Interview with Diane Wiener,
Research Professor and Associate Director of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach at the Burton Blatt Institute, Syracuse University
WG: Diane, you recently put out a call for work for a special disability-themed issue of Nine Mile to be published in fall of 2019. For those who may not be familiar with the journal, can you tell us a bit about it?
DW: As noted in the issues' front matter "Nine Mile Art & Literary Magazine publishes twice yearly, showcasing the best work we receive from authors whose work, energy, and vision are deeply entangled with life." The editors are committed to an attentive turnaround time in reading and responding to authors' work.
As noted in our Call for Poets for the Special Issue on Neurodivergent, Disabled, Deaf, Mad, and Crip Poetics, "At Nine Mile, we are committed to featuring diverse writing by diverse writers, including: disabled writers/writers with disabilities; Writers of Color; writers with marginalized genders, sexual and asexual orientations, religious/nonreligious identities and belief/non-belief systems; young and senior writers; experienced and never-before-published writers; and writers from outside the proverbial mainstream. We are likewise committed to producing inclusive and accessible content, in multiple formats. Poetry is everyone's art." For more information about Nine Mile, and to learn more about the Call for Poetry for the Fall 2019 Special Issue, readers can visit our website at http://ninemile.org/.
WG: What prompted Nine Mile to decide to have a special disability-themed issue? How did you end up getting involved as the editor?
DW: I asked Bob Herz, one of the lead editors, to address your question. Bob responded: "Nine Mile Magazine has always had a concern about inclusion for people with disabilities. Our mission statement includes the statement that 'We are deeply committed to featuring diverse writers, including writers with mental and physical disabilities, and writers from different races, genders, ages, sexual identities, cultures, and religions.' Two of our editors are individuals with disabilities. In our Spring 2018 anthology issue of eleven poets, five were individuals with disabilities, and in our Fall 2018 issue we featured a mini-anthology of extended work by four poets with autism. The idea of a full issue for neuro-diverse poets grew organically from those commitments."
Bob continued, "Diane Wiener has been a long-time association of ours, also a poet published in our book series (The Golem Verses) and represented in our anthology. Her work with and knowledge of individuals in the disability community has been tremendous. She is also herself a member of that community. One of the dangers for all literary magazines is that they get inbred, the same poets, the same editors making the same kinds of choices. We wanted to avoid that, to not get stale, and to get a different and expert viewpoint on the poetry for this issue of our magazine, and Diane was the logical and perfect choice."
WG: Diane, since some readers may not be familiar with the term "neuro-diverse" can you elaborate on that? What kind of poetry would qualify as neuro-diverse writing? What might it look like?
Neurodivergent people are individuals who self-identify as having neurological differences, including but not only described as autism, dyslexia, developmental coordination nuances, and ADHD. Again, there are many other possibilities. For some people, mental health differences and emotional variance are most definitely aspects or expressions of neurodivergence, thereby including a variety of conditions or experiences that are at times referred to as mental illnesses. For others, this orientation (including mental health diagnoses, etc., being understood as existing under the neurodivergence umbrella) is not at all validating or relevant.
Self-identity is important, here, indeed – this realm of understanding therefore does not apply only to those who have been formally or officially labeled by others, including medically or psychiatrically. A main premise in the neurodiversity pride movement is that what is considered to be "normal" in terms of brain and neurological expression or "function" (and, by extension, "functioning") might instead be understood as "neurotypical." In this framework, then, neurodivergent people are just not neurotypical, rather than not "normal."
Neurodivergent people do not need to be fixed, cured, or changed. We are not puzzles to be solved. We don't all care what "caused" us to be neurodivergent (although some of us do care, very much). Neurotypical people are privileged in mainstream social life, generally, particularly when considering the experience of neurodivergent people, who often feel misunderstood or, far worse.
As a principle, neurodiversity advances the idea that there are many different ways of being, thinking, communicating, feeling, conceptualizing – including neurodivergently and neurotypically. And, there are, indeed, many different ways to be neurodivergent, as well as to be neurotypical. Put another way, neurodivergent and neurotypical people are part of a very complex – though not always welcoming or equitable – neurodiverse world.
According to this perhaps too elaborate explanation and conceptual framework (partly, this kind of elaboration and focus on precision are considered by some – and, certainly, by me – to be "signs" of my neurodivergence!), neuro-diverse poetry is all poetry, because neurodiverse refers to neurological diversity, writ large. Neurodivergent poetry, in contrast, at least in my opinion, is poetry written specifically by people who self-identify as neurodivergent. One might expect a lot of diversity, here, too, of course, but, perhaps some patterns, as well, in terms of focused interest areas, the enhanced potential for synesthesia, precision in both abstraction and specificity, and a wide berth of emotion, affect, and perception. All deeply well-suited for poesis, if you ask me!
WG: Thank you. I think that, increasingly, readers are going to encounter references to neurodiversity, and your explanation is incredibly helpful. I'd also urge readers to check out the Fall 2018 issue of Nine Mile, which, as Bob mentioned, included the work of four writers who identify as autistic or otherwise neurodivergent: Tito Mukhopadhyay, Anand Prahlad, D. J. Savarese and Nathan Spoon. I know some who are reading this interview will have some familiarity with their work from previous issues of Wordgathering, but I think their appearance together in Nine Mile creates a much larger sense of the possibilities of neurodiverse – including neurodivergent – literary work.
At the risk of being pedantic, I am going to draw on you for a further definition. The call for disability-related poetry includes the mention of Mad poetry. Can you expand upon that term?
DW: Thanks, Mike, for the kind and encouraging words. Editor Steve Kuusisto's introduction to the "Other Engines" section of Nine Mile's Fall 2018 issue includes important comments about the deep relevance and impact of neurodivergent and other disabled poetics. As he notes, "embodied difference" can be transformed into "richly creative epistemologies," where the arts and culture are concerned.
Ah, mad. Yes, indeed. As Ambrose Bierce famously quipped in The Devil's Dictionary, part of what defines madness is "not conforming to standards of thought, speech and action derived by the conformants from study of themselves." I cited this section and a longer portion of Bierce's erudite and ironic definition in the beginning of an essay that I wrote a number of years ago, and I continue to find his description both relevant and wonderfully naughty.
Mad, akin to crip, gimp, and queer (of course, one can identify as more than one), possesses simultaneously a reclaimed power and, arguably, the inability to be used by non-insiders – at least without risk of appropriation and insensitivity (however unintended). I'm thinking of Mad Pride and Mental Health Liberation, consumer/survivor/ex-patient/mad (c/s/x/m) social justice movements, the decades of activist work, the struggles with critiquing the "mental health industrial complex," as some call it (locally, globally)…without in any way suggesting that nothing good ever comes of "treatment." Like most if not all other disability discourses, self-determination and power are key in lived experience and choice.
Rather than either reducing madness to romanticized liberation or overarching ruination, or thinking it monolithic, madnesses plural are nuanced combinations of emotional variance that exist both within and in "excess of" whatever presumed norm is indexed, in the first place. The "conformants" are not mad. Or, maybe they are. For a longer riff on these topics, readers can access my essay, "On Mad Advantage: A Letter to 'The Normals' (and to the Rest of Us)." .
Mad poetics and Mad poetry, at least for me, highlight purposefully poetry and artfulness created by and for people who call ourselves mad, whether or not someone licensed to label us said so. Two caveats are needed (probably at least ten, but I'll stay with two).
First, I in no way minimize the potentially stigmatizing associations with this language, or the historical legacies and present circumstances associated with words like mad, crazy, and insane. In fact, I often check in with people (who are not "mad") in their uncritical use of words like "insane," a kind of flippant linguistic ableism, however descriptive it may be. Those of us who reclaim "mad" do not typically do so, lightly.
Second, labels are not always violent. While I am moved by and agree with the sentiment, "Label jars, not people" (an axiom, really, thanks to Human Policy Press), sometimes labels validate us, and may even help us pause ("What was I dealing with? OH, now I feel better…I know what 'it is'…"). Validation happens especially well when we label ourselves. And, "we" in this sense I'm noting are not all equally accessing or often even able to access reclaimed language, like "mad," due to all kinds of reasons that have to do with privilege, power, and marginalization. Also, labels are not epithets and epithets are not labels. But, this is an interview, so I will stop here.
WG: One of the rather unusual features of the call for submissions for the special issue of Nine Mine that you are editing is that you include the submission of previously published work. That's certainly good news for Wordgathering contributors. Does that also include simultaneous submissions? Do you have any further thoughts for people who might be considering submitting their work?
DW: The magazine is breaking from its usual practice of only accepting new work, because this is a special anthology issue, the purpose of which is to showcase the work of the selected poets by printing 10-15 pages of poetry per poet. That's a lot. (Nine Mile's regular submission guideline is 4 to 6 poems.) In some cases, the poets selected will not have enough good new work to fill out that many pages, thus the suspension of the "new work" rule. The commitment is to the poets. A similar approach was used in the Nine Mile Spring 2018 anthology. The purpose is to deepen opportunities for readers to engage with the work.
Now, to your second question: The editors frown on simultaneous submission. Here's why: the reason people submit to several magazines is because they don't want their work held in suspension for six months or a year while the editors of those journals come to a decision. Nine Mile works hard to turn submissions around in a week or two, obviating the need for simultaneous submissions. (There is a blog piece on this subject by one of the editors, Bob Herz: https://talkaboutpoetry.wordpress.com/2017/08/24/on-editing-a-modest-proposal-for-poetry-magazines/.)
You ask for further thoughts. Disabled poets don't always write about disability, of course. Writers who self-identify as belonging to one or more of the communities whose work will be featured in this Special Issue are strongly encouraged to submit their work, on whatever themes they deem relevant, including – but not only or necessarily focused on – disability. What we want is their best work. For those without enough poetry to submit at this time, please know that Nine Mile is always committed to publishing poetry by Neurodivergent, Disabled, Deaf, Crip, Mad, and other often marginalized writers, so please submit to future issues.
WG: To overstate the obvious, the special issue that you are editing is an excellent opportunity for disabled writers to have their work appear in a quality publication associated with poets like Stephen Kuusisto, Bob Herz and many of the other writers that Nine Mile has published. It is also heartening to know that those who submit their work will learn about the status of their submissions within a week or two. I think everyone appreciates knowing that anxiety over acceptance will be short-lived. The best of luck to you with the Fall issue.
DW: Thank you, Mike, for the wonderful opportunity to have this great conversation with you. Thanks, as always, for your and Wordgathering's support of Nine Mile.