Lyric Essentials: Jillian Weise Reads Constance Merritt’s “Bitches on the Bright Side” and “A Study in Perspective”

The Amputee’s Guide to Sex is a book I have loved for a long time. My copy is bent and creased with love and teaching. So it was a natural thing that Weise would come to mind for this series since I pretty much always want to know what she thinks about poetry. Thankfully, she was generous and offered up not one but TWO poems by Constance Merritt, giving us a chance to talk about everything from form to how to be disabled inside a poem.

Black: Why did you choose these particular poems to share?

Weise: “Bitches on the Bright Side” has that fantastic, colloquial title. Then the poem celebrates things we don’t often celebrate, like when you call someone and they don’t answer. I chose “A Study in Perspective” because it taught me how to be disabled inside a poem without pandering and without apologizing.

 

Black: Can you tell readers something about Constance Merritt and the collection you chose, A Protocol for Touch, which is her first of four?

Weise: I’ve never met Merritt, but I will be on a panel with her at Split This Rock in DC. The panel is “Against Death What Other Stay Than Love”: Disabled Poets Read and we will read alongside the poets Sandra Beasley, Meg Day and Khadijah Queen. This is on April 21 at 9:00 a.m. Can you tell I’m excited? Merritt’s most recent book, Blind Girl Grunt: The Selected Blues Lyrics and Other Poems, was published last year by Headmistress Press.

Black: Can you talk about form a little bit? “Bitches on the Bright Side” is a villanelle. What is gained in this poem by writing in form?

Weise: I like villanelles but I’m a bigger fan of invectives and talk-backs. I think of Merritt’s poem as a talk-back to Dylan Thomas’ villanelle “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” What’s gained is we have a Blind poet responding to lines written by Thomas like “Blind eyes could blaze” and “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” For me, this marks a significant shift in poetry. Merritt’s poem applies pressure not just to Dylan’s use of blindness, but to all the poets who come after, and still today: nondisabled poets who plunder disability for a sweet little simile.

Black: Is there a permission to be less driven happening in “Bitches on the Bright Side”? That seems audacious in a world which makes so many of us feel like we have to perform better than others to be seen as equal. Can you speak to this a little bit? Is there a relationship between this audacious permission and disability?

Weise: Oh yes, that too. I love how the poem is the antithesis of an overcoming narrative. Permit me to imagine I’m writing to a nondisabled audience, here, and don’t need to explain why “overcoming narratives” dominate and distort our lives.

Black: In “Study in Perspective,” Merritt beautifully exposes power dynamics, “We get away with what we can” she writes, exploring who gets to remain clothed and who must be exposed; who is given a gaze and who is the subject of the gaze—and this makes me think about your writing. Writing about disability as you do deals with many of these same concepts. Do you see a connection to your own work in these areas?

Weise: The poem is so incredible. I love the way section II is only the word “Nothing.” I love the way the speaker considers “passing” and race and Blindness and class. I love the way history collapses into a couplet. And what is going on with this beloved? About that line—“We get away with what we can”—it feels so relevant to any number of situations. This might be too banal, but I think the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference continues to exclude openly-claiming disabled and D/deaf writers from the 42 keynotes because they can. I get the sense that there are only two ways for disabled writers to keynote: 1) first you have to win the MacArthur “Genius” Award or 2) be secret disabled and don’t let your writing show it. To quote Merritt: “From a distance the boundaries stay clear.”

From another angle, the notion of “get[ting] away” with something has been so important to my own poetics. I’m aware of questions like “Can the poet get away with it?” which I take to mean “Can they do it? Is it something that we poets do or condone?” I created the YouTube series Tips for Writers by Tipsy Tullivan to both get away from ableism and get away with it.

(Photo is an image of “Tipsy Tullivan” (a woman with a pink bow around her neck and long blond hair with bangs) smiling as if she were speaking, beside Vanessa Carlisle, a woman with mid-length blond hair, large sunglasses, wearing a black hooded sweatshirt. The pair poses in front of the wall of a pink house.)

Black: Are there lines or ideas you’d like to call attention to or talk about? Which are the lines which speak to you most?

Weise: Those last lines in “A Study in Perspective” are devastating. It is as though there’s an elision of the beloved’s question (“Why?”). The answer closes the poem: “And not because, as I have said, / I loved you more, or am most good, / Just well-rehearsed as vulnerable.”

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Jillian Weise is a poet, performance artist and disability rights activist. She is the author The Amputee’s Guide to Sex (2007), The Colony (2010) and The Book of Goodbyes (2013), which won the Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and the Gardner Award from BOA Editions. Her work has appeared in A Public Space, The Huffington Post, The New York Times and other publications. Her heteronym, Tipsy Tullivan, hosts a show called “Tips for Writers” on YouTube. Weise is the recipient of residencies and fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center, the Fulbright Program, the Lannan Foundation, and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is an Associate Professor at Clemson University. Her next book is forthcoming from BOA in Fall 2019.

Constance Merritt is an American poet from Pine Bluff Arkansas who has won the Vassar Miller prize and a finalist for the William Carlos Williams award. Merritt is the author of four collections of poetry: Blind Girl Grunt: The Selected Blues Lyrics and Other Poems (Headmistress Press, 2017), Two Rooms (LSU Press, 2009), Blessings and Inclemencies (LSU Press, 2007) and A Protocol for Touch (UNT Press, 2000).

Links to the good stuff:

“Bitches on the Bright Side” Text

“A Study in Perspective” Text

Constance Merritt at Poets and Writers

Constance Merritt’s Fools Gold at the Poetry Foundation

Jillian Weise at the Poetry Foundation

Jillian Weise’s Website

Weise’s Poem, “Some Rights”

Anna Lys Black is the editor-in-chief for Hayden’s Ferry Review at Arizona State University where she is a Virginia G. Piper global fellow, a graduate excellence awardee, and mere weeks from completion of her MFA. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, The American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others.

One thought on “Lyric Essentials: Jillian Weise Reads Constance Merritt’s “Bitches on the Bright Side” and “A Study in Perspective”

  1. This was most …impelling, engaging and moving for me because it names a number of my concerns and struggles as I try to figure out where and how disability, disabledness, this additional otherness, as if being black, female, poet, maker, poor, lactose intolerant, in 21st century America weren’t already all consuming states of being. As Audre Lorde said, which me will I liberate? Hopefully all and this discussion furthered that hope. Thank you.

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