Poetry over Policy: a Political Tool for Disability Advocacy and Awareness

Iman Ben Errabeh • Aug 2, 2023

Showcase Eventbrite Photo by Amélie Neault.

Award-winning author Conyer Clayton is renowned for their surrealist tone and cutting-edge poetry. This month, they hosted a workshop at the Atelier for poetry writing, focusing on navigating disability and mental illness within creative writing as a tool to explore one’s identity and to empower the self.

One week afterward on Jul. 27, the workshop participants had the opportunity to showcase their writing and read their poems at the Atelier, a non-profit organization located at Saint Paul University in Ottawa.

Participants read to a live audience on a beautiful evening of social justice talk and disability empowerment.

Disability justice was the main theme of the event. As such, it stressed the importance of accessibility in both space and understanding. The event itself had an ASL interpreter translating the introduction and presentation of the showcase on-screen and masks were mandatory.

Overall, the atmosphere was informal and familiar. An intimate number of people sat in a semicircle arrangement of chairs and a few sat on brown leather and retro-looking couches on the sides. The air was filled with the kind of energy that feels like the same as a friend’s living room and beautiful tangible vulnerability came with ease.

After a short presentation of the event, the showcase began. A total of six performances occurred, and six original poems were read out loud to a focused and attentive audience. The participant would get to the front of the audience and read their poem onto the microphone, with the text projected right behind them, and then the presenter would engage with the author and the audience to analyze the poem and see what transpired from it. The evening was saturated with discussion and engaging comments flying back and forth from chair to microphone and microphone to chair.

Disability is a broad term and because of that, the poems were nothing but a marvel of a sequence of surprises and affirmations of this concept. Poems touched on schizophrenia and the struggle and frustrations that come from having to perform normativity and mask one’s struggles. There were poems on psychiatry, critiquing the sterile systemic approaches of the medical field. Other poems had anti-capitalist undertones and the tension of having to cope with a system that is set up against disability empowerment. Some poems used clever and witty semantic word plays and minimalist surrealist imagery evoking animals as a way to metaphorize experiences with disability. As you can see, the audience could easily learn one thing about disability: it is not static.

Conyer Clayton gave the participants the tools to express their feelings and thoughts on disability, this is not only an extremely cathartic process and experience, but an empowering one.

In fact, poetry can be a political tool that creates a sense of community amongst marginalized groups in a way that surpasses policy. Poetry can be an advocacy tool that underlines and shines light on the dark side of having a disability in a capitalist society that disregards and neglects these experiences. We often hear about policies as paper-written ways to promote disability awareness but it is important to think outside the box and see the value of poetry in a political context, as it can empower both the self and entire communities.

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