Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Nobody Ever Believes This Story: Slam Poetry as a Palimpsestic Space for Mental Illness Identity

By Chandler Batchelor

Chandler Batchelor is a graduate student in the Literature, Medicine, and Culture MA program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  She is interested in alternative and holistic approaches to mental healthcare, doctor-patient relationships in mental healthcare, and mental health advocacy.

Typically, descriptions of mental illness provided by medical professionals are often taken more seriously than descriptions given by the diagnosed themselves. Biomedicine has a particular way of talking about mental abnormalities, describing mental experiences with symptoms. It uses words like “depression,” “flat affect,” and “grandiose sense of self” to depict concrete outward signs of internal dysfunction. In our culture, this biomedical rhetoric is upheld as the definitive, most correct and objective way of describing mental illness. But while biomedicine is an excellent tool for describing diseases, it often fails to capture the subjective nuances of the illness experience. By looking at how the diagnosed talk about their subjective experiences, we can gain new insights that could not be gleaned from a biomedical understanding alone (Estroff, 2003; Kleinman, 1988).

Neuro-rhetorician Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson (2003) argues that the power to talk about one’s own experience can be reclaimed through the invocation of certain narrative genres that are more collaborative or performative. Specifically, I have found that one way that people with mental illness regain the credibility they need to craft their own identity as a mentally ill person is through the medium of slam poetry—spoken word poetry, usually emotionally intense, that is performed at competitions called “slams.” Additionally, I believe that the metaphor of “palimpsest” is of particular use here. Traditionally, the term palimpsest has been used in the field of art history to describe the practice of scraping, cleaning, and then reusing old manuscripts, placing new writing on top of old. I found that the poets I studied use slam poetry as a palimpsestic process. Each attempts to brush against objective, biomedical rhetoric in their own unique way in order to make a place for their own experiences and identities. The lens of the palimpsest is an important one because these slam poems do more than simply negate medicalized rhetoric in favor of more personal language. These poems resist, clarify, and modify preexisting definitions of what it means to be mentally ill, ultimately producing something not just nosologically meaningful, but personally meaningful. I’ll explore a couple of examples below.

What it feels like to be bipolar” by Jasmine Schlafke, TEDx Santa Cruz, 2014. The poem begins at 4:30, though her preceding talk adds a lot to what I’m attempting to convey here!

Jasmine Schlafke’s (2014) poem, “What it feels like to be bipolar,” is very much about resisting biomedical labels and the expectations that go along with them. She uses the term “bipolar” several times throughout the poem, but it’s always a relation of what someone else said or her own examination and subsequent rejection of the label. She relates, “And I know you’ve read the articles. You comb my words for symptoms, alchemize my expression to fit what you’ve learned. ‘Excited’ is now ‘manic.’” Even when talking about the psych ward—which she never explicitly calls a “psych ward”—she uses colorful poetic language. She muses, “To those of us forced to share our most beautiful pieces under glass, imagined ourselves museum exhibits, grateful for the patrons even while they wear us down for synapse-delayed reactors with bi-division and big feelings.” This kaleidoscopic diction comes from a very subjective viewpoint that is uniquely Schlafke. Even biomedical words like “synapses” get appropriated into the colorful imaginary “synapse-delayed reactors.”

It is also important to note that this poem is addressed to the poet’s mother. Really, however, this poem could be addressed to anyone who comes into the slam already loaded with expectations about what it feels like to be bipolar. Schlafke sees these expectations as a judgment and a pathologization of her very being. Not only is she reeducating her mother through this poem, she’s reeducating the entire audience. In this light, Schlafke’s poem isn’t only about what it feels like to be bipolar; it’s also about what it feels like to be labeled as bipolar. It’s a stigmatizing, isolating, and at times degrading experience for her. On the other hand, her actual lived experience is much more nebulous and even beautiful at times. What others see as pathological, Schlafke rewrites as “our most beautiful pieces.”

Anxiety Group” by Catalina Ferro, Urbana Poetry Slam, 2012

The other poem I’d like to share gives a really different treatment to the biomedical rhetoric that Schlafke so disliked. In “Anxiety Group,” Catalina Ferro (2012) throws around a plethora of different biomedical terms, and she doesn’t dismiss them immediately as Schlafke does. She acknowledges the judgment often faced by people who have been diagnosed with some sort of anxiety. She relates, “My father says: ‘Only rich people go to therapy, poor people got shit to do.’” She’s even internalized this stigma to some extent. Near the beginning of her poem, she says, “We are the princes of panic, the ambassadors of anguish. There is no pride here.”

However, there is a shift that occurs in the poem. She takes what’s been traditionally said about anxiety disorders, parrots it, and ultimately really embraces it! With a sly pride, she acknowledges the “psychosomatic twitch,” the “too much saliva,” and the “pounding heart.” These are words that are taken, more or less literally, from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5). Importantly, however, she rejects the stigma that normally goes along with these labels and biological symptoms.

As a whole, this poem moves from a place of perceived judgment and internalized stigma to a celebration of what it means to be anxious. Just as Schlafke does, however, Ferro also adds a bit of her own poetic language to the “anxious experience” in addition to merely responding to preexisting rhetoric. The closing lines of her poem not only reject any stigma that comes along with the “anxiety” label; they also assert that the label is something admirable rather than something shameful.

The first factor that makes slam poetry unique is the poetry slam event itself. If the slam poet can be said to be engaging in a palimpsestic process, then the poetry slam event can be thought of as a palimpsestic space where this process can occur. As a palimpsestic space, a poetry slam fosters what anthropologist Ronald Niezen (2013) calls a “community of affirmation.” This sort of community is formed when an individual has a belief or trait that is socially isolating—like mental illness, for example—but then is able to find others who share, or are at least sympathetic to, these beliefs or traits. Thus, these disparate individuals form a new “counter-community” that thrives and supports each other outside of the mainstream. These communities affirm and encourage whatever divergent quality forms the group’s core value as well as acting as gatekeepers to ward off anyone who may bring in a differing opinion that may challenge that core value.

Poetry slam, image courtesy of YouTube
Through my fieldwork, I’ve seen the slam poetry community form into a community of affirmation in just this way. For example, the adoption of a “poetic identity” is very much encouraged. Audience members shout at the stage such phrases as, “You go, poet!” or when a poet is hesitating approaching the mic, “Take your time, poet!” By constantly calling out this way, the poet becomes interpellated over and over again, and their membership within the community is affirmed. While many of the poets I witnessed simply went by their first names, a few chose unique stage names, such as “Shaken Not Stirred” or “Something Like a Poet.” By dropping their given name in favor of a “more poetic” chosen name, their identity becomes yet more enmeshed with that of the group.

The second factor that led me to focus my analysis on slam poetry is that it encourages vulnerability. The poems that do the best in a slam poetry competition, the stories that are encouraged by the community, are highly personal, confessional, and tell striking narratives about suicide, mental illness, sex, poverty, oppression, and abuse. These are stories that are often very hard to tell, but the vulnerable position in which the poet puts herself fosters trust between poet and community.

Interestingly, this vulnerable position isn’t completely one-sided. The audience is expected to respond—loudly—and to engage emotionally with the poet on a deep level. At the slam I attended, the emcee explicitly instructed the audience that this energy was expected of us as audience members. With every shout, snap, and foot stomp that reverberated with the collective, we in the audience reminded ourselves that this was a space of belonging.

And so, by creating a community that both fosters and rewards vulnerability as well as protects itself from those that would challenge its core belief—the belief that these oppressed identities are important and valid in all of their subjectivity—the poetry slam becomes a sort of palimpsestic space, free from medical hierarchies that may devalue expressions of suffering that fail to conform to cut-and-dry symptomology. By existing outside of these power struggles, the palimpsestic process is allowed to take shape and new identities are allowed to grow and flourish.

For more slam poetry that explores mental illness identity, I recommend the following poems that could not be included here, but nevertheless informed my analysis:
• “The Session” by Jeanann Verlee, NYC Urbana, 2012
• “OCD” by Neil Hilborn, Rustbelt, 2013
• “Explaining My Depression to My Mother” by Sabrina Benaim, NPS, 2014
• “Social Anxiety at 130 BPM” by Aaron Burstein, CUPSI, 2013
• “Virginia” by Kim Frisch, NPS, 2011
• “Couples Therapy” by Patrick Roche, NPS, 2014
• “Anxiety: A Ghost Story” by Brenna Twohy, NPS 2015
• “Anxiety” by Lewis Mundt, Vancouver Poetry Slam, 2013
• “How to Live With Someone Who Can’t” by Antonella Gonzalez, Vancouver Poetry Slam, 2014
• “The Madness Vase” by Andrea Gibson, Page Meets Stage, 2012
• “Suicide Note” by Akeemjamal Rollins, Rustbelt, 2014
• “Talking Shit to Sadness” by Sara Brickman, NPS, 2015


American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Estroff, S. (2003). Subject/subjectivities in dispute: The poetics, politics, and performance of first-person narratives of people with schizophrenia. In J. H. Jenkins & R. J. Barret (Eds.), Schizophrenia, culture, and subjectivity: The edge of experience. (282-302). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kleinman, A. (1988). The meaning of symptoms and disorders. In The illness narratives: Suffering, healing, and the human condition (pp. 3-30). New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Lewiecki-Wilson, C. (2003). Rethinking rhetoric through mental disabilites. Rhetoric Review, 22(2), 156-167.

Niezen, R. (2013). Internet suicide: Communities of affirmation and the lethality of communication. Transcultural Psychiatry, 50(2), 303-322. doi: 10.1177/1363461512473733

TEDx Talks. [TEDx Talks]. (2014, May 1). Creative resistance as activism: Jasmine Schlafke at TEDxSantaCruz. [Video].

Urbana Poetry Slam. [UrbanaPoetrySlam]. (2012, June 10). Catalina Ferro performs “Anxiety Group.” [Video].

Want to cite this post?

Batchelor, C. (2016). Nobody Ever Believes This Story: Slam Poetry as a Palimpsestic Space for Mental Illness Identity. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2016/06/nobody-ever-believes-this-story-slam.html

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