Poetry as Activism, The Rhetoric of Empathy, and The Breaking of Beliefs: My interview with Primal School

I am honored to be featured on Hannah Lee Jones’s fabulous poetry blog, Primal School. Her blog is designed as a place to discuss poetry outside the academy, to go back to basics and understand what makes a poem tick. In this interview, she asked me to describe my motivation and process for “A Phenomenology of Blindness,” which was published by Rogue Agent this summer.

About the interview, Hannah says:

[Emily K. Michael’s] poem ‘A Phenomenology of Blindness’ is a lesson not just in poetic craft but also how to talk about disability: ‘There’s a sense with the average non-disabled person that we should try to minimize or hide our disabilities — as if their discomfort is our discomfort. That’s another reason I write as a blind poet; I want people to know that I’m bringing blindness forward. I’m not ashamed. It’s a part of who I am. It’s something that belongs in poetry — not as a novelty but as a reality.’ Read, learn, and if so moved, please share widely — Emily’s work is vital.

Read the full interview here.

“Sketching the Rose” in the September issue of Wordgathering!

Today the September issue of Wordgathering is live, and my essay, ‘Sketching the Rose,” is the sole piece in the Music section! Here’s how the piece begins:

Summer can be a slow season for my barbershop chorus. We enter regional competition in April, and if our scores are good enough, we’ll compete on the international stage in October of the following year. Because we have eighteen months to perfect our competition music, we spend the summer months expanding our repertoire and just having fun–which is barbershop code for learning “tags.”

Tags are the last few lines of a song, stretched out and embellished with lush harmonies. At our regional competitions, the hotel corridors are filled with quartets singing tags. Established quartets and pickup quartets–groups that have competed for years and foursomes who have just met by the elevator. Because tags are short and catchy, most people teach and learn them by ear.

When we see “tag singing” on the rehearsal agenda, my fellow singers and I find our respective sections on the risers: lead, bass, baritone, and tenor. Even in an all-female ensemble, we still use the traditional part names from men’s barbershop–we can’t help that the male tradition was established first. As I step up next to the other baritones, our section managers form a quartet in front.

Read the entire piece here.

“Inside Jokes” published at The Fem!

Today starts a new semester! And the best way to ring in a beginning or ending is with poetry!

So it’s a good thing that my poem “Inside Jokes” was published at The Fem on this day. Read and enjoy! Happy Monday!

Honorable Mention in The Hopper’s Prize for Young Poets!

In June, I entered The Hopper‘s Prize for Young Poets. You remember The Hopper, the Vermont-based ecologically minded magazine that published one of my essays in May?  This contest called for a chapbook, a collection of 20-50 poems by a “young poet” (under 35) who had never published a collection before. So I shuffled and re-shuffled my poems, read them to myself, read them with friends, and sent them off!

Well, my manuscript, Natural Compliance, won Honorable Mention (3rd place) in this contest! I’m incredibly excited by such a distinction, and I’m quite proud of my little manuscript. Because The Hopper is so awesome, they wanted to profile me on their website and include a poem from the collection. Their profile features my poem “Kiwano,” hitherto unseen on the wilds of the Internet!

Here is their profile on me and my collection.

I want to thank the friends who helped me create and finalize this collection. You know who you are. We spent hours hunched over coffeeshop tables working and reworking these poems. You read the collection in one fell swoop to soothe my insecurities. You cheered me on. You told me I was worth it, whether I won or lost.

My friends, my readers, you are my blessing.

Poem Published in Rogue Agent!

The July issue of Rogue Agent is out, and one of my poems graces its cyperpages! You’ll find my piece, “A Phenomenology of Blindness,” in Issue #16 of this journal of poetry, art, and embodiment!

Read my poem here.

Poem Published!

My poem, “Crushed,” is live in the June issue of Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature.

Click here to read it—or listen to me read it for you!

Essay: “Working Resonance: Concerto for Guide Dog, Handler, and World”

I’m excited to announce my first publication in The Hopper, an ecologically minded literary magazine from Green Writers Press! Today they published my essay, “Working Resonance: Concerto for Guide Dog, Handler, and World.” Here’s how it begins:

“In darkness, the audience rises, applauding the last performance of the evening. Before I can bang my hands together with wild abandon, I slide my guide dog’s leash back over my arm, into the crook of my elbow. My companion rises from his prone position and assumes a dignified sit, scanning from left to right. He recognizes the applause as a signal for our imminent departure.

The house lights come up, and I pull on my heavy coat. In the presence of my wiggly Labrador, this maneuver requires some concentration: hold York’s leash with left hand and slide right arm into sleeve, loop leash over right arm and slide left arm into sleeve, loop leash back over left arm and fasten inside buttons, fasten outside buttons, pick up crossbody bag and slide strap over left shoulder, don’t tangle with leash. When I’m fully equipped to handle the chilly night air, I stand beside York and we wait for the crowd to thin out.

‘Beautiful dog,’ a man remarks as he pauses by my seat. One foot rests on the next step up, and he leans around a large column to stare down at my pup. York’s shiny black fur contrasts with his leather guide harness. ‘Does he like the music?’

My hand moves to York’s silky ear, a gesture of habitual comfort. ‘Actually, he prefers Romantic composers. But he said he would come hear Mozart with me.’”

 

Read the entire piece here.

My first guest post for the BREVITY Blog!

Today my piece “Blackbird Habits: A Letter to Virginia Woolf” went up on BREVITY‘s Nonfiction Blog! Check it out! The piece is beautifully laid out with pictures of Mrs. Woolf and yours truly. I get a thrill from seeing my picture on the same page as hers!

BREVITY‘s blog is connected with BREVITY, a literary magazine that publishes concise nonfiction (under 750 words). Pieces for the blog are allowed to reach 1000 words.

Enjoy the piece, and subscribe to the BREVITY blog. It’s an excellent resource for writers.

Launch Day Giveaway!

On May 1, I will be celebrating my first official Launch Day! My essay, “Border Talk,” is part of the anthology Mosaics 2: A Collection of Independent Women! Mosaics Vol. 1 launched on March 8 (International Women’s Day), and I was so excited to celebrate with those authors. Now we’re gearing up for a second round of celebrations!

Look at our beautiful book cover!

Mosaics 2 Cover

(Image description coming.)

And this is the promo art for my essay:

Border Talk Promo Image

(Image description: Blue grey bricks outlined in an almost graphic novel style are contrasted with a dark black skeletal bare tree shadow. The words “Border Talk” appear in the upper left corner in a brush handwritten font, in red. “By Emily K. Michael” appears in the same red font on the bottom right.)

To kick off the festivities, I’m hosting a giveaway through Rafflecopter. I’m giving away 3 copies of the Mosaics 2 Kindle ebook! Want to win? Check out the info below:

 

 

a Rafflecopter giveaway
https://widget-prime.rafflecopter.com/launch.js

Essay: “Stylish Negotiations”

My latest essay, “Stylish Negotiations,” was published in the March issue of Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature. This essay decodes the submission guidelines of several disability-related journals and magazines and offers a course of action for handling stories of disability. It begins as follows:

“Submission guidelines rarely make me angry. Perhaps because I seek out publications that share my interests–ecology, feminism, disability, music, language–all the specifications can start to look the same. Most journals want a well-rounded submission, free from religious agendas, offensive stereotypes, and one-dimensional fables of inspiration.

When I find a publication that seems promising, I scroll through the journal’s ‘About’ page and submission guidelines. Here is where I can make some serious assessments. Journals lose my interest if they proclaim, ‘send us your best work’ or ‘we only publish good poetry.’ I won’t let my students use ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as standalone terms for evaluation, so I hesitate to send my work to a journal that won’t express its own agenda in more vibrant language.

Among publications that promote the work of disabled writers, the guidelines evince a similar aesthetic. Here are excerpts from three journals committed to sharing the work of writers with disabilities…”

Read the full essay here.

Two Poems Published!

The December issue of Wordgathering is out, and it contains two of my poems: “Wordbomb” and “Old Music.”This is the 36th issue of Wordgathering, rounding off its eighth year as an online publication.

Just above the text of each poem, there is a link to the audio version, which I recorded. I love that this journal offers poetry in audio and visual formats. Poetry isn’t confined to one kind of perception; each sense shades a poem differently.

Read the poems here.

Surprised by Disability

This essay appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics, a journal published by Johns Hopkins University. The issue’s theme was “living with the label ‘disability.'” As the issue is no longer in print, I am sharing the essay here.

*   *   *

Today I am meeting Diana, one of my young blind students, for coffee. Soon she will enroll in our summer program that teaches blind teenagers independent living skills and self-advocacy. Her teachers explain that she has prepared questions for me.

“So,” Diana begins, as we follow the uneven sidewalk toward the restaurant. “What would you do if you wanted to go outside without your sunglasses?”

I can guess why she poses this question, but I conceal my theory for now. Instead, I smile and adjust the large, dark sunglasses that fit over my regular glasses. “Why would I want to do that?”

“I don’t know…Just say, you wanted to,” she finishes diffidently. She walks slightly in front of me, the familiar sound of her white cane scraping and tapping against the bricks laid in the sidewalk. I rarely travel with other blind people, so the sound of her cane comforts me.

“I’m so sensitive to light that I’d be miserable without my shades,” I explain.  I’m careful with my tone here. Like me, Diana is unable to read facial expressions—she listens attentively to vocal cues. She is a smart thirteen-year-old, and she will notice if I start to sound preachy.

“Okay, so what if you wanted to go out without your cane?”

I’m ready for this one: “Diana, my cane keeps me safe. I’m happy to have it with me.”     The cane alerts me to vital environmental changes, like the textural difference between sidewalks and streets. Unexpected curbs, sudden stairs, perilous signposts, and wayward children become apparent to me through the white cane. It is as if the cane helps sketch the boundaries around me; its contact with objects creates a vivid spatial awareness.

I sense that my responses fill Diana with a mixture of defeat and frustration. I have not validated her reticence to use the shades or cane. Nor have I handed her a rhetorical placebo, a catchy phrase she can pull out whenever she feels uncomfortable with her disability. Resisting her white cane and dark glasses, she loathes the idea of looking different. Though neither of us can see others staring, we feel the judgment and pity—and the occasional sense of wonder from those for whom we’re still a novelty, the ones who want to point and exclaim, “Look Ma, a real blind girl!”

Both Diana and I carry emblems of blindness that are easily recognized from a distance—visible signs of disability. Other disabled people can “pass” as nondisabled. If they don’t use wheelchairs, crutches, canes, dogs, or braces, no one will know that they have disabilities. Hence, the disabilities that don’t require visible accessories are called “invisible disabilities”—a term that strengthens the connection between disability and appearance.

Diana doesn’t want to “look” blind. She wants me to give her an out, to divulge the strategies I’ve devised for leaving the house without my cane and shades. Underneath her casual questions lies the prevailing obsession, “What’s the secret to looking normal?” As a successful blind woman, I must have it figured out. The secret, Diana, is easy to articulate and difficult to enforce. I can write it more readily than I can live it.

The secret begins with  a very broad spectrum of acceptance. First, I must accept myself as a blind woman who needs a cane and dark glasses to travel in safety and confidence. Then I must accept that these mobility aids are uncommon and highly visible—which means that, almost every time I go out, people will approach me. And lastly, I must accept that the attitudes of others do not determine who I am, that their idea of blindness does not define my experience of it.

The white cane was not always easy for me to carry. Though I have been legally blind from birth, I did not use the white cane in my daily life until high school. Before my freshman year, I could pass as nondisabled. At high school, I found myself on a large, crowded campus with only six minutes to travel to and from classes. The cane supplemented my limited visual fields, letting me know about approaching stairs, curbs, potted plants, and people. In a blink, I was visibly disabled, consistently referred to as “blind” or “legally blind” instead of the mild and familiar “visually impaired.” With the cane, this new “blindness” brought me braille and the dark glasses. As I picked up the cane, put on the shades, and placed braille labels on all my textbooks, I began to learn that everyone saw my blindness differently.

When I became visibly blind, strangers started to approach me with more regularity. I received unsolicited comments that revealed the discrepancy between who I was and who everyone thought I should be. Unable to mask their disbelief, people said, “You don’t look blind!” or “If you hadn’t used the cane, I’d never have known you were blind.” I wondered what it meant to “look blind”—did they expect me to stumble, to spill food or drinks all over myself, to grope for the objects around me? Absolutely they did. Some exclaimed, “Wow, you dress so well for a blind person!” while others consoled, “Don’t worry, I run into walls all the time too!”  (For the record, I rarely run into walls. That’s what the cane is for.)

To outsiders observing the blind experience, blindness is signified by shuffling feet, stained clothing, wild hair, and a general lack of confidence. A blind woman should look lost, frail, and naive. No wonder Diana and my other students are afraid to look blind; they know the stereotypes and dread fulfilling them.

The prevailing attitude is that blindness, and any other physical (visible) disability, indicates an eternal deficit—a life clouded by insurmountable tragedy in which the disabled person can never accomplish her goals and ambitions. It’s not difficult to imagine the heart-wrenching scenes created by sympathetic ableism: the wheelchair user who dreams of being a ballerina, the blind man who wants to be a neurosurgeon, the deaf person who longs to hear music. Often, popular ideas about disability create images of disabled people whose genetic lottery pits them against impossible desires. And the righteous sympathy that nondisabled people are supposed to feel for these tortured “innocents with disabilities” emerges when real nondisabled people encounter real disabled people.

Called slippage, this attitude insists that the disabled person should be inept at all tasks. Slippage is the idea that an impairment in one area, such as blindness, causes all other abilities to deteriorate. Perhaps this is why some people choose to speak to me in loud voices, slowing their words, while others seem amazed when I move without encumbrance. Because I carry the cane, the performance of routine tasks—swiping my debit card at the grocery store, tying a scarf around my neck, or walking down a hallway—wins me the most effusive praise. This problematic attitude moves indiscriminately among disabled and nondisabled people. Even disabled people can believe in their own incompetence.

My experience with blind teenagers shows me how easily they internalize the cultural attitudes about disability. On the first day of our summer program for blind teens, I stood in front of the class and introduced myself. I said that my name was Miss Emily, that I had my Master’s in English, and that I enjoyed singing and cooking. I added, “I’m also blind. I have some vision, but I use a cane.” On nearly every day of the six-week program, I walked to students’ desks, using my cane, and sat down, folding the cane. Every blind person recognizes the familiar clicks of a cane folding or unfolding and the subtle pull of the bungee cord as the user slips the loop over the folded segments. So, imagine my surprise, when in the following weeks, my students exclaimed, “Hey, you use a cane?!”

Their disbelief communicated many things to me. They couldn’t believe I was blind; they were surprised by my disability. I wanted to know what they expected from a blind person and what made me so unexpected. Did they expect never to find a blind woman in the teacher’s role, speaking authoritatively? Did they never expect a blind person to sound confident, to reprimand their bad posture, to know when they were working or slacking off—as I did?

Like my students, Diana acknowledges that the label of blindness conveys a more-than-visual deficit. Many have accepted the message broadcasted by the sighted world: impaired vision means impaired judgment. My students are in the process of learning the power they can exert over their own labels. I want Diana to understand this power: the white cane does not represent one idea of blindness—it signifies all ideas of blindness. Diana has the unique power to embody blindness for others, and she can decide what kind of blindness it will be. I want her to know that she can use her cane and shades in innumerable ways—as implements of independence, as shortcuts to the assistance she needs. I decide to tell her the following story.

On Friday afternoon, the tutoring center is noisy and crowded. Since our official tutoring hours have finished, the peer tutors gather for our monthly training, queueing by the sign-in computer. I thread through the lobby, my white cane catching between the thin chair and table legs, and walk toward the computer. I’ll ask for help signing in as I do every time I clock on and off; unlike my personal computer, the sign-in computer isn’t equipped with assistive technology. I stand near the computer, waiting as the tutors in line ahead of me sign in. I begin listening for familiar voices.

“Hey, do you need some help signing in?”

The voice belongs to a dark looming shape that has just appeared on my right. I look up to see a broad-shouldered guy in a dark shirt. His facial hair, contrasting with his skin, makes it easier for me to find his face. The friendly voice and the eagerness to assist make him familiar to me. “Hi, Patrick! Sure, could you type in my ID?”

He obliges, holding my cane and purse while I enter my password. He walks with me into the meeting room, where he helps me find a seat among the indistinguishable tables and chairs. Unable to identify colors by sight, I can only attest that the low-contrast hues of tables, chairs, and carpet make the room a challenging place to navigate. After helping me find a seat, Patrick retreats to his customary place at the front of the room, where he interprets for our deaf tutors.  When I stand up to avail myself of the refreshments, Patrick meets me at the snack table. “What would you like?” he asks, offering me a plate. He narrates the contents of the refreshment table and puts the requested items on my plate. Again, I haven’t asked for his help, but I appreciate it.

As he leaves, I marvel at two things: how quickly he spotted me and how readily he assisted me. Technically, Patrick isn’t at the meeting for me—and that makes his attentions seem especially considerate. Unable to ignore the graceful and unexpected help he gave, I begin to analyze the circumstances that brought Patrick to my aid.

I reason that Patrick must have seen me come in. Among the tutors, I am the only one using a white cane and wearing dark glasses. Because of my extreme sensitivity to light, I am also wearing a gray cloche hat with a bow. Add that to my dark purple coat, and I suppose I become pretty visible. So, Patrick spotted me readily, and, because of our long acquaintance or his own personal merits, he came over to see if I needed help.

Patrick doesn’t see the cane and dark glasses as signifiers of eternal deficit. His offers of assistance are kind, even-keeled, and respectful. He doesn’t patronize, snatch items out of my hands, or insist on helping after I’ve refused assistance. He respects my agency, my ability to know what I want and need. In essence, Patrick lets me define myself. Perhaps because of his work with disabled people, Patrick has come to understand the absurdity of the stereotypes. Patrick responds to the needs I voice, rather than the issues he perceives. Through these interactions, I remember that I experience disability on my own terms.

To navigate the language of disability, a disabled person must develop a resilience to the commonplace reading of the terms. Instead, she must advocate for the signification she desires. Accepting the labels of disability and blindness signifies my commitment to expanding the space around such labels.

Two Essays Published!

Today two of my essays appeared in the June issue of Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature. The first, “Designing the Parachorus,” was originally posted on this blog (that’s right folks, you read it here!), and is now in a section of the online journal called “The Arts.” In this piece, I described my problematic position as a blind musician and my thoughts on the ultimate disability-friendly ensemble.

When Wordgathering asked if they could (re)publish this post, I proposed a follow-up piece that would describe how my theories played out on a real stage. I wrote “Quartet Beyond Measure,” an essay that describes my quartet’s first experience of Regional Competition. Here’s how it begins:

In the noisy hotel lobby, Jeanie and I take our places behind several women checking in at the front desk. We guess that they are fellow Sweet Adelines—barbershop singers who have arrived in Daytona for Regional Competition. As we step forward to offer our names and credit cards, Jeanie turns to me: “Is it too bright in here for you?”

“Absolutely,” I flick one brief glance over the receptionist’s shoulder. Behind the tall desk, huge windows offer a view of the sunny Florida beach. I look down, grateful for the dark surface of the desk, the small black wallet in my hand, and the even blacker Labrador in harness sitting by my left foot. Through my sunglasses, I watch as my guide dog slides to the floor, enjoying the feel of the cool tiles against his belly. While I converse with the receptionist’s blurry silhouette, I bless York’s dark coat—a visual anchor in an otherwise unfamiliar place.

As my fellow singers and I walk to our rooms, I steel myself for the unfriendly or intrusive comments that other handlers have warned me about. Although York and I have completed two pleasant hotel stays, I still feel compelled to prepare myself for incivility—or at least ignorance. But I meet neither of these as we traverse short flights of stairs, carpet, and tile. Instead, I listen to our porter’s cheerful commentary: “Yes, this is one of my favorite weekends of the whole year! We just love having you singers staying with us.”

Read the full essay here.

Article: “Barbershop singing: A true test of vocal prowess, with or without straw hats”

Today Minnesota Public Radio published my reflections on the rigors of barbershop singing:

“For musicians and non-musicians alike, “barbershop singing” recalls The Music Man‘s Ice Cream Quartet and the bright hum of a pitch pipe. Audiences won’t guess that participation in barbershop singing can entail three-hour rehearsals, vowel-matching, breath plans, lyric mapping, and international competition.

Barbershop is a cappella four-part harmony marked by elaborate slides, inverted chords, and attention to overtones. Its lighthearted performance often belies the musicianship needed to “ring the chords” — to sing with such accurate pitch and pronunciation that the chords create more notes than voices.”

Read the full article here.

Essay: “Voices in Error: Counting against Competence”

Today the Disability Rhetoric blog published my essay, “Voices in Error: Counting against Competence.” In this essay, I describe an ongoing conflict in my teaching practices – counting errors and standardizing student voices. Here is how the essay begins:

“Before I begin teaching in any classroom, I must tailor the environment to my specific needs. I secure my guide dog to the sturdy teacher’s desk, turn off three of the four lightswitches, and run my hand along the chalk tray to find the eraser and black dry- erase markers. I shuffle the blue and green markers to the end of the tray where I won’t confuse them with the colors I prefer. I move the desk chair from behind the bulky computer table and place it near the short, unadorned desk – careful not to disturb my dog, who lies underneath with a toy.

After the first course meeting, the novelty of my daily accommodations diminishes. Students welcome the dimmed lighting and rarely forget to submit assignments in large print. Only two features of the routine elicit regular comments – the guide dog and the whiteboard.”

Read the full article here.