More on Cripple Poetics

As I was preparing my thoughts about this next post about Cripple Poetics, I received a personal e-mail from dis/abled femme activist and writer Leslie Freeman-Dykesen in which she articulated much of what I was planning to write. As I read her e-mail–smiling, pondering, nodding–I felt buoyed by dialogue, complementary thinking, and community. So as I write this morning, I’m aware of how these thoughts and words aren’t mine, or at least not mine alone. Thank you, Leslie.

That said, I have been so caught by Neil and Petra’s conversation about the word cripple in Cripple Poetics. The book starts with these wonderful lines from Neil:

“How can I speak of cripple and not mention the wind.
How can I speak of crippled and not mention the heart.
Heart, wind, song, flower, space, time, love. To leave
these absent is to leave cripple in stark terms.
As if we were made of medical parts and not flesh and bone.

There is always wind in my cripple….

Cripple is not extraordinary or ordinary.
Cripple is a full plate….”

Cripple is such an an ambivalent word, ugly word, a bully’s word, an insider’s word, a word that’s used as metaphor all the time. (For instance, after 9/11 we heard repeatedly how the attacks were meant to cripple the U.S. The examples of this kind of metaphoric usage abound.) Neil and Petra take all of this up.

The poet who writes, “There is always wind in my cripple,” later says “I don’t use the word crip to describe myself. I don’t wish to take on its painful history.”

Petra’s poem “Crip Language” addresses the stark violence of that word:

“Kruppel Cripple Fickle Tickle
playground ground go round again
last out on the line
Cripple Fucking Kruppel Madchen
tickle fickle root…
Cripple Ripple Cripple Ripple
stick that stick across your feet
fall on down
fall on down
that stick is harder than your bone”

Yet–and because–Petra also says, “In terms of word sound, I personally do not like crip–I like cripple, rippling across my tongue, little explosions, waves in my mouth. Liquid, and reminding me of Kruppel, my German word…. I am not sure the English crip has the same richness, at least not for me: it’s too short, too hip.”

I adore this tangle, dipping down into association, emotion, history, metaphor, not arriving at any one question or answer. At the same time Neil uses an analogy to explain some of what he’s thinking/feeling about cripple that makes me stop and and need to expand a dialogue that’s fairly single issue and narrowly focused. Neil writes, “is our [disability] history similarly known to ourselves or to the public as african americans [history] is known. not yet. then why do we borrow a nigger equivalent–is it?–use of oppressive term for ownership of power.”

Leslie wrote to me in her e-mail: “What that question [about African-American history] assumes: that African Americans’ histories of oppression and resistance are known, acknowledged, and, to some degree, understood. It also implies that crip history is not, in part, African American history; it erases the stories of African Americans with dis/abilities. The inclusion of both of these questions–the broad assumptive question [about history] and the delicate truth-seeking question [about the relationship between cripple and nigger]–could be read as documenting a specific moment in both Neil’s internal dialog and discussions happening across Disability Studies. Or, it could be read as an irresponsible choice to reinforce the perception that intersectionality of race, ethnicity, and dis/ability is merely tangential to dis/ability culture, and to crip-culture building.”

I so want it to be the former–a moment in a bigger dialogue that’s moving toward deep intersectionality. But for it to cleanly and clearly be that moment, I would need the book to be more intentionally multi-issued; for issues of race to be woven into who the “our” of “our [disability] history” is (white disabled people?) and who the “we” of “why do we borrow a nigger equivalent” is (white disabled people?); for acknowledgment of white privilege to be part of the finding of connection between different kinds of ugly words that arise from different histories and systems of oppression. I need Petra and Neil and white disability culture (myself included) to really explore Neil’s two word question: why do we borrow a nigger equivalent–is it?. And analogy and metaphor doesn’t in any way function in this context as deep exploration.

I want to pause here and reflect upon how miserably often white activists make analogy to African-American community, culture, and activist struggle as if the Black Civil Rights movement was entirely successful and is essentially finished and is now simply the measure of other social justice movements. This dynamic serves both deflect attention away from present-day racism and mask the actual role the Black Civil Rights movement had in giving rise to and feeding other liberation movements in the U.S. Of course this reflection isn’t directed specifically at Cripple Poetics, even as it is one of the perspectives through which I’m reading the dialogue about cripple.

I mean these criticisms in the best possible way. As Leslie wrote near the end of her e-mail: “Oh there’s so much to love in this book! Space travel. Disabled food, disabled clothes. ‘Bad crips’ making out under the guise of dance performance…. But isn’t it also a gesture of love for the community and culture that Neil and Petra co-create to keep pushing, asking questions, calling one another on our shit?”

In the end, I can easily say Cripple Poetics provokes me, and that’s a good thing

Cripple Poetics

I just finished reading Cripple Poetics by Petra Kuppers and Neil Marcus. I read it in one big gulp because of course I couldn’t resist a book called “Cripple Poetics” that is also a love story. There’s a lot I could say about the book, but for now I want to focus some more on thoughts about metaphor, how single words become metaphor and how metaphors are used to explain single words.

Early in the book in the form of a personal ad, Neil describes himself as a “handsome romantic 53 yr old spastic revolutionary with vision.” The pairing of the words spastic and revolutionary has made me catch my breath and hold it, letting it out ever so slowly, as I roll those words around. Spastic is one of those one word metaphors: the phrases “spazing out” or “he’s such a spaz”–meaning uncoordinated, incompetent, foolish, to be discounted–have currency because of cultural and institutional assumptions about bodies that are spastic, bodies that move in uncontrolled, jerky ways, muscles tense, constricted, spasming. If those bodies were appreciated as sexy, beautiful, desirable, then “she’s so spastic” would be a compliment rather than a put down.

The words lame, black, crazy, gay, retarded, fag function in the same way. They have become generalized put downs or associations with badness/negativity precisely because the bodies they describe are pitied, marginalized, and/or hated. Of course many of these words are also used as slurs in primary ways: fag used to bully/harass gay and bi men/boys specifically, crazy used specifically to shame people who have psych disabilities.

A slogan like “Lame is sexy” or “Black is beautiful” takes much of its power from not only an affirmation of identity but also from reversing the metaphor. This is the context and function of “handsome spastic revolutionary” and has struck me so because it strikes so close. Even with all my politics about using the ugly words as insider language (LGBT peoples using queer, disabled people using crip, Black people using nigga, however ambivalently with a lot of community disagreement in all these examples), I have always ducked spastic. I’ve tried not to pay attention to it; I’ve not challenged its metaphoric use; I’ve always felt raw in its presence. And so the identity affirmation and the metaphor reversal feel particularly potent to me who lives in a body full of tremors, tics, spasms, tension: spastic revolutionary.

For next time, more about Cripple Poetics and the word cripple itself and what it means for a white person to think about race and ugly language (I certainly paused long and hard before I wrote the n-word).

Good News about Exile and Pride

My first book Exile and Pride is approaching its 10 year anniversary. I still remember the thrill of coming home from work to the box of books in September 1999. I just learned that for the anniversary South End Press is going to release a Classics Edition of Exile to join an esteemed line up in its Classics Series. The book’s been a bit hard to get hold of since the first printing sold out and the second printing has been on a print-on-demand system. I’m excited it’ll be easily available again. SEP and I are working out what new content will be added. It’ll be out in Spring 2009. Exile and Pride a classic: I would have never dreamed.


As a poet, I’m fascinated by metaphor, and as an activist, I’m often puzzled and dismayed by it. The recent Society for Disability Studies conference gave me a lots of grist for my continued musings about metaphor.

In their excellent presentation/paper “How Disability Studies Stays White and What Kind of White It Stays: A Call for Intersectionality within Disability Studies,” Nwadiogo Ejiogu and Syrus Marcus Ware challenge the metaphoric use of the word colonize to describe the ableist marginalization of disabled bodies/minds, which are often presumed both in Disability Studies and the Disability Rights Movement to be white. Ejiogu and Ware write: “While it’s necessary to pay close attention to the many violences done onto particular bodies in order to maintain notions of able-bodiedness, intelligence, sanity, and productivity within a capitalist market, the appropriation of the term colonialism erases violent histories and contemporary realities. As people who carry with us transgenerational injuries as a result of legacies of colonialism and slavery, but who also benefit from ongoing gendered colonial violence enacted onto First Nations peoples in Canada, this (mis)use erases these violences while ignoring the messy ways in which power, privilege, and domination work.” What do white disability activists and academics gain by using the concept/metaphor of colonialism to describe ableism’s impact on disabled people without exploring the specificities, histories, and lived realities of colonialism? Do we (ie white disability activists and academics) think we gain legitimacy? Do we believe colonialism is actually understood in all its horror? Are we trying to disown the ways in which we’re complicit with and privileged by colonialism? What are the ways of talking about the shared forces that insist on owning a multitude of different peoples’ bodies, cultures, and cultures? The answer is certainly not through analogy. As an activist, I am suspicious of metaphor.

The next day at the conference, Riva Lehrer, Sunny Taylor, and Katherine Sherwood spoke at a plenary panel about disability and visual art. In her presentation about her new work, Riva talked about metaphor as a way to communicate bodily experiences, which she framed as ultimately individual experiences of aloneness. She called metaphor a “method of being porous to each other.” I know in my work as much as I rail against disability being transformed into metaphors and signifiers (Peter Pan’s Captain Hook being marked as evil by, among other things, his prosthetic device, to give an easy example), I return repeatedly to metaphor to describe and engage bodily experience. I’m not sure I could abandon metaphor, even if I wanted.

All of which leads me to the complex work of evaluating each metaphor as it appears. Does it appropriate experience? Does it run roughshod over specific histories? Does it ignore, rewrite, or simplify certain kinds of specificity? Does it open a door or close it? Is it a shorthand for analysis or feeling? Does that shorthand hold legitimacy or not and with whom?

I have no conclusions, just a slosh of thoughts.


My last day at my day job as the office manager at the University of Vermont’s LGBTQA Services was eight days ago. I am officially freelancing now. In other words the wild experiment begins. So far I’m not really scared but thrilled and am taking time to slow down and collect myself after a hectic nine months leading up to this moment. Soon I’ll start a writing routine but for now weeding the sunflowers, riding my trike, reading stuff that has nothing to do with work, and relishing summer abundance is more than enough.

Website Launch

Whee! My website, although not done, is in one piece. As some folks know already, I’ve decided to quit my day job at the University of Vermont in July and go freelance as a writer, speaker, and teacher. It’s a wild experiment that I hope works in the midst of a recession. Ultimately what I want is more time to write.

The website is both a kind of extended business card and advertisement for what I do and hopefully a bit of a resource for issues around queerness and disability/Deafness. To that end, I’m developing a Queer and Trans Disability/Deafness Resources Page. I want to make it as comprehensive as possible. It’s being interesting to figure out what the boundaries of this webpage are:

*what about AIDS writing and cancer writing that don’t name disability or Deafness but are intensely about bodily difference
*what about queer folks whose impairments influence their work but who rarely or never reflect upon disability or Deafness directly
*what about communities and cultures that frame disability in ways very different from the mostly white, mostly physical disability perspective of the disability rights movement
*what about issues of outness both around queerness and disability and Deafness
*how to include Deaf resources without conflating Deafness and disability.

I have few answers but am enjoying working through the layers.

The page is far from comprehensive yet. If you have resources you’d like to add, please drop me a comment or e-mail

Marrow’s Telling is a Lammie finalist

The Marrow’s Telling is a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award in the transgender category. Embarrassingly, that’s been a goal of mine, to be a Lammie finalist. My sweetie took me out for the best celebratory dinner last night.

On a side note about the odd quirks of how self esteem works: The book was also nominated in the LGBT poetry category but didn’t make the finalists there. It was a much bigger, more competitive field, and my I-can’t-just-be-happy-and-assured brain wants to say, “But if the book was really good, it would have been a poetry finalist.” And I want to say to that brain, “Shut up!”

And finally, which books become Lammie finalists and which don’t has always puzzled me. This year in the trans category, neither Julia Serano’s book nor Helen Boyd’s made the cut. Both omissions make no sense.

Recent Media Attention

File this under I-can’t-win-for-losing or something like that:

Recently The Ann Arbor News, in an announcement of a book reading I did at the Common Language Bookstore, described me as follows: “Self-identified as a gay, transsexual man with cerebral palsy, Clare has long been a poet and activist both under that name as well as his birth name of Elizabeth Clare. His 1999 book Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation has been heralded as a landmark text in queer/disability studies.” None of these supposed self-identifiers (they never asked me) are quite accurate–not gay nor transsexual nor man. Rather if the blurb had been interested in self-identity, particularly as it plays out in the book, rather than sensationalism, it would have used the words queer, transgender, and genderqueer. And yes, I have cerebral palsy–that’s no secret in my work–but I never lead who I am with a medical diagnosis. And then to use my given name–again no secret, it’s on the back cover of Exile and Pride and easily found on the Web–is to establish so clearly which kind of freak I am.

Of course you could reasonably ask why I am spreading this mainstream media drivel by quoting it in my blog. And the answer is because this drivel has followed me and my work around in one way or another for a long time, and the way for me to deal isn’t to try to hide it away. And it’s not only mainstream media.

Burlington’s alternative weekly Seven Days recently wrote, “…the book [The Marrow’s Telling] tells a harrowing life story, taking the poet in stutter-steps from childhood abuse to adult activism. Clare’s language grounds itself in vibrant evocations of the natural landscape. In a prose piece called ‘Gaping, Gawking, Staring,’ he demonstrates what he’s learned about people’s reactions to ‘difference’ and disability from a lifetime with cerebral palsy. But he offers advice to those who’ve suffered for such differences: ‘Resist the urge to ignore your body.'” I know this blurb is overall complimentary, but let me point out the spelling out of cerebral palsy and the predictable use of the words suffering and harrowing.

I don’t object to being a queer poet, trans poet, disabled poet. That is, after all, who I am. I just hate the sensationalizing. It makes me appreciate even more the folks who read and respond to my poems as poems.

Battle Rock


“We were landed at Port Orford on the morning of the 9th of June 1851.”–Capt. J.M. Kirkpatrick

Driftwood lines the cliffs,
bone white and rough,
a jungle gym of logs.
remember when
surf at low tide
could knock you over
June 1851: nine white men
drew the port on their maps,
summer wind bellowing,

“We found the Indians, who made their appearance when we
first landed, to be somewhat friendly, manifesting a disposition
to trade with us.”

and still Main Street whistles,
creaks, fishermen tie
their boats tight.

from “Battle Rock” in The Marrow’s Telling

Battle Rock