‘No Disabled People Wanted Here: Accessing The Estate of Poetry’ by Karl Knights

Czesław Miłosz wrote that ‘a poet participates in the management of the estate of poetry’. However, when we roam around ‘the estate of poetry’, what do we encounter? Are the walls high and the gates locked? Is there an enormous flight of steep stairs with no lift in sight? Who is inside the estate, and who is outside the walls, waiting to be let in? As accessibility options to the poetry world’s infrastructure of events already begin to dwindle, a sign is being hammered into the estate’s wall: ‘no disabled people wanted here.’ An inaccessible space sends one message to disabled people: ‘we don’t want you.’ An inaccessible space says, ‘This space is not for you. We don’t want your presence. We don’t want your words.’

Inaccessibility has always been the companion of disabled poets. Archives all over the world are full of the stories of the disabled writers who spent their entire lives inhabiting a literary world that did not want them, a literary world that was simply inaccessible to them. Each time I come across a disabled poet from bygone years, I read everything I can about them, trying to answer the question, ‘how did you survive this? How did you keep writing amidst so much casual and blasé exclusion?’ Many writers simply did not survive. I’m often told that change takes time. I always remember these words from James Baldwin, ‘How much time do you want for your ‘progress’?’ ‘Progress’ has taken the time of all those writers who now only exist in musty archives.

Disabled poets are rarely allowed to simply exist. In order to make it to a reading stage at all, we’re almost always forced to become access consultants. Often, the labour of accessibility is expected to be done by disabled people alone. It becomes our job to ask if the building’s hearing loop works, our job to chase captions, our job to ask about stairs and lifts. I often find myself thinking about how many poems didn’t get written because the time I would have spent writing them was instead spent sorting out basic accessibility. At the first reading I ever gave, I asked for a chair to be put on stage. Nothing fancy, any old chair would do. The organiser grumbled, and acted as though I had asked them to move the Eiffel Tower. At my second reading, I was assured that having a chair on stage would be no problem, but when the time came for me to take the stage, no chair was in sight. And on it went. Thus, instead of thinking about where I should place my emphasis in a poem or how I would read particular words which I tend to slur or swallow, I was sorting out basic access. What would it be like, I often wondered, if disabled poets didn’t have to constantly expend so much energy on ensuring their access needs are met?

During the pandemic, I got a glimpse of the answer. Suddenly, I had more access to the poetry world. For the first time, I could easily attend launch readings, festivals, Q&As, panel discussions. Poetry events were liberated from physical locations. I live in a rural county, and it’s exceedingly rare for poets to appear in my neck of the woods. Any journey to an elsewhere is a trek. For the first time, I could attend the Dodge Poetry Festival, which usually takes place in New Jersey, as last year’s festival took place entirely online. The audience in attendance was global: people tuned in from India and Australia, and everywhere in between. For the first time, I felt connected to the poetry of my contemporaries. I began to understand what people meant when they talked about a ‘writing community’; the way a line break or emphasis can reverberate through a room, the clicking of fingers after a stellar line.

While I was overjoyed to see this sudden surge of access, my joy was tempered by annoyance. For years, disabled people had been told that greater accessibility simply wasn’t possible. There wasn’t enough money, not enough expertise, not enough resources, not enough, not enough. But as soon as the rest of the world needed accessibility, it was provided almost immediately, seemingly overnight. Less than a week went by before I began to wonder how long this newfound access would last. Would it vanish just as quickly as it appeared? Would it vanish as soon as non- disabled people didn’t need it anymore? Unfortunately, my suspicions appeared well founded. Almost all of the festivals that I could attend for the first time last year have returned to being solely in-person. Watching remote accessibility options vanish in real time is as heartbreaking as it is infuriating. I am not sure which is worse: never experiencing accessibility, or experiencing it, and then watching it being taken away.

What is the ‘normal’ that everyone around me is so hurriedly returning to? A ‘normal’ where a polio survivor has to miss hearing their favourite poet read, because the chairs are too painful to sit on. A ‘normal’ where a man in a wheelchair keeps a black notebook in his jacket pocket, full of the venues that he can actually get into. A ‘normal’ where I walk to a local open mic, find that the reading is happening up some pub stairs, and turn back to go home, with no poetry in my ears, no lines to keep me company. What the estate of poetry fails to understand is that access is not a burden, or a favour, or a courtesy. Access is the difference between a disabled poet being locked out of the estate of poetry – or not. I have no doubt that right now, a disabled poet is walking away from poetry for good, and this is to poetry’s detriment. Every uncaptioned reading or inaccessible submission portal tells disabled people that we’re not wanted in the estate of poetry. As institutions and festivals big and small have begun to return to solely in-person events, my enthusiasm for poetry itself began to wane. Every letter became a marker of exclusion. Perhaps this is the ultimate purpose of exclusion: to eviscerate joy. Each time that the effects of longstanding inaccessibility bleeds into my enjoyment of poetry, I never know if my passion for poetry will return. The brutal truth is that it’s easy to get used to exclusion. My first thought after being told that I’d won last year’s New Poets Prize was, ‘How much ableism is this going to expose me to?’

Many venues and organisations have included disabled people for the very first time during the pandemic. In the Spring of 2021, Arvon offered its first course led by disabled writers, for disabled writers. Arvon was then in its fifty-third year as an organisation. While I was happy to see the inclusion of disabled writers, I couldn’t help but wonder why it took fifty-three years for disabled people to be included. How many writers were excluded in all that time? Years and often decades of almost constant exclusion does not simply vanish because you’re including us now. Opening a door for disabled writers doesn’t mean anything if the doorframe itself is rotten.

Whenever inclusivity is kept in mind, there are always caveats. Last year, the T.S. Eliot Prize shortlist featured two out Deaf and disabled poets, but none of the Prize’s promotional materials on social media featured alt-text, meaning that anyone using a screen reader had no way to access the content. Only five of that year’s 56 promotional Youtube videos had accurate and useful captions. I heard a disabled poet on Radio 3 for the first time. It turned out that the subject of the radio documentary couldn’t access the programme they were featured in, because no transcript had been provided. My heart sank and my teeth were set on edge.

The effect of inaccessibility on the culture of poetry cannot be overstated. Inaccessibility ensures that disabled poets simply don’t exist at open mics, at readings, at launch events, on the page and on the stage. The point of exclusion is erasure, and disabled writers are erased from the estate of poetry every day. How often have you read disabled poets in this magazine’s very pages? How often have you seen disabled people at their launch events? I don’t think that editors and programmers and decision- makers sit around like cartoon villains, clutching their hands together and concocting the best way that they can exclude disabled people. Often, people say ‘I didn’t realize’ or ‘I simply didn’t think about it.’

Accessibility is never easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. Ironically, accessibility itself can often be inaccessible. For example, for the first year of the pandemic, Zoom locked its captioning service behind a paywall, so it was only available to the highest level of Zoom subscribers. Instead of having a conversation about the very real monetary barriers to accessibility, money is instead used to shut down any discussion of accessibility.

Much like a poem, accessibility is a constant revisionary process. It is work that you never quite finish; Samuel Beckett’s dictum ‘fail again, fail better’ could well be the motto of accessibility work. You will fail. The only question is how you or your organisation reacts to that failure. Will you say, ‘what can we do for next time?’ or will you grow frustrated, and conclude that access is simply too difficult, so you don’t try again? It is not enough to simply say you’ll do better. You have to do it. Accessibility means nothing if it lives solely on the tongue. Access is more than a bundle of platitudes. Accessibility is an action, a practise, a directive.

A few weeks ago, I attended a reading by disabled poets, with mostly other disabled people in the audience. Within minutes, it felt like a sack of boulders was finally lifted off my shoulders. Here was a space where my inclusion was not conditional, here was a space that was telling me that my contributions were not only wanted, but welcomed. Accessibility is not simply a box ticking exercise, or an afterthought. As Mia Mingus, Alice Wong and Sandy Ho write, ‘Access is love.’ Access says ‘you’re wanted here.’

Fully realised and carefully considered accessibility benefits everyone. In the early days of the pandemic, a fellow poet had her second baby. She told me she loved that she now didn’t have to worry about the icy glares when the baby cries at a reading. For the first time, she could attend an event and simply mute herself. Zoom and virtual events is not the be all and end all of accessibility. It is only a very tiny beginning. Start with a chair. Start with remote options to attend readings. Start somewhere. Just start.

The pandemic has confirmed what disabled people have always suspected: wider accessibility is not some pipe dream. Greater access is not only attainable, it’s at the very edge of our fingertips. The pandemic has shown us that we’re capable of greater accessibility and greater inclusion. The exclusion of the past does not have to dictate the future of disabled poets. Now is the time to ask ourselves, what do we want the estate of poetry to be? The estate of poetry can return to exclusion, or it could try to meaningfully include disabled writers for the first time. Now that we’ve seen that something more is possible, where do we go from here? Will we bolt the doors and shut the blinds of the estate and return to a status quo that excluded far more people than it ever included? Or will we leave the door ajar? The choice is yours.

Karl Knights is a freelance journalist. His poetry and prose has appeared in The Guardian, The Dark Horse, Under The Radar, The North and elsewhere. He was a winner of the 2021 New Poets Prize. His debut pamphlet, Kin, was published by the Poetry Business in June.