I had a lucky opportunity on July 18 to read about 30 minutes’ worth of my poetry to around 1000 members of the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD). As the keynote speaker at the annual AHEAD conference in Reno, Nevada, I could have lectured these college and university service providers about advocacy methods, or the equation of access with inclusiveness, or the importance of empowering our nation’s younger disabled generation — all subjects about which I care passionately. Instead, I chose to share my poems — a few old ones, mostly new ones. The response from the audience was gratifying. Poetry, I think, can reach past practice, through theory, beyond belief; poetry can touch a deeper place in people’s consciousness, resonating with the felt truth of detail, the tasty messy stuff of lived experience. It’s sensual, not conceptual.
Some of my poetry addresses themes related to disability. In a rather stimulating twist of irony, on the evening before my reading, I joined other AHEAD conference attendees in an outing to the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival. We saw an outstanding production of Richard III, featuring one of the great disabled villains of all time.
Voicing the words Shakespeare put in his mouth, the character of Richard attributes his evil nature largely to his congenital physical impairment, which he describes as follows:
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them…
I love the Bard of Avon, but I have a much different take on the disabled body. During my presentation, I read a poem I wrote several years ago, called “Monster Body.” The poem begins with an acknowledgment of the cultural perceptions of disability, spanning the centuries from Shakespeare’s Richard III to Shelley’s Frankenstein:
I mock the human form
My back, shell-sharp curve, my thin wrist bone
Limbs that do not twitch beyond the digits
Illustrate terror, the randomness of damage
But by the end of the poem, the experience of living inside disability has been reclaimed and celebrated:
I take this shape, my body
Monster body mine
By my body I journey,
I learn, I love.
It is my lens, my light.
(A few samples of my poetry are online at http://www.cripcommentary.com/poetry.html .)