A Mad, Mad World / Interview with Dr. Phil Smith

  • How did you get involved with AutPress?

a number of years ago, wandering around the inter-webs looking for new and interesting ideas about neurodiversity, while teaching at a university, i discovered some blogs written by people who became founding members of the Autonomous Press collective. i was smitten with their ideas, which approached neurodiversity and neurodivergence and queering in ways i hadn’t seen before. i started sharing those ideas with my students and colleagues. i also realized that this way of thinking saw neurodiversity as a big tent – that it included Madness. as i began to claim Mad identity for myself, i began also to see how i fit within that bigger, broader neurodivergent community. 

when I began seeing the first books that AutPress put out at conferences and elsewhere, i was really excited – here were people that thought like me, had ideas and experiences that were jammin’ and exciting, and wrote for the kind of diverse and wild audiences i hoped to reach. one of the original editors at Autonomous Press reached out to me and asked if i thought i had a book in me that might be of interest to AP. i thought some, and read some, and wrote some, and the result was Writhing writing: Moving toward a mad poetics, which AP went ahead and published in 2018. it was a somewhat complicated project getting it into print, because my writing style is sometimes a bit, uh, unusual. AP went above and beyond putting it into a format that matched my vision, and put awesome cover art done by a wonderful writer, artist, and former student, Dr. Jacquie St. Antoine, on the front. i was pretty much stunned when it received the 2020 American Education Studies Association Critics Choice Award in 2020 – i never expected anything like that kind of recognition.

perhaps two years ago or so, Nick Walker, managing editor for Autonomous Press, put out a call to folx, asking if there were people who might be interested in doing some work for AutPress, perhaps eventually joining the collective. because of my interest in the broader communities AP reaches and touches, my experiences as a writer and editor, and the generosity that AP had offered me as a writer, it felt pretty natural to offer up my time and effort – to give something back to folx who had given something to me. AP collective members were gracious in welcoming me, helped me understand some of the processes and history of the press, and continue to mentor me about – well, all kinds of things. it’s been an exciting process of learning and doing and being (do-be-do-be-do).

  • We are looking forward to the Mad Studies books, both the anthology and the collection of personal stories. Can you tell us what prompted you to begin these projects, and what you are hoping to accomplish with them?

Writhing writing has always been the beginning, for me, of a trajectory of work looking at Mad life, knowledge, and experience, growing out of my increasing awareness and understanding of my own Mad identity and life. it reflects my own growth of understanding of Disabled and Mad people in the world, along with my own life as a Mad academic, poet, and writer. i’d been presenting and writing bits and pieces, here and there, about Madness, and listening and reading the work of other Mad writers and thinkers. i began to realize that the broader life knowledge of Mad people had long been left out of psy-complex understandings of the world, and wanted to add to the growing body of work that shared Mad knowledge and life-experience. i knew that the first place to start would be by asking Mad people to share what it was like to live in a world dominated by saneist and ableist ideologies and approaches to Madness and so-called “mental health” (a term i generally reject). 

much of the ani-psychiatry movement work that i saw going on around me, even to the current time, while doing important things to critique the psy-complex, still didn’t go far enough, to my mind, in bringing forward the work of Mad people in and outside the ivory tower. so i put out calls to the broad Mad community to share two kinds of stories: one about their own lives in the world, and the other about how they see Mad Studies taking a place alongside Disability Studies and other social justice approaches to exploring and being in the world. what would those stories look like/sound like/read like? how would they be different from the kind of stories about Mad people that we usually see or read about from the dominant, normative culture?

the proposals i’ve received back are – amazing. they, and the writing that is starting to come in, is everything i’d hoped for – different words, different knowledge, different ways of looking at the wider wurd whirled. the writing, and the people behind that writing, are hilarious, vulnerable, insightful, poetic, horrifying, glorious explorations of the kinds of lives Mad people experience every single day. i think these two projects will put Autonomous Press even more at the forefront of broadening the already big tent of neurodiverse, queered thinking and writing than it already has been.

  • What is a typical day for you?

well, first, there is no typical day. i live in a cabin beside Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, far off the beaten path – like, literally. my mailbox and the nearest paved road is a half mile away. the closest place that is plowed in the winter is a quarter of a mile away, up a pretty steep hill that most people find a little scary. so my days often involve a fair amount of what colleagues call “bread labor” – doing the work needed to keep mind and body together. i heat mostly with wood, so that takes a bunch of time to cut, split, stack, haul, and burn. getting supplies up and down the hill is not small project, especially in the winter, and given that i have to drive an hour and a half each way to get to the decent size city i go to for food and provisions.

mornings are spent, in large part, reading and writing and editing. i’m fortunate to have pretty decent internet access, so i’m able to communicate with friends and colleagues around the world on the projects we work on together. as long as the power doesn’t go out (we had a big storm before thanksgiving a couple of years ago that knocked electricity out for eight days, and left my path up the hill clogged with trees under a heavy load of ice until spring), i’m able to keep up with the writing and learning that are important to my way of being. afternoons i spend taking care of firewood, working in the garden, harvesting fruit – all of the things needed to keep my small homestead going.

it’s a fair amount of work – and I love every minute of it.

  • What sparks joy in your life?

i feel so privileged to be able to live the life that i do. looking out from my cabin porch is a bay on the largest body of freshwater in the world by surface area in the world. it has the best sunsets on this or any planet, and its moods and beauty changes with every moment. when a gale is blowing, with twenty or thirty foot waves crashing against the shore, and the snow blowing sideways so it can’t even land on the ground, sitting inside by the woodstove is such an incredible experience.

i see very few humans unless i go to town (and then only to talk to the folx at the post office or the grocery store or hardware store or the guy who fixes my chainsaw). but the neighbors – animal people of all kinds – are the most amazing people i’ve met. the turkey hens bring their bunch of poults down to the field for me to admire parading around the field. fawns bound through the grass – once, one lay down in the grass right in front of me, and i reached out to touch it. ravens nest nearby – earlier this summer, one flew from the tree they were nesting in, flying directly to me, hovering overhead, to see if i was a threat. i told them that i was the same guy that had been here last summer, and they turned and flew back to their nest. pileated woodpeckers, porcupines, bald eagles, chicadees, hummingbirds, nuthatches, garter snakes, a big ole hoppy toad that lives underneath my rhubarb leaves – these people check on me daily, and i on them.

being outside in all weather, amongst the tree people and lupine people and black-eyed susan people, water people and rock people – picking blueberries that will end up in my pancakes, writing about my life, reading and learning, spending time doing real physical work that will have a direct impact on whether i’ll be warm enough that night – i’ve been so lucky to build a life that keeps me safe and whole. yes, i experience Madness every day, but my daily habits and chores and delights of weather and sky and animals and water – these give me so much – i’m not even sure i can put it adequately into words. it suits me.

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