Giving Voice to the Neurodivergent: An Interview with SchiZotypal Experientialist Poet Jake Bailey
When I met Jake Bailey during our first residency at Antioch University in Los Angeles, we discussed how artistic expression can promote healing and acceptance for the neurodivergent. Since then, Bailey has graduated with an MFA in Poetry from Antioch in 2019 and a Masters Degree in Library and Information Science from Dominican University in May, 2022. His personal mental health voyage has resonated poetically throughout the literary world.
As a self-defined “SchiZotypal Experientialist,” Bailey advocates for mental health awareness with a sense of humor and humility. His poetry, which has been nominated for “Best of the Net” and Pushcart Prizes, has found homes in more than sixty literary journals. He has two working manuscripts, titled SchiZo Plays a Werewolf in a Black and White Film and The Astronomer, and his academic paper, “Kantian Duty as a Framework for Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park,” will soon be published by the prestigious Jane Austen Society.
Currently, Bailey serves as a Reader for Grist and Los Angeles Review. Recently, I caught up with him for some candid conversations about his experiences and work from his home in Aurora, Illinois, where he lives with his wife, Faith, and their four dogs, two of which are service dogs.
Christine Waloszczyk: Was it a conscious decision to take your writing in the direction of neurodivergence advocacy or was it more of an organic process?
Jake Bailey: A lot of these poems were written when I wasn’t well. Poetry came to me later in life. I was really in a weird mental state and one thing that’s common among people on the schizo spectrum is this interest in mysticism and Eastern philosophies, although it’s not always the case. A Christian mystic Angelus Silesius was more into poetry and some of it started resonating with me. Then I remembered some research I did in undergrad on Martin Heidegger, a 20th century philosopher who basically said poetry was more foundational than philosophy, in terms of the truth in the larger sense. The truth has to come out in a different kind of language.
CW: It’s remarkably helpful to other people with those kinds of experiences. It’s like telling them they’re not alone.
JB: With my work I want to resonate with neurodivergent people, to educate the public, and give a voice to people who may not have the capacity to make sense of their own experiences or voice them at all.
CW: I’m glad that you’ve decided to take this direction because you manage to write about raw experiences so elegantly. Yet, even among the society of people with mental health challenges, there still seem to be things that people don’t want to talk about.
JB: I think the larger neurodivergent community is more understanding of different perspectives than the mainstream. So I think that ableism doesn’t come up inside that community. If someone uses the word schizophrenic as a slur, it’s different. It triggers me. It’s so baked into our language usage in the 21st century when things are broken, or different, or dual, even though all those things don’t pertain to schizophrenia. It’s just a kind of simulacrum.
CW: But when it comes to ableist language, is it okay to use it about ourselves?
JB: It’s true. Various cultures reappropriate slurs and use them within the community as a self-identifier. And I feel that happens with lots of language, where the oppressed, or the different, or the “other” is able to, with the progression of society, repossess those negative terms to flip the narrative so it’s no longer in the hands of the oppressor. Right now, we’re seeing so many marginalized groups who are having a voice, and a lot of those themes are not universal in the sense of every human person, but for those particular groups they are universal truths. So people outside of those groups, even if they can’t relate in the sense of having had that experience, can learn. They see a world they didn’t know existed before from a particular perspective.
CW: You’ve referred to being influenced by confessional poet John Berryman and also Martin Heidegger, but you insist your style is more “experiential” than confessional. Would you tell me more about that?
JB: At one point I did call myself a confessionalist. To me, that means talking about your subjective experience and not worrying about making it universal, but to write it in such a way that someone can step into it and see what it’s like. To me, as an experientialist, my goal is less to confess and more to try to provide a raw experience. The goal of my work is to be disorienting and experiential. It’s not just disorientation, it’s meant to convey the experience of what it is to think that way, or have a body that way. To be disclosive of the subjectivity of the self in that way.
To me, as an experientialist, my goal is less to confess and more to try to provide a raw experience.
CW: You have a certain flow to your poetry. Some repetition and alliteration, but it often has an unusual tempo. How would you describe it?
JB: I think a lot of that has to do with schizophasia and loose associations of things that are totally unrelated—repetitive thoughts and thought loops. You’ll see notes from psychiatrists who report patients who rhyme. Poetics is now unbounded. We can take the old conventions of meter, rhythm, and rhyme and deconstruct them, almost subverting them.
CW: Tell me about your new service dog, Molly.
JB: Right now, she’s little and training. She’ll be trained to pick up on cues, so she’ll paw me or lick me if she sees me spacing out. She’ll get between me and other people if I feel I need some protection when I’m having a depressive episode.
CW: When I read your as yet unpublished book, Schizo Plays a Werewolf in a Black and White Film, I thought about the role of werewolves in horror movies where the creature is trapped by circumstances beyond his own control, which usually occur during adolescence. This is often the time when schizophrenia emerges in young males. Was this the case for you?
JB: Werewolves from a historico cultural standpoint are like the fears of what the self can become. It’s this idea that anyone could become this kind of feared “other,” this kind of otherness that’s terrifying from the outside perspective and even more terrifying from the inside perspective. But the notion of it being in a black and white film is the idea that when those movies came out it may have been so frightening because those kinds of things hadn’t been done in film before, but now we look back and see, “Oh, that’s a rubber mask. That’s all of these different things.” It’s this idea that, on first glance, something that this person is going through is scary, maybe they’re going to do something bad, or commit mass violence, or what have you, but at the end of the day, it’s a rubber mask and the person on the inside is much more scared of themselves and more likely to do harm to themselves than to anyone else.
My brother and I inherited the condition. My grandmother on my father’s side was a paranoid schizophrenic. But schizoaffective disorder didn’t present in me until I was twenty-five and my brother had his first illness a few months before. I feel like this manuscript is also meant to give my brother a voice.
CW: Your work does a lot to try and bridge misunderstandings about mental illness. Have you ever felt some rejection because of your condition?
JB: I did experience some rejection among my college friends, and I didn’t want to disclose my neurodivergence. In fact, I didn’t disclose it until I was at Antioch. I felt more comfortable because it was such a welcoming, inclusive community. My poetry is really meant to be this humanizing peek into the other, instead of the usual, negative political-pop-culutre-centric narrative in society that demonizes the other.
My poetry is really meant to be this humanizing peek into the other, instead of the usual, negative political-pop-culutre-centric narrative in society that demonizes the other.
CW: And why do some of the poems take place on a Western film set?
JB: I have this vision of a Western set being a very desolate, isolated area. And the idea of having a tombstone in this place is potentially final, and you could end up stuck in this place with no hope of moving forward. There’s this tension between the realities of illness and the unrealities of a film set. It’s all about this distancing effect.
CW: Your Werewolf themed poetry is often visceral, but you blend it with a tone of amusement with titles like “les Lunettes du Doctor” and phrases such as “Alas have all the pharmacologists been in vain, when so many schizos remain insane?” How do you manage to balance the two aspects of the experience?
JB: The first section, especially the sense of the body, is that slow onset of my first episode. They call it FEP, or first episode psychosis. Most of it was written while I was unwell and then recovering with the support of my wife, my family, and friends. I think it comes out almost like dark humor. Humor can be a way of distancing yourself, like a defense mechanism. There is some humor in it, almost like a parade of fools where you have these generations trying to understand and map out an illness, when nothing completely mitigates it. There’s always something lingering, or there’s treatment resistance. It almost comes off as humorous, because, to some degree, it isn’t going to work.
CW: Your Bachelor of Philosophy comes into play with your references to Aristotle’s hylomorphism and Jacques Derrida, who talked about form and matter. What can you tell me about the influence, if any, of these philosophers in either your experience or your writing?
JB: A lot of Christian thinkers took on Aristotle’s model of hylomorphism and that’s how they understand incarnation—especially when it comes to the bread and wine part of Communion. So, it’s really this idea of being incarnate. The form should be your Self and the matter should be your body or the way you construct language, but the speaker in some of these—or my persona, my Self—it’s like something else is the form. Whether it’s the secondary voice that’s coming out of me that’s speaking for all individuals who have had my experience, or a form of the illness itself manifesting. The matter could be my Self or the poem, so it’s that idea of incarnation and the manifold ways that can appear and disappear.
CW: Your manuscript of poetry, The Astronomer, is much more lyrical and full of sensory descriptions of the natural world with a reference to Walt Whitman. Was this written as you were recovering?
JB: When I’m well and properly medicated my poetry is more like that of The Astronomer. The Werewolf poetry is more schismatic. I didn’t come to poetry until after my first episode. The Astronomer is the other half of the equation—the rational part of me during the same period.
There are moments in the book where there’s this groundedness, eventually a negative groundedness to things that are reduced and a movement towards openness. The title poem is almost an inversion of Whitman’s poem, “The Astronomer.” His poem is so hopeful, whereas in mine it’s about the duality of man and whether there’s anyone on the other side. “Portrait of the Mariana Trench”” is about division and the depths of how horrifying the unknown is. It emerged from thinking about the emotions while I was going through my divorce.
CW: Can you elaborate on the title of your poem, “The Stars, an Absence?”
JB: It’s that duality of meaning. Either they can be there or not. Stars can either be a presence that’s illuminating or hopeful, or they can be these cold, forever distant, mostly dead objects because of the time the light takes to reach us. It’s a construct of that disconnect.
CW: If there’s an absence, can you name what exactly is absent?
JB: It’s this weird phenomenon where you feel the presence of absence. If there’s an absence that impacts you in a certain way, then the fading footsteps of some kind of ‘no-thing,’ or perhaps something understood outside of our potential experience, manifests—there is a kind of presenced absence.
CW: In “Portrait of a Blackhole,” how would you describe the spiritual connection between man and space? Space is a cold place, really.
JB: In space, no one can hear you scream and everything is so far apart, it would take an eternity for anyone to hear you, which is impossible anyway. Despite those negative connotations earlier in the manuscript, you’ll notice there’s a transition about halfway through the manuscript towards the middle of having almost a mystical encounter and emotions becoming more hopeful.”
CW: Is that because of love?
JB: Yes, it’s love of family, love of self, love of others. I think that’s why the final poem includes personal love but as something to remind you that it’s ok to be alive. There’s this all-penetrating love that’s there and when we get severed from it we can go into this nihilistic spin.
The beloved is a world unto themselves wherein another world (our own) collides, intermixing into something else irreducible, an infinite outpouring and convergence of hearts.
CW: At last, love comes to save the day in “The Phenomenology of Light.” Is this a description of Faith?
JB: Yes, it speaks to the ‘more-than’ experience in our encounter in love that presents itself as an overflowing of meaning, of sense, of time, of being; it is something un-encapsulatable, irreducible, unbounded from the constraints of time space, or carnality. The beloved is a world unto themselves wherein another world (our own) collides, intermixing into something else irreducible, an infinite outpouring and convergence of hearts. “I can see you even without the sun” means that when one has this sort of encounter, there is a manifestation of the infinity of the other’s self encountering our own infinitude in love. It is above carnality; it is almost a kind of spirituality unto itself.
CW: In your final poem of The Astronomer, “To Be Alive,” you are running towards something and the momentum expresses the freedom of giving yourself over to something. Here, you are naked and exposed. You conclude, “I want to run naked through a poem and remind you that it is okay to be alive.” It’s the inverse of the terrifying depths of your poem, “Portrait of the Mariana Trench” You now run through the ocean joyfully.
JB: Again, it’s the absence versus the presence. The unknowable and nihilistic versus the presence of a transformative power of the water, like a baptismal thing. The stars are present as well. So, it’s a reverence for life. It’s reckoning with the fact that if you can push through all those horizons and black holes, you can experience the grandness of being alive.
CW: Congratulations on the upcoming publication of your brilliant paper on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and Immanuel Kant, soon to be published by The Jane Austen Society, which is a deep dive into the protagonist Fanny as a Kantian figure. What is the difference when viewing her from a Kantian perspective?
JB: In Mansfield Park, where Fanny can go towards something she does or doesn’t want, it’s still wrapped up in a deontological sense of duty in a Kantian sense. People think that Immanuel Kant was totally against happiness in decisions of ethics, but he literally says in his earlier writings that if happiness is not part of that process, it will eventually lead to more ethical problems. In his later writings, he specifically says that happiness is a duty.
For Jane Austen, it’s almost a feminine ethic, where you have these male characters who don’t really care, or have ulterior motives and these feminine characters who are acting within the sphere of their own agency. They’re trying to better themselves and to achieve their own goals. So, if you look at Kant, that coheres with deontology that it’s a duty for oneself to be happy.
CW: I really appreciate all the time you’ve taken to chat with me and for letting me read your works in progress. What are you excited about for the future?
JB: Right now, I’m trying to get my books published, and I’m anxiously awaiting the results of my submission for the National Endowment for the Arts Grant. I graduated in May and I’m looking forward to working in Library and Information Science. There’s such an under-representation of neurodivergent writing that’s so needed right now. Now people have more access to medical assistance, so it’s the time to be talking about what it’s like to have these experiences. In a way I feel very blessed to be neurodivergent, because there can be these bursts of schismed, creative energy that I wouldn’t get with another state of mind. This allows me to speak on neurodivergence from the inside and I think that’s critical right now.
Christine Waloszczyk is a neurodivergent writer with a recent MFA in Fiction and Screenwriting from Antioch University, Los Angeles and served as Social Media Supervisor and Fiction Reader for Lunch Ticket. Christine currently works with youth at Ethiopian Tewahedo Social Services while creating short films and providing peer mental health support for the artist community at Toronto’s Workman Arts.