The Poetry Slam
By Petra Kuppers
How to live together – that is one of the questions that crip culture is concerned with, as access, communication, attention to difference and the emotional and physical well-being of self and others are again and again at the forefront of our thinking. The emphasis is not on ‘special needs’ and the pesky differences of specific bodies in need of normalisation, but on all needs, universal design, finding ways of ensuring best outcome for everybody through thoughtfulness, innovation, and the willingness to try again. In this essay, ‘how to live together’ finds some answers in the performances of poetry.
In July 2006, I attended the annual Poetry Slam that precedes the Disability Pride Parade in Chicago. The evening was about sharing space not in books or anthologies, but in each other’s presence. Performers and audiences met at the University of Illinois at Chicago Auditorium, and settled after feasting on pizza, drinks and conversation, to listen to convener and short story author Gary Arnold open the event.
Maat was the first performer of the evening: a regal woman in yellow traditional African dress, strong and straightforward in her power chair. She had clearly done many readings, at many slams, and looked confidently out at her audience, a see of faces of many colors, supported by many metals, draped in many different cloths. She only performed one poem, but a devastating one: Unbelievable. The poem used the strong internal rhymes and echoes of spoken word, hammering home points in the accumulation of mirroring word-endings that speak of the violence of language and the largeness of emotion, and she sped or slowed her voice to the pace of her word world. The poem spoke of isolation due to lack of access; of the lack of accommodations, the little things that make life livable: curb cuts, Braille on elevators, minor changes in a block of flats. This was a political poem, but never abstract: Maat’s voice painted for us a woman, a friend she worked with ‘shut in day and night’ in a tower of apartments, a state of living that should be unbelievable at ‘the dawn of a new age’. She showed how discrimination continues to exist, and her ending became a battle cry – it is up to us to ensure that ‘people will not deny the law’ – and the law she is speaking about, rhyming about, is not just the law of the American with Disabilities Act, rent laws or transport bills: it is the law of humanity, of living together, of showing respect, and of celebrating our difference by ensuring that we can all be present, in public, to each other. Maat’s poem ends on the line ‘lets all plant the seed’. The hairs at the back of my neck have risen with her regal voice, and she sits strong and composed as she takes in the waves of applause that break over her.
Witnessing her proud presence, I am reminded of scene earlier that day. I had come to Chicago fleeing from a Texas that had become stifling and uncomfortable: the medical school where I was a Visiting Scholar had just announced that it was laying off hundreds of workers, many of whom had been told about this in that week, and the atmosphere around campus was dark and sad. The cuts were partly a result of the Texas legislature cutting funding for the large University of Texas Medical Branch hospital complex. And since UTMB had spent a lot of time and effort helping those left out of the stratified systems of health insurance and health access, many people felt betrayed and deeply saddened, and in pain as they felt that they were told to turn away people in great need, and to focus on the bottom line, instead. I knew fully well what that meant to my people, the citizens of disabled country, many of whom are still without health insurance and live at the economic margins, still outsiders in a world where access is not a human right. That week, refusing to sit in my office surrounded by the stifled silence of pain, I collected my frequent flyer miles and booked a flight to Chicago to attend the Disability Pride Parade, to remind myself of the fierce beauty of my country, disabled country.
Before traveling to the poetry evening, I sat with Riva Lehrer. We talked about our mutual love of disability culture, and the reasons for it. Riva, whose art work had delighted so many of us, spoke of her lack of finding identification in mainstream media, TV or films: she never ever could leave her own body, explore boundaries through the kind of tenuous identification narrative film offers to many people. Her body was too different, her life too different from those plastic women on TV, and books and stories offered much richer material for her imagination. And so her practice became painting disabled people, and exploring identification and sharing in that way, finding new mythical people by a close attention to the unique and specific beauty of others: that became her pathway out of her own body, that heart-opening moment of loosing oneself in something else – not through identification, finding the same, but through a sharing of life’s specificity and the beauty of all. And she knows from the many emails and letters she received that others react to her work in the same way: not usually finding representation in the cultural world that surrounds us outside disabled country, they come to Riva’s work as to refreshing and sustaining waters. Riva’s paintings are portals and magic doors into a world that is shaped and lived in ways that we cherish, and that exclude no-one.
I thought of Riva’s words and the powerful new images of disability artists germinating in her studio that she showed to me while I was listening to Maat’s applause: ‘lets all plant the seed’ to make a world of discrimination and social negligence ‘unbelievable’. Let’s find different models to believe in, to let our spirit soar with power words and power images.
Many performers that evening built their material out of a fighting spirit, a warrior spirit that takes on discrimination and exclusion, and makes poetry out of painful life experiences. Louise Rothenberg took to the stage as one sassy woman, a beret carefully cocked on her head, her legs wide and planted, hand in her hip-pocket, full hair streaming out with electric charge. Her poems have names such as Proud Disabled Artist, and proclaim to the world her struggles for recognition, for respect for non-mainstream art practices, for volunteer work that isn’t regarded as ‘professional’, and for her own experiences growing up in systems that excluded people with seizures, sent her out of classrooms, denied her access. How to live in these systems - ‘when I set my rules they were seen as my greeds’ – how can pride be created, rescued, and maintained in a world that does not wish to budge, and to share? Is the scarcity model of jealous guarding of resources our only option? Rothenberg clearly sees other ways of living: ‘I always hug the people in time of their greatest need’ – this is one of the core lines of her poem Blanky, and Rothenberg’s defiant stage stance becomes malleable, merely a claiming of space rather than a statement of oppositionality, as she speaks with passion about connection, ‘disabled rights to be’, and ‘true friends are huggers’.
A different way of physically being present to each other: that is one of the core experiences of disability culture to me.
In a conference paper I head a few years back, disability culture activist Terri Thrower first brought this experience to a focus for me: she spoke about Crip Slams as a place where people transgress ‘normate’ bodily protocol easily, as people help others to drink from straws, help adjust seating positions and engage in other caring behavior likely connoted as intimacies by non-disability culture people. These behaviors thrive in crip culture, without losing sight of a person’s professionalism, or the nuances of respect. This is indeed one of my personal experiences of these events, and one of my delights. I came to this Slam as an outsider, an anonymous guest, not at all well familiar with many of the participants. In contrast, many of this evening’s performers and audience members knew each other from committee meetings or other disability politics events in Chicago. And still: as I sat amongst them, they turned to me, greeted me, and, when they saw me furiously making notes of the performances, brought me food to ensure I didn’t miss out.
I had arrived very early, to ensure I’d make it, and spend two hours talking with various other early arriving guests about poetry slams and their own work. This experience, a fluidity of time, and time spend together, is one of the features of crip culture to me: many of us rely on public transport, the vagaries of accessible shuttle services, or have a need to catch our breath and rest for long periods between exertions, so getting to events very early is ordinary. And although time-consuming and irritating (since it is shaped not necessarily by personal desire but by the unreliability of transport), it lends itself to that ease of sitting around, talking desultorily, non-judgmental communication patterns that circle, fold and expand without necessary aims in professionalism, networking or self-presentation. Just nice, sometimes.
Barbara and Larry Bechdol’s performance act captured some of that ease, the gentleness of laughter, while also pointing to the codes of our culture, not always obeyed. They are a long-married couple, and well-known faces in the Chicago crip community. Barb is much involved with the Pride Parade community, and she and Larry are the webmistress and master for the event. She lives with CP, and her speech is non-normative, and it often takes me a while to listen hard and often enough to know what she is saying. In this sketch, Larry, nondisabled, explained that many people have difficulties understanding Barb, and that people often look to him as her husband and someone who would ‘naturally’ understand everything she says. Not so, he wants us to know. He has to do what all of us have to do. All it takes is listening, patience: just simply repeat, until Barb tells you got it right. So they have this relationship thing: it’s called the ‘she said/he heard’ game – surely known to all couples of all kinds and gendered pronouns. In the sketch, we listen to Barb say her line – and to Larry repeating it. The joke only becomes apparent when we really, really listen to Barb: Larry’s interpretation is always just off enough for laughter, but only if you catch Barb’s words first, which not all of us do all the time (and that includes me and my neighbors). Sometimes, we catch it: about a book Barb’s been reading: ‘pretty well-known thinker’ becomes ‘the long-nosed stinker’.
Their teasing attitude to each other and to us is warm, but there are just enough digs here at a world that does not value communication skills enough to pay attention to give the sketch an edge, and to make poetry out of hard-won words.
Rachael was another performer that night, and she announced her poem as a poem of pride, about labels, and she performed her resistance in her manipulation of communication. Her poem was called Me Special.
‘Special is a good word gone bad/
For some of us who knew that word’s power,’
And that line got calls and affirmation from the laughing audience, nodding with her.
She spoke to us about the humiliations, the labeling that she experienced:
‘You are in special ed, special classes’
And the lowered expectation, the horizon of Walmart:
‘You are our dishwasher, our door greeter’
And then she turned it around, when asked about how it feels to be destined for those jobs, finds a space to duck and turn under the label, refusing to engage, delivering a punchline that was answered with a cheer:
‘Don’t ask me – me special.’
Paying attention to communication occurred in multiple ways for me as a critic at the event, and throughout this essay collection. When the evening began, I set myself up, pen and paper at hand, to engage in my field study for this and other disability poetry essays. I was self-conscious, and spent time explaining briefly to people around me why I would exude that air of scrutiny and attention – I know well that many people are uncomfortable with ‘specialist’ people infiltrating crip culture, and I wanted them to know that while I am a disabled academic, I am writing respectfully and with love about crip culture poetry – not about medical issues, sociological observations, or, heaven forbid, ‘judgments’ about people’s ability. I tried to live by the rules I learned in my country, disabled country. This attention to the power dynamics of communicative fields is an important part of crip culture. Professional standing, academic rank or other external markers of worth mean hardly anything at all in a culture where so many people were excluded from educational opportunities, and where non-academic knowledge production is valued. I try not to assume that people wish to be written about, or offer themselves and their material as ready fodder for my consumption. I try not to identify people’s emotions by my own responses, and to keep open about ways that both joy and hurt can manifest. I also know that the very act of being in the presence of someone making notes can have disturbing connotations to many people, in particular mental health system survivors, so I also try to find ways of minimizing my note-taking, and looking ‘in-official’: that night, given the room set-up, I scribbled my notes on the program notes, not full sheets of paper, making sure not to miss rounds of applause to join in in, and I didn’t take pictures.
At the poetry slam, people spoke about their passions, their desires, and their loves. There was no framing (such as ‘non-disabled people think I am asexual, or shouldn’t have sex, or whatever’) – there was heartfelt affirmation of life, instead, and the centrality of life experiences, direct, coming at you full out, grabbing you. A young woman went up on stage, her notes in hand. She found her space on stage, turned to us – and sang. Without accompaniment, without support, she began her melody first small and slow, barely lifting beyond the spoken word, then ranging out up and up to take the space, to swallow the hall as we sat transfixed. She belted out her love. Shaking like leaf, she sang, the movement of her body adding a delicious tremolo to her delivery. She wasn’t shaking from nervousness, or inexperience – the way she managed her lines and notes made that clear. Her body trembles, and that is just the condition of her sound-making. She sang: ‘I see you standing there, I am so in love with you, boy’, over and over, unfolding the story of a relationship that wouldn’t quite work, and a longing big enough for both partners and more, one that filled her with spirit, and the hall with song. Many times, she threw back her head, lifted her eyes from her notes, and roared her passion out at us, to our delighted woops. She came off the stage, smiling broadly: her need seemed fulfilled.
Love and connection, in the specifics of each body: that was also the message in other of the slam poets. José Ocampo also spoke of love, and of the delicious joy of making it, in his poem To Love a Woman. He spoke of taking his woman ‘to a different world’, and of her ‘listen to that voice/ that has you hypnotized’: the phone as an instrument of love making, of shared passion. José uses a wheelchair, and in my notes I find a little drawing of him, trying to capture both intimacy and urgency: he reads with the mic held close, his legs outstretched and rigid, all attention focused on the gasps of air that release his words to us. His poetry is sparse, the breath valuable, and these short lines deliver a caress, a breath of feeling, each time.
José spoke to me before the slam, and we talked about previous slams he had attended, and how he valued the events as an opportunity to hone his skill, and his delivery. He also shared that he didn’t make the last slam, the year before: the paratransit failed. It takes so little, such careless accommodation, to isolate us, and to silence his voice in our world.
José’s voice reaches out, and here are some lines from his poem In My Shoes:
In my shoes/in the form of two/wheels of steel/spirit of a fight/it won’t let me drop/help me/though this cruel word/unpick the lock.
‘Let’s all plant the seed’ – I wish to write about our poetry as seeds, as growing living things that stretch between writers, performers and readers, as connections and bridges, as the breath that propelled José and all performers’ lines into the world, and shape a future.
The passing of time, and the harvest of disability culture was part of the poetry I heard that evening at the Slam, and we listened with respect and gladness to the words of those who could not be amongst us. We call crip culture word into our midst, establishing it with our words every time we come together, and our words echo and create time and space to move in.
Cynthia Webb went up to the stage, and faced us. She told us that she was reading the words of her son, Marlin Thomas, and on the t-shirt she was wearing we could see Marlin, a proud man in a wheelchair, his dark skin glowing with pride, as her words painted us his life in the little things, showing a life of breadth, nuance and experience (and his mother later emailed this poem to me after the reading, so that I can give space to Marlin on this page):
the little things
You say you don't understand me
You don't understand why
the little things impress me
I miss the gravel of a new driveway
crunching beneath my feet.
I miss jumping jacks and putting
my hand against my heart.
I miss the hated chore of Joy
dishwashing liquid scrubbing plates
and vacuum sounds created by hands
that belonged to me.
I miss lying back in bathtubs
so far that the water caressed my chin.
I miss dreaming dreams that could be real
and seeing scenes that will be.
You say you don't understand me
You don't understand why
the little things impress me
I can't hold your face when we kiss
during the just-because nights.
I can't massage your tired shoulders
when you're there to massage mine.
I can't slow dance with arms wrapped
and you hearing my heart rhyming
your movement as we flow to the melody
of Percy Sledge's "When I Love You."
I can't hold you against me on cool grass
as we watch the universe's centuries changing.
I can't spontaneously serenade your window
when my voice wants to compete with my heart.
You say you don't understand me
You don't understand why
the little things impress me
But you do these things for me and with me
that the little things make up our world
Marlin, a founding member of KASA, Kids as Self Advocates, died less than a year before this reading, but his voice, his life, and his family’s presence was in our midst.
‘Let us all plant the seed’: the Disability Pride Parade and the Poetry Slam were to me moments of a future to come, rehearsing for a life together that is full of respect and difference. And Chicago showed itself as that utopian city that it so often hadn’t been (within disability studies, Chicago is the iconic site of the Ugly Laws, forbidding the street to many crips): the other main event scheduled at the time of the Disability Pride Parade were the Gay Games, and the city was full of another group of people, often overlapping with our community, who celebrated their own pride and their own bodies in our world.
Late at night, going home after the Poetry Slam, the power of that utopia became clear to me. I mounted the bus that would take me to the Metro, and Debhora Williams, also a disabled woman, climbed onboard with me. We sat and talked, about the simultaneous presence of the Gay Games in town, and the delight to be clashing with such an event, taking over the city together. Then a bunch of young men entered the bus. We saw their shirts, which proclaimed Stonewall, and we cheered them, greeted them. They were delighted to find friendly reception, bursting with energy and totally wound up: they were from the UK, and had just won the Gold medal in soccer, the beautiful game. We sat together on the bus, and celebrated their success and our art event, the most natural thing in the world, the most normal encounter on a bus, a poetry of city life. And as my fellow crip and I left the bus, they waved at us, a white woman and a black woman, leaning on their crutches. She knew that I was from out of town, and, without fuss or asking, she led me across the road and to the Metro station which she didn’t need. Without assuming that I couldn’t find my own way, she had decided to be so very kind to lead me right to the elevator, half-hidden behind a shopping mall, before going on her own way. I loved that attention to comfort rather than necessary access, that generosity of spirit, and we parted, happily, looking forward to next day’s pride of the disability art and culture parade.
Petra Kuppers is Associate Professor of English at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her manuscript ‘Disability Culture Poetry: Pleasure and Difference’ will be forthcoming with some press, sometime, somewhere. Her previous books include Disability and Contemporary Performance: Bodies on Edge (Routledge, 2003), The Scar of Visibility: Medical Performances and Contemporary Art (Minnesota, February 2007) and Community Performance: An Introduction (Routledge, January 2007).