Jillian Weise is the author of the novel The Colony (2010) and the poetry collections The Amputee’s Guide to Sex (2007) and The Book of Goodbyes (2013), the latter of which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. Her writing appears in The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, Granta, The New Republic, Tin House, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at Clemson University in South Carolina.
T. K. Dalton interviewed Weise over the phone on the day New York City public schools recessed for the summer, at 9:30pm EST, at her request—she’s a night owl, which was perfect for Dalton, since he’s a parent of two kids under the age of three. Dalton was in New York City and Weise was at the University of Iowa, Iowa City. In both places it was hotter than either of them preferred and they had on fans, but the heat didn’t affect the generosity of their conversation about disability, literature, and place. As Dalton told Weise over email the next day, when he left the room where he’d conducted the 45-minute conversation, his wife looked up from Jane the Virgin long enough to say, “That sounded like fun.” It was.
T. K. Dalton (TKD): I’m going to start by asking you about your essay contribution to a landmark anthology of contemporary disability literature, Beauty is a Verb. In your essay, you compare the work of poet Louise Glück and that of Josephine Miles, a disabled poet. You write that in the poem “Before” and elsewhere in her work, Miles balances the reader’s need for engagement with the writer’s desire to protect the character’s dignity and discretion. Does that sum up your argument?
Jillian Weise (JW): Yes. I just love Jo Miles. No one taught me her until my Ph.D. program, so I was surprised she’s not on the radar. She does, in that poem that I quote from, through pastiche and allusion, bring more dignity to the point of view of the disabled speaker, a complex person with much more to offer than the moment of trauma. I appreciate that about that poem and about her work in general.
TKD: In that essay I really loved the notion you introduce of being “turned in,” as opposed to “turned out,” which was how you characterized Glück’s poem, “Cripple on a Subway,” a poem you also call “much more explicit and objectifying.” Can you talk more about Glück’s poem being “turned out?”
JW: With the Glück poem, “Cripple on a Subway,” even the title frames the poem in a particular mode. I’m sure that the word “cripple” was a fine word when the poem was written. Now, of course, it has a lot of political baggage. The title puts on display the cripple based on the body rather than the mind or the person. I was really astounded by the poem when I first read it and felt that it was lacking. Or, rather, that it was a repetition of some kind, because it seems that so often the nondisabled writer goes to the disabled subject solely for the purpose of objective correlative, or a metaphor, or some kind of gravitas that maybe the poet cannot get from another subject. I don’t know if it’s even fair to bring that Glück poem into conversation with the Miles poem. They’re such different poems.
TKD: You mention abled writers mining disability for gravitas they can’t get elsewhere. That’s actually something a character of yours—Tipsy Tullivan—has advised young writers to do, ironically, in one of her hilarious YouTube vidoes. I’d like to ask you about her.
TKD: Tipsy’s videos are so interesting to me. Some of the earliest posts address the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (“AWP”) conference, and they were made during a period of real anger in the disability community regarding the 2016 conference and AWP’s accommodation of writers from across the disability spectrum. One thing I really appreciate about Tipsy is how she just goes ahead and gives advice like, “Make your character Deaf!” It’s just the worst advice. You can’t help laughing. It’s pretty potent, actually. So can you talk about her as a character, and then also touch on her utility in activism?
JW: Definitely. As an activist, I hope she has utility. She was really spontaneous for me, and she came out of a truly sincere frustration.
I have been attending AWP and witnessing the lack of access and accommodations for years.
2016 was the first year where [AWP’s lack of awareness on disability issues] reached an extreme that was just unimaginable and untenable for me, and I had to figure out how to [still] attend the conference. (I have friends who boycotted it.) AWP did not include any panels specific to writers with disabilities, which was just astounding to me. It was not an option to attend and pretend it was just business as usual, so I had a couple of conversations with people about what I could do. There at the conference I thought about hiring a stripper or a sex worker, someone who would be really super-able-bodied, to play me for my panel and to, you know, deliver my lines. People thought that was a bit extreme. I still like the idea. I’m inspired by an artist who sent a peacock in his stead to the Venice biennial a couple years back, and this live peacock was walking around the conference shitting on things. I like the idea of extreme art, but it wasn’t going to work out for me this year. So, in a moment of frustration I put on a wig. There wasn’t any plotting about it. It was just, “Since I can’t hire someone to be able-bodied for me let me just step into this antagonist that I’m so familiar with, which is of course the hegemon, the supreme other, the able-bodied person, and let me just totally mock the hell out of that position.” I had so much fun doing it, which is how I knew that I wanted to keep doing it, because it was really a blast to make those videos.
TKD: What has the response been like, from AWP or elsewhere?
JW: From other writers with disabilities the response has been largely positive. From nondisabled writers I get a strange, pro forma, but not unexpected, response—which is, “You should make these videos but be yourself, because we just don’t understand the disabled writer’s position. It’d be better if you could make these videos and teach us.”
TKD: “We don’t understand the concept of a fictional persona.”
JW: They don’t, right? Maybe they’re confused by it, or they’re put off by it, or it makes them uncomfortable. I hope it does those things.
As far as AWP, they invited me to be on the selection committee, and when I responded I actually used a line by E. B. White, which was, “I must decline for secret reasons.”
TKD: I’m curious about the pro forma response of nondisabled writers to the Tipsy videos—and I’m thinking about the idea of the gaze. This is a weird way to get to this question, but that’s sort of the nature of neurodivergence, I think. [Laughs] In the “Intermission” section of your collection The Book of Goodbyes, the poems with the birds really got me thinking about ideas of “the gaze” and objectifying and essentializing. In writing those pieces, did you think about the curiosity of the onlooker, this visitor who just wants a nice, pretty picture? Is there an analog there to the able-bodied gaze on the disabled body?
JW: Yeah, that’s brilliant. I hadn’t thought about it in that way, but I’m sure there’s part of me wanting to perform the gaze in a way that’s not compromised or troubling to another group—so why not birds? I was coming out of Aristophanes’ The Birds. Those classic writers, I really love what they do with allegory. I was also thinking about Juan Ruiz who has this book called The Book of Good Love. He anthropomorphizes animals, and [writes about] witches, and there’s such a flexibility to [his] poetic that I wanted to try.
I was also deeply, deeply heartbroken at the time, and the lyric wasn’t working for me. At a certain point I couldn’t write another terrible poem of heartbreak, so I needed to figure out a [new] angle, and the birds just appeared. But certainly there’s a broken wing in the poem, and there’s a sense of a kind of disabling love, yes.
I like your point about the gaze, because it’s kind of great to use that omniscient narrator for the animal world.
TKD: You were also in Argentina while writing this book: were you working on these pieces there?
JW: I was! The birds happened there. I never went to Iguazu Falls, but in Buenos Aires, and actually especially in Tierra del Fuego, where I lived for many months, I spoke to tourist after tourist that told me to go to the Iguazu Falls, and I knew I would not go because there would be too many stairs. So I thought I’ll go anyway in my mind, and see what happens, and I wrote the poems.
TKD: That’s great. The poems in “Intermission” suggest the landscape of Argentina was shaping your writing. How did you feel in that culture?
JW: Things about the culture appealed to me. I’m a night owl, and we would eat there at 10pm, 11pm, or midnight. Then maybe we would go to a dance at 3am, like a milonga. That appealed to me immensely. Here, I’m always haunting the aisles of the Walmart, because it’s about the only thing open at 3am when I want a break from writing. There’s nothing really you can do in the States at that hour, not unless you want to be drunk.
TKD: Geographically, Argentina is very removed from the American South, a site of heartbreak for you. Did you find your writing shaped at all by that physical removal? (We keep bringing up E. B. White here; “Removal” is how he begins One Man’s Meat.)
JW: Definitely. I love Julio Cortázar, and I would write at London Cafeteria, a cafe in Buenos Aires. They have a table cordoned off where he wrote and I would sit across from his cordoned-off table and write. I think their literary tradition influenced me immensely. I was reading Alejandra Pizarnik, and this great book called Voices by Antonio Porchia, who is real epigrammatic. I can hardly ever catch a quick thought in a couple of lines, but he taught me about compression. There are moments in the bird poems where things feel like they could be epigraph and that’s definitely coming from Porchia.
Just being there, being out of my comfort zone… [I had been] under the impression that I would go to Buenos Aires and I would forget my entire life immediately and have this joyous experience. Instead I brought all of the pain with me to Argentina. It was still a fine time, but it’s not exactly true that you can go leave the country and escape whatever emotional landscape you have at that moment.
TKD: If we’re getting back to the US, I want to ask you about contemporary American culture and disability, which is in a state of extremes. On the one hand, just to look at people with connections to reality television, there’s Nyle DiMarco the completely gorgeous Deaf man who recently won Dancing with the Stars, and on the other there’s Donald J. Trump, US Presidential Candidate, who mocked a reporter with a disability and faced no real consequences.
Do you feel like contemporary culture, politics, and news (for example, the death of Zahra Baker, which you turned into a gorgeous elegy in The Book of Goodbyes) inform the work you do and particularly the pieces of history that you bring into your poetry and fiction?
JW: Yes, absolutely, without question. I am open to all sources of media and pop culture. Today I was looking at YouTube because I’m not going to get on Snapchat but I want to know what celebrities are doing on Snapchat. I just devour that kind of stuff. At the same time I often have this polar opposite feeling, like I wish I had been born 100 years from now because the disability narrative that’s in pop culture is so tired and trite and I’m really over it. I have this strange desire to be beyond whatever wave we’re in where Me Before You is still appropriate or even, to some people, exciting. To me, it seems very early 20th century.
TKD: Well, you already self-identify as a cyborg, so you’re pretty 22nd century, even for 2016.
JW: [Laughs] Thank you. Thank you, Tim.
TKD: [Laughs] I bring that up in part because of a piece you wrote for The New York Times called “Going Cyborg.” There’s a section in it about going to the mall with a newish boyfriend called Henry to try out a brand new prosthetic leg. And this prosthetic drew on a more complicated technology than the prior one.
JW: Far more.
TKD: There’s a line in the essay that I just need to quote: “I think if you’re going to become a cyborg, you need a Henry. Someone to try on jackets.” I’d like to ask you about physical place. I think about this narrator in the mall with Henry, and I think about Anne with Nick at a site based on the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, in your novel The Colony. When there are two people, how does changing the setting change the dynamic between each of them, and the dynamic of disability?
JW: That’s such a good question. Setting is everything, really. The novel [takes place in] such a historically charged place, a real place that is still in operation today. For the mall, it’s just a quotidian place, so it seems more universalizing. I don’t know if I did this consciously or not, but everybody’s been to the mall. To say, “I’m a cyborg,” is really provocative, but to say, “I went to the mall,” is really commonplace. In claiming [to be a] cyborg, I really want to make a space for the notion of the common cyborg, who is already alive and plugging herself into a wall somewhere. Like right now, I’m buzzing because my battery is running low [in my prosthetic leg], which means nothing for our interview, but my device on my body is saying, “We’re low on battery.” It’s different than a phone. It’s the difference between walking or not walking, staying in one place or not staying in one place.
I certainly look back at Argentina with shock. No one told me to reconsider the trip given that I did not have a leg maker in Argentina, and I did not have a technologist in Argentina, so anything could have gone wrong. I just got lucky and didn’t think of it, and didn’t get forewarned about it.
I don’t know if that answers your question or not. I’m certainly aware of Southern writers thinking a whole lot about place, and I often am mystified as to what is meant by place.
TKD: Well, what do you think, in the context of disability, could be meant by place?
JW: Access, obviously. Just basics of, “Can I get into this building or can I not?” For me as a cyborg, I think about the condition of the road, I think about if I’m on an incline or a decline, perhaps more than an able-bodied person does. What the texture of the road is—that’s something I’m very aware of. But that seems so physical, that seems so specific rather than “Place: Iowa City.”
TKD: But your relationship to the topography, say, is really intimate. If you came to my neighborhood, Washington Heights, it’s very, very hilly. I know that from walking around with my daughter on my chest and my son in his stroller and my dog behind us—it’s 110 pounds of Other Being, plus a 15-pound stroller, all against 140-pound me. So I recognize that sensitivity to slight changes of incline, but I also can’t totally imagine having that recognition more or less permanently attached to my body.
JW: We would just have to grab a cab, I think. The most surprising thing to me is that I work at Clemson University, and the culture of the Academy is to walk. I think I reckon with place in my work life in the sense of, “Am I going to walk from here to there with this colleague to have this conversation, or am I going to get in my car?” That’s something I’m still trying to figure out. I go to the gym, I get on the treadmill, but there’s a difference between perfectly flat, automatic ground and an unpredictable gravel walk or an incline, or, as you say, Washington Heights.
TKD: The introduction of a social relationship through the act of walking from point A to point B is interesting to me. There’s a social experience, a social measure, a social assumption built into the act, but that very act has to be done differently when someone has a disability.
JW: It’s so subtle. And I don’t fault anyone for it, but it’s just a matter of, “Are you going to the meeting?”
“Yes I am.”
“We’re going to walk.”
“Okay, I’m going to drive.” There’s a whole social interaction there that goes unacknowledged. But then, it seems almost ridiculous to say, “Ride with me. I’m disabled. The ground is difficult.” It seems tricky for me to come out and say that to a colleague or a student.
TKD: Or like, “Ride with me, I’m disabled and lonely. I want company.”
JW: Exactly! “Please, let’s ride together!”
TKD: While we’re on the topic of social relationships, let’s talk about sex and sensuality and intimacy. In The Colony, sexuality is a huge part of Anne’s journey. Can you talk about how her relationship with Nick affects her perspective on her own disability, especially as she resists and then consents to her treatment?
JW: I think it’s fundamental. She as a character strikes me as a woman who is confident and self-assured but also using sexuality as a defense mechanism, especially in this particular situation where her entire identity is being challenged by futurism and scientific possibilities. I think the relationship she develops with Nick is a form of safety for her. As long as she is sexually alive, she can agree to this radical treatment and feel secure, even if it is false.
But the author is the worst person to ask. I know that it was really exhilarating to write a disabled woman who is so fearless. I’m not so fearless or in control or audacious as she is with Nick, who is a very oddball, brazen, machismo character himself. I think I really lucked out with those two characters.
TKD: Finally, I’d like to talk about technology and your work. There are some places in your writing where technology brings people together, like the scene in The Colony where Nick puts a small square with the nerve endings of Anne’s future foot onto his penis—
JW: They wanted to cut that. I was like, it’s there, it happened, I can’t cut it out, it’s true to the story. It unnerved, uh—
TKD: [Laughs] No pun intended.
JW: Yeah, it unnerved my agent. So I’m glad to hear you laughing about it.
TKD: Other pieces, like your poems “Semi Semi Dash” and “Why I No Longer Skype,” are a bit less sanguine. In general, do you think technology can bring people together or keep them apart?
JW: I’m not very binary about technology. I’m probably a skeptic more than an optimist. I’m interested in the ways it already changes our life. I am really skeptical of transhumanist technology and people who are working on prosthetics or biological engineering without any cue from actual disabled people who wear the technology. To me, it seems like a backward trajectory where able-bodied people are promising a kind of “cure” when, ontologically, we’re already so much more sophisticated in terms of what it means to be composed of a technological device.
I keep waiting for the day when there is a technologist or futurist who is indeed disabled and not a kind of fetishistic able-bodied person who decides to implant something, but someone who is a disabled person who can speak to the technology from that point of view. These devices are already here. They are going to grow.
One of my main complaints about the technology that I wear is that it’s all made in the image of men. It’s a basic complaint, but I can’t purchase a leg in the image of a woman. That’s where we are. I look forward to 100 years from now. I want to say to my leg maker, “That’s my calf,” as opposed to, now, when [I say], “I have a man’s calf.”
TKD: That seems like a huge problem.
JW: Apparently, not huge enough. I have an app that shows how many people are [using the same leg as me], and it’s 1,000. So I guess we’re not a vocal enough or big enough group to wake up the company to the need for men and women’s legs. I have a word I’m trying to coin for those technologists and it’s try-borg. They’re trying, really trying, to create cyborg devices but they can never do it better than the actual disabled person who is wearing, or early-adopting the device. Try-borg.
TKD: That’s way better than fail-better-borg.
JW: [Laughs.] Thank you, thank you.
T. K. Dalton is the Prose Editor of The Deaf Poets Society, an online journal of disability literature and art whose third issue launches in December.