Monday, June 23, 2014

This is not a Confession: Poetry and Autism

A while back I made the announcement to some of you by way of this blog that I was recently diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome.  Well the DSM-5 has reclassified the definitions of how to label autism, and as such, I am at Level 1, which means highly functioning.  Not that has anything to do with what I am talking about other than to give you a little background and insight.  What I am really talking about today is how I interpret the poetry world.  The confession, you ask?  I will get to that pretty quick, but first and foremost I think it's a catchy title.  It's one of the things I focus on and have long fixated upon during my 25+ years of writing poems---both horrid and somewhat acceptable.  Besides, I said this was not a confession, so you will just have to keep reading if you want to see if I was lying.

A few days ago I found out I was not going to be receiving a fellowship from the Nevada Arts Council for poetry in the upcoming FY2015.  I received an honorable mention back in 2008, which was pretty awesome, and I recently received a Jackpot Grant for assistance in publishing my third full length collection through BlazeVOX, Sailing This Nameless Ship.  As the story often goes, I felt a little bit of a sting seeing other people's names listed as the upcoming Arts Fellows for Nevada.  I think I am a pretty decent poet, and I have a considerable amount of pride knowing I send in poetry written for the most part within the year leading up to my submission.  We can submit work up to four years old if we like in Nevada, but I try to keep my work as current as possible as I think it keeps me honest.  I take some comfort in my wife telling me I just don't write what's in fashion, but the truth is my work just isn't good enough.  I personally believe it's a combination.  My work isn't good enough, but I also do not write what is fashionable.

As someone with Asperger's Syndrome (AS), I fixate on my subject matter.  I'm not as bad as William Heyen, but I tend to write about very specific things and once I have a book project I cannot deviate from that topic.  Yeah, so what's different, Justin?  This is what's different:  I cannot write anything new or feel good about myself as a writer until I have closure with my current project and there is no way for me to know what will bring me that closure because it has been something entirely different for every manuscript I have ever written.  More?  I lose interest in every project when I am 90% finished.  So, for any project I create, I become obsessed with it until I am 90% finished, but I cannot move on until I finish it.  For anyone familiar with AS or Autism in general, you know that with the AS individual it's hot or cold.  There is no warm.  It's almost manic.  What is good is really good, and what sucks really sucks.  I am reminded of being on Amitriptyline when I was being initially treated for my headaches which is a part of my Desert Storm Syndrome.  It is a mood altering medication, and I was a real SOB.  In hindsight I now know that drug did a number on my AS and alienated almost everyone in my life.  So what happens?  I get stuck in some kind of limbo, unable to abandon a project, and almost unwilling to complete it.

Add to that, the following I mentioned in the post where I announced my diagnosis:

One of the things I thought was wrong with me and my poetry was not being able to write with what I perceived to be the 'linguistic depth' as other poets.  Now, I realize that one of the common disorders which accompanies Asperger's is something called Alexithymia.  It's the sub-clinical inability to 'identify and describe emotions in the self,' or, at least that's what Wikipedia tells me.  Well, I have it in spades.  When I took the profile questionnaire my numbers weren't off the chart, but they were quite high.  Imagine my astonishment that one of the special interests I had developed (poetry) as people with AS are prone to do, is hampered by an inability to do what said special interests requires.  Simply put, I am a poet who cannot identify or describe his emotions.

The result is I have a difficult time writing poems people like more than one or two at a time.  I will (actually I have written) write an entire manuscript of ars poetica poems and I have a great deal of success playing the individual poems, but taken all together, it was a very hard sell.  Now imagine what happened when I became fixated on 19th Century Agrarian Mormon History as what I wanted to write about?  The poems I wrote for Sailing This Nameless Ship were written in a three month period.  I had a great deal of success getting about 40% of the poems accepted for publication.  Then . . . nothing.  I mean nothing.  Everything stopped. I couldn't have had anyone take another poem from that collection of poems if I promised to pay for their kid's college tuition.  

And that's what the last two years have been like.  I have written poems and I have submitted, but I have not had a single taker.  Not a single "close, but maybe some other time." I received one "we respect you" rejection which was nice, but really it was the same thing I have experienced over and over again.  People just don't like what I am writing right now, and my ability to write the poems the way they deserve to be written is possibly at fault, too.  So when I made the decision to stop submitting my poems it really was based in my acknowledgement of not doing what a poet should be doing---making my thoughts and feelings accessible to the reading audience.  I received one message from someone who told me it was/is sour grapes.  I will admit I have sour grapes, but not over being rejected.  I know and accept if my poems aren't good enough, that's how it goes.

No.  My sour grapes is a result of my AS.  Part of my brain is convinced all of you are part of some cabal of poets of which I can never be a part of because I have never received an MFA or PhD, and I do not teach college writing like so many of you do.  I look at all of you and I see you talking to each other in some strange dialect and giving each other secret handshakes.  I have a similar perception of home-ownership, so I know how irrational my feelings are.  I have published more than a hundred poems in dozens of journals; I have had four chapbooks published; three full length collections published; I have blurbed books and have been trusted by quite a few of you to read your manuscripts and offer my thoughts.  Yet I still feel like I am not one of you.  I feel like the slow kid because I do not have the depth of language you do, and I do not have the credentials most of you have.  I got tired of faking it until I make it because it just never seemed to gel for me.  But now I know part of the reason why.  My AS tells me you all know something I don't, but that's not really true.  It's why I am such a pain in the ass so much of the time, and it's why I can go on at length about things long after you have stopped caring.  

So here's this: A Confession.

I am never going to be able to fully accept my role, value, or authenticity as a poet.  I am not okay with that all of the time, and it may come out in strange ways---sometimes frustration, and sometimes by way of jealousy.  Please bear with me.


  1. Hi, Justin,

    I think what you're experiencing is more normal than it probably seems to you. I think that's sort of the poetry world you're describing. I spent several hours today filling out a grant application and selecting poems for a state arts grant that I apply for nearly every year and have never won. I don't think it means that my poems aren't good enough. I think it probably means that there are lots of applicants and not a lot of money for the arts.

    As far as the 19th C. Mormon Agrarian History poems, go for it. Make them work. In Contrary, I'm publishing a series of poems about a 17th Century historical figure who I had never heard of, but the author's work is so compelling, I was fascinated.

    Penelope Scambly Schott has a book called _Penelope, The Half Scalped Woman_ about a historical figure, as well... If you believe in it and want to do it, make it work. (I know that is easier said than done.)

    I don't know if you've seen this piece yet, but I thought it might help.

    1. Thanks, Shaindel. It's much appreciated. I haven't seen what you linked and I am on my way there now.