Jillian Weise is the author of two collections of poetry and a book of fiction. Her plays have been staged at the New York Fringe Festival and the Provincetown Playwrights Festival. Weise’s first book of poems, The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, was called a “charged and daring debut” by Publishers Weekly. A bold investigation of disability and sexuality, Weise has said that writing it “was a struggle because I had no clue how to translate the experience of physical difference to the page. Suddenly I was writing poems in which the speakers varied from hot to cold with how they handled disability. In a way, I did not know what it meant to be disabled until I started writing the poems.”
Weise’s second collection of poetry won the James Laughlin Award from The Academy of American Poets. Brenda Shaughnessy, one of the judges for the award, said of The Book of Goodbyes, “This book’s smart, endearing, self-consciously self-dramatizing speaker is the heartbreaking heroine of the book, and she is NOT HAVING IT. That is, if she’s leaving, she’ll do it fiercely and with such full-throated articulation and insight that it won’t be easy to let her go.”
In Weise’s poems, the speakers are direct, sometimes startlingly so, as in “Biohack Manifesto”, a poem whose locations include Def Con (an annual conference for hackers), and Wal-Mart. Here, Weise is certainly “not having it”:
is that now we don’t have to
keep looking for a disabled poet
We got him
Everybody together now: We got him
Thank YHWH he’s a man
I am so relieved, aren’t you?
I am so cock blocked, aren’t you?
Tokenism is under fire here, as is a deeply rooted history of male-privilege. Throughout the poem, the speaker’s multifarious concerns are intercut with one another, highlighting their interconnectedness:
Please, please, can you
change my settings
this is not poetry, they said
Be happy with what we give you
We got you
Weise’s speaker must rely on others to change the settings of her leg, which "beeps at 3 mph," or to provide poetry-related guidance, neither of which are always helpful and sometimes are downright painful. What complicates the poem further is the speaker’s fear of being left alone. “Don’t leave” appears twice in the poem, first midway through, “Don’t leave / Don’t I have any other ideas / Be a man, mortality, zip it.”
The speaker is vulnerable precisely because she must rely on others; if she complains too much about her settings, she risks irritating those who can adjust them, and likewise if she complains too much about her mentors’ suggestions or the state of publishing, she risks alienation from her peers.
Transformation is ever-present in Weise’s poems, be it failed or in-process, figurative or literal. In the case of “Biohack Manifesto” it is present as hacking, a term entangled with violence, even when only as allusion: “I like to hack, sometimes, / the Hebrew Bible,” and later, “This is the conference for hackers / Can somebody hack me.” As we move quickly between locations, states of mind, moods, and types of address, readers get the sense the poem itself has been hacked, whether intentionally by Weise or unintentionally by the poem’s speaker.
While “Biohack Manifesto” is a searing exploration, “Future Biometrics,” is sober and haunting. Here, “the body” has been disassociated from selfhood entirely:
The body that used to
contain your daughter
we found it
behind the fence
In an interview for Identity Theory, Weise said, “I’m all for noir. What is a cyborg poet to do? If I’m comic, then I play into the carnival show. If I’m tragic, then I reinforce centuries of pity for the disabled figure in literature. Noir warps the comic and the tragic.”
As in Weise’s other work, readers are again faced with projected emotion:
It was collected
Is she saved
Is she in the system
we have other bodies
to put your daughter in
Amidst a great loss, we (the “you” of the poem) are told “You’re lucky / we have other bodies.” The spare and mechanical language, especially in reference to the body (“it was collected”) provides no reassurance that gratitude is what we should actually feel.
Weise was born in Houston, Texas, in 1981. She studied at Florida State University; the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (where she received a Fred Chappel Fellowship), and the University of Cincinnati. Weise is also a playwright, whose work has been staged at the New York Fringe Festival and the Provincetown Playwrights Festival. Weise has received the Alan Dugan Writing Fellowship from Provincetown’s Fine Arts Work Center and a Fulbright Fellowship.
The Book of Goodbyes, BOA Editions, New York, 2013
The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, Soft Skull Press, Brooklyn, 2006
Translating the Body, All Nations Press, White Marsh VA, 2006
The Colony, Soft Skull Press, New York, 2010
“Cloning Disabled Subjects” by Jillian Weise, Drunken Boat
“Going Cyborg” by Jillian Weise, New York Times Magazine
Interview with Weise by J. Dee Cochran, Identity Theory
“Poems Over Parties: An Interview with Jillian Weise”, Front Porch Journal
Review of The Book of Goodbyes in Publishers Weekly
Review of The Book of Goodbyes by Timothy Liu, Coldfront