Tag Archives: Jim Ferris

20 Questions….. with poet Jim Ferris

For some years I have been running the series called ’20 Questions…’ when I ask a variety of creative human beings – from burlesque performers to theatre directors and novelists – the same twenty questions. Individuals are encouraged to respond to as many or as few as they like, in whatever form they choose. The answers are invariably fascinating and illuminating, even more so when compared to how other artists have responded. This time I’m delighted to introduce renowned poet Jim Ferris and his lyrical, honest, inspiring answers…..

Jim Ferris

Jim Ferris

What first drew you to your particular practice?

Words have always held power for me. I started speaking surprisingly young, I am told (and told further that I haven’t stopped yet – so much for my dream of being the strong silent type). I still recall the magical power of the ancient language of the Catholic Mass, the mystery and majesty as well as something to resist. Poets speak the world into being: in the beginning was the word, and the word was with god, and the word was god. No wonder Plato hated the poets – that’s power. I’m not particularly Christian anymore – yes, you are, my mother would say – but I recognize that language is not just how we communicate but how we perceive, how we come to what we think we know. This is why so many deaf people have been such a worry to so many hearies: they feared the deaf ones were beyond the creative and organizing discipline of the word. It takes nerve to mess with the language, man, and how can we help ourselves?

What was your big breakthrough?

There have been so many breakthroughs. One of the most important was discovering poetry as an alive and lively art form, discovering that poetry wasn’t just something in books. I had just moved to southern Illinois for graduate school, and some friends of friends had me over for dinner. Out on the coffee table was a poem that one of them had been working on. Neither of them claimed an identity as a poet, as far as I knew. The poem was about acting, it was smart and used language well, I liked it quite a bit, and suddenly it occurred to me that real live more-or-less regular people could write interesting and moving poems – and just maybe I could do that too. It really was a revelation.

What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?

I think the most challenging aspect of my process is not so much finding the shape as it is finding the starting point. I’m reminded of the old line attributed to Archimedes: Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I will move the world. It’s not the most accessible of metaphors, but I think finding the lever and the place to stand are the most challenging aspects. And discerning not enough from just right from too much. And not telegraphing the punch line. And not explaining the joke, a very teacherly flaw. I should probably stop here.

Is there a piece of art, or a book or a play, which changed you?

There are many. Reading Hemingway and then Fitzgerald as a sophomore in college was transformative for me. Those two writers helped me know what I wanted to do with my life: live in Paris in the 1920s and make beautiful and moving things with words. I’ve let go of the Lost Generation Paris thing, but not the other.

I can’t claim to be great at this, but I do try to stay open to possibility in my encounters with poems and other works of art: maybe the next poem will be the one that changes everything, or at least cracks open this moment. Who knows where that might lead?

What’s more important: form or content?


How do you know when a project is finished?

Paul Valery provides my answer: a poem is never finished, only abandoned. Or: when the surface glazes over, when it doesn’t belong to me anymore, when it’s not hot for me anymore. When I can’t find any way to make it better, when I am at the end of what I can do, or think, or feel. When my bag of tricks feels empty. Maybe this is when I know it’s time to put the thing down for a week or a month. I’d love to have Yeats’s “click like a closing box,” but I’m not often that lucky. Even though I’m a lucky man.

Do you read your reviews?

I think writers should approach reviews of their work employing the wisdom of those signs at hotel swimming pools: No Lifeguard on Duty; Read at Your Own Risk. I don’t read them; I fear I might not be able to let them go. I may read them eventually, hoping there will be some kernel of insight that I can use in the future. That unreasonable hope is, unsurprisingly, not often fulfilled. Sometimes my work is seriously misrepresented, and that is something I cannot afford to let in my head: if I write defensively, I’m almost certainly overwriting and probably not diving into the deepest pools. It’s an interesting challenge: staying open to influence, open to what comes up, while managing the kinds of influence and limiting those constricting and inhibiting influences.

What advice would you give a young writer/pracitioner?

Giving advice feels dangerous, but what the hell. Write the things you need to read; write what you love, do the work that fills you up; write for fun, enjoy the work even if it never sells, finds a big audience, even if it never gets you laid. If the joy of making isn’t the biggest and most important reward, find something else to do.

Always be a beginner; fresh, beginner mind is the place to be. At the same time, learn your craft, master your tools and keep them sharp. Write, and read, and keep doing both. Let the world influence you. Try to write like God. Especially if you don’t believe in God.

Love people and the world around you. And write through that.

What work of art would you most like to own?

There’s a reason I work with words rather than visual images, but I’d love to own Salvador Dali’s The Sacrament of the Last Supper. What it does with light is just stunning. If I did own it, I hope I’d do with it what collector Chester Dale did and give it immediately to the National Gallery so lots of people could see it.

What’s the biggest myth about writing/the creative process?

Inspiration. Writing is much more about preparation, application of butt to chair, and perspiration than the lightning bolt from the sky. I love a good lightning bolt, and it’s important to court the muses. But waiting for the God of Poetry to speak to you in a booming voice is to miss all the quiet ways the gods are speaking to us all the time. Pay attention, and keep your pen moving. The rest, including God, can take care of themselves.

Work I wish I’d created

This could be a long list: Peeling, The Great Gatsby, A Clean Well-Lighted Place, As I Lay Dying, anything and everything by Shakespeare, Holy Sonnet 14 by John Donne – what a set of verbs! John Belluso’s Pyretown. Just about any painting by Riva Lehrer or Vermeer. Lots of great contemporary poems.

What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

I’m not sure I have much of an answer to this question. Everything. Nothing. I don’t think I was ready to know until I knew. That the principal joy is in the making. The importance of just writing, of putting pen to paper. And then doing it again.

What’s your greatest ambition?

To make things that are useful, that may help people feel and make sense of the world differently, better, that suggest language and categories to think with, ways of being and noticing and feeling and responding. I’d like to push the envelope, to expand the horizon a little bit. I want to change the world, that’s all. And have a damned good time in the process.

How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, insecurity?

W.S. Merwin has a wonderful poem about some of the things he learned from one of his teachers, the legendary John Berryman. The last two stanzas seem to particularly fit this question:


I had hardly begun to read

I asked how can you ever be sure

that what you write is really

any good at all and he said you can’t


you can’t you can never be sure

you die without knowing

whether anything you wrote was any good

if you have to be sure don’t write


In twenty or thirty or forty years, people will look back at us, shake their heads, and marvel at how misguided we were. Ten or twenty years after that, they’ll decide we did some good stuff after all. But whose work will make that future cut? [Big shrug.] If you have to be sure, don’t write.

I hope I have learned to be hip to my own shit. I hope I can take my work seriously without taking myself too seriously. If making stuff is fun, let’s just get out there and play, keep playing, anything written can be rewritten, anything you still hate a year later can be thrown away. Or burnt to make room for the new. Make it a goal to fill pages, not to write the World’s Greatest

Whatever. Just write. Posterity can take care of itself.

Single most important thing learned about creative life

Let the making of the work be your reward, take your joy there. That way you won’t be thrown by attention or its lack. If you’re in it for the fun of doing it, then the rest isn’t so important. One other thing: either be independently wealthy or be able to make a living. It’s good to be able to eat and pay the rent. And maybe put shoes on the kids from time to time.

Answer to the unasked question

Love – I think that’s the answer to the question not yet asked. Love doesn’t mean ignoring problems, making or accepting excuses. It means caring: caring enough to pay attention, enough to expend scarce cognitive and emotional resources, enough to observe and think and speak up. Caring enough to remember that everybody dies, that no one gets out of here alive. Caring enough to do something, no matter how small it might seem.


Further links to Jim Ferris:

 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Ferris http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/jim-ferris https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZoWtNBf1wJI http://www.valpo.edu/vpr/kuppersreviewferris.html





Spoken Word Event – Chris Kinsey, Jim Ferris and Kaite O’Reilly. 19th March 2012. Oriel Davies, Newtown, Wales.







Chris Kinsey hosts an evening of poetry with readings by Jim Ferris and Kaite O’Reilly  – Monday 19th March 2012

Jim Ferris’s poems have been described as “funny,” “sly,” “Whitmanesque,” and “kind of holy.” He is author of The Hospital Poems (2004), Facts of Life, (2005), and his latest, Slouching Towards Guantanamo (2011). One reviewer said “Notwithstanding the spiritual weight they carry, these poems are playful, musical, satirical and passionate” (Jendi Reiter). Ferris has won awards for creative nonfiction and performance as well as for his poetry. His work is featured in Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (2011). Ferris currently holds the Ability Center Endowed Chair in Disability Studies at the University of Toledo.

Kaite O’Reilly currently holds the Ted Hughes Award for new works in poetry for her version of Aeschylus’s PERSIANS, produced by National Theatre Wales in 2010. A multi-award winning writer and playwright, productions in 2012 include LeanerFasterStronger with Sheffield Crucible in May, and In Water I’m Weightless with National Theatre Wales – both Cultural Olympiad projects, part of the celebrations for the London Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Chris Kinsey is Writer-in-Residence at Oriel Davies. She has been BBC Wildlife Poet-of-the-Year and writes a regular nature diary for Cambr ia. She has contributed to numerous anthologies and magazines and has three collections published: Kung Fu Lullabies and Cure For a Crooked Smile with Ragged Raven Press and Swarf with Smokestack Books. She is inspired by wildlife: human, animal and bird. Chris has also had short dramas read at Aberystwyth Arts Centre and Venue Cymru.

 Oriel Davies Gallery  The Park, Newtown, Powys SY16 2NZ

01686 625041 desk@orieldavies.org www.orieldavies.org

Monday 19 March 7.30pm £5

The Gallery Cafe will be open for drinks and light refreshments

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 http://www.mainstreetrag.com/JFerris.html

Other resources for Jim Ferris on-line: