Roundtable: Stuttering on the Page: Speech Dysfluency and Writing

Welcome to our Sundress Roundtables, a celebration of exceptional, not-so-lost AWP panels which did not make the AWP final cut for 2018.

How does one’s speech affect one’s writing? Writers with distinct modes of speaking (stuttering, laryngeal dystonia) discuss the relationship between language disability and writing. From memoir that gives voice to non-normative experience, to poetry that makes language itself tremble, to multi-genre performance art that uses vocal difference as a generative force, these writers discuss how their unique speech transforms their work.

How has your speech impacted your relationship with the written word? Describe in terms of form and content how your speech has influenced your writing.

Adam Giannelli: I think, when I was growing up, I turned to writing in part to avoid stuttering. I felt more comfortable expressing myself on the page, hiding from my speech, but stuttering is now an important part of my poetry. The first poem I wrote about stuttering, “Stutter,” chronicles the difficulties I faced stuttering as a child and includes some of the substitutions I used to avoid words that were difficult to pronounce: “since I couldn’t say Cleveland I said / Ohio.” Towards the end of the poem, these substitutions evolve into puns and metaphors: “since I can’t say memory I say / underbloom.” I wanted to show that stuttering not only consists of moments of stuttering, but also the avoidant behaviors that often accompany and precede those moments.

A common metaphor used to describe stuttering is, surprisingly, an iceberg. The physical stuttering comprises the tip of the iceberg, while the person’s fears make up the hidden base. The metaphor illuminates that stuttering is not simply about sound, but about the lengths that stutters go to avoid stuttering itself. These substitutions have a linguistic component, since they rely on periphrasis: saying something in a roundabout way. I think the link between stuttering and writing goes beyond the avoidance of speech. The repetitions, circumlocutions, fragmentation, and silences of poetry all share with the pauses and hesitations of the stutter. Viewing stuttering in this light also makes it easier for people to relate to it, since we are all caught within language. I wanted “Stutter” to not only address stuttering, but to be about maneuvering through language, and describe the resilience and invention that are common to all people as they face challenges in their everyday lives.

Every time I stutter, I feel the tension between the physicality of language and the ideas that I want to communicate. Poetry also inhabits this space. Poetry doesn’t simply communicate, but is a form of communication, like stuttering, flooded with the density of language. I’m not sure I would write if I didn’t stutter. I no longer see poetry as a way to escape my stuttering, but as a way to embrace it. I am now working on some new poems that cast stuttering in a positive light. Instead of writing from the perspective of a child as in “Stutter,” I am trying to write from my perspective as an adult. I realize that the avoidance that “Stutter” portrays is problematic. It is a form of self-betrayal, an attempt to pass as normative. The new poems are more celebratory of stuttering.

Rachel Hoge: I started writing initially as a form of escapism, and later, for self-expression. Because I started stuttering at a young age—I remember being five-years-old and feeling terrified that I would stutter in front of my kindergarten class—my speech shaped my relationship with the written word in a tremendous way. I read constantly as a way to escape the reality of growing up with a speech impediment, particularly one that no one around me seemed to understand (me, least of all). Then, once I realized that I could use language to transcribe my thoughts onto the page—communicating effectively without ever having to stutter—I naturally gravitated towards writing as a way to engage with the world.

In my adolescence, I wrote a ton of serialized novels, modeling my own work after children’s and YA books I had read. It never occurred to me to write about my own life, particularly about my stutter…which I rarely spoke about, and felt incredibly embarrassed by. But then I took creative writing classes in college and naturally gravitated towards creative nonfiction. I started to reflect on how my life and my perspective were unique, wondering what central truth I could bring to the page. Writing about my personal experience with stuttering—as well as the scientific findings, cultural representation, and societal impact—proved to be a meaningful, and possibly lifelong, endeavor for me.

Denise Leto: I have a neurological condition called Laryngeal Dystonia. It is centered in the basal ganglia, specifically in Broca’s Area, which controls speech and language processing. The brain sends errant messages to the vocal folds to seize and shut which then constricts the larynx and impedes the resonant movement of breath; as a result, speech is a disrupted and unpredictable soundscape. This is where my voice lives: in vocal folds and sound waves that twist and move and shape differently. There’s normative speech, there’s the written word, and then there’s this third thing: my voice.

My speech impacts my writing at the deepest core of my relationship to language production: the embodied antecedent to any “hello.” Speaking is rarely a source of generative vocalized ease. On the page, though, these speech patterns—the involuntary stops and starts—have leant multidimensionality to everything I write. Living outside verbal familiarity, with every spoken word an unexpected animism, the written word became its own spasmodic, miasmic unknown.

Contending with this difference over time radically changed my written/poetic voice. The myth of narrative or lyric linearity—already subverted by my interest in experimental poetries—sounded like a flat, one-tonal prosody.  Consequently, the content of my poems shifted. I began to explore in greater depth polyvocality, the poetics of silence, the physicality of words and sound as text art. The form came to mirror the random, shaping forces of my voice. An aesthetic of error, indeterminacy, chance, syntactic fracture, experiential fragment, somatics, and dissonance overtook my poems where lineation and enjambment overlap and/or occupy the same and different places in a sort of painful exhilaration.


While speech and writing both draw upon language, they are different modes of expression. How have you negotiated representing a spoken voice in written form?

Adam Giannelli: In my poetry I make use of white space, indenting lines and scattering words across the page. To some extent, I am trying to capture the swervings of the mind, but I also think these forms relate to the swervings of speech. In their irregularity, they provide a visual analogue to my stuttering. In his essay “The Enjambed Body,” Jim Ferris compares the irregular way he walks to the irregular way he writes, preferring free-verse rhythms over fixed forms. I feel similarly about my own approach to form. My uneven voice takes an uneven form on the page. There are three kinds of stutters: prolongations (drawing out a sound), repetitions (repeating a sound), and blocks (getting stuck on a sound). The white space on the page can be seen as a kind of block, especially when it occurs in the middle of a sentence, suspending the syntax.

The repetitions of stuttering also intersect with poetry. In “He Stuttered,” Gilles Deleuze claims that certain writers use parentheticals and unconventional syntax to make “language itself scream, stutter, stammer, or murmur,” citing Samuel Beckett as an example. As a person who stutters, I am interested in how my own writing might tremble in this way. I have started a new series of prose poems, “Alliterative Autobiography,” that tells the story of my childhood through highly repetitive and alliterative prose. I often struggle to pronounce consonants, and this poetic stutter shares with actual stuttering since it focuses on hard initial consonants. In speech therapy, people who stutter are sometimes taught to stutter voluntarily. It’s a form of disclosure, but it also helps develop pride in one’s speech. I see the “Alliterative Autobiography” as a voluntary, poetic stutter on the page.

Rachel Hoge: That’s such an interesting question. I’m really mindful of this whenever I write poetry, because poetry is an oral tradition that relies on sound to help develop meaning. I’m a member of many online stuttering groups, and from what I’ve learned, people who stutter are especially fascinated with language in all its form. The mechanics of speech can be frustrating to us, for obvious reasons, but there’s nothing more satisfying than finding a way to fully express yourself. Many people who stutter are also writers, whether it’s professionally or in our private journals, we can’t seem to get enough. Writing is a way to play with language, to embrace a fluidity that’s not always available to us vocally.

In my own speech, there’s always the inclination to whittle down my spoken words to as few as possible, to be concise so I cut down on the possibility of stuttering. But in the written word, I don’t have that concern. I can be as loquacious as I want. I can call the electronic touchscreen of my cellphone a “digital glass pane covered in plastic film, a window that protects one of my most valuable items.” That’s an outlandish example, of course, but you get the idea. For a person who stutters, the written word is a place where we can revel in language without fear or apprehension.  

Denise Leto: Often, I have negotiated this by continuously translating the nonduality of breath. There is so much in between the inhale and the exhale when trying to produce speech. In my experience, that place or portal suffocates if it has to live in a narrowed and anguished interpretation of speech/silence, of spoken/written. Language is the medium, but it’s also the perceived locus of speech pathology and a kind of (as I have been told on occasion) “writerly weirdness.”  It is like a stealth antagonist evading my ability to express its spoken articulation. Pieces of a word revise as they are vocalized. It’s a spontaneous collaboration between the speaker and the receiver. This chasm between the given and the constructed voice, for me, makes the written more ominous: the alphabet as beautiful ruin.

This isn’t a mimetic process so much as it is a letting. Underneath whatever poem I work on or present, there’s always a phantom presence. The field of query seems always to be in first person singular even if I am not writing in first person singular. It becomes a choiceless self-reference. If I write a poem about a giraffe, for example, and read or perform it, it necessarily also becomes a poem about voice. This reminds me of a quote by Barbara Guest that I frequently return to:

“Do you ever notice as you write that no matter what there is on the written page, something appears to be in back of everything that is said, a little ghost. I judged that this ghost is there to remind us there is always more, an elsewhere, a hiddenness, a secondary form of speech, an eye blink…there is something more I do not say. Leave this little echo to haunt the poem. Do not give it form, but let it assume its own ghostlike shape.”


What are some of your adaptive strategies for vocal difference and speech “accessibility” (such as logistical, artistic, aesthetic approaches) when working with the performative aspects of poetry and writing, for example, when preparing and giving readings, lectures, etc., in terms of engaging the listener, audience, spectator?

Adam Giannelli: Growing up, I was initially reticent to speak in public. I think a lot of people who stutter grapple with this fear, and some join Toastmasters to gain more confidence as public speakers. The first creative writing workshop I took in college culminated with a reading. Although I did choose to participate, I was reluctant and fretted over the event for days in advance. I think the numerous poetry readings I have given throughout my life have served a similar purpose as a rigorous public-speaking course. With event after event, I gradually grew more comfortable with my voice.

Early on I would openly tell the audience that I stutter, but now that I have written poems about stuttering I have a slightly different approach. I typically read my poem “Stutter” in the beginning of the reading and then follow the poem with some commentary. I still disclose, but I do it through my art. I feel this openness helps inform the audience, puts them at ease, and even makes them more receptive to the poems. I still stutter sometimes when I give readings, so there is a performative aspect to my readings. I don’t, however, feel so at odds with my body’s improvisations. I am no longer ashamed of my stuttering, and it complements the subject matter of some of the poems.

I always request a microphone for my readings. I have found that I have trouble projecting my voice. On several occasions, I have also encountered audience members who have hearing loss. Technology helps us meet in the middle.

Rachel Hoge: This is a conundrum that’s been on my mind for a while. I received my BA in creative writing and then—most recently—my MFA, so there have been so many readings I’ve participated in which required me to read my own work. I’ve had mostly positive experiences, usually because I have whoever introduces me read a statement I’ve prepared and disclose that I have a stutter. Anytime I haven’t disclosed—just approach a microphone and read for a crowd of strangers—I’m always more self-conscious of my stutter, worrying that the audience spends more time focusing on my dysfluencies than the content of my work. Because of that, anytime I’m in a position to disclose, I always do.

There have been some instances, though, when I knew giving a reading would do more harm for me than good. I actually wrote about this recently for Salon, an essay which I’ll gladly link here. Basically, I became ill once simply in anticipation of an upcoming reading, and learned to be more attentive to my body and its needs. If I need to say “no” to a reading, I will, because self-care is important. But at the same time, if I feel like a public reading will be more of a positive experience than a negative one, I’ll gladly stutter my way through an essay and feel immensely proud of myself afterwards. I approach the more performative aspects of creative writing case-by-case.

Denise Leto: A greeting or self-introduction at an event reveals my neurodiversity: self-disclosure happens without self-explanation. But if I choose to explain what is happening with my speech then to tell you is to tell you.

In the beginning of this new dystonic reality, I experienced a loss of assurance in reading, teaching or performing. My first response was a concerted effort to speak in a way that reflected my previous voice, which was an attempt at “verbal passing.” Finally, I began to experiment with various adaptive strategies: collaboration, participatory, choral and co-readings, recorded voice, music, sound art, visual art, performance art, movement, dance, the practice of voicing by others and the “human microphone” which serves as an interpretive echo. This changed how I thought about binaries of communication. I’m now more interested in interactive, sensory resonances; in building trust fields of speaking and receiving; in creating safer spaces for artistic exchange.

Before an event, I’ll find out if the buildings, classrooms, auditoriums and performance spaces are physically accessible. I’ll check if the venue has an adequate sound system for amplification. I’ve used projected writing and visual communication or an ASL interpreter. In whatever form the soundings take, I’ll make sure those who are visually impaired can receive the clarity of spoken words. I strive to create an environment where everyone in the room is in the room with me – one where the audience or spectators are also not assumed to inhabit normative bodies.

 

What advice would you give to emerging writers of disability, particularly those hoping to share the experience of disability through their writing?

Adam Giannelli: The poet Brenda Hillman once encouraged me to “embrace my strangeness,” and, although she was not referring to my stuttering at the time, I think it is good advice: embrace. Don’t be afraid to express and celebrate what is unique about your own experience and voice. When I was younger, I did not see my stuttering as a source of poetry, yet the intersection of poetry and stuttering has been very fruitful for me.

I also feel that I have learned that with self-acceptance comes initiation into community. My new outlook on stuttering has led me to forge new bonds. I attend group meetings for people who stutter, and have reached out to other people with disabilities as a volunteer. And now through this panel I am meeting other writers who speak in unique ways.

Rachel Hoge: Don’t let anyone make your life their inspiration. Your work can inspire readers, sure, but it can also educate them, challenge them, make them laugh, make them cry, make them angry, make them want more. Those of us with disabilities are not around to remind able-bodied folks to appreciate the luck of their genes. We have our own stories to tell—stories that are good, stories that are worth telling and worth reading. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, you are large and contain multitudes. You are allowed to be complex, to accept your disability one day and then struggle with it the next. Embrace the authenticity of your experience and channel that into your writing.

And if you’re a literary writer, be conscious of how your perspective might speak to a more universal truth. Write for yourself as well as others. Write in order to contribute to an ongoing conversation that means something to you.

But above all, play with language. Celebrate the act of writing. Write because you love it, because even when it’s difficult, it brings you joy. Protect that joy, always.

Denise Leto: Here are some suggestions of what I have found helpful. I hope they are useful in some way:

It has been of great support to find community within the politics and poetics of disability activism and within interdisciplinary and cross-genre arts communities. In my own process, I became even more concerned with and committed to words as a landscape of transfiguration via radical feminist and queer politics; intersectionality—in my case gender, sexuality, ethnicity and inequities of social and economic status. In addition, further explore awareness of your own unconscious bias by working across intersections that may be outside your own comfort zone.

Explore and advocate for radical accessibility and equity in publishing and in the submission process (as a right and not an exceptionalist favor as it can sometimes be wrongfully depicted).  Request or demand experiential and multimodal classrooms or venues, even when the answer might be no, keep making those requests.

Try to work with intergenerational communities – to value our elders’ voices and experiences — who came before us when it was even more difficult to have these conversations. And keep channels of communication open with younger poets.

I have found it a valuable imperative to have a history of apprenticeship to mentors. Think about folks, not only those who can help advance your poetry or teaching or arts career, but people who you want to learn from whether these mentors are in the arts, the academy, the community, etc.

When you are ready to send something out for publication, I also recommend finding trusted and generous readers so that the feedback becomes a helpful, interesting exchange and not an ego-driven nightmare.

Finally, honor your poetic labor in ways that are meaningful to you and to the work.


giannelli author photo

Adam Giannelli is the author of Tremulous Hinge (winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize), the translator of Diadem (a selection of prose poems by Marosa di Giorgio), and a person who stutters. His poems have appeared the Kenyon Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, Colorado Review, and elsewhere. For more information, please visit adamgiannelli.com.

 

Hoge 1

Rachel Hoge is a freelance writer, essayist, MFA graduate from the Arkansas Writers Program, and person who stutters. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming from the Washington Post, Salon, the Guardian, the Rumpus, and many more. Entropy named this essay one of the Best Essays and Articles of 2017. Lately, she’s been hard at work on an essay collection about the intersection of disability and gender. You can follow her on Twitter @hoge_rachel or view her full creative portfolio at rachelbhoge.com.

 

denise leto

Denise Leto is a poet, artist, and creative editor. She wrote the poetry and text art for the collaborative multi-genre performance Your Body is Not a Shark. North Beach Press published the book of poems. Waveform, her collaborative chapbook with Amber DiPietra, is from Kenning Editions. Her work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including The Force of What’s Possible: Writer’s on Accessibility and the Avant-Garde, Nightboat Books. A limited edition miniature broadside is out from Gazing Grain Press. She has been a visiting artist and guest lecturer at many universities and performance spaces. She was awarded the Orlando Prize in Poetry and her fellowships include the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, the Breadloaf Residency Program in Sicily, and the inaugural Sugarloaf Queer Art Residency in the Florida Keys. Several poems are forthcoming in Posit: A Journal of Literature and Art.

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