Ushuaia, Argentina, is mainly known as a stopover, a gateway, the last stop on the way to the frozen south of Antarctica. But for poet and Clemson professor Jillian Weise, Ushuaia was home for three months, and the birthplace of many of the poems in her forthcoming award-winning collection, The Book of Goodbyes.
Poetry isn't what took Weise to Argentina originally. She was there thanks to a Fulbright scholarship, which she was using to conduct research on a novel about Charles Darwin. She'd applied to the program after a love affair at the University of Cincinnati, where she was doing doctoral work, ended poorly — and you can't get much farther away, geographically or mentally, from Ohio than a small town at the southernmost edge of civilization. "I loved my time in Ushuaia, but it was very isolated," she says. "No one could understand why I would live there for an extended period of time."
She spent eight months in Argentina, which gave her plenty of time to soak up the country's rich literary tradition, especially its poetic one. "I felt really inspired by Latin American poets, obviously Neruda, but also many others that I'd never before heard of," Weise says. "The seeds of these poems came from that trip." After returning to the States, Weise got busy fleshing out her work, revising here and writing new poems there. The result is a narrative collection that traces the speaker's affair with a man referred to as Big Logos, punctuated with an intriguing dip into magical realism.
Working on her Darwin novel, The Colony, gave Weise an interesting perspective on constructing her poetic plot. "The novel definitely affected how I think about story," she says. "I'm interested in warping narrative, in doing things that you can't easily do in prose. For example, there's a poem I wrote in the future tense, 'Portrait of Big Logos.' Then the magical realism in the Intermission section — I think of Cortazar, Marques, Borges." That Intermission contains three poems that concern a little flock of birds who fall in love, buy insurance, and read the classics. "I just loved the idea of the characters in this book turning into finches living underneath a waterfall in Iguazu Falls, and what they would be in that context," Weise says. It's a liberating literary device for a writer, she adds.
But there's another important element of Weise's writing that can be easy to overlook, at least in The Book of Goodbyes. She wears a prosthetic leg. Though that fact is referred to in this collection, most notably in "Poem for His Ex," it's by no means front and center as it was in Weise's earlier books, like The Amputee's Guide to Sex. "That was obviously very straightforward, direct. With this book I wanted to take a less confrontational approach, explore it differently," she says. "I self-identify as a cyborg, which is a way of rejecting these other labels people have given me — handicapped, disabled, defective, deformed."
Weise didn't really dive into disability studies until college, when she realized that most of the books she was reading were written by able-bodied writers. She started seeking out disabled authors, but they were hard to find — harder than Weise thought they should be. That's when she immersed herself in what she could find, from Lucy Grealy's memoir Autobiography of a Face to Nancy Mairs' Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer. Weise also contributed to the 2011 anthology Beauty is a Verb, the first major anthology focusing on identity, disability, and disability studies.
Writing as a member of a specific group, be it women, African Americans, or disabled people, can be a kind of mental balancing act — at what point does the label stop being informative and start being restrictive? "I don't know if there's an answer to that," Weise says. "It's a really precarious position to be in. And not just in academia — even in bookstores, sometimes they'll have the Fiction and Literature section and then the African-American Fiction, or Queer, or LBGT. But for me, the writer's goal is to write their issues. For me, that can't be exclusive of my identity. I wish there were a sense that one could be a writer and nothing else mattered, but these things have mattered for centuries."
The good part about openly writing from an established viewpoint, however, is that doing so can help change people's minds about who disabled writers are, what concerns them, or what it's like to read their work. "What I'm doing as a writer is bringing light to this particular way of life. There's this sense, even in the headlines, that if you're disabled you're either an inspiration or we should feel pity for you, sometimes both," Weise says. "And there's also this idea that if you're writing from a minority experience you have to teach something. It's like, 'Let's learn something from this disabled person's experience,' not 'Let's read this next to John Updike.'"
Jillian Weise's The Book of Goodbyes, winner of the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award, will be published in September 2013.