Dialogue on Psychological Disability Poetry*

Wordgathering editor Michael Northen invited four poets whose work has involved concerns about disability and mental health to take part in a discussion on psychological disability poetry. The discussion participants include Linda Benninghoff, nancy viva davis halifax, Andrea Nicki and Annalee Kwochka.

WG: This issue of Wordgathering includes an essay by Andrea Nicki on "Psychological Disability Poetry." One of Andrea’s contentions is that often poetry that tries to address psychological or social issues and advocate for change is not taken seriously as poetry by mainstream poetry publishers.

What I would like to ask you to do is take a look at the following poem by an anonymous author. While not strictly about psychological disability, it is one in which the writer is clearly advocating for change in how we view disability.

Diversity vs. Discrimination
Is about eliminating
Some attitudes that, themselves, disable,
And foster Ableism.
Bigotry creates more blockings and burdens.
It’s time to annihilate all manner of
Limitations and lack of understanding.
Intolerance makes impediments
To those who would otherwise be fine.
Yes, we do our best, and we’ll get there, together!

Forgetting for the moment this is also intended as an acrostic, is this poetry? Or more narrowly, if you were editing a journal of poetry, is this a poem that you would include. Why or why not?

ANDREA: This is an interesting, stimulating question. In the mainstream literary world, style requirements have been relaxed. For example, the free verse poetry movement got rid of the requirement that poetry must rhyme. With the experimental poetry movement, requirements have become even more elastic. Nowadays, quite a lot of writing that blurs the boundaries between prose and lyric is published as poetry and sometimes receives public awards. I admit I often find myself wondering why some piece of writing is considered poetry and not, for example, history, anthropology or sociology. I am fine, though, with not having strict definitions of what counts as poetry. I think a more inclusive definition of poetry can promote inclusion of poets from oppressed social groups. Because their perspectives and insights can challenge the status quo, their poetry, generally, is at a greater risk for being dismissed as real poetry. This certainly has been the treatment of, for example, a lot of women poets whose poetry, while lyrical and conventional in other ways, has been treated more as art therapy or writing in women’s studies. I mention this in my article in this issue.

I would regard the writing as a real poem and as a disability activist poem. If I was the editor of a poetry journal I would not include it because it does not meet enough of the criteria of the kind of poetry that I prefer. For instance, I like the strong feeling and concern about social injustice in the poem, but it does not offer any new perspectives or insights. It does not contribute to disability theory or to a better understanding of disability; in this way it is not a good disability poem. If there was a poem submitted in the same style and did have original insights, I would be inclined to include it, even if it didn’t meet other criteria of my personal ideal of poetry, such as being imaginative and imagistic.

i trawl for thoughts              drifting in the safe harbour of my couch cushions in settler colonialcanada    ,   which arrive as the tide shifts .

my response follows these drift lines     . anonymous writing has a history. memoir, poetry, stories of exile… a question is cast up : in being anonymous is it the intent of the writer to remind me of the annihilation of some lives, the danger of having these lines tethered to their lives…

but Michael, there is something else – something that breaks – something in or behind or under the questions that you posed to us Michael, which was about the categorization of poem/not/poem, like the categorization of disability (psychological, physical, emotional, intellectual, sensory) where i begin to ache. can we/i/you/they invoke a crises of authority? is it a poem? might the reader enact it as such?    will the poem take her pills       suffer
          dry mouthed   inclusion? (i have long railed against the violences of categories – the cartesian scars that subtend the coherency of our/your/their/my narratives)

and so:
i read the poem a number of times. but it was when reading it aloud as a slam – that the page stopped being an impediment. i slammed and shifted wee bits for the beat, for breath   forgetting the needs of the acrostic –added in a repetition or two   a break or two – so yes, i would harmonize with anonymous   slam f*^k categorical authority and its desire to draw us  apart .

Linda: I recently wrote a book review about how important society's attitude toward the disabled can be; how it can itself be more disabling than the disability. This is an important idea the poem stresses. Yet the idea is presented simplistically in the poem. The language and imagery of the poem are wanting. In fact, there doesn't seem to be much imagery at all except for the "blockings and burdens" bigotry creates, and possibly "impediments." The language of the poem is cliched and it does not present its idea in an original way. For this reason, if I were an editor, I would have to reject the poem. Yet if there were a whole issue on disability or on prejudice it could be included. Or, as Andrea said, if there were another poem about disability that had original insights (and language) it probably could be included.

ANNALEE: To answer the question directly–yes, this is a poem. But no, I probably would not include it in a journal of my choosing. I would advise the poet to "show" me their insights rather than "tell," as they are now doing. This poem lacks imagery, which I find extraordinarily important as a persuasive rhetorical device. As a reader, I want to be able to feel some semblance of what the poet feels as they write this poem. Right now that is impossible–there is too much abstract language in the way. I need to be grounded in my senses.

I think that there is some tension between activism and art, although in the best of circumstances activism gives art purpose, and art gives activism an audience willing to listen. I look to a number of poets who–I think–strike the balance pretty well. In the contemporary world, Clint Smith does a wonderful job. See his poem How to Make a Cardboard Box Disappear in 10 Steps," recently published in the American Literary Review. I have also always been driven by Anne Sexton and her writings on mental illness–I’m reminded of an interview transcript, where Maxine Kumin (a longtime friend of Sexton’s) calls a poem "therapeutic," and Sexton says, "for God’s sake, forget that. I want to make it a real poem." I think Sexton realized that poems could be both "real" and "therapeutic."

WG: I think that you all make excellent points. Certainly there is much more genre-blurring in writing now than there used to be and, as Nancy pointed out, there is always danger in categorization. At the same time, whenever we utter a word, whether it is poem, disability, casserole or dog, we’ve have already made the decision to include some things and exclude others. Andrea has proposed a category called "Psychological Disability Poetry." Each word in that phrase, of course, is loaded and implies constraints, so my question is do you feel that it makes sense to talk about "psychological disability poetry," and , if so, what would it look, taste, feel like? Feel free to reference your make reference to your own poetry if you think it helps you to make the point.

Linda: I believe there is such a thing as psychological disability poetry. This poetry can undercut society’s dominant paradigm, which sees the mentally ill person in a negative way–diseased, even less than human. By humanizing the disabled, viewing him or her in his full selfhood, and analyzing the society or mental health system that has failed him, this poetry can help the disabled.

My poems on mental illness could be classified as psychological disability poetry. In these poems, the disabled are made more disabled by the mental health system's and society's treatment of them. In the first poem, "To My Friend," my friend and I actually have a poor friendship stealing each other's boyfriends and talking of things of no consequence. No one can tell how bad the other is feeling and the friend never seems to think of crying for help – this may because the mental health system discourages the display of symptoms or helplessness and encourages a pervasive sense that the individual is doing okay, at all times, or else he or she can be scapegoated.. The poem is titled "My Friend," because in some way friendship subsumes the problems with the mental health system and society and this becomes a real friendship. Society and the mental health system can instill hopelessness in its clients, because of its misinterpretation of symptoms, and what is in general a negative outlook on psychiatric illness. In the poem, others have died in this group home. The first line is taken from Donne.

My Friend

Even the stones protest
the way you threw yourself
from the tall building,
in the middle of the night,
your mother asleep next door.
There were the flowers--
forsythia buds new this spring,
Charles Street showered
with white petals.
Where can I find you?
You outpaced me on the streets,
my boyfriend became your boyfriend.
Neither friends nor enemies,
we walked together,
talked of passing things,
the price of Mangoes
in the stores by the harbor,
the shop that sold the best jeans.
Brad and you were breaking up,
you were planning to move
to a tiny apartment
from the row house where
we all lived.
How can this house
undertake so many deaths?
Many have came here lost,
wanting to be whole…
Not quite friends,
these frail moments join us,
but do not set us free.

A second poem I wrote is like the first but describes more clearly the destructiveness of the psychiatric profession. There is a contrast between the nineteenth century daughter of the house,(which was later turned into a group home) and the dysfunctional families the mentally ill often come from, where women are not accorded respect. I remember we were told

we could not expect much,
could not love,
could not get married,
have jobs.
You took these things to heart,
as if we were futureless,

This poem is also about a suicide. In fact, many psychologically disabled people commit suicide at a young age. The poetry about the psychologically disabled could help them as well as the people taking care of them–in part because it reveals the wrongness of society’s view of them.

ANDREA: Linda, I like your point that psychological disability poetry can help the disabled. I am currently training to become a certified poetry therapist and this fall I have been teaching a class on poetry therapy at a seniors ’ center. I will use examples of psychological disability poetry when we discuss the topic of trauma, emotionally suffering, and psychiatric labels. You write: "In fact, many psychologically disabled people commit suicide at a young age. The poetry about the psychologically disabled could help them as well as the people taking care of them–in part because it reveals the wrongness of society’s view of them." When I was in my twenties, I read and wrote poetry to become a poet but also to help heal my negativity, despair and grief. I found Sylvia’s Plath’s poems and because she was a very famous poet I followed her direction, writing angry, pessimistic, hyperbolic poetry. But I came to understand that writing this kind of poetry only amplified my negative attitude and emotions. As a young person, it would have been much more helpful to have been directed to psychological disability poetry.

I developed the category of "psychological disability poetry" in response to a discussion on disability poetry and discrimination against poets with disability on the DS-HUM list-serv. I expressed the view that poets with psychological disability are discriminated against like other disability poets but some people seemed puzzled by this claim, and pointed out that there is a fair amount of publicly esteemed poetry about emotional struggles. With the category of "psychological disability poetry" I sought to define this kind of poetry as a type of disability poetry and distinguish it from poetry that is merely about emotional suffering, or what may be called "confessional poetry." As I claim in the article in this issue, "psychological disability poetry" is critical of medical/psychiatric explanations of the lived experience of psychological disability. With this category, I also wanted to bring together "psychological disability poems" and put this kind of poetry more in the limelight, since it is often dismissed, like disability poetry generally, as activist writing and not treated as real poetry. As I argue, this kind of poetry is linked to the emergent field of mad studies and could also be appropriately be termed "mad" or "mad activist poetry."

ANNALEE: Particularly after reading the article, I realize that I occupy an ambivalent space when it comes to labeling my work and my activism. In my day-to-day life I am a (beginning) research scientist at Dartmouth’s Psychiatric Research Center; I am reasonably knowledgeable about and often use the language of diagnosis. In the future I am interested in clinical practice. But in my undergraduate career I chose to focus on disability studies rather than psychology, because I disliked the way that my psychology classes reduced people to diagnoses and completely "othered" the experience of mental illness, as if people with depression did not go to college. I will note (happily) that my current lab is not reductive, and many of my colleagues are open about their own experiences with depression/etc. I do believe that both psychiatry and psychology need significant reform.

I am also ambivalent about the creation of a "psychological disability poetry" category. I do believe that it is important to have distinct spaces for particular categories of literature (southern literature, disability literature, etc.) and I also think it’s true that poetry about psychological disability differs distinctly from poetry about physical disability. However, I am also mindful of the way that (in a practical sense) the creation of categories can sometimes marginalize the voices within them; I would not want focus on my work to place more emphasis on the "psychological disability" aspect of it than on the "poetry" aspect. I do not want publication of my work to be possible only in spheres that expressly celebrate psychological disability poetry.

To illustrate–a poetry professor and mentor of mine invited to participate in a local poetry reading during my sophomore year of undergrad. I had recently begun writing about my experience entering into a world of anxiety, and my professor suggested that I read several of those poems. I did so, and I contextualized the poems by talking about my anxiety (which I still believe is an important way of working against stigma). I was well received–but no one in the audience afterwards wanted to ask me about how I wrote or my metaphors–and this was an audience made up almost entirely of fellow poets! Instead, all they asked about was my anxiety. It felt like I was offerin therapy, which I do not mind–but that was not my purpose as a poet at a reading. I had inadvertently become spectacle. I am unsure if this is an argument against the creation of category, or simply a complication.

When I do imagine the creation of such a category, I will also say that my definition of "psychological disability poetry" is broader than the one offered in Andrea’s essay. I believe that poems (some of which, yes, would widely be considered confessional) can simultaneously validate and complicate the concept of mental illness. For example, in my poem "Having Second Thoughts" I validate the concept of mental illness via my use of diagnostic language and war imagery. At the same time, I attempt to refute the dichotomy presented in our culture: one is either "healed" and "productive" or "broken" and "unproductive;" pain is only legitimate if it supersedes everything else. I wanted to resist this idea and prevent my readers from reducing the speaker to her diagnosis.

Similar to Andrea, I do believe that there are important distinctions between the confessional tradition and poetry on psychological disability. The majority of poetry in the confessional tradition expresses psychiatric diagnosis/distress as an affliction that acts upon and outside the speaker, whereas disability poetry characterizes psychological disability as an integrated part of the speaker’s identity. Certainly, sometimes I am at war with or unsure of aspects of my own identity, but my anxiety is an aspect of my own embodiment–I included a second poem here, "Awful Day II, or, Love Poem" to illustrate.

Awful Day II, or, Love Poem

First come the swifts, who rise stuttering at dusk out of our uncovered
chimney into the sweet gum-shrouded June evening–This house, I tell you,
is part of the disabled country. Everything must be negotiated.

In daylight, when I do not get the job,
a great mouth opens beneath the kitchen sink,
swallows me whole.

You hang geraniums on the porch, a distraction from peeling paint
and asbestos-tainted siding. Carolina wrens take up residence in our new
plantings. In July, the eggs hatch. Mama bird tutts and tisks, brings worms.

At home, sinkholes do not need disguises. I dissolve without shame,
come together again, return to the dishes. You make dinner. We eat cornbread.
I reach up, grip the ridges of large teeth; lift myself out, above soapy water.

The neighbors’ cat comes to pray with us at the kitchen window. We mark
clouded passage with silence, my bare feet resting on yours beneath the table.
I am a mountain, bright green. You are a comfortable, slow river.

At nighttime we are building our own country.
We lie body-to-body, feeling the flutter of bright wings,
each other’s heartbeats, listening.

Lastly, I will add that my perspective on "psychological disability poetry" is continually evolving, because it is necessarily informed by my current perspective on my own identity.

ANDREA: Annalee, I appreciate your point that a category like "psychological disability poetry" could marginalize those writing poetry on psychological disability; similarly, some poets writing poetry on other types of disabilities have expressed concern that they and their poetry will be reduced to disability. You mention reading poetry about anxiety at a local poetry reading and receiving inappropriate care-giving response from others. I wonder if there would have been more perception of your poetry as real poetry if you had contextualized it more and said that your poems were instances of a genre of poetry called psychological disability poetry and could also be seen as examples of mad poetry and then talked about the disability and mad movements. I wonder if this kind of contextualization/gathering of support would have made you and your poems seem "less lonely and needing of support" and have prompted more of a literary analysis of your writing. Just a thought.


"[G]ive name to the nameless so it can be thought"
- Lorde, 2007, p. 224

Lorde opens my response as her words address the necessity out of which categories might be created. through "psychological disability poetry" (which i call mad) a conceptual presence forms.

michael, you noted:
"whenever we utter a word, whether it is poem, disability, casserole or dog, we’ve have already made the decision to include some things and exclude others"
the made decision shapes (for me) an estrangement.   one open door.
stopped at the limin of the open door  .  words (too fat, small, hairy, sweaty) gather as blossoming kinds    endure the force of categories, classification with its diligent assertions          border surveillance
the violence/s of psy classification the legacy of categories   :    male, independent, rational, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered, economically secure

Andrea nbsp; i think i understand some part of your motivation (and here i am interpreting) the desire for a more or different or complicated understanding of the ways in which mad poetry is excess to Poetry   it is illegetimate it is poetry that malingers  is implausible    crip         queer    abject

like Annalee i remain ambivalent about specific kinds of categorization while recognizing how language and its categories work    as devices that draw lines –and that languages and our embodied beings can refuse –remember the polyphony of language
i am ambivalent about the taming and regulating of madness through a classification where it becomes nothing but

      perils the subjugation of an oblique or even direct politics
categories dismiss what they cannot fully articulate   their nonnormative   ( much of what is animate stutters  )
      the clinical gaze of the psy discourses

pearls   the critique from mad poetry crips the violences of psychological categorization

to queer and crip the category "psychological disability poetry" allows for the mad/crip whose embodied being cannot decide (and here i cite some tension with Annalee’s notion: poetry about psychological disability differs distinctly from poetry about physical disability –these are not discrete realms but entangled   entwined )

crip,  is   intent on leading us astray   is a deviant flitting contrary to regulatory technologies

so i send you unfinished thoughts
with a thanks to all for the opportunity to contemplate      .   finding myself in this social space where mad/crip poetry/poets gather

my hope:
   no matter how we categorize it – in the end:

[P]oetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence.
– Lorde, 2007, p. 224

ANDREA: Nancy, I enjoyed your creative response and references to Lorde. I also was intrigued by your reference to mad poetry as "poetry that maligners/is implausible." As I've mentioned, I too am a bit ambivalent about classifying certain poetry as mad or psychological disability poetry. It would be better if literary values and standards reflected more inclusion of, for example, experiences of trauma, social discrimination, and related distress. It does seem that poems about these issues are perceived as sensational and attention-seeking, or as psychiatric porn, when the poets are simply sharing their life experiences. Some years ago I read some poems about trauma as part of a group reading with diverse writers at a university. Though some members of the audience looked very engaged, the chair of the event was irritated and uncomfortable, and cut my reading short. I really like your line in a previous post "will the poem take her pills." I certainly felt that the chair thought my poems and I had not taken our meds and were showing too much "mental illness." I would prefer that poems on trauma, social discrimination, and emotional suffering were just seen as poems about life experiences, but I can’t change mainstream literary standards or long-standing social biases. At least I can challenge these with the promotion of mad poetry.

NANCY: thanks andrea. audre lorde is in my personal canon of how to understand a world which i am forever becoming lost within.

my responses, poetic, narrative or lyric, tend to enact rather than explicate –if that makes sense

but i had a thought about precision and categorization… and our attachments to categories or their attachments to us   these are not fully formed (they were when i was in bed… argh) but feel like they have some force… if we crip mad poetry we begin (perhaps) to disorient epistemologies that would like us (and our poems) to believe their rhetorics (which are mostly capitalists)…

also in the desire for inclusion (and i resonate alongside that force) is there not what Lauren Berlant calls a cruel optimism? as she notes it is: something you desire [which] is actually an obstacle to your flourishing (2)….

and no –; i cannot answer these easily… in this conversation (thank you michael again for bringing us together) we have a social and virtual space created where we become deeply connected through contemplating categorization, classification and their others who often only have an oblique presence: the socially abandoned, the already dead, the embodieds that are debilitated in ways that disallow their presencing…

so what happens if our poems take their meds? would they be admitted to join the forces of global neoliberal capitalisms – the action of the chair of the reading was horrid andrea – i am so sorry…

but the chair's response –censoring your reading –demonstrates the affective force of mad poetry. judy butler wrote the below in frames of war.
Plato wanted to ban poetry from the republic. he thought that if the citizens were too often to watch tragedy, they would weep over the losses they saw, and that such open and public mourning, in disrupting the order and hierarchy of the soul, would disrupt the order and hierarchy of political Authority as well. Whether we are speaking about open grief or outrage, we are talking about affective responses that are highly regulated by regimes of power and sometimes subject to explicit censorship.

WG: Andrea, you and Nancy have been using the term "Mad Poetry." I'm not sure that all our readers or even everyone in this discussion is familiar with that phrase. Can you clarify that for us what you mean by it and, if it is distinguished from what you have called "psychological disability poetry," explain the distinction?

ANDREA: Mad studies is the study of the medicalization/psychiatrization of suffering and of neurological, cognitive, emotional, and behavioural differences that society casts as abnormal. As in disability studies, in mad studies, the medical model is seen as reductionist. While all mad scholars are critical of psychiatry, some want psychiatry abolished while others take a more reformist approach. Similarly, scholars writing on psychological disability are critical of psychiatry to different degrees. Someone may identify as mad but not as psychologically disabled. It wouldn’t make sense to call a poem a "psychological disability poem" if it makes no implicit or explicit reference to disability and just, for example, criticizes psychiatric treatment or celebrates an extreme emotional state (e.g. mania). A poem could be appropriately called both "a psychological disability poem" and "a mad poem" if it was informed by both disability theory and mad theory.

WG: One of the things happening in this discussion already that is gratifying to me is that even among the four of you there is a wide difference in approaches yet we are all able to discuss this issue without a verbal brawl. As trivial as that may seem, it is not always something that happens in disability-related discussions, particularly when any of the participants feel they are in possession of the only valid viewpoint.

I’d like to back up to the distinction that Andrea makes in her work (and that Annalee gave a qualified agreement to) between confessional poetry and the kinds of poetry that she has in mind when she talks about psychological disability poetry. It is my observation that there is some parallel here between the much discussed distinction between the medical model of disability with its focus on the individual and the social construction model of disability which lays much of the responsibility both for the creation and the resolution of problems on society. Confessional poetry, as you’ve all noted, has at its aim a concentration on personal expression that is rooted in our heritage from Romantic poetry and which privileges the value of self-expression, It’s the view, I’d suggest, that lies at the heart of what most people today –including poets –consider poetry to be. On the other hand, is poetry that feels its first debt is to society as say Brecht did or –at least in theory –groups like Split This Rock do, whose primary purpose is social change. I’d argue that these differences in conception of the aims of poetry functions to shape how one values a particular poem and how one approaches writing their own poetry, just as the model of disability that that a person holds is going to shape their approach to trying to problem solve. The confusion in these aims seems to me in part to be what happened in the situation that Annalee mentioned where she was expecting one kind of criticism on a poem at a reading and got quite another.

With that convoluted ground-laying, the question that I want to ask each of you is: When you sit down to write or work on a poem –assuming you are not channeling –is it first and foremost a matter of trying to express yourself or is it a call to action (i.e. aimed at addressing a social problem)?

ANDREA: Mike, to answer your question, when I sit down to write and work on a poem, it is a matter of both expressing myself and addressing a social problem. When I write I don’t feel I am just emptying the contents of some private container of thoughts or emotions. I am, as contradictory as this may seem, trying to feel a greater sense of community and connection with others, society, or the natural world. What moves me to write a poem could be a feeling of unease, disconnection, disorientation, or frustration but it also could be a more pleasurable feeling of joy, admiration, or excitement… a desire to celebrate a meaningful connection with others or some aspect of nature. So when I sit down to write a poem I want to feel more connection and/or celebrate and honour and thus increase a current feeling of connection. Perhaps my approach could be a called artistic spiritualism.

For example, I was moved to write a poem about an experience at a work meeting in which I felt disconnected but also connected to a world community. I was being treated unjustly and disrespectfully but thought, well, I’m hardly the only person in the world who is being treated unjustly, a thought which moved me to speak on my own behalf at the meeting. I felt that speaking on my own behalf was not just important for my own sake but for the sake of others… the health of the world community, that we shouldn’t just do nothing when injustices occur, thereby reinforcing an unjust world. In the poem I both express myself and reinforce a sense of connection to the world community:

A Whole World Inside

A social injustice
against me
I feel…
deeply interconnected
suffused with light
it’s nice and warm in here
I speak in my own defense
in dense of others
in defense of us
a whole world inside

In another poem, called "Forced Retirement," I express some thoughts and feelings related to another work experience, but the poem is not just about me, or inspired by my own personal experience. I was moved to write the poem after talking with several people who had been terminated in jobs or who were forced to resign because of sexism, racism, or ableism. In some cases, people were forced to resign because of a lack of accommodation of disability. I was moved to write this poem not only to express a personal experience but also to bring to attention injustices and harms in the workplace and the feeling of disorientation and disconnection that job loss can occasion.

Forced Retirement

Not the smooth fading of a glorious sunset
the fresh colours rush off the page
as if from a bucket of water
You are shocked
Your elaborate, time-consuming
work destroyed
There are no pieces to pick up
and put back together
(or cut yourself with dramatically)
You find yourself in a muddy puddle
no evidence of masterwork
or precious object stolen
no relocation
Where are you?
There are no special markings, no road signs
The sky is a burnt brown
with nothing decipherable
no stirrings
no telling animal silhouettes
Where are you?
You hear little sparrows in bushes
With foolish song?
The sky turns from burnt brown to pea soup green
your lunch all week
with a lean piece of toast
all you can stomach

NANCY: in writing i am responding to what i might call urgencies or flows or traces that require slow thoughtfeelingimagining lying as they do under or behind language, in the realm of the tacit, the somato-sensory     and which may resist representation –
my poetry is a phenomenological following, an asithesis
my poetry is a visible mending of the social fabric, a darned sock
(it’s always political)

my answer also relies upon what roland barthes might term jouissance : the blisses of language (barthes, the pleasure of the text, 6), words, sentences. how they orient us toward what has no language, matter we might pass by… a word may rise up may even be made up when i am on a wander (so much poetic thoughtfeeling happens in wanders).

Wait on the platform.
Make your shame flakey.
Arrive dressed in mismatched thoughts
and orange tights.
Shred a skein or two slunderously.
  from As I read what is less and less of interest

this poem could be read along different sorts of horizons but i was writing what kept pricking – and back to Barthes for some reason – the punctum…

i have been thinking (and will likely do so for as long as i am around) about the implications of what happens if we/i/you/they/us do not respond to what (those things in the world/earth/home) calls us forward toward back… can we ignore what pierces?

hook was written as an expression and an address. as poetry it complicates the facts of poverty and immiseration that all too often appear without skin or thirst or cloth

    Have you seen this child?
Read the sign over the peanuts.
For a dollar I can add to some campaign.
And eat.

The children I seen are fighters and lovers
All of ‘em. Half are dead or half toward.
Some in jail. For sure one burned,
that was my brother.

But tonight in fine form
dancing in this one bright spot,
don’t they strut in
like small town criminals
stealing words left too long in pockets.

a complication – writing to express / writing as address. i can’t tear these apart is it possible that for some of us these are the same thing?

i write the same lines for days trying to orient my expression toward a vibrancy that shimmers and over which insects crawl     the poem (that arrives) (is written) (which fails) is an oblique meditation upon an institution that lies 3 km away from the dead coyote. the institution is a social problem but it is also now a problem of self-expression

      3 kilometres away

her last breath teeters
is        dispersed.

coyote delicates at acute angles
limbs slack, skin lax
over bone is        bodys
weight lightened
as vehicles splinter
crumple    fur to pelt.

where i live, WVC mortality is high.
These rural arterials feed
distant registries
stretch to the edges of
grasses, where martens, where lights, where
coyote with incarnadine throat
rendered breathless in all directions
leaves language

ANNALEE: I’ve come to believe that there is a broad spectrum of "orientations" toward poetry–at one end of this spectrum are poets who write poetry for poetry’s sake; that is, they are interested in the words, the language, etc. At the other end of the spectrum are poets who view poetry as a means to a greater end; poetry is a vehicle through which they attempt to communicate a greater truth, often related to activism. I definitely lean toward the latter end of the spectrum, although I don’t think there’s anything wrong with either end.

My primary conviction is that poetry has a responsibility to personal truths. Therefore, my entire goal whenever I am writing, no matter what I am writing about, is that I create the most accurate representation possible (especially on topics that have been so mis-represented)–with something like anxiety I find myself striving for metaphorical accuracy, thus allowing the reader to share in my experiences.

I am somewhat privileged in this conversation in that I don’t have any kind of production mandate in my personal writing–therefore I write only when I am inspired. I write whatever presses down upon me the most. As a young person still developing my orientation towards the world, I recognize that my poetry is most often ego-centric, focused on correctly representing my own experience as a way to better understand it myself and perhaps extend a hand to those who have had similar experiences.

All of this changes, of course. Lately I am less pressed-upon by the need to communicate my own experience, and I begin to look outside of myself for inspiration–I’ve become enamored with documentary poetics, I.e. Muriel Rukeyser and her Book of The Dead, and (more recently) Claudia Rankine’s Citizen… having documented much of my own voice, I may seek to document/translate the voice of others as best I can–this poem (one of the ones published in Wordgathering) is an example of that beginning (everything not in italics are quotes from interviews I did with mothers of sons who had been diagnosed with Schizophrenia)–

Mothers of Daughters with Schizophrenia

        quotes from thesis research interviews

This is the way we live now,
she says. The new normal.

I grieve for the child I had,
all the hopes–there is a way

of looking at the body, sideways,
to see all past and future

bruises collected in the crease
between husk and harvest

I saw him lost in the illness.
On a bell curve, we're that piece

way over there. Is that acceptable
to talk about? It's a new world.

But he's mine. I
would take him anywhere.

ANDREA: Nancy, I like the mad pride in your lines "Arrive dressed in mismatched thoughts/and orange tights." Yes…

This poem wears clashing pink and red
Thinks in associations
Moves slowly
Does not sit up straight
Or use a fork and knife
Enjoys getting into everything

Negative views of madness/cognitive and behavioural differences are similar to negative views of bodily and sensory differences. Perhaps the speaker above has chosen to wear clashing clothing because he/she sees colour differently, is "colour-blind." I’m thinking of a relative who sees colour differently. Others criticize his mismatched, "crazy" clothing choices. I’ve noticed that some disability poets distance themselves from mad poets. This could be, in part, because they adhere to demeaning, psychiatric understandings of madness and regard mad people in terms of a medical model of disability, as needing psychiatric treatment, and less in terms of a social model of disability. However, disabled people, generally, in not having bodies, appearances, movements, or behaviour that conform to mainstream views of normalcy, can be subject to psychiatric scrutiny and judgments of "mental illness."

Annalee, your poem "Mothers of Sons with Schizophrenia." made me feel sad, as the mother seems to have accepted the dominant psychiatric view that her son has "schizophrenia," which in psychiatry means a severe, chronic, untreatable, life destroying illness. As psychiatric survivors and anti-psychiatry activists have pointed out, there are alternative, less demeaning ways of understanding phenomena like hearing voices.


Yes, I would agree that psychiatry’s definition of schizophrenia is weighted with a demeaning and discriminatory history, and that popular culture largely understands schizophrenia as untreatable and life-destroying–many people in the field of psychiatry I think would agree that, in particular, "schizophrenia" is a poor label for a wide range of experiences that are poorly understood by scientists (partially because there is not very much grant money in any aspect of psychiatry, compared to non-psychiatric medical research).

My primary goal in this poem was to explore the conflicting feelings that these parents expressed– initially there is real grief for their children seeing them changed, and in such psychological distress, and knowing that there are very few resources out there of any kind–but the parent’s love for their child is unchanged. I was conducting these interviews where I grew up in rural North Carolina, which has a terrible system of support when it comes to mental health (and a lot of other things). I think it is important to understand that their children, by and large, were in their initial stages of atypical perception or experience, so over time I expect that many of the parents (and their children) will come to a more nuanced understanding of the experience of what they know as "schizophrenia." But in the moment it is very difficult; in some cases there is pre-existing substance abuse, or the parent has been physically threatened by their child in the midst of hearing voices, or the most pressing issue is just "where can my child live?" In most cases organizations like NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness)–which is very medical model–are the only resources out there that can help.

ANDREA: I don’t know if you are familiar with the international hearing voices network http://www.hearing-voices.org/. There is a local chapter in my city. Contrary to popular thought, hearing voices is not such an uncommon experience and is typically associated with experiences of severe stress, trauma and neglect, or social discrimination. There is also the website Madness Radio: Voices and Visions From Outside of Mental Health. http://www.hearing-voices.org/. The host, Will Hall, is a voice hearer and was diagnosed with "schizophrenia" and institutionalized when he was young. I recommend his interview with Jacqui Dillon, the director of the hearing voices movement in the UK. People who have atypical perceptions can have enjoyable lives just like people with other types of differences associated with disability. I know a number of disability scholars who have atypical perceptions. Some of them are in good academic positions while the others have had trouble retaining academic employment because of discrimination and because they have criticized psychiatry. Research that criticizes psychiatry has less chance of attracting grant money.

LINDA: I almost always write confessional poetry. Sometimes this strays into poetry which might be about reforming society, but the personal element remains. "To Margaret" began as a personal reaction to a friend's suicide, but indirectly it brings in the coldness of the society around them.

…For years we were roommates,
yet only rarely looked up
at the moon, blinked at the sun,
only rarely remember what it is
people do when the know
they, too, can feel.
But the railings on these buidings
are iron and cold.
The rain rings like tambourines in my ears…

WG: The final question that I want to address is a pragmatic one. When it comes to poetry that involves physical disability, there are a range of concerns that poets like Jim Ferris or Jillian Weise who pioneer this field share with respect to writing poetry and there are practices that they would ask poets to avoid to counter negative perceptions and stereotypes. This could range from specific things such as pejorative vocabulary like "wheelchair bound" to themes of overcoming to inspiration porn.

Assuming that there is writing that we can call psychological disability poetry and that there are poets who write in that genre (or would like to), what kinds of things would you ask them to avoid? What would you not want to see in a poem? In answering, keep in mind that not all Wordgathering readers have MFA’s or Ph.D.’s in philosophy.

ANNALEE: First–Mike and everyone else, I have quite enjoyed participating in this dialogue, and have learned so much from it! The diversity of voices and perspectives has been wonderful. And such excellent questions!

I think many of the principles that apply to poetry involving physical disability are also relevant to psychological disability. When referencing diagnosis (although the use of diagnosis itself is sometimes questionable), using person-centered language is important–I.e. "a person with anorexia" rather than "an anorexic," and just generally being careful not to reduce a person (or yourself!) to a diagnosis. I also dislike the term "suffers from," which suggests this image of a person languishing away, and communicates pity. I prefer "lives with," which I think connotes an active incorporation into one’s identity. Similarly, avoiding themes of overcoming and self-stigmatization is also important… My general rule, whenever I’m writing, is to really interrogate my poems and ask–what am I assuming here? What are the connotations of these words? What am I elevating, and what am I disparaging? Why am I doing that?

My particular pet peeve is something I think many poets are especially prone to–the romanticization of psychological distress. I remember a few years ago discussing–in purely practical terms–the nature of my anxiety attacks with a group of fellow student-poets. One of them said of my experience, "that’s so poetic!" I didn’t know what to say… I was thinking, I think there is this belief among artists that psychological distress serves as fodder for art/that the best artists are "crazy"… Which really removes agency from the poet, because it’s as if the "crazy" is doing the writing, rather than the poet. [As an aside–my personal theory about the "crazy artist" fallacy is that it’s a case of false correlation/a confounding variable. It is at least reasonable to believe that there is a preponderance of artists among those who experience significant emotional distress… but I would suggest that being highly capable of empathy & open to experience and perception makes a person both more likely to be an effective artist and to experience psychological distress…. So it’s not that psychological distress leads to art. There is an excellent graphic novel, Marbles by Ellen Forney, about just this.]

Of course, not all of these are hard and fast rules. Sometimes it is necessary to use these devices in order to call them into question, and sometimes poets are grappling with these very issues themselves. It’s so easy to buy in to self-stigma, and I know that my own writing demonstrates my personal evolution, from seeing anxiety as an outside force acting upon me (and myself as a guilty for allowing it to do so) to recognizing and accommodating anxiety as a part of my body’s landscape.

I also want to hi-light the intersectionality that is necessary in this conversation. Representations of psychological disability necessarily intersect with representations of race and femininity…. Particularly in so far as minority bodies and women’s bodies have been depicted as inherently (for example, the phrase "going into hysterics"). We (the respondents in this conversation), just by our names, would all be perceived as women–is that part of why we are so invested in changing the way our society thinks about psychological disability?

ANDREA: Following poets who concentrate on physical disability, I would ask psychology disability poets to avoid using pejorative vocabulary and psychiatric labels. Referring to a person with a certain set of experiences, emotions and behaviours as a "person with schizophrenia" or with some other "psychiatric condition" is similar to using pejorative vocabulary like "wheelchair-bound." Generally, I would ask psychological disability poets to avoid framing an exploration of psychological disability in terms of "mental illness," "living with mental illness," or "overcoming mental illness." Such exploration is more narrative psychiatry, and not psychological disability poetry. This kind of writing does not challenge negative and simplistic thought about people with psychological disability but rather reinforces it. Poets should be careful about not promoting a view of psychological suffering as an internal state or affliction in no relation to social environment or adverse living conditions. If poets want to explore in a poem a psychiatric diagnosis that they or others have received it would be preferable to put the diagnosis in quotation marks or make it clear in some other way that the person is not defined by the diagnosis.

I understand that Annalee is aware of debates about the label "schizophrenia" but her poem "Mothers of Sons With Schizophrenia" and explanation of it reinforce a pejorative view of "schizophrenia" as a lifelong "mental illness" which is best understood and addressed by psychiatry (and more funding to psychiatry). It’s important to present atypical perceptions in personal and social contexts, and not as, for example, "initial stages" of "mental illness." Annalee mentions that a child diagnosed with "schizophrenia" might have threatened a loving parent. As many psychiatrists would concede, many children who are diagnosed with severe psychiatric conditions like "schizophrenia" and "personality disorders" have suffered abuse and neglect and are in families in crisis. Parents and families may need more support of different kinds. Psychology disability poets should be careful of not promoting stereotypes of people with psychological disability as dangerous and irrational or as aggressive for no good reason. In any situation, including the home, if people are treated very badly they may understandably become defensive and threatening. Of course, it’s also important not to promote stereotypes of parents of children with psychological disability as having weak parenting skills or as not loving their children. I really appreciate Barbara Crooker’s poem "It Was Like This" which I discuss in my article. There she challenges a psychiatric view that mothers of "autistic" children are "refrigerator mothers." Parents shouldn’t be vilified or romanticized as necessarily loving. Parenting is very hard work and society needs to put more resources into supporting families and child welfare issues.

I like the questions Annalee asks herself when writing poetry: "What am I assuming here? What are the connotations of these words? What I am elevating? and what am I disparaging? Why am I doing that?" Other questions psychological disability poets could ask themselves are "Why do others think psychiatric labels should not be used? How have they been used to hurt others? Am I acknowledging that there are different ways of understanding behaviour and perceptual experiences that psychiatry conceptualizes as abnormal and as signs of "mental illness"? Am I presenting psychological suffering in a way that enables the reader to understand it as a rational response to life circumstances, abuse, or social exclusion and discrimination? Like Annalee, I think it’s important not to romanticize psychological distress. This is because romanticization, like medicalization, decontextualizes the distress and detracts attention from complex problems in social living.

LINDA: I would agree with both of you that labels should not be used in poetry, and the complex emotional nature of the person's inner processes be explored as much as possible, as well as that person's relationship to the world around him.

Nancy: my embodiment refuses to separate my mad from my crip – they remain entangled, messy bits…

andrea in her article notes of the significance of troubling social structures – this is a resonant force for me as a crip/mad poet and both andrea and annalee in their response to this q encourage curiousity, reflexivity, intersectionality, and exquisite attention to the languages we use so that language does not corral us to be used for their purposes…

most key (for me, right now) is to somehow retain within the writing that which is unknown and can’t be answered. let’s not diagnose, territorialize or reify through our interpretations but resist through a cripping of rhetorical spaces… poetry otherwise… risk not knowing and knowing differently – risk failure.

and this is something i have thought about for a long period – this idea of failure, of not knowing… they are vital to my artistic practice.

so thanks to each of you –such a delight and wonder to be with you all in this virtual space that michael has so kindly created.


*Although this dialogue is formatted to read as a conversation taking place among four poets sitting together to discuss a topic in one setting, it was in fact carried on over email through a number of weeks. Both the poetic nature of the responses and the lapses in time account for some of the writerly calques embedded in the discussion.


Linda Benninghoff attended Johns Hopkins University where she was an English major. She has a Masters in English with an emphasis on creative writing. While living in Baltimore, she trained to be an advocate for the disabled, and used this skill when she worked as a journalist. Her full-length poetry book Whose Cries Are Not Music was published by Lummox Press in 2011.

nancy viva davis halifax teaches at York University and lives in Toronto. She was trained as a conceptual artist at NSCAD many years ago. She has published one academic book. Her performative writing explores life within community. Her book of poetry hook was published in 2015.

Annalee Vilen Johnson-Kwochka is a recent graduate of Davidson College in North Carolina, where she majored in Disability Studies. Her first chapbook, Opening the Doors of the Temple, was the winner of the 2014 Pioneer Prize and is available through ELJ Publications. Her poems have also appeared in Pinesong and Emerge Literary Journal.

Andrea Nicki has two collections of poems published: Welcoming (Inanna Press, 2009) and Noble Orphan (Demeter Press, 2012). A third collection is currently under review. Her poems have appeared in Canadian and international journals and anthologies. Nicki has a Ph.D. in philosophy. She teaches classes in professional ethics, academic writing, and poetry therapy in Vancouver, Canada. She is training to become a certified poetry therapist through The Institute of Poetic Medicine. See more of her work at www.andreanicki.com.