Friday, April 29, 2022

Prosthetic Gods: Jonathan Penton (Review by Su Zi)

Black and white drawing. A large planet and rocketship are over the heads of three figures. So figure on the right looks alien, and the figure on the left looks like a man with a partial face. There is another figure in the middle that is humanoid. The title of the book starts on the planet and extends on an angle outward across the top of the picture. There are little asteroids dotting the sky.

Dark material can be difficult for some readers; work that is violent, even when it rhymes, can feel as if the song itself, the poem itself, the art itself is an assault. Those familiar with contemporary genres in music or cinema are no strangers to violence in art; however, not every reader of poetry is accustomed to violence as a thematic element in a chapbook. A reader who is disabled, or is sensitive to disability justice, will notice the book’s title Prosthetic Gods, as disabled folk who live with prosthetic aids are often socially marginalized. While the title refers to a remark made by Freud, and the remark is included in the book’s initial pages, the title itself serves as a warning of this chapbook’s raw content.

Of course, those familiar with punk as a multi-genre philosophy, will also recognize the energy here. The black and white cover features a delicate drawing of subtly grotesque figures apparently in conversation during a rocket launch, and the volume of less than thirty pages uses a nice weight of paper—a testament to the work’s second edition status. Also, the spine is perfect bound, which is unusual in a book of such brevity. One wonders maybe if the first edition didn’t have that wonderful copy shop at midnight look, crooked stapling and all.

The eight titles of the poems also indicate a punk sensibility in this work, with the opening title being “First Mind Buried”, although an untitled poem precedes it. Indeed, Penton’s punk sensibility becomes revealed in this poem’s fifth line “cheap fucks who rent their stolen suits”(6), and there’s an odd use of taboo language through the volume. The punk genre makes full use of impolite terms, but what’s curious is how in “Sin of the Calf” (10), Penton eliminates the vowel to write “g-d” but also uses “fucking” in the same line. There’s no particular spiritual reverence otherwise present in the poem—or the book itself—and punk was notable for its use of deliberate irreverence. 

There’s lots of use of impolite biology in this work; the prologue poem’s longest line is “your ink a mix of sweat, tears, vomit, and blood” and the writing grows increasing in violence, with perhaps a culmination of sorts in a section titled “Maror”. There’s four poems, or sections on separate pages under the title, with the last of these beginning with the rather elegant line “Venus walks among us, invisible and stalking”(14); however, this is not a lush and romantic symbol, but a destructive one who “murders their parents” and continues on with a horrific litany of intimate destruction.

While some readers might dismiss the work as merely the sort of punk porn posture assumed by many practitioners of the genre, there’s ample evidence of horror genre: a poem dedicated to Stephen King involves domestic violence and a nascent mass shooter, and the violence of the poems lends itself well to that genre. Yet, the repeated use of unsavory biologic imagery goes further than the plot of a regular person beset by demons. In “Don’t Let me Give You a Title”, the poem takes a kind of Prufrock journey, “You move smoothly, easily/among these discharged minds/their walls of blood and puke”(20) with the poet’s response being “but you feel more you than ever”. This is not the writer witnessing otherness around him, but rather the writer’s discovery of his own otherness in the least attractive aspects of those he encounters.

While this work may not be an overt testimonial to the author’s identity as other-minded, or neurodivergent, Penton’s participation in a panel on neurodivergence at AWP might be. In the realm of ND activism, there’s debate about which characteristics are also Disability or Crip issues, with some disabled people even objecting to Crip as a title. Nonetheless, the familiarity with the less-than-glamorous aspects of our biology is a fat realm in disability discussion, and has been weaponized against disabled people in a variety of ways in our culture. Just as classical punk was a genre-crossing philosophy, and as disability crosses all social castes among us, experiencing Penton’s chapbook is a visit to both of these realms in an intersection beyond sexual identity alone, or horror alone. Perhaps Penton’s poems here might find welcome if viewed as CripPunk, an energetic arts consideration which seeks revisionist historical acknowledgement of disability in classically accepted artists. While disability in the arts is ever uninvited, and occasionally tokenized, in the literary culture, Penton makes no apologies for his rage: “Let me suffer without any comforts/And the lies that you tell to make your lies worth living/Can rot with the flesh of our culture”(26). The rage of the disabled has almost come within earshot of the wider culture in these years since the beginning of COVID; the rage against the machines that tout a false narrative of normalcy are now coming from voices previously marginalized into invisibility. Our news cycles ever display yet more ugly from the abled towards everything around them, a genuine horrorshow from which literary horror seems a calm respite. Penton’s poetry here bridges the prosaic horror of lives thought to be ordinary, and does so with an artful mix of vernacular language and an elevated ear.

~*~


Biography:
Su Zi is a poet/writer and artist/printmaker and edits, designs and constructs the eco-feminist poetry chapbook series Red Mare.

Publications include poetry, essays, stories and reviews that date back to pre-cyber publishing, including when Exquisite Corpse was a vertical print publication, and a few editions of New American Writing. More recent publications include Red Fez, Alien Buddha, and Thrice. A resident of the Ocala National Forest, with a dedicated commitment to providing a safe feeding respite for wild birds, and for a haphazard gardening practice that serves as a life model for all aspects of her work.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Fate of The Cripendy Contest

There are no results to announce today. I decided the first year I ran the contest not to award prizes unless we had at least ten entries for the sake of variety and quality. Only three entries came in this year.

I thought about scrapping it immediately when the deadline went by due to lack of interest (and the latest mentor program SNAFU). But I think it's a mistake to do so. I want to try again one more year. One more big push to get the word out in 2023 will ensure I'm able to give it my all before I have to let it go.

There are other projects I want to start in the coming years. If I can correctly evaluate which things to end, it might free up time to devote elsewhere. Maybe it will be something else for our community, or maybe it will just be something I've been holding off on doing for myself. Time will tell.

Thank those of you who shared the contest with your communities this year. I appreciate you.

Friday, April 15, 2022

Three Poems by Samir Knego

Note: "Fall I" and "Fall II" first appeared in Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature. "Exit or dancing, for what it’s worth and it’s not about not being disabled” first appeared in The Fieldstone Review.

~*~
Fall I

Passing a church with the stations of the cross outside
Jesus fell in front of my eyes
once, twice, then a third time

Watching Christ in pain and difficulty
I thought of Nancy Eisland’s image
of God in a wheelchair

“Open to all!” proclaimed a sign
At the top of several steps

(sometimes, the punchline is almost too obvious)

~*~
Fall II

And the falls, all of them.
Some people don’t know that feeling of precariousness,
always half-preparing to plummet, or float away.

When the very earth can’t hold you like it should
(or can, but won’t–I’m not sure if it’s worse to assume intentions or abilities)
you turn to the sea and sky instead.

Some Christians talk about living in the world but not of it
and maybe disability is the flip side,
as you’re steeped in a world that keeps separating itself from you.

~*~
Exit
or dancing, for what it’s worth
and it’s not about not being disabled

When I dream about dancing I don’t dream about being able to stand or step or spin

I don’t dream about dancing as something physical, not really

I don’t dream of it as something that my body could do or cannot do or should or would do. No,

I dream of dancing as a feeling, as a joy as a floating as a you and I

In space somewhere just moving and laughing and being together

And maybe there is music and maybe there is only perfect silence but somehow

I know that this feeling, this being, this thing that is of my body but not quite in it--

That this is dancing, for what it’s worth.

~*~
Biography:  Samir Knego is a multidisciplinary artist and zinester. He lives in North Carolina with a bright green wheelchair and an ever-growing CD collection and was LEVEL’s Spring 2021 Local Artist-In-Residence. When he’s not making art, he works in a library and listens to lots of heavy metal. Find him on Twitter: @SamirKnego

Friday, April 8, 2022

The Cost of Staying Alive by F.I. Goldhaber

Ten times a day
I prick a finger,
squeeze out a drop of blood
and wait for the number that
will determine what I do next.

Must I pierce my
skin again, this time
using needles that screw
onto pens I then use to
inject units of insulin?

Or do I need
to eat, even if
I do not hunger and
have no interest in food
of any kind at the moment?

The meter rules
my life, decides what,
when, and whether I eat
while I fight for insurance
coverage to pay for the strips

required to make
it work, strips that cost
as much as a dollar
apiece, ten bucks a day, more
than three thousand greenbacks yearly.

When combined with
fifty cents for each
needle, sixty bucks for
two days' insulin supply,
that's a high price to stay alive.

~*~

Biography:
F.I. Goldhaber's words capture people, places, and politics with a photographer's eye and a poet's soul. As a reporter, editor, and business writer, they produced articles, features, editorials, and reviews for newspapers, corporations, governments, and non-profits. Now paper, electronic, plastic, and audio magazines, books, newspapers, calendars, broadsides, and street signs display their poetry, fiction, and essays. More than 230 of their poems appear in almost 80 publications. Left Fork press will publish their fifth book of poetry, What Color is Your Privilege?, in September. http://www.goldhaber.net/

Friday, April 1, 2022

Divergent Minds and Dissentient Bodies by Mila Bea

Part I — The Firehose Problem

The concept of drinking from a firehose describes the impossibility of retaining each piece of new information when someone is immersed in a novel setting, such as starting a job or traveling abroad. There is a reason that we use firehoses to extinguish large fires—they function quite well within the scope of this task—and not for personal drinking fountains. 

For me, firehose mode is the only option for information processing. My brain perceives stimuli as if vital sensory data floods from every nook and cranny of my external surroundings. Excitement quickly becomes overload, then invariably leads to burnout. I ritualistically perform certain actions, often just to keep afloat. I make copious lists; find methods of categorization; wear headphones to dampen noise; and I self-stimulate.

A “Books” list contains the 174 books that I wish to read at some point, which of those I hope to read in the more immediate future, along with a full inventory of the 134 books that I own. Each item is neatly adorned with the title, author, publication year, genre, and a brief summary. My “Clothes” list documents each article of clothing that I own, including color and fabric type. 

Amidst persistent growth over time, my “Quotes” list sits as a tangled gargantuan, swollen to a 77-page tome of over 34,000 words, with only the first fifteen pages separated into differentiating topics, an effort now in a state of permanent hiatus. The repository remains open; the bold words and piercing ideas of others intertwist with one another, a house with endless additions but no coherent floor plan. 

At the helm, the “Executive Summary” acts as a moderator of sorts, consisting of a list of my 48 lists, including their status (Current; Research; Inventory; Hiatus; Completed), which life system they comprise (Creative Expression; Personal Development; Learning; Finance; Relationships; Exploration; Maintenance), and of course the URL to take me to the document. 

Clearly, despite earnest exertion and periodic reassessment, certain elements drift into far regions, known but forgotten. On bad days, it is an exercise in wading through the murky sludge of a Kafkaesque labyrinth of my own making. But ideally, as the firehose bursts forth without mercy, I can fill certain buckets of various sizes in the hopes of using the stored water for irrigation purposes to cultivate facets of myself that I want to nurture and help flourish. 

***

I wear headphones whenever I am reading or writing—no, not the kind for listening to music, but far bulkier and intended for mining and construction projects—in the ceaseless battle against the distracting low-level hum of ambient noise. But even within my own head, pathways can become clogged and it all can start to feel jumbled. 

While reading nonfiction I summon a level of concentration to absorb new information while simultaneously directing it to the appropriate point within the landscape of all existing information. If I properly care for this landscape, it can be called knowledge as the puzzle pieces begin to fit together. Alternatively, a jagged terrain sometimes envelops me with its absence of structure or meaningful patterns. 

Even with headphones, and even while taking the time to get the gunk out of my brain and onto all of these lists, the firehose still exudes a pressure that often overpowers me. There is no valve to adjust, no mechanism by which I can negotiate with the external world to deliver its surroundings to me in a more gentle manner. In the face of this sheer force I find myself coughing up water while struggling to sit upright, my eyes occasionally glancing to the periphery at the firehose that thrashes wildly, relentless and without direction. 

A sting of defeat punctures me, leaving me deflated and disheartened, as if my brain is waterlogged and only capable of focusing on the shiniest and brightest fragment of unchallenging digital satiation available. Guilt begins to permeate, even though I know rationally that relaxation and stretches of time not subject to the dictates of productivity are restorative practices crucial for physical, mental, and emotional health. 

A gnawing sentiment defies this logic and a narrative emerges that I am tapping out due to some lack of strength instead of opting out as a form of self-care. But we all need to care for ourselves. I do know that, and yet to emotionally internalize such a core truth remains no small feat. My knee-jerk urge is to grind myself down to a splintered nub while espousing to others the need to be kind and patient with themselves. 

I did, and still do in many ways, conceive of my neurological firehose as a problem. I can also redefine it. It is not a superpower, not for me at least. But it can also just be an immutable facet of myself that I can begin to accept. I will not change or eliminate it; there is no cure nor do I want one. 

And it makes me wonder, and perhaps begs the question to others, as integral entities interconnected within a rich collective tapestry, how we can be kinder to ourselves and to others when there is a firehose, however it may manifest, seeming to demand urgent attention at the forefront of conscious experience. 

Part II — The Reclamation of Stimming

On September 26, 2018, Professor M. Remi Yergeau gave a talk at the CUNY School of Professional Studies about her book, Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness. During the question and answer portion, she said something that continues to resonate with me. 

“For me personally, I still stim but I developed these tricks to make it stop, and it gets to a point where I’m no longer sure what’s more comfortable for me because it’s all anxiety now. It’s like it took something core away from me…Before I was trained to recognize that I was “unusual” or aberrant, it was fine, it was great. But now that I know, it’s always tainted.”  

Similarly for me, it is oftentimes all anxiety, and I search for viable pathways to reclaim agency over my body. The locus of the endeavor lies in reconciling my continuing need to stim with the memories of that very behavior being used against me. At young ages imitators performed the flailing and spastic motions as I did, caricatures bearing the disguise of an homage. 

Nearly my entire adulthood has involved, at least to some degree, the suppression of my full range of embodied expression with the paramount goal being to appear normal, and then seemingly only ever holding that title on a trial basis. Despite a concerted effort over the past two years to unlearn my myriad masking techniques, along with an awareness of the harm that such self-denial has caused, that same anxiety described by Dr. Yergeau still lives inside of me. 

It is very possible to rationally understand that certain aspects of our cultural messaging are unhealthy and perpetuated for the purposes of benefiting a very specific group of people, while nonetheless remaining emotionally beholden to that same guidance. In so many ways, again similar to Yergeau’s experience, stimming is tainted for me. 

Throughout the course of my life, the real social contagion continually materializes as this viscid coating that demands conformity. I have encountered it overlaid atop all experience, and I know its shape as neurotypicalized cisfatalism. But it dons ever-changing faces and appears in numerous forms. Laverne Cox, putting her spin on bell hooks, described it as “cisnormative heteronormative imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”  

This mechanism of control breeds complacency, complicity, and compliance in those who may access the scraps of its inequitable bounty. I did benefit, and continue to benefit from this organization of society, and am only now beginning to develop a critical awareness of how these rewards inevitably come at the direct cost of others. 

***

I am white, I grew up in an affluent suburb with continuous access to educational institutions and learning resources that are unavailable to many people. That was, is, and will continue to be a privilege that I seek to leverage in the hopes of forging broader and deeper and more holistic notions of justice. 

But this system did bludgeon me into submission with its authoritative instruction on which types of bodies are deemed acceptable. Mine, when I exercise complete liberty over it, is unacceptable; and most people inhabit bodies either outright unacceptable or similarly acceptable only on the condition of their constant adherence to this rigid framework.  

I was assigned male at birth, born into a body whose limbs needed to periodically and without warning shake and flap. The gendered expectations of boy, coupled with the clear social cues that stimming was irregular and thus bad, obstructed my full bodily autonomy, constricting me in such a way that it took over a decade of drug and alcohol abuse followed by several years of psychotherapy to begin to glimpse a path toward living peaceably and feeling whole. 

There exist a litany of ways in which mainstream society subtly but distinctly illuminates for us the fundamental inadequacy of our bodies in their current state. But we are pushing back, beginning to search for avenues wherein we can reject those previously ingrained precepts and begin to heal. One example is Aaron Rose Philip, a trailblazer whose modeling work celebrates that our full spectrum of corporeal diversity is deserving of acceptance and worthy of love. 

In a scene from the 2009 documentary, Examined Life, philosopher Judith Butler talks with artist and activist Sunaura Taylor and a part of their conversation pertains to Taylor’s experiences ordering coffee as a disabled person. Butler observes that, “there’s a challenge to individualism that happens at the moment in which you ask for some assistance with the coffee cup, and hopefully people will take it up and say, ‘yes I too live in that world in which I understand that we need each other in order to address our basic needs.’”

We do need other people. We coexist with one another and we need each other. Within this newfound paradigm, I can assess how and why I hold onto those hard-fought masking techniques and ask myself who benefits from my exerting a portion of cognitive and physical energy to inhibit myself from following my natural inclinations. 

But I still mask; I still suppress stimming due to my deeply held desire to preserve some vague concept of decorum and respectability. Behavioral patterns solidified over the course of decades cannot be unlearned overnight. But I can at least say to myself, “today it is okay to stim. I am neurodivergent, I am not defective.” 

None of us are defective, despite all the social conditioning we have internalized to the contrary. We can remind ourselves each day that we are not defective. We can show up for each other and work to build a world that promises us safety and human dignity and offers us the freedom to know love and to feel seen inside of heterogeneous bodies. 

~*~

Biography: Mila Bea is a thirtysomething autistic trans woman who spent the last two decades on a tumultuous path to self-acceptance. While nestled indoors she drinks coffee, reads books, and watches movies. While out of doors she explores the world on foot, finding adventures in things novel and familiar. In her spare time, she often contemplates the processes by which people form beliefs and how this impacts public discourse. Find more of her writing at: https://medium.com/@mila.bea

Friday, March 25, 2022

Book Review: Whispers of Stone by Allegra Pescatore

                         A white man with dark brown hair and a beard stands in front of a fence with trees and a palace behind. He has a small, white dragon on his shoulder. He wears a long dark jacket and trousers. In one hand he holds a satchel at his side and the other holds a golden circuit. The author's name is in white across the top and the bottom has the title written in gold.

Note: I received a copy of this book in order to review it.
There will be brief mentions of rape (a slight spoiler), racism, and ableism.

Picking up directly after Where Shadows Lie, our protagonists find themselves in various states of danger. Elenor's father is dead, and she is accused of his murder; it doesn't help that her mother is missing and her scheming aunt has arrived in the kingdom. Gabriel has aligned himself with Elenor while trying to control his unlocked magical potential. Fedrik has an ability that just might doom the world... even with Fayrian's help. Daemon keeps ticking off the wrong beings. And a golden god seeks vengeance for the death of another.

I loved the first book, so I was a bit skeptical going into this one as sequels can often disappoint. There are more books to the universe than I thought, and I only found out about them in this book. The book is split in two due to length (the next book arrives this summer). Despite my concerns going in, they proved unfounded. The series is in a universe with other books (but can stand alone). While much is left unresolved in this book, it doesn't leave me feeling like I'm on a ledge waiting for rescue.

The characters feel genuine. Elenor anguishes over her past decisions and deals with the impact of an illness flare (which can affect her ability to make decisions). Fedrik is lost and dealing with the fury his new Gift gives him. Fayrian is still a smartass, but she also has a small sense of hope underneath. There are a lot of tough emotions in this novel but also tiny sparks of strength and joy.

There are a few minor characters with various disabilities. Phoebi is a grandmother with cerebral palsy. Mari is an amputee who had her hands cut off for being part of the rebellion. Suela has no eyes. I'd say Alehan has PTSD, but it isn't confirmed.

Schemes and plans are amped up in this installment. Elenor must find a way to get out of her aunt's terrible trap. Each god has plans (and pawns) that continue to move forward. I could feel the clock ticking, and I'm excited to see what the author does going forward because there are a lot of threads to tie together.

The world still feels like a real place. Readers are given more details on the complex (and somewhat unique) magic system. Places come alive with just the right amount of detail. The lore is evolving with each book. Supplemental materials (including a recap of the first book) exist in the back of the novel to assist readers with remembering characters and events.

Ableism and racism are vaguely present in this world. I counted one instance of each. 

Spoilers: At one point in the book, Elenor has sex with someone she doesn't want due to blackmail. I consider this a type of rape, though the person she beds isn't the one blackmailing her. She is given a tea to make sure an unwanted pregnancy doesn't occur.

There was a novelette after the book that details the time Gabriel spent caring for victims of an epidemic during his last year in school. The doctors go through burnout, there aren't enough beds or medications for everyone, and certain patients are immediately given palliative care because they aren't considered worthy of saving. Yes, it's very reminiscent to the pandemic we just went through, but the illness and the devastation it caused parts of the world were already present in the book before COVID-19 came about. Even so, it might be hard to read for some people.

I definitely recommend this book and have high expectations for the next one!

Friday, March 18, 2022

A Conversation with Author, Joel Champion

A black and white photograph of Joel holding his book. He is wearing a shirt that says "ask me about my book" with "published author" underneath. He has short, dark hair and dark, prominent eyebrows. He is smiling, and his eyes appear closed..

By Val Vera
Interviewer, Handy Uncapped Pen


The journey begins in the wondrous and ancient land of Mythokor as an evil force, known as the Shroud, scours the realm to rebuild an ancient weapon of power. However, can an unlikely hero from humble beginnings defeat the diabolical Shroud and save his home? The adventures of kings, heroes, villains, knaves, a mysterious princess and the Wolf Jumper begin here!

Intrigued? Yeah, I was too. So much so I had a little Q&A with Joel Champion, Author of "The Chronicles of Legend: The Wolf Jumper Arises".

Handy Uncapped Pen: What inspired the idea for the book?

Joel Champion: I think a lot of what I consume inspired me to write, particularly this story, but I’ve had this idea of the land of Mythokor and the Wolf Jumper narrative in my head since 2016 (I think). The development process was super long, but the writing and publishing process took around three years. But a lot of different things inspired me: like the idea of building and creating my own world to write and “play in” rather than writing for other franchises and their stories. I believe being independent gave me great freedom to be flexible with characters, history, names, and the narrative itself. Sometimes, I would listen to music and soundtracks that would put images of epic battles of sword and sorcery in my imagination, and I hoped to create a story that would inspire others as well as myself when reading because I believe it’s important for me to write and create independently since most stories nowadays aren’t what I prefer.

HUP: Is there anything you would have done differently during the publication process?

JC: Honestly I would’ve hoped to get a hybrid publisher or wish I could’ve had a bigger platform before publishing, and wish I could’ve tested certain things like getting a cover artist and editor before actually hiring them, for the process was long and took me nearly six months to complete! I also would’ve found an authoring coach and gotten the inside scoop on who to publish with before publishing on Amazon with KDP. It was really hard to do research on such a niche idea and process like self-publishing. I also would’ve done a lot of things differently, like making the book longer and testing its length with others.

HUP: Will there be a sequel, or what projects are you working on now?

JC: Regardless of the success of the first book in my “Chronicles of Legend” line, I want to revise and expand the first book to make it longer (more in depth) and fix certain things I found and believe need fixing, such as missing dialogue and added details. I’m currently writing the revisions and want to publish that very soon, hopefully this year, but maybe using a different platform or publisher! But I’m also working on more than ten different types of books I want to write throughout my life, jumping from narrative to narrative, keeping my writing and imagination fresh! Such as a sci-fi book, a superhero team book, a detective story, and a comedic trek story—I got a lot of plans to publish someday, one book at time for me! So long story short: yes, I hope to do a worthy sequel!

HUP: Are there any narratives in your book that discuss Disability?

JC: There isn’t really a mention of disabilities in my current book, but I’m planning on writing a book with autism and other disabilities being the focus on certain characters! And I guess I kinda based the Chronicles of Legend main character: Zyte, on myself a little but much braver and courageous like I want to be; the main love interest for him: Princess Shadus of the Dragon Nation of Vanlatha, was born human (spoilers) instead of being a dragon due to a rare magical genetic/subspecies within her family line, which I thought was very interesting!

HUP: As a Disabled Author, what is your perspective on Disability representation in literature?

JC: I haven’t really seen a lot of good representation of autistic people in literature, let alone pop culture like games and movies. They (games and movies) depict certain characters with disabilities as the bad guys and are being exploited, which I find very offensive to my kind of people and to myself. But I plan to change that with my own stories and bring a new perspective to the world, showing that we (as people with disabilities) have a voice too, which I take pride in. I’m blessed enough to speak out against the contemptuous people badmouthing disabled people and change the world with my life and stories.

Visit joelchampion.com to order your copy of “The Chronicles of Legend: The Wolf Jumper Arises”.