A Graphic Novel for the Blind

Each day I set pen to paper
The pen is entirely in my head
Paper is far away in the future
I say think what you want
Release the crows
From their cages

**

I feel sorry for the sighted
Scanning tiny boxes
Looking to break free
From tyrannies of plot
Like owning a bust of Stalin
Which you have to explain

**

Now an old man comes down the street
A kind of scrawny angel
Pushing a bent bicycle
Spokes flashing in the sun
He’s a Korean war veteran
Compared to him
Everyone else
is motionless

**

Then again it’s just me: “Trace
The veins of a barberry leaf
That’s Braille enough…”
In sidelong darkness
When the day is insufficient
Minutes not feeding me
Up river go the words
The outcast words
Oh anything will do

**

Here come the dancers, half Greek half sky
Fragrance of goat’s milk and iron—
All day, blind, alone, talking to myself
(For that’s how it was
Lonely kid telling stories to no one
In a bomb shelter, 1960
Already in love with Hercules
Who must have had friends.)

**

As I grow older
My hands open more slowly
Maybe they know more
What’s empty turns its face to us
Said a good poet, long ago
My left hand agrees, longs to touch her
My right is stoical
Leaves fingerprints
Like tracks of deer in snow

Disability Access, Brooklyn Poets, and the Collective Struggle

Last night I had a “Zoom” with poet Jason Koo who directs “Brooklyn Poets” a literary collective in, you guessed it, Brooklyn, NY. Also joining us was renee kay the BP Associate Director. To be frank I wish more folks in the arts–and who necessarily are “on” social media–could have conversations like the one we just had.

At issue: Brooklyn Poets has opened a new performance space at 144 Montague Street which is on the second floor of a mixed use building and isn’t wheelchair accessible. I raised the question about the accessibility of the space on their Facebook page and they confirmed the problem.

So we began our convo talking about Hemingway’s “iceberg” theory. The biggest parts of a story are always hidden–the writer hints at things unseen. Stay with me here.

I can’t speak for all disabled artists. But I “am” a disabled poet who publishes disability poetry and speaks about disability rights. I said disability is everywhere once you learn to look for it. Even if you don’t think it’s close by, it is.

Jason Koo made the initial mistake of responding to my Facebook query about accessibility with irritation. He said, quite rightly, that he didn’t know who I was and he doesn’t respond quickly to people he doesn’t know.

Full stop. Jason is a Korean-American poet who has the emotional candor and critical thinking to admit his mistake. Me? I shared with him that our preliminary FB exchange happened on the heels of my having been denied two Uber rides because I travel with a guide dog and even though this is against the law, shit like this happens to the disabled all the time. Living in the civic square as a cripple is a high gravity affair. So: Jason had been flippant and I was already in a kind of neurological hijacking. I called the BP a bunch of ableists. They are not.

There it was. Jason and I were both caught on the horns of a dilemma. Brooklyn Poets needed a new space, was under time pressures to find one, tried to locate an accessible venue, and then signed a five year lease for an inaccessible space, hoping they could fix the problems–and as most disability activists know, suddenly there were roadblocks–the Landmarks Preservation people, the landlord, etc. Brooklyn Poets had hoped they could fix the problems. And indeed, even now, they’re working to solve the inaccessibility issues. And yes, every event they’re hosting will be online simultaneously.

But here’s where the Zoom got really interesting. I mentioned Sascha Costanza Chock’s book “Design Justice” which argues that design should be a reflection of community values. If you’re a trans person or a guide dog user you’re always going to cause a problem with the TSA people. We talked about having community spaces that are truly welcoming for all.

Suddenly, where before, and in part because of the fight or flee endorphins of social media, I found myself in a rich and encouraging dialogue with two social activists who understand the future can’t be like the past. Jason is a Korean-American poet who’s experienced the alienating dynamics of white lit culture. renee is a trans activist. As we talked we realized how for each of us, this business of writing and advocating from the margins is truly intersectional.

The folks at Brooklyn Poets made a mistake. But then I made a mistake. They are good people and the future is going to be more just, theirs and ours.

A Letter to Boy Blue

In Helsinki, Finland, during my childhood I first understood people can be vicious. I was a small boy and climbing stairs in the old apartment building near the harbor–holding my dad’s hand, climbing, the steps curved like inside a lighthouse, my blindness talking to my feet. You understand–this is an early memory, 1958 most likely. An old woman approached us coming down from above and seeing me said in blue blood Swedish (for she was a member of Finland’s small Swedish speaking minority): “Tsk, Tsk, barna blind…” Tsk, tisk needs no translation, even to a boy. I was a blind child, and there, on that stairwell, in the curving darkness, I received my brand–was branded. My father ignored her by shrugging and we kept climbing.

“Even a minor event in the life of a child is an event of that child’s world and thus a world event.” The words are Gaston Bachelard’s and I’ve puzzled over them for years. My minor event, the naming of my blindness took place in the Scandinavian winter on a dark stairwell and I absorbed some very unrefined ideas about physical difference and human worth–knew them instantly–but how could this ever be a world event? As I see it after all these years dear blue, there are two ways Bachelard can be right. The first is that the old woman’s contempt becomes a cathected and insupportable incitement, the seed of what Carl Jung would call a “complex” thereby draining my life of self-esteem, maybe even stealing my curiosity. The second is this small, nearly infinitesimal occasion turns me to making things. In both scenarios Bachelard is correct. In both cases a child’s world grows upward and outward and influences many people over a lifetime.

One day I wrote a poem about my boyhood incident.

“No Name For It”

Start with a hyphenated word, something Swedish—
Rus-blind; “blind-drunk”; blinda-flacken; “blind-spot”;

Blind-pipa; “non-entity”, “a type of ghost.”
En blind hona hittar ocksa ett korn;

“The fool’s arrow sometimes hits the mark.”
(That’s what the Swedish matron said

When I was a boy climbing stairs.)
She pointed with a cane:

Tsk tsk,
Barna-blind; “blind-child.”

Her tone mixed piety and reproof—pure Strindberg!
It echoed on the stairs, barna-blind—

“Blind from birth”;
En blind hona hittar…

The blind child’s arrow….

**

Dear Blue: I wasn’t really a blind child at all, but one of the ghosts who rang Strindberg’s doorbell. I see this now but only through the poem. Strindberg imagined spirits were ringing his doorbell, saw them in the ambient light at twilit windows–things a blind child would know as facts rather than fancies. So in my private life, I’m a practical joker without doing a thing. I ring the old man’s doorbell with nothing more than a glance. I’ve hidden myself in the bushes. I will leap out when the lights go dark at his windows. I shall invade his solitude by means of the newly invented electric doorbell. I will do all this with nothing more than a glance.

Do you understand, Dear Blue, one night some thirty years ago, I met a drunken man in a bar in Estonia. He was very old. He claimed to have been a childhood prankster who tormented Strindberg. I thought then, and think now, how beautiful and sweetly unclear the facts are. I think how the unconscious works by means of animal faith. We go forward and upward by means of trust and laughter. I’d have tormented the old play write if I’d had a chance. Instead I grew up with a blind child’s arrow, a different trick, for I hit things askance and often produced a slanted music–an effect adagio and almost wrong though the credulous mind embraces it after all. Blue, I like Beethoven’s last string quartets. I like broken windows in abandoned country houses. I like crows on telephone wires and Boolean Algebra and rain in winter. I like whispers. I’ve always liked whispers.

My Boston-Irish Mother and Bill Russell

I’m calling from Heaven my mother’s laugh
As that was the best of her—half wild
It always rushed out
While bigots stood unaware
And bullies swayed half asleep
How she loved Bill Russell—
Johnny Most on the radio
“Get ‘em Bill, get ‘em!”
And then—
“He’s a total fucking genius!”
When he retired
And kept fighting for civil rights
She said: “he’s a total fucking genius!”

Green feathers in memory…

Green feathers in memory—transatlantic shipboard, 1958, old woman’s hat

**

Snow, apple branches, sky gone gray, the neighborhood quiet

**

What’s winter for? To remember ocean going hats…

**

So many dreams vanish at sunrise—this is why I love December darkness

**

“The days are like angels in blue and gold, rising up untouchable above the circle of destruction.”

    —Erich Maria Remarque

      All Quiet on the Western Front

**

Guide dog Corky Corky stepped into the gondola first. I let her go. Then I stepped down ever so carefully. What a tenderness I felt just then. Man. Dog. Water. Faith. How far we’d traveled for that gentle sway.

**

We floated down the Grand Canal. Our gondolier said we were passing beneath the Rialto Bridge. I hugged my Labrador as we floated under the Ponte della Liberta.

**

I thought: “how much beauty can one man hold?”

We drifted past the Palazzo Grimani di san Luca.

**

I wondered of course what Corky was seeing. I hoped she was watching a bird that flew and flew.

In the end it’s all about motion in the sky.

There was a light surge of waves.

Ableism in the Arts

Ableism is everywhere but it gets a special pass in the arts community. This is because many in the arts believe the apparently broken body has nothing to do with multiculturalism. The disabled are just medical problems.

In fact, when you “talk back” about this you’ll often be labeled as a malcontent. That’s how ableism works. I’ve experienced it multiple times in my life of poetry and advocacy. The Associated Writing Programs conference has for years been a disability horror show, though I’m told it’s getting better. When I brought up their problems with access some twenty years ago I was treated with contempt. OK. It’s what’s for dinner. I’ve gotten very good at spitting it out.

I’ve served as a panelist for the New York State Council on the Arts. I’ve seen organizations, non-profits, looking for money who say they’re not disability accessible but there’s a bathroom next door. I’ve seen poetry groups say their reading venues are not currently accessible to disabled people as if this is OK, as if it’s 1950.

Aren’t those cripples supposed to be in iron lungs somewhere out of sight?

Wheelchair users probably don’t care about poetry anyway. I think I saw a movie about it. I think Tom Cruise might have been in it.

And don’t let yourself think universities are any better. Auditoriums everywhere have steps for the visiting reader. No ramps. Bring this up and once again you’re the malcontent.

I’ll never forget my last visit to The MacDowell Colony where I listened to artists demeaning disability over dinner. One fellow who was working on a project involving queerness in comics announced that as a high school teacher nothing was worse than teaching the special needs students.

When I objected to the ableism, you guessed it, everyone stared at me.

Later in that same residency Michael Chabon gave a speech in which he announced that the MacDowell Colony would never be some “blind” again when considering graphic novel applications. He liked the line so much he said it twice. And there I was, sitting there with my guide dog.

Ableism is rampant among artists.

This is like saying there are crickets in the grass but frankly what’s troubling is the degree to which arts groups continue to willfully leave out the disabled in their activities.

The latest instance I’ve encountered as a group calling itself “The Brooklyn Poets’ which has remodeled a second floor walkup social space on Montagu Street.

I’m certain they had other choices of venue. They chose this space because frankly they liked it.

Disability access is always someone else’s issue in the arts.

Trust me on this. I’m not a malcontent. Nor am I bitter. The disabled however are BIPOC, queer, trans, Asian, African, Indian; they’re your neighbors, your sisters and brothers, your children, and yes, worthy of inclusion and respect. Of course the law says so. But the law is easy to avoid.

If you avoid the ADA you’re really no better than Donald Trump who said “why have Braille” in Trump tower. We all know they won’t be coming in here.

Assertions

Sometimes I need to check into a hotel alone just to weep

**

There was madness in my family but I didn’t know it

**

Laughing at the underprivileged is a sport in the United States

**

Hang it all Robert Browning

**

Talking to the blind horse

**

Churchill, London radio broadcast (1941):

I see advancing upon all this, in hideous onslaught, the Nazi war machine, with its clanking, heel-clicking, dandified Prussian officers, its crafty expert agents, fresh from the cowing and tying down of a dozen countries. I see also the dull, drilled, docile brutish masses of the Hun soldiery, plodding on like a swarm of crawling locusts.

**

Vlad Putin’s head looks like a small pear with two wasp holes for eyes

We told ourselves a story…

    —note to the reader: you can rearrange these lines to                    suit your own taste

We never caught a glimpse of its head
We only saw its tracks
We said it lived in the woods
In truth it went every place
It owned the minutes
Alright anyway etcetera
The young thought it was old
The old said it was young
The fires out in space said nothing
The bleeding pinpoint of here and now said nothing
The winged angel fell into a shabby Parisian courtyard
So much can neither be written nor kept inside
We have such thin wrists; such brittle feelings
Everyone wants this month to hurry
It was a monster alright
Despite what you may hear
It spoke when it wanted to
It was power in circulation