by Nancy Hightower
This month Soft Skull Press reissued Jillian Weise's The Amputee's Guide to Sex in a ten-year anniversary edition, with a new preface by the author. This collection is an unflinching exploration of the human body as architecture, as aquatic animal or ambiguous cloud, which pushes rhetorical boundaries concerning “able-ness.” In her poems, Weise shows how bodies are constructed by flesh and language, by looking at others and by being gazed upon. In addition to The Amputee's Guide to Sex, Weise has also authored The Colony (2010) and The Book of Goodbyes (2013), along with numerous essays and multimedia art projects. She is an Associate Professor at Clemson University.
In your preface you state, “I feel like the disabled writer is always already expected to absorb the gaze of the nondisabled reader/audience.” In your poetry, did you want to turn the gaze back on the audience? Destroy it altogether? What would the poetry or fiction genre look like outside of the “able-bodied” gaze?
I didn’t have the intention, or the thought, “Now I’ll destroy the gaze.” It was more innate, more visceral. I read a lot of bad poems where the poet got bored, or lost, and plopped a disabled figure or metaphor into the poem. If poetry can do anything, and I believe it can, then why was poetry only doing the same thing, over and over, in regards to disability? It was like being stuck in 1580 with a bunch of Sir Philip Sidneys. He said there are only two emotional responses to disability: laughter or crying. Now it’s 2017, and yet many nondisabled poets, fiction writers and screenwriters still follow his lead, so what the fuck? Luckily, there’s a Dis/Deaf Uprising. We’re writing to change the art. I’m thinking of Constance Merritt’s Blind Girl Grunt and Meg Day’s Last Psalm at Sea Level and Cade Leebron’s “Model Patient.” I’m thinking of Bill Peace’s “Head Nurses” and Karrie Higgins’s “A Tape Doesn’t Change a Goddamned Thing.” Both were censored. You know you’re in an uprising when they censor your friends.
Soft Skull Press first published The Amputee’s Guide to Sex in 2007. Now that it is ten years later, has the dialogue changed regarding sexuality and disability? What kinds of further conversations need to happen?
The dialogue has definitely changed within the uprising. The artist Karolyn Gehrig created #HospitalGlam to reclaim medical spaces as sites of agency and glamour. Karolyn writes beautifully about the pushback she’s received for just taking a selfie in a hospital. The curator and thinker Alice Wong created the Disability Visibility Project, where we have all kinds of sophisticated conversations about disability and sexuality. I was impressed by the documentary Best and Most Beautiful Things. The director and crew follow around Michelle Smith, and I think it’s obvious that they expected some inspiration porn (Stella Young’s term for the way nondisabled folks confine and curate disabled stories). In the middle of this documentary, Michelle—who is blind and has Asperger’s—gets into kink.
In your preface, you list Octavia Butler, Flannery O’Conner, Jorge Luis Borges, and Milton, among others, as “some of the dead disabled writers who give [your] work permission.” How do you see your text interacting with and perhaps commenting on theirs? I am thinking especially of O’Connor’s fascination with organic versus the mechanical in her short fiction; it seems you play with that theme as well.
Oh, Flannery O’Conner. Did you know that Andalusia Farm, where she wrote, is not accessible to disabled visitors? I feel like pausing to consider all the places where we can’t even get in the door. Or pausing to mention that the AP has just released this: “Disability backlog tops 1 million; thousands die on waitlist.” There’s the art and then there’s the stark reality of a quiet genocide.
You’re teaching a course called Poet as Spy: 4 Tricks from Espionage. Can you tell us a bit about that class and what made you create it?
I love spies and spying. I’m especially fascinated by Virginia Hall, a disabled American spy from WWII who dressed up like an older woman, pretended to sell cheese, detonated railroad tracks, and hid documents in her prosthetic limb. I created the class out of this notion that we’re already spies. Every day some platform asks us to file a report on “What’s happening?” or “What’s on your mind?” So the class begins with the premise that we’re already writing reports to beguile each other. How to use this for poems? I first taught the class at Clemson and now I offer it through 24PearlStreet, the online workshops offered by the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.
You also have an alter-persona, Tipsy Tullivan, who appears in YouTube videos and gives all kinds of advice to writers about the literary world (I loved “Tipsy's Guide to the AWP Conference Guide”). We don’t often—or probably never—think of poets donning another personality to appear in a video, so why did you feel this was an important part of your work?
I’ve always been licentious with form and will use any form on a whim. Before Tipsy, I made video poems like this one after the Bo McGuire poem “He Gets Stoned and Stands in Line for Front Row Dolly Parton Tickets.” All to say: I love to bridge forms. For the Tipsy videos, sometimes I try for a sonnet, where a sonnet is 10 seconds of video to make a line, so 2 minutes 30 seconds to make 14 lines. “How to Rush the Academic Job Market” is an attempt to sonneteer video. For some reason, the form tends toward 1 minute 30 seconds, which makes me think that video wants a 9-line sonnet. The videos are love poems for fellow disabled folks. We’re together in the blasting of ableist literary culture. We’re in on it.
As for role models, I like the poet Fernando Pessoa and his notion of “the theatre of being.” I like Alex Bag’s “Fall ’95.” Sometimes I imagine Tipsy Tullivan is a cover name for Cindy Sherman, who has often exploited disabled subjects for profit. I might do Tipsy for another year or ten years or fifty years. It’s a long life. I can’t imagine being the same person for all of it.
What are some projects you’re currently working on?
I’m writing a book of poems. Maybe it’s called “Cyborg Detective.”