[Note to the reader: This is a script for embodied live performance. Text that appears in square brackets and italics indicates stage directions, not spoken text].
In a cloistered century, Emily wrote,
‘I’m nobody, who are you? Are you nobody too?’1
Had she lived in our anxious era, perhaps she would have written,
I’m nervous – how about you?
Are you nervous too?
SNAP! [Clap hands] We connect
at the places where we break.
Does that make us broken?
Or breaking through?
I’m thinking what RD Laing argued – or was it James Brown?2
You gotta get down to get out of the mad race that is staying sane.
[Cradle arms around self, sway dreamily]
When I was a teenager I used to like diving to the bottom of the pool where I’d breathe out and stay as long as I could bear staring up at the ripply mirror surface in which I saw not myself but my self, my world, all the stuff above a distant picture, a dream I was waking up from, but only because it helped me get back to sleep…
[Sudden change to rigid posture and shocked face]
At twenty one I woke up, realised I was training to become an SS Guard…
Sorry, I mean psychiatric nurse.
I wanted to help sick people. Wanted to help them get better.
But did that mean pinning them down and ramming needles into their arses?
What about the ones who didn’t want to get better, or thought they already were?
The ones employing definitions, seeking things our manuals didn’t list?
What about the ones who seemed trying to say something
– something important not just to them but us, our world?
Something they seemed always almost on the brink of saying,
something they maybe could have said, if met with gentler ears,
with time, space, patience for their processes, their ways
of processing so strange, deranged yet necessary
to a society where pro-gress reigns king.
One day I started crying. There weren’t words.
There was hot, there was cold, there were tears. There weren’t words. There was running.
Me, running. Leaving that ward, that life. Running, running, running,
twelve years, still running, still hot, cold, tears, running, no words, just tears, tears, me, tearing
[Stammer. Stutter. Appear to break. Collapse on floor. In the following dialogue, continually stand up / crouch down to indicate a conversation between two speakers. The standing speaker has hands on hips and leans forwards as if standing over and threatening the collapsed speaker.]
– Ahem. Excuse me. Are you… having a nervous breakdown?
– No. Just a break.
– A vacation?
– You could call it that.
– I see. And, uh… When are you coming back?
– When I’m good and ready.
– Oh! That’s rich, for one so poor. Don’t you know there’s work to do?
– Yes. But I’m working too.
– Oh, what?
– I told you. On breaking.
[During following speech, rise slowly to feet]
Breaking out and maybe free. Breaking from the world so as to break it all up and apart,
to figure all the parts, including mine, and then to put things back together,
somehow better if unchanged for the sake of this exchange, this crossroad, contemplation,
it looks like a smoko, but I’m working, yes, working
on myself and the world and myself in the world,
on how it can work again, on why it stopped – yes, maybe broke,
but not like a toy or an engine,
broke like chains, an egg, a voice, a necessary break
like this necessary nervousness that breathes fast because it needs the fuel
because it’s fire, burning towards bubbling into light, bright insights that melt
what we know, mould what we don’t – yet –
I’m working on that nervousness, on being in it and burnt by it,
on bearing it – and no, I’ve not quite mastered that art.
It’s in process, like this poem.
[Hands on hips to indicate threatening speaker]
– A poem! Ha. That’s useful. Can you eat it?
[Hands off hips, cheeky grin and wild nodding of head]
– Well, technically, yes, but…
[Hands on hips, roll eyes]
– It’d give you indigestion!
So come on, come out and cough up the bloody hairball:
you’re either working or you’re not, in our world or out, broken down or not at all.
If the latter, back to work, bludger.
If the former, well… don’t worry! There’re ways.
Six months of zaps, you’ll be set… for selling hats.
Here. Aren’t these pills pretty? Best of all, they numb your ears
so you won’t hear them rattling inside you,
like you won’t hear those pesky whale cries or asylum seekers drowning
or any of those other things that made you so irrrrrrrrrr….
We’ll give you a new name, too. A pretty uniform to cover, to contain you.
How about… schizophrenic? Or maybe manic depressive?
Sorry. That’s bipolar now.
Just like dementia praecox is nothing
and a few centuries ago this could have all a case of humours, a wandering womb, even.
As Foucault knew, this science of ours is a dark art,
perhaps a kind of poetry, an attempt to name the unnameable, claim the unclaimable…
[Through the following section, the speaker’s posture becomes less confident. There is a tendency towards physical swaying to reflect a fraying, merging uncertainty of the two previously separate identities and perspectives]
Meanwhile, if I told you I desired to inject urine into guinea pigs
or ram kitchen objects through the eyeballs of strangers,
what would you say?
These are methods, methodologies that informed, still inform standard practice today,
histories that giggle in the closed spaces, the gaping gaps of every clinical encounter,
every diagnosis… Di… A… Gnosis.
Knowledge: a process, always also in-process
if too often whored to progress.
Enlightenment relies on darkness, just like speech needs silence.
But silence is not absence. Silence can be broken.
That is the break through work some poets do – the work of breaking down
in order to flare up, again, like fire, to feel, to blindly see
close up and far away, all at once, and at once to be
broken, breaking, croaking, in public if privately, like frogs – croak, croak – no!
Don’t croak. Don’t die, dear fire, keep burning,
churning that mixed metaphor cauldron,
spoon searching phrases to re-engage numb tongues, to make speech again like fucking,
for words, after all, are sometimes all we have to fuck with and through,
though, yes, it’s words, too, that often fuck us up, pin us down,
arse bare for the needle… PRICKS!!!!!
Oh! No! No, no, oh, no – don’t go,
don’t croak, don’t let it show.
Just… act sane. Act sane.
No matter how mad it makes you.
Reflection: ‘A Nervous Break’
Theirs is the experience of the unutterable and yet the intensity of their experience is part of being and the source of a greater realisation of self that the dictates of everyday life encourage one to suppress (McCulloch & Pavlou 2003: 5).
…the creative process comprehends something that is inherent to and yet exceeds human understanding and communication (Hecq 2015: n.p.).
‘A Nervous Break’ calls, on multiple levels, for ‘re-membering’ (Crowley 2001) — for restoring membership and/as cultural value to subjects, perspectives, knowledges and ways of knowing that contemporary western societies predominantly dis-member, that is, keep distant, on the margins, regarded with distrust and distaste, or even outright disregarded as unthinkable, foreclosed, denied (Magarey 2005). In particular, ‘A Nervous Break’ demands re-membrance of the knowledges of those western medicine labels mentally ill. Towards this end, it also demands re-membrance of RD Laing’s (1967) case for ‘breakdown’ as possible ‘breakthrough’ — which means recognising the so-called mentally ill subject’s possible engagement in knowledge-making processes bearing potentials to enrich collective knowledge, and thereby to improve life and lives. For the supposedly mad subject may be breaking in response to shared circumstances that are painful, even unliveable, at least for some; their breaking may thus signal why and how circumstances limit being, may perhaps even suggest actions to initiate change, to make life more liveable.
This reflection, however, diverges from mental health issues, instead exploring memory’s relationships with poetry, performance, knowledge-making and change. The rationale for this divergence is that ‘A Nervous Break’ not only calls for re-membering but is itself an in-progress poem created for and through performance-by-heart. The vital links between (re)presenting poetry ‘by heart’ and the poetic creation process are demonstrated by Magee (2015), whose research illustrates how these links manifest when creative writing students are asked to memorise other poets’ anthologised works. However, the compositional potentials of memorising one’s own writing remain relatively under-explored in formal academic discourse (despite extensive and long-standing explorations in other non-western and western discourses). Hence this reflection considers, first, poetry as collective, cultural re-membering and knowledge-creation towards social change, then secondly, the ways in which re-membering’s re-generative potentials paradoxically entail forgetting. Thirdly, I discuss operations of re-membering and/as forgetting in the poetic performance-as-composition processes I learned through participation in pub-based open-mic communities. This includes reflection on how physical gestures can, in performance poetry, become inseparable from spoken words, which prompts consideration of how performance poetry both relies on and re-members bodily thinking. Then, following its explorations into the reciprocities of performance poetry and bodily knowing, this already-divergent reflection pursues yet another tangent – or indeed, two tangents, but tangents that, like Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomes (1980: 3) reconnect with the Laingian themes of ‘A Nervous Break’ itself, resulting in closing remarks about performance poetry’s potentials for re-membering knowledges of breakdown-as-breakthrough.
As recognised since at least the late twentieth-century, poetry, like other literary practices, can become a mode of ‘cultural memory’ — a collective means of sharing and continuing the beliefs, knowledges and practices through which social groups and/as individuals live and relate (d’ Haen, Vervliet & Estor 1997). This cultural or collective memory is vitally fluid, changing and creative: it continually re-members different, new possibilities; and it facilitates the realisation of these possibilities in and through lived social interactions, relations and ways of being (Crowley 2001). Collective cultural re-membering also bears a distinctly porous relationship with the memories or re-membering processes of so-called individuals who both draw on and contribute to cultural memory (Delisle 2011). For instance, through incorporating elements of cultural memory into texts later shared with others, writers re-member and sustain collective memories (but in creatively re-collected, rearranged ways) (Abbott 2010). Hence apparently individual re-memberings are collectively-engaged processes — even in the case of a writer who appears to work alone and/or to write solely about their personal experiences. As per multiple and long-standing interdisciplinary arguments (The Personal Narratives Group 1989; Couser 2009; Eades 2015; Phillips 2016), to write, even about oneself, thus entails potential engagement in collective knowledge-remaking towards renewed understandings of how things are and could yet become, including the recognition of scenarios that cause pain or inhibit being, as well as ways in which to address such scenarios, or in other words, to realise social change.
A vital question is, how does remembering – individually and collectively – become re-membering? In other words, how does an act that, superficially, might seem to simply retrieve existing knowledges, become a creative act of knowledge (re)generation and even world-remaking? This question has been answered by theorists of memory studies (Abbott 2010, Delisle 2011), who, in line with otherwise diverse thinkers including and exceeding Bergson (1896), Freud (1901) and Ricoeur (2004), point out that remembering paradoxically depends on forgetting and/or failing to fully remember. Creative potentials thus proliferate in the negative spaces of the not-quite-remembered, enabling re-memberings of o/Other not-quite-forgotten possibilities that gain changes to be re-articulated3 and remade. Considering McCulloch and Pavlou’s point about how ‘literary texts reveal in their concealment’ (2003: 1), forgetting thereby can, for writers, take on a decidedly creative charge — can spark the creative actions Halberstam indicates by including forgetting among the many modes of ‘queer failure’ that can curiously open up ‘more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world’ (2011: 2-3).
Halberstam’s treatment of forgetting as creative, even radical, aptly describes the role forgetting plays for me in poetic performance. By poetic performance, I mean not only the public recitation of a memorised poem but crucially, the perpetual re-formation of always-in-progress poetries that change with-and-in each iteration-as-re-iteration: performing is not separable from forming (the composition process); each re-delivery de- and re-members a poem through small omissions, additions and revisions. This is a way of writing I learned through participation in pub-based open mic performance poetry communities (sources I cannot cite in a conventional manner because they simply don’t work in that way and/or world). However, the techniques I shall shortly describe closely resemble those deployed across a broad range of practices collectively described as oral literature (which may not be the best term, since it privileges the mouth and elides other bodily articulations). Particularly significant are the performance practices of Indigenous societies in which poetry, theatre, dance and other creative engagements have long provided a means for sharing and re-membering knowledges – vital knowledges that mainstream western cultures have violently suppressed, and which contemporary generations battle to keep alive (Coppola 2012: 38; Murray-Román 2016).
In sum, the techniques of re-membering performance poetry that I have learned from my performance poetry communities entail a faith in one’s memory to recall the parts of a poem that matter in and for a given scenario, to discard or indeed subconsciously edit out parts of the poem that are unnecessarily repetitive, awkward, extraneous or irrelevant, and perhaps to call afresh some spontaneous embellishments that draw on and speak to the immediate context. That said, this remains a faith grounded in rigorous rehearsals. Different poets have different practices: some never write or type their poems all; some engage the use of audio-recording devices; others, including myself, most often produce a written first draft, then practice it until it sticks – except that what ‘sticks’ may be wildly different from what one initially ‘stuck’ on paper. ‘A Nervous Break’ exemplifies this: the text presented here is missing huge chunks of the original draft. In most cases, I omitted words and lines without any conscious intent or realisation of what I was doing. Yet the omissions improve the poem, for, in nearly every instance, they were simply repeating the same ideas in different ways, or engaging long-winded phrases where shorter, snappier ones one required. At some moment or series of moments, I also added a section that now seems essential: the section regarding my decision to abandon psychiatric nursing due to what I perceived (and still perceive) as gross abuses of human rights. This section is key because by informing an audience of the textual context and perspective, it enhances the audience’s ability to critically consider factors that have shaped the text and its arguments, and thus to generate their own informed perspectives on the issues at stake.
The account I have just given of how ‘A Nervous Break’ came to be in its current (still in-progress) form illustrates how re-membering (and forgetting) performance poetry can entail creative processes of editing and/as rewriting. To extend this point, I would now like to explore the particularly bodily dimensions of rehearsing, performing and/as re-forming poetry by heart — ‘heart’ being a colloquialism I here engage, following Magee’s (2015) lead, because it suggests the processes of re-membering to be things that involve more than just the ‘head’. Interdisciplinary discourses on bodies writing and writing the body already extensively demonstrate ways in which all writing acts can to degrees be considered bodily (Ross 1998: 189; Couser 2009; Eades 2015; Phillips 2016: 64). For example, because the body ‘moves the hand that writes’ (Quinn 2012) and through the ‘gut symmetries’ (Winterson 1997) writing traces. However, performance poetry and/as its rehearsal tends to incorporate parts of the body that remain largely motionless when a writer works on paper or screen. Performing means writing with the muscles of the throat, tongue, lips, lungs and diaphragm and through expressive gestures that don’t just accompany but become part of a poem’s text: the arms, legs, torso, shoulders, nose, brow, eyes and more. Through repetition of a poem certain movements become associated with particular words, and silences. These movements can then act as memory triggers: ‘A Nervous Break’ is virtually impossible for me to recite without going through its actions; swaying, stamping, puffing, choking, dancing, going cross-eyed and hurling myself to the floor are all part of poetic re-membering. This kind of performance poetry relies, at least in part, on what the health sciences recognise as muscle memory (Liu & Jorgensen 2011), or indeed bodily thought (Seitz 2000; Schulkin 2004), since muscles and other body parts, too, can forget, can reinvent, can engage in radical queer failure in ways that push beyond the mind/body and nature/culture dualisms that have dominated western cultures for so long, ways that unsettle the supposedly rational assumption that all reasoning occurs in that privileged cluster of neurones referred to as the brain. Performance studies expert Pelias (1999: 104) illuminates this bodily thinking and/as writing when he remarks: ‘Without the script in hand, my body becomes free… testing possibilities, choosing among them. My body is speaking, guiding me to new possibilities’. Hence it is suggestible that performance poetry, with its bodily processes of writing-through-memory (and forgetting), bears particular capacities for verbalising the thoughts we think with-and-in parts of our bodies that usually seem mute – that is, for making the knowledges of those less-privileged body parts legible via the logocentric terms of dominant western discourses.
On the point of privilege and non-privilege, performance poetry’s capacities for re-membering the suppressed knowledges of bodies and their parts represents one of many ways in which, as Hecq (2005) has compellingly argued, poetry may be seen as a valuable ‘marginal’ genre – one that encompasses marginal positions and experiences because it supports articulations most other discourses tend to foreclose. This includes the marginal experiences and articulations of those experiencing various forms of so-called mental illness, as Hecq (2015: 1) also demonstrates in a separate article about anxiety as a sometimes creative force that in certain cases ‘organises the writing process’. If writing is, as earlier noted, a process of knowing via re-membering as knowledge-making, then what Hecq (2015) here reveals are ways in which anxiety contributes to writing and/as knowledge and/as culture in productive, socially-engaged ways that blow apart dominant assumptions about anxious thought as something exclusively destructive, self-involved and indeed pathological. She also reveals the ways in which writing can re-member the anxious knowledges such assumptions dismiss and dis-member. This (re)reading of Hecq’s (2015) argument is steered by McCulloch and Pavlou’s (2003) earlier case for literature’s capacity to express the ‘ineffable’ knowledges of depression. Knowledges of depression here suggesting knowledges gleaned in and through depression as a process that responds to, and may offer crucial insights about, problems of the collective social and/as natural world, in broad accordance with Laing’s (1967) notion of breakdown as breakthrough.4
But this reflection has now fled down yet another tangent, albeit one that re-embraces breakdown as breakthrough. Regardless, a valid question is that of what, beyond loose parallels of re-writing marginality, writing’s capacities for raising knowledges of depression, anxiety and perhaps other so-called mental illnesses have to do with performance poetry’s bodily re-memberings? To answer this question, I now embark on one last tangent, a detour that also re-tours earlier points about bodily thought as recognised by neuroscientists (Schulkin, 2004) and cognitive scientists (Seitz 2000). A related point, extensively observed in the health sciences, is that so-called mental illnesses frequently entail prolifically bodily aspects – for instance, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, muscle tightness, tooth grinding, digestive distress and unexplained pain sensations (Bernstein et al., 2016; Goldberg et al., 2016). While dominant opinion has, until recently, assumed these bodily symptoms as caused by and secondary to the brain’s thinking, unfolding realisations of how muscles and other body parts themselves re-member and/as think (Seitz, 2000; Schulkin, 2004; Liu & Jorgensen, 2011) make possible perception of brain-body relations as far more engaged, reciprocal and collaborative than medicine’s residual-yet-pervasive old hierarchical, one-way linear models of thought suggest. That is to say, bodies more than manifest what the brain thinks; they think together with (and against and beyond) the brain, which is just one more part of the body. In the case of the so-called mentally ill person, all body parts, brain included but not privileged, simultaneously think the manifestation as well as manifest the thinking of knowledges that seem mad — that is, incomprehensible — because they exceed conditions for expression within logocentric discourses where Cartesian mind/body and nature/culture distinctions still reign supreme. This situation potentially leads to the dis-memberment of knowledges that, as per the Laingian arguments noted at the outset of this reflection, could bear social value. In other words, contemporary societies are missing out, and suffering hence ensues. Re-membering performance poetry offers possibilities for also re-membering these dis-membered knowledges of mental and/as bodily illnesses (although illness might be better viewed as a process that seeks enhanced wellbeing, both individual and collective). For as I have argued, performance poetry presents processes for writing with and through body parts and processes exceeding those predominantly engaged when writing or typing at a desk, and thus for knowing more of what bodies know about the natural and/as social worlds of and in which all bodies and/as minds form connected parts. Performance poetry may be one (though this by no means suggests it to be the only) means through which it might yet be possible for contemporary societies to enact the radical conceptual as well as social and indeed political shifts Laing (1967) advocated, from breakdown, through breakthrough, and beyond.
1. Dickinson, Emily (2002). I’m nobody! Who are you?: poems by Emily Dickinson, E Mesmer & VE Wolff eds. (New York: Scholastic).
2. I owe this line to my Jivamukti yoga teacher, former biomedical researcher Dr Jacqueline Teusner, who quoted James Brown when explaining the importance of pushing ‘down’ in order to get ‘up’ into arm-balance postures.
3. The word ‘articulation’ is one I use to indicate both speech or utterance and also Hall’s (1985) concept of productive alliances between concepts that are potentially separate yet thinkable, connectable sites in ways that maintain difference(s).
4. That McCulloch’s and Pavlou’s (2003) account of the knowledges of depression bears resonances with Laing’s (1967) notion of breakdown as breakthrough probably reflects their use of Guattarian ideas. In their first volume on Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972), Deleuze and Guattari engage significantly with Laing’s ideas, even if they do ultimately also identify problems with the Laingian or antipsychiatric approach, introducing instead the notion of schizoanalysis and a push beyond breakthrough to breakflow. On this note, I should acknowledge that Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas influence ‘A Nervous Break’ and the accompanying reflection more than the explicit in-text references indicate (for example, the explorations into bodily knowledges as dis-membered bears resonances with the ‘body without organs’, while the discussion of links between artistic practices and madness reflect themes Deleuze and Guattari investigated at length, as indeed did Laing). The reason I have not cited in the text is that I am using Deleuze and Guattari’s theories in what I acknowledge are problematic ways — ways that introduce contradictions I do not have the scope to properly interrogate in a reflection of this nature, but which I hope to engage (with) in other future writings.
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