In the latest issue of Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry, my friend Ellen LaFleche reflects on how the prose-poem genre, occupying a space that is betwixt and between, can be especially fruitful for exploring the identity disruptions produced by illness:
I experience diabetes as a disease that lives on and between boundaries. For example, the person newly diagnosed with diabetes is told that they have “control” over the disease process. Achieving this “control” involves a difficult regime of diet, exercise, self-education, glucose monitoring, frequent labwork, and numerous visits to specialists. But diabetes is also a progressive disease, a reality that even the most dedicated diabetic cannot change. And even someone with tight control over their blood glucose levels can experience complications. So the idea of “control” is both a reality and an illusion. Some experts claim that diabetes can even be “reversed” with various dietary supplements such as cinnamon capsules or fenugreek seeds. These did not work for me, and I had to struggle with feelings of guilt over not being able to miraculously reverse my illness. Perhaps the most confusing boundary was when a specialist told me that I could be a “healthy person with an illness.” What did that mean? Was I ill, or healthy? Or both? Can a person be both ill and healthy at the same time?…Ellen’s poetry appears in this issue of Wordgathering, along with African poets Tendai Mwanaka and Omosun Sylvester, and other well-known names.
I had written and published four prose poems before I realized how strongly I had tapped into my unconscious feelings about illness. All of the fairy tale characters were struggling with some form of disability or illness. In my first prose poem, Rapunzel has suffered a stroke (a possible complication of diabetes.) (“Rapunzel Recovers from a Stroke”, Patchwork Journal, online here) She cannot speak, so she spits fire at the nurse who wants to cut off her archetypal long hair. Rapunzel’s hair is her power. I realize now that this poem helped me to prepare myself for a possible future complication. Yes, I will spit fire at any person who tries to take away any part of my power or dignity.
In “Identity Theft”, (Silkworm, 2007) Rumpelstiltskin experiences rage at his situation. He has been promised the queen’s firstborn son – he did, after all, save the queen’s life by spinning straw into gold. But the queen refuses to honor her side of the bargain. She deceives him by stealing his identity. Rumpelstiltskin has lost control – something that I deeply fear as a try to manage my illness – and he feels justifiable anger. He splits in half, “a kind of split personality.” Only after seeing this prose poem in print did I realize that the words “split personality” reflect my struggles over the daily duality of control vs. non-control, over the strange duality of illness vs. health.
I used to tell people that I was a poet because I had too short an attention span to write prose. (So how did I end up writing two novels at the same time?) At the Poets.org site, Lynn Emanuel’s entertaining, edgy prose-poem “The Politics of Narrative: Why I Am a Poet” echoes this sentiment:
…And then he smiled. And that smile was a gas station on a dark night. And as wearying as all the rest of it. I am many things, but dumb isn’t one of them. And here is where I say to Jill, “I just can’t go on.” I mean, how we get from the smile into the bedroom, how it all happens, and what all happens, just bores me. I am a concep- tual storyteller. In fact, I’m a conceptual liver. I prefer the cookbook to the actual meal. Feeling bores me. That’s why I write poetry. In poetry you just give the instructions to the reader and say, “Reader, you go on from here.” And what I like about poetry is its readers, because those are giving people. I mean, those are people you can trust to get the job done. They pull their own weight. If I had to have someone at my back in a dark alley, I’d want it to be a poetry reader. They’re not like some people, who maybe do it right if you tell them, “Put this foot down, and now put that one in front of the other, button your coat, wipe your nose.”Read the whole piece here.
So, really, I do it for the readers who work hard and, I feel, deserve something better than they’re used to getting. I do it for the working stiff. And I write for people, like myself, who are just tired of the trickle-down theory where some- body spends pages and pages on some fat book where every- thing including the draperies, which happen to be burnt orange, are described, and, further, are some metaphor for something. And this whole boggy waste trickles down to the reader in the form of a little burp of feeling. God, I hate prose. I think the average reader likes ideas.