is just mind-blowing and lovely. The negative thing is that, as poets are passionate creatures, there is a lot of arguing within the groups....and even people really turning on each other. Po-Biz. Awk!


Publishers Weekly: This powerful anthology attempts to—and succeeds at—intimately showing (meaning, at various times and among many other aims, sharing the experience of, defining the self in terms of, refusing to define the self in terms of, trying to define, exploring the indefiniteness of) disability through the lenses of poetry. According to the editors’ preface, “we include not only poets who created and embrace the disability/ crip poetics movement but also those who might resist such a classification and have never been considered in that exact context.”  Indeed, some readers and writers may strongly resist the idea of disability as a context for gathering poems, though what emerges from the book as a whole is a stunningly diverse array of conceptions of self and other. There are no simple truths here. Jim Ferris insists readers “Look with care, look deep./ You know you are a cripple too. / I sing for cripples; I sing for you.” The poet and novelist Jillian Weise bucks at the “disability poetics” banner in an essay in which she says “I…find it discouraging that these first efforts are essentializing, seeking to brand a common disabled experience.” Coming from across the aesthetic spectrum, these poets and poems demonstrate the deep truth of what Vassar Millar writes in a poem anthologized here: “No man’s sickness has a synonym.” (Sept.)

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Comment by Richard V on September 21, 2011 at 10:32am

Review by Ron Silliman:


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