979: The Listening World

20231018 SD

979: The Listening World

Today’s episode is guest hosted by Shira Erlichman.


I’m Shira Erlichman and this is The Slowdown.

Recently, our U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, warned of a Loneliness Epidemic. He cited loneliness as being as deadly as smoking. Before this was ever officially released to the public, I had a hunch. Perhaps you did too. Maybe in a few years they’ll come out with another study relating to another hunch I have: that our lack of listening as a society is also deadly.

The Surgeon General writes, “Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling––it is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death.” I turn to poetry to be among deep feelers and open-hearted world-experiencers––to feel connected. But I think I also turn to poetry because, at its best, it teaches me the rigorous, risky, and stunning craft of listening.

Paradoxically, often it is the ones who are not listened to who listen most acutely.

For particularly acute lessons on listening, I’ve often turned to fellow neurodivergent poets: poets writing Bipolar, Depression, Autism, ADHD, and more. Neurodivergent and disabled poets show that, of course, listening has nothing to do with hearing. Observing has nothing to do with ocular vision. Saying something has nothing to do with speaking.

When it comes to languaging our experiences, who makes the rules? I find neurodivergent poets are often the ones who risk crossing territory syntactically––that is, exploding the notions of how a sentence should even work. How work a sentence even should? And how should time work on the page, linearly, or according to a different unfolding? Whose comprehension should be valued?

As someone who’s experienced psychosis, hallucinations, and mania, I’m familiar with a mind that can upend order, narrative, cognition, and self. Poetry is a place where my syntax can reflect my inner-experiences. I can bend a heavy into a heaven. Or break a noun against the shore, so it disintegrates like a verb. For joy, I can scatter sound askitter, a swirl of starlings making and unmaking shape.

Today’s poet, Hannah Emerson, is a direct descendent of Ralph Waldo Emerson. She is a non-speaking, autistic typer who describes poets as “keepers of the light.” She offers up her own definition of autism: “It is very hard to be awake in this world. My body makes it hard to be here with you. Please understand you helpful people put the label on my existence. Please get this hell is mine. It is great life of trying to be here, because I help the world get they need to become me to help themselves.” I turn to Hannah Emerson not just because of her deft possibilizing of language, but because of her rare and necessary possibilizing of listening.

The Listening World
by Hannah Emerson

Say prayer for little
things, things that live
in deep hurt. Feelings
language take to lair.

Let it signal God’s
light, I say for want 
of light feelings. Is my
ear deep or deeper?

“The Listening World” by Hannah Emerson from THE KISSING OF KISSING © 2022, Hannah Emereson. Used by permission of Milkweed Editions.