Conveying a haunting and beautiful subtext beneath a confused and disjointed discourse, Steven Cramer constructs a captivating collection of poetry against the backdrop of mental illness.
Clangings is an evocative work that transforms the titular addled speech patterns that plague some schizophrenic patients into a lyrical collection of poetry that seeks to unlock the meaning behind these ostensibly incomprehensible communications.
Friends and colleagues who had worked with schizophrenic patients introduced Cramer to these distinctive speech patterns. Clinicians had likened clangings to lyrical speech due to the way words are connected based upon sound, rhyming and alliteration rather than coherent concepts. Cramer was captivated by their poetic nature. He conducted thorough research, and recorded passages from the research that he found particularly moving or engrossing. During the writing process, he wove some of these passages into the work lending an unmistakable realism and authenticity to the quatrains.
“I felt a little bit like these poems were created the way Frankenstein created his monster – from bits and pieces of other living things,” he said.
Over the course of four distinct sections, Cramer takes the reader inside the mind of a man struggling with schizophrenia. The first section focuses on the narrator’s imaginary friend – an alter ego named Dickey who acts out the narrator’s fantasies. The next section focuses on the narrator’s troubled family life, the third section opens with the metaphorical death of Dickey, and the book ends on a note of melancholy with the narrator processing his feelings about Dickey’s death and seeking treatment for his condition. It’s a fairly loose narrative arc, and the nonsensical nature of the clangings opens the book to many interpretations.
Cramer likens the reader’s experience to that of someone overhearing a conversation but only getting bits and pieces. Readers quickly become aware that the protagonist is an unreliable narrator, and that keeps them off-balance and wary even as they are drawn deeper into his tale. Mental illness has a similar way of keeping both the afflicted and their loved ones off balance, and Cramer perfectly captures that push-pull in this work.
Cramer initially wrote one poem employing clangings as a literary tool, and that first effort proved to be a brand new experience for the seasoned and accomplished writer. He truly felt that he’d stepped outside of himself and written from a thoroughly new voice.
“I felt like I’d written a poem in the voice of someone who manifested that condition,” he said.
He built upon that first poem and the resulting collection is an unnerving and exhilarating glance directly into a schizophrenic mind.
Too often those afflicted with mental illness are marginalized and overlooked. Cramer’s work is truly refreshing in its insistence that there is meaningful thought hidden behind the outward chaos. Throughout the story, the reader is able to not only connect with the narrator, but also empathize with his predicament. In a society prone to keeping the mentally ill at arms length, it’s uplifting to read a work that so humanizes the condition.
“The experiences I’ve had, with people who know about the condition either from personal experience or from knowing someone with the condition, have told me that this work really did connect with them,” Cramer said.
Whenever writers craft their work, they seek to evoke a range of reactions from their readers. They want to entertain, to move, to inspire or challenge. For Cramer, the challenge with this work was to evoke all of these reactions from the reader while giving due consideration and respect to the community whose voice he was inhabiting.
“The one thing I did not want to do was to create a reductive character. I didn’t want the collection to seem opportunistic.”
It’s a testament to Cramer’s talent as a writer that he was able to avoid both of these pitfalls with aplomb. It’s also a tribute to the care and respect with which he handled this condition.
Once the work was complete, he consulted with the friends and colleagues who had initially brought these clanging to his attention. He sought their expertly trained ears to make sure his lyrical collection rang true.
“They did give me the confidence that I was doing something that was honorable that would have an impact,” he said.
Clearly the experts were right.
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M.F.A. in Creative Writing program director Steven Cramer's latest book of poetry, Clangings, was recently reviewed in "New Pages," a well-known online literary resource. Read full article.