Won’t You Celebrate With Femme Cripples and Other Storybooks

content notes: incarceration, suicidality, charcoal, cops, racism, colonialism

Last November, I tried to go to as many workshops and panels at Naked Heart Festival as I could – these things are extra tough for somebody who is in such tremendous pain that I am often-housebound and usually need a few days or more to recuperate from attending a one-hour appointment, but I felt that I needed to be there, and I was determined.

One of the events I was looking forward to the most was Hannah Harris-Sutro’s Femme Lineages writing workshop. The description read:

“How do we channel creation through our bones and blood, to keep our momentum and confidence as creators? This is a workshop for femme-identified & femme-adjacent* folks of all genders to come together and write within a lineage of femme creators and ancestors. A writer is someone who writes; no previous experience is necessary! Together, we will explore and build narratives of our own lineages as creators and artists, grounded in the revolutionary work of femmes who have come before us.

Participants will have opportunities to co-create a writing lineage altar, to ask for knowledge and support from their bodies, to play with the glosa form as conversation with and invocation of a femme ancestor or mentor, to create new work using a variety of concrete and evocative prompts, and to give and receive feedback on that work (if desired) in a powerfully vulnerable and supportive environment. Please bring something that invokes your lineage for our shared altar, and a piece of writing by someone you look up to. Please wear clothing that makes you feel right and comfortable.

*by “femme-adjacent” i mean that intentional femininity of some kind is part of how you understand yourself, even if you do not identify as “femme”.”

I arrived a little cranky because ten or fifteen minutes between events that were being held in different buildings was not enough time for my crip-body to take a pee break, get to and fro, and settle in, especially as we were experiencing a bitter cold snap. I’d just dug out my collection of fleece-lined tights from a box in my closet the day before. And I’m a hyper-vigilant creature who usually arrives at least forty-five minutes early for everything to ensure… I’m not sure what. That I’ll find my way, have a chance to look around, take meds, breathe, adjust to a new space. Thankfully, there were comfy chairs, and a mix of familiar and new-to-me femmes sitting around the long table.

Hannah taught us about the glosa form of poetry, and read us a few examples. Before that, she offered us a few prompts related to lineages: of femmes, of writers, of family. I scribbled a few notes about my dad dropping outta high school, my nana not going at all, of me and my twin dropping out, too, and of the teachers who didn’t know what to do with us. As a child, I worked a few grades ahead until teachers ran out of work to give me, and then I wrote self-directed book reports instead. I also wrote down the names of some writers and artists who I consider part of my lineage(s), past and present and future: Lynda Barry (especially Cruddy), Rebecca Godfrey (The Torn Skirt is my favourite novel and has done much to inform the ways I write fiction, what I write about, and how I write it – among other things, it was the first novel I read with an incarcerated teenage girl as the protagonist, which gave me permission to tell my own stories), David Wojnarowicz, Audre Lorde, Michelle Tea, Anaïs Nin, and adrienne maree brown.

Although there were also somatic exercises as part of the workshop, I skipped them this time because I was having the kind of day where I didn’t feel like being in my body. I scribbled notes and drew pictures of bones and pill bottles instead.

In my bones is pain, a history of fibromyalgia that nobody told me about. In my bones is tenseness & avoidance & the times they could not keep me safe. In my bones are cancer & pills & not-knowing. In my bones are amethyst & trauma & loneliness.

{image description: A ripped piece of scrap lilac-coloured paper. In purple ink, I’ve written:

“ATTEMPTING to PLACE my WORK within a CONTEXT(S) & LINEAGE(S)

– seeing my influence in others but feeling undervalued (NOT JUST FINANCIALLY)”

In the background, my Virginia Woolf mug and the keyboard of my pinky-purple netbook are visible.}

One of my BFF’s, Erin, was with me, and both of us were multiply-sick, taking different pills every half hour or so, and I think we were both feeling foggy and ill but/and ready to write. Several poetry paperbacks were scattered along the table, and I reached for a book I hadn’t read, feeling like there was something special in there for me. The book was Not Vanishing by Chrystos, an Indigenous two-spirit poet, writer, activist, and warrior. When I opened their book, the first poem I found was I Walk In the History of My People. At the first two lines, I knew I was in the right place, in the right room, and that I wanted to write my glosa with this poem.

There are women locked in my joints
for refusing to speak to the police
My red blood full of those
arrested, in flight, shot
My tendons stretched brittle with anger
do not look like white roots of peace
In my marrow are hungry faces who live on land the whites don’t want
In my marrow women who walk 5 miles every day for water
In my marrow the swollen faces of my people who are not allowed
to hunt
to move
to be
In the scars on my knee you can see the children torn from their families
bludgeoned into government schools
You can see through the pins in my bones that we are prisoners of a long war
My knee is so badly wounded no one will look at it
The pus of the past oozes from every pore
The infection has gone on for at least 300 years
My sacred beliefs have been made pencils, names of cities, gas stations
My knee is wounded so badly that I limp constantly
Anger is my crutch
I hold myself upright with it
My knee is wounded
see
How I Am Still Walking

I didn’t stick to a true glosa structure because rules are for breaking, and I was grateful that Hannah insisted that none of our writing had to be perfect, and that we were here for encouragement and expression, not criticism. I used to be intimidated by poetry because I thought I had to get all the lines and syllables and rhymes just right. Now I know I don’t.

In terms of feedback, we were asked to answer these questions: What’s strong? What stays? What resonates? We give no advice and ask no questions. Rough drafts!

I wrote:

There are ghosts in my joints, and
I refuse to be in my body but I
want to listen to them, their
complaints & questions & sharp points
After being in so much pain, I
could not roll over in bed or
adjust my blanket, the mere word
“WALK” makes me feel irate & bitter
If there are women locked in my
bones my ribs my knees my
blood for refusing to speak to
police / for speaking to them and
being told I’m lying I’m just
trying to cause trouble because I’m
bored
I want to keep them with me –
if I have no listeners, I’ll be the
listener / Bruises tattooed on my knees
Even when I write about the messages
from the ghosts & I am told, “I love
your writing about loneliness.
See you next year, maybe,”
I will press my pen so hard it rips
my paper / a needle that paints
flesh & knife that cuts planets & razor that shears fleece
I limp constantly, my cane
sings hymns on concrete and no
one else can remember the words.
The city abandons me again & again
because my crooked bones are,
well, lovely in words but
inconvenient in person flesh plans time
But concrete & pills give me the
will to live / dead without meds
I’d kill without pills
my body is a broken lease
How many more evictions until
the girl femme creature who
cannot talk to police
refuses to say, “I’m sorry my
body can’t do that but I’m not sorry
There are ghosts locked in my joints.

{image description: My diary opened wide to scribbly notes of the poem above. Swirly black ink. My diary is on top of a retro turquoise table at a diner with my left hand holding it open. My nails are painted deep violet and are absurdly long. A tiny silver teapot and a fork & knife are visible at the edges of the photo.}

I read my poem out loud. I used to be much more quiet, but now I feel like with all the time spent in bed, spent housebound, spent alone on WheelTrans rides and medical appointments, all the readings & workshops & zine fairs & everything I’ve missed out on / am missing out on, I’ve earned some time to talk in workshops, to read out loud, to ask for feedback.

The next day, I drew The Magician as my daily Tarot card. It was November 13th, the ten-year anniversary of my first suicide attempt, a day always marked on my calendar – not that I need to write it down to remember, but I set it aside as a self-care day and usually choose to be alone. But this time I had a friend with me, and plans, and that felt very special.

Before returning to Naked Heart, I brought Erin to Trinity Bellwoods Park in hopes of showing her the infamous white squirrel. Some people don’t believe the white squirrel exists, but she hops over to me nearly every time I’m in the park, and I’ve even captured photos of multiple white squirrels hanging out together. I can tell them apart, too. The one I see more often has pale blonde patches and is a little chubbier than the other one.

Sure enough, we found the white squirrel! I had white chocolate peanut butter cups in my coat pockets for good luck. She came right up to us and kissed our hands, shuffling through the fallen leaves. Before we left, I left a piece of white chocolate at the bottom of a tree as an offering.

{image description: I’m standing under a maple tree surrounded by fallen yellow leaves. My hand is reaching toward the tree trunk, and a white squirrel is clinging to the tree and kissing my fingers. I have the most gleeful silly smile! I’m holding onto my lavender cane, bending slightly. I’m wearing a purple coat, purple backpack, black boots, and floral socks. This is one of my all-time favourite photos of myself, and one of the only ones with a big, big smile.}

I missed the next reading I wanted to go to because my WheelTrans ride was late (again!), and nearly missed the Crip Writers on Representation, Publication & Transformation panel as well, which would have been a funny but painful story to tell. But I got there and I kept scribbling.

{image description: My diary held open again. Messy black ink of notes on poetry, a doodle of a bottle of pills, and thoughts during panels.}

{image description: My diary held open again. I’ve scribbled notes like:

“What do you fear most in sharing? (My fear = indifference)

WE CAN’T EVOLVE IF EVERYBODY AGREES WITH US

triggering grief while writing out loud

EMBODYING DISSOCIATION

YOU CAN DIE

IMPOSTOR VS. UNDERAPPRECIATION

Sometimes language is limiting

Enabling others’ art

IMPERFECT PRESENCE BETTER THAN ABSENCE”}

In February, I attended Hannah’s Femme Lineages workshop again, this time from home. As usual, I’ve been thinking a lot about art & poverty & access, and how to continue learning and developing my writing skills when it’s becoming more and more rare that I can attend anything at all. I’m always looking for different kinds of writing workshops, but so often, the ones that speak to me are not ones that I can afford, and/or not ones that I can otherwise access. When a friend of mine saw that Hannah was offering her workshop online with a pwyc sliding scale, they sent me a link and offered to pay for me! It was one of those moments of feeling seen not only as who I am and what themes arise in my writing, but also like I was being listened to when I talked about various forms of support, and like someone might actually have my back when I talk about this stuff. So I gratefully signed up!

Because I was alone in a comfy place, and because the online workshop was longer and more in-depth, I was able to participate in the somatic exercises this time, which deeply changed the way I wrote, the ideas that came to me, my confidence in the messages I was receiving from my body and from the prompts, and my feelings of connection with the other participants and with the facilitator herself. And it felt meaningful, like real queer magic, that I was able to participate from bed while the Moon was in Taurus.

Also, I was grateful that because the workshop was online, I didn’t have to a) write out my long long long list of access requests, b) cry while doing so, and c) show up just to find out they’d been fucked with anyway. The only thing I was really worried about was that my glitchy internet would disconnect, but it didn’t.

I brought Anne Sexton with me. Another friend of mine, Heather, lent me their copy of The Collected Poems of Anne Sexton as winter survival reading, and I searched it specifically for poems with cripple in the title. I feel like she might seem too obvious a choice to bring, especially as a crazy femme, when there are thousands of other poets to choose from, but I was thinking of her also as agoraphobic and as a cane-user, details that I haven’t heard mentioned so often. She’s also a writer who didn’t go school but ended up becoming a teacher. And on the theme of lineages, it made sense to me to choose a book a friend lent me, to note that connection, too.

I had a teenage photo of myself by my side (time-travel is real), and I worked with Amber Dawn’s Where the words end and my body begins, and the tenth stanza of Anne Sexton’s Cripples and Other Stories.

The surgeons shook their heads.
They really didn’t know –
Would the cripple inside of me
be a cripple that would show?

{image description: My so-called Grade Eight Graduation photo taken in Spring 1999, the portrait repeated four times on a sheet of photostock. I have freshly died ruby red hair, sad eyes, and an expression of exhaustion. I’m wearing heavy black eyeshadow like a raccoon, deep violet lipstick, a black and gold graduation gown, and holding onto a bouquet of fake red roses. My head is tilted, my lips slightly parted. The camera-person told me to smile. My lips are parted because he took my photo while I was literally saying to him, “I don’t want to smile.”}

I wrote a poem called Cripples and Other Storybooks:

Dear Maranda,
In this one, you are
13-years old
one week out of the detention centre
dying your hair in your boyfriend’s mom’s kitchen sink
Féria Ruby Red
preparing for a graduation photo for
a class you could not attend
a year of probation
and summer school filling out photocopies of
homonyms & antonyms
The surgeons shook their heads.
Dear Amber,
In this one, you are
standing at the microphone at Glad Day
the stage at the top of stairs & stares & stairs
reading a poem with an open book fracture
that I almost missed because I was harassed
on the way to the reading
and wanted to scream and go home
You asked if we knew Lucille Clifton
And I felt ashamed at the silent response.
On the landing of the bookstore,
somebody with purple hair asked me for my name
and cried as they realized it was my book
that they stole from their wife when they
divorced and ran away
They really didn’t know.
Dear Anne,
In this one, you are
agoraphobic, clutching your cane after breaking your
hip, you’re really 36 & I’m really 31
talking to your ghost at the used bookstore again
and carrying you home, medicated and dissociated
in a WheelTrans cab, a bandage hiding
my 29th tattoo, my skin a storybook
Would the cripple inside of me
be a cripple that would show?

(I imagine this as a poem-in-process, where I’ll keep naming everybody who’s contributing to it – a stanza for Hannah, another for Lucille Clifton, and the title will keep growing, something like, Won’t You Celebrate With Femme Cripples and Other Storybooks…)

Once again, I read my poem out loud. I’ve written four poems in adulthood. One of them was in Oliver Bendorf’s How to Make It online creativity workshop, and the other three were at Hannah Harris-Sutro’s workshops. I’ve been realizing more and more that not only do I want to read more poetry and write more poetry, I also want more opportunities to have friends read me poetry (or fiction! anything!) out loud. There was something so cozy and special about both the online space and physical space(s) of the workshop, and of talking to all the other participants who were cozy in their own homes, seeing what quirky mugs they were drinking their tea from, listening to all the different stories we dreamed up and shared.

{image description: My hand holding onto a white mug that says in yellow letters: “At a diner, a cup of coffee is never half empty.” I stole it from Denny’s.}

I was also reminded of something Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha said on a panel at the previous year’s Naked Heart fest. To paraphrase from memory, she talked about how poetry can be more accessible to disabled and crazy people, and broke and working-class / hustling-class queers, etc. because it can be written in short snippets between pain flare-ups, during long rides on public transit, scribbled on lunch breaks from shitty underpaid jobs, etc. And because you can complete a work in a shorter amount of time than, say, a novel, which makes a difference when you’re struggling with suicidal feelings, and/or lack of so-called productivity, or visibility, and/or not being able to commit to larger projects if you can’t see a future as well.

On a similar note, Sassafras Lowrey, who I met at the same reading at Glad Day documented in my poem, and who read from hir novel Lost Boi that night, talked about doing most of hir writing on an iPad while taking transit to and from work, and taking lunch breaks at hir favourite local bubble tea shop. Although clock-time is something like a form of privilege to me, as I don’t have work or school to organize my life around, both Sassafras’s and Leah’s words resonated with me as someone who needs to write to stay alive, and someone who does so without seeking permission, and someone who knows the necessity of self-publishing and and and…

Later in the workshop, I wrote:

In my bones is everything
that has failed to kill me.
A decade of disability cheques
has failed to kill me.
Lack of access to formal
education has failed to kill me.
Jail cells, detention centres,
endless court dates, the psych
wards I’ve lost count of
have failed to kill me.
Crying in public
has failed to kill me.
Bike crashes
Alcohol
Perfume
Has failed to kill me.
33 homes, 20 diagnoses
X-rays, blood tests, brain scans
Overdoses
Doctors have failed to kill me.
Knives and razorblades
Loss loss loss
Jealousy
Suicide has failed to kill me
Evictions, landlords, mouldy apartments
Have failed to kill me
Stairs have failed to kill me.
Brittle bones of amethyst & snowflake obsidian
Charcoal brought me here,
And magnetic resonance imaging
3 drops of columbine
Essence plus 1 Oxy-
Codone are in my
Bones and carrying me here
If my cane is a limb,
Then so is my pen,
A bone, ink marrow
Behold the three-legged three-armed cripple
A crooked cauldron of

After the workshop, I felt totally revived and revitalized, and even felt the same kind of hunger that would traditionally arise from physical exertion. It felt strangely invigorating and definitely memorable. I’d drawn the Knight of Pentacles as my daily card that morning, and now I see it in terms of embodied writing, of carrying lineages and continuing them as a form of respect, responsibility and reverence.

As I’d been thinking/writing a lot about disposability lately, and beginning work on tracing various lineages of mine, the Femme Lineages workshop arrived at just the right time, and got me dreaming more about ways to resist disposability, particularly as disabled crazy chronically ill crip weirdos who can’t be everywhere and do everything, and whose presence and access are so often not prioritized. As someone who has often felt used and discarded by queers, glosa poetry feels like a way not only of tracing our lineages, of naming them and passing them on, but also of resisting disposability culture, and being creative in the ways we find to survive and make sure we are seen.

Writing is lonely, and often feels like a void, but glosa poetry and acknowledging lineages gives us a way to name and credit our influences, cite the work we love, and make art against erasure. It means acknowledging past incarnations of artistic resistance and finding ourselves among them.

I need poems and essays and evidence, of cripples and borderlines and witches and crazy people and and and supporting each other. Maybe you do, too.

Poemfully Yours,

P.S.: Hannah has multiple online and offline workshops this Spring, and as you might surmise, I very highly recommend attending if you can! In April, Hannah will be facilitating her Femme Lineages writing workshop in-person in Montréal, and everywhere else online. And in May, she’ll be facilitating two new workshops with online and offline variations. The first one is Embodied Tarot, a workshop for tarot readers of all experience levels to explore using their bodies as a tool for reading and learning from tarot. And the second one is Writing Our Monsters, a workshop for queer writers of all experience levels to explore embodied practices of working with the parts of ourselves we find ugly or shameful. And then in July, Hannah will be offering a six-week workshop for queer writers that brings together writing, somatic practice, and shadow/monster work!!! Multiple exclamation marks for multiple enthusiasms! Mark your calendars, please! And I’ll ‘see’ you there for the online versions!

P.P.S.: If you’ve benefited from my writing in any way – if my words have inspired you, helped you feel less alone, or sparked some weird feeling within you; if you’ve felt encouraged, or curious, or comforted – please consider compensating me by offering a donation of any amount. Whether you’ve been reading my writing for years, or just stumbled into me this afternoon, I invite you to help me sustain the process!

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