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Jillian Weise talks disability, labels, and writing with Words Apart

Jillian Weise by Guillermo Morizot_Hi-res In a recent interview by Words Apart magazine, Jillian Weise, author of The Book of Goodbyes, talks in-depth about her experiences as a self-proclaimed "cyborg" poet. Known for her candid literary explorations of disability and sexuality, Weise uses her talents to advocate for writers with--though not defined by--disabilities. Here are some truly fascinating excerpts from the interview:

Words Apart: Do you think contemporary poets, writers, novelists, playwrights, etc. have sincerely invested or fallen short in writing about disability issues? Should there be a greater literary focus on people with physical and/or mental disabilities?

Jillian Weise: I'm not omniscient enough to know the answer to this. There has always been a great literary focus on people with disabilities. Oedipus with his magnificent foot. Richard III. Captain Ahab. Many writers still use Sydney's paradigm for how to write disability: Laugh at it or cry at it. Sydney wrote that defense in the 16th century, so it's been played. The questions I wonder about include: Why do we hide writers with disabilities from our students? How come there are more Health and Wellness Programs than Disability Pride Programs? Where is my Al Sharpton or my Betty Friedan? To whom should I address my complaint about CNN's article on the Pope and the Name-less Man with a Disability? I am suspicious of any writing that dehumanizes people.

Words Apart: I've recently been thinking about the labels the public places on writers and poets. Personally, while I am white, am I only a white poet? Have people ever simply described you as an amputee writer? Is that restrictive to the other facets of who a person is?

Jillian Weise: When I was named "amputee poet," I changed my name. I wrote an essay titled "Going Cyborg" for The New York Times and I've been cyborg ever since. Cyborg is an accurate description of my computerized leg and a rejection of the medical model and an iconoclastic way to complicate easy, breezy categories. But listen: I'm still figuring it out. I go back to Mina Loy's "Feminist Manifesto," Amiri Baraka's "The Myth of a 'Negro Literature' " Nancy Mairs' Plaintext and Carl Philips' "Boon and Burden: Identity in Contemporary American Poetry."

Words Apart: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers, poets, playwrights, and / or people in general with a range of disabilities? Is there anything that you wish you would have been told an a teenager?

Jillian Weise: To any writer with a disability, I say: Write whatever you want. The movie theater is full but there's no movie. If you want to write the screenplay, write it. If you want to write the Great American Novel, write it. If you want to write a sonnet about the weather, write it. We are the last inclusion, and we are not obliged to follow the rules. Break them. Break type. If you get lonely, or wonder who all these people are in the theater with you, read Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Michael Northen. Read Josephine Miles and Flannery O'Connor and Somerset Maugham and Nancy Mairs. Watch this video by Crutchmaster. Keep going.

Click here to read the full Words Apart interview with Jillian Weise. To purchase your own copy of The Book of Goodbyes, visit the BOA Bookstore.


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