‘Cyborg laureate’ Jillian Weise finds freedom in words
Jillian Weise is comfortable with words. She’s comfortable with writing them, accepting them, and rejecting them. Some words she uses to describe herself: provocative, disabled and amputee. Some words she rejects: inspirational, courageous and brave.
One particularly significant word she rejects is an official medical term.
“I was born with a disability,” Weise [pronounced “vice-uh”] explained matter-of-factly during an interview in her modest third-floor office on the Clemson University campus. “There’s a name for it, but I refuse the medical model and the language used to describe me. First of all, the name is in Latin, and I don’t read or speak Latin.”
Weise is petite and walks with a careful step, having one bionic leg. As associate professor of creative writing she spends her days gently encouraging students — many of whom don’t consider themselves poets or even writers — to fully open their minds and hearts to words. She accomplishes this partly by leading by example, producing works of astounding directness and depth that confront the challenges and taboos of living with disabilities.
In her essay “Common Cyborg,” which was published in Cambridge University’s literary quarterly Granta in September, she takes Google to task, claiming the tech giant has done a poor job of identifying and hiring disabled employees.
Last year, Weise met with a group of Google executives and offered to be the company’s “cyborg laureate.”
“I pitched that position to them in a sort of tongue-in-cheek way just to get them to understand they need to employ cyborgs in tech,” she said.
“In that conversation they said to me, ‘We don’t have any disabled people working for us.’ I said, ‘How many people work in your department?’ They say 60, and I said, ‘Um, I hate to inform you of this, but you do. You simply don’t know who they are because they’re afraid to tell you.’ This is the perpetual problem.”
Unfortunately, said Weise, the view of the Google execs echoes a public conception that a disabled person can’t be an expert.
“I’m really sad that we just lost Stephen Hawking, because he was an expert, not on disability but in astrophysics,” she said.
Weise said she’s worked her whole life to be seen as an expert, like Hawking – and as an intellectual. From an observer’s viewpoint, she appears to have succeeded in that.
Her first book, The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, recently was reissued in a 10th anniversary edition. It is a collection of poems that are both jarring in their frankness and heart-wrenching in their honesty.
Take this poem, for example, titled “Incision”:
The nape of my neck is a tell.
Otherwise you wouldn’t notice
with the layers of clothes: shirt,
vest, scarf, coat.
Undressed, it’s a solitary hole
in the middle of a white wall, you
can’t help but stare, what picture
hung there, what of, what color?
It gets worse than this, you’ll
want to see how far down it goes.
The circular incision top and bottom,
a line contained by points
The seal of an envelope, opened.
“Dr. Weise is, quite simply, an astounding colleague. Her prolific and ever-surprising creativity manifests in everything she does,” said Susanna Ashton, professor and chair of Clemson’s English department. “She models to her students what it means to be not just a scholar and an artist, but what it means to infuse those identities so entirely with one another that they are inseparable. Making room for art to not just inform research, but to be interrogatory research itself is something we cherish here in Clemson English and no one has taught us better the glorious possibilities for how that can play out than Dr. Weise.”
Weise grew up in Houston, where her father was a pharmacist and her mother worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She attended Florida State University, where she enrolled as a broadcast journalism major. On a whim, she took a poetry workshop. It changed the course of her life.
“I like the freedom from capitalism that poetry provides me with,” Weise said. “I like that it’s outside the system and the freedom of working with language any way I want. I knew there would be no giant paycheck at the end of this work – but I would join the legacy of the poets from the beginning of time. This appealed to me immensely.”
She went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts in poetry at the University of North Carolina and a Ph.D. in English at the University of Cincinnati. Weise then joined Clemson’s English department in 2008.
“I was so thrilled to get a job here. I love teaching poetry,” said Weise. “I want students to come to poetry with a sense of freedom to tell anything they want to tell in any form. I want them to have fun, really! I want them to play with language, have fun with language, experiment – that’s the goal.”
Weise’s ferocious curiosity and imagination allow her to work within predictable media using unpredictable forms, Ashton said, adding that Weise is so full of creative energy that it overflows and spills into a remarkable range of outlets including essays, editing projects, manifestoes, opinion pieces, screenplays, artful screeds, journalism, videos and more.
Outside the classroom, Weise turns her skills toward activism and has become an important voice for disability rights.
“My dedication as a disability rights activist is in collaboration with a bunch of artists and writers nationally in what’s being called the ‘Disabled and Deaf Uprising.’ We’re tired of stereotypical portrayals of us in the media and we’re revolting. That’s kind of the crux of what I do outside of teaching.”
To that end, Weise aims to take control of of the word cyborg.
In discussions and on paper, Weise likes to identify herself as a cyborg, which she fully recognizes can take people aback at first. Aren’t those the robots from science fiction movies? Not any more, says Weise. Cyborgs are people who use mechanical or computerized aids, whether a wheelchair, a prosthetic arm or a hearing aid. In today’s world, she says, cyborgs are everywhere.
“People think about sci-fi movies and robotics, but we’re already robotic. We’re already using tech on our actual bodies,” Weise said. “I think there’s something human missing from the word ‘robot,’ but as a person who has a computer for a leg ‘cyborg’ seems applicable to me. And yeah I like it.”
Students who sign up for Weise’s writing classes probably don’t expect to have a spirited cyborg as a teacher, and truth be told when looking at Weise it’s not even close to the first word that would pop into your head. Regal or stalwart would be more likely. She’s comfortable with whatever word you choose – she’ll either accept or reject it – but she is very specific when it comes to describing herself.
“I use identity-first language, so I say I’m a disabled person rather than person-with-a-disability,” she said. “I’m proud of disability culture and history and I’m completely happy with that word, but I also claim the word cyborg. It suits me.”
As a poet, said Weise, she has the power to attach the words of her choice to herself.
“I love that poetry as a word comes from the Greek for ‘to make,’” she said. “We’re the original makers, and the original namers.”
- Weise has been awarded residencies or fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center, the Fulbright Program and the Lannan Foundation.
- She has edited at The Paris Review and The Iowa Review. Her fourth book is forthcoming in fall 2019.
- She’s also a playwright whose work has been staged at the New York Fringe Festival and the Provincetown Playwrights Festival.
- Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics, Granta, the Huffington Post, Tin House and elsewhere.
- Weise is also the creator of the character “Tipsy Tullivan,” an alter ego she uses to “say things I can’t and be offensive in ways that I find very offensive.” You can follow Tipsy on Facebook.