Following the release of our new e-anthology A Body You Talk To: An Anthology of Contemporary Disability our Editorial Intern Max Stone spoke with editor Tennison S. Black about the importance of sharing and amplifying work by disabled writers, their editorial vision for the anthology, the story behind the title, the inclusion of visual art in the collection, and more.
Max Stone: Could you talk about the title of the anthology? Why this title? Where did it come from and how do you see it unifying this collection of work?
Tennison S. Black: The thing about me that few realize is that I have to coach myself through chronic pain to complete basic tasks. Sometimes I’m really kind to myself, “Okay, here we go. You’ve got this.” And sometimes I’m irritable with the pain or outright inability to accomplish what I want, “Just do it. Oh for fu**’s sake.” But the thing is that I talk to my body all the time. Opening a car door requires a conversation in my mind, “Focus on the ring finger and let it do the work—don’t use the thumb—okay maybe just hook it then turn your shoulders and it’ll work as leverage.”
My primary disability seems hell-bent on taking out my hands, especially. Though I’ve had this disease since 2001, in recent years it’s increased the toll and I seem to be steadily losing my access to the use of my hands. So I talk to them a lot. But also to my knee, my left hip, my shoulders, neck, and spine. I guess it depends on the task but I coach my parts toward cooperation.
In the summer months there’s something about the way my bedroom door was originally hung and so when it swells in the heat, it’s really difficult to open. Every day is hard, but when you combine that with a flare in my hands, I can easily get stuck in my room because the doorknob and the strain of opening the door causes me extreme pain but also because I just can’t pull hard enough to get it to open anymore. At some level my instinct is to sit on the floor and have a good cry until I’m rescued. But no one is coming to rescue anyone else, it seems, and also, that’s not who I want to be in this life—I don’t want to give up. Except when I really really do. The way I bridge the difference is to talk to—I don’t know—the arm, the hand, the disease that puts me in that position, myself for eating something the night before that I know could cause me additional pain—all of it. The hot summer air and humidity that causes my door to do this. The inability to pay for someone to fix it—yes and yes and yes. So I have one of those bodies that you have to talk to just to get through the day. From opening a can or jar, yes even with tools, to carrying my bag, to pulling on my clothes, I need a coach so I coach myself. And in this way, I’m not alone.
MS: Why was it important to put together an anthology of poetry on contemporary
disability at this current moment?
TSB: I haven’t always been good at saying I’m Disabled. It’s not in my nature to disclose my feelings or my struggles. There are a lot of reasons for this, but mostly I think it came from raising my kids as a single parent with no family or friends, and feeling utterly terrified that if anyone knew the amount of pain I was in on a daily basis, or how much I was struggling, I’d lose my kids. Now, that may seem irrational today, but I can’t overstate how alone I was in those years, and how I was just trying not to die. So it took a lot for me to even begin to understand my own disability, and what it may mean to be Disabled in the world, and also what to do with that information. I was trying to just get by, walking to food banks—got evicted, and on and on. Anyway, I’m not always great at it, and I struggle still, but I feel like I need to do better.
There’s not yet been a time when being Disabled wasn’t a radical act. Yet Disabled writers are still routinely excluded in many presses and open calls. Listen, there are several incredible anthologies of this type so we’re not breaking new ground here but until it’s routine and expected that a certain percentage of writers in every anthology are openly Disabled, we all (meaning presses) have work to do. As for Sundress, this won’t be our last effort toward this end, it’s just our most recent. But I still hear from publishers that Disabled writers are “difficult,” or that we “can’t handle touring and promotion,” and that we’re just “too much,” so we still have a long way to go.
MS: How do you see these poems contributing to the conversation on disability and creating more space and empathy for disabled people in the world?
TSB: Not all of the work in this anthology is about being Disabled except in as much as everything everyone does is influenced by their identity—Disabled and non-disabled alike. But this anthology is not necessarily intended to focus strictly on the experience of Disability as much as it’s intended to offer one more outlet, one more space for Disabled people to speak their minds or to place their art. It’s another marker saying that we’re here. In some cases these artists and writers are responding to other Disabled writers and artists. But in many cases they’re just representing themselves and saying hey, I want to be included in the conversation, please. And what else is there?
MS: Talk a little bit about your editorial vision for this book; what considerations did you make when choosing which poems to include? A variety of different voices, disabilities, intersecting identities, and poetic forms are represented; was this a conscious, deliberate choice that you made?
TSB: If I could have accepted every submission, I would have. But what was my vision—I mean here we sit in this world with fascism rising all around us, trying to gobble up and kill everything good. My daily vision is to defy that push, to offer space where people can be in love and in sorrow, in pain and in hope with each other. And to offer that space up to those who are living in defiance of all that is horrid and terrible in the world.
MS: Are there specific poems by different poets that you think speak to or resonate with
each other? If so, which ones and how do they conversate, both in terms of content and
TSB: There are many pieces in this anthology that speak to one another. I’d prefer not to point them out because first I want the reader to have room here. But, too, I want every writer and artist herein to know that I value their work, none above any other, but with immense gratitude nonetheless for each. They’re all special to me and I chose them for that reason alone.
MS: The COVID-19 pandemic is a recurring theme in this anthology. Can you expand on the intersections of disability with the pandemic and the choices you made in selecting poems relating to the topic? Also, did you have an idea of how much of a presence you wanted the pandemic to have in the book going into it?
TSB: There hasn’t yet been enough said about the impact of the pandemic on our community. Personally, I spent the pandemic with a medically suppressed immune system because it was either that or lose my ability to walk as my disease ravaged my joints. And in fact, it took multiple specialists AND me losing my ability to walk for several months to finally agree to do it because of the pandemic. But my story is far from unique or extraordinary. If you faced the pandemic with a disability, you likely had increased pressure in all of the ways that everyone else had—just more so. From loneliness to financial pressure, to physical challenges and worries amid a potentially deadly pandemic to which many of us were more susceptible—especially to the worst outcomes. I didn’t feel that I could approach the topic of disability at this stage and not also talk about the impact of the pandemic—something many of us are still facing, even if most people have decided it’s over.
MS: Several art pieces are also included in the anthology. Can you speak about your thought process in choosing these pieces?
TSB: Honestly, if it weren’t for capitalism, we’d all be able to lay around and make art and write and tell stories. And I wouldn’t want to be a part of extricating one of these from another. Wherever my writing is, there will always be room for art. And I hope to include art in every editorial effort I undertake. My thoughts in the selection process here were to include pieces that spoke to or advanced the narrative of the whole and some of those were more visual than others.
MS: Disabilities that aren’t visible are often overlooked and ignored. How do you see A Body You Talk To tackling this issue and making such disabilities, and the people who experience them, more visible and acknowledged?
TSB: For twenty years I was invisibly Disabled. My disabilities have only become really visible in the last few years, and even then, they again can be invisible to those who don’t understand what they’re seeing. Like so many of us, I have been screamed at for parking in an accessible parking space, or for using the accessible stall in the restroom. I’ve been asked by a very prominent Disability rights advocate why I was there at a disability event and how they could know I was Disabled because I didn’t look disabled to them. It’s awful to be put in these positions so I just don’t think we need to justify ourselves. We don’t owe our medical information to anyone. It’s not really for me to make other Disabled people more visible but to offer them a platform to make themselves more visible (if they choose) is something I can do. And acknowledgement might be nice but what I want is universal accessibility. I want us all to be able to get in and out of buildings and to get around the world without so much difficulty or the need to justify ourselves to others. A Body You Talk To is a place for some Disabled writers and artists to be heard and to publish their work. That alone is, I hope, enough. It’s a room. The real work belongs to the writers and artists contained therein.
Tennison S. Black (they/she), a queer and multiply disabled autistic, is the author of Survival Strategies (winner of the National Poetry Series, UGA Press 2023). Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in SWWIM, Hotel Amerika, Booth, Wordgathering, and New Mobility, among others. They received an MFA at Arizona State University. They are the Managing Editor at Sundress Publications and Best of the Net. Though Sonoran born, they reside in Washington state.
Max Stone is a poet from Reno, Nevada. He has an MFA in poetry and a BA in English with a minor in Book Arts and Publication from the University of Nevada, Reno. He was born and raised in Reno, but has lived in various other places including New York City, where he played soccer at Queens College. He is the author of two chapbooks: Temporary Preparations (Bottlecap Press, June 2023) and The Bisexual Lighting Makes Everyone Beautiful (Ghost City Press, forthcoming July 2023). His work has been published by & Change, just femme and dandy, fifth wheel press, Bender Zine, Black Moon Magazine, The Meadow, Night Coffee Lit, and elsewhere.