Jennifer Bartlett is involved in a discussion currently taking place in the Women's Poetry listserv here and also posted the following comment on this blog:
I don't know if you read, but there has been a long dialog about your work in terms of disability rights on the Wom-po list-serv. It would be great if you weighed in on it. I am still curious as to why you have been so hesitant to write about or confront the disabilities rights movement. The troubles you face effect everyone who is disabled. I know that 'allowing' Ashbery to call you an invalid - and the reviewer mary karr uses the word too - seems like a personal decision. But it is not. As a public figure and fine poet who refuses to address these issues, you make it difficult for us who want DO NOT want to be called invalid. It makes able-bodied reviewers, like Karr, and readers continue to think that is okay to refer to us as less than.
Is there something about the movement that makes you uncomfortable?
No, there isn't something about "the movement" that makes me uncomfortable. Unless it's the implication that I must say one thing or another, fall into lockstep, get with "the movement," whatever it is. That makes me uncomfortable. This categorization of me, here and in the listserv, makes me uncomfortable.
I don't much appreciate the notion that I'm somehow unaware of these issues, that I "refuse" to address them, that I'm impeding the lives of anyone. I really don't appreciate the implication she seems to make in the listserv that I am motivated by "personal gain."
I kind of wish that were true. It'd be fun in a diabolical, mustache-twirling way, and her ideas about me would be less troubling.
But it isn't true.
We are not the same person, the two of us. I'm not sure why I need to keep stressing that to people. I don't go around demanding people think a certain way or write their poems to my satisfaction.
I resent it when she writes, again in the listserv, "Everything Guest does seems to perpetuate the able-bodied belief that disability is person tragedy rather than social construction." I have no idea what she means and how she feels it's ok to make such sweeping generalizations. It's the sort of claim I would strike in a freshman composition course. There is no way such a thing is true, and even if it were, no rhetorically sound way of proving it. It's hyperbole. At best.
Most of the dust-up is in reference to my last collection of poems, which features a blurb by John Ashbery wherein he uses the word "invalid." Jennifer Bartlett writes: "Sorry to vent, this has been on my mind for more than a year!" If this is true, then maybe the problem is she is more familiar with Ashbery's writing than my own. Since my first collection, I have written poems which address my disability and the reaction of others to me. Only my second collection, a sad little sequence of breaking-up poems, largely sidesteps the matter. My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge, the book in question, deals very directly with disability, in ways I had never attempted before, and I found it exciting, and dare I say it, fun. There's no refusal here. Only what I'm interested in writing about at the time. If that fails to meet someone's standards for activism, or content, or style, then that failure really isn't mine.
As for the dread word "invalid," it doesn't really bother me so much in the way that it is used by Ashbery. I thought about it at the time, and requested other edits in his blurb which seemed appropriate to me; in fact, I requested and received plenty of changes to jacket copy, catalog copy, and bits and pieces of other blurbs I was lucky enough to receive. I'm insulted, really, that I'm essentially a dupe or opportunist in this false dichotomy Jennifer Bartlett creates. That I'm not really cognizant of a word's weight or that I am aware in the most calculating, self-hating ways.
This is isn't to say I think others are wrong if they object to the particular usage of a word. If so, we disagree, to varying degrees, and that's about it. At least for me. And it doesn't bother me if others dislike my poems, for any reason whatsoever: I might dislike the poems they especially love. That's fine. A sane expectation in the world. I enjoy disagreement and my feelings aren't easily hurt.
There is no one, correct way to write about disability. No monolithic "movement" in which I must enlist. This is an obvious tenet in other kinds of discourse on identity politics, whether the focus is on race, gender, sexuality, or disability. As such, I'm uncomfortable only with narrow, coercive thinking, which I hope my own writing never is, whether in poems or comments posted online.