Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Jessica Comola, "The St. Joseph Embroidery"

Jessica Comola

Experimental Disability Poetics and the St. Joseph Embroidery

1> “It doesn’t make sense,” students respond when viewing images of the St. Joseph Embroidery, a mid-twentieth century hospital-issue cloth hand-stitched with fragmented language. “If it doesn’t make sense, what does it ‘make’?” I ask. There’s silence as they squint at the images, reviewing them again. These students aren’t wrong; the St. Joseph Embroidery doesn’t conform to a conventional logic, or even the experimental modes of the poems I’ve introduced so far in the Intro to Creative Writing course. “Can it make something other than sense?” I ask, and students begin to raise their hands.

2> Drawing on psychiatric and neuro-disability studies, disability rhetoric studies, and experimental disability poetics, I consider how the St. Joseph Embroidery can help us better recognize our own interpretive frameworks, especially those founded on ableist textual assumptions; acknowledge and challenge our complicity in the construction and maintenance of such frameworks; and reconsider what textual innovation might mean when we aim for a destigmatizing interpretive engagement. I suggest to these writers, now huddled around the images, that we re-read the embroidery as “poetic,” rather than pathologize it as “psychotic,” in order to reconsider what it is we’re doing when we, ourselves, make a text.

3> I’ve asked these same questions in a handful of contexts: to first year creative writers considering poetry as their field of study, to seniors exploring experimental texts as an elective, to masters students from a range of writerly backgrounds, and most recently as part of an event at the University of Denver called Making Media Matter, in which I invited audience members to craft improvisational poems from the existing text stitched into the surface of the cloth. This paper documents my ongoing work with a textual and textilic artifact that challenges my interpretive methodologies the more I engage it. Part scholarly inquiry, part process essay, and part photographic record, I attempt to capture, here, my ongoing dialogue with the St. Joseph Embroidery.

4> The multimedia, multidisciplinary structure of this paper—which aims to historicize the St. Joseph Embroidery before concluding with a series of more experimental contexts for it— follows poet Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ concept of writing “with.” Gumbs, describing her relationship to the essays of Hortense Spillers, writes, “there were phrases in [Spillers’] work that did far more than make her point. They made worlds. They invited affect. They brought to mind nameless women in unknown places.”1 Writing “with” emphasizes open-ended exchange aimed at generating multiple dialogues with an artifact: “when I turned these phrases,” writes Gumbs, “doors opened and everyone came through.”2 Such an approach intervenes into conventions that establish and support more conclusive claims, or what we might call writing “about.” As I write “with” the St. Joseph Embroidery, it becomes a site for ongoing exploration, experimentation, and interrogative engagement, aimed both externally toward the artifact in its many, shifting contexts, as well as internally toward my own self-reflexive work.

“Silent Voice” exhibit in “Faces, Spaces and Traces of Sanity:
Exploring Mental Illness Through Art,” courtesy of The Glore Psychiatric Museum.

5> The Glore Psychiatric Museum catalogues a 145-year history of Missouri’s state medical facilities with a focus on State Hospital No. 2, located in St. Joseph, Missouri. St. Joseph opened in 1847 under the directorship of Dr. George C. Catlett who dedicated the hospital “to the noble work of reviving hope in the human heart and dispelling the portentous clouds that penetrate the intellects of minds diseased.” Close to a century later, a long-time employee of the hospital, George Glore, established the Museum to document an evolution of mental health treatments since the sixteenth century.3

6> On permanent display in the Glore Psychiatric Museum is a roughly 3.5x2.5-foot dishcloth stamped “State Hospital No. 2” and embroidered hem to hem in curving lines of language sewn from pieces of multi-colored thread. The Museum includes the work as part of an exhibit titled “Faces, Spaces and Traces of Sanity: Exploring Mental Illness Through Art,” suggesting the cloth’s cultural value stems from the degree to which it reflects poignant, human struggle: “The embroidered words of a mute schizophrenic speak volumes,” a sign reads.4 In other words, the Museum asks us to engage the work through a sense-making paradigm, wherein “sanity” and “illness” are at odds, and we are tasked with distinguishing between them.

7> One of two signs contextualizing the piece begins with the heading “Silent Voice,” a phrase that prioritizes paradox, elides artifact and maker, and elevates vocalization as a particularly valued means of self-expression. Importantly, the sign next says the embroiderer was “mostly mute, but occasionally spoke when she was not happy or her routine changed.”5 Right away, I wonder, is “silence,” then, a byproduct of illness or is it a personal choice? Is “voice” a crucial means of communication necessitating replacement, or is vocalization one of many communicatory options? Disability rhetoric might suggest the embroidered language is a prosthesis: not a needed substitute for voice, but instead a material extension highlighting self- expression as inherently fragmented, augmented, partial, and plastic. Prostheses reject assumptions of unity and autonomy, calling attention to how we construct both physical and discursive selves.6

8> Like the Museum, I find myself using the stitchwork as a supplement for scant biographical information, including the name of the embroiderer, and I also centralize communicatory function when interpreting this work. What I challenge, however, is the implication of it as a proxy spokespiece through which we’re encouraged to seek neuro-normativity. Thus, I refer to the piece not by the descriptor “Silent Voice,” but as the “St. Joseph Embroidery” (SJE) with the intention of providing a more historically contextualizing title referring to place of origin in lieu of its maker’s (unavailable) name. In so doing, I hope to better situate the piece in time and place without emphasizing any single pathologization of its maker.

9> “Mute schizophrenic” need not be the only epistemological perspective through which to explore the work; a disability rhetoric lens encourages interpretation that positions pathologization itself as rhetorically constructed, while offering a both/and logic: “silence” can be diagnostic and deliberate, the “self” both a contingent subjectivity and an expressive agent.7 One of the earliest assumptions I had to dispel in my own thinking was the alluring simplicity that dualities offered in interpreting the work. Another (related) was the critical need to juggle the discursive construction emphasized in disability rhetoric with the available biographical realities of SJE’s maker. Disability studies reminds us of the reductions inherent in deficient and heroic notions of disability, psychiatric disability, neuro-disability, disorder, and illness. The former stigmatizes, while the latter uplifts individuals to a romanticized cultural position. SJE’s “I” was not, and is not, a symbol onto which we can project pity, disgust, fear, or awe; or, rather, any such projections should function as opportunities for self-reflexive insight into our own assumptions of what disability means.

10> In continuing to research SJE, I found that other websites contextualize it either as an artwork (Atlas Obscura, Smithsonian Magazine Online), or as a more personal communication, akin to a diary (Roadside America, Road Trippers). In all cases, the St. Joseph Embroidery is characterized as expressive, though what is being expressed and why is left to interpretation. Other than this handful of Google hits and photos posted on social media primarily by museum visitors, there is little written about SJE. To date, it is the subject of one systematic study, “Analysis of a Silent Voice: A Qualitative Inquiry of Embroidery Created by a Patient with Schizophrenia” by John Blakeman, BSN; Sheryl Samuelson, PhD, RN; and Kimberly McEvoy, BSN, RN, TNS. Their 2013 article focuses on SJE’s “[i]mplications for nursing care,” emphasizing that “silence should not be inferred to be detachment, and nurses should continue to develop creative ways to engage patients who may communicate in nontraditional ways.” 8 Blakeman, et al. analyze the work “as an expression of the patient’s private thoughts” and situate the piece as an example of how nonconventional expressive modes “provide insight into patient’s lived experiences . . . show how human experience can be expressed in unexpected ways . . . [and] expand the understanding of interpersonal communication.”9 My work shares these assumptions of communicatory function and similarly aims to broaden what can constitute self- expression, but does so by way of a textual, rather than clinical, tradition.

11> “Analysis of a Silent Voice,” to which my own work is deeply indebted, explains SJE’s maker was an African American woman patient diagnosed with schizophrenia who completed the embroidered work during the 1960s. Though exact dates are not public record, she was admitted in the 1940s when she would have been in her thirties.10 The original hospital facility could house 275 patients, but by the 1950s—a decade into her institutionalization—St. Joseph Hospital had expanded to nearly 3,000 patients. Due to such extreme overcrowding, “[t]reatment was virtually nonexistent: there were too many patients and insufficient staff to provide more than custodial care,” so patients were discharged or moved to alternative facilities.11 One of the Museum’s placards explains SJE’s maker spent thirty years in St. Joseph Hospital before being transferred to a nursing home in the 1970s where she died waiting for “placement into the community.”12

The St. Joseph Embroidery, courtesy of the Glore Psychiatric Museum.

12> From a clinical perspective, SJE was created not as an artwork or personal record, nor as part of an arts or writing therapy practice, but as an industrial therapy initiative.13 Industrial therapy, which lasted through the 1970s in the U.S., was distinguished from both the moral therapy practices of the nineteenth century, in which “idleness was considered dissonant with godliness,” and occupational therapy that used patients as an in-house labor force in exchange for their keep and without intention of vocational or social rehabilitation.14

13> Fulton State Hospital, the oldest mental hospital west of the Mississippi River and institutional model for the St. Joseph facility, emphasized the “use of male patients in farm operations and female patients in sewing rooms.”15 In the Fulton Superintendent’s own words, such work made patients “‘less trouble to care for,’” a viewpoint that lasted well into the mid-1900s. To measure such practices, Fulton kept a detailed, monthly account recording “all garments manufactured at the institution between May 1937 and December 1970” which documented for the state legislature just how financially beneficial this labor force could be.16 SJE’s embroiderer would have been hospitalized in Fulton’s sister facility during this same era.

14> Though moral and occupational therapies underwent reforms, “the term ‘industrial therapy’ came to have a queasy connotation, as with ‘prison labor.’”17 Industrial therapy could include anything related to the “therapeutic use of hospital maintenance and other related projects for helping the patient in his behavioral and economic adjustment.”18 Moreover, industrial therapy was instituted for “chronically mentally ill” patients, the majority of whom were diagnosed as schizophrenic, under the premise that “the schizophrenic ego has lost its boundaries and structures . . . Work, therefore, offers the patient a fixation point, a daily boundary, as well as a well-marked path to follow.”19 What constituted “therapeutic” and “rehabilitative” practice, however, could be widely interpreted.

15> “‘Satan finds mischief for hands and minds too long idle,’” wrote Superintendent Marion O. Biggs. “‘If the convalescent does not quickly use the faculties which have been put out of commission, he is in danger of the scrap heap.’”20 While Biggs served at Fulton from 1913-1927, his words echo in the nickname of SJE’s embroider who, according to the Glore Museum, was referred to as “The Tatterer.” A “tatterer” is, definitionally, a “refuse-gatherer, a rag-collector.”21 Created on a recycled dish towel, SJE is comprised of multi-colored thread bits that form personal words and phrases, poetic lines, a multitude of song lyrics, observations, colloquial expressions, greetings, and imagined dialogues. It uses snippets of thread to stitch fragments of language onto a dishrag—a “scrap heap,” indeed.

Detail of the St. Joseph Embroidery, courtesy of the Glore Psychiatric Museum.

16> A rhetorical perspective assumes the language of public and private discourse is “a powerfully shaping instrument for creating conceptions of identity and positioning individuals relative to established social and economic hierarchies.” What it also assumes is the possibility of reworking such language so that rhetoric is “an art of activity and agency, of using words as well as being used by them.”22 Museum signs contextualizing SJE and the “Tatterer” say for many years “her sewn words were described as psychotic.” Descriptors like “psychotic,” despite serving a diagnostic function, carry with them additional, more stigmatizing connotations. Abbreviated from their original clinical terminology, words like “psycho” and “schizo” become shorthand for larger prejudices that associate mental illness with incompetency, unpredictability, and even dangerousness.23 Insofar as stigma is imbedded in rhetorical frameworks, it can be understood as “a breakdown in communication” that denies an individual “the right to be an independent agent in the communication process”24 because they are reduced to the stigmatized perception of their illness.

17> It is from this same rhetorical standpoint, however, that we can rethink SJE, not only as the “psychotic” stitchwork of the “Tatterer” undergoing industrial therapy—a crucial framework to bear in mind given its persistence—but also as a self-expressive site of innovative communication that works against ableist standards of logic and linearity as markers of conventional sense-making. Feminist rhetorical scholars Jacqueline Royster and Gesa Kirsch provide an analytical model for approaching artifacts like SJE that necessitate processes of “rescue, recovery, or (re)inscription.” They identify interpretive engagements that center around critical and imaginative exchange in order to “enable a more dialogic relationship between past and present.”25 Royster and Kirsch emphasize a reflective and reflexive approach that encourages ongoing inquiries into self-awareness and self-critique as the means of dialoguing with the objects and subjects of any research.

18> In the spirit of Royster and Kirsch’s model, I suggest a “poetic” interpretation of SJE to be taken up alongside and in ongoing dialogue with the longstanding “psychotic” interpretation. I believe such a rereading can offer a new rhetorical positioning for SJE beyond that of pathologization. More specifically, a “poetic” framework upholds at least five of Royster and Kirsch’s main emphases:

1.) Creating a “better-informed, more inclusive conceptual space”26 for the study of SJE, which I undertake by accumulating multiple potential interpretive frameworks, even when they may conflict, that can be further explored and critiqued;

2.) Understanding SJE as a site for the work of “critical imagination,” where imagination is a term for “a commitment to making connections and seeing possibility.”27 As an analytical tool, critical imagination deepens engagement by emphasizing “the noticed and the unnoticed, re- thinking what is there and not there, and speculating about what could be instead”;28

3.) Engaging in “strategic contemplation,” or ongoing exchange with the work, which includes “hold[ing] contradictions without rushing to immediate closure, to neat resolutions, or to cozy hierarchies and binaries”;29

4.) Recognizing “social circulation” as the intersections of past, present, and future as well as social, political, and cultural contexts, which allows contextualizing work to include not only the “direct inheritance” of an artistic, literary, and institutional lineage, but also the larger convergence of “what we absorb even without conscious awareness”;30

5.) And lastly, moving “reflexively from practice to theory to practice to theory”31 as a way to call attention to embodied, lived experience by encouraging hands-on engagement with SJE as a text and textile, thus using tangible materials to more fully consider SJE’s own multiple mediums.

19> We cannot read an autobiographical account of SJE’s maker, nor are there any biographies or even complete medical records available. What we have is a textile—an object that is both a product that can be displayed in an exhibit, and a record of process. Turn the fabric over, and the backside will reveal the materiality of every stitch and the embodiment of every movement that resulted in the piece we have now. How can we ethically research an object such as this that lacks contextualizing information while also showing plainly the body behind its making?

20> In my own scholarly, creative, and artistic practices, I believe there’s no singular, “correct” way to exist as an embodied human being—or to think as one. Poetry, as a vibrant site for self- expression, can help us increase our awareness of ableist rhetorical constructions by reimagining connections between the human body and the body of a text. To embrace this aim, my work moves fluidly among genres and mediums, arguing, too, that there is no strict definition of the “poem.” Texts and textiles have been historically interconnected, particularly for women, as spaces for creative expression and social critique. My work blends these modes, examining the stitch as a letter and vice versa, across the conventional page and onto cloth.

21> By stitching SJE’s words onto my own cloths, I encounter the work differently. I am not just writing about it, but writing with it—in dialogue with its same language. I am immersing myself in the maker’s vocabulary and thought patterns. Stitchwork consumes time and energy; when done by hand, it is not a quick undertaking. Committing to such “strategic contemplation” with the work is a co-creative process wherein SJE’s expressive surface transforms from “psychotic” to “poetic”—from a discarded “scrap heap” made by a Tatterer, to a generative site for dedicated observation, empathetic exchange, and self-reflexive inquiry.

22> “Golden Rules / Trying to Make Believe” was the first bit of text in SJE where I noticed line breaks. I had previously considered the physical arrangement of the text as bound by the edges of the cloth, the lengths of thread available to SJE’s maker, and so forth. While these material circumstances are important, they do not preclude deliberate decision-making in how SJE’s words are stacked, broken, and turned. Putting textual arrangement in terms of poetic line breaks helped me rethink my own assumptions regarding SJE as reflective of choice:

“Golden Rules / Trying to Make Believe,” Jessica Comola, 2019.

23> Conventional therapeutic and pathographic narratives tend toward a single, first-person speaker navigating through a linear, usually chronological, series of events. From a clinical perspective, to understand SJE “poetically” is to take up a call to action set out in Medicine, Health and the Arts in which the authors emphasize that therapeutic practices often remain “conservative, failing to draw on the powerful interventions that the avant-garde in the arts may provide.”32 It is instead “mixed media, fragmentary and experimental texts”33 that can best offer ways to understand the complexity and individuality of disability experiences outside of a pathologizing rhetoric. Moreover, experimental texts can speak back to the institutions of which they are a part, since they can “fruitfully intersect with medicine in opening up the uncertain and contingent . . . to reorient medical practice itself away from the rhetoric of scientific certainty and toward interpretive reading and thinking.”34

24> From a disability poetics perspective, the complex politics of such avant-garde and experimental texts come a bit more clearly into view. As poet Cathy Park Hong35 explains, “avant-garde poetry has been an overwhelmingly white enterprise” dismissive of African American innovators and other artists of color “whose prodigious writings have vitalized the margins, challenged institutions, and introduced radical languages and forms.”36 Hong characterizes avant-garde texts as including “polyvocality, hybridity, collage, stream-of- consciousness writing, and improvisation,” techniques first practiced by African American writers like Jean Toomer and Claude McKay.37 Experimental poetry has long been explored as a mode that allows for lived experience to be expressed as “extraordinarily muddled and chaotic, [and] certainly not made up of clear beginnings, middles and ends” so that such texts tell “not only a story, but also a sense of its contingent and uncertain variants.”38 I understand SJE as both a therapeutic “intervention” and textual “innovation” for the self-expressive, non-normative ways in which it challenges institutional conventions from a marginalized positionality.

25> As a text, SJE does not conform to standardized, written English conventions of grammar, syntax, spelling, and punctuation. It does not adhere to conventions of Western writing systems that move linearly from left to right and top to bottom following in successive, horizontal lines with even spacing between letters and words. Lastly, SJE does not consistently use one lettering size or style, instead blending cursive, print, and upper- and lower-case letters, often within a single word. When I first viewed the language, I was intrigued by its multitude of shapes and colors, but spent hours searching for digital images that would allow me to easily read it. Rather than taking the time to sit with the writing, reading and re-reading it, I expected to find photographs that would let me easily “translate” the work into a more conventional logic.

26> In spite of my own scholarly background in, and personal practice of, experimental poetries, I struggled with the syntax and grammar of moments as seeming simple as “A Poem As My Hand,” in which the stitchwork runs letters together to form new words:

“A Poem As My Hand,” Jessica Comola, 2019.

27> And I failed to feel the emotive power of a piece like “Hair / on / Fire”—a boldly stitched bit of text that emphatically declares itself. Set off to the lower right-hand side of the cloth, “Hair / on / Fire” is arranged perpendicularly to the faded, hospital-issue stamp “State Hospital No. 2,” making its loud declaration bolder in contrast. The stamp is never stitched over, though it could easily have been obscured had SJE’s maker wanted it to be. Instead, the stitches that surround the stamp shout out their messages in capitalized, larger-scale lettering:

“Hair / on / Fire,” Jessica Comola, 2019.

28> Initially, I was working hard to “make sense” of SJE, trying to convert it to a type of analytical framework understandable to me, on my own terms. Only later did I realize that was not its work to perform. Rather than requiring the embroidery (and by small extension its creator) to conform to my understanding of “disability,” I needed to seek out a methodology that would allow me not only to reread it by way of a new approach but also to get as close as I could to a somatic understanding of its textures, the contours of its lines, and the shapes of its words. Moreover, I needed to find a framework that would push me, as a white scholar, writer, and artist, to recognize the limitations of my own approach, particularly in how I appropriate SJE’s language through stitchwork. If read “poetically”—that is, as an experimental text expressing self-contingency and uncertainty—SJE invites readers to reconsider “normativity” as its shapes discourse itself, as well as constructions like language “standards” and when, where, and by whom deviations from such conventions become read as “psychotic.” Moreover, it encourages further experimentation wherein a range of material and discursive engagements can be explored and interrogated as a process of writing into, and experimenting with, the existing language.

29> From our perspective as viewers interpreting a visio-verbal, multimedia text, what is reprioritized if we ask, “what can our interpretive approaches and processes teach us about our own assumptions when approaching a work that challenges normative discourse?” “What might we look for, instead of or beyond ‘traces of sanity,’ if we read SJE as poetic rather than psychotic? And, as writers, how might we engage language differently in our own work if sense- making is no longer a primary goal?”

30> If “madness is more code than chemistry,” as psychiatrist Gail Hornstein writes,39 then bringing texts and textiles together might be a way not to unlock, or make sense of, such codes, but to reassess thinking, speaking, and writing in “code” as a culturally valuable mode of self-expression. In Agnes’ Jacket, Hornstein looks at perhaps the most famous textile created by a patient in a mental hospital: a petite piece of gray and brown outerwear embroidered across its entire surface (front and back panels, sleeves, hems) in what appear to be scribbled sentences. Sewn by Agnes Emma Richter 1895, the thread recorded personal information as she embroidered words onto hospital linen and felt.40

31> The Agnes Richter jacket is one of the most well-known textiles that brings self-expressive work into the space of the institution. Created by Richter as a patient in the Heidelberg psychiatric hospital, this makeshift garment is embroidered in white, red, orange, yellow, and blue threads that spell out non-linear phrases. Winding outside and throughout the interior, Richter’s most frequently repeated word was “Ich,” the German “I.” The St. Joseph Embroidery, though not a wearable garment, shares shapes, colors, and, it seems, expressive similarities with Richter’s work. SJE most frequently repeats “I love you” and often situates the “I” as central to the phrases it records: “I want...” “I am...” “I saw...” “I go...” “I think.” A multitude of first- person phrases litter the cloth, sharing space with “my,” “we,” “you,” and other identifiers indicating possession and relationship to the self.

32> Identity in this context is both an act performed through language and an embodiment of lived experience that exists always in a contingent state. It is in this sense that I situate SJE as self-expressive, an interpretive position with particular implications in the context of schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is referred to as an “‘I am’ illness,” meaning it “affects an individual’s core identity, the qualities, characteristics, and continuities that distinguish one person from another.”41 Since identity can be particularly fluid within the context of schizophrenia, what constitutes “self”-expression can, itself, become more elastic, opening room beyond normative discourse for the contingency and uncertainty of lived experience.

33> “My Name Is” remains a stitched phrase that is tantalizingly autobiographical. I spent hours attempting to enhance photographs of this inch of cloth, trying to uncover letters. In the back of my mind, a name would serve as a key of sorts, unlocking cohesive meaning across the cloth. The following textile piece is larger because it required greater reflexivity on my part. There is no key, nor should there be; I had to realize again and again that the phrase “my name is” does not have to be a sentence fragment or lost portion of text. Instead, it can be a declaration that a name exists—an “I am” statement:

“My Name Is,” Jessica Comola, 2019.

34> In this way, SJE marks an instance where Elaine Showalter’s understanding of madness as “the desperate communication of the powerless” can be questioned.42 SJE need only be a powerless communication when read as beholden to a conventional, logic-driven epistemology that reads inconsistency as indicative of “insanity.” Such a master discourse is vital to recognize but it does not need to be the methodology with which every communicatory expression (or interpretive act) engages. Instead, I return to Gumbs’ concept of writing “with” SJE, which situates the artifact as already agential, carrying in its stitchwork not the paradox of a “silent voice” but the power of self-expression inherent to the linguistic, discursive, and aesthetic choices apparent on the surface of the cloth. Writing “with” reworks an otherwise potentially hierarchical power dynamic between writer and (scholarly) subject, suggesting instead multiple, potential entryways into the work.

35> As I brought SJE into the classroom, I began to gather student responses to the work and to reflect on the touchstones I offered students to facilitate their engagement. The traditions they evoked generated further questions, resulting in a constellation of lineages within which to situate SJE. This is not to graft unverifiable contexts onto SJE; rather, our aim in those spaces, and my continuing aim, is to suggest traditions that might offer unconventional ways to “poetically” consider SJE as both a text and textile. Some, which stem from confirmable biographical information, I have already named. These include the diagnostic context of schizophrenia, the clinical context of industrial therapy practices, and the rhetorical context of words like psychotic long used to describe SJE. I have offered psychiatric and neuro-disability studies, disability rhetoric, and experimental disability poetics as lenses that allow for interpretations alternative to pathologizing practices.

36> In continuation of this work, and in keeping with Royster and Kirsch’s insistence on a “better-informed, more inclusive conceptual space,” below are a handful of explorations of SJE that grew out of classroom conversations, wherein students suggested the work could be seen as a narrative or storytelling quilt, a blues poem, a jazz poetry improvisation, and as an example of “speaking in tongues” in the context of African American women’s literary traditions. The following segments are intended as catalysts, providing generative starting points to engage SJE beyond the potential for stigmatization imbedded in a pathologizing approach, and to deepen conversations surrounding neuro-disability studies, disability rhetoric, and experimental disability poetics.

37> What do we consider differently, in the artifact and in our own assumptions, if we read SJE as a storytelling quilt? Sewing carries with it a particularly long-standing relationship with both gendered labor for institutionalized women and self-expressive possibility for women historically denied pen/paper. Work with needle and thread was prescribed from the earliest days of institutionalized moral management, through garment making and upkeep for fellow patients, and into industrial therapeutic practices. A female patient was a body whose disorder was diagnosed by its supposed excesses; while containment of the mind was abstract and difficult, the body could be managed, or at least exhausted, through labor. Women patients were tasked with “cleaning, laundry, and sewing” in order to supply and maintenance “thousands of dresses, shirts, aprons, chemises, petticoats, and caps.”43

38> However, sewing long precedes the institution. Cloth has been a site for women’s textilic and textual work to overlap; stitchwork has been used in a communicative capacity, as well as functioning as a euphemism for more literal writing. Early Modern women’s textiles scholar Susan Frye explains women “saw the needle, the pen, and the pencil or brush as interrelated tools because women for the most part perceived their products—writing and needlework, designing and painting—as separate but related forms of expression,” thus, interpreting women’s textualities necessitates “a broader sense of text than the literary.”44 I follow Frye in suggesting “we need to consider [women’s] verbal and visual texts, as well as the texts created by the intersection of the two” in order to understand the “media to which women were valuable contributors and through which women simultaneously asserted and explored their identities.”45

39> Eli Leon, in Accidentally on Purpose: The Aesthetic Management of Irregularities in African Textiles and African American Quilts, repeatedly describes quiltmaking as a “vital force” in African American culture. What infuses the work with vitality, Leon argues, isn’t intricate pattern-making or piecing (though examples of this aesthetic abound) but rather “a generous attitude toward the accidental, embracing innovations that originate beyond the conscious domain.”46 Before ever reading the individual words on SJE’s surface, viewers will notice the shapes of word blocks, the curves of long lines, and the clusters of related bits of text. What we might call “paragraphs” in a textual context, are not uniform and none stand alone as deliberately separated segments of text. Instead, viewing SJE as a narrative quilt allows us to see these blocks of text as a network of interrelated stories that, as in certain styles of African American quiltmaking, “favor ‘flexible patterning,’ in which the design is conceived as an invitation to variation.”47 “Repetition” becomes “elaboration” as pieces of a quilt, or portions of the text, are joined by the work of the stitch, which ruptures and disrupts in its movement through the cloth at the same time that it joins by way of the thread. (One day, I hope to view the backside of SJE’s stitchwork to better visualize these material interconnections).

40> Quilts were often made of “pre-cut scraps,” like SJE’s short thread bits, and as such reflected “shifts in scale, and multiple patterns . . . antithetical to the standard American quiltmaking tradition” which valued “precise measurement and exact pattern replication.”48 Such nonstandard, unconventional work used the mode of the textile to communicate nonverbally in a context of cultural destruction—particularly of language. As Leon continues, the language African slaves later developed into “‘Black English’—a dialect more disfavored in the larger society, perhaps, than any other in the history of English . . . [precisely because it] has long been regarded by whites as an entirely illogical form of speech.”49 Reading SJE as a nonverbal, storytelling artifact invites us to question what constitutes il/logic by bringing multiple contexts into conversation—linguistic, cultural, artistic, medical, etc. Black English becomes stitched into the works of the dozens of quiltmakers Leon collects in his book, allowing us to see how “[t]he power, poetry, and wisdom” of these cloths “challenge stereotypes” and, I would add, counter the stigmatization that would reduce SJE to “psychotic” expression.50

41> What do we hear differently on the page if we read SJE as a blues poem? As Evie Shockley suggests in Renegade Poetics, the “I” of the blues tradition is “a generic (rather than personal or autobiographical) ‘I’” that approaches subjectivity “as much through the communal, cultural sensibility of the blues as through an articulation of an individual’s experience.”51 This is not an “I” that assumes a universalizing gesture; it speaks “collectively (but not uniformly).”52 As a blues poem, the self-expressive mode of SJE’s “I” becomes polyvocal:

42> This “I” melds, visually and verbally, with other voices, such as the punctuating phrase “Merry Christmas,” the interrogative “Are you coming . . .” and the insertion of phrases like “and I saw you in / the / go get my purse / how.” Rather than dismissing the unpredictability of this language as nonsense, or assuming its lack of linearity is the product of illness, we might view SJE’s “I” as a polyvocal blues speaker whose “language, tone, diction, form, and other stylistic choices generate the effect of multiplicity in a single speaker’s voice or create a space for a number of different speakers.”53 As Shockley explains, such techniques work against assumptions that the “I” should “function as internally consistent, first-person utterances,” instead letting it function personally without necessarily being autobiographical.54 Emotionally impactful phrases like “I love you / Are you / coming / Wait for me / I am lonely” echo both internally and externally, speaking for the individual while calling out from the collective—SJE’s choral expression is emphasized when read as in dialogue with a blues tradition.

43> Shockley explores the works of experimental poet Harryette Mullen who explains that when she uses an “I” it is “almost always in the context of a line she is quoting or ‘recycling from tradition’” as part of a gesture towards blues collectivity.55 SJE is comprised of a multitude of song lyrics, some of which are quoted verbatim, many of which are reworded. Snippets of language like “Don’t sit under / the ap[ple tree] / but anyone else / but me I love you” and “you make me happy when sky / are blue but most of all you / make me sad when sky are gray” imaginatively remix existing lyrics—rather than copying them mistakenly—when interpreted as part of a blues technique of reusing, reordering, and recontextualizing existing language into new forms. Blues verses, Mullen explains, “‘are actually shuffled and rearranged by the performer, so new blues can be composed on the spot.”56

44> What do we notice, and how does our ear attune itself differently, if we read SJE as a jazz poetry improvisation? “Jazz seeps into words—spelled out words,” Langston Hughes said in his 1956 Newport Jazz Festival presentation “Jazz as Communication.”57 Jazz poetry sits at the nexus of textual and musical genres, blurring distinctions between these expressive modes. Jazz, Hughes continues, is a heartbeat or a drumbeat “revolt[ing] against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.”58 Reading SJE through the lens of jazz poetry emphasizes its multi- generic qualities as both a text and textile, as well as its social and political contexts.

45> Moments like “tired of living but sarce of dying” stitched at the very bottom of the cloth recall the realities of living conditions in a mid-twentieth century institution, as well as the day- to-day challenges of living with schizophrenia. George Glore described conditions at the St. Joseph Hospital where he had begun working in 1962, around the same time as the completion of the SJE: “the 300 ‘most difficult’ female patients . . . were kept in two huge rooms with just one bathroom each . . . The better wards were lined with rocking chairs, all facing toward the door. The ‘good’ patients simply rocked their days away.”59 And yet in an industrial therapeutic context of Hughes’s “work, work, work,” SJE stands out as a display of emotional expressions that range widely from humor to pain.

46> Her insistence on marriage and the repeated performance of wedding ceremonies are scattered about the cloth, serving as one example of a type of language that moves from sorrowful to celebratory and back again. Moments like “waiting / for your / ring” become “take this man to be your husband and to have to hold and to love / I do do take this woman to be your wife t do to have to hold an to love / night and day you are the one,” which then becomes “they trying to make / believe we are getting / married tomorrow.” “As a cultural practice,” Jennifer Ryan describes in Post-Jazz Poetics: A Social History, “jazz has enabled communication, often subversive in nature, that challenges prevailing social norms.”60 SJE breaks with generic convention, moving among and between artistic categories of text and textile, while also disrupting the conventional work produced as part of industrial therapy practices—is it an artwork? A diary? A poem? A song? An industrial product?

47> Formally, jazz poetics can be most readily recognized by an incorporation of jazz music references, including the use of song lyrics, an emphasis on aural play, and unconventional spacing on the page. SJE is rife with lyrics from songs most likely encountered via radio. Popular songs of the time make appearances across the cloth, but are nearly always slightly changed from their original. Rather than reading these as mistakes, mis-rememberings, or misunderstandings, a jazz poetics context allows us to see them as improvisatory moments where language is being shaped and altered:

48> These lines in SJE are drawn from Lead Belly’s “Cotton Fields (That Cotton Song)” first recorded in 1940; “Singin’ in the Rain” from the 1952 musical of the same name; “April Showers,” first published in 1921 and recorded numerous times since; and “Ol’ Man River,” which originally appeared in the 1927 musical Show Boat, among many other songs. But SJE isn’t just copying existing text; the stitchwork reflects shifts like “rolling along” to “rooting you along” as well as a complex mash-up of juxtaposed lyrics across this entire section of text, which impacts both the aural and visual qualities of the work. Like a jazz poem, SJE reflects improvisatory innovations, not the least of which are the aural and visual effects of material improvisation in how words are arranged across the cloth, leaving open space while clustering other text; how words are stitched in different shapes and sizes, working in capitals, shifting to lower case, changing the sizing of letters, and their direction; and moving from color to color based on the thread pieces available.

49> What “voices” speak to us from SJE if we read it as a literary text created by an African American woman writer? Mae G. Henderson, in her 1989 text “Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer’s Literary Tradition,” offers a language for black female subjectivity that emphasizes the multiplicity, mutability, and motility of SJE. Henderson explores the ways in which “black women’s speech/writing becomes at once a dialogue between self and society and between self and psyche.”61 “Speaking in tongues” is the idea that “black women must speak in a plurality of voices as well as in a multiplicity of discourses . . . [a] simultaneity of discourses.”62

50> SJE combines found text and culturally-imbedded phrases like “I love you” and “Merry Christmas” alongside the maker’s own words. Like Henderson’s “heteroglossia,” SJE reflects its maker’s “ability to speak in the multiple languages of a public discourse.63 At the same time, the text is “glossolalic” in that it stands in “violatio[n] or transgression[n] of the symbolic order.”64 As an act of “speaking in tongues,” SJE might be re-imagined as an empowered and empowering making, without forgetting or idealizing the undoubtedly challenging lived experiences of its maker.

51> In the process of transforming stitches into letters, letters into words, and words into phrases that wind across the cloth, SJE literalizes Henderson’s “self-inscription” as “disruption,” which allows for “rereading and rewriting the conventional and canonical stories, as well as revising the conventional generic forms that convey these stories.”65 To reread SJE as poetic rather than psychotic is to recognize how it function as an “interventionist”66 engagement with language for both maker/writer and viewer/reader. To insist upon such a self-expression is to reimagine the “I” as a “subjective plurality” outside a dialectic of “cohesive” v. “fractured,”67 or well v. ill, sane v. insane.

52> When I brought SJE into the classroom, my creative writing workshop students were experimenting with multimedia poetic forms. I wanted to offer them a model for thinking about the materiality of language. I hadn’t planned to look closely at the piece until a student described it as “crazy.” My first inclination was to balk at the way this term seemed to move between stigmatizing the work by reducing it to “mad” writing, reframing it as something beyond interpretability that we could therefore move on from, and upholding it as some type of alien expression we might gawk at for a time.

53> I asked the group, “What happens if we don’t try to assume a logic for the text; is that even possible?” What followed was a conversation about interpretation itself and ways that experimental texts can open up what the “codes” of meaning-making systems can look like. I pulled an embroidery hoop from my bag, tangled in threads and pins, and shared how a more experiential approach to SJE had helped me differently engage the work as a poem. I invited them to consider how words on the page might be thought of as stitches placed along the surface of the fabric, how a stitch breaks or a thread runs out, how it gets tangled and knotted, how this might mirror enjambment or a line or a stanza break.

Making Media Matter poems, backside” Jessica Comola, 2019.

54> “It forms holes and gaps” they began to offer. “We can see some stitches, but not what’s on the backside of the language’s ‘fabric,’” another student added. I passed the embroidery hoop around the table and asked them to feel it with their eyes closed: “Like an alphabet,” one student described, “only jumbled together.” They started to pull apart and rearrange SJE’s language, to read the words backwards and bottom to top, to turn the picture upside down and find text they previously thought unreadable. Rather than distancing themselves from SJE, or pathologizing away its maker, they reinterpreted the writing as purposefully and thoughtfully “illogical.” We ended by posing further questions: what assumptions might we rethink if we interpreted SJE as a found text, a commonplace book, or remixed album? Or as an embroidery sampler or visual poetics piece? Or as an autobiography, memoir, or pathography?

55> A year later, and after several more classroom conversations along similar lines, I presented SJE to an audience of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and community members as part of the University of Denver’s Making Media Matter event in May 2019. There, I invited the audience to create improvisational “poems” using SJE’s language. Having transcribed it onto dropcloth cutouts, I asked everyone to take a handful of fabric and craft the individual words into their own texts. By the end, 30 poems were scattered across the floor, each of which constituted a small iteration and re-embodiment of SJE itself.

56> Texts and textiles exist in a metaphorical relationship where metaphor emphasizes the figurative: both the non-literal and that which is embodied, a figure of speech. What I’d thought to be a limited etymological connection between “text” and “textile” became an interpretive method and reading practice, as well as an experiential engagement. While the relationship between texts and textiles might feel like an overused metaphor (we “weave a tale” or “spin a yarn”), metaphor in a disability rhetoric and experimental poetics context isn’t a simple comparison; it serves instead to prioritize figuration, or the body behind the making, as well as to emphasize the non-literal and non-logical as viable means of expression. In a metaphorical relationship, one thing becomes another; genre, disciplinary, and modal boundaries are stitched together, or perhaps their always-existing seams are made tangible.

57> As a writer, SJE is a model for an expressive mode that disrupts conventional, expressive traditions. As a reader, it’s a site of inquiry into what constitutes the conventionally “readable” textual body to critique where ableism and interpretation intersect. Each stitch shows evidence of the physical body in the process of self-expression, moving in, through, and back out of a sense- making paradigm. What follows is a text-based cloth in-process, comprised of the 30 poems generated out of the Making Media Matter event, along with the “scraps” of embroidered language from SJE. The piece is intended as a large-scale manifestation of interpretive and expressive processes that celebrate SJE through the act of retelling, recycling, and remixing the language to experientially engage its contingent “I.”

“Experimental Disability Poetics and the St. Joseph Embroidery,” Jessica Comola, 2019.

Poems from Making Media Matter Event, Jessica Comola, 2019.

Poems from Making Media Matter Event, Jessica Comola, 2019.

Poems from Making Media Matter Event, Jessica Comola, 2019.


1 Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), xi.

2 Gumbs, Spill, xii.

3 “Glore Psychiatric Museum,” Saint Joseph Museums, St. Joseph Museums, Inc., 2017, https://

4 Wall text, Faces, Spaces and Traces of Sanity: Exploring Mental Illness Through Art, “Silent
Voice,” Glore Psychiatric Museum, St. Joseph, MO.

5 Wall text, Faces, Spaces and Traces of Sanity,” Glore Psychiatric Museum.

6 Jay Timothy Dolmage, Disability Rhetoric (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2014),

7 I follow textile scholar Susan Frye in thinking of identity as “the ever-becoming sense of a stable ‘self’ that individual subjects attempted to generate through their relations to space, time, and discourse. Identity in this sense emerges as agency when the individual subject seeks expression . . . definitions of identity and agency require an awareness of the subject’s multiple social relations . . . [such that the individual is] a ‘locus in which an incoherent (and often contradictory) plurality of such relational determinations interact.’” Susan Frye, Pens and Needles: Women’s Textualities in Early Modern England (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), 11.

8 John R. Blakeman, BSN; Sheryl J. Samuelson, PhD, RN; and Kimberly N. McEnvoy, BSN, RN, TNS, “Analysis of a Silent Voice: A Qualitative Inquiry of Embroidery Created by a Patient with Schizophrenia,” Journal of Psychosocial Nursing 51, no. 6 (2013): 38,

9 Blakeman, “Analysis of a Silent Voice,” 39.

10 Blakeman, “Analysis of a Silent Voice,” 39.

11 “History,” Northwest Missouri Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center, Missouri Department of Health, accessed June 1, 2019, https://dmh.mo.gov/nmprc/history.html.

12 Wall text, Faces, Spaces and Traces of Sanity: Exploring Mental Illness Through Art, “Silent Voice,” Glore Psychiatric Museum, St. Joseph, MO.

13 Blakeman, “Analysis of a Silent Voice,” 39.

14 Bertram J. Black, Principles of Industrial Therapy for the Mentally Ill (New York: Grune &
Stratton, 1970), 1.

15 Richard L. Lael, Barbara Brazos, and Margot Ford McMillen, Evolution of a Missouri Asylum:
Fulton State Hospital, 1851-2006 (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2007), 83. 

16 Richard Lael, Evolution of a Missouri Asylum, 84.

17 Bertram Black, Principles of Industrial Therapy for the Mentally Ill, 2. 

18 Bertram Black, Principles of Industrial Therapy for the Mentally Ill, 4. 

19 Bertram Black, Principles of Industrial Therapy for the Mentally Ill, 10. 

20 Richard Lael, Evolution of a Missouri Asylum, 84.

21 “Tatterer, n.3.” OED Online. September 2019. Oxford University Press. https://www-oed- com.du.idm.oclc.org/view/Entry/198101?redirectedFrom=tatterer.

22 John Duffy and Melanie Yergeau, “Editor’s Introduction” Disability Studies Quarterly 31, no.
3 (2011), accessed June 1, 2019, http://dsq-sds.org/issue/view/84.

23 Jay Dolmage, Disability Rhetoric, 101.

24 Ekaterina Sukhanova, “Semiotic Functions of Outsider Art in Counteracting Stigma,” in
Advances in Psychiatry, ed. Afzal Javed and Kostas Fountoulakis (SpringerLink), https:// link.springer.com/book/10.1007%2F978-3-319-70554-5.

25 Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E. Kirsch, “Our Own Stories of Professional Identity,” in Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms: Feminist Rhetorical Practices, ed. Cheryl Glenn and Shirley Wilson Logan (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University, 2012), 14. 

26 Royster and Kirsch, Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms, 18.

27 Royster and Kirsch, Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms, 19.

28 Royster and Kirsch, Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms, 20.

29 Royster and Kirsch, Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms, 21-22.

30 Royster and Kirsch, Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms, 23.

31 Royster and Kirsch, Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms, 19.

32 Victoria Bates, Alan Bleakley, and Sam Goodman, Medicine, Health and the Arts: Approaches
to the Medical Humanities (New York: Routledge, 2014), 23. 

33 Victoria Bates, Medicine, Health and the Arts, 23.

34 Victoria Bates, Medicine, Health and the Arts, 124.

35 Hong’s work is also in dialogue with poet Evie Shockley who writes that innovative works are all too often read as white: in conceptualizations of “black aesthetics,” “the discourse around innovative and avant-garde poetry in the U.S. has historically constructed these categories as implicitly ‘white’”. That is, in the hands of readers and critics, innovative works by black writers are “too often discussed as if they are neither influenced by nor in conversation with a wide swath of African American and African diasporic poetry, past and present . . . Divorced from one or more important cultural traditions informing the work, the fact that, or the extent to which, black aesthetics underwrites or shapes the innovation in these writers’ texts can go unnoticed or unanalyzed.” Evie Shockley, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (Iowa City, Iowa University Press, 2011), 11-12.

36 Cathy Park Hong, “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde,” Lana Turner, Issue 7, 2016.

37 Cathy Park Hong, “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde,” 2016.

38 Victoria Bates, Medicine, Health and the Arts, 155.

39 Gail Hornstein, Agnes's Jacket: A Psychologist's Search for the Meanings of Madness (New York: Routledge, 2009), xix.

40 Gail Hornstein, Agnes's Jacket, iv.

41 Mary V. Seeman, “Identity and Schizophrenia: Who do I want to be?” World J Psychiatry 7, no. 1 (2017), accessed June 15, 2019, https://www.wjgnet.com/2220-3206/full/v7/i1/1.htm. 

42 Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture 1830-1980 (London: Virago, 1987), 5.

43 Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady, 129, 82.

44 Susan Frye, Pens and Needles: Women’s Textualities in Early Modern England (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), 9.

45 Susan Frye, Pens and Needles, 9.

46 Eli Leon, Accidentally on Purpose: The Aesthetic Management of Irregularities in African Textiles and African-American Quilts (Davenport, IA: Figge Art Museum, 2006), 11. 

47 Eli Leon, Accidentally on Purpose, 11.

48 Eli Leon, Accidentally on Purpose, 11.

49 Eli Leon, Accidentally on Purpose, 37.

50 Eli Leon, Accidentally on Purpose, 37-8.

51 Evie Shockley, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (Iowa City, Iowa University Press, 2011), 92.

52 Evie Shockley, Renegade Poetics, 92.

53 Evie Shockley, Renegade Poetics, 17.

54 Evie Shockley, Renegade Poetics, 88.

55 Evie Shockley, Renegade Poetics, 88.

56 Evie Shockley, Renegade Poetics, 89.

57 Langston Hughes, “Jazz as Communication (1956),” Essay on Poetic Theory, Poetry Foundation, 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69394/jazz-as-communication. 

58 Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain (1926),” Essay on Poetic Theory, Poetry Foundation, 2009, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69395/the-negro- artist-and-the-racial-mountain.

59 George Glore, “Missouri Museum Favors Macabre : Psychiatry: Archivist has assembled a grim historical collection on mental illness,” LA Times, Amy Lignitz, 1995, https://

60 Jennifer Ryan, Post-Jazz Poetic: A Social History (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2010), 4.

61 Mae G. Henderson, “Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer’s Literary Tradition,” in African American Literary Theory: A Reader, ed. Winston Napier (New York UP, 2000), 2-3.

62 Mae Henderson, Speaking in Tongues, 4. 

63 Mae Henderson, Speaking in Tongues, 5. 

64 Mae Henderson, Speaking in Tongues, 11. 

65 Mae Henderson, Speaking in Tongues, 9. 

66 Mae Henderson, Speaking in Tongues, 9. 

67 Mae Henderson, Speaking in Tongues, 13.

Jessica Comola is the author of Everything We Met Changed Form and Followed the Rest (Horse Less Press, 2016). Her poetry and multimedia work (including more on the St. Joseph Embroidery) can be found at www.jessicacomola.com


Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture

Volume Six (2020)
Artifacts & Works / Communities & Fields

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