Activism, Poetry, and Crip Linguistics:
An Interview with the Editors of the New Unsung Masters Collection, Laura Hershey: On the Life & Work of an American Master.
Laura Hershey was a vital, brilliant, and until now, lesser-known American poet, who, during her short life, was a major invigorating force in the movements for disability rights, queer poetries, and activist poetics. Her poems speak from the margins with the force of truth—eloquently, ferociously, and beautifully. This volume of the Unsung Masters Series, carefully curated by poets Meg Day and Niki Herd, reintroduces a wide selection of Hershey’s writing to a new generation of readers.
Noah Roush interviews Meg Day and Niki Herd. To purchase the book, visit: Small Press Distribution
NR: What, to you, makes Hershey’s work so important, especially in terms of disability studies?
NH: All people want to see themselves and the lives they lead reflected on the page. Hershey’s poems illustrate the ways in which disabled folk fall in love, have a desire for family, watch the stars and ponder life’s wonders. But her work also illustrates how disabled bodies are received within the landscape that is able-bodied culture. In her difficult to read poem, “Monster Body,” Hershey speaks as if she were a kind of Frankenstein. The “mob swinging angry / torches through stone streets” is able-bodied culture regarding the crip body as mutant, as a monstrosity—and so Hershey’s work exposes both institutionalized and cultural ableism. One important purpose of Disability Studies is to provide a critical context for the relationship between crip bodies and ableism, as well as acknowledge those who have fought that battle. Hershey was at the forefront of this work, in the trenches as an activist, working to push local accessibility laws in Colorado and ADA legislation on the national level. As an activist poet, she brought those public struggles—struggles still fought today—to the page.
MD: What excites me most about Hershey’s work, though, is that it commits itself to a kind of activism beyond archival work: it anticipates and centers the disabled reader. Hershey is writing in a way that extends beyond the original framing of Disability Studies and Disability Poetics, both of which can unintentionally reify the nondisabled as norm and given. When Hershey writes—powerfully, yes, and lyrically, narratively, politically—she’s modeling a kind of activism that still hasn’t been fully realized by contemporary disabled poets and writers. Can we write poems that exit the nondisabled orbit, that tend crip linguistics and don’t apologize or explain? Hershey’s showing us how.
NR: Most of Hershey’s poems have short lines that employ enjambment frequently. What advantage does Hershey’s use of these line breaks lend her work as a whole?
NH: Enjambment creates tension; it’s that unseen rope tethering the reader and forcing her to the next line or image. When used from one poem to the next, with the type of direct language employed by Hershey, the poem makes it clear that the speaker is directly addressing the reader, and doing so with some force. The technique is also part of a long lineage of activist poetic movements that find poets using enjambment to sustain tension when addressing challenging, and often life threatening, social issues—here I’m thinking of poetry from the Black Arts Movement, anti-war poems of the 70s or from the Iraq War; we see this too now in poems from the #MeToo Movement.
MD: I think it’s worth noting, too, that Hershey was writing and recording poems through a variety of technologies. Short lines can shuttle us quickly down the page, but they also carry the ghost of materiality: scraps of paper from mid-protest, transcriptions taken by others, brief lines spoken into a word processor between breaths. Hershey controls her line deftly and so too controls the reader’s attention. She knows exactly what she’s doing; she’s making it harder for the nondisabled reader to project a more comfortable interpretation onto these poems. Hershey’s short lines are their own activism.
NR: Quite a few of Hershey’s poems, such as “I Am, I Am Not,” “Message,” and “You Get Proud by Practicing,” have succinct, repeating phrases, such as “I am,” “Sometimes I want to go back,” and “You do not need.” Why do you think Hershey uses repetition so much, and what effect does it have on the overall message she is conveying throughout her body of work?
MD: We know the historical lineage of anaphora and its role in the manifesto, both political and personal. Hershey is obviously working in that tradition—drawing on its capacity to motivate and unify—but I also think sites of heavy repetition in some of her work comes from the often-frustrating realities of living through ableism. I’m projecting now, but it’s true that we spend so much of our time repeating our access needs, reiterating our humanity, reminding one another we matter. Sometimes I read “You Get Proud by Practicing” & it rouses me, gifts me the assurance of kin and culture larger than myself. But other times, I read it in this very annoyed tone, which I find equally satisfying and provocative. In such a version, Hershey seems impatient and exasperated: practice, already. I appreciate the way she is always insisting in her poems. It reminds me this work is both labor and love.
NR: In “Translating the Crip,” Hershey lays out for the reader new interpretations of terms and phrases the nondisabled reader might assume they understand. From safeto high-quality personal assistance services, Hershey highlights both the realities of disabled life and the pride she feels. How did ableism force Hershey to re-think and re-envision language and its meaning?
MD: When I read this poem, I spend the whole time signing YES-YES. “Translating the Crip” is more of a call-in to nondisabled folks–especially those who are well-meaning or want to consider themselves allies–than it is an explanation of self or a dictionary of surprising neologisms. Hershey’s responses to each of these words may reveal much about her experience in the world, sure, but I think the nondisabled reader is likely to shirk implication or responsibility too quickly.
NH: I suspect Hershey’s way of seeing the world is the basis for the alternative definitions and not the other way around. What she might be suggesting is the complexity of the world in which she lives, which too is the reader’s world—that problematic second-person pronoun youthat Meg speaks of. The poem really is Whitmanesque, formally with its longer lines, use of repetition and indentions, and in terms of its reach. It is Hershey’s “Song of Myself,” calling out and laying claim to all that is full of beauty, or seen as lacking beauty to dominant society. And even still with this refusal for others to acknowledge her humanity, and the humanity of those of us living with physical or cognitive disabilities, Hershey extends the olive branch to you the interviewer, to you the reader; she means all of us “refusing to compare or hate ourselves.”
Two Poems by Laura Hershey
You Get Proud by Practicing
If you are not proud
for who you are, for what you say, for how you look;
if every time you stop
to think of yourself, you do not see yourself glowing
with golden light; do not, therefore, give up on yourself.
You do not need
a better body, a purer spirit, or a Ph.D.
to be proud.
You do not need
a lot of money, a handsome boyfriend, or a nice car.
You do not need
to be able to walk, or see, or hear,
or use big, complicated words,
or do any of the things that you just can’t do
to be proud. A caseworker
cannot make you proud,
or a doctor.
You only need
You get proud
There are many many ways to get proud.
You can try riding a horse, or skiing on one leg,
or playing guitar,
and do well or not so well,
and be glad you tried
You can show
something you’ve made
to someone you respect
and be happy with it no matter
what they say.
You can say
what you think, though you know
other people do not think the same way, and you can
keep saying it, even if they tell you
you are crazy.
You can add your voice
all night to the voices
of a hundred and fifty others
in a circle
around a jailhouse
where your brothers and sisters are being held
for blocking buses with no lift,
or you can be one of the ones
inside the jailhouse,
knowing of the circle outside.
You can speak your love
to a friend
You can find someone
who will listen to you
without judging you or doubting you or being
afraid of you
and let you hear yourself perhaps
for the first time.
These are all ways
of getting proud.
None of them
are easy, but all of them
are possible. You can do all of these things,
or just one of them again and again.
You get proud
Power makes you proud, and power
comes in many fine forms
supple and rich as butterfly wings.
It is music
when you practice opening your mouth
and liking what you hear
because it is the sound of your own
It is sunlight
when you practice seeing
strength and beauty in everyone
It is dance
when you practice knowing
that what you do
and the way you do it
is the right way for you
and can’t be called wrong.
All these hold
more power than weapons or money
All these practices bring power, and power
makes you proud.
You get proud
Remember, you weren’t the one
who made you ashamed,
but you are the one
who can make you proud.
practice until you get proud, and once you are proud,
keep practicing so you won’t forget.
You get proud
Translating the Crip
Can I translate myself to you?
Do I need to?
Do I want to?
When I say crip I mean flesh-proof power, flash mob sticks and wheels in busy
intersections, model mock.
When I say disability I mean all the brilliant ways we get through the planned fractures of
When I say living in America today I mean thriving and unwelcome, the irony of the only
possible time and place.
When I say cure I mean erase. I mean eradicate the miracle of error.
When I say safe I mean no pill, no certified agency, no danger to myself court order, no
supervisory setting, no nurse, can protect or defend or save me, if you deny me power.
When I say public transportation I mean we all pay, we all ride, we all wait. As long as
When I say basic rights I mean difficult curries, a fancy-knotted scarf, a vegetable garden. I
mean picking up a friend at the airport. I mean two blocks or a continent with switches or
sensors or lightweight titanium, well-maintained and fully-funded. I mean shut up about
charity, the GNP, pulling my own weight, and measuring my carbon footprint. I mean only
embrace guaranteed can deliver real equality.
When I say high-quality personal assistance services I mean her sure hands earning
honorably, and me eating and shitting without anyone’s permission.
When I say nondisabled I mean all your precious tricks.
When I say nondisabled privilege I mean members-only thought processes, and the
violence of stairs.
By dancing I mean of course dancing. We dance without coordination or hearing, because
music wells through walls. You’re invited, but don’t do us any favors.
When I say sexy I mean our beautiful crip bodies, broken or bent, and whole. I mean
drooling from habit and lust. I mean slow, slow.
When I say family I mean all the ways we need each other, beyond your hardening itch and
paternal property rights, our encumbering love and ripping losses. I mean everything
When I say normal I don’t really mean anything.
When I say sunset, rich cheese, promise, breeze, or iambic pentameter, I mean exactly the
same things you mean.
Or, when I say sunset I mean swirling orange nightmare. When I say rich cheese I mean the
best food I can still eat, or else I mean poverty and cholesterol. When I say promise I mean
my survival depends on crossed digits. When I say breeze I mean finally requited desire.
When I say iambic pentameter, I mean my heart’s own nameless rhythm.
When I say tell the truth I mean complicate. Cry when it’s no longer funny.
When I say crip solidarity I mean the grad school exam and the invisible man. I mean
signed executive meetings, fighting for every SSI cent.
When I say challenges to crip solidarity I mean the colors missing from grant applications,
the songs absent from laws. I mean that for all my complaints and victories, I am still
sometimes more white than crip.
When I say anything I know the risk: You will accuse me of courage. I know your language
all too well, steeped in its syntax of overcoming adversity and limited resources. When I say
courage I mean you sitting next to me, talking, both of us refusing to compare or hate
When I say ally I mean I’ll get back to you. And you better be there.
The Unsung Masters Series is a collaboration between Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature, Copper Nickel, and Pleiades Press. Each volume is published yearly and focuses on an important writer who has been unjustly neglected and/or whose work is currently out of print. In addition to a generous sampling of work, every volume includes numerous essays on the writer’s work.
The Unsung Masters Series is generously supported by the University of Houston, the University of Central Missouri, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, the Missouri Arts Council, the Missouri Humanities Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Meg Day is the 2015-2016 recipient of the Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship, a 2013 recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Poetry, and the author of Last Psalm at Sea Level (Barrow Street 2014), winner of the Barrow Street Poetry Prize and the Publishing Triangle’s Audre Lorde Award. Day teaches at Franklin & Marshall College and lives in Lancaster, PA.
Niki Herd is the author of The Language of Shedding Skin. Her work has been supported by Cave Canem and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She currently lives in Texas where she is an Inprint C. Glenn Cambor Fellow of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston.
Noah Roush is a student at the University of Central Missouri.