Books In Conversation
JILLIAN WEISE with Kathleen Rooney
(BOA Editions, 2019)
In her third poetry collection, Cyborg Detective (BOA Editions), writer, performance artist, and disability rights activist Jillian Weise (aka Tipsy Tullivan) offers work that is angry and funny, savvy and sad, and willing to criticize ableism in all its forms. She identifies as a cyborg and delivers a compelling critique of Donna Haraway and other thinkers who posit cyborgs as existing in the future, or merely as metaphorical concepts, when in reality, people like Weise are already here and living a present-day cyborg existence. Her previous books include 2007’s groundbreaking The Amputee’s Guide to Sex from Soft Skull Press, which was recently reissued in a tenth anniversary edition, as well as The Book of Goodbyes published by BOA Editions in 2013, and winner of the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. This Fall, after Cyborg Detective had just been released, she and I corresponded over email about Tipsy’s origins in response to the ableist gatekeeping of the annual AWP Conference, the power of fun when it comes to activism, and how invective poetry can create space in which to question the canon, as well as the question of “How much of poetry is already arrested by the politics of politeness?”
Kathleen Rooney (Rail): Of what does a typical day in the life of Jillian Weise consist?
Jillian Weise: I make every effort to wake up before noon.
Rail: One of my favorite poems in Cyborg Detective is “Imaginary Interview” in which you provide both the Qs and the As to such questions as “What is disability like?” and “How have labels of disability affected the degree to which you feel that your authentic voice has been heard by others, e.g., family, friends, health care providers?” How did you come to write the poem and to what extent were the queries and statements ones that you’ve heard or been asked in interviews and in general?
Weise: I love Augustine’s Dialogue with Myself and I love e.e. cummings’s imaginary interview from that exhibition of his paintings in NY. I can’t resist quoting it:
Tell me, doesn't your painting interfere with your writing?
Quite the contrary: they love each other dearly.
They're very different.
Very: one is painting and one is writing.
I wanted to trespass somewhere, sneak a poem in somewhere, and I found the opportunity with Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics, a journal of qualitative research. They put out a call for articles on “Living with the Label Disability.” Their call provided some of the questions. In order to publish the poem—which I dared not call a poem—with NIIB, I had to certify in a footnote that everything in it was true. And so everything in it became true. The best part of publishing in that journal was being in the company of other incredible disabled writers like Katherine Schneider, Emily K. Michael and Alessia Minicozzi.
Rail: Often, the best way to make an argument is to proceed by pointing out specific examples, and in “Phantom Limbs of the Poets,” you do just that, building a poem that consists almost entirely of citations of poets who have co-opted that phrase, as in: “Ben Lerner has a phantom limb. / It’s the unavailability of the traditional lyric” and “Johannes Göransson borrowed Aase Berg’s / phantom limb and now it’s contaminated” (17). The poem ends “Does anyone actually have a phantom limb? / The rest of you: draw your blood elsewhere.” How did you decide that a catalog poem was an effective format in which to deliver that critique?
Weise: The first time I read about a phantom limb in a poem I honestly was fine with it. I’m a compassionate person. I always begin on the side of the poet. By the 100th time I read a phantom limb in a poem, I thought: This is getting a little ridiculous. What are the poets actually trying to say? Do they know how often they use this language? Do they think it’s original? My hope is that it’s some kind of poetry initiation by an underground cabal: “Drop the phrase phantom limb in your work and we will give you the keys to the KGB Bar. It has lots of stairs, so you’ll need lots of legs.”
Rail: Relatedly, in “10 Postcards to Marie Howe,” you address that poet in response to the ableism in her poem “The Star Market” in The New Yorker. In the penultimate stanza, your speaker interrupts herself to say, “No one likes the poetry police. I’m not the poetry police.” Can you say more about what you mean by that? And have there been instances in which readers have reacted negatively to your criticisms and activism? Do you have any suggestions for dealing with defensiveness or fragility in the face of dissent?
Weise: I’m thinking of how iek, when answering a question, often says, “Did you see this movie? It’s not even a good movie.” Right? And then he moves on to whatever philosophical conceit the movie illustrates. “The Star Market” is like that. “Did you read this poem? It’s not even a good poem” is something many disabled scholars and poets have been saying for over a decade so that we can talk about simplistic ableism in the symbolic order. So when the speaker says, “I’m not the poetry police,” I’m trying to dodge the charge of censorship. I believe poets can write whatever we want. Obviously. “The Star Market” uses ableist and eugenic language and appears in The New Yorker. The question is not can it be done? But what is it doing?
If readers have reacted negatively, they haven’t yet told me. I’m wanting to check my privilege because I would not have written this book without the protection of a job, tenure and health insurance. So already there is a kind of censorship that I have felt as a disabled poet and I wish it were otherwise. I wonder if younger poets have poems they really want to write, but then decide there are too many risks. How will the poem make it out of slush and into a manuscript and through a book contest? How will the poet land a job? How much of poetry is already arrested by the politics of politeness? Likability culture? On the bright side, some great art is waiting to be made out of all this prohibition.
Rail: You make compelling videos in the persona of “Tipsy Tullivan,” whose Youtube biography describes her as “a writer from Asswallascallacauga, Alabama” who “is really nondisabled,” and “has two arms, two legs, 10 fingers, 10 toes, sight, hearing and is super neurotypical, and says that “Tipsy presents advice she's learned from attending The Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, The Smoky Mountain Writers Conference, and many TED Talks across the vast nation,” concluding “Jim Ferris calls her ‘such an ableist’ and admits that “she is, but like with really good intentions.” How did this character come to you, and how have you developed her? What do Tipsy and the video format allow you to do and say that you might not be able to in your own voice and in writing alone?
Weise: The character arrived while I was in conversation with Karrie Higgins, an intermedia artist, and the founders of the Disabled and D/deaf Writers Caucus. AWP had just rejected all panels on disability-anything and accepted 500 other panels for their 2016 conference. The exclusion was blatant. Literary organizations are usually a bit more discreet when discriminating against entire populations. Someone did a Change.org petition and people tweeted and blogged. Nothing changed. Now I had already protested AWP 2014 in Seattle with the DeafBlind poet John Lee Clark. We used the earnest mode [n.b. I can provide photo of this campaign]. Now please understand that at the same time AWP is rejecting all the disabled writers’ panels, AWP is keynoting all these nondisabled writers whose books are just chock full of disabled characters. I mean we are overflowing in their novels, but we are not allowed at their podiums. This rankled me. So I invented Tipsy Tullivan. She could be one of them.
I thought about Audre Lorde’s caution: “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” And I considered the tools available to me. If AWP’s tools are podiums and stages with stairs and time-sensitive readings, what’s the opposite of all that? What about YouTube? It already belonged to disabled and Deaf artists insofar as that’s where you find Sins Invalid, Bill Shannon, Annie Segarra and ASL poets like Clayton Valli. Plus there’s this idea in literary circles that Vimeo is high art and YouTube is low art. The poet Meg Day gave a keynote where she pointed out this ableist gatekeeping, this consideration of YouTube as “almost professional but never professional enough.” How convenient that “low art”/YouTube happens to be where most disabled and Deaf artists are performing. So I knew that’s where Tipsy belonged. And the first playlist was called “AWP Tips for Writers.” And it took off. And it led Tipsy to interview Ishmael Reed, which I never would’ve imagined.
Rail: Invective—poetry that attacks, insults, or denounces a person, topic, or institution – is one of the modes by which this collection proceeds. “Catullus Tells Me Not to Write the Rant Against Maggie Smith’s ‘Good Bones’” stands out as an excellent example—precise, angry, witty and succinct. How did you settle on that approach? And what invective poems or poets—besides Catullus—did you draw on, or do you recommend?
Weise: Oh, so many good invectives out there: June Jordan’s “A Short Note to My Very Critical and Well-Beloved Friends and Comrades”; Constance Merritt’s “Invisible Woman, Dancing”; Etheridge Knight’s “A Poem to Galway Kinnell” for the line “dear galway, what the fuck are the irish doing”; of course Martial (“I do not like you, Sabidius, I can’t say why”) and Lil Wayne (“ok you’re a goon but what’s a goon to a goblin”) and A.D. Carson (“blast for you and those who come after you”). I was lucky to read Ishmael Reed’s work around the same time I was assigned to read T.S. Eliot. So I had Reed’s line “dese are d reasons u did me nasty / j alfred prufrock” to make me question the canon.
Rail: Cyborg Detective’s jacket copy states that part of the book’s mission is to deliver “a reckoning to the ableism of the Western Canon.” The collection does that brilliantly, particularly in the central long poem “Cathedral by Raymond Carver,” which offers an answer story of sorts: a monologue in the form of one of the taped letters from the woman Carver identifies only as “the wife” to Robert, the blind man, in order to subvert the original story “in which the disabled person is de-sexed.” That poem takes up all of Section 3 of the book—when and how did you decide that it was going to be a centerpiece? Did you ever worry that the book’s referentiality and allusiveness to other works from across the canon might limit your readership? Do people need to be familiar with everything you cite in order to “get” what you’re saying?
Weise: I never really worried about it. Maybe because I remember reading Horace’s “Letter to the Pisos” in college and wondering who the heck are the Pisos? And there’s a lineage of referentiality in crip lit/dis lit. I’m thinking of Anne Finger’s Call Me Ahab, Raymond Luczak’s The Kiss of Walt Whitman Still On My Lips and Kay Ulanday Barrett’s poem “YOU are SO brave.” People do not need to be familiar with the references. But disabled writers probably are familiar with Carver’s story because it’s often taught as the disability story. And if you were yourself disabled in that class, you might’ve been thinking: Huh? The writer isn’t disabled. And the character isn’t realistic. I feel nervous about the poem “Cathedral” because it’s offensive. The wife’s reaction to finding out that Robert has another lover is extreme. She says something terribly ableist in the last line of the poem. She does it to hurt him because she’s hurt by him.
Rail: You write prose as well as poetry, and your essay “Common Cyborg” in Granta and “The Dawn of the Tryborg” in the New York Times engage directly and critically with the ideas of philosopher Donna Haraway. In the latter, you write “but Haraway is a tryborg: she’s not disabled; she has no interface; she uses the term as a metaphor. The strategic move where one group says, ‘I shall speak for them because they do not exist / do not live here / do not have thoughts’ is common of the tryborg.” At what point did you begin developing this idea of the tryborg, and what insight do you hope this term will give to your readers? Also, will you send Donna Haraway a copy of this book? (I wish she’d read it.)
Weise: Firstly, an open call for graphic designers: I need t-shirts that read “so tryborg.” Anyone know how to make that happen? I need them because I feel like tryborgs are proliferating. Gucci just plagiarized the disabled artist Sharona Franklin’s work for a fashion show. That’s very tryborg of Gucci. On Twitter, Liz Jackson—the founder of Critical Axis—often points out some tryborg shenanigans. She coined the hashtag #DisabilityDongle to make fun of nondisabled designers who invent tech that we disabled people for sure do not want. Even the frenzy about plastic straws seems high tryborg since the same people are not concerned about abandoned fishing gear, which accounts for far more harm to animals in the ocean. So I hope that tryborg is a flexible term to include the tech-savvy, progressive, nondisabled people who are posers, pretenders and plagiarists. But there is something more dangerous about them. One tryborg idea is to rid the world of disability. That’s genocide. So as long as tryborgs are ascendant, then actual cyborgs and disabled people are at risk.
Rail: Full disclosure, you and I met at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where you were a Poetry Fellow and I—in the parlance of FAWC—was a “bedfellow,” living there with my spouse, Martin Seay, who was a Fiction Fellow. I was a big fan of your work then, and it’s been a thrill to how it’s evolved over the years ever since. Why did you decide to pursue that residency, and how did it impact you both artistically and personally? What kind of support—institutional and otherwise—have you found crucial (or lacking) to you as a writer?
Weise: The poet Stuart Dischell, my teacher at UNC-Greensboro, just said to me one day, “You should apply for Provincetown.” I had no idea what that meant. But he was a fantastic teacher and I trusted him, so I went for it. That first year, to my amazement, I was there with another amputee, Emily Rapp Black. Her work is incredible and I thought: wow, everything is changing. Soon disabled writers will be fairly represented in fellowships and shortlists and Best Americans and culture. So I got boondoggled by such thinking. It was just a coincidence to be there with Emily. It did not indicate a shift. The second year I was so happy to be in your company, and you were writing awesome poems, and then you’d go on to found Rose Metal Press, which I love for its experimental and hybrid books. The FAWC taught me discipline. I felt desperately lonely sometimes, but I learned how to channel that loneliness into a daily writing practice.
My pipe dream is that an organization will fund grants specifically to send five or six disabled and/or Deaf writers and artists to a film festival or conference as dissenters. In return, we would produce—I don’t know what—fragments, vlogs, love notes, reviews, essays about the event. The reason for this dream is that it’s difficult to attend these things as the lone dissenter. If I’m the only person in the audience at the AFI Documentary Film Festival saying, “Where are the disabled filmmakers?” then I’m too easily dismissed. If I show up with five other disabled artists, and we’re each asking questions, then that’s another story. Our perspective is missing. And our perspective is multiple: we intersect with all other identities. So yeah, that’s the dream. To have an organization say: “Here’s the money. Go and ask questions and report back and we’ll publish it.”
Rail: Recently, on Facebook, you posted a photograph with the caption “Thx, Charleston, for coming out to our reading! Pic of me and Tricia Lockwood right after we got FREE ice cream. Next up Brooklyn. A Public Space is throwing the book party and, in case you were wondering, yes! there will be shiny plastic fedoras & glow-up glasses for selfies.” It made me yearn to be able to come see you in Brooklyn! Your poetry, and your public personae both as Jillian and as Tipsy, and your participation in the literary community seem to place an admirable emphasis on humor and having fun. How deliberate is that as a strategy, and why pursue serious aims with a great deal of irreverence?
Weise: It's definitely a strategy born of my own impatience and my need for activism to be not just a public service but also a personal pleasure. I got impatient waiting for Hollywood to cast disabled actors. And I don’t just want disabled actors in disabled roles. I want disabled actors in nondisabled roles. So I skipped right to that part. Nearly all the people in my videos are disabled and we’re playing nondisabled characters. It could take decades to see that in the movies. I don’t have that kind of time. And in activism, I often wonder: what would incentivize someone who has an invisible disability to claim? To come out of hiding? Where’s the fun in it? So in my small way, I’m throwing the party. I like to show the fun of being in community with fellow disabled writers. We joke about being bouncers to a club because often a writer will disclose to us, privately, that they are disabled but they don’t know if they can call themselves that. Yes. You can. You are welcome here. Make yourself at home.