Permission, Disability, Stairs and Whispers, and a poem by Nuala Watt

I only came across the term ‘permission’ in regards of writing when being mentored by Jo Bell. Her wonderful project, 52 had given over five hundred writers the safe space to share their poetry with others in a similar position; the project had essentially given many of them permission to write. Recently I received a different type of permission when attending the Stairs and Whispers event at Ledbury Poetry Festival; the permission to accept that I have a disability.

Stairs and Whispers COVERThis was the launch of the anthology of “D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back”, edited by Sandra Alland, Khairani Barokka and Daniel Sluman, and published by Nine Arches Press. From the perspective of someone whose hearing and sight is not particularly impaired the event was a multi-media experience of poetry films, readings, and questions, supported by sign, subtitles, and the full text of poems. The editors described themselves for those with sight impairment, and in a large hall it felt like the most intimate and captivating experience.

However, it was only afterwards, when I went away, sat in a café and took a breath that it resonated with me more personally. I have a number of autoimmune conditions; Addison’s Disease, Underactive Thyroid, secondary hypopituitarism (causing low testosterone), low Vitamin D, along with asthma, high cholesterol, chronic fatigue, periodic chronic pain, and depression. I am lucky, as I don’t have to rely on welfare, beyond NHS treatment and free prescriptions, and there are times when I am relatively healthy and able to exercise. So I have had no need to register as disabled and go through the horrendously cruel process that the austerity government has implemented in the past seven years.

I have recently been reading Lucia Perillo’s memoir, “I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing,” in which she talks about the pressure hope puts on us. She cites Emily Dickinson – “Hope is a strange invention –/A patent of the Heart.” Then later, “Hope is subtle glutton” who “feeds upon the fair”. Perillo sums it up beautifully with the line, “hope is ravenous like the gulls, and we are being eaten alive.” What the S&Ws’ event did was give me permission to feel confident to say I am disabled – even though in public I rarely present as such – without feeling it to be negative, and thus ‘giving up hope’. I’m not sure what this actually means for me in practice yet. But I do feel a sense of a weight lifted from my shoulders.


image by chris scott

I will no doubt feature more poems from the collection; we mustn’t forget that the majority of disabled people lack wealth and power. For now though here is the poem, The Department of Work and Pensions Assess a Jade Fish by Nuala Watt, which really stood out for me on the day.

Nuala Watt lives in Glasgow. She has cerebral palsy, a visual impairment and epilepsy. She recently completed a PhD from the University of Glasgow on the poetics of partial sight. Her poems have appeared in Magma and Gutter, as well as on BBC Radio 3 and in an anthology of new Scottish Poetry, ‘Be The First to Like This’ (Vagabond Voices, 2014). In 2015 she received a John Mather Charitable Trust bursary from the Scottish Poetry Library.



The Department of Work and Pensions Assesses a Jade Fish

Once, I held three thousand pale green years

Should I compare myself to the jade fish?

I am in a museum of difficulties.
I feature in a national catalogue.
Handled, but not with care.

Juliet. Echo.
One. Five. Zero.
Treble Two.
C. That’s me.

I’m a fraudster who walks.

Tick this box. Tick this box. Tick this box. Now.

How often do you lose consciousness?
Exactly how much of your life is a mess?

Can you make a cup of tea?

We cannot pay you.

The law says. The law says. The law says.
The phone squanders an hour.
This is because you have as much or more…

By the power of brown envelopes
I miss my class on poetics:
‘Imagine the Voices of Things’.

The Schoolboys by Andrew McMillan

I was once part of a team carrying out a Gender Audit of an academic institute, one involved in the field of international development. I ran a focus group with the senior male professors and got them to role play their female research fellows, for whom their career prospects were far more limited. It was one of the most hilarious and depressing experiences of my professional career. They simply couldn’t do it, and when they tried they were so lacking in empathy, it was frankly embarrassing. It was an expression of this dominant culture, one practised by those who held power in the institution and had no awareness of how it affected those who were not white, middle-aged men.

My sons look different – well, different to the majority of boys their age; they have long hair of ever-changing colours (red, bleach blonde, black), have in the past wore eye make-up, and their clothes are black. Gay, faggot, queer, are terms regularly used by passers-by at them, and sometimes those looking for trouble. The currency of such a derogatory term has increased massively in the past five years among people. It is an indicator of the way in which, what lies beneath can easily come to the fore, to the mainstream. In other contexts it is this type of behaviour that blocks pathways to opportunity for many people who look different. It engenders a fear, a dislike of ‘others’, whether they be refugees, a woman breastfeeding in public, or people with ginger hair.

Andrew Author PhotoAndrew McMillan’s poem, The Schoolboys shows the subtlety of this type of discrimination; the one that lurks and only comes out at particular times, one that is not the whim of a teenage child either, but from someone who has for many years possibly not seen such behaviour as exhibited by the subjects of the poem. (more…)