Poetry by people with disabilities has played a vital role in disability arts and culture. As a poet myself and a firm believer in the possibility of change through the written word, I am excited about two recent texts which make further contributions to what can rightfully be called the field of disability poetics: Jim Ferris's Slouching Toward Guantanamo (2011) and Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Michael Northern's edited anthology Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (2011). Both of these books demonstrate the stylistic diversity and emotional power of poetry by poets with disabilities—poetry which is not necessarily about disability, but rather poetry influenced by and inflected with experiences of disablement.

Jim Ferris's name is likely familiar to anyone involved in disability studies, arts and culture. The earlier, award-winning Hospital Poems (2004) made him one of the most widely known "poet of cripples," as he refers to himself therein. In his new book, Slouching Toward Guantanamo, Ferris returns with the same seductive blend of tenderness, pain, humor and irony, starting with the sure-to-be-anthologized "Poems with Disabilities," which begins:

I'm sorry—this space is reserved
for poems with disabilities. I know
its one of the best spaces in the book,
but the Poems with Disabilities Act
requires us to make all reasonable
accommodations for poems that aren't
normal. (1)

With such a beginning, Ferris makes clear that yes, this is indeed a book of disability poetry, but it is not the sentimental, inspirational, or melodramatic stereotype that disability studies has so adamantly resisted. Instead, Slouching Toward Guantanamo strikes a keen balance between an inside joke and invitation into the club of disability culture. Ferris includes both poems with crip jokes and references, such as "What Your Doctor Really Wants to Tell You" and "Personal Improvement," as well as poems that touch upon a more universal notion of pain and tenderness which are inflected by a disabled experience/crip aesthetic and which may nonetheless seem clearly "about" disability to many readers. Take for example the book's second poem, "What Rises in the Spaces Between the Cells," which takes the reader by intense emotional surprise after the lighthearted humor of the previous opening poem. It begins:

Start where you are. If you cannot
love the body that feels the pain,
love the body that forgets pain,
love the pleasure that tickles up
in the absence of pain, love
the body that carries the not-
pain. Start where you are. (5)

Here, the poem's opening lines can be read as being about disability and physical pain; and yet the tenderness of the language, the way Ferris invites the reader in gently and implores you to love your body, alludes to an understanding of pain that is not simply housed in muscles and nerves. In this piece and others, Slouching Toward Guantanamo uses disability as the seed for expression about common mental, physical and emotional experiences.

Throughout the book, Ferris's language tends to be narrative, colloquial, and accessible, creating the kind of poetry I love to read and can also share with the undergraduates I teach or even the middle school kids I mentor. However, the poetic form and language in Slouching Toward Guantanamo is also dynamic and shifting. At several points, Ferris takes up the lofty diction of Catholicism, mixing the linguistic style of the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, hymns and prayers with the content of "the unfit, the twisted, the shamed" and "crippled things" (76, 12). While most poems are single-stanza, lyric, free-verse style, some play more with the visual elements of the page, like the sprawling phrases of "Apologia" and the question and answer style of "Long Division/Multiple Choice," in which Ferris asks the reader: "Q. When is more pain better?" and provides a list of possible multiple choice responses (51). Slouching Toward Guantanamo delivers what fans of Ferris' work expect: emotionally rich poetry that refuses to separate humor from pain, irony and wit from tenderness and love—poetry that seems deceptively simple and yet reveals increasing complexity upon second and third readings.

As Ferris's work indicates, there is change afoot in the world of disability poetics, an incorporation of disability into the writing of poetry in ways more nuanced than before. This shift is traced across of variety of poets in Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, and like all seismic shifts, there is deep power in this change that Beauty is a Verb captures—for as Laura Hershey concludes in her poem "Telling":

Someone, somewhere
will hear your story and decide to fight,
to live and refuse to compromise.
Someone else will tell
her own story,
risking everything. (135)

Edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Michael Northern, Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, is a beautiful, complex collection of contemporary poetry and essays by poets with disabilities, and includes poems on everything from sex, intimacy and relationships to childhood, hospitals and diagnoses. The subtitle preposition of, rather than on or about (disability), is a small word choice which represents a significant and intentional approach to selecting and organizing the poetry within. The editors gather not only well-known names such as Jim Ferris, Kenny Fries and Laura Hershey, but also poets not previously associated with disability arts and culture. As a collection, Beauty is a Verb makes a sustained argument about the new poetry of disability as not only including disability poetics as elucidated by poets like Ferris, but also, more generally, "poetry influenced by an alternate body" (15). This poetry of disability argument is made through the selection and organization of the poets/poems as well as through the critical essays and statements of poetics which precede each poet's work, generally written by the poet him or herself.

For some it may seem odd to devote so much space to prose in a poetry anthology, but Beauty is a Verb argues that poets with disabilities do not have a single style, aesthetic or relationship to disability, and that to approach disability poetry through such a lens would be dangerously limiting. In her preface to the text, Jennifer Bartlett acknowledges some limits nonetheless, stating that "Beauty is a Verb is not, nor is it meant to be, a comprehensive collection," acknowledging the absence of certain disabilities (such as cancer and AIDS) and poets (such as Eli Care, Cheryl Marie Wade and Mark O'Brien) (15). Comprehensiveness, however, is never truly possible, especially if one were to take a revisionist crip approach, reading disability back onto every past poet with (for example) depression, alcoholism, or visual/hearing impairments. Although the editors of Beauty is a Verb are indeed interested in poetic legacy, devoting the first section to "Early Voices" such as Larry Eigner, Vassar Miller and Josephine Miles, they seem more interested in, as the subtitle indicates, the new poetry of disability. The editors include many new poets not previously explicitly connected to disability studies or poetics in order to bolster the argument for a wide understanding of the ways in which experiences of disability can influence a poet's work, not only in terms of content, but also form, style, rhythm and sonic effects. In addition to these stylistic and aesthetic issues, the essays and statements of poetics by individual poets also address practical and professional concerns of being a poet with a disability. For example, John Lee Clark discusses the benefits and difficulties of translating, reading and performing ASL Poetry, while Ellen McGrath Smith addresses being a hearing impaired audience member trying to participate in a poetic community, providing suggestions on how readings might be made more accessible.

It is because of these essays—some highly academic and critical, others personal and reflective, some pragmatic and concrete, others theoretical and suggestive—that Beauty is a Verb truly succeeds as a text for the study of disability poetics in particular and disability literature more broadly. What makes Beauty is a Verb stand out is its argument about the new poetry of disability today, its introduction of poets who may been previously unknown and its potential utility within the fields of disability studies and creative writing. This anthology will appeal to casual readers, poets, critics and scholars. The poems and essays can be read for pleasure or used in literature courses (on disability or otherwise) and in general disability studies classes: as a collection, by section, by poet or as stand-alone pieces. Since each poet writes at a different level of academic accessibility, there are poems and essays in the text well-suited for undergraduates and others more suited for graduate level courses. This flexible, varied aspect of Beauty is a Verb is what makes the anthology a most valuable for scholars of disability, poets, poetry lovers and critics of contemporary poetry.

Ultimately, both Jim Ferris's Slouching Toward Guantanamo and Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Michael Northern's Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability are contributions to the current shifts in disability poetics, shifts which I believe are related to discussions in disability studies about feminist disability theory, crip theory and studies in ableism, all of which seek to expand the possibilities of disability as a research analytic. These new books of disability poetry provide us a look into the future of disability literature as it continues to impact and be impacted by the trends within disability studies as whole.

Works Cited

  • Ferris, Jim. The Hospital Poems. Charlotte, NC: Main Street Rag Pub. Co., 2004. Print.
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Copyright (c) 2012 Sami Schalk



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