To Overcome or to Flourish? There Is No Question.

As a professional woman, I often receive praise for overcoming my disability:

“I admire how you don’t let blindness get in your way.”

“You are where you are because you overcame your vision loss.”

“You show that with hard work, anyone can overcome a disability.”

“You’re an inspiration because you don’t let blindness stop you from living your life.”

I am an English teacher. I can’t let these statements go unexamined.

I am a poet. I won’t leave lies unexposed.

Overcoming a Disability vs. Living with a Disability

Overcoming means that the problem itself is no longer a problem. According to the dictionary on my computer, to overcome means “to defeat (an opponent or obstacle), to prevail, to succeed in dealing with a problem or difficulty.” The idea of overcoming is so common in conversations about disability that we, the disabled, regularly use the term overcoming narrative to describe a story where a disabled character is healed, where the disability itself is removed. This is the kind of story where the blind person learns to see and the wheelchair user stands up at the end. Many people view these stories as triumphant: Look how the mind achieves victory over the body!

But living with a disability defies overcoming.

When you live with a disaiblity that cannot be cured – a chronic illness, sensory impairment, learning difference – your daily life is about adapting and planning, not about overcoming. You brainstorm workarounds, backup plans, lifelines. You know who you can call as emergency support when your strategies fail — or more likely, when someone responsible for providing accommodations drops the ball.

Ever since I was little, I have been surrounded by loving parents, teachers, and friends who have helped me brainstorm these workarounds so I can live happily as a blind person. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Mom labeled all the household appliances with puffy paint so I could wash clothes, cook on the stove, and run the dishwasher by feeling the settings I couldn’t read.
  • My mobility teacher taught me to walk with a white cane so I could travel safely and confidently.
  • My vision teacher taught me braille so I could label spices, makeup, and other personal items that are hard to identify visually.
  • My parents and friends helped me find kitchen utensils in bright colors that would contrast with whatever I was cooking. I have bright purple oven mitts and bright red cutting boards. This helps me see what I”m handling in the kitchen.
  • My friends have helped me experiment with dark sunglasses and hats so that I can work in environments that are too bright for me. I wear my sunglasses constantly and keep a pair in every purse I use.

My blindness is still a significant part of daily life. I cannot drive a car, read most menus in restaurants, read many labels at the grocery store. I cannot identify people by sight unless they speak first. I cannot see to navigate safely in most environments. I cannot read many of the apps on my phone. I cannot identify paper money without help. I cannot paint my own fingernails or toenails. Bright lights and background noise are hard for me to handle. This is not a complete list. To list any more cannots is incredibly depressing.

I am happy in my life and I have found ways to complete daily tasks. But I have not overcome my blindness. It is not a foe I have learned to defeat or a barrier I have crossed once and for all. I can’t plan and prepare exhaustively enough to remove every visual complication from my daily life.

Overcome the Lies: Reveal the Truth 

Several factors are being mixed up here: success, sameness, and inspiration.

Most of the time, people do not see what I am struggling with, or they see me in an environment where I am comfortable. They call this vision of me success. They see a blind woman who doesn’t appear to be wrestling with visual tasks, so they assume that I have “overcome” the blindness. They do not realize all the work I have done behind the scenes, the advice I have asked, the trial runs I have made with friends and family.

Most people have a limited repertoire of disabled characters in their daily life. I am often the first blind person they have seen aside from TV — and usually the first disabled person they have talked to. They don’t have an extensive framework of examples to draw on.

When I was in guide dog training, a volunteer approached me and said, “You must have SOME vision.” I asked why she thought so, and she continued, “Because you walk so confidently. How could you walk so well if you were completely blind?” By assuming that sight is needed to walk confidently, this woman was exposing her very narrow definitions of confidence as well as her limited range of examples. Perhaps she had never seen a completely blind person walk confidently. I have.

Our bodies are designed to flourish, to make the best use of the resources we have. “Success” is often confused with “sameness”: We label someone as successful when they have achieved the goals we have achieved. In this mindset, difference stands in the way of success — The woman thinks, “If I would be scared to walk forward without sight, how could any completely blind person walk confidently?” This is logical, but terribly unimaginative.

You do not know how you will do something unless you are actually doing it.

I can plan how I will cross a crowded room with my guide dog, but my experience may or may not match my best plans. Sometimes the task is much more difficult — a person crosses my path, distracts my dog, or steps out in front of me. Sometimes the task is much easier than I could have hoped for — my dog smoothly guides me around outstretched legs, bypasses the table of appetizers and curious strangers, and helps me find a chair. Whether a task goes poorly or well, I have more information to work with for my next endeavor.

And inspiration? Inspiration is when we are completely blown away by what seems like an impossible reality. We see someone doing the impossible, and we feel excited! We want to talk about the indomitable human spirit and the drive to work and create. These are all admirable traits. I love to be inspired and to inspire. I don’t like to meet people who are too jaded to be inspired by daily life.

The problem is that disabled people are not expected to flourish. So when we do flourish in our daily lives, it is seen as remarkable — rather than a reality we can all work toward. Inspiration is too much of a fluke, and it’s too individualistic. Inspiration doesn’t call to mind a community of hardworking people with and without disabilities. It’s a solitary beacon – one disabled person who has overcome their issues to shine forth.

Because you cannot inspire and falter. If you have inspired others, you are not allowed to have difficulties, bad days, frustrations. Your job becomes inspiration. You become the blind girl who doesn’t act blind — and what a relief! If she doesn’t act blind, then we don’t have to appreciate how she might be different, to anticipate what she might need.

We will all flourish at different thresholds and in different environments. Disability does not disqualify a person from flourishing, from enjoying life. Not every disabled person needs to have a career, but they do need a community that respects their right to belong.

We need to make room in our minds for different kinds of flourishing. We need more pictures, more stories, more templates for how humans can live in bodies and minds different from our own. We need imagination and empathy — the eagerness to inspire others by how we welcome a range of abilities.

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Nine Mile Magazine Seeks Work by Disabled & Neurodivergent Poets

Below is a call for submissions from Nine Mile Magazine.

Call for Poetry

Nine Mile Art & Literary Magazine 

Special Issue: Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip Poetics 

Publication Date: Fall 2019  

Guest Editor: Diane R. Wiener

Background

Nine Mile‘s Fall 2018 issue (Vol. 6, Issue 1) included a section called “Other Engines,” devoted to the work of neurodivergent writers.  Our Fall 2019 issue (Vol. 7, Issue 1) will be devoted entirely to the work of self-identified Disabled, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poets, with particular attention paid to Neurodivergent—including Autistic—poets.  Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics are at the heart of poetics, well beyond the too-often hurtful and ignorant ways in which disability is used as a metaphor or to forward a storyline.  Neurodivergent, Disabled, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poets (whether or not we write about disability) must in our view be represented at the center of poetry publishing.  (More information is below about the Special Issue and Nine Mile.) 

Submission

For consideration, please submit 10 to 15 poems in Word or Text by July 1, 2019 to Diane@ninemile.org, with the subject line “Fall 2019 Submission.”

Previously published work is welcome.  If accepted, it will be the author’s responsibility to acquire republication permission from the appropriate source(s).  

We are not equipped to accept video content or visual images, at this time.  Please only submit written poetry.  

Please also include:

  1. your name, email address, and home address
  2. a paragraph about yourself (background, achievements, etc.)
  3. a statement about your aesthetic intentions (why and how you write “the ways you do”)
  4. a photograph of yourself

If your work is accepted, you will receive $5 per published poem.  

About Nine Mile Magazine

Nine Mile Art & Literary Magazine publishes twice yearly, showcasing the best work we receive from authors whose work, energy, and vision are deeply entangled with life.  

At Nine Mile, we are committed to featuring diverse writing by diverse writers, including: disabled writers/writers with disabilities; Writers of Color; writers with marginalized genders, sexual and asexual orientations, religious/nonreligious identities and belief/non-belief systems; young and senior writers; experienced and never-before-published writers; and writers from outside the proverbial mainstream.  We are likewise committed to producing inclusive and accessible content, in multiple formats.  Poetry is everyone’s art. 

For more information about Nine Mile, visit our website.   

More About This Special Issue

Since 2007, the online journal, Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature (Editor-in-Chief, Michael Northen), has done stellar work in featuring disability poetics, and literary work by and about disability.  However, Neurodivergent (including Autistic), Disabled, Deaf, Mad (including Emotionally Variant and Mentally Ill), and Crip poets have generally not been well represented in other mainstream or outlier literary journals, magazines, and anthologies.  Moreover, we often do not feel welcomed to or within literary conferences and creative writing spaces, both public and academic, due to exclusion whether intended or accidental.  

The groundbreaking collection, Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Michael Northen, and Sheila Black; Cinco Puntos Press, 2011), disrupted this pattern, in its foregrounding of poets with physical disabilities.  In particular, Bartlett’s recent essays in Poets & Writers and The New York Times (including new work by disabled poets, published in August, 2018), and Jillian Weise’s contributions—as herself, and as Tipsy Tullivan (via social media, and in myriad other venues)—have taken issue with the exclusionary trend.  Increasingly, commentaries about these issues are appearing by other disabled and nondisabled poets and writers.  

This Special Issue is part of Nine Mile‘s ongoing commitments, in these and many other important areas.  

Inclusion Unknown: Revisiting Great Expectations

I have been rereading Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, as it’s one of my favorites — and one of my few digressions from contemporary nonfiction or poetry. I first encountered this book in an AP Literature course and fell in love with its humbler characters. I love and hate Pip, of course, as I expect most readers do, and I never had any use for Estella or Miss Havisham. But I adore Jo Gargery and John Wemick with each rereading.

When I was first reading GE, I focused mainly on plot and style — trying to keep all the twists and turns of Victorian fiction in my head while I cherished Dickens’ prose. But with this rereading, I was astonished to discover something I had missed.

Dickens can write everyday inclusion.

If I think of disability in Victorian fiction, I am burdened by characters like Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol. Tim, the poor crippled boy whose very survival depends on Scrooge’s reformation, has become the poster-child for disability as inspiration — the idea that disabled characters only serve to teach moral lessons to nondisabled characters. You’ll never see Tim get angry, throw his crutch at someone, or wax despondent about his poor health because his job is to be cheerful. I did not know Dickens could do better with disability.

But GE presents at least two portraits of disabled people cared for at home and incorporated into the daily lives of their families. First, Mrs. Joe, Pip’s older sister and the abusive wife of dear Joe the blacksmith, is injured while Pip and Joe are from home one evening. After her injury, she is unable to dress or feed herself and requires a slate and chalk to communicate basic phrases. But Mrs. Joe receives care at home when Biddy, a local girl, comes to live at the forge; Biddy dresses her, feeds her, and sees to her needs. Neither is Mrs. Joe neglected by her husband, who often takes over her care in Biddy’s absence. These characters do not express resentment, distaste, or irritation with their need to care for Mrs. Joe. They lament her injury but continue to give her the best care they can.

Even though Pip soon leaves the forge, he shows us another portrait of inclusion when he visits the home of John Wemmick. Wemmick works for Pip’s guardian, the formidable and austere Mr. Jaggers, and famously has his “London sentiments” and his “Walworth sentiments” — sharply defining the difference between his gritty work life in London and his innovative domestic comforts in Walworth. At home in Walworth, Wemmick has designed his own castle, complete with flag, drawbridge, and garden. He lives with and cares for his elderly father, who he affectionally calls the “Aged Parent,” “Aged P.,” or “The Aged.”

The Aged P. is hard of hearing, and Wemmick has devised several at-home adaptations to make his father more comfortable. The Aged knows when Wemmick has arrived home because a little door in the wall opens to reveal his name. This contraption, a Wemmick invention, also includes the names of other frequent visitors to The Castle, and as Wemmick himself says, “It is both pleasant and useful to The Aged.”

Pleasant and useful — the two essentials of inclusive design. When Pip first meets The Aged, Wemmick says, “Nod away at him, Mr. Pip; that’s what he likes.” And as the visit continues, Pip is encouraged to “give him a nod” and he obliges. The Aged P. is also delighted by the daily firing of The Castle’s canon, which Wemmick has knocked up for his enjoyment. And Dickens reveals that Wemmick’s lady friend, Miss Skiffins, has a high regard for The Aged.

Like Mrs. Joe, The Aged’s disability does not exclude him from tender family care — even at the center of the household. Wemmick consistently thinks of ways to adapt The Castle for the comfort of Aged P. and does not seem to begrudge these changes to his daily life. Indeed, Pip shows us that Wemmick’s Walworth residence is a refuge from the hard life of London, the life that turns his mouth into a rigid “post office.”

Before Mrs. Joe’s injury, the forge was not a happy home for Pip, but after her injury, the forge’s inhabitants find the right balance. It develops into a peaceful and restful place, even as Pip grows dissatisfied with himself and his social status. Pip resists happiness at the forge and will spend the rest of the book seeking a happy home like The Castle — a place of acceptance and invention.

When the Photographer Accommodates: My Session with Chelsea Whiteman

For publications and speaking opportunities, I’m often asked for a professional photo. Because I can’t take my own selfies, I’ve had to rely on the same couple of photos – either the product of a professional event or a kind friend with the patience to photograph me. Often these pictures are years out of date.

As a blind woman, I am rarely comfortable having my picture taken. I am extremely light-sensitive, which means a necessary flash leaves me squinting in pain. I can’t visually locate the photographer just before the click — whether it’s a professional with a tripod or a friend with a selfie stick. And the need for instant immortalizing of moments never gives me enough time to learn where I should look or get in position. Even in formal settings, most photographers don’t know how to guide me quickly. Despite these visual challenges, I can see well enough to be unhappy with the photos of myself that result. So the inevitable picture-taking at weddings, holidays, and life events fils me with anxiety: I feel I always need more time, and I don’t know how to communicate what I need quickly. The rest of the group is ready and I’m still asking, “Where do I look?” People can’t answer and hold their smiles at the same time.

I know I can photograph well, but I require more time and attention than the average sighted person. I need the photographer to count down to the flash — a trick I discovered during an exceptional portrait session I had in high school. Knowing that I was unhappy with the rushed photos we were required to take for the yearbook, my mom insisted on taking me for glamor shots, and over the course of three hours, the inventive and courteous photo team helped me figure out my process. If the person with the camera counts to three right before the flash, I can keep my eyes closed up to the moment when the photo is taken: I open my eyes as the camera flashes and I don’t have time to squint. This trick is a pain-free option that helps me get photos I enjoy.

After relying on an outdated photo for several events this year, I decided it was time to try another professional session. I contacted Chelsea Whiteman, a friend and former colleague who runs her own photography business. I explained that I needed professional portraits for my writing gigs, and I explained my apprehensions and challenges. Chelsea was eager to work with me — but she reminded me that her style is different from traditional studio portraits. The pictures would not look like updated yearbook photos or department store holiday prints. I had no idea how her perspective would translate for photos of me, but I wanted to find out.

Chelsea helped me choose a location and time. I explained my sensitivity to light, and she suggested that we take our pictures in an outdoor setting at dusk. She also recommended that I wear a solid color as patterned fabrics did not photograph well. I appreciated the advice. I chose a solid dress and a patterned scarf that could be added for variety.

I also explained my insecurities about not being prepped for each shot. I asked Chelsea to be very specific in how I should stand and angle my body as well as where I should look. I asked for some head shots, some full-length portraits, and some cute photos with York. Chelsea took all this information on board and prepared for our session.

Emily_Portraits-6

On the evening of our photos, we were accompanied by Chelsea’s partner Dylan and my friend Michele.  Dylan assisted Chelsea, and Michele held York while I was taking solo photos. Michele was later called upon to make very convincing cat noises so York would look at the camera.

Chelsea had chosen the session time well. I was able to take all of our photos without my sunglasses. We moved throughout several green areas, and most of them worked well for our photos. Sometimes I had to say, “I think the light is too bright here,” but often, Chelsea picked up on my discomfort before I said anything. She would say, “I think you’re not going to be comfortable here, so let’s just move on.”

For each photo, Chelsea observed how I was standing naturally before making any adjustments. She invited me to sit down, look up, look over my shoulder, put my hand on my hip, tie or untie my scarf – all to help me feel comfortable and convey a sense of liveliness in the photo. Sometimes she climbed up on the bench beside me and took the photo from above. At every stage of the session, she provided a running commentary on how the shots looked from her side and what I was doing well.

As the session progressed, I felt increasingly confident and photogenic. I felt that I really had something to offer the camera and that these photos would be a complement to my professional presence. Chelsea was clearly enjoying the session, and she easily worked around my visual challenges. Her professional calm and skill reassured me that my visual circumstances would not get in the way of a good photo.

Emily_Portraits-34

When I am happy with a photo of myself, it is not just because I like the way I look. Chelsea’s photos remind me that, in the hands of a skilled and conscientious photographer, the time and effort I require will pay off.

35 in 2018

Once again, it’s time to report on what I read this year. I set myself the Goodreads challenge of 35 books, and I read them all! As usual, the most memorable books get mini-reviews. And I’ve included links to the two full-length reviews I wrote this year. Sprinkled throughout this list you’ll find my favorite books of the year, so keep your eyes open for the On the Blink Noteworthy Books of 2018!

  1. Jo’s Boys by Louisa May Alcott
    This is the final installment in Alcott’s Little Women quartet in which she explores more sophisticated themes: young women who choose a career over marriage, authors who tire of their fame, and lives that don’t tie up neatly. It’s a solid presence in the saga of the March family.
  2. Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper
    (On the Blink Noteworthy Book of 2018)
    Stamper’s humorous style and meticulous research are a delight for any language lover! Read, read, read this!
  3. Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher
    A hilarious light read. Fisher narrates the audiobook, and she does a wonderful job!
  4. Before Happiness: How Creating a Positive Reality First Amplifies Your Levels of Happiness and Success by Shawn Achor
  5. Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival by Bernd Heinrich
    This author never disappoints. Heinrich’s poetic style and rich descriptions make each book completely absorbing.
  6. The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Create the World’s Great Drinks by Amy Stewart
  7. Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography by Susan Cheever
    As with Cheever’s biographies of E.E. Cummings and the Transcendentalists, this book does not disappoint. By turns heartbreaking and ecstatic, Cheever’s style offers a rounded portrait of Alcott—and all her bizarre life events.
  8. Anne of Windy Poplars (Anne of Green Gables #4) by L.M. Montgomery
  9. Encore Provence: New Adventures in the South of France by Peter Mayle
  10. Why Poetry Matters by Jay Parini
  11. Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World by Jane Hirshfield
    Astute, detailed, and inventive. This is a must-read for practicing poets.
  12. Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
    A masterful author, Haupt create ecological nonfiction rife with poetic and philosophical references. Her discussion of crows is smart, astonishing, and empathetic.
  13. Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey with an Exceptional Labrador by Stephen Kuusisto  (On the Blink Noteworthy Book of 2018)
    I read this book three times this year. I cried every time. It is absolutely wonderful. I wrote a full-length review for Wordgathering here.
  14. The Gift of the Gab: How Eloquence Works by David Crystal
  15. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway
  16. The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible by Aviya Kushner (On the Blink Noteworthy Book of 2018)
    Completely outstanding exploration of the differences between the Hebrew Scriptures and English translations. This book is a gem — detailed layered research interspersed with a nuanced and captivating family story. Again, the audiobook is a wise choice here. I needed a reliable narrator to pronounce all the Hebrew passages.
  17. How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey
  18. A Slip of the Keyboard: Collected Nonfiction by Terry Pratchett
  19. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
    A lively, capable retelling of the Norse myths. Let Gaiman read to you: choose the audiobook for this one.
  20. The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, and Compassion—Surprising Observations of a Hidden World by Peter Wohlleben
    This is a fascinating and enjoyable book, but nothing compares to Wohlleben’s The Hidden Lives of Trees.
  21. I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron
  22. Dodger by Terry Pratchett
    This novel is Pratchett’s hilarious and inventive companion to Oliver Twist. For Dickens fans, there are many enjoyable moments, but the book also stands alone in true Pratchett style.
  23. Words on the Move: Why English Won’t–And Can’t–Sit Still (Like, Literally) by John McWhorter
  24. Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans by John M. Marzluff
  25. Food: A Love Story by Jim Gaffigan
    Read this. You will laugh! It’s light and fun – a nice break.
  26. More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art by Georgina Kleege
    I wrote a full-length review of this ambitious scholarly work for Wordgathering. You can read it here.
  27. Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan
    Cute and fun.
  28. Dear Committee Members (Jason Fitger #1) by Julie Schumacher
    This novel consists entirely of letters and emails written by Jason FItger, a train wreck creative writing professor who gaily mixes his professional and personal lives. If you work n academia, you will love it!
  29. The Weather Detective: Rediscovering Nature’s Secret Signs by Peter Wohlleben
  30. Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters by Anne Boyd Rioux
  31. The Shakespeare Requirement (Jason Fitger #2) by Julie Schumacher
    In the second installment of Jason Fitger’s story, Schumacher expands the academic universe to include other charmingly self-involved scholars. This novel is much longer but equally hilarious.
  32. The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English by Lynne Murphy
    Exhaustive and enlightening. Not for the faint of heart, but well worth the time and energy.
  33. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
  34. The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King (On the Blink Noteworthy Book of 2018)
    Heartwarming, uplifting, and encouraging. The audio version is narrated by LeVar Burton and features the iconic Mr. Rogers music. A beautiful book.
  35. 84. Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (On the Blink Noteworthy Book of 2018)
    Another delightful epistolary story – and the audio is narrated by several cast members. This book is a lovely reminder of how much heart we put into letters, and why we should always write and save letters.

Bibliography as Invitation

Each semester I share with students a list of the books and articles that I have used to develop the methods and concepts for my courses. Some may see this as pretentious — me handing them a long list and saying “Look how much I’ve read!” I don’t have a problem with that: scholars and teachers are supposed to read a lot. If waving this list of sources makes me pretentious in the eyes of students, it also reinforces my credibility as their instructor.

But as fun as it is to be pretentious, I prefer to frame this list as an invitation. I invite students to examine the lively process of building a course, of growing and developing their ideas as scholars,. The bibliography is an exhibit of lifelong learning. And maybe, just maybe, a student who enjoys the class will return to this list and look for something else to read.

Here, I extend my gratitude to one of my multilingual students who begged me for a reading list: in the middle of our course, she asked what else I would recommend so she could enhance her reading and understanding of English. So if one student wants this list, I will believe in the possibility that many more do also. Perhaps they are too shy to ask. Perhaps they do not yet know how much they would enjoy these books.

This is my list! If you see a title you’ve read and enjoyed, please leave a comment below. If there’s something you think I should add, make suggestions! A bibliography is not a static document: it’s a festival of conversation!

Syllabus Bibliography

Clips from JaxbyJax 2018!

 

Yesterday I read poetry at JaxbyJax 2018, and it was an absolute blast! Chris Gabbard and I read in the Whiteway Realty conference room, a cozy space that offered many lighting options for me. I read best under dim lights, and every time I plan to read in public, I worry about whether the venue will work out. I was so happy with our environment this time; I really felt in my element!

For my three reading times, I chose different poems. The only repeats came when my 5:30 audience called for an encore (I promised if they called for an encore, I’d read them some of my favorites). All three of my readings were blessed by a kind, attentive, and encouraging audience! And who is a writer without her audience?

We went Facebook live during each reading, and I’ve shared the videos below! Enjoy!

A clip from the 3:30 reading:

The second half of my 3:30 reading, featuring a set of poems for my great-grandmother, Citti:

A clip from the 4:30 reading:

A clip from the 5:30 reading (with encore and excellent audience questions) 

I’d like to offer my sincere and heartfelt thanks to Brad and Darlyn Kuhn for organizing and promoting this year’s festival! Congratulations to the many other local writers who performed yesterday! Jacksonville is a lively, literary place, and each iteration of JaxbyJax enlarges and enriches our writerly community!

Appearing at JaxbyJax 2018!

I am excited to announce that I will be reading at this year’s JaxbyJax Literary Arts Festival, where local writers read their work all across Riverside! This will be my third appearance at JaxbyJax, and my previous venue partners, Andres Rojas and Sohrab Fracis, will also be reading this year!

JaxbyJax will take place on Saturday, October 13, 2018. Festivities begin at 1:30pm with a student showcase and the readings last from 3-6pm. Writers share a venue with a partner and trade off reading every 30 minutes. I’ll be reading with Chris Gabbard at the Whiteway Conference Room (upstairs), 2720 Park Street. Chris kicks off our session with his reading at 3pm, and my readings will be at 3:30pm, 4:30pm, and 5:30pm.

What am I reading? Poetry, poetry, poetry! Lots of new poetry!

More details are posted on the JaxbyJax website. And here’s a link to the Facebook event.

And look, a flyer! Be there!

FINAL POSTER JBJ18_Poster_11x17 copy

My musical essay in Disability Studies Quarterly!

The Blindness Arts issue of Disability Studies Quarterly is finally here! This special issue, edited by Hannah Thompson and Vanessa Warne, represents several years of work, research, performance, and art among disabled contributors. My piece is called “Sacred Positions: A Personal History of Blindness and Singing.” This is how it begins…

On a crisp December evening, I stand outside the church, its heavy doors propped ajar. The wind buffets my thin chorus dress. Despite my eighteen years, I am a child tonight — the youngest member of the choir with the highest voice. I will lead our procession into the darkened church, my white cane in one hand and a lit candle in the other. I will take echoing steps down the center aisle beneath the vaulted ceiling.

Moving forward, I begin the first verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” and my voice rings alone in the huge space. I glide across the tile, enveloped in the aromas of incense and evergreens.

The song I lead is the first in a series of nine carols and Scripture readings. The choir follows me down the center aisle and around the pews as we walk to the pit. Tucked against the left side of the sanctuary, the pit sits lower than the rest of the church. Three tiers of seats lead down to the bottom level, which harbors the glossy bulk of the grand piano. Our director sits at the bench, her hands poised over the white keys.

The pit steps are not easy for me to navigate. Because the steps are made of the same pale tile that covers the church floor, I cannot see the changes in depth. I rely on my cane as I move forward, slowly measuring my descent. If my cane misses a step, I will, too — and the moment’s charm will be shattered.

Happily, I’ve spent many years in this choir pit under the guidance of several directors. The small alcove is as familiar as the larger space of the church. I know how to fill this edifice with my voice. I know which notes will throw crisp echoes into the high ceiling. I have served as the cantor for countless Masses, Ash Wednesday services, Christmas celebrations, funerals. I have arrived an hour early, scheduled to sing, my lyrics printed in bold 24-point font. But I have also been drafted from the pew unexpectedly when other singers fail to show up — no enlarged lyrics, no preparation. In these hectic moments, the director and I leaf through the huge hymn books, finding the songs I’ve learned by heart. We know that the small faded font of the general hymn book will be illegible to me.

Intellectually I recognize singing as an intricate choreography of mind and body, but I feel purely voice in the choir pit. My folded cane occupies the seat beside me. My hands rest at my side. My ribcage is lifted, my knees slightly bent. As I sing, leg and belly muscles remember the old habits. I take inventory of my body while I sing. Yet what matters to the congregation is my voice. When they hear the initial notes of an entrance hymn, I doubt whether they need to see who stands behind the piano. My voice is familiar, one of the few young voices to lead liturgical services: a high, clear soprano

Continue reading my essay here.

Read the full issue here.

Book Review: Have Dog, Will Travel

In March, blind poet and writing professor Stephen Kuusisto released Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey — a memoir about his life with his first guide dog, Corky. This is an exceptional book that will resonate with a wide audience beyond the obvious blind people and guide dog handlers. Kuusisto was featured on the PBS News Hour; you’ll enjoy this preview of the book!

I reviewed the book for Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature, and the essay went live today. Here’s how it begins:

Corky, a singular yellow Labrador, transforms the gossamer existence of a blind poet. The extraordinary dog bounces in with generosity and poise, what Stephen Kuusisto calls her ‘keen affection.’ This is the shining through-line of Kuusisto’s latest book, Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey, released by Simon & Schuster in March, 2018.

Readers of Kuusisto’s earlier essays will recognize some of the themes he invokes here: the mother in denial, the hostile or incongruous strangers, the need to accept and remake himself. But Have Dog, Will Travel offers a perspective that is more optimistic than Planet of the Blind or Eavesdropping. It is a book that relentlessly pushes old ideas aside. The reader can feel Corky and Kuusisto’s forward motion, a consistent meter that rewrites Kuusisto’s whole life.

Read the full review here! And don’t forget to check out the rest of the wonderful content in the summer issue.

Jill Khoury Discusses Her Teaching with Poetry Barn and the Value of Online Poetry Workshops

To celebrate National Poetry Month, I’d like to share this online interview I conducted with Jill Khoury. I was inspired to interview Jill after taking her online poetry workshop, Writing Poems From the Body, at The Poetry Barn.

Jill’s course was my first Poetry Barn class, but I have since taken two more, and I’ve found them to be incredibly exciting! Each month-long course is organized around a theme (poetry and spirituality, poetry and the body, poetry and gender, just to name a few), where the instructor offers you readings, prompts, critiques, and discussions. Classmates also critique each other’s work, and the courses are wonderfully encouraging.

Writing Poems from the Body wasn’t my first experience with Jill or her compelling work. Several years ago, Jill and I joined other disabled writers in a dialogue on blindness and writing through Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature. And last year, I reviewed her book, Suites for the Modern Dancer, for The Deaf Poets Society. When I saw her workshop on the schedule at The Poetry Barn, I knew her course would be an exciting opportunity!

About Poet-Teacher Jill Khoury

Jill Khoury is interested in the intersection of poetry, visual art, representations of gender, and disability. She is a Western Pennsylvania Writing Project fellow and teaches workshops focusing on writing the body. She holds an MFA from The Ohio State University and edits Rogue Agent, a journal of embodied poetry and art. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals, including Copper Nickel, Bone Bouquet, Lunch Ticket, and diode. She has written two chapbooks—Borrowed Bodies (Pudding House, 2009) and Chance Operations (Paper Nautilus, 2016). Her debut full-length collection, Suites for the Modern Dancer, was released in 2016 from Sundress Publications. 

How did you discover Poetry Barn? How did you get started as a teaching artist for Poetry Barn?

Poetry Barn started out under a different name: Rooster Moans Poetry Collective. As best I understand it, the Collective began as a few poets workshopping together and then expanded into a venue for teachers and students to become involved in online workshopping. Poets Susan Yount and Lissa Kiernan were members of the original collective. I had recently been in contact with Susan Yount because she’d published a poem of mine in Arsenic Lobster, a journal she edited. I don’t remember the details but I’d asked about teaching online and she introduced me to her friend Lissa who runs Rooster Moans aka Poetry Barn. This is just one illustration of why my online poetry community means so much to me. Being able to transcend geography and the limitations of my disabilities is a godsend.

How much freedom are you allowed with the design of your Poetry Barn workshops?

Lissa gives us a lot of creative freedom! I was able to design this course entirely. It is and continues to be the only course that I’ve had the maximum amount of freedom in choosing material and how to present that material.

How often do you teach with Poetry Barn? Have you taught different workshops or do you teach the same classes every year?

I’ve taught the Writing Poems from the Body class twice with them, and I’m teaching it again in the fall of 2018.

What are three principles you strive to build into your Poetry Barn workshops?

Risk-taking, close reading / helpful critique, and safety. The first pertains to a value that I hold dear in my own and others’ writing—being able to take risks with content, writing process. language, or poetic form. Risk is going to seem different to everyone, however. Of course, what is extremely risky for one poet might not be risky for another. I aim to push each student just slightly out of their comfort zone, but it’s also okay if they don’t want to go there. I think close reading and helpful critique is also a core motivator of the workshop. I also allow my students to indicate what depth of critique would be most helpful for them. Some students are writing with the goal of eventual publication in mind already. Some students are just there to generate work and want to worry about deep revision later. Some students are writing for catharsis or self-inquiry. Suggestions for revision are not useful to them because they are not interested in revising. The great thing about teaching in a venue like Poetry Barn is that as a teacher, I can meet every student where they are. It’s not for credit. It’s for enrichment—whatever enrichment looks like to the individual. Lastly but importantly, safety is important. When teaching a workshop like Writing Poems from the Body, situations can get really vulnerable really quickly. It is of paramount importance that everyone’s journey into the subject of the body is heard and respected.

How is the online format similar to in-person workshops? How is it different?

The thing that it’s hard to replace from an in-person workshop is the face to face meeting. It will always be a lovely thing to feel that unquantifiable but delicious feeling of being poets sitting around a seminar table writing, reading, and engaging one another. However, there are many limitations on an in-person workshop. Geography and scheduling, for example. In my first time teaching Writing Poems from the Body I had students from all over the US plus Australia and Norway. Some were university students. Some were professionals. Some were retired. Since the class is asynchronous, people with all these different geographies and schedules were able to come together and form a cohesive unit.

What is some advice you would give to a new workshop participant about writing critiques?

My recommendation would be similar to any new workshop participant, whether online or in-person. Be respectful. Be specific. Take your time. Give praise and advice in the spirit you would wish to receive it.

Which features of class or community design help the Poetry Barn workshops to be constructive and civil spaces?

The Poetry Barn classroom has discussion questions available as a course design choice. I like to generate discussion even before the first poems are turned in. In Writing Poems from the Body, the first discussion question I offer is to share your journey toward embodied writing. People come to it from different places, in different ways. My intention is that the more that students participate in discussion, the more they will see themselves as a community. The more they see themselves as a community, the more they will respect one another. Also Lissa has built respectfulness into the courses literally. On the pages dedicated to poem critique, she has a list of good advice for workshopping that shows up every time someone starts a critique.

And lastly, who are the poets you return to again and again? What are the poems you can’t stop reading?

Rather than always-returning, the way I read poetry is ever-expanding. There is so much new work coming out all the time that examines the subject of the body in some way. I want to read it all! Here’s a list of ten books in my queue right now:

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I’m so grateful to Jill for her thoughtful answers — and to the folks at Poetry Barn for continuing to provide quality instruction in a civil and accessible environment!

Celebrating National Poetry Month 2018!

Dear readers, it’s that time again! Time to spend 30 days of April showers celebrating poetry — reading it, writing it, thinking about writing it! I’m excited to report some fantastic festivities at both campuses where I teach! Follow the hyperlinks to find the Facebook events for each item.

Downtown Campus Spoken Word Open Mic, Tues Apr 10, 10AM-12PM

Join FSCJ poets Donna Cobis, Kelsi Hasden, and me for a spoken word event celebrating National Poetry Month. Students, faculty, and staff are encouraged to come ready to share their favorite poems or original verse, but no shade will be thrown if you attend simply to cheer on your classmates or colleagues. This event will take place in C-101 at Downtown Campus and is my collaborative creation with FSCJ’s Library and Learning Commons and Downtown Campus Student Engagement.

Poetry Month Workshop Series

I’ll be teaching a series of three workshops at the UNF Writing Center this month! These are open to UNF students, staff, and faculty, and they are not sequential: you can come to one, two, or all three!

Write Your Poem,  Wed, Apr 4, 2-3PM

Have you ever wondered where a great poem begins? Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced poet, we’ll discover the roots of captivating poems! This workshop is the first in the Writing Center’s 2018 National Poetry Month Series. Grab your favorite pen and your vivid imagination, and we’ll start writing together. Students, faculty, and staff are welcome. 

Critique Your Poem, Wed, Apr 11, 2-3PM

More than rhyme schemes or syllable counts, a poet needs to know what makes a poem tick. What takes a handful of smudgy lines to a full-fledged draft? What takes a poem from good to great? We’ll explore techniques for critiquing poetry in the second installment of the Writing Center Poetry Month Series. Students, faculty, and staff welcome. 

Perform Your Poem, Wed, Apr 18, 2-3PM

Let’s lift poetry off the page! Bring your works in progress or your favorite poems! We’ll explore the techniques that performance poets use to electrify their audience in this third installment of the Writing Center Poetry Month Series. Students, faculty, and staff welcome.  

Student Poet Showcase, April 9, 12-1PM

Students, it’s your turn in the spotlight! Join the UNF Writing Center, English Graduate Organization (EGO), and UNF faculty poets for an informal poetry reading to celebrate National Poetry Month! We are all about showing our appreciation for poets, past and present! Bring your own work or your favorite poem to share — or just come to listen and get a free dose of poetry. Students, staff, and faculty are welcome! 

Poetry Feedback Fridays, April 6 & 13 at 2-3PM

Join our visiting poet for an informal small-group conversation about poetry, careers in the arts, and the writing life. Bring your poems for individual critique, or bring your curiosity. Beginners and experienced writers are welcome — no prep needed! Students, faculty, and staff are welcome!
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Do you have an exciting project or event for National Poetry Month? I’d love to hear about it! I’ve got more poetic features to share, so stay tuned to the blog! 

37 Books in 2017

My reading goal for 2017 was 35 books. Below you’ll find several of my favorite themes – ecology, music, spirituality, and grammar. But there are also several books about Jane Austen as July marked the 200th anniversary of her death.

I’m feeling rather hip as many of these books actually came out in 2017, so I read them hot off the presses! Here’s what I read this year. As always, I’ve left mini commentaries beneath the selections I particularly enjoyed.

  1. To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings by John O’Donohue
  2. Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery
    I have such fondness for Anne Shirley, and I loved this latest installment of her adventures.
  3. The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel
    This might just be my favorite book of the year! That is all.
  4. Arda Inhabited: Environmental Relationships in The Lord of the Rings by Susan Jeffers
    Outstanding book! Scholarly work but accessible and fascinating examination of Tolkien.
  5. The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You by Elaine N. Aron
    I came across this book because Susan Cain referenced Dr. Aron’s research in her incredible book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Aron’s work on sensitivity is groundbreaking and validating!
  6. The Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark
    Though this isn’t my favorite Clark volume, all his books are fabulous. He is a down-to-earth writer and offers lucid strategies for improving reading and writing.
  7. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel
  8. Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon and Mars by Nathalia Holt
  9. Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More — Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist by Karen Swallow Prior
    A compelling and beautifully written biography with rich historical context.
  10. The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places by Bernie Krause
    Fascinating and lovely!
  11. Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill
  12. Scales to Scalpels: Doctors Who Practice the Healing Arts of Music and Medicine by Lisa Wong
  13. Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy by Joanna Macy
    How could I not read everything by Macy, who is a brilliant eco-philosopher and translator of Rilke? Her On Being interview was absolutely beautiful.
  14. Snobs by Julian Fellowes
    The creator of Downton Abbey is a great novelist! This one was wonderful as an audiobook.
  15. Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything by Margaret Wertheim
    While I enjoyed this book, I preferred Wertheim’s On Being interview.
  16. A Little Book of Language by David Crystal
  17. Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West
  18. Ain’t She Sweet? by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
    You MUST listen to this as an audiobook. Normally I can’t stand romance novels, but this one is hilarious and so well done! It’s right up there with Laurie Colwin’s Happy All The Time, which I reread often.
  19. The Colony by Jillian Weise
    Snarky, creepy, and curious. This is a short and weird novel that asks good questions.
  20. An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage
  21. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
    Beautiful prose, thoughtful writing, wonderful stories.
  22. Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
    Ever since I saw Haupt’s TEDx Talk, I wanted to read all of her books. I’m currently reading Crow Planet because Mozart’s Starling was so wonderful!
  23. Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly
    The best Austen book I’ve read all year! I’ve got more to read, but this one is absolutely fantastic! Kelly examines the subtle political and cultural critiques in Austen’s novels. Austen wasn’t as detached as everyone claims.
  24. Suites for the Modern Dancer by Jill Khoury
    Read my full-length review here.
  25. Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence by Rick Hanson
  26. Longbourn by Jo Baker
    This is the “below stairs” story that unfolds alongside Pride and Prejudice. It’s compelling and respectable.
  27. Grace (Eventually: Thoughts on Faith) by Anne Lamott
  28. Why Poetry by Matthew Zapruder
  29. The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn
    Listen to the audiobook of this one. It’s a gripping, meticulously researched novel about Austen’s life. Very well done!
  30. Jane Austen at Home: A Biography by Lucy Worsley
    This is an excellent book on Austen! If you are on the fence, watch this hour-long preview.
  31. Victoria, the Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird
    Long but worth it! Lots of great stories about Victoria.
  32. Juliet’s Answer: One Man’s Search for Love and the Elusive Cure for Heartbreak by Glenn Dixon
    Save your time and just enjoy the  Shakespeare Unlimited episode about this one. The book was pleasant but not as thrilling as I’d hoped.
  33. Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds by Carmine Gallo
    This book is actually more useful than the official TED book on public speaking by Chris Anderson.
  34. Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling
    Fun but not as good as her first book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?
  35. Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar by David Crystal
    As always, David Crystal is a delight! I loved his attention to grammar pedagogy and child development in this book.
  36. Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life by Susan David
  37. The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family by Josh Hanagarne
    I had not heard of this book until it came up as the FSCJ Author Series book for 2017-2018. I enjoyed Hanagarne’s wit and bookishness, and I’m looking forward to author events coming up.

What have you been reading this year? What’s your goal for next year? Comment below and share your literary explorations!

In the Works

 

It’s time for an overdue update! Happy December to all!

I’ve had a busy semester of writing, teaching, reading, and workshopping. Here are some of the highlights!

Presentations

In October, I spoke at an event for Blindness Awareness Day hosted by UNF Leaders and Activists for the Disabled (LAD). Though the talk ended up being an hour, we recorded the first 20 minutes, and you can watch them here:

In November, I spoke about breaking disability stereotypes at another UNF event. This time it was the 3rd annual Community Learning Opportunity, hosted by UNF THRIVE, an organization that serves students with autism.

Later in November, I gave my second presentation as part of  UNF Sigma Tau Delta’s Brown Bag Series. My talk was called Poetry, Passion, and Grammar. We explored some of my favorite poems and charted their unconventional use of intuitive grammar features.

Publications

My poems “Mint” and “Natural Compliance” appeared in the latest issue of Clemson University’s South Carolina Review, available only in print. These poems are especially important to me because they each honor a loved one who is no longer living. “Mint” was written for my great-grandmother, and “Natural Compliance” was written for my friend, Christina.

The December issue of Wordgathering features two of my pieces – a mini essay and a book review. The mini essay is called “Life of a Disabled Person as Rendered in Video Game Language“; it’s a satirical look at the social obstacles disabled people face.

The second piece is a full-length review of Border Songs: A Conversation in Poems by Ona Gritz and Dan Simpson. Border Songs is a brief beautiful chapbook that explores themes of myth, identity, love, faith, and acceptance.

Workshops

I have recently discovered the phenomenal Poetry Barn – an organization that offers physical and online poetry workshops! In November, I took Jill Khoury’s workshop Writing Poems from the Body, a month-long course on exploring how our bodies shape our work. It was an intensely creative and productive time for me, so I immediately signed up for their December workshop, Foremothers: Imitating Women Poets, taught by Joshua Davis. Class just started this week, so I can’t wait to see what’s in store!

In the Works

I am, as always, writing writing writing. I am revising a piece on sacred singing and blindness for an academic disability journal. I’m planning an essay-length review of Rachel Carson’s extraordinary Under the Sea-Wind. And I’m prepping my Intro to Creative Writing course for spring!

Book Review: Suites for the Modern Dancer

I am excited to share my latest publication, a review of Jill Khoury’s Suites for the Modern Dancer. Khoury’s book is a full-length poetry collection, published by Sundress Press in 2016. My review was published in Issue #5 of The Deaf Poets Society. Here’s how the review begins:

I indulge in the fantasy of maneuvering effortlessly to a shady oak, slim volume of poetry in hand, and losing myself for an afternoon. With birds and breezes for companions and sunlight unproblematic on white pages, my escapism thrives on the act of reading, rather than the text itself. In reality my reading of standard-print texts is mediated by real and artificial voices. I can’t follow the text visually unless I enlarge it myself, so I download books to my phone and use VoiceOver’s text-to-speech features. Such readings are mechanical but precise. If I follow along with a large-print version of the text, I almost forget that I am reading collaboratively.

But I prefer real human voices. My friend and I settle down at the kitchen table with two copies of Jill Khoury’s Suites for the Modern Dancer. His is the 2016 paperback edition, and mine is a manuscript copy in 18-point font. Since I can’t skim the collection by sight, I use adhesive red flags to mark each page I write on.

Read the full essay here.