Poetry is Dead Call! Mental Health Inside/Out

I’m very pleased to be guest editing the Mental Health Inside/Out Issue of Poetry is Dead with Kevin Spenst, and I do hope you’ll take a look and submit!

Call for submissions: MENTAL HEALTH INSIDE/OUT

For issue seven of Poetry Is Dead, we have guest editors Nikki Reimer and Kevin Spenst working on a collaborative issue. Each editor has separate submission calls to respond to.

INSIDE: That artists and writers—particularly poets—are more prone than non-artists/writers/poets to ride the crazy train may be a cliché. Mental illness is serious, however, and dismissing the link between creativity and mental illness as mere cliché only denies the very real suffering that many creative individuals endure.

Philosophers including Michel Foucault (Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason) and Julia Kristeva (Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia) have elucidated the cultural and critical meanings of mental illness and depression and have made the vital connection between mental illness and creativity. According to Foucault, “…at the secret heart of madness at the core of so many errors, so many absurdities, so many words and gestures without consequence, we discover, finally, the hidden perfection of a language” (Foucault 89) (emphasis mine). In the first chapter of Black Sun, Kristeva points out that her depression offers both pain and transcendence:

I live a living death, my flesh is wounded, bleeding, cadaverized, my rhythm slowed down or interrupted, time has been erased or bloated, absorbed into sorrow…Absent from other people’s meaning, alien, accidental with respect to naive happiness, I owe a supreme, metaphysical lucidity to my depression. On the frontiers of life and death, occasionally I have the arrogant feeling of being witness to the meaninglessness of Being, of revealing the absurdity of bonds and beings. (Kristeva 4)

On the literary and culture blog The Rumpus, Katherine Sharpe notes that our current understanding of depression as chemical imbalance “caused by nothing, signif[ying]nothing” is based upon the pharmaceutical industry’s development of antidepressant drugs, of which the specific effects on the brain are not yet fully understood:

The idea that depression is a chemical imbalance idea was a leap, but it succeeded because it made sense to antidepressant consumers and served the needs of psychiatrists in their search for medical legitimacy—real diseases with real treatments—and the needs of drug companies to establish a rationale for the use of their products. Through it, our modern definition of depression was born. This new depression was a disease, pure and simple. It was caused by nothing, signified nothing, and was best and most appropriately treated with drugs. (http://bit.ly/U2p1qf 14 August 2012)

Foucault, Kristeva and Sharpe each offer a contextualized argument in favour of the creative possibilities within depression: that depression is a necessary, even vital aspect to being human. I’m wondering what other hidden perfections of language, what lucidity, or what definitions of mental illness might emerge through a poetic and/or critical exploration.

I am looking for poetry and critical writing that examines the relationship between mental illness, art in general, and poetry in particular. Submissions that explore aspects of this relationship similar to the ones mentioned above, and/or any aspects of the relationship between mental illness and poetry are welcome. I’m curious about how poets who self-identify as mentally ill might make meaning or avoid making meaning out of their suffering, and how they conceive of the relationship between poetry and their mental health.  What creative possibilities emerge by delving into the intersection of poetry and madness? What textual strategies do poets use to engage with and/or represent their mental illness? Does writing make poets crazy? Can it make us sane?

–Nikki Reimer

OUTSIDE: Madness, Psychosis, Dementia Praecox, and Schizophrenia are daunting terms that have been used to label certain types of behavior. Thomas Szasz (Myth of Mental Illness) wrote:

The struggle for definition is veritably the struggle for life itself. In the typical Western two men fight desperately for the possession of a gun that has been thrown to the ground: whoever reaches the weapon first shoots and lives; his adversary is shot and dies. In ordinary life, the struggle is not for guns but for words.

Jean-Jacques Lecercle states that words hold “not merely the power to inform, but also to form and to deform” For some, a word can be as intimidatingly restrictive as a straightjacket.  While language can be felt as a kind of confinement, there are more obvious forms of internment imposed upon people struggling with mental health. Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Alda Merini, and John Clare are among those poets who experienced life within an asylum, but of course writers can also imagine life within the walls of a mental institution. In Nerve Language Brian Henderson takes on the persona of the historical figure Daniel Paul Schreber, a high ranking judge confined for his delusional beliefs:

How will I keep hold of who I am,

negotiating (with) ghosts

In the Devil’s Kitchen, here

in the dark of the cell

So language and asylums confine but what other forces can hold a person down? In Curio: grotesques and satires from the electronic age, Elizabeth Bachinsky writes a series of poems from the point of view of Antonin Artaud who states that “the cities part and the river comes.” From a troubled mind, even the city stands as a restrictive boundary that needs to step aside. Earlier in the same poem we read, “all your industrious grasses are a pubic fringe.” There is a blurring of the world with the body, another type of confusion that limits behavior and therefore acts as a kind of confinement.

I am looking for poetry that engages with the historical, institutional, linguistic, corporal and urban dimensions of mental illness and the strangeness of these worlds confining people in a precarious state of mind. How do the various forms of poetry (concrete, sound, poetic-essay and formal verse) parallel intentional and unintentional forms of confinement? What are the strategies that individuals use to liberate themselves? (a metal file, a legal defense, humour?) Can a poem help someone out of the troubling labyrinth of language? How can a poem reword “schizophrenia”?

–Kevin Spenst

Submission deadline is January 31st, 2013. To submit, please email your submissions to issue7@poetryisdead.ca with the subject line of “INSIDE” or “OUTSIDE.” Submitters must submit to one or the other (but can submit to both separately). For queries and questions about the issue email editor@poetryisdead.ca.

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