Poet Sheila Black considers pain, disability, selfhood and ‘the problem of normal’

March 24, 2012

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Sheila Black was born with a rare medical condition that gave her crooked legs. Then when she was 13 years old, she underwent a procedure to straighten them -- although the word “procedure” might not adequately describe what she went through.

“I had my legs radically straightened,” she says. In the first of a number of surgeries Black would have over the course of her life, doctors performed a double osteotomy -- breaking her legs in six places, then re-pinning the bones back together. “I walked a lot better [after the surgery],” Black recalls. “But I had the strange sense of having betrayed the person I was.” Black elaborated: “For me the question of disability was really a problem of normal. The problem was all the normal people out there."

Black grew into an award-winning poet whose creative interests include what a collaborator has described as “anomalous embodiment,” or what one might more simply describe as physical disability. In one poem she channels that moment of teenage post-surgical self-betrayal, and imagines herself as two people – the person she was before the surgery, and the person she became afterward, as if existing side by side:

She
was me before I became so fallen. Sneaking
Salem cigarettes with the other girls on the fourth
floor bathroom. Trying so hard to fit in you could
see that desire—a sheen on my skin. The year I
learned to walk again—a wheelchair, crutches, crutches
discarded, everyone said how it was a miracle, so
wonderful, such a great, great thing, as if I could now
be welcomed into the club of people. A door closed
somewhere, and she was behind it.

The poem’s title, “Los Dos Fridas or Script for the Erased,” alludes to the title of a 1939 self-portrait by Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, in which Kahlo also depicts two versions of herself side by side: one injured and one healthy, arteries intertwined. Kahlo was in a bus crash at age 18 that left her with a horrifying array of broken bones – pelvis, spine, clavicle, ribs, plus 11 fractures in her leg – as well as permanent damage to her reproductive system. She went through more than 30 surgeries over the course of her life, and was often in so much pain that she had to remain bedridden for weeks at a time. 

Black says that she too experienced extreme pain because of her disability and surgeries, but that Kahlo’s work and legacy proved to be a powerful example of working through the pain. “Frida Kahlo taught me to see [pain] as sort of a forceful, creative thing,” Black explains. “A way of making me pay attention to the world around me.”

Together with co-editors Jennifer Bartlett and Michael Northen, Black helped assemble the anthology Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (Cinco Puntos Press, 2011), which collects the work of several differently-abled writers.

Nine poets from the anthology read in Chicago earlier this month, including Black. You can hear her recite “Los Dos Fridas” in the audio above.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Sheila Black read at an event presented by Access Living in March. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.