Disabled Writers at Work 3: Kenny Fries

Disabled Writers at Work 3: Kenny Fries

Kenny Fries is a monumental figure in disabled art/studies. A poet, memoirist and essayist, Fries is the author of three poetry collections, Anaesthesia  (1996), Desert Walking (2000) and In The Gardens of Japan (2017). Fries is also an author of the memoirs, Body Remember (1997), A History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory (2007), and In The Province of the Gods (2017). Fries edited a seminal collection of disabled plays, prose and poetry, Staring Back: The Disability Experience From the Inside Out (1997) that I would highly recommend seeking out.

Today’s poem comes from his collection, Anaesthesia. I first encountered this poem in the anthology, Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Without a doubt, in decades to come the anthology will be seen as one of the most groundbreaking anthologies of the twenty-first century. I had the privilege of reading this poem aloud during Disability History Month last year, at a human microphone event. The concept of the Human microphone is one speaker says X, then the crowd repeats it, layer by layer and echo by echo, to ensure that everyone hears what the original speaker said. The method has often been used in protest movements which haven’t been given permits by their cities to march, or operate loudspeakers etc.

 

Excavation

Tonight, when I take off my shoes:

three toes on each twisted foot.

 

I touch the rough skin. The holes

where the pins were. The scars.

 

If I touch them long enough will I find

those who never touched me? Or those

 

who did? Freak, midget, three-toed 

bastard. Words I’ve always heard.

 

Disabled, crippled, deformed. Words

I was given. But tonight I go back

 

farther, want more, tear deeper

into my skin. Peeling it back I reveal

 

the bones at birth I wasn’t given –

the place where no one speaks a word.

 

SOURCE: Anesthesia (The Avocado Press: Louisville, KY: 1996), P.4

 

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Disabled Writers at Work 2: Adrienne Rich

Disabled Writers at Work 2: Adrienne Rich

Without Adrienne Rich, this series wouldn’t exist. My excavation into disabled history and culture wouldn’t have occurred without her. A single essay shifted my consciousness so radically that I’m still awed by it. The quote I keep returning to almost daily is from an essay called ‘Invisibility in Academe’ from 1984, collected in Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985. Rich writes,

“When those who have power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you, whether you are dark-skinned, old, disabled, female, or speak with a different accent or dialect than theirs, when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked in to a mirror and saw nothing.”

When I read that, I thought, do I have a reflection in the mirror? And if I do, what would I find there? Thus my journey into disability poetry, history and culture began. Adrienne Rich was a prominent LGBT+ advocate. She noted that in the seventies, “The suppressed lesbian I had been carrying in me since adolescence began to stretch her limbs.” Rich’s sexuality was directly addressed in her 1978 book, A Dream of a Common Language and remained one of her key subjects and themes. Rich also suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. Rich rarely addressed her disability directly in  her prose, but it often found its way into her poetry (the body was a major theme of hers). Today’s poem is from Rich’s 1986 collection, Your Native Land, Your Life. The poem is a section from a long poem, called ‘Contradictions: Tracking Poems’. It’s an astonishing sequence, and I’d highly recommend reading the whole thing (the book is available for around £2 online). By the time she died in 2012, Adrienne Rich had published over twenty volumes of poetry, and several books of essays.

Rich went onto write in that essay that I so love,

“Yet you know you exist and others like you, that this is a game with mirrors. It takes some strength of soul—and not just individual strength, but collective understanding—to resist this void, this nonbeing, into which you are thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard.”

Rich never wavered in being demanded to be seen and heard. She always had an enormous strength of soul – and I’m glad she did.

Dear Adrienne,

                   I feel signified by pain

from my breastbone through my left shoulder down

through my elbow into my wrist is a thread of pain

I am typing this instead of writing by hand

because my wrist on the right side

blooms and rushes with pain

like a neon bulb

You ask me how I'm going to live

the rest of my life

Well, nothing is predictable with pain

Did the old poets write of this?

-in its odd spaces, free,

many have sung and battled-

But I'm already living the rest of my life

not under conditions of my choosing

wired  into pain

                    rider on the slow train

                                          Yours, Adrienne

 

Disabled Writers at Work 1: H.N. Beckerman

Hi all,

For the past six months or so I’ve been immersed in reading, researching and writing disabled poetry. My research has led me deep into archives, and into the annals of small presses and books long out of print. Along the way I’ve found some brilliant, energetic, witty and sad poems. Almost all of the poems are from books that are long out of print. I’ll be sharing the poems here, for two reasons. Firstly, to luxuriate in unknown writers’ work and vision; the second reason requires some explanation. A disabled person, if they are to find their own history or literary traditions, is forced to embark upon a lonely and desperate odyssey to find it. My hope is that by sharing a small part of the disabled literary tradition here, then perhaps a disabled persons scavenger hunt for their history will be a little less desperate, frantic and lonely. Therefore I’m starting a new series, focusing on disabled writers and their work. Disabled poetry is a rich vein of astounding, often shocking and always intriguing poetry. I hope you enjoy it. The first poem is by H.N. Beckerman.

 

"To the Access Committee"




"To:

        The Access Committee,

Attention:

             Handicapped Romeo

                             There is now a suitable ramp

installed at my balcony.

                        Impatiently,

                                Miss Juliet

 

SOURCE: Towards Solomon’s Mountain: The Experience of Disability in Poetry Ed. Joseph L. Baird & Deborah S. Workman (Temple University Press: Philadelphia: 1986), P.113

3×5: A New Series

3×5: A New Series

Hello one and all,

It’s been a while!

I thought I’d kick off a new series, called three-by-five. Raymond Carver wrote that he put writing advice he liked on three-by-five cards, and recently I wondered, what would I put on my three-by-five cards? Slowly, I’ve been accruing writing advice that I loved and admired. I’ve always been enamoured with books detailing the nuts and bolts of literary creation; the how, when and where. As a teenager, I often haunted the Paris Review site, reading their Writers at Work series (the series, which used to be free for all, is now regretfully paywalled). Many of my favourite books belong to the nuts and bolts category, such as Stepping Stones: Conversations with Seamus Heaney, Conversations with Czeslaw Milosz and Conversations with Joseph Brodsky to name a few. Over the past few months, without realising it, I’ve accumulated more and more of these books, as I’d been feeling particularly deflated as a prose-writer, after a myriad of articles had been met with a fate worse than rejection – indifference.

I’d always been suspicious of guidebooks. I suppose my suspicion came from a romantic conception of the creator as being struck by the muse and writing in a white heat of pure inspiration, nary correcting a single line. Of course, this almost never happens. Creating something that was not there before, whether on the page, the canvas, or from clay, is work. Hard, gruelling work. But it’s one of the most rewarding types of work. Why else would you keep coming back to the desk everyday, spending days, weeks, or even years on a poem? Getting over my suspicion, I started getting the books slowly, building lists of books that would be interesting to read in of themselves. Whittling the list down to what seemed essential, I waited anxiously for the postman.

Reading a mixture of books ranging from essays, conversations, and guidebooks was instructive and humbling, a great lesson in humility in passion. Here were writers who’d won international acclaim, not having a clue what they were going to do at the desk that day; writers who always saw room for improvement, even after winning the Pulitzer Prize. Here were writers who gave themselves the freedom and permission to write badly (as Philip Levine noted, Whitman and Dickinson allowed themselves to write badly). Guiding every book of critical essays and guidebook prose was a profound passion for literature and for the act of creation itself. Over the last few months, I’ve kept the best advice and wisdom on a pinboard above my desk. I wanted to share the wisdom that’s helped me over the last few weeks and months, and thus this series was born, taking its title from Raymond Carver. This series will be irregular, and I’ll post advice as I come across it.

Here’s the first piece of advice, from John Steinbeck. The advice comes from a 1962 letter, written to the actor and writer Robert Wallsten. The letter is collected in the great Life in Letters. 

1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person–a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it–bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.

5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

6. If you are using dialogue–say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

 

From Steinbeck, Life in Letters, Ed. Elaine Steinbeck & Robert Wallsten (London: Minerva: 1994), PP.736-7

 

P.S. The anthology of depression will continue in the summer!

Poem 50: Dr. Earl Reum

Like most people who know this poem, I first came across it in Stephen Chbosky’s magisterial novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which is very much my generation’s Catcher in the Rye. It’s a staggering poem that I think about a great deal, and I’m glad Chbosky included it in his book. Funnily enough, Chbosky knew the poem but had a great deal of trouble tracking down the author, and eventually Dr. Earl Reum was confirmed as the author of the poem, ‘Absolutely Nothing’ that would gain an unprecedented level of popularity thanks to Chbosky’s equally popular novel. The poem and the book had a profound impact on me, both as a teenager and today, and hopefully they can have that effect on you, too.

 

Perks Poem

Poem 49: Frank O’Hara

Poem 49: Frank O’Hara

I can’t say for sure whether Frank O’Hara (1926-1966) suffered from depression, but the final section of his poem, ‘Mayakovsky’ (taking its name from a Russian poet, who, it’s worth noting, took his own life) is one I constantly go back to. I first came across this poem in one of my favourite shows, Mad Men. The main character, Don Draper, has an affinity to this poem that I won’t spoil here for anyone that hasn’t seen the show (it’s astounding, go watch it!)

 

Mayakovsky
BY FRANK O’HARA
1
My heart’s aflutter!
I am standing in the bath tub
crying. Mother, mother
who am I? If he
will just come back once
and kiss me on the face
his coarse hair brush
my temple, it’s throbbing!

then I can put on my clothes
I guess, and walk the streets.

2
I love you. I love you,
but I’m turning to my verses
and my heart is closing
like a fist.

Words! be
sick as I am sick, swoon,
roll back your eyes, a pool,

and I’ll stare down
at my wounded beauty
which at best is only a talent
for poetry.

Cannot please, cannot charm or win
what a poet!
and the clear water is thick

with bloody blows on its head.
I embrace a cloud,
but when I soared
it rained.

3
That’s funny! there’s blood on my chest
oh yes, I’ve been carrying bricks
what a funny place to rupture!
and now it is raining on the ailanthus
as I step out onto the window ledge
the tracks below me are smoky and
glistening with a passion for running
I leap into the leaves, green like the sea

4
Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.

The country is grey and
brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny
not just darker, not just grey.

It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again.

Poem 48: Bukowski

Poem 48: Bukowski

Spark

I always resented all the years, the hours, the
minutes I gave them as a working stiff, it
actually hurt my head, my insides, it made me
dizzy and a bit crazy — I couldn’t understand the
murdering of my years
yet my fellow workers gave no signs of
agony, many of them even seemed satisfied, and
seeing them that way drove me almost as crazy as
the dull and senseless work.

the workers submitted.
the work pounded them to nothingness, they were
scooped-out and thrown away.

I resented each minute, every minute as it was
mutilated
and nothing relieved the monotonous ever-
structure.

I considered suicide.
I drank away my few leisure hours.

I worked for decades.

I lived with the worst of women, they killed what
the job failed to kill.

I knew that I was dying.
something in me said, go ahead, die, sleep, become
them, accept.

then something else in me said, no, save the tiniest
bit.
it needn’t be much, just a spark.
a spark can set a whole forest on
fire.
just a spark.
save it.

I think I did.
I’m glad I did.
what a lucky god damned
thing.

Melancholia
Charles Bukowski

the history of melancholia
includes all of us.

me, I writhe in dirty sheets
while staring at blue walls
and nothing.

I have gotten so used to melancholia
that
I greet it like an old
friend.

I will now do 15 minutes of grieving
for the lost redhead,
I tell the gods.

I do it and feel quite bad
quite sad,
then I rise
CLEANSED
even though nothing
is solved.

that’s what I get for kicking
religion in the ass.

I should have kicked the redhead
in the ass
where her brains and her bread and
butter are
at …

but, no, I’ve felt sad
about everything:
the lost redhead was just another
smash in a lifelong
loss …

I listen to drums on the radio now
and grin.
there is something wrong with me
besides
melancholia.