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Women and Disability and Poetry (Not Necessarily in That Order) – Laura Hershey: Writer, Poet, Activist, Consultant
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Women and Disability and Poetry (Not Necessarily in That Order)

I’ve recently been following a conversation, on various web forums, about women and disability and poetry (not necessarily in that order). This discussion was partly catalyzed by Jennifer Bartlett’s essay on feminist poetry on the blog delirious hem. In her essay, Bartlett writes about some of the prejudices and mistreatment that she’s faced as a woman with cerebral palsy. She also conveys her sense of betrayal that feminist political and literary movements have failed to take seriously, or even notice, disabled women’s issues. Bartlett also asks for comments on the intersections between gender oppression and disability oppression, and between feminism and disability rights.

From there, the discussion has migrated in various directions, including onto a listserv about women and poetry to which I subscribe. Interestingly, some tension has developed between people who view disability as a social construct, in which social barriers turn impairments into liabilities and limitations, and those who want their experiences of bodily suffering to be acknowledged. A related argument concerns the distinction between “disability” (conceived as stable, nonmedical, political) and “disease” (disruptive, painful, personal).

None of these arguments are new to me. For decades, the disability community has squabbled over the extent to which disabilities are experienced as inherent problematic biological conditions, or strictly as a social minority status. We’ve also debated whether to distinguish sharply between disease and disability, resisting their conflation as a symptom of medical colonization of our lives; or to embrace chronic and acute illness as another dimension of the disability experience.

These are, for the most part, dynamic and healthy debates. By questioning and challenging each other, we clarify our understanding of this complex phenomenon called disability.

Dichotomies can become destructive, though. Each side’s insistent purity may eclipse the other side’s valid insights. Arguments can become dogmatic, squeezing out smaller truths incompatible with the larger position. I’ve felt these struggles as part of my own intellectual and political development. I’m adamant about the role of external architectural and policy barriers in limiting our opportunities, far more than our disabilities themselves do. I go so far as to sport the slogan, “Cure Society, Not Me.” On the other hand, I know there are aspects of my disability that entail real physical hardship. I reject clichés like “suffers from spinal muscular atrophy,” and yet there are times — during respiratory distress, for example — when I have to grant that I do suffer, quite apart from the stresses imposed by social structures. And then there are times when it’s not either/or, but both/and — when political and architectural structures interact in varied and complex ways with my body’s weaknesses, strengths, hungers and responses.

For individuals as well as for communities, both tools are necessary: a political framework for articulating one’s relationship to the broader world; and a free, true voice for conveying what wells up from within.

This is why we need poetry. Ultimately, dichotomies can’t be resolved by turning up the volume, drowning out disagreements and inconsistencies. To get anywhere near a truthful representation of our lives, we need nuance, texture, color, smell. We need open-ended questions, unexpected answers, unlikely combinations. We need prickly, messy, mundane details, rendered in words as fresh as rainfall. We need the wheeling narrative, the dust-flecked sunlit lyric. We need to gasp, giggle, moan and groan, curse and pray. We need to fulfill the “task” that Virginia Woolf assigned to poets, in her 1932 essay “Letter to a Young Poet” — “to find the relation between things that seem incompatible yet have a mysterious affinity, to absorb every experience that comes your way fearlessly and saturate it completely so that your poem is a whole, not a fragment.”

Woolf was right. Life can send us overwhelmingly disparate incidents and sensations. One day’s events call for righteous indignation, the next day’s loss brings tears. And the day after that? Just a day, when nails must be trimmed, skin sponged of sweat, linens changed, prescriptions refilled. It’s up to us as women to take care of business, to name feelings, to lead the charge toward justice. Likewise, it’s up to us as poets “to absorb every experience… fearlessly.” Onto this fragmented life, so sundered by the demands of survival and by competing analyses, we pour artistic integrity, “saturate it completely so that your poem is a whole.”

Women with disabilities, especially, live with all kinds of contradictory experiences. Here are just a few:

*Our lives are largely invisible to the media, to policymakers, and even to many nondisabled feminists; and yet individually we sometimes feel so conspicuous with our obvious differences.

*Like other women, we don’t want to be sexually objectified or exploited, but we do resent it when we are seen as asexual.

*Many of us need hands-on support for daily living, and we also bear responsibilities for supporting children, elders, disabled friends; and although we both give and receive care, society recognizes only our care needs, not our caregiving.

*We would like to earn money and respect using our skills and knowledge, but we are too often kept out of the workplace by discrimination, physical barriers, inflexible schedules, and the fear of losing life-sustaining benefits when reporting earned income.

Why should anyone else care about these particular concerns? More to the point, why would anyone want to publish or read poetry written from the perspective a woman living with disability? In the conversation referenced above, several poets reported having their work dismissed by colleagues or editors as mere “disease poetry,” with the implication that such writing is confessional, self-indulgent, parochial.

If poetry cannot stretch the imagination to share in another’s experience, then what can? I urge all of us, myself included, to ignore any insinuation that our female disabled lives can interest no one but ourselves. Our experiences are as valid as anyone else’s, and our interpretations of our own experiences are certainly more valid than other people’s projections onto us.

And truly, much of the material of our lives transcends demographics. What could be more universal than having a body, and enduring that body’s vicissitudes, answering its demands, discovering its pleasures? I face particular obstacles, from stairs to stares, in maneuvering my body through the world; and writing about these obstacles may illuminate our social spaces in new ways. Who has not, at one time or another, felt imperfect and ostracized? Or felt perfect and accepted, having finally found community?

All of these are part of my experience as a disabled woman. This is the stuff of my poetry.

20 Comments on “Women and Disability and Poetry (Not Necessarily in That Order)”

  1. #1 Laura Overstreet
    on Jan 26th, 2010 at 6:43 pm

    I, too, read Bartlett’s essay and have pondered how I might respond, but your words echo exactly what I have been feeling. Thank you for conveying what I am sure many others agree are their thoughts and feelings also.

    From one Laura to another!!

  2. #2 Robyn
    on Jan 26th, 2010 at 8:39 pm

    Great post Laura. I think disease and disability can be experienced by the same person at the same time, which really complicates services I must say. I also think that suffering is sometimes projected on to people by others, rather than others listening to the ‘voice’ of the disabled person telling their own story in their own way. I recognise all those contradictions and paradoxes we all struggle with.

  3. #3 ren
    on Jan 26th, 2010 at 11:55 pm

    What a lovely essay.

  4. #4 suzanne
    on Jan 27th, 2010 at 6:49 am

    brava, Laura.

    we are cursed and restrained
    by dichotomies
    the world is so much more than
    this and/or that
    we are all disabled in some way
    or another;
    and at the same time
    all abled

  5. #5 ani rose
    on Jan 27th, 2010 at 9:15 am

    this is wonderful and insightful, bringing together information and experiences which can seem so wide apart. Thank you. I especially love th paragraph where Woolf was right.
    I am a single mom, feminist and artist and writer, living with differing abilities, loving other women of “disabled” status…oh , and poor. Poetry is clearly one very fine bridge between worlds, and also between the basic physical human experience and the possible feelings of belonging, courage, inner power, suffering, joy.
    Thank you.

  6. #6 Wendi
    on Jan 27th, 2010 at 11:44 am

    I loved your post Laura. You said a true thing beautifully. I find the poetry of disabled women so often cuts to the nub of it.

  7. #7 Charlotte
    on Jan 27th, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    Beautifully expressed, an insightful, and a teaching, essay.
    Thank you, Laura.

  8. #8 Jennifer
    on Jan 28th, 2010 at 7:30 am

    I try to avoid saying we are ‘all disabled.’ In Simi Linton’s Claiming Disability she discusses the distinction between impaired and disabled. We are impaired (for lack of a better word) by own bodies. We are disabled by society as PWD. We are disabled by prejudice, inaccessabiliy, and so on. Everyone does not deal with these issues.

  9. #9 billie rain
    on Jan 28th, 2010 at 4:53 pm


    i love this article. i’m lucky enough to be in a pro-femininst queer artist community that supports me as a disabled/sick/crazy artist and poet. i’m about to publish a book of poetry and art and am wondering if there is a larger audience for my work, so reading this article was encouraging.

    take care,
    billie xo

  10. #10 Sharon Wachsler
    on Jan 30th, 2010 at 11:50 am

    Thank you, Laura, for this post. It is very timely. I have been in discussions on this issue at a couple sites recently, and I find myself struggling with how to frame and respond to these issues in the comments on my own blog, feeling that I have inadvertently fed into the attitudes I was trying to counteract. Your piece provides a piece of clarity in helping me move forward. I truly appreciate that.

  11. #11 Poetry News For February 1, 2010 | Poetry Hut Blog
    on Feb 1st, 2010 at 4:03 am

    […] Women and Disability and Poetry (Not Necessarily in That Order) […]

  12. #12 Favorites of the week « LeftyByDefault.com
    on Feb 16th, 2010 at 10:12 am

    […] extraordinaire wrote an awesome piece on women, disability, and poetry.  Check it out here!  I couldn’t agree with her more! January 28th, 2010 | Tags: Action, Balance, Community, […]

  13. #13 Dominic Gonzales
    on Jun 10th, 2010 at 10:37 am

    I also like to make poems and read lots of books that is related to Poetry.,”~

  14. #14 Kimberly Bell
    on Jul 5th, 2010 at 10:35 am

    Women Issues these days are mostly about women empowerment and equal rights among men.”;-

  15. #15 Gracie Parker
    on Jul 27th, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    i love poetry because it is a way of expressing my own feelings.`,.

  16. #16 Carson Washington
    on Sep 13th, 2010 at 11:55 pm

    poetry is the thing i like, i create poems during my spare time'”:

  17. #17 Knife Sets
    on Dec 21st, 2010 at 10:38 am

    poetry has the power to affect our emotions by using words alone, i really love poetry -“~

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