Written by Sam Twyford-Moore and originally published in Australia, The Rapids is an exploration of manic depression (also known as bipolar disorder). In a new blog series to highlight the ways in which mental health is depicted and discussed in today’s world, Sam talks with other writers about some of their own experiences relating to mental health, similar to those discussed in his book. In this final part, Sam talks to fellow Australian author David Stavanger.
David Stavanger is a poet, performer, cultural producer, editor, and lapsed psychologist. His first full-length poetry collection The Special (UQP, 2014) was awarded the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize and the Wesley Michel Wright Poetry Prize. David co-directed Queensland Poetry Festival (2015-2017) and is a Project Manager at Red Room Poetry. He is the co-editor with Anne-Marie Te Whiu of SOLID AIR: Collected Australian & New Zealand Spoken Word (UQP, 2019) and his new collection is Case Notes (UWAP, 2020).
I was very pleased to talk to the Australian poet David Stavanger for this final part of my interview series, celebrating the launch of The Rapids. David and I met at a writers’ festival late last year, and we had a fascinating conversation there about mental ill-health. You can listen to that panel here.
Sam Twyford-Moore: David, we met last year at the Wollongong Writers’ Festival, and we spoke there a little bit about the connections between working in the arts and the risks to the stability of one’s mental health. There have been big conversations about burn out in that space, and I feel like you’ve been quite open in discussing these issues, online and elsewhere. Do you see any progress being made here?
David Stavanger: That’s hard to gauge in the current COVID environment. In many ways, my own workload has increased as an arts producer/project manager with the number of quick response grants and rapidly changing ways things are delivered, plus an underlying feeling of guilt of having – for now – a relatively secure arts job, relative to my mental health being stable (both of which are highly unusual for me.) I see this moment as one where the whole model could be reevaluated in terms of the ways shrinking grant pools with broad-ranging quantitative outcomes are often driven by forces outside the art as an outcome in itself. I don’t think we can talk self-care in the industry until we interrogate the mechanisms that underpin these incessant pressures to “deliver” (not to mention the level of admin.)
I also feel like there is an acute pressure when you program or produce within an artform you also actively practice and love – it can become all-consuming and the basis of your identity, as well as feeling particularly accountable to the wild ranging expectations of that arts community. The biggest progress I see is more open conversations about these pressures and their direct consequences, and I have managed to find a workplace where it feels okay to openly have a chronic mental illness that can at times be acute.
STM: Case Notes is such an excellent collection – it’s wild, radical, and feels like it rewires your system as you read it. It’s also a collection that features a lot of writing both directly and indirectly about mental ill-health. I’ve not thought about how someone writes about this in a poetic sense – how did you approach? It feels like you’re refracting a lot of autobiographical detail.
DS: Firstly, thank you! I think I was in part trying to rewire my own system in writing this collection. It’s somewhere in between refraction of my own lived/living experiences and a redaction of the system it is written in response too/within. It’s also a reclaiming and reframing – of memory, of language, of labels, of family history, of being a parent and a patient. In part, I gave over to the “I” as both an unreliable reliable narrator and observer (and at times as a distant version of the self), given the impact that interventions such as ECT and medication regimes have on the idea of truth and recall – in calling it Case Notes I am also documenting and expanding the narrative of my mental illness on my own terms, as well as playing with new forms including exploring prose poetry/micro-fictions as small narrative detours into the daily absurd that occurs in parallel to the big moments.
STM: Your poem “Bipolar II” is a found text work, composed of grabs from “every second line from the book Strictly Bipolar by Darian Leader.” I used that book as reference materials in The Rapids. I find Leader as an intellectual who is simultaneously comforting and infuriating – he knows how to push certain buttons and is extremely forward in his strong opinions. What made you want to remix his work?
DS: A beautiful partner of mine bought this to try and better understand my diagnosis. It was also at a time a not so beautiful psychiatrist had me on Valproate and anti-psychotics while pushing hard for me to be on Lithium like my grandfather who was truly – old skool – manic depressive, despite medical risks due to other medical issues. There was something about the slim accessibility of it and yes there was comfort in the affirmation of over-diagnosis and re-patenting of drugs by big pharma for mood disorders that flew in the face of the concrete medical model faith/doctrine I was facing at the time. I thought would be a neat constraint to create a found poem only using phrases from the first two lines of each page of the text. I soon enjoyed the fixation of it and by the end had a piece that not only distilled the book but my own experience of “Bipolar II”, especially the rapid-cycle nature of it I was going through at the time.
STM: Further to your use of Leader’s text, Case Notes seems to use, and confront, a lot of the medicalized language around mental ill-health. It’s easy to forget that language is the first experience of a lot of diagnoses and treatments. It directs us and pushes us towards certain conclusions. I loved the line “I don’t need a doctor to use the word complex more than once.” I found it very funny and truthful somehow – doctors seem to get away with a lot of overuse of language. Was this something you were conscious of in the writing – playing with and rejecting medical language?
DS: That was one of the very conscious parts of the collection – especially ideas of “informed consent,” “consumer,” “intervention,” and “treatment resistant” which are central tenets throughout – the use of jargon and euphemisms that are frequently used by governmental institutions – especially by the government and in the military – to hide disturbing ideas or play down the violence or dehumanization behind the language.
The phrase that really struck me was when I was being assessed by the public health team and they stated I would be an “excellent candidate for ECT” – it would have been funny, a late-night sketch with good-bad actors if I wasn’t then sent for blood tests and to sign forms. Actually, my current real estate recently told me my rental application was successful as I had been an “excellent candidate” – the subversion of praise to placate those in desperate places. When someone is in spiritual or psychological distress things can seem benign or neutral or even in your best interest when jargon reduces the currency of potential risk or harm, especially when you crave an external person to tell you what your best interest is.
STM: I have to ask about the dogs – they are everywhere in the poems. We know that animals are becoming more centralized as in therapy, and can even become trained carers. How do they figure in your life?
DS: Rescue dogs have rescued me – two, in particular, have definitely helped keep me alive (or at least connected to life.) I share custody of a rescue dog called Cookie who epitomizes everything worth living for. With a dog, I have to go outside even if I can’t.
Dogs are both an avatar and a dog in this book. The writer Laura Jean McKay really pushed me with “Dog Minding” (a longer dialogue poem with a dog named Harry) to ensure the poem was truly an exchange, and that I was clear what the authorial intent of the dog was in this context. I’m still not 100% when I am the dog and when the dog is me in the book, and space in-between allows for other points of view and worlds to emerge beyond both.
STM: I feel as if poetry has this extraordinary capacity to express disassociation – through metaphor most obviously, but there’s something more innate within the approach than even that. “Electric Journal,” a long poem at the centre of the collection seems acutely aware of this potential – a long diaristic poem detailing nights and days in, what we assume is, a psychiatric hospital. It is quickly followed by “Mouth” – a very lively expression of a more bodily form of disassociation (“my mouth is not a mouth” etc). We know of course that disassociation is a large part of certain affective mood disorders – was this something you were conscious of trying to express through these poems in particular?
DS: I was under the public health team and going in for ECT treatments then coming home being cared for by my then partner, who has kept me here as much as anyone or anything. The writing of “Electric Journal” was extremely dissociative and I actually don’t recall writing at last half of it – I found it later in a series of short fragments and sticky notes. I wasn’t even sure they were my words even though it was clearly my hand that had made them. “Mouth” is an older piece that has never found a home but I wrote it as an alter ego to capture what it feels like to me to be hyper-manic and leave the body, how the body becomes one part that you’re not part of. I still go into a specific state whenever I perform it – it’s one of the few pieces I can still do from muscle memory and it made complete sense that it should follow “Electric Journal” on the page as they are in strange twins that had never met.
STM: “Electric Journal” also includes the hugely funny lines “I am considered ‘an excellent candidate for ECT.’ I am thrilled. My arts degree has come to something after all” It seems humor is incredibly important to your work. It’s an essential thing to keep with you during the trying times – does it factor into both your life and writing?
DS: It is at the heart of how I write. I have to be able to critique myself first and foremost.
Gallows humor/surrealist satire is part of my art and life lens, and also allows a distance to the subject matter especially when it is based in some way on direct experience. Without it, the work would be cynical at best, and I think that’s a lazy way to write about the strangeness of being human. There is also deep empathy and slivers of light there too.
I have lost a lot of my capacity for joy as my depressive episodes have become deeper and more prolonged, and that is something I want back – to really feel the sun on my skin and within me and that I am within the sun.
STM: I’m asking everyone I’m interviewing as part of this series “Why write?” It’s a boring and basic question, but I’m interested in answers framed around what writing can bring to the kind of chaotic conditions that go with experiencing mental ill-health during your life – whether there’s use in using writing as a way of making sense of things, or if it, indeed, as some stabilizing effects of it’s own that we maybe don’t really talk about enough… a grounding, a tethering, or an anchoring that brings us meaning and maybe a little hope too?
DM: What does my poetry do? I wish I had a poetry right now. Or do I?
I like your new jacket. But what’s inside it. I do like your new jacket.
What do potatoes do? Starch. Can poetry be used for persons?
The consensus seems to be that poetry does do things for persons.
What of the misfortune of doing poetry. Do nothing until you hear a line
like a bell. Nope. Hauling a body into a frame. Cough. To perform a poem is to do.
To execute a poem is to do. The wind do blow in the final stanza,
the rain do fall in between. I don’t care but I do. Poems are trained
to listen and partner with their patients to help them get healthy and stay well.
I do miss my poems. My poems are American cult leaders. My poems are with a surname.
My poems do know the musical fraternity. Does my poem go there often?
I am the poems mother. Do not listen to him, he is not the poem.
Do tell us what the poem does. Does it play tennis. yes. But prose does too.
Does it request loyalty. Yes. But so does a pet. All you ever do poem is surf the internet.
What will you do tomorrow afternoon? A poem is a do where children run around the event.
I did invite you. Come on poem, the fresh air will do you some good.
My relationship with poem is not doing well. I’ve been seeing other things
– the sea, the tv, the lagoon. When the poem says ‘I’ll just do some eggs”
I wait patiently for a plate. My poems have not done five years for armed robbery.
They have not robbed my arms at all. I’ve never done a poem. A few poems
have done me. The poem says are you done yet and turns into a cigarette. Bent.
Do poems do haircuts in there? Do they make burgers with the hair?
Do they shake mayonnaise in the air? My poem doesn’t care. They’re just over there,
doing away with the leftovers.
Sam Twyford Moore’s The Rapids: Ways of Looking at Mania is now available to order.
Click here to read an excerpt from the book.
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