Madness Disguises Sanity
as I walk
stare and pass by
on the far side
To be one
who lounge on
to the wind
people shy from
But I am woman
like a mute child
So I write
(From Tamarind and Mango Women, (Sister Vision Press),1992. This collection is the winner of the Pen/Josephine Milles Award 1992.)
As a writer, it is always an honor when someone says they have read my work, and like it – thus far no one has said to my face that they don’t like my work. But it is a profound distinction to know that my work is being used in schools and that students and scholars are interrogating the work, deconstructing it to decipher its meaning. A few months ago students from Cronton College in north west England contacted me via email to say they were studying my poem for A2 level exam. I was indeed thrilled, but also too busy with teaching to give their request full attention. However, what it forced me to do was to reread the above poem, that is almost thirty years old, and relive the writing of it. Quite frankly, I did not remember the poem or even in which collection it could be found, but I found it online. Reviewing the students’ questions forced me to travel back in time.
Rereading the poem, I am proud of it, and believe it stands up to the test of time; it is still relevant, and accurately captures a moment. However, it goes further by using that moment to make commentary on a larger issue –that is how some women feel silenced by patriarchal structures that restricts their need to speak, out on a variety of issues, and as a result label them mad.
The persona of the poem, in the voice of the poet, says that writing offers a safe space for her (should be read as women) to express and share all the things –social and political issues- that skips around in her head. Writing is a safety net, and an appropriate outlet; it provides a fence behind which women can speak out about issues without being carted off to the insane asylum.
These questions are by
Natasha Mercer, Georgia Hill and Emily Blunden
(All members of our A-level performance group)
What was the inspiration for the poem?
The poem was inspired one morning, long, long ago while living in Oakland Ca. I was jogging around Lake Merritt, near where I lived, and encountered a homeless man sleeping in a doorway in one of the buildings in that area. He was clearly experiencing some emotional challenges and was shouting, gesticulating and cursing at people, whomever, passed by. He was so vociferous, and seemingly so self-righteous, and in that moment I thought to myself, such freedom from social decorum.
Whatever was bothering the homeless man he was getting off his chest, and because of his social standing or lack thereof, his behavior was “acceptable.” I paused from my jogging, and stood watching and listening to him, and it is from that observation that the poem came. Also, I was in graduate school at the time and troubled by the Euro-male scholars that were standard part of the curriculum, acceptable masters of theory. There was a glowing absence of women, and certainly Afro-Caribbean women, such as myself, were non-existent. Seeing the homeless man, I thought to myself, he might be considered mad, but there was s level of sanity in his freedom and ability to shout out his pain, to cry out loudly to the world, I have been wronged. To be able to do so, is in my estimation, the greatest form of sanity, but if I were to rant like that in school about the theories that obfuscate my existence and that of my people, it would be said I had a psychotic break and need psychological treatment. The irony of course, is that by seemingly holding it together, I was forced to swallow my pain in order “to make it.”
All these thoughts were swimming inside my head, which lead to the creation of the poem. Because I had gone jogging, I had nothing on which to write, so I had to keep repeating lines of the poem on my jog home, and upon arriving home, I sat to write without even pausing to quench my thirst by drinking a glass of water. The poem went through four drafts after that first initial inspiration. I kept cutting back, trimming down, as I wanted it to be concise and not didactic.
Why did you choose the title Madness Disguises Sanity?
I do believe sometimes, the pressures in the society to confirm, to be proper is cancerous, forces us to swallow a lot of pain, but if one is deemed mad then one is allowed the freedom to rant and rave. Yet, if one listens, if one over looks the seeming madness, then one can’t help but hear the truth of the complaint. The idea behind this title is, what if we could wear madness like a mask that we put on when we want to speak out about an issue, unconventional or controversial, or our own personal truth that might be deemed unacceptable. I think often we use the label madness when we don’t want to hear people’s truth that might challenge our foundation.
What are the main themes of the poem?
Social norms, being preoccupied with ideas that one needs to express; the plight of homeless people, and women’s need to have safe spaces to express their ideas and be heard without being castigated.
What message (if any) did you want to create when writing the poem?
The primary message is to slow down and listen to each other, be open to new ideas, be less quick to judge someone as crazy or mad because s/he expresses a different opinion. A woman’s need to communicate, to feel as if there is a safe space to share her opinions.
I believe that the poem reveals roles in society. How far do you agree with my interpretation and do you have any comment on it?
Yes, the poem does interrogates roles and what is considered acceptable behavior within those roles, and what are the consequences for breaking those roles — the labels that get assigned to us, and how easy it is to use labels to dismiss and silence indigent members of our community.
I am very grateful that “Madness Disguises Sanity,” is getting a new life and that students have found this poem. My life long goal for my work is that it will be taught and performed throughout the world, and every piece will serve as an opportunity for dialogue.