By Charles Wheeler
I spent a lot of time fighting other people’s battles.
Spoken word performance is something you’ll often hear described as an outlet. The open mic night that I consider “home”, Leicester’s Find the Right Words, prides itself on being a space for marginalised voices to speak truths and experiences, and it’s far from alone in that respect. This art form is one that the vulnerable, the recovering, and the revolutionary flock to, one that serves at a platform so many have needed. The perfect avenue for an autistic adult to express their socio-political truth, right?
Right. But folks, it took me a while to get there.
When I started writing poetry for the first time since my teens, coming out of a creative Master’s dissertation (a novel written entirely in tweets – I am forever on my bullshit), and even a couple of years later when I first tested the performing waters, my autistic identity was still a developing thing. I was diagnosed at 12 (Asperger Syndrome, officially, but I’ve grown away from that term for a variety of reasons, many detailed in my poem A Song for Hans). That’s a pretty early diagnosis compared to a lot of my autistic network, but I was caught in a weird middle ground where diagnosis was gradually on the rise, but social understanding and structured help, even in educational settings, was lagging a long way behind. 19 years later, I’m finally getting some specialist help, and it’s taken massive trauma and uncertainty in my work life to secure even that.
In the meantime, I had a neurotypical world to navigate, and that journey led me to end up with a whole bunch of coping mechanisms and half-baked understandings of things that I’d later have to unpick. It’s scary to set this down in words, but the honest truth is that pretty much all my worthwhile understanding of myself has developed in the last two or three years, almost exclusively from interacting with fellow autistics online. Nobody teaches us this stuff. We’ve had to learn it ourselves and shout it into the void, hoping that we manage to pass each other the CliffsNotes by happenstance.
As such, I think I can be forgiven for being a little late to my own party.
But I got there eventually. Spoken word became lifeblood for me, oxygen, nutrition, sustenance, survival. I grew a network of people, but maybe more importantly, I grew a network of ideas, a better-defined view of the place arts has in neurotypical capitalism and my own place within that (it’s worth noting, that wouldn’t have happened without those people, particularly Find the Right Words’ Jess Green and Leicester venue darlings David Bell and John Kirby).
And yet, I was still fighting other people’s battles.
For a fair while it seemed to me that the proper thing to do with a platform was to punch up for others, fight battles for those who couldn’t fight for themselves. I will never, ever regret that. All I regret is not realising the depth and breadth of my own oppression sooner. It’s devastating to look back and see how much time I spent blaming myself for the alienation, depression, anxiety and marginalisation I’ve encountered throughout my entire life. Because there was nobody there to tell me otherwise, I had no frame of reference to understand that these things weren’t because of me, but because of structural unreadiness and unwillingness to account for neurological difference. That pervades the personal, the professional and the political, and follows the lines of every intersection between those spheres.
One day I was thinking about that, and I realised I had a lot of things to write poetry about.
Enter the ideal vehicle: NaPoWriMo. National Poetry Writing Month, an offshoot of National Novel Writing Month, is an annual self-imposed poetry challenge, the aim being to write a poem every day in April. There’s a website where you can get prompts. I didn’t use them. April is also Autism Awareness Month, and April 2019 was also a horrific month for me professionally, leading to my diagnosis of depression and anxiety and a course of Sertraline. I needed no further prompts.
By the first day of May 2019, I had 30 poems about all of it. All of me. And my god did that feel like a revelation. I put them into a zine, Small Talk for Hands and built my performances around them. Having an artefact of my own in my hands, and living these poems on stage, is validation unlike anything else. I stim away, clicking my fingers, speaking my truth. It’s therapy and activism. It’s self-care and self-challenge. I am spoken word as much as I am autistic, now. I’m art. We’re art, my friends. And it’s beautiful.
Charles Wheeler is an autistic spoken word performer and poet from Leicester, UK. He is a mainstay of the local open mic scene, and will shortly be announcing several feature-length shows and new collections of poetry for the coming year.
Small Talk for Hands, a zine of poetry from Autism Awareness Month 2019
Photo: Dave Morris