Laura Hershey: Writer, Poet, Activist, Consultant Rotating Header Image

poetry

From the Archives: Old Poem, “You Get Proud By Practicing”

In honor of LGBT Pride Month — and to honor and encourage all kinds of people embracing the risks of visibility and pride — I decided to re-post a very old poem of mine. It remains a favorite of mine, and of lots of other people. It’s been reprinted in a number of places, most recently in an anthology called Fire in the Soul: 100 Poems for Human Rights. It speaks of the right to feel proud, and offers some exercises for achieving pride.

YOU GET PROUD BY PRACTICING

Copyright 1991 by Laura Hershey

If you are not proud
for who you are, for what you say, for how you look;
if every time you stop
to think of yourself, you do not see yourself glowing
with golden light; do not, therefore, give up on yourself.
You can
get proud.

You do not need
a better body, a purer spirit, or a Ph.D.
to be proud.
You do not need
a lot of money, a handsome boyfriend, or a nice car.
You do not need
to be able to walk, or see, or hear,
or use big, complicated words,
or do any of the things that you just can’t do
to be proud. A caseworker
cannot make you proud,
or a doctor.
You only need
more practice.
You get proud
by practicing.

There are many many ways to get proud.
You can try riding a horse, or skiing on one leg,
or playing guitar,
and do well or not so well,
and be glad you tried
either way.
You can show
something you’ve made
to someone you respect
and be happy with it no matter
what they say.
You can say
what you think, though you know
other people do not think the same way, and you can
keep saying it, even if they tell you
you are crazy.
You can add your voice
all night to the voices
of a hundred and fifty others
in a circle
around a jailhouse
where your brothers and sisters are being held
for blocking buses with no lift,
or you can be one of the ones
inside the jailhouse,
knowing of the circle outside.
You can speak your love
to a friend
without fear.
You can find someone
who will listen to you
without judging you or doubting you or being
afraid of you
and let you hear yourself perhaps
for the first time.
These are all ways
of getting proud.
None of them
are easy, but all of them
are possible. You can do all of these things,
or just one of them again and again.
You get proud
by practicing.

Power makes you proud, and power
comes in many fine forms
supple and rich as butterfly wings.
It is music
when you practice opening your mouth
and liking what you hear
because it is the sound of your own
true voice.
It is sunlight
when you practice seeing
strength and beauty in everyone
including yourself.
It is dance
when you practice knowing
that what you do
and the way you do it
is the right way for you
and can’t be called wrong.
All these hold
more power than weapons or money
or lies.
All these practices bring power, and power
makes you proud.
You get proud
by practicing.

Remember, you weren’t the one
who made you ashamed,
but you are the one
who can make you proud.
Just practice,
practice until you get proud, and once you are proud,
keep practicing so you won’t forget.
You get proud
by practicing.

By the way, if you would like to order a poetry chapbooks, audiotapes, or poster featuring this poem, “You Get Proud By Practicing,” you can email Laura at laura@laurahershey.com or send a check for $10 per item to:
Laura Hershey
P.O. Box 11215
Englewood, Colorado 80151

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.

Disability and Poetry

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 .)