Tuesday, February 16, 2010

On disability

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:

Hi Paul,

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.


Anonymous said...

word. I especially appreciate the reminder of multiplicities, and the calling-into-question of any singular movement or (dis)ability experience. tell it, PG. --Sarah Green

Robert Falcon Scott said...

Well said, Sir.

Paul said...

Thanks, y'all.

Suzanne said...

Mr. Guest, I do believe you've arrived! Well said, indeed.

Keith said...

Preach on.

Paul said...

But where? Where am I? So confused....

Wendy Wisner said...

Well said, Paul. Miss you.

Suzanne said...

At the top, Sweet pea, you are at the top. Guess the view's not what you expected eh?

I'm with you--not at the top haahaha--but in spirit, I agree with you 100 percent. xoxo

Lynne said...

I wonder sometimes if crafting these replies is more difficult than creating your poems. You do it so very well. Bravo.

Brett Griffiths said...

Your response is authoritative and unequivocal. I agree with Suzanne, mostly. Nicely done.

Anonymous said...

Rock on, Paul. Thanks for all that you do!

Sean Santa said...

excellent point. Thanks for bringing people on f-book up to speed

Radish King said...

Hells yeah Mr. Guest. What a pile of hoohoo. You're my hero and your Index is wonderful. I can't wait until I get a blurb or review calling me OLD. Hahahaa. Or menopausal. I know it's coming.

Sandra said...

Hi Paul,

I've eyeballed the WOMPO dialogue with interest, but without getting into the fray--it's tough when receiving those emails in "digest" form, because replies can easily end up looking dated.

Long story short, it has read to me (and I suspect, many others on the list) that Bartlett has a bee in her bonnet over the larger issue, and made the discussion of it unnecessarily ad hominem by using your work as a hook.

I love your points about the specious idea of there being any one "movement" of (for lack of a better term) writing from disability. A close friend of mine, a renowned DC poet with cerebral palsy, would also take issue with that notion.

The blurbs world is such a high-wire act, especially when dealing with big names, and a big publisher like Harper. I thought the array of authors used for your book dovetailed beautifully. One always has to pick their battles in terms of what they can control and what they can't.

Keep doing what you're doing. Not that you needed anyone to tell you that, but still...


bp said...

I must say I'm confused. Your anonymous critic "John" says that you rely too heavily on disability in your poetry; now this critic says you don't use it enough. Congratulations, Paul: your pissing off people on both sides of the spectrum. You must be doing something right! :-D

bp said...

Oops -- obviously I meant "you're" instead of "your." Damn it!

Jennifer Bartlett said...

My response is here http://saintelizabethstreet.blogspot.com/2010/02/paul-guest-john-ashbery.html

Just a quick question! Are any of the other commenters disabled? Just curious!

Anonymous said...

Yes Jennifer.

And this episode is why I couldn't, in good conscience, continue to be involved with WOMPO.

Jilly Dybka at poetry hut blog

bp said...

Jennifer, I read your response. To keep web browsing simple, I'll restrict my posts to this page.

You write: "Guest is part of a minority. If he doesn't want to represent the major ideas of that minority (that disability is largely a social construct and there is a difference between disability (society) and impairment (bodily)) that is fine, but why doesn't he want to at least acknowledge that there are other people with disabilities who have a different view? Why would he not what to hear these voices?"

This is illogical. Simply because a writer doesn't write in a particular mode doesn't mean that he refuses to acknowledge that mode. As a matter of fact, by commenting on your post he is acknowledging that mode. Furthermore, you can you point to one place where Paul says he does "not what to hear these voices?" His comment that "There is no one, correct way to write about disability" seems to suggest the opposite view.

You also write "I believe, quite possibly, that Guest thinks his disability is the greatest tragdy of his life and he would give anything to be able-bodied." Can you offer some concrete textual proof that supports this claim?

Since you're guessing at Paul's motivations, perhaps you'll allow me to guess at yours: it's hard not to notice that you post a rather bitter comment in the listserve, and again on your blog, that Paul has a book with Ecco and a tenure track job. Forgive me for saying so, but the envy here is a little fetid.

Paul: sorry to spout off on your blog. I find it a bit irritating when people claim a poet "should" write a certain way, and then make ad hominem assumptions about the poet when his work doesn't suit their aesthetic and/or political preferences.

Jennifer Bartlett said...

Dear BP,
My point about Paul's are simply that Paul cannot and should not be regarded as an invalid (as he is by Ashbery and Karr in the Washington Post). It's protective, if anything else.

Jilly, I am sorry you feel this way. Even if you are upset about your disability can you appreciate that there are many thinker out there (Temple University, for one) that feel differently? We just believe that by representing disability as less than and tradgty, social will continue having excuses for nonaccessibility, instituitionalization, and non-representation in the media. Be Well, Jen

Anonymous said...

"Even if you are upset about your disability can you appreciate that there are many thinker out there (Temple University, for one) that feel differently?"

This. THIS. THIS! Do this!!

Yes I am a lefty libertarian for pete's sakes. THis is the whole crux.

Paul and others feel differently than you. Don't you get it????

Projection. Ugh.

Jennifer Bartlett said...


I see your point. I do. I think there may be a devision between people who are born disabled and those who become disabled. I DO see your point of view.

Have you even looked at any disability rights thinkers? Simi Linton, for example, 'became disabled' and is a forethinker in this movement. You do not have to do anything, but why so viciously deny another perspective?

And why are people angry for someone not wanting paul to be called an invalid? Jilly, do you regard yourself as an in/valid? Paul do you?

Anonymous said...

Jennifer I don't have the energy to continue this futile conversation. Best to you, though. (not being a smartass)

Anonymous said...

Hello and thanks, Paul, for your very eloquent response. Putting someone up as the spokesperson for those of us who are disabled is akin to people believing that Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are the true 'leaders' of black people. Silly. Glad you reject wearing the mantle.

Ted Gilley said...

I also appreciated your response, and your refusal to be saddled.

Mark Burnhope said...

Dear Paul, I'm English, was born with Spina Bifida, write poetry myself, and have been reading your forum with interest. (Actually, I'm addicted to the 'How A Poem Happens' blog and found you through there). I just had to comment on this.

You begin by writing about post-confessional poetry. By its very nature, post-confessional poems capture the experience of the individual, but transform them into the archetypal experience of us all (something which original Confessional poetry sometimes failed to do).

This is what the 'disabled rights movement' (a splintered movement, for sure, that's the irony here) doesn't understand: the individual. In all poetry, the idea is to make the particular into the universal.

But it is naive, a breach of poetry-reading rule No. 1, to say that the individual must always be 'a poet called Paul.' Sometimes he might be, but that's for you to know.... and the reader not to find out. The 'I' in your poems does not have to be you, and that's fundamental. Similarly, John Ashberry's 'invalid' does not have to be you either. 'Ashberry called me an invalid!' No, Ashberry used a literary construct, an archetype -- the Invalid -- in order to try to capture the feeling of your poetry.

The 'Disabled Rights Movement' can talk about the use of terms like this as much as they want, but it's not the place of poetry, which is to be raw, unflinching and honest.

I can side with the Social Model of Disability as much as the next guy. I don't suffer, I live a happy life. But to say that I never have pain, that things are all fine and dandy, would be ridiculous: yes, sometimes I feel like the 'Invalid.' I feel like the stereotypical character, the dysfunctional cripple that, in truth, I am not. Sometimes, although I want to believe I am disabled because of inadequate social support, no... the truth is, I'm disabled because I'm in a lot of bloody pain.

We're not doing philosophy here, or trying to contribute to the canon of 'disability thinking.' We are being poets: trying to capture in the most truthful way the world as we see it. My vision, I hope, will be entirely different to your vision. But I sure as hell hope that neither of them must cohere to any kind of 'Disability Rights' model.

We all have our own voice. I am working hard to develop my craft and my voice, and have so far chosen not to write about my disability. The reason? I want to wait until my writing's mature enough to allow poems which aren't pandering to anyone else's thoughts about disability. I want to be able to capture my own unique viewpoints, create my own images, my own connections between the worlds. And so far, my attempts to do so have failed, largely because of people's misconceptions about what a 'disability poem' -- or any poem -- should look like.

The 'Disability Rights Movement' arguably doesn't exist anyway. They are a splintered number of cells dotted around the world (like terrorists!). There is not one Disability Rights movement. So, do what you like. Write the truth as you see it. Ignore 'em.

Sorry for the essay; I tend to go off on one sometimes.

Paul said...

Thanks, Mark. You draw the same conclusions I do and I appreciate your comment here.

paulfan said...

hows about Ms. Bartlett do her own thing and let Paul do his own thing? Why does Paul have to demonstrate the SAME thing you do, Jennifer?? WHY??!!

Since when does public silence = defeat and hampering a cause/movement?? How can you possibly know anything about what Paul believes/does in his you know, ACTUAL LIFE??

Please, I beg of you, Ms. Bartlett, get back to writing poems. You are looking quite ridiculous.

Anonymous said...


just agreeing with you.


Fiona said...

Just wanted to chime in here - I became a fan after reading 'A User's Guide to Physical Debilitation'.

I am disabled, and became so as a result of illness when I was 19. I am now 29. I got married last year, I have good things in my life. I am also, sometimes, incredibly bitter about the things I never got to do, and now never will. When I first got sick, people kept telling me I shouldn't use a wheelchair or apply for sickness benefits because that was 'admitting I was disabled'. It took a long time to accept it myself. But, to me, disability isn't just a social construct - there are things that I want to do that I can't. Not because of how the world is set up, but because my body will not comply.

I'm not defined by my disability, and any attempt by 'the movement' to corral us into a particular belief system is an attempt to do just that. If we are not allowed to have our own feelings and opinions on the things that *have happened to us*, then we've been subsumed into some kind of groupthink where it's the only part of us that means anything, which is surely the opposite of the movement itself?

Jennifer Bartlett said...

I just interview with the great painter Sunny Taylor that explains her take on these issues at


Take care, jen

Jason Bradford said...

I may be misreading the opinions given here, but I don't think the uproar is about the construction of the poems. The conflict, to me, is allowing an able-bodied person to call a disabled person an 'invalid,' of no importance to society. To me, this would be comparable to a blurb saying a collection of poems written by an autistic person, as being written by a retard. Repulsive! Unless you, Paul, consider yourself an Anti-Poet, which I don't get the impression that you do, I, a poet with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, can't support Ashbery calling you an 'invalid.' That's my opinion, and I understand that yours is different, but I would be offended by such a comment.

Paul said...

I don't think you can find anything in which Ashbery calls me an invalid.

At the end of the day, that's what it comes down to. He never once states, "Paul Guest is an invalid."

I would never agree to be called an invalid, and I'd never call someone else one.

It's obvious he understands the concept of literary archetype.

As do I, considering many of the poems in this book play around with the representation of ability and disability.

What's really at work in this discussion is overly literal reading and thinking, anathema to poetry.

That said, thank you for writing in here. Great to read your thoughts and hopefully we'll keep talking about issues like this one.

Anonymous said...


Paul said...

Actually, this is a good point (the Poet's Corner link): I would have objected to invalid in this case. But the post was published before I saw it, so the issue was moot.

Still, the usage is very different and demonstrates the distinction between the two: one comes dangerously close to explicitly referring to me and the other does not.

I appreciate your post, though it was brief!

queerlefty said...

On the issue of being considered a part of the disabled rights movement, I'm genuinely torn between my belief that people have to organize fight for their rights, and not wanting to tell people what they should do. I can't make people do anything they don't want to do.

As a disabled guy who is also gay, though, I have, for some reason, always felt more welcome in gay rights groups than in disability rights groups (I don't believe in movements). Jennifer's entry only hardened that view. And that doesn't make me a self-loathing wheelchair guy.

On that note, Paul, I agree with almost everything you said.

Paul said...

Thanks for your comment. I appreciate it. And I agree with you. I've been disabled for 25 years, more or less, and have felt similarly. It's an interesting issue, which gives me considerable pause.

Jennifer Bartlett said...


Since this happened, I have been reading your book. I have to say that there are many, many lines of utter beauty. Your poem about being in the airport speaks to disability is a way that is funny, biting, and strong.

I think my point has become muddle somewhat. My point isn't about your poems or you. It is about how disability is represented in the mainstream and how the press of disabled poets/writers fits into this. It isn't about aligning with a movement, which I was dumb to say!

What is interesting, for example, about "My index." is that it is advertised as a 'disability' book, but reading many of the poems, I would not know this. They are expansive and could be read as pointing to so many other issues.

I am trying to think of how other disabled poets have been represented. I know that Eigner's supporters are paranoid about discussing his CP at all. I didn't even know Josaphine Miles had a disability. My blurb mentions tragedy, but it relates to my sister's death, not disability.

Not accusing here, just talking. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Jennifer, Eigner's supporters are not paranoid about discussing his disability--and there's nothing at all wrong with discussing disability--but what I don't understand is why you seem insistent on pulling Paul's work into a larger discussion about disability. He has made his position clear, and so have the rest of us.


Anonymous said...


Paranoid is not the right word, yr. right. If you follow the writings you will see that there has been some struggle about how to address disability in his life and work. That's how I percieve it. I'm probably wrong...Curtis and Bob would be the people to ask.

Paul has said many great things and I have learned a lot from him. Other's opinions are more difficult to understand.

I am discussing Paul's work in terms of disability as that is how his last book of poems - which is very interesting - has been heavily advertised. Given this, I think it's appropriate.

One last note, people here have attacked my many times personally, I can take it, but I don't think it's very nice or productive particularly if people don't know me or my work. It's ad hominem (sp?) and mean.

I for example, just did an experiment where my able-bodied students used wheelchairs for a day to discover accessiblity issues on campus and social prejudice. I will be posting their papers on my blog.