Writer, performance artist, and disability rights activist Jillian Weise and her satirical alter ego Tipsy Tullivan answered some questions for the Bellingham Review. To see more of Weise’s work, go here, here, and here.
Susanne Antonetta: When did you first become aware of Tipsy Tullivan?
Jillian Weise: She introduced herself abruptly one night. Just started talking.
SA: Tipsy loves to focus on the AWP Conference. What’s her relationship with this conference? What is yours?
JW: You’d have to ask Tipsy. I’m not privy to her thoughts. My first protest of AWP was in 2014 with the poet John Lee Clark. We made a postcard campaign in English and Braille. I was so naïve. I thought that would be it. Imminent change! A couple years later, the AWP selection committee rejected all panels on disability by disabled writers. The situation called for something radical. And fun. I began privileging my pleasure as an artist over the pressure I felt to educate AWP on some business they could’ve learned in 1990. At this point I don’t know if I can imagine AWP as a friendly space for disabled writers. For example, next year’s conference. Would I like to go to a panel called “Battling Disability”? Or how about a panel on “disability, suicide, murder and natural disaster”?
SA: Name five words you never want to see in discussions of disability, particularly in literature. You can make it five words you never want to see in panel titles.
JW: Brave. Inspiring. Courageous. Birth defects.
SA: You are a fearless writer. One of the things I’ve always loved about your work is your willingness to take on the canonical, even the seemingly untouchable, pomo-critical-darling, canonical. Can you tell us a little about your process here? How can we all be so fearless?
JW: Thank you. I don’t know the how but I know the why. Already we are outside their main stages, their arts advisory committees, their solidarity marches, their New Yorker podcasts, their star markets, their poetic forgeries, their sudden Blind man endings in their best-of anthologies, their concept of diversity, their hot takes, their plastic straw debates. Since we are such outsiders—systemically and figuratively and literally—what’s there to lose?
SA: You write, you tell us, either late or night, or when you’re not supposed to be writing, as at faculty meetings. You compare yourself to a detective. Perhaps this relates to the above? Are there other nouns to describe yourself as a poet?
JW: Oh, I picked up a line from today’s faculty meeting: “Be careful with the metrics.” Maybe it was Sappho.
Susanne Antonetta: Tell me about what inspires you to make these videos.
Tipsy Tullivan: I started making videos because I have learned so much about writing and publishing from the good people at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conferences. I go every year. I would not miss it for the world. I love how they keep the disabled writers off their main stages. I think that’s fair. We just haven’t had a disability moment yet. I love how they published that article in The Writers Chronicle, “Do You Have to Be One to Write One?” Of course you don’t have to be one. There is too much political correctness in this world and not enough literary freedom. I make vids to give writers like me—white, heterosexual, two arms, two legs writers—permission to steal from anybody. You know what it is, Susanne. People like sob stories. And there is no sob story like a disabled sob story. You can brand it as a romantic comedy and sell it to the movies. Did you see Me Before You? I cried my eyes out. What about Wonder? Julia Roberts is my favorite. I am just a woman from Asswallascallacauga, Alabama, who stands in agreement with everyone who’s anyone, and wants to help others achieve fame and profit.
SA: Who is your target audience?
TT: Every time I go into a video, I am thinking of someone just like me before I found the salvation of the First Amendment, and maybe she has taken to the bottle, and maybe she doesn’t believe in herself, and maybe she is scared of writing into her life. I reach out to her and I take her hand and I say, “Hi friend. You do not have to write about your life. Write about theirs. I will show you how. You will win the Pulitzer.”
SA: What five words should writers always use in writing disabled characters?
TT: You really don’t need five words, to be honest. We are living in a remarkable time and place with great possibility for art and soul journey and transformation. I am daily outraged by 45 and everyone is daily outraged with me and while that is going on, nobody is paying any attention to how you describe a disabled person in your book. We don’t even care if disabled people can get in a door, to be honest, because we have more important things to write our Senators about and besides we adore that one restaurant with the stairs. So it doesn’t matter if you describe the disabled character in one word or five words at this point.
SA: What do you think of Jillian Weise’s poetry?
TT: Poetry is so hard! I don’t read much but I have read one poem of hers. And it put a bee in my bonnet. Who does she think she is? Didn’t she get the memo? We write about them. They should not write about us writing about them like it is too confusing and frankly it is mean and not very inspiring.
JILLIAN WEISE is a poet, performance artist and disability rights activist. Her first book, The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, was recently reissued in a 10th anniversary edition with a new preface. The Book of Goodbyes won the Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. Her novel, The Colony, involves the characters Charles Darwin, James Watson and Peter Singer. She has written for Granta, Tin House and The New York Times. She performs the heteronym of Tipsy Tullivan across social media. Cyborg Detective will be published in 2019.