An Interview Series
Free Ninety Nine
In the summer of 2018, I used the Dean’s Award for Summer Research to expand my concentration, Poetics of Embodiment. I learned about the nuances and aesthetics of disability—as a history, a word, a way of being —gave poetry. I got to have several conversations with poets, and editors who helped me with my research. At one point I had dinner with Lydia X. Z. Brown, who was the co-editor of one of the few anthologies of its kind, written by and centering autistic folks of color, All The Weight of Our Dreams: On Living Racialized Autism. I wanted to figure out a way to support such a dope anthology beyond research. I knew the importance of research and papers, but I also felt like a bystander. When I presented my research at the Dean’s Award for Summer Research Symposium, in Fall 2018, I insisted students, teachers and friends hold themselves accountable for their own role in supporting the emergence and support of disability poetics. Later that fall, I took my own advice and applied to use Gallatin Student Resource Fund (GSRF) to invest in bringing the work of talented disabled and queer poets to campus. I knew that my first love was planning events and everything that came with them: cold emails, budgeting, organizing, moderating, free food.
In the Spring of 2019, the GSRF award committee sponsored my dream activation of my concentration: a series of book talks featuring queer and/or disabled writers, free copies of their books for audience members, and free food. The goal of a series like this at Gallatin is to introduce and create conversational space for books, editors, and writers who usually aren’t welcomed explicitly or whose work isn’t taught at NYU. I had attended enough book talks where I couldn’t afford to buy the book let alone have the writer sign it to know that I wanted to make this event free ninety nine and all kinds of accessible. I named the book series The Get Free Book Club in honor of the literal moment where folks attending would acquire free books and to invite folks to situate texts written by queer and disabled folks as ways to get free.
Queer and crip content is necessary in decolonizing the Gallatin syllabus. The book talk series sought to honor and celebrate works by queer and disabled creators in the same academic spaces they were most likely to be pushed out of.
A Fangirl Picking Brains
The first Get Free Book Club event occurred on March 12, 2019. After months of emails between speakers, book publishers, and the Gallatin events team, I had the pleasure of moderating a conversation between Nasra Adem and Liz Bowen. My independent study “Disability Memoir” professor, Jessie Male, encouraged me to reach out to Liz, as she was familiar with her work in the field of disability studies. I eagerly perused her website and encountered one of the first poems listed on her site; “ethics of rude.” It was unapologetic, witty, and rudely exciting. I had never read poetry that explored and blurred the lines between animality, femininity, and anger. When I reached out via email about having her come to campus to talk about her book, Sugarblood, I tried not to sound like I was completely starstruck (which I was). When Liz agreed happily to partake in the event, I all but dropped my laptop.
As a first-generation student and access dork, I wanted to create an event series that was dynamically accessible, both to folks entering the room, whether that be virtually by welcoming speakers through skype, or financially by paying for the books in advance and giving them out for free. Like any needed space, I worried the book talk series would live vibrantly and then fade away unremembered. This event is the first of its kind at NYU Gallatin, and I wanted to document it online, both to continue the conversation in an interview with Get Free reader Liz Bowen, and so that students interested in bringing the series back would have a reference. It would be a shame for 2019 to be the last time queer and disabled writers were welcomed to campus and were encouraged to talk about their work and their identity on their own terms.
It was also the perfect excuse to fangirl and to pick the brains of the speakers before the event even started. Check out the first interview I conducted with Liz Bowen via email.
Interview With Liz Bowen
Donna: Can you tell me a little bit about your writing process?
Liz: It’s quite erratic. I’m in the position most people are, where poetry isn’t the job I get paid for, so there are long stretches of time where other kinds of writing—academic or critical—take precedence. The poetry happens when it happens, which is usually when I feel like I have a good idea, and I shove everything else to the side for a bit to get it done. I wouldn’t say I have much of what people refer to as “a practice”—it’s more like a series of unpredictable affairs with language.
Donna: What’s one thing you wish you knew about yourself before you published your writing or your poetry?
Liz: This is a great question. Back in college, I used to obsess over “finding my voice,” which is, I think, a phrase that gets thrown around a lot without anyone really knowing what it means. I would get so depressed by the fear that I would never figure out what my singular voice was or should be. I’ve always liked to be promiscuous with form, to experiment with various kinds of meter and style, and I thought that was a detriment to my chances of getting published. It turns out, now that I’m publishing, that that’s one of the things people tell me they like about my work—that I don’t just stick to one aesthetic. Having a voice doesn’t mean your voice has to sound the same all the time.
Donna: In your poetry you often experiment with form, and sharply execute movement between particular images. What was the most challenging / or your favorite part about writing Sugarblood?
Liz: Writing about diabetes is tough because most people have no clue how it actually works, and there is so much medical jargon around treatment and devices. These are things that are huge parts of my life and seemed like they should be more a part of my work, but I couldn’t figure out how to incorporate that language, even though a part of me wanted to. For a moment, I had a glossary of medical terms at the front of the book, but I cut it out. I ended up sort of skirting the issue, speaking about my body’s workings with more imagistic or metaphorical language than in medical terms. I think that was the right choice for that book, but I do still grapple with the question of how to bring medical language into poetry. While I don’t see my experience as a disabled person as only medical, medicine is a significant condition of my existence, and it’s strange to write in the semi-confessional mode that I do and leave it out entirely. I also bristle at the sense that technical language only has a place in more “conceptual” or document-based forms of poetry. But it’s a challenge to include it when you’re dealing with terms the vast majority of people have never heard before.
Donna: Who do you wish you would have read while you were a teenager?
Liz: Honestly, I wish I would have read at all when I was a teenager! I went to a pretty lackluster public school where everyone I could stand to be around slacked off, which I think has actually been important to my formation as a poet and a person in a lot of ways. But my only exposure to poetry as a teenager was through slam, which—though important for me at the time—is a fairly constrained form that started to feel limiting within a couple of years. It wasn’t until college that I started actually reading poetry on the page, and then I was introduced to more explicitly experimental styles. Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely changed everything for me; so did C.D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining. These were books that managed to communicate something real about the writer’s experience without pretending to adhere to expectations of personal transparency or coherent narrative. I think I discovered that possibility at the right time, but I do wonder how my poetry might be different if I’d started reading it at an earlier age. Now it’s like I’m always playing catch-up, but I really try not to think of that as a detriment. My poetry repertoire is necessarily incomplete and unauthorized by any canon, and while that can make it difficult to participate in certain conversations, it can also be freeing.
Donna: I’m excited about the many definitions and understandings of “disability,” as a word, as a lens, a concept, a state, a community, etc. How do you think your relationship with your body and “disability” impacts/ shapes your work?
Liz: My poetry is always, in some way, about how my body feels while I’m writing it. Sometimes that feeling has nothing to do with disability and sometimes it does. But, for a large part of my life, I was totally disassociated from my body because I was in denial about my illness. There’s a line in Sugarblood, “I never realized I had a body until it started to hurt,” that describes that condition of being and writing. It wasn’t until college, when I started having really intense and dangerous bodily responses to the fact that I wasn’t paying attention to my body, that I started actually asking myself how my body feels. That was also when I first started considering what it might mean to think of myself as a sick person, or a disabled person—how to get past some of the internalized ableism that had kept me from caring for myself for so many years. And when I started actively trying to be attentive to my body, the poetry changed. It’s always as much about a condition of feeling, a bodily force or rhythm, as it is about language. Disability consciousness gave me that.
Donna: What are your thoughts on the strengths and areas of improvement in the dis studies movement today?
Liz: One of the things I find most exciting about disability studies right now is its focus on “disability aesthetics,” or what it might mean to think of disability as a formal quality in art and literature. For a long time, disability studies was focused mainly on analyzing disabled characters and figures in texts, or disabled authors and artists, and this was really important. That’s why we have concepts like “narrative prosthesis” (Mitchell and Snyder) and “the normate” (Garland-Thomson), these really foundational ideas that help us understand how representations of disability shape the way we treat disabled people in the world. That work isn’t over, of course. But now there’s this new strand of disability scholars who are trying to think about how disability might matter beyond just how it is represented in the content of art and literature—that is, how disability and our ideas about it shape the form those texts take. A fabulous example of this is Deafening Modernism by Rebecca Sanchez, who thinks about how American Sign Language informed modernist aesthetics in the early twentieth century. The texts she uses as examples aren’t about disability, but she’s arguing that disability still matters in terms of how we read them. I think that concept is extremely important to disability liberation at large—the idea that disability isn’t just a niche interest, that it doesn’t only matter when something is explicitly about disability. Its impacts are far broader than just individual disabled bodies, and that’s something everyone should care about.
Donna: Who are your favorite writers and favorite books right now? What’s your must-read shortlist?
Liz: Carrie Lorig is my favorite poet of my generation. She has an incredible chapbook coming out called The Blood Barn from Inside the Castle Press—but what Carrie calls a chapbook, the rest of us call a full-length. It’s fleshy and heavy and stunning. I also love Jesse Rice-Evans, who writes a lot about disability and illness. Her book The Uninhabitable just came out, like, moments ago, and is bound to be a crip classic. Others on my mind at the moment: Ariana Reines’s The Cow, Juliana Huxtable’s Mucus in My Pineal Gland, Tatiana Luboviski-Acosta’s The Easy Body.
Liz Bowen is a poet and critic living in New York. She is the author of Sugarblood (Metatron 2017) and the chapbook Compassion Fountain (Hyacinth Girl 2019). Her writing can be found in The New Inquiry, American Poetry Review, Lit Hub, Boston Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Atlas Review, Dream Pop Press, and glitterMOB. She is a PhD candidate in English and comparative literature at Columbia University, where she is working on a dissertation that traces disability and animality as intertwined sites of literary experimentation in the long twentieth century. Bowen is also a poetry editor for Peach Mag and is assistant editor of Synapsis: A Health Humanities Journal.