When The Autistic Evaluates Poetry

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Megan Grant, GD Poetry Reader for 5.2

When I find myself bemoaning the five hours and nine minutes between my friend Chrissy and me, I read her poetry out loud to myself.  I sit cross-legged in front of my bleached-wooden bookshelf and run my fingers across novels and memoirs until they rest on Issue 3.1 of Gandy Dancer.  Chrissy’s poems are printed on page thirty-one; the journal bends open to her.

I have memorized the degree of emphasis of each syllable, the number of milliseconds between every dash and line break.  The stanzas sound like Chrissy, despite our voices’ differing timbres.  However, no matter how many times I recite her poems, both the ones she wrote in college and the new ones she’s written while pursuing her MFA a UMass, I still cannot comprehend what it means to be, “subatomic reactions daisychained in fractals,” or to, “supernova against your stringbean cilia.”  I can’t quite figure out all of what the poems are saying.

For me, being on the autism spectrum, in part, means that I struggle to comprehend subtext, or “what is actually being said.”  In grade school, the term “symbolism” was more anxiety-inducing than “final exam;” I knew how to prepare myself for an exam, but having to verbally explain symbols in Shakespeare sonnets or the like was beyond my ability.  Every grade’s annual poetry unit was upsetting for my entire family because both of my parents would take turns attempting to explain the significance of this-or-that line of Margaret Atwood so I could finally write an analytical paragraph on the poem (and receive a C for the paragraph because I misunderstood the poem).  The poems I had to read back then were “classics” and “highly regarded,” but for the entirety of secondary school I couldn’t figure out what to say or how to write about them.

While I could’ve avoided poetry for the rest of my life and not worried about comprehending such an abstract form of storytelling, I decided to keep it in my life.  Poetry is an art form that is important to several of my friends, and I want to understand their work so I can better understand them.  So, I asked to be placed in the poetry reading group for this semester’s Editing and Production Workshop class, hoping that I would learn “how” to analyze poetry by throwing myself into a group of students who have some experience with this type of writing.

To clarify, the goal of the Editing and Production Workshop class is to publish Gandy Dancer, and the poetry editors evaluate and choose the poetry for the journal.  Obviously there are several characteristics of a “publishable” poem; I view each characteristic as a puzzle piece.  If the pieces in a submission form a complete puzzle, we have a publishable poem.  The problem I face is that I don’t know what every piece represents.  Right now, I can locate a handful of puzzle pieces, like the ones for “avoiding unexplained abstractions” and “includes unique, original images.”   The head of the poetry section recently introduced the “fits journal’s aesthetic” piece to me, which explained why the group reacted negatively to a recent submission that seemed to possess other publishable elements.  It seems that the pieces multiply: for every one piece I learn, two more blank ones appear.

In spite of the information I’ve yet to acquire, though, I do have an ability that has been quite useful while evaluating the poetry submissions: I can evaluate each poem with an eye for whether or not it is “saying” something without applying any particular interpretation to it.  It’s a skill I picked up several years ago while I was beginning to understand how people perceive social interactions differently from each other.  No word choice or sentence structure is interpreted the same way by everyone, and I had to teach myself to consider multiple interpretations of every interpersonal situation I encountered.  When I was a young teenager, I only used this skill to figure out if my classmates were, for example, genuinely complimenting my knee-high socks covered with neon-pink stars, or if they were mocking me through sarcasm.  I had to consider every interpretation I could conceive of, with the goal being to find the most correct one.  This was how I figured out which classmates were safe to talk to and which ones to avoid, and how I realized it was best to peel my socks off my calves and never wear them again.

It took a while for me to figure out that I could read poetry the same way I read social situations; considering every possible interpretation of the words and sentence structure.  However, I don’t need the “correct” interpretation while reading the poetry submissions, the way I needed the correct one in school.  I can consider every interpretation I can think of, and if at least one makes some sort of narrative sense, then the poem is “saying” something.  And every poem Gandy Dancer publishes has to say something; that puzzle piece is necessary.

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