Poetry as Activism, The Rhetoric of Empathy, and The Breaking of Beliefs: Emily K. Michael on Her Poem "A Phenomenology of Blindness"
When Emily K. Michael approached Primal School about a possible interview back in May, saying that she was interested in “the tension between performance and page, and the presence of other voices (human and non-human),” I was intrigued and embarked on a lightning tour of the work of hers that was available on the web. In her eye for the world’s beauty as well as her candor in speaking about her life as a blind person, I sensed the stirrings of a rich conversation. I suggested we talk about her poem “A Phenomenology of Blindness” (originally published in Rogue Agent), with its implicit advocacy and benign but frank exploration of prejudice. I felt committed to exploring thoroughly the machinations of the poem’s central idea and was grateful for Emily’s willingness to go there with me. Discussing her work, Emerson's words came to mind: “It is not meter, but a meter-making argument that makes a poem, a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.” — HLJ
I don’t normally begin interviews by asking poets about their titles, but I’d like to begin there because of the truth claim inherent in this poem’s title. The poem is intended to be a “phenomenology.” How did the poem and idea arrive?
I suspect that this poem has been a long time coming. It responds to the intense curiosity that I often sense in others, even when it's not directly expressed. People hear that I'm blind or see me traveling with my guide dog or stopping to read the braille on the elevator, and they start firing off questions: "Is it like this? Is it like that? I bet it's like this!" So, when a colleague of mine said she was having trouble writing a blind character, I sat down and wrote this poem.
I wanted to say, "Look, it's not like any of these things." Because others’ speculation and theorizing is done in my absence — or it's done as if I'm not standing there…when I am. Whether it's a portrayal of disability in the media or an actual stranger confronting me at the coffeeshop, nondisabled people seem to take hold of stories of disability without asking us what's really going on.
"Phenomenology" seemed like the right name for a catalog of experiences that weren't what blindness is at all. And that's how the poem helped me to say that blindness isn't all of these things, but it also isn't One Thing. It isn't one story. It's this wild unruly mosaic that's part of my life.
A PHENOMENOLOGY OF BLINDNESS
It’s not like walking through life with your glasses off.
I mean, sometimes we wear glasses, but they’re different
from yours. Thicker, broader, darker. And they don’t
work the quotidian miracle of correctable vision.
It’s not like getting your eyes dilated once a year, staggering
out to the car under those stiff black shades with the sharp edges,
tearing up beneath the merciless sun and wondering how you’ll manage
the drive home. Damn, someone just texted you and you can’t read your phone.
It’s not like groping in the dark when you come home late
and you can’t find your keys because you and your girlfriends
had too many pomegranate martinis. I know it was a birthday,
but if you could think clearly, you’d know where your keys are.
It’s not like leaving the nail salon after a pedicure, shuffling forward
in disposable flip-flops, doing everything you can not to chip that
gorgeous raspberry shimmer polish. It’s not like that at all.
It’s not like feeling faint because you forgot to eat lunch — you were
working so hard you couldn’t even stop for a granola bar, so you
cling to your colleague’s arm as he guides you outside. It’s nice
to have support, you think, nice to know he doesn’t mind helping.
It’s not convenient, popular, or cumbersome. It’s not a filter
that you can slide over the world, not a stylish coat hanging
in your closet. I, too, am waiting for winter because I love
wearing my coats — peacoats, swing coats, blazers. I have
so many! It’s just that blindness isn’t one of them.
The mosaic you describe being unique to you, not this monolithic concept of "all blind people". I also like the sound of "phenomenology" because it suggests that it’s a philosophical way of feeling around a topic and exploring it through one’s experience.
Yes. That's why the poem explores so many ways of putting blindness ON the body — shuffling feet, bleary eyes, feeling faint.
Including that last bit about the coats; if we were to treat blindness as accessory. I love this poem’s rhetorical strategy in how its speaker attempts to define blindness by negation, saying “here’s what blindness is NOT.” There’s something wonderfully defiant to me about that and I felt that defiance also in your other poem “Crushed”, out in Wordgathering. Written from a similar place?
Absolutely! And "Crushed" was actually written about an interaction I had with a professor (I was the student), but in that poem, I played with the characterization. I wondered whether people would assume it was a student because the other person confronts the speaker in a nervy, fidgety way. But it was actually a professor who confronted me. That's one aspect of poetry I love: bending the literal truth to get at some greater truth. It doesn't matter who caused the poem, really, because when it comes to disability, I can see patterns of reaction in others.
With "Crushed" I was exploring the confessional nature of others' comments. I opened with some of that Catholic confessional language (I grew up Catholic and so borrowed a little from that). By telling me about her girl-crush on Helen Keller and her dabbling in Braille, the other character was revealing something that I presumably needed to know. As with “A Phenomenology of Blindness,” I was responding to others' assessments of my condition.
In both poems, there's a pushing back against the expected, the docile blind character, the convenient image of Helen Keller. I quite admire Keller, but she was not nearly as tame as she is rendered in the popular imagination. I wanted to push back, but I didn't want to be hostile. Snarky, yes, but not violent or rude.
Poetry is such a great mode for that pushing back. I'm Asian, and it's like someone meeting a Chinese writer and saying "I read Amy Tan", when there's this whole other universe of Asian writers out there.
Exactly! And people seem proud to say things like that. Or perhaps they're so excited to connect that they don't hear how off-putting such comments can be.
That latter part is so true. They are so desperate to connect, and in some ways you have to honor that too, but it doesn't change the fact of the disappointment and hurt.
Like the other day, I was buying groceries, and the cashier said, "Oh your guide dog is so cute! I've always wanted to learn braille!" My first response (which I did not say) was, "So learn it." But instead, I said, "Yeah, it's not that hard, just a lot of patterns."
It gets me thinking how all of us have been in that awkward position in one way or another; trying to show empathy and failing hard, and I think that's what makes this poem so resonant. I’ve been reading your blog, and you recently wrote an incredible post about fear and how it hides behind pity or concern (which is not the same thing as empathy). Could you tell us about that distinction? You write: “When I walk into a room, when I order coffee, when I purchase a pair of earrings, I am working in the shadow of powerful narratives history has built against me.”
I think the difference between fear/pity and empathy is a willingness to be vulnerable, which may seem counter-intuitive. When someone is afraid of disability, and I represent that disability, they're going to try to get away from me as fast as possible. If they can't get away, they're going to try and control the situation — whether that means talking over me, helping me in a way I don't need, or telling others how to feel about me. Pity is another form of taking control. If a person pities me, they don't have to be on my level. They can look down on my life, and call this superiority "compassion."
Empathy is a willingness to go there with someone. It's the willingness to say, "This scares the crap out of me, but I'm going to sit here and let you tell me what it's really like…even if that reality is just as scary as I thought it would be." When someone is empathetic, they aren't trying to talk over me or silence me. They're not afraid to stand next to me and ask questions.
Empathy is really what helps me tolerate the intrusive curiosities of strangers, because sometimes a stupid question is a person trying to figure things out. So if I can be patient and hear them out, maybe they're willing to hear me out.
All it takes is someone saying, "Hi. So I see you're different than me. What's it like to be you?" I really bow to that.
But make no mistake: it's easier for others to think my life is tragic. Because if it's not, then THEIR lives might be tragic! Oh goodness, if we can't just see who's pathetic at a distance, then we could ALL be pathetic at any moment!
And I don't expect everyone to know everything. But I do expect courtesy and respect.
It's a lot simpler than people make it. I was recently at a gathering of people with L'Arche, a Catholic organization for people with developmental disabilities. One evening they had this talent show. Everyone was amazing. The array of abilities and gifts; I should NOT have been surprised at all, but I was, and really had to look at that.
Right? It’s like another poem I have brewing… I was walking up to my classroom one morning when I saw a newly blind man training with his white cane. My class is on this floor where they house a rehabilitation wing for blind and visually impaired people. I knew he was a newbie because he moved so slowly and seemed terribly cautious. Looking down at the ground, shuffling forward…it really broke my heart to see him that way. It occurred to me that he was living out his blindness as he’d been taught from all the tragic stories of blindness in our culture; that he thought it had to be this way for him. I wanted so badly to stand at the end of the hall and cheer him on. I wanted to write about it. But then I thought, am I adding yet another sad blind guy to the roster of pathetic blind characters?
That's always the challenge: can my poetry take these circumstances and stories and make them different, deeper, newer? Can I open a little side curtain for the reader and show them something unexpected? I don't like the idea of going totally whimsical with poetry (Carroll’s "Jabberwocky" drives me nuts). I want to take the real world and slant it just a bit.
It’s complicated, the way we inhabit our bodies according to how our culture says we should and how it treats members of the group you identify with. It may be inappropriate to bring it up, but I am seeing a lot of parallels between some of the issues raised here and the war on black bodies. I didn't even know about “stereotype threat”, that there was a name for this until recently. These are patterns we live out even if they're unintentional.
There are definite parallels between disability and race. And parallels between disability and fat activism. I follow a lot of fat activist bloggers because the intersection between body politics and disability is so rich!
There's a place for play in poetry, but there's also a place for ideas that challenge us to change our relationship with the world around us. Poetry lets us challenge these patterns.
How did you come upon this poem’s form, with its uneven numbers of lines from stanza to stanza? Did you do much playing with it?
Sometimes I start writing with a form in mind, but with this one, I just started typing. I liked the idea of making it free verse since it's a poem about defying expectations. I liked the general shape of the poem: a verbal pattern but not a visual pattern. I also began this poem by thinking of it as a performance piece. When read aloud, a lot of the sounds come off the page in a really cool way. Even as I was rereading it, I noticed different vowels repeating in each stanza. It's hard now to remember whether I did that on purpose: perhaps it just arose out of the poem's strong voice.
The initial repetitions "It's not…, it's not…" are almost like a refrain, as if to say, "Oh my goodness, I'm so sick of answering this question!" But the exasperation doesn't overpower the poem's mood. I didn't want to write a bitter blindness poem. You lose your readers very quickly when you go to the bitter place. I wanted readers to stay with me until the surprise at the end.
I also wanted to write something where the surprise ending would give the reader a burst of energy – the kind of energy that sends you back up to the top of the poem to read it through another time.
I recently wrote a poem in much the same way – free-verse yet reaching for that musicality in a way that seems natural. Do you read your stuff out loud when you're writing and revising?
Lately I have been doing a lot more reading aloud. Last November, I did my first public reading of my work, and it was incredible to hear how much performance shaped the poems. To notice how I stumbled on certain words or how other lines really worked. It's funny how we obsess over technical definitions, but at the end of the day, all we can say is, yes that poem worked.
So now I read aloud. And I have a few trusted friends who listen to my work. They force me to read it to them.
A few journals have asked me to provide recordings of my work read aloud. So that's another fun way to see whether the poem works.
It's so cool that you have a circle who loves your work and bugs you for more poems. And I definitely felt that burst of energy you describe at the end of this poem.
If I could also ask you about the names of things. A friend some time ago corrected me about that difference in language: a person living with disability, vs "disabled persons" vs. someone who’s a “disability sufferer"; the last of these of course being unacceptable. Have you tackled this topic yet in a poem? I feel you may be trying to go there, with this piece and some of the others you've written.
I do feel the tension between my activist (prose) self and my poetic self. I've been trying to reconcile the two with these recent poems. I don't think people want poems that preach, and I don't think I want to write them.
But I choose the term "blind" deliberately: in all my bios, I'm a "blind poet, musician, and writing instructor." I thought about leaving the blind out, but then I thought, maybe people will think I"m ashamed of it? So I put "blind" in. But I'm not totally blind. I'm legally blind — a very unpoetic term.
As far as disability goes, it's a word I'm not afraid of, but other people are. Generally nondisabled people are schooled to use person-first language (so I'd be a "writer who is blind" as opposed to a "blind writer"). But I feel this is clunky and hedgy — like we're afraid of contamination by association.
Generally people use "disabled people" when they consider disability a social and political experience — as well as a personal experience. It's the term most activists use. It's the term I use.
The other term I hear a lot is "low vision" but I don't like that either. Blindness is a culture; "low vision" is a condition. And I'm much more interested in the cultural aspects of disability.
This is helpful to me, thank you.
There's a sense with the average nondisabled person that we should try to minimize or hide our disabilities — as if their discomfort is our discomfort. That's another reason I write as a blind poet; I want people to know that I'm bringing blindness forward. I'm not ashamed. It's a part of who I am. It's something that belongs in poetry — not as a novelty but as a reality.
The walls between us are high. And yet it's writing from a place of difference that helps to bring down those walls.
Yes. And a poem is a lot smaller than a real blind person. So maybe someone will read the poem, feel a sense of connection, and be willing to approach a real disabled person.
Maybe tell us a bit about your poetry education — how you came to poetry, etc. What advice would you offer to poets writing and practicing without the MFA?
Well, as it happens, I don't have an MFA!
I can't exactly recall how I came to poetry. I know a lot of poets remember that fateful day when they took down the dusty volume of Robert Frost and fell in love, but I don't remember that. I spent a lot of time singing hymns as a child, and I was in a few musicals. I remember loving the witty show tune lyrics, and I remember how I never struggled to understand Shakespeare. I also remember being bothered when I heard poetry that had inconsistent meter — if someone was reading a greeting card or a poem they'd written where the rhythms didn't follow the set pattern.
I took an AP Literature course in high school, and we read mostly poetry. I loved analyzing it and I loved the sounds. Then in college, I took a medieval literature course and a linguistics course where we had to break poems down in terms of their sounds. I was in heaven. But I still wasn't writing much poetry.
I mean, I would write a poem and put it away. I wasn't going back and revising my work. It wasn't till I graduated with my MA in English that I started writing and actually revising — and then submitting my work. It's like I needed all that time to be steeped in poetry without actually working on it, does that make sense?
As far as a poet's education, I think poets need to spend time with their favorite poets, just reading and thinking. But I also think poets need the names for things: for example, you don't have to know the difference between slant rhyme and off-rhyme, but you do need to see the difference. You need to be able to recognize that different strategies are being applied.
Because I teach freshman writing, I've had a solid grounding in rhetorical grammar (not traditional grammar). And that has had an incredible influence on my poetry. So I think poets need a working knowledge of the language they're writing in – not memorizing obsessive rules but reading about how their language fits together.
Being a teacher of rhetoric has also helped me to understand a poem's motivation better. What is the poem going to say? What will an audience think at line 3, line 6, line 8? Where is the poem speaking from? I often use poems to teach audience awareness and expectations — even in nonfiction courses.
The best book I've read on poetry in the past year has been Stephen Dobyns's Next Word, Better Word. It's dense, but it's so rich! He really makes the poet accountable for their form and their content.
I agree. Rhetoric for me has almost been the more useful tool in writing poems than other topics, because it deals with psychology, and poems are agents of emotion.
Plus classes on poetry are often imbalanced. Either they're obsessed with shock and novelty or they're obsessed with the canon.
Any words on novelty/obscurity versus accessibility in poetry?
I've never enjoyed obscurity for its own sake. And perhaps because I'm often a novelty for others (the only blind teacher, the only blind student, the first blind person they've ever met), I grow tired of superficial novelty as well. My favorite poets tend to write in accessible language about complicated things. I return again and again to poets like Rilke, Seamus Heaney, Edna St. Vincent Millay. None of them needed hundreds of footnotes, but their poems still give and give and give. So when I write a poem that is more down-to-earth, I don't see it as an intellectual compromise. If it's a good poem, it will have a lot to offer. I also put a lot of energy into the form, because the form is just as much a part of the poem as its content.
There's an excellent poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay called "Oh, Oh, You Will Be Sorry For That Word.” It’s a sonnet in which the speaker is irate that her partner sees her as a decorative object rather than a smart woman. But as the poem moves down the page, the speaker's anger cools. We know it cools because Millay stops using exclamation marks and starts using periods. The punctuation helps change the poem's mood. Just that tiny punctuation! That kind of technique blows me away. That's the attention to detail I aim for in my own work. It's poetic magic, you know? The average reader is not going to point out the change in punctuation but they will feel the effect. That's the kind of poetry I want to write.
The reader doesn't know what hit 'em.
Yes. And I don't like poems that lock the reader out or make fun of the reader. That kind of poetry feels gross, like a betrayal of the reader's trust in the poet. I want to be the kind of poet who stays beside the reader and says, "I'm with you. Trust me to take you through this." I believe it's that kind of trust between creators and audiences that leads to transformation.
Amen and amen and amen. Oh, wow. Is there any “homework” you’d like to assign our readers? (it can be anything: a writing exercise, a craft book to read, a collection of poems to read, a link to an article. Though you've practically assigned me a ton of homework already just by having this conversation.
One of the best books I've read is John Felstiner's Can Poetry Save the Earth? As I read it, I kept stopping to write poems in the style of each poet he profiles. The book is accessible and inviting. So I'd say, go read that!
But also just be in the world. Nothing is too great or too small for a poem. There are so many weird moments I've experienced that have come out as poems even years later. Don't hold on to the specific details: hold on to the emotional truth. That's what the poem wants to teach. So, as Rilke says, don't look at your life and say, "I don't have anything to write about." Look at your life and say, "What can I write about?"
And lastly, don't be afraid to share you work with people you love. In the past few years, I've started writing poems for people – poems that I actually gave to them, even though they may have been drafts at the time. Your work needs to be in the world, even if that world is just your circle of friends and family. You need to know that your poetry matters, or else, why write it? Believe that it matters.
Yes! Okay, last one! Tell us a poem you love, and why you love it.
Here is one by Rilke.
I AM, YOU ANXIOUS ONE
I am, you anxious one. Don't you hear me
surging against you with all my senses?
My feelings, which have found wings, circle
like white birds around your face.
And my soul — can't you see it there
standing before you in a robe of silence?
Doesn't my springtime prayer
ripen in your eyes as on a tree?
If you are the dreamer, I am your dream.
But if you choose to be awake, I am your will
and become the matter of all majesty
and round to perfect stillness like a star
over the far-off city of time.
From The Book of Hours
Trans. from the German by Edward Snow
I love the lusciousness of these images, and I love that I really don't know what Rilke is talking about — in definite terms. I know the feeling he is describing, the longing, the coming-together and pulling-apart. This is a poem that I return to because it fills me with wonder.
It's beautiful abstraction, but at the same time, there are fleeting images I can grab onto — the white wings, the rounded star.
He certainly wrote of nature and the body in a way that exalted both.
Poets have to suspend that need to classify everything and tuck it away in its proper place. Poetry is a kind of emulsion — everything has to stay suspended until you figure out what you're doing. And this poem embodies that emulsion: that tension between what we know and what we dream.
EMILY K. MICHAEL is a blind poet, musician, and writing instructor from Jacksonville, FL. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Wordgathering, The Hopper, Artemis Journal, The Deaf Poets Society, Compose Journal, The Fem, Rogue Agent, Disability Rhetoric, Breath & Shadow, Bridge Eight, Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics, I Am Subject Stories, BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog, and Mosaics (Vol. 2). Her manuscript Natural Compliance won Honorable Mention inThe Hopper’s Prize for Young Poets. Emily’s work centers on the themes of ecology, disability, feminism, and music. She develops grammar workshops for multilingual learners and participates in local writing festivals. Find her on Twitter (@ModwynEarendel) and at her blog, On the Blink.