AWP2018: Singing the Body Electric: Praise for the Disabled Body

Panel Participants: Emily Rose Cole, Jess Silfa, Avery M. Guess, and Jillian Weise

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 7.25.10 AM“Set this chair aside; something’s wrong with it.”

Those words hunt me up like a dog hunts a buried bone. During a time when life was simpler, when I didn’t rock the boat, when I did I was told, I was helping to set up for an important meeting. The director handed me a chair and through the words over her shoulder with superiority and impatience. “Set this chair aside; something is wrong with it.”

I looked at the chair with its ragged gaping hole oozing cotton batting. I placed the chair in a corner at the back of the meeting room where any of the meeting attendees wouldn’t see it. Over the years I tried to ignore the words, but they stuck with me like a band-aid to tender skin; like a wad of gum to the sol of an unsuspecting shoe. “Set this chair aside; something’s wrong with it.” My mind kneaded the words like a ball of play dough until they formed the shape of that frustrating question I’d been asking myself all my life – Is there something wrong with me? Is this why I had been set aside so many times in my life?

Cockeyed, blind, coke bottle glasses are just a few of the words I heard daily at school. “Don’t slouch and hold the book close to your face like Katrina,” one elementary school teacher said. “If you can’t see well enough to read the test,” the administrator of a test I had to take for a summer job in high school said. “Then leave.” “Handicap people are some of the worst people to be around,” a coworker remarked to my face when I was in my mid-twenties. Insults to the disabled body delivered from an attitude of confidence and privilege are standard practice.

When I attended AWP18 in Tampa, I chose to attend the panel. R151, Singing the Body Electric: Praise for the Disabled Body because the description of the panel casts a focus on celebrating the disabled body with poetry and prose by disabled authors. As panelists, Emily Rose Cole, Jess Silfa,, Avery M. Guess, and Jillian Weise read their work the power of language in the representation of the disabled by the disabled was transforming.

In her lyric essay What Follows, Avery Grace, a Ph. D. student at the University of South Dakota, explains the difference between dots and holes. “Dots occupy space. Holes exist outside of space.” Through the essay, she weaves the idea of dots and holes with her personal experiences with abuse, bipolar disorder and memory loss. The power in this piece lay in the language narrated by the disabled narrator. Same is true for Cade Lebron’s poem Ode to the Brain Holes. She writes: “You make me hear songs differently; you make me sing worse. But when my mouth closed my brain opened up, and that’s okay. (They say when God closes a door, he’ll be sure to open a few windows in your head.) I am afraid because you are not a hole. You are scar tissue, hardening into something unfillable.”

After the readings, a discussion on how the representation of the disabled in literature. The panelists agree that using ableist’s’ limited view to represent the disabled in literature is unacceptable. It further shames the disabled and presents them as weak. Because it is not the disability that disables us, but rather the narrow, unyielding spaces in which we are forced to navigate, language that suggests shame or cast a focus on the idea of disabled as wrong, needs to be avoided.

This panel was great for me as a disabled writer who struggles with what the ablest idea of what a disabled character can do and the reality of what a disabled character can do.


Katrina Byrd is a student in the Low Residency Creative Writing MFA Program at the Mississippi University for Women. Katrina is a writer and playwright who has received four Artist Minigrants from the Mississippi Arts Commission. Several of her short plays have been performed locally and several of her short stories have appeared in Inflight Literary Magazine, Black Magnolias Literary Magazine and Monkeycyle Literary Magazine.


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