May Tomorrow Be Awake: On Poetry, Autism, and our Neurodiverse Future (Chris Martin)

Reviewed by P. F. Anderson

Like Chris Martin, the author of May Tomorrow Be Awake, I also came as an adult to self-identify as autistic and neurodivergent, which likely contributed to making the reading of this book a tumultuous and fraught experience, with another contributing factor being my identity as the mother and sister of dearly loved Autistic people. This book comprises story after story of how various Autistic individuals—several of them nonspeaking—became poets, their approaches to writing poetry, what their poems look like, and some approaches toward deeper readings of these poems. I think, at some point, I identified with every person who appeared in the book, making the reading emotionally a bit of a sling-shot/ricochet experience. When the reading became too uncomfortable, I’d set the book aside for a bit to sit with the discomfort and try to understand what exactly was disturbing, find only a fragment of an answer, and come back to try again. Over and over this cycle repeated. 

In some ways, the asymmetrical lyricism of the writing was a distraction, as was Martin’s luminous listening to the co-creators of the work, as well as the wealth of quotations and citations that contextualize this work, embedding it in the recent richness of autistic persons’ creative works alongside the blossoming of disability research and writing. Martin is deliciously well-read in the disability justice literature, and draws attention to many works I already love and some that were new to me. I was amused by some of the atypical and nontraditional ways in which Martin utilizes the concept of a footnote, from a simple citation to storytelling to subtextual mini-essays to private dialogues placed surreptitiously in a public space as part of clues to a puzzle or the continuation of an apparently long-standing in-joke. (For example, Introduction: Note 6: “Hi Ellen Cooney! I survived largely undigested!” [sic], p.308.) Martin describes the quirkiness of the notes as, “What I hope is that the authors I have mentioned (and the works of theirs I have not mentioned) will send you cartwheeling in all directions….” (“A Brief Note on Noting the Notes,” p.307.)

Martin structures the book chapters to focus primarily each one on the work of one of his co-creators and collaborators, in the early chapters telling the stories of personal interactions that led up to and through the content being centered for that particular chapter. Speaking of directionality, these vignettes mostly position Martin as a sympathetic lens through which to perceive and hopefully understand the creation of the poems being discussed, the context in which the poems are created, the process of co-creation, and the lives of the creators. Martin spends a significant amount of discussion focusing on how consent was negotiated in the creative process, which often briefly includes the perspectives of a poet’s family or friends or other people who provide social support for the poets. 

In reading the chapters, there is a bit of a sense of mythos, of a Brechtian or Avant Garde theater, with each one as a little play, in which Martin acts as narrator and protagonist, observer and mentor and guide-on-the-side. The poets act as collaborators or side-kicks (sometimes as witty comics or passionate mystics), and, occasionally, there are those on the edges of the stories serving  kind of as theatrical extras, witnesses to discovery and delight in creating the poems, a kind of validation or proof of the process of consent; these “actors” in their roles  confirm the perspectives of the central character, who is always Martin, the author and editor. Who is the antagonist? Society at large, I suspect, holding fast to every stigma and stereotype attached to autistic identity, all of which this book attempts to delicately dismantle. Martin notes:

“This book is not about fixing people. If anything, it is about how society is utterly and elaborately and strategically broken, and how it imposes that brokenness on us all.” p. 21

Describing the poets included in these pages as co-creators reflects the way they appear in their own stories as told by Martin. It would have been interesting to present the poems first, at the opening of the book or the opening of the chapter in which they are included. Instead, it’s the reverse, where the stage is set by the story, and each poem follows. The reader is introduced to the environment in which the poet resides or where the creative work occurs, then the story is relayed of how Martin met the poet, their first interactions, how they learned to collaborate, the body language and expression of the poem, the choices made in developing the poem. These parts of the stories are often full of conversations between Martin and the poet, with detailed dialogue. I found myself wondering at times why the poets are not listed as co-authors of the chapters in which their poems, dialogues, and interviews appear. 

Martin also invites in the neurotypical observer, trying to reveal (with Martin’s own eloquence) the beauty Martin witnesses in these poets and their writing. He pulls back a gauze curtain to reveal how the neurodivergent poets are simultaneously freed from social pressures and exquisitely vulnerable to their impact. The poets’ work—and Martin’s—encourage readers to consider how this situation of nuanced simultaneity changes the poets’ experiences of nearly everything— including nature, nurture, privilege, stigma, culture, and gender.

At times, the descriptions of the wonders of collaboration with these exquisite and often underappreciated minds verge on what’s referred to as inspiration porn, but, at the same time, I cannot imagine attempting to write this book without teetering on that precipice. The book pleads with the reader to open their mind to the beauty of difference, to consider what is lost when we fail to do so. Martin states,

“We need a chorus. And we need to ensure that this chorus can encompass every possible not, every possible phrasing, every possible rhythm and intensity. One of those notes will be Hannah’s, and she wants you to know that her singing is both difficult and necessary. … The mutual flourishing of our neurodiverse future will require singing and listening in equal measure, our ears and throats (and hearts) growing ever deeper as we transform these disconnected songs of survival into a thriving, wild chorus” (p.113-114).

It’s all a fascinating peek behind the scenes, often feeling replete with the senses of the moment; the book is so immersive, reading it is almost like watching a film of the actual creation of the poems. It is only after the thorough sensory grounding in the creative context that the poems themselves are revealed. Personally, I would have preferred first to have met each poem by itself, and then to have learned the backstory, as mentioned, but I also found the structure presented a fascinating coalescence of creative choices on the part of the author(s) and editor. For those who would prefer to read the poems prior to the chapters, there is an anthology of just the poems in the back of the book (which I wish I had found sooner and read first). For some of the poems, I found the backstory engaging, but a distraction from the poem itself; it was sometimes difficult to separate the poems from the stories in which they are embedded. 

As the book moves forward, past the scenarios that introduce the cast of characters as individuals, the poets return in later chapters in richer and more nuanced contexts, demonstrating ever-increasing agency. They shift past barriers imposed upon them, and boundaries imposed upon them by themselves. They stretch and grow, expand and pivot, reinvent themselves in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, and collaborate to build new spaces inclusive of neurodivergence. This revelation of insight and agency is something I found significant enough that I began recommending the book to medical professionals and organizations working with nonspeaking Autists, especially when clinical formulaic approaches seemed to dominate. 

Throughout this journey, stretched across the span of the book, Chris Martin functions in part as an assistive support, and the book itself works as a kind of augmentative communication device, a translator between neurodivergence and neurotypicality. As with all translations, there are choices made that another translator might have done differently, stories told in ways that will clarify for some readers and obscure for others. Overall, even for those who find this inspiring (problematically) or occasionally disturbing (as I did), this collection is a valuable contribution to the literature around neurodivergence. 

Title: May Tomorrow Be Awake: On Poetry, Autism, and Our Neurodiverse Future
Author: Chris Martin
Publisher: HarperOne/HarperCollins
Year: 2022

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About the Reviewer

P. F. Anderson self-identifies as a queer, non-binary, neurodivergent Jew with multiple disabilities, both visible and invisible, who has spent the pandemic time focused internally, quietly blurred out of the intensity of the pandemic by having Long COVID, from which they are still recovering over 1200 days later. P. F. Anderson writes both poetry and technical works, has an insatiable hunger for books (especially poetry), and struggles to declutter in mind and space and time.