Deaf Poets Society, a new digital literary magazine, has a message for writers with disabilities: We see you. We want you to be here. And this is your space.
Writer Sarah Katz, the magazine’s founder, grew up in North Potomac, Maryland, and attended a school with a program for students who were deaf or hard of hearing. “I had grown up around other deaf and hard of hearing people and took for granted that I had easy access to other people like me,” she said.
That wasn’t the case at the University of Maryland, College Park, where Katz said she was the “only deaf student I knew.” As a young writer, she began seeking out the disability community and went on to earn an MFA in poetry from American University.
Katz said members of the disability community have struggled to find its place in the literary world, with many writers asking who is afforded space to write in a world that often renders disabled people invisible.
“There’s been a lot of controversy about how people with disabilities are represented in the literary community, and whether publishers are really giving a platform for disabled writers, and also the diversity of disability literature,” she said.
She decided to found an online literature and art magazine, naming it in a nod to the 1989 movie “Dead Poets Society.” Writers and artists with any kind of disability can contribute to the magazine, which will release new issues on a bimonthly basis, Katz said.
When creating the first issue, the editors of the Deaf Poets Society considered how to make the magazine accessible for all people, including people who are deaf, blind or have other disabilities.
Most pieces are presented in both text and audio, and pictures are accompanied by descriptions for people who cannot see the images. The editors are also considering options for online workshops that could allow people to attend from home.
But the magazine is only one step toward expressing the diversity and point of view of the disability community.
‘Someone is always trying to control our narrative’
The manifesto for the Deaf Poets Society, published in June, calls disability justice “the civil rights movement you’ve never heard of.” Some of its accomplishments are little noticed by able-bodied people: entrance ramps, wide hallways, even closed captioning are all results of efforts to make daily life more accessible.
But when it comes to literature, people with disabilities are rarely represented, poetry editor Ava C. Cipri said. “It’s very easy to be discouraged in the larger literary community when there’s so little representation in terms of disabled individuals,” she said.
Poet Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, who has lived with fibromyalgia for two decades, found community while performing in a South Asian poetry space in Toronto in the mid-1990s and later in the Bay area, where she found a “hotbed” of disability organizing and culture.
In particular, Palestinian poet Suheir Hammad, her teacher at the Voices of Our Nations writers of color retreat, had an effect on her growth as a writer. With Hammad’s help, she realized that she did not have to package herself — working class, femme, disabled, Sri Lankan, poet — for others.
“When you’re a writer of color or someone else from a marginalized identity, there’s immense pressure to create a three-minute long, easily digestible version of your culture for some literary or poetic scenes,” she said.
Disabled writers should push back against that notion, she said. “I think that push to tell the truth, especially when it’s really hard, is really important,” she said.
Deaf Poets Society poetry editor Cyree Jarelle Johnson, who was diagnosed with lupus in college, said that the experience of being disabled can be “incredibly isolating” in a world that often views sickness as a tragedy.
Johnson noted that not all people who are deaf or have a chronic illness consider themselves disabled, and that the word “disabled” can encompass a wide variety of experiences.
“I think that there’s a misconception that sickness is inherently tragic, and I don’t feel like my life is tragic. I feel like my life is lovely. Sickness is a huge part of my life, but it’s not the only part of my life,” Johnson said.
Johnson, who uses the pronoun “they,” is a former Chapter Lead for Black Lives Matter’s Philadelphia and is a Black non-binary trans person. Being a writer, they said, allows them to explore the intersection of all of those experiences.
“If we’re not writing our lives, then someone else controls our narrative,” they said. “As a multiply marginalized person, someone is always trying to control our narrative.”
Making literary spaces more inclusive
This work also needs to include efforts on the part of mainstream publishers — who often host live readings, panels and workshops that build writers’ careers — to be more accessible, Katz said.
“A lot of literary events are not accessible. A lot of the time we’re not even there. We don’t show up,” Katz said. “Not because we’re not around — we definitely are. It’s that a lot of physical spaces don’t acknowledge us, or don’t think ahead of time about, ‘Oh, there might be people with disabilities who want to attend.'”
For many deaf people, ASL interpretation is essential to their ability to participate in an event, Katz said. Live-streaming more events, with captions, would allow more people with fatigue-related disabilities to attend from home, Johnson said.
Other questions that Johnson brought up: are events wheelchair-accessible? Is it scent-free, to accommodate people with chemical sensitivity? Is your building accessible by the standards of the Americans With Disabilities Act? Rather than a large, milling crowd, will the event have one-on-one options for people with social-related disabilities?
Some of these questions are easier to resolve than others — but starting to consider live events in this way could greatly expand the range of people who are able to attend and add their own perspective to the literary community, Katz said.
“Thinking about these things ahead of time makes your own job easier and more inclusive,” Katz said. “It’s not that hard. It just takes a little forethought.”
The idea of physical spaces, and who has the ability to access them, is an idea that many writers chose to examine in the first issue of Deaf Poets Society, the editors noted.
Piepzna-Samarasinha documents some of these in “where I would find you,” her poem for fellow disability rights activist and writer Laura Hershey, who died in 2010. Piepzna-Samarasinha said she received a Facebook friend request from Hershey a few years before her death, but did not discover it until afterward. “It really made me think about the ways in which we, as disabled people, are kept apart from each other,” she said.
In response, the poem compiles a collage of the places they may have met — the elevator, “any ramp,” “every access van lineup,” or any number of other locations that disabled people have carved out for themselves in the world.
The piece brings together the many realities of daily life for a disabled person: the difficulty of navigating a world built for able-bodied people, the pleasure that disabled people experience and the connections they form.
“My poetic work is to capture scenes of disabled life, and sex, and resilience,” she said. “I write for disabled people first.”
You can hear Piepzna-Samarasinha’s poem, read it below, or find more work by her and others in the first issue of Deaf Poets Society.
where I would find you
for Laura Hershey
the slow/walking lane of the Berkeley Y
you on the wheelchair lift, me walking slow, slow all of us on our low-income memberships.
The elevator of every BART station, any elevator, anywhere
any ramp, any time
any house where we bed bound jail break time the community acupuncture clinic waiting room my friend’s living room
where she exquisitely tops her PCA about precisely which dish to use
and gifts me with the ability to lift her palm—
I mean the Facebook invite I didn’t notice or say yes to til after you died. I mean
every place my hips hurt, I mean
every sweet sweet drooling cripfemme kiss,
I mean every equation of 12-72 hours rest time for four hours storming the port of Oakland,
I mean every access van lineup
every argument on Facebook about where is the access info, again
I mean every moment we angry not grateful every moment illuminated by your words’ grace
every time my voice shakes reading the last line of the last poem you wrote
I mean, I did not find you til after you passed