Crafting Madness: Stephanie Heit on Joining a Lineage of Authors with Mental Health Difference
Naomi Ortiz Talks to the Author of Psych Murders
Stephanie Heit’s new book, Psych Murders, is a hybrid memoir poem that documents her experience of shock treatment. She traces her queer mad bodymind through breathlessness, damage, refusal, and memory loss as it shifts in and out of locked psychiatric wards and extreme bipolar states.
Stephanie Heit and Naomi Ortiz initially met in 2019 as inaugural fellows of Zoeglossia, a literary organization for disabled poets. Since then, they have met over Skype and Zoom from their homes on Anishinaabe land in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and the lands of the O’odham and Yoeme people, in Tucson, Arizona, for friendship and creative exchange.
Naomi Ortiz: I loved the experience of reading this book and immersing in all the layers. What was the most challenging aspect of writing Psych Murders?
Stephanie Heit: My main challenge was that I did not want this work or the making of this work to cause harm to me or to my readers. This writing called on me to reenter slippery, seductive terrain riddled with sinkholes. To navigate experiences barely in the rearview mirror composed of psych inpatient hallways, basement corridors where I had ECT (electroconvulsive therapy, or shock), bleached white sheets, doors that opened and closed with and without my will. I had to figure out how to dip in and most importantly out of structures that held, and still hold, charge.
How could I create space on the page for myself and the reader to rest? To answer this question, I called on my sensibilities as a dancer and approached the page as a choreographer. Where would the poems live? How would they be contained?
NO: I find so much value in work that allows for containers, especially with a process of trying to understand trauma. I often bring in ancestral practices that are simple, yet contextual, to give structure to work where I am attempting to engage with something I find difficult or scary. Those containers become so important for both myself, as well as the reader, to enter in and disengage from the work.My main challenge was that I did not want this work or the making of this work to cause harm to me or to my readers.
You mentioned thinking intentionally about places for the reader to rest, and I really experienced that when reading Psych Murders. Can you share more about how you structured the work on the page to allow space for the reader to engage with it?
SH: In addition to being mindful of the shape of the text and its location on the page, I thought about the action and repose of the white of the page. This “open space” gives the eye a place to rest without having to take in any content. I also thought about the reader’s gaze trained to start at the top left of the page and the gap moment when the focus needs to shift to the bottom right to encounter text.
I have a poem in the book, “Primetime,” that is a persona piece from the perspective of Murderer, the noir character representation of suicidal ideation. Originally, this was a dense prose piece on a single page. In the book, it is divided onto four pages in text blocks with space above and below. This gave the piece more leg room and breath.
I love to think about the rhythm of the page turn. It is a physical action that creates an in-built caesura in the reading flow and a moment of reader agency with the decision to continue the book. I also thought about rhythm in terms of the organization and sequence of the book. For instance, the poems about shock are divided into sections based on the layout of the basement where they took place: Waiting Bay (top of page), Treatment Room (block on right), and Recovery Bay (bottom of page). Initially, these were interspersed throughout the book, and the shifting visual patterns required the reader to do a lot of work to reorient on each page. I changed the organization so that the sections are grouped together by form. I wanted the reader to be able to relax into the form over many pages and have the comfort of geographical familiarity in the midst of often disturbing content.
I also thought about the physical object of the book—with much gratitude to Wayne State University Press who invited my input and ran with it. I asked the designers to play with how to create space (literal and figurative) around the work so the reader had places to rest and breathe. I asked about how the design and typography could amplify and embolden the text while simultaneously giving the reader ways to pause. We ended up with a book size chosen for its spaciousness around the text blocks, and section dividers with black pages and titles in all caps to create thresholds.Psych Murders definitely arises out of the influence of the mad ancestor writing trio Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Virginia Woolf.
NO: As a visual artist, I often work out what I am contemplating for a poem or an essay on canvas first. Yet, for whatever reason I find myself nervous to apply that visual aspect to the page. I love how you treat poems almost like visual art, finding ways to reflect your intention for the work, not just through words but also through the form on the page. It allowed me to pause and absorb the imagery and feeling you gifted the page.
Sometimes I get asked in interviews who mentored me, and I find that such an awkward question because most of what I’ve learned about craft has been from my peers. For example, you and I met through a fellowship for disabled writers, Zoeglossia, and we began to work together and learn from each other. When I think about mentorship, I think much more about reading other poets’ writing. Does Psych Murders evolve out of a lineage of books/authors?
SH: Naomi, I’m so thankful to have met you in Zoeglossia and for our friendship and artistic exchange. Psych Murders definitely arises out of the influence of the mad ancestor writing trio Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Virginia Woolf, whose books populated my teenage years and beyond. I only hope to emulate their collective caustic wit and open-wound honesty. In their work, I learned about the alchemy of pain and how the page can be a sharp thing that cuts to another dimension. Also, how to write about experiences that reside under the skin and in the gut, and then how to shape language so the reader has enough distance to be able to take it in.
I’m grateful to be able to call on a lineage of writers with lived experience of mental health difference and even more grateful that the mad canon has grown and continues to grow. There is such a rich web of poets and books that I and Psych Murders get to be in conversation with—for instance, the Zoeglossia Poem of the Week Series I curated on poetry and mental health difference with work by Nazifa Islam, Roxanna Bennett, and Airea D. Matthews. Nazifa Islam writes beautifully in collaboration with mad ancestors, Woolf and Plath, in found poems that reinvent their words to express her own bipolar experiences. I love this direct acknowledgement of lineage through language and form.
The lineage I would call on the most though is not from the writing tradition but from performance. I saw Tanztheater Wuppertal, Pina Bausch’s company, when I was 17. That performance—the durational crossing of space, the intensity of presence—has stayed with me. It opened up possibilities for what composition could be and for how time could be altered.
I consider dance my first language, and I resource my body when writing. For Psych Murders, in working with memory and memory loss from shock, I thought about how nonlinear time can be embodied in language, in space, in what doesn’t make it onto the page. Sankai Juku and Eiko & Koma, both Japanese companies with butoh lineages, also had a huge impact on me. The way that emotional life unveils itself and how time hiccups in the slow twist and fold of expressive bodies gave me another entrance into how to create worlds in my own work, to invite the audience/reader inside those worlds, and to keep them with the material, vibrating.I consider dance my first language, and I resource my body when writing.
NO: One thought that your answer inspires for me is how different Crip space and Crip time are from nondisabled concepts of space and time. Disabled people working with other disabled people have deep and ongoing conversations about access within the spaces we are gathering within. An effort is made to expect the unexpected so that someone can just show up and participate.
Crip space is often a little bit chaotic. Instead of our energy going towards advocacy about participation in nondisabled spaces, it is directed towards patience and flexibility, so that people can participate in the ways that they need. It’s a kind of reciprocation, the willingness to tolerate imperfection, at the same time as feeling valued and necessary to what is happening in that space.
Crip time often goes slower, I think because of the nature of our actual capacity but also because we have so much practice of having to build our own way in. I love how these expressions of Crip space/time are reflected in Psych Murders. I felt like I was with you in the treatment room. Yet in naming an external “Murderer,” I was also with you as you experienced time and events as an observer. I’m with you in the experience and as an outside observer watching events unfold. One of the tough things about being a disabled artist and writer (and for you, dancer) is that we have to actually reshape genres, often challenging the readers or viewers to adjust their expectations of the narratives we bring. Our narratives can be provocative, messy, and without a tidy conclusion.
In a lot of social justice art, people can get really tied to the idea of takeaways and action steps to make change. While action steps can be incredibly valuable (we need allies, especially in each other), witnessing is what leads to community building. Witnessing is staying with vulnerability and discomfort. What do you hope that a reader will witness through your work?I began writing it as a way to reach. I didn’t know exactly what I was reaching for, but it felt vital to do.
SH: Thank you for offering this context about Crip time and space and for this question that plumbs the heart of why I wrote Psych Murders. As far as genre, I knew this book would not be the rainbow arc of an overcoming narrative—the memoir where the protagonist survives against all odds and is miraculously cured after a roller coaster journey that leaves the reader feeling good. I have no whipped cream topping to offer besides the fact that I am still alive.
Psych Murders is my impossible text. I began writing it as a way to reach. I didn’t know exactly what I was reaching for, but it felt vital to do. To create an energetic field of language in a space that would include and alter the reader. In this action, this agency, I hoped to change my relationship to this story, my story. The narrative had gotten so constrictive. My past was breathing on my present. I needed to take back my own night. To cradle my figure curled in white sheets. To help the 37-year-old forgive herself. To tell her this is not your fault, the memory loss, and the incredulous looks she gets when she mentions shock.
This was the initial witnessing I needed to do for myself. The matches came later. Alchemical strikes. A field of scars, ash, sulfur memories that turned blue when on fire. A new landscape hewed from the past with unexpected possibilities. And these possibilities are one of my hopes for the reader.
The book becomes a space of witness—where readers get to hang out with their reactions and reflect on their own experiences of mental health and/or the medical system. I’ve had people come up after readings to share that they are “fellow travelers,” and how reading Psych Murders validated their personal psych experiences. One person remembered her own psych hospitalization, which she’d completely blocked out due to shame, stigma, ableism—all the things that make it so important to talk about mental health. What means a lot to me is that she felt safety and permission to recall this in the context of the work.I hope for all of those people who have been or are currently locked in, that there can be new possibilities outside closets, attics, wards, prisons.
I wanted this writing to be for people with lived experience of mental health difference—in solidarity, in deep witness, in a crip nod to shared understandings, and I wanted this writing to be a threshold for people without psych experiences who might not have any reference field. I hope the noir character, Murderer, personifies suicidal ideation in a way that makes it legible for people with and without familiarity with suicidality. It was also important to me to challenge the common notion that ECT or shock doesn’t happen anymore. In the US, it happens every day at a hospital near you.
NO: I think as disabled people we often live in worlds people no longer think exist. And they assume we have rights we actually don’t. For example, people are surprised that large institutions for disabled people still exist in the US, or they don’t understand that we do not have a legal right over our bodies if we are under conservatorship. Our political fights and issues often get overshadowed in mainstream culture.
Why is Psych Murders a necessary read in this political atmosphere? What does this work bring to light that is overshadowed?
SH: I think the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has ripped the curtain away from the mental health system to expose its failings in a dramatic way. The stress and strain on people and communities across the US due to isolation, grief, overwork, unemployment, discrimination—all the stressors of the pandemic with its inherent factors of racialization, class, gender, sexual orientation, and more—taxed the mental health system in a way that have made more visible its deep flaws and brokenness. This is something that those of us who have needed to rely on the system for years have known intimately, but it has taken the pandemic to locate the status of mental health care (and I hesitate to use the word “care”) at center stage.
My work in creating Psych Murders is as much as a translator as a writer. I wanted to translate my individual experience of extreme bipolar bodymind states and suicidal ideation so that someone with no familiarity with madness could get a sense of what that might feel like. I also wanted to give a front seat to the workings of the medical industrial complex in the form of the psych ward and the “treatments” at its disposal. In addition, I wanted to provide a space for other people who experience mental health difference to potentially witness some aspect of their lives on the page.
While this is about my personal experience, there is a beautiful collective of mad people I’m proud to be a part of and who I hope to amplify with this book. I’m not just writing this to share my story—it is to bring awareness to the stories, the lives, of a whole community, who are often made invisible, deemed broken, disposable, unproductive.
My intention is that this book can act as a bridge, from the status quo that clearly doesn’t work to a new place that doesn’t exist yet, but that we all can collectively dream and work/play towards. I hope for all of those people who have been or are currently locked in, that there can be new possibilities outside closets, attics, wards, prisons.
I want Psych Murders to leave readers with the questions: What is next? How do we create new models and modes of mental health that focus on collective health? How can we shift the focus from the mad person yelling on the street corner to a community effort of care?
Stephanie Heit (she/her) is a queer disabled poet, dancer, teacher, and codirector of Turtle Disco, a somatic writing space on Anishinaabe territory in Ypsilanti, Michigan. She is a Zoeglossia Fellow, a shock/psych system survivor, bipolar, and a member of the Olimpias, an international disability performance collective. Her poetry collections are the hybrid memoir poem and 2023 Midwest Book Award winner Psych Murders (Wayne State University Press, 2022) and The Color She Gave Gravity (Operating System, 2017).