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

Petra Kuppers said,

September 8, 2008 @ 9:12 pm

Hello Eli (and Leslie),
Thank you so much for your passionate and interested engagement with Cripple Poetics! We are honored and glad to touch nerves, to see ourselves ‘called out on our shit,’ to be engaged by our fellows in our continuing struggle to grow.

I have a few questions: Neil and I met at the Anarcha symposium, as we mention in the text. That’s the background: a two-year long journey of engaging across crip culture and African-American culture issues, a much publicized journey with thousands of US activists, artists and students. You can read more of the painful path of Anarcha, how to speak to our hurts in a racist society with a racist past, how to hurt each other and heal each other, and stay open to listing and being with one another even in pain, at the Anarcha Anti-Archive,

There’s little thrown away in the pared-down language of poetry, and our choices in Cripple Poetics are deliberate, including the reference to Anarcha.

Does that not throw a different light on the passage you quote? You quote it different from how it appears in the text itself, where paragraphs set off the words ‘not yet.’ This is poetry, and the exact form DOES matter, is deliberate, a choice we made. The two words are by themselves in between two statements, and could qualify either: that seems to us to be the exciting potential of poetry, to undo ‘normality,’ in particular in Neil’s highly economic use of marks. To read it as flatly stating that African-American history is known, and ‘our history’ isn’t (and that ‘our history’ excludes African-American history), seems a remarkably straight reading.

We discussed long between us whether to include this sequence, and we did, and are happy we did, since that ambiguity seems so important to us. And Anarcha was all about the silences of history: the silences in African-American histories and disability culture histories, and many other silences (a Jewish writer and a German writer find many nuances together, and eugenics are thematised in Cripple Poetics, too, see this excerpt,

So glad we get to talk, and work towards change. Thanks again for your engagement, we are looking forward to more dialogue. We both value it.
In solidarity, Petra

neil marcus said,

September 10, 2008 @ 8:54 pm

Eli and Leslie

I am a white disabled man. Much of my awareness of what a civil rights movement is came FROM the ethical stance of the black civil rights movement
In the real world sense, would it be too much to suggest that the word
“crip” comes from “nigger”
a kind of ‘shorthand’
a reference no matter how thoughtless
used commonly. Is it thoughtless? or is it a powerful statement?
This is what im asking.
the points you bring up are very good ones as well.
I also want to ask if this is a divisive or unifying word.
I’m sure I will find out

Leslie Freeman-Dykesen said,

September 12, 2008 @ 9:39 am

(I suppose this is mostly addressed to Petra. Neil, I can’t answer but will ask with you “Is it thoughtless? or is it a powerful statement?” .)

I want to be clear that my thoughts surrounding the use and representation of race in Cripple Poetics do not reflect my overwhelmingly positive feelings about the book as a whole text. Rather, they were written in the context of conversations which had left off at the SDS conference, around Nwadiogo Ejiogu and Syrus Ware’s intense, challenging paper “How Disability Studies Stays White and What Kind of White It Stays”; my own evolving perspective on the need for intersectionality in art as well as academe; and a renewed commitment to active anti-racism in my art and scholarship. My comments were addressed to Eli privately, as a friend and ally in community–with the understanding that Eli is also a public commentator, with implicit permission for him to engage publicly with my ideas, with trust that he would do so respectfully. Re-reading his blog now, I continue to see my trust well-placed: He acknowledges plainly that his discussion of comparison between crip history and African American history is “single issue, narrowly focused”, not comprehensive, not a book review of Cripple Poetics. I interpret Eli’s blog (this entry, others too) as an invitation to pause, reflect, question, apply the insights gleaned from conversations across Disability Studies,

Which brings me roundabout to the question of how Disability Studies interacts (and doesn’t) with crip culture. My experiences of crip culture agree with yours, I think: comprised of diverse voices, bodies, identities, vibrant and dynamic, by no means a monoculture. Racism continues to function in US dis/ability communities—both to marginalize and tokenize people of color within our communities, and to isolate our communities, in which POC are overrepresented, from one another and from the mainstream. No group or community which exists within a racist state exists free of racism. But the richness and dynamism of crip culture allows crips to come together, across a spectrum of other identities, to question, learn from, connect and work toward change with one another.

Disability Studies– a discipline which has unique potential to examine, document, and be held accountable to grassroots crip culture–does not fully or seriously represent the spectrum of human experiences which feed and shape crip culture, nor does it accurately map the intersections of crip culture with other cultures and social change movements. A work like Cripple Poetics, which deserves to be read and studied as a cultural text, has the power to push Disability Studies in the humanities out of the academy, out of traditionally hegemonic academic modes of discourse/power, and closer to the grassroots. If the book is taken seriously, treated seriously, it also has the power to influence whom, and which questions, the academy recognizes as legitimiate to the Disability Studies project.

I couldn’t read Cripple Poetics and love it– love how reading IM and email conversations feels like watching thought, love how the play between you and Neil as speakers encourages your audience to riff on/with you, love how naturally and lightly Neil (yes, with those “highly economic” marks) touches on deeper issues, including issues of rhetoric and appropriation, love your courage in writing and sharing this–without rigorously applying the theory/politics/aesthetics of intersection, which I believe are essential to the growth and deepening of Disability Studies.

There are lots of provocative moments in Cripple Poetics—not only those lines by Neil which problematize naming: references to gang violence, to eugenics, to queerness. (In my original note to Eli, I focused more on your lines, Petra, than on Neil’s.) I am grateful and hungry for provocation. It’s true that what you offer in these pages isn’t enough—doesn’t consider deeply enough the histories and connotations invoked by each word and silence—but that’s okay, that’s right. Culture-building isn’t about enough—it’s about wanting more, and I do. I want more from—and more of–your voices and visions and love.

I want to pause for a moment to consider/remind myself: Intersectionality is not only about bringing anti-racism and anti-colonialism into dis/ability politics and crip culture, nor about Disability Studies learning from Critical Race Studies. It is about cultural confluence, about awareness in analysis of (and solidarity in resistance to) interlocking systems of oppression (ablism, racism, also classism, sexism, gender essentialism, homophobia. . . .) Intersectionality demands reciprocal acknowledgment and respect. Therefore, it is also about bringing dis/ability politics and crip culture into anti-racist and anti-colonialist art, activism, and scholarship. It is about bringing Disability Studies into Critical Race Studies, into Women’s and Gender Studies, Labor Studies, Postcolonial Studies, Queer Studies. Solid, intersectional art is being created by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna Samarsihna, by Colin Kennedy Donovan and Qwo-Li Driskill, by Leroy Moore and the cast of Sins Invalid, by writers like Linda Hogan whose work is generally not recognized in a Disability Studies framework. My own sort of spirit guide through this remains the late Audre Lorde.

The problems of analogy and appropriation that Eli has been blogging about are certainly not limited to a few passages in Cripple Poetics, nor to white dis/ability activists who have appropriated the language of the African American civil rights movement. I’m thinking of how my heart broke, reading Harriet Washington’s landmark text of African American history Medical Apartheid–heroic, painful, breathtaking in so many ways, yet replete with metaphors of crippling/disfiguring/maiming, stories which reduce the experiences of Black men and women with dis/abilities to experiences of racism–and broke again, screening the anti-war film Body of War -the experiences of people with dis/abilities disappeared/passed/reduced by consciously anti-racist and anti-colonialist texts and rhetoric. . .

Finally, Petra, when I wrote that it is an act of love to “call one another on our shit” I did not mean that my appreciation of you, your work, or my identification with disability/crip culture is conditional. I meant that people with dis/abilities, like every diaspora, must be vigilant, precise, and as honest as possible in naming our experiences, especially in our cultural records. . .or we will grow more isolated, less connected. When I return—and in the past few days I’ve returned often-to Eli’s blog, his words (and his use of mine) do not read as reproach—nor are they careless words. What I read is desire for, and willingness to work toward, connection strong enough to hold.

We need more from Eli, too–more readings close to the bone.

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