In the republic of poetry (4) Slouching towards Guantanamo – crip poet Jim Ferris

Two disability culture books arrive in the post, and by long standing friends, allies, and/or cadres.

The first – and the focus of this blog – is an outstanding book of poetry from Jim Ferris, who I have admired since encountering his seminal collection The Hospital Poems in 2004.

“…Slouching Towards Guantanamo is kind of holy, more than a little Whitmanesque when Jim Ferris writes, “This is my body. Look if you like.” And so we do in these funny, lacerating poems, veering from pain to pain. They sing the body derelict, the body “merely” different. Intensely physical, surprisingly musical, capacious and elegiac at once, Slouching Towards Guantanamo is thrilling work, though things fall apart, as do we all…”

–Paul Guest, My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge

Such reviews of the book make me long to leap straight in, but there is a pile of other books waiting to be reviewed first, and I know some of the poetry will already be familiar to me. As is the case for other poet friends, like Chris Kinsey, Jim is immensely generous with his work and has shared work in progress with me over the years.

One of the great achievements and attractions of Jim’s work in my opinion, is how each poem is seeped through in disability experience. If asked to identify work which is quintessentially crip culture, as well as retaining its own singularity and identity, I would immediately point to Jim Ferris’s work. His wry humour, his extraordinary communication skills, the knowledge of bone-pain from deep within the marrow and his ability to translate that into sublime language all – regardless of impairment or not – can understand is why he should be better known outside his native US.

In Slouching Towards Guantanamo, Jim Ferris continues to challenge the way we have all learned to think about disability and people with disabilities. These splendid poems navigate between the light touch of tender irony and the arresting perspective disabled bodies can offer our common understandings.

–Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Staring: How We Look

I manage to see Jim once every couple of years, the last time in spring 2010 in the endless cornfields of Indianapolis. Some years before that, he attended a rehearsed reading of my play The Almond and the Seahorse, about survivors of TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) as part of the Madison Rep Theatre New Writing Festival, and having a fellow crip in the audience added somewhat to my enjoyment of the ‘Q & A’ with the audience.

Afterwards, he intimated he had  experienced two plays simultaneously – the emotionally-charged mainstream play and the radical disability culture play. I agreed. I call The Almond and the Seahorse my Trojan horse. It is my most conventional script, a character-driven well-made play deliberately designed to appeal to mainstream theatres – a vehicle to be wheeled on to a mainstream stage – with disability politics in its belly.

Back in Wisconsin we discussed how we are sometimes working on several levels simultaneously – the work is layered, almost palimpsest. I find that there is a ‘secret’ code in some of my work – a sensibility, a perspective, a way of being in the world informed by my disability identity, which infiltrates and is communicated, at a subtextual level, to any fellow crips who encounter it. Perhaps this is the same for all minority groups, or sub-cultures, but it is one I feel intensely in my engagement with the disabled community.

Jim’s poetry epitomises the shift in perception which great work can achieve. As Terry Galloway (‘Mean Little deaf Queer’) coined it, when analysing Jim’s poem ‘Poem with disabilities’:

This poem, like so many others in this heartfelt and expressive compilation, exhorts us, beguiles us, charms us; and suddenly, as we’re reading along–just as he promises– our “angle of vision jumps” and our “entrails aren’t where we left them.” A precise and eloquent unraveling of life’s knottier complexities.”

I give you Jim Ferris.

Poet of Cripples

Let me be a poet of cripples,
of hollow men and boys groping
to be whole, of girls limping toward
womanhood and women reaching back,
all slipping and falling toward the cavern
we carry within, our hidden void,
a place for each to become full, whole,
room of our own, space to grow in ways
unimaginable to the straight
and the narrow, the small and similar,
the poor, normal ones who do not know
their poverty. Look with care, look deep.
Know that you are a cripple too.
I sing for cripples; I sing for you.

(c) Jim Ferris

Reproduced from

Other resources for Jim Ferris on-line:

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