When I googled “human empathy”, one of the first results was from Psychology Today—“Human Empathy: an Essential Component for Human Society”. Have you ever let yourself feel the hatred in the world, it asks? Turned off all the noise, gone to a quiet place, and contemplated how many people hate other people and the ways they express that hate?Read More
As a teenager, I made it a point to stay as far away as I could from disability-related memoirs. This was probably a mistake on my part—the older I get, the more I enjoy nonfiction—, but at the time, it was simply a facet of survival. I didn't want to talk about disability, read about it, even acknowledge it.
I'm older now. And, depending on who you ask, I'm wiser, too. I can no longer deny the movements of disability as they manifest in my life. I call myself "disabled." When people ask—and they always do—, I tell them I'm happy, I'm fulfilled, Im learning to forgive my body, myself for hating my body. There are bad days. Of course there are. But there are good days too, and when they're good, they're good. So disability has become a part of me. I no longer deny it space here.
Still, when someone reached out to me about reviewing A Quiet Roar, I hesitated. My phobia returned—that odd, nebulous fear. I spend so much of my free time on Monstering, putzing around on Squarespace, sending out acceptances, rejections, solicitations. There's a red heart pinned to my denim jacket, one that says "disabled." I wore it to a poetry slam a few months ago and felt nothing, not even shame, so naturally I felt like I'd passed a kind of test. I am familiar, now, with pride. I love myself, my disabled self, the complications that arise when identity consumes everything else. But apparently there was still something about—yes—memoirs.
I'd much rather review a poetry book, I remember thinking. Someone else can review it.
But I still replied with yes, of course, I'd love to write a review. I've never shied away from a challenge, and besides, would I really be worthy of Monstering if I said no?Read More
The fourth installment of our column, "Mixes from the Editor." Every month, our Editor-in-Chief will compile the songs she's been vibing and present them as a playlist for your listening pleasure. Mixes will be named after our EIC's favorite poems.
This month's poem is "The Fragile Vial" by Rumi:
I need a […] language
as large as longing
Listen to "large as longing," our June '17 mix, on 8tracks, and find the tracklist below.Read More
I cannot run. Well, I can run, but I am not supposed to. Four years ago, I was diagnosed with a hip impingement—a degeneration of joint tissue in my right hip. The orthopedic surgeon held up the X-ray and pointed to a very small spot where the cartilage had been worn away. It could have been genetic, he said, it could have been doing too many splits and grand jetés in ballet. The cause was unknowable. The pain of the impingement was something I would have for the rest of my life, he said. Nothing to be done, he said, but I should stop running, should take up swimming, biking, walking instead—anything that would not be too hard on my joints.
I was never much a runner to begin with, but the reality of never being able to a marathon in my life, even if I wanted to—to have this option closed off to me forever made me despondent. When I returned home from the orthopedic center, I fell apart in our family kitchen. In front of my father and sisters, I just cried, repeating: "Why? Why? Why?" Why was I given such a body? I hated it for its inadequacy, its stings and throbs, how it prevented me from being fully alive like other people.Read More
jayy dodd's full-length poetry book, Mannish Tongues (Platypus Press, 2017), undoes the contradiction of violence and soft.
To get a feel for the book, check out what jayy said they were doing while writing Mannish Tongues in a recent installment of their newsletter, "saythat!":
"A blxk question mark from los angeles," dodd's book is a sacred text for those in the church of black and queer. Divided into six sections (CONFESSIONS, PRAYERS, INTERROGATIONS, TESTIMONIES, MYTHS, EULOGIES), dodd examines the world's danger and the seemingly impossible but necessary act of finding and creating solace in any place and any way you can.
In church, you come in search of answers and, in this book, dodd preaches—giving you answers, yes, and yet still more. They give you a way to name, hold, and carry survival. They give you the key to opening the door to more than survival as black, as queer: they give you a chance to free.
With form that doesn't let up, you don't know how they will deliver the next message, and yet you sit on the edge of your pew, excited for the deliverance about to come, ready to jump up and catch the holy they're about to throw to you. dodd considers and reckons with the resurrection, the audacity to continue creating even when death is guaranteed. We need their words now more than ever.
Some favorite lines from each section:
The only deception / I am unable to master: / the vanishing act.
Prayers ("Speak Louder")
if afterlife is making it home safely, are we not / immaculate enough?
Interrogations ("Ars Poetica")
every poem is a death
Testimonies ("A Returning")
[...] How is knowing end times / as regular occurrence gonna get kinfolk free?
Myths ("Ten Sons")
She say he been real his whole life, / that when she finally catch up with God, all her sons gon' be alright.
Eulogies ("A Eulogy For Myself, The Night after Pepper Labeija")
Ends on: / "He only ever wanted to be real / to be whole & full for all to eat."
jayy dodd is a blxk question mark from los angeles, california– now based on the internet. they are a professional writer & literary editor. their work has appeared / will appear in Broadly, The Establishment, Assaracus, Winter Tangerine, Guernica, & Nashville Review among others. they're the author of [sugar in the tank] (Pizza Pi Press 2016) & Mannish Tongues (Platypus Press 2017). their collection The Black Condition ft. Narcissus is forthcoming on Siren Song / CCM Press. they are a Pushcart Prize nominee, co-editor of Bettering American Poetry & a 2017 Lambda Literary Fellow. their work has been featured in Teen Vogue & Entropy. find them talking trash online or taking a selfie.
to hire jayy for editing, find out more here.
to hire jayy for graphic design, find out more here.
click here for a full: CV / RESUMÉ
find jayy online:
about the author
ALEXIS SMITHERS (LEX LEE) is a queer black creator based on the East Coast. Featured in wusgood.black, Glass: Poetry, Up the Staircase Quarterly, and Freezeray Poetry among others, they volunteered for Self Care After Rape and currently work for 365daysoflesbians, Winter Tangerine Review, and Voicemail Poems. They are a 2015 Pink Door Fellow and 2016 LAMBDA Literary Young Adult Fiction Fellow. They tweet at DangerLove12 and you can find more of their work at youhavethewritetoremember.me.
Part of ten chapbooks in the latest New Generation African Poets box set—a collaboration from the African Poetry Book Fund and Akashic Books—Bone Light by Yasmin Belkhyr is wistful and lush. Although this collection is parted into three sections, to me, the chapbook moves cohesively as one long poetic sequence. The connective use of prose poem blocks, short and lively phrases, and associative movement from image to image makes Bone Light feel like one gorgeous piece. I am gripped by this chapbook, by the longing and ruin that pervades the poems here.Read More
The third installment of our column, "Mixes from the Editor." Every month, our Editor-in-Chief will compile the songs she's been vibing and present them as a playlist for your listening pleasure. Mixes will be named after our EIC's favorite poems.
This month's poem is "Angels and Moths" by Olena Kalytiak Davis, in And Her Soul Out Of Nothing:
I don’t think I ever loved
that gently. And I’ve never
flown toward a burning
house, hoping, maybe
my faith lay in that
single thing left,
in that smoldering filigree.
I never reminisce
a sorrow that delicately shaped.
Listen to "angel/moth," our May '17 mix, on 8tracks, and find the tracklist below.Read More
Part of my recovery from disordered eating patterns and body dysmorphia was discovering a body positivity that helped me restructure how I saw food. Food became fuel. My body became a machine I lived in—helping to expose the idiosyncrasies of a culture that obsesses over the shape and size of something built to sustain and carry us; helping to uproot the self-hating seeds that had started to sprout in my own self-image. Function over aesthetic.
But when you start to feel like your machine-self has physical faults no mechanic can fix?
But when, despite all your efforts to untangle the wires of mechanical essentialism, you realise you’re in the wrong machine?Read More
In her introduction to Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (AK Press, 2015), Co-Editor Walidah Imarisha writes, “Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in speculative fiction. All organizing is speculative fiction.” Imarisha goes on to envision forms of organizing which, like Octavia E. Butler's science fiction writings, can “claim the vast space of possibility … birthing visionary stories.” She notes, in a succinct yet expansive passage, the way that Butler’s fiction “explored the intersection of identity and imagination, the gray areas of race, class, gender, sexuality, love, militarism, inequality, oppression, resistance, and—most important—hope. #BecauseofOctavia we can see that the resistances imagined in Butler’s fiction are complex, poised through and against many hierarchies at once.
This short essay will seek to examine two of Butler’s novels in light of their reimagined depiction of what has classically viewed as the “monstrous,” reimagined as bodies that resist—materially, interpretively, categorically: her novel with the shapeshifter Anwanyu at its heart, Wild Seed, and her perhaps lesser-known final vampire novel, Fledgling, with the vampire, Shori, as its symbiotic nerve center.Read More
The second installment of our column, "Mixes from the Editor." Every month, our Editor-in-Chief will compile the songs she's been vibing and present them as a playlist for your listening pleasure. Mixes will be named after our EIC's favorite poems.
This month's poem is "Beast Litany" by Carly Joy Miller, originally published in Nashville Review:
Desire, war coax,
thrum of God
Listen to "swarm," our April '17 mix, on 8tracks, and find the tracklist below.Read More
Nice girl. What happened to her?
Killed her. Cursed her.
Pushed her aside and cared for poetry.
Gave in and grew into something scalier, hungrier.
– Lora Mathis, "The Self-Portrait," Instinct to Ruin
Lora Mathis' second full-length volume is a bold exploration of trauma, mental illness, and femininity. In Instinct to Ruin, they discuss their experiences with rape and domestic abuse, depression, and gender, sparing their audience no comfort. The visceral nature of the poems is refreshing, yet jarring, in its brutal honesty. What is often considered taboo becomes second nature, and any presumed etiquette or politics of writing are foregone. These poems are not beautiful: these poems are the makings of a soul, wrung out. They are the fruits of self-exploration, of reconstruction—of having taken control of one's identity and fashioned themselves into a weapon.
One poem, "High Water," evokes emotion and imagery like Kate Chopin's The Awakening:
& the wave is pouring under the door
& I lick my plate clean
& the tips of my hair are dripping down my chest & I
swear the sea is shaking with laughter & water rises
above my head
I do not hold my breath
This piece, a striking commentary on the struggles inherent to feminity, makes a neat package of all of Instinct's themes. It is at once a chronicle of abuse, oppression, and suicidal ideation, as well as a resounding testament to feminine resilience. The drowning metaphor is bleak, naturally, but many—particularly within Monstering's demographic—would argue there’s an undeniable degree of empowerment in choosing one's own fate, whatever the case may be. The poem ends there, but the stories it and its sisters could tell are innumerable. Likewise, the individuals this book may grant a voice should not go unmentioned. In sharing their story, Mathis recounts the experiences of many.
In their own words, Lora Mathis is a Cancer from Southern California who believes in poetry’s healing ability and the power of friendship. They coined the term "radical softness as a weapon," an idea centered around the strength in sharing oneself honestly. Much of their work focuses on trauma, femininity, and combating mental illness stigma. They are the author of chapbooks and the noise does not stop... and Bigger Bolder Less Pathetic. This is their second full-length collection of poems; their first is available through Where Are You Press. They currently live in Philadelphia.
we have lingered in the chambers of the sea
by sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
till human voices wake us, and we drown.
— T. S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
The third installment in our series of #monstering hymnals. Listen to it on 8tracks, and find the tracklist below.Read More
In the first installment of our advice column, "Dear Monster," Y Gwyllgi tackles heartbreak, grief, and whatever comes after.Read More
The first installment of our column, "Mixes from the Editor." Every month, our Editor-in-Chief will compile the songs she's been vibing and present them as a playlist for your listening pleasure. Mixes will be named after our EIC's favorite poems.
This month's poem is "bestiary" by Emily Corwin, originally published in Word Riot:
say: I want to be wrecked
say: in a pasture, darkly bewitch me
Listen to "bewitching," our March '17 mix, on 8tracks, and find the tracklist below.Read More
One of their poets imagined time
as a blind boy, running,
insensible to his surroundings [And yet they insist on mapping
yet forever in chase their futures.
of a pair of eyes No, future.
that can only look backward. Drawing plans that admit no
affordance for change, absence,
[As they 'age', so too do
Long periods of absence result in
They change, with time. grime and dereliction.]
their arrival at
landmarks on their future-maps [Many of these landmarks involve
and mourn relationships with others [[Relationships appear
when the maps prove faulty. of their kind. to be a defining trait
Beginning and endings.] of their existence.
Constancy correlated with
A major field of
See Appendix 👭]]
They treasure continuum. [Is this because they exist without
Wholeness, oneness. interruption
Completion. They cannot conceive of worth
Closure. in a life
A broken object must be repaired ruptured,
or thrown away. diffracted, iterated,
There is no value in vanished and reappeared,
fragments. because to them this is not
life at all.]
[ME sits in the middle of the high school stage. The house lights are off and there is a dim light coming from the production shop behind the curtain.]
ME: Do you have time for this?
[YOU’s footsteps that were trying to be undetectable have been noticed. YOU’s footsteps have poked holes in the silence ME has gotten used to. YOU considers lying. YOU decides not to, not all the way at least.]
YOU: I have to get going but not yet
ME: I didn’t know it could look like this
ME: Universe in such small packages
YOU: He created his own universe?
E: Yes. No. All of them. Some of them. Maybe more. He made so much and they all live in the same house. I did not know there could be this many rooms inside. I didn’t know their hands reaching for one another could be this terrifying and kind and rumble and gentle
YOU: Are we invited?
[the audience starts to file in]
ME: I think so.
ME: He does this thing. Magic seems too common a word for it, but it’s the one that fits best. Like your favorite sweatshirt from five years ago, how it’s snug around the edges but it’s more home than anyone else that holds you
ME: Why did you come here?
[the audience waits]
YOU: My teacher told me once: we come to the stage to find truth or at least stop running from it
ME: You were running when you came here
ME: Did you want to stop?
[YOU sit down next to me. ME and YOU’s legs are over the lip of the stage. ME and YOU’s heels kick the front of the stage as ME and YOU swing our legs.]
ME: Dalton gives us many stages
YOU: Is it safe?
ME: It’s never safe to stop running. I don’t think.
ME: I don’t know how to end this
YOU: Maybe things don’t end like we think they do
[A radio plays in the distance. ME and YOU aren’t concerned with who turned it on. Maybe someone in the audience.]
YOU: Like what he showed us. There is a light that never goes out, like that Smith song.
ME: Like the Smith song. I think they got it from Dalton, though.
“I don’t know how to ride a bike.” Or, “I can’t ride a bike.” These were phrases that, if you were like me, were a source of shame, on par with having to leave a sleepover early because you got scared of the bad guys in Home Alone.
When my peers graduated from their training wheels, I never quite graduated with them. But every summer, I (stubborn, irritated) would drag a two-wheel bike from the garage and figure out new ways to tip it—and me—over. This would continue, endlessly, until I got frustrated or injured and gave it up till the next summer. My (spastic, stubborn, irritating) body has never been great when it comes to balancing, so the following summer would go much the same way.
I thought of myself as determined, and as not giving up. Which I was, in a way, but what I was also not doing was giving myself options. And with bikes, as with life, there are always options.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t ride any bike—I had grown up pedaling away on the back of tandems and trailer bikes. Rather, I couldn’t ride the wrong bike. Which for me, was a two-wheeled bike without anybody captaining. But there’s a lot more to cycling than two wheels and two feet.
A trike is the right choice for me because, like many people with neuromuscular disabilities, I have trouble balancing. In my attempts to learn to ride a standard bike, I always toppled, especially when it was time to put my foot down and hold up the bike. With a trike, I can actually use the handlebars and pedals to help me balance when getting on and off. Three wheels gives me the stability I need to get out and ride.
I found that, for me, adding an extra wheel is a great way to ride independently. And if you think a trike is the right cycling option for you, too, I’ll share some thoughts on picking the right model. Many bike stores will only have a single trike in stock, often single-speed, with coaster brakes (which I utterly hate, for reasons I’ll get into later). But just as you have loads more options for cycling than just bikes, you also have lots of choices for trikes.
Handcycles are a great option for people, but I know next to nothing about them, so I’ll leave that topic for more qualified cyclists.
So, I have strong feelings about trikes. I’ve found options that work for me, and things that I think are a scourge upon cyclists. You may have different opinions, and might not share my burning resentment of single-speeds, for example. That’s awesome.
You may also have different needs. I have spastic cerebral palsy, and that informs my choices about trikes and other forms of exercise. Whether you have the same, or different, disability, your perfect trike may be different than mine, because your body is different than mine. You need to figure out what works for your body and your situation, and be relentlessly passionate about pursuing that.
To get you started, here are some of the many trike components you can customize.
Handlebars are not just for steering. Messing with your hand position and the angle of your handlebars is a simple way to “hack” your posture. You (or your nearest cycling buddy with a wrench) can experiment with adjusting your handlebars, which might help you get them into the position that you want.
Whether you’re concerned about comfort, or just getting colorful streamers, you should be able to find handlebars that are worth holding onto. Some cyclists enjoy more textured grips, while others enjoy smooth handlebar wraps; either way, they should fit your hands. For example, if you’re likely to support your weight with your hands, you might enjoy a more padded grip. Our hands are all unique, and our handlebars can be too.
Don’t worry if, like me, you have trouble keeping your feet on the pedals. Nothing will explode and, generally, your trike won’t fall over if you let one foot hang free for a rotation. But you do have ways of convincing your feet to stay where they’re supposed to, if that’s what you need. Clip-in bike shoes are an option you can find at a mainstream bike store. I haven’t tried them, but they are supposed to attach your foot to the pedal in the correct position. I suspect they may be difficult for a rider with lots of side-to-side foot movement, as they are meant to unclip.
There are also adaptive pedal designs, which provide more significant straps and support, as well as pedals that address internal rotation of your knee. Sometimes my feet manage to escape from pedals like these, but they can often come with a myriad of strap arrangements to keep your feet pedal-ready.
My personal favorite are toe clips, which you can find at a mainstream bike store. Despite what the name suggests, you slide the front of your feet into them, and they gently hold your feet in place. They don’t manage to keep my feet totally stable (which would possibly be too much to ask of a piece of plastic), but they make a good attempt.
Okay, everybody! Buckle up (or put on your helmets). This is where I’m going to rant about gears, and why single-speeds grind my gears (haha?). I mention this because single-speed appears to be the default trike option at many stores. There must be some benefit that I’m not aware of, because it’s always sold as a feature, rather than a bug. Changing gears lets you adjust your pedaling resistance, and single-speed leaves you with a fixed, low pedaling resistance.
I tend to dislike (okay, despise) single-speed because, by making pedaling easier, it actually makes cycling harder. That may sound weird, but if I can’t shift into a harder gear, I’m deprived of momentum and a certain amount of muscular control.
There are lots of hills where I ride, so it’s really useful to be able to gain speed and momentum before I try to haul myself over them. Being able to adjust my gears lets me do that. For me, maybe counterintuitively, it’s actually simpler to pedal if I have some resistance to push against. I’ve heard this from other people with cerebral palsy as well. My legs are especially affected by my spasticity. The muscles that pull knees in are tight and make it hard for me to keep my legs in a neutral position as I pedal. Having more resistance helps me control the path of my legs and avoid banging them against the center bar. My disability also means that I fatigue faster than other people, so it’s really nice for me to be able to have really specific control over the pedaling difficulty.
If you find that you also prefer a 3 or 6-speed trike, it’s definitely possible to find them. You can order them on the Internet by searching “x-speed adult trike.” Your local cycle shop will probably also stock a particular trike upon request. You could even replace, or have someone else replace, the gear mechanism on a single-speed with another option.
Consider your hand strength and comfort when you’re choosing the type of gear shift control you’d like. Some of them work with a click, like a button, while others require twisting your wrist. You can always choose which side you’d like the controls to be on. I suggest placing your gear shift and bell on opposite sides so you can happily ding at people while you zoom down hills.
We’ve talked about things that will make a trike go; now we need to talk about what makes it stop.
There are many technical choices you can make when it comes to brakes, but I’m going to focus on braking controls. Your biggest decision when choosing brakes is whether you’d like hand brakes or coaster brakes. You use coaster brakes with your feet, pedaling backwards. These seem like they’d be great for somebody who has trouble with their hands, because hand brakes can take a bit of strength.
Coasters aren’t my favorite, because I like to be able to pedal backwards on various occasions. I’m right-footed, so starting with my right foot up lets my weaker side go for a bit of a free ride when I’m first getting momentum. I’ve nearly flung myself off my trike while flying happily downhill, and tried to backpedal to bring my right foot up; instead, I screeched to a stop, and almost catapulted over the handlebars. Needless to say, I can’t be trusted with anything other than hand brakes.
I prefer to have a handbrake on each side, so I can brake on the front and the rear wheels. But it is possible to get just a front brake, especially if your grip strength isn’t as strong on one side, or if you don’t plan to do much careening downhill.
Saddle-sores are a great way to cut your cycling career short. Sitting in comfort is key, especially if you have trouble standing to pedal. It’s best to avoid friction when you head out on a ride.
Have a (suitable) seat. It could be that the bike seats advertised as most comfortable for other people won’t be quite right for you. I tend to slide forward on cushier, wider seats, and end up with most of my weight perched on the narrow front (ouch!); I do much better with firm, sportier seats. You can explore different levels of firmness and different designs.
Get the right seat for your anatomy.
For some riders, it’s worth looking into female-specific seats. Some of these have a cut-out in the middle to relieve pressure when riding. It’s also important to check spots that are sensitive for you personally. I try to pay attention to the sides of the seat; I need to make sure there aren’t any obnoxious, pokey bits that will scrape my legs as they turn in.
The clothes make the cyclist! Or, at least, make the cyclist more comfortable. It’s a great idea to bring the padding with you, so you can have the comfort you need for every ride. As with everything else mentioned here, your cycling clothes need to fit you and your situation. Mountain bike shorts are often two layers, a snugger under layer and a baggier outer layer. They tend to look a little more like regular shorts than road bike shorts.
Road shorts are a sleeker, single layer. I initially found the snugness less comfortable, but this style actually works better for me, since they don’t bunch up based on my internal rotation.
You can also go long, and wear bike pants. These are nice, because they’re a little bit of extra protection against skin irritation. I tend to knock my knees against the center bar when I ride, and having pants makes things a little more comfortable, which is the goal!
If you want bike shorts that don’t look like bike shorts, you can consider the miraculous skort. Not quite shorts, not quite a skirt, a skort can be a stylish way to get a bit of padding where you need it.
Getting the perfect trike can be costly, but it doesn’t have to be. Many people with disabilities have a lot of financial pressures to think about, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get into cycling. There are grants that can help you afford sports equipment, such as Access for Athletes.
There’s also an entire community that can help get you pedaling. For example, you could look into an adaptive sport club to try out a variety of sports. Here’s a list of groups in the U.S.
Your local independent living center may also have ideas for local sport groups or sources of adaptive equipment. You could also seek out any local trike rider groups on social media. If nothing else, you should absolutely do a test ride on any trikes your local cycle shop has. That will be a great starting point.
I’m going to do a magic trick and turn into my mom for a second, here. Wear your helmets. I know you don’t legally have to if you’re an adult, but adults still have brains, and brains are delicate. Brains are also important: all of your cool ideas live there. And, as many of us may already know, dealing with brain injury is not a walk (or, in this case, a trike ride) in the park.
Make sure your helmet fits.
As with any biking equipment, your helmet should fit you, and should be snug and comfortable.
Know when it’s time to move on.
If your helmet has to do its job—i.e., if you hit your head while wearing it—, it’s time to send your helmet to the great bike rack in the sky. When your helmet is involved in a collision, there might be some damage to it that you can’t see, which could make it less effective the next time you have an exciting encounter.
There are many ways to move, and being active is important for all of us. Prioritize fun! There are plenty of activities I didn’t mention here, so keep looking if you’re not sure what your next fun hobby should be. If you decide that trike riding is right for you, do yourself a favor and take the time to find a good match. Maybe I’ll see you on the trail! Whatever you choose, be persistent, creative, and always wear a helmet. Happy pedaling.
we rise from the bog, skin wet and squelching.
glistening in the thick, damp sunlight. the word
around town is that we were lucky to escape.
our hands have dried to crisps, brown
and curling like dead ferns, and we smell like rotting
things. our bodies soft stacks of gassed rabbits, eyes
brown apples. when a rescue party is sent out across
the marsh for those who didn’t escape, we join it.
perhaps because we are kind, but almost certainly
because we are sick in a way no one else understands.
THERE ARE NO SURVIVORS. words of bone,
spat out of a bitter, gummy dark. grass yields
beneath our bruised knees. it is all too easy to stay
here. our skin turns to mould.
One fat bog.
19 dead. / 19 nights of survivor’s guilt.
we pull the bodies from the bog. some are leather. boneless.
liquid men and women. pickled, preserved— drowned
in a womb of vinegar, birthed in a clamour of screaming
and tight-knit prayers. God’s name spooling from pink
lips; eyes worn red. the worst are those who were drowned
when the weather was warm, when the air clung and the
wasps hovered before the apples of our eyes:
skin falls tender from the bone.
even the insects don’t want them.
Conducted by Emily Yin
Emily Yin: To start, can you tell us a bit about your disabilities?
Topaz Winters: Of course. My disabilities are of the mental rather than physical sort—I have depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and hyperacusis.
EY: You mentioned on your blog, Six Impossible Things, that mental illness is more often an “undertone” than the focus of your poems. Even so, does it become manifest in the expression of certain themes or sentiments throughout your work?
TW: It certainly does. I’ve noticed that even when I don’t set out to write about mental illness, it permeates through everything I create—readers with mental disorders have shared with me on multiple occasions that they identify deeply with pieces that, to me, were not at all about mental illness in the first place. It is so intrinsically part of my life at this point, though, that I believe it tends to weave through all that I write as well, even when it does not show up overtly. I’m learning to make peace with that, though it bothered me somewhat in the beginning. Mental illness is such a great part of my life that it deserves the place it has in my work. It deserves to be explored and processed through art.
EY: You shared your own experiences during the “Shattering Stigmas” event to break the silence (and stigma) surrounding mental illness. What would you say to those who wish to open up but have a hard time reconciling themselves with the possibility of judgment?
TW: We speak of our mental illnesses for no one else but ourselves. There is judgement out there always, but I am learning to move past and ignore it. When I open up and share my experiences, it is as much to help myself as it is to educate and inform others. I would say this: if one wishes to share one’s experiences but shies away from doing so for fear of prejudice, it is perhaps worthwhile to remind oneself that all of this is, at heart, a method of healing. It has never been for those who judge and scorn, but rather, for the cleansing of our own lovely souls. There will always be the ignorant ones waiting to pounce, but we do not create for them. It is for us and those who endure the same struggles that we do. It is for the ones who understand.
EY: Is your best work usually a spontaneous reaction to an event or moment about which you strongly felt, or is it something which you deliberately set out to write?
TW: To be honest, it is a rare moment when I deliberately set out to write something. Rather, I write because I cannot help but do it. Because to not write is something unfathomable. And so, I think that my best work does tend to be more of a spontaneous thing, flowing from whatever feelings haunt me on a particular day, whatever images and themes and experiences refuse to leave me alone. I try not to force myself to write; I find that if ever I do, the words come out stilted, halting. It is instead, for me, about capturing emotion as truthfully as I can on the page.
EY: What is something that you have always wanted to, but have never been able to write about?
TW: Hmm, nothing seems to come to mind at the moment. Writing is the only way I know how to capture and pin down thoughts and emotions—I can’t think of anything that I do not write about. Every soft, visceral, uncertain, beautiful, painful thing I have ever experienced has gone on the page. There is, I must confess, nothing much that I do not write about.
EY: What advice do you have for people who want to write about their “invisible” illness(es)?
TW: I cannot reiterate this enough: though our illnesses may be invisible, they are as real and as stabbing as any other disability. I suppose my greatest advice would be to keep that in mind, no matter how much the world seems bent on proving you otherwise. It does not matter if our illnesses reside only in our heads: they are valid and worth writing about, worth exploring and creating for. Know that the art you make in tribute to or in defiance of your illnesses is a bright, sharp, real thing. Hold that knowledge to your chest. Let it warm you on aching nights. Do not ever let it go.
EY: The resolute tone (“I will turn sorry into/Profanity”) of your poem “Story,” the fact that it is more apologia than apology, really resonated with me. That said, if one becomes defiant in order to survive, how does one prevent gentleness and empathy from becoming casualties of that fight?
TW: I have to believe that fierceness and softness can coexist. I truly dislike the idea that they are mutually exclusive—and indeed, I think that when one is battling mental illness, it is the endlessly shifting push-and-pull of the two that keeps one alive. The war happens both in gentleness and resoluteness. They are not enemies but rather sisters, holding each other up, fighting the same fight. There is a defiance, a profanity, a revolution in remaining soft. They are endlessly intertwining. There are no casualties in this battle.
EY: Lastly, you talk about monsters, and your desire to “bring [them] to light”—but what, exactly, does monsterhood mean to you?
TW: I am learning to think of monsterhood as something to be proud of rather than to fear. It is a long process, and one that I am nowhere near the end of—but for too long I was ashamed of my mental illnesses, and I am so tired of constantly hiding them. Instead I am learning to hold them up and to honour them. Monsters protect, they shield, they fight for us as much as they terrify us. Healing is a matter of examining them, of understanding them. And of making the choice to embrace them as part of us. I see monsterhood as a badge to wear with pride. A celebration of the ways in which we shed our fears and thrive despite and because of them.
EY: Topaz, thank you so much for speaking with Monstering!
TW: It’s been an honour. Thank you so much for the opportunity.
TOPAZ WINTERS is a writer in a raining city. Her poems, essays, and short stories have been published in WILDNESS Magazine, Hypertrophic Literary, Sapphic Swan Zine, and The Best Teen Writing of 2015 anthology, and commended by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and the Jane Goodall Institute, among others. Her début poetry chapbook, Heaven or This, has been downloaded over 15,000 times. She resides in Singapore and at topazwinters.com. Mostly she enjoys crystals, coffee, softness, and the sea.
YOU DON’T THINK I CAN BE A MONSTER?
I CAN USE THESE BITTEN NAILS AS CLAWS.
I CAN SPIT WORDS LIKE THEY ARE VENOM.
I CAN TAKE THE LIGHT FROM SOMEONE’S EYES WITH A FEW CRUEL SMILES.
I CAN USE YOUR SECRETS AS ARMOR.
I CAN BREAK PROMISES LIKE GLASS SLIPPERS (THEY NEVER FIT ME ANYWAY).
I CAN SIMPLY STOP CARING ABOUT THE MISFORTUNES OF OTHERS.
I CAN CRUSH A HEART AND BLOW THE POWDER INTO THE EYES OF ANYONE WHO TRIES TO GET CLOSE TO ME.
I CAN DANCE WITH YOUR NIGHTMARES AND LEAVE WITH THEM WHEN THE SUN RISES.
I AM, AFTER ALL, ONLY HUMAN.