Report from the Field: “Compassion in Po-Biz”

Everyone knows the stereotype about poets. Our vocation has one of the highest rates of suicide {only after playwrights}. We are depressives and alcoholics. Drug addicts. Thinkers. Feelers. Brooders. But, there is something else. We are vicious.

It’s time for poets to be more open about our suicide rates and tendency toward self-destruction and argument. If you use the classic archetype, the craft we have chosen is one in which we are sensitive to feeling and environment. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a poet or because I’m just Jennifer, but honestly, most days, I have to fight to stay emotionally stable. Not committing suicide for me is a conscious act; not something that comes naturally nor organically. Other poets have told me a similar secret.

So, given this, why are we so cruel to each other? Where is the compassion in the poetry world? Usually, it’s men putting down women. Usually, it’s the abled putting down the disabled. But that’s not exclusive. And I’m no better. I’ve made some important critical arguments for the sake of good. I’ve also been a real asshole. I’ve also come off as being an asshole out of misunderstanding. I’d like to take a moment to apologize for all of the above.

The Internet has created a situation in which people can sit in their houses and attack others with little or no recourse. And misunderstandings run rampant. It is really hard to get your message across and the more you try, the more you sound like a cad. I’ve also been unjustly attacked by both men and women, abled and disabled. I am far from the only one to attack or be attacked. Jeff Nagy based an entire magazine on it.

The only way to justify it is that poets think stakes are high and resources are scarce. This has been written before. There are very few jobs, very few readers, very few awards and publishers. Interestingly enough, the older poets: Michael Palmer, Fanny Howe, Mary Oliver, and so on, tend to hide. While they most likely gossip, it’s how gossip is supposed to occur, over tea in a yard in Northern Vermont.

When a poet kills herself, everyone laments and writes loving words about the great work. What if that poet just couldn’t take it anymore? What if she couldn’t sit through one more nasty department meeting or see a friend’s work ripped to shreds on the defunct Buffalo list (And why is that list gone? Why can’t people comment on Silliman’s blog anymore? Ask yourself, Sally!) What responsibility do we have toward each other? If we really care about each other – which frankly looks like my husband’s favorite episode of the Simpsons “One of us! One of us!” – why don’t we take it down a notch? And the problem is that there’s no litmus test to be a poet.  It’s, like alcoholism, a self-diagnosed disease.

I, personally, have had trouble whenever I speak up about ableism. Recently, I posted in the middle of a tumultuous conversation taking place in one thread about race in the Facebook group “Binders Full of Women Writers.” My point was that I, as a disability activist, had to form a thick skin and could not jump to quit or attack every ableist word/comment. My point, probably made at the wrong time in the wrong environment, was that sometimes people aren’t even aware that they are being prejudiced. I pointed out that the word “lame” was used in this group often and loosely. “Crazy” and “retarded” also continue to be continuously used in the overall culture.

In response, I was called ridiculous, a troll, a silencer, and one woman insisted on using the word “handicapped” and asked for an explanation when I asked her to stop. What she missed was the very crux of the thing I was trying to point out: that one would be in a vicious fight against racism, but use the word “handicapped.” When I explained why the word was in bad taste, she more or less said, why should I listen to you? Then, as often happens when I’m arguing this case, another writer with a disability sort of made a jest of my argument and noted that she would not mention ableism.

These women were probably right.  It was a little obnoxious to bring disability into a discussion regarding race. On the other hand, their comments reflected behaviors that I experience again and again when I speak out. A disabled person jumps in to say they don’t agree and side with the abled commenters. They always are quick to point out that they do not regard disability as an identity, but as a point of medical suffering. These commenters want abled commenters to be assured that I am way off the mark, and they do not agree that disability can even exist as other than a tragic state.

Aren’t racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism duel partners? If you bring up another minority’s problems during a discussion of one minority are you really that out of line? One person suggested making my own thread about it. But, that’s just it. People will fight until the cows come home over race or gender. If the discussion is about disability, people turn away. I think this has to do with solid negative perceptions about the different body and people’s fear of saying the wrong thing.

Activists often fail to recognize the intersections of problems between minorities. Oppression manifests itself in the same ways for all minorities. The pain is real and valid. I do put the responsibility to some degree on people with disabilities themselves. Depending on the impairment, folks with disabilities can be hesitant to claim their disability as an identity, rather something to be cured or fixed. This is due to the real frustration and pain that disability causes. Although, I would make the point that inhabiting a body of any given minority can cause emotional, social, and even physical angst, yet these are also regarded as identities. Until we can find this balance in disability society will be allowed to be ableist.

Perhaps a meeting place could be the word poet. Recently, an older, smarter poet told me my “identity” was poet. My gender is poet. My race is poet. My ethnicity is poet. I would add, my disability, my movement, my body is poet. Since, most of the people this essay is addressed to are, in fact, poets perhaps this is the one form of marginalization that we can agree upon. As I told my kid, ‘Well, you don’t know who Galway Kinnell is!” To which he replied, “No one knows who that is!”

Since we are all marginalized (only in our own special way) maybe we could fight the power together, instead of fighting against each other for the power.

And maybe for just once, we could add disability to that.


Jen Bartlett Pug PicJennifer Bartlett was born in the San Francisco Bay Area and educated at the University of New Mexico, Vermont College, and Brooklyn College. She is the author of Derivative of the Moving Image (UNM Press 2007), (a) lullaby without any music (Chax 2012), and Autobiography/Anti-Autobiography (Theenk 2014). Bartlett also co-edited, with Sheila Black and Michael Northen, Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Bartlett has received fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, Fund for Poetry, and the Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut. She is currently writing a full-length biography of the poet Larry Eigner. Bartlett poetry and disability awareness at Willie Mae Rock Camp, United Cerebral Palsy, the MS Society, and New York Public Schools.