I Went To an All-Abilities Poetry Workshop, and Here’s What Happened

A month from today, on July 26, 2019 Easterseals will be celebrating the 29th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). To mark the occasion, we’ll be publishing posts throughout the entire month of July about…inclusion.

Look for stories here about experiences that taught our bloggers what inclusion is, what it means, why inclusion is so important, how times they are not included stick with them, and why that is.

As a sneak preview, here’s a post by my friend Regan Burke about a poetry workshop we went to, and the multiple benefits inclusion can bring to people of all abilities.

by Regan Burke

Regan-BurkeI wish I’d digested the dictionary definition of “somatic” before attending a community poetry writing workshop co-sponsored by The Poetry Foundation and Access Living Chicago, a non-profit organization that advocates for an inclusive Chicago that enables people with disabilities “to live fully–engaged and self–directed lives.” This summer they are offering poetry workshops free of charge to people of all abilities, and I convinced my writing teacher Beth Finke to join me at one.

I caught up with Beth and her guide dog Whitney at the door to the Acess Living classroom, and when we entered the room, someone shouted, “Hi Beth!” and it became obvious she was one of Beth’s former students. I can’t go anywhere these days where I don’t run into a current or former student of Beth Finke’s.

We sat down on either side of a young woman artfully made up with dark eyebrows, eyelashes and exquisite dark purple lipstick. Her name tag read “Stephanie” and she had a white cane leaning on her chair.

Stephanie turned to me, asked in a low voice, “Is she the author of ‘Writing Out Loud?’”

“Yes, she is. Have you read it?”

“I’m listening to it now.”

Our blue-jeaned leader identified himself as Matt, a poet and artist with an intellectual disability, schizophrenia. There were people with visible disabilities, those with invisible disabilities and those with no disabilities. Why were people there? Some loved poetry, some wrote poetry and one came because his wife wanted to be there. Matt asked what we think makes a good poem.

“That’s what I came to find out!” shouted a thin, smoker-faced man with a rambler’s hat and a long grey ponytail. He had no visible disability.

Invisible disabilities are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act and spoken of freely at Access Living. They include conditions like chronic pain, chronic fatigue, psychiatric disorders and chronic dizziness.

Our teacher Matt, a short-haired tattooed poet, tried to describe somatic poetry as a bodily experience and used the work of poet CAConrad as examples. All his words after that bunched up together, slipped and slid all over each other like a fast-forwarded recording. Greek to me. I mulled my exit strategy.

CAConrad invented soma(tic) poetics, which involves writing “rituals” like this one Matt read aloud for us at the workshop: “Wash a penny, rinse it, slip it under your tongue and walk out the door…get your pen and paper and write about POVERTY.”

Matt instructed us to write a “ritual” like CAConrad’s. A young black man who was leaning on an elevated chair that’d been pushed into the corner asked, “Should I write for a wide audience or use my dialect?” I choked out a few deep breaths and copied the style of the CAConrad ritual. We ended by reading a few of our rituals aloud.

One woman who sat in front of the sign language interpreter described what she was hearing. Stephanie, the dark-haired beauty with the white cane, wrote about throwing her glasses out the window then frantically digging through the dirt to find them. After hearing their essays, I shared mine — I’d written about the best way to die, my expression of a whole body experience. I felt included.

A version of this essay originally appeared on Regan’s Back Story Essays blog. CAConrad is The author of nine books, and Regan Burke’s forthcoming memoir, How I Want to Be in That Number, will be published by Tortoise Books in 2020.


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