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Review by Alexis Riley, The University of Texas at Austin, Email: aariley@utexas.edu 

Writhing Writing: Towards a Mad Poetics is a book that moves. Over the course of eleven chapters culled from over two decades of writing, author Phil Smith expertly animates his text, juxtaposing academic argumentation, autoethnographic reflection, scholarly literature, and lyrical poetry in a dizzying intertextual montage. Here, Smith does not limit himself to mere description, rather, he capitalizes on his expertise as a novelist, playwright, poet, and visual artist, using variation in font choice, text size, and spatial arrangement to skillfully sculpt each chapter. The result— what Smith terms a “performative poetics”— not only explores key issues pertaining to disability and madness, but it also dramatizes those issues on the page.

Throughout, Smith’s approach usefully presents readers with multiple options for navigating the anthology. Readers might choose to work through the chapters in order, tracing the chronological development of the author’s research and writing practices. Or they might choose to focus on select themes, such as terminology (Chapter 1, Chapter 3, Chapter 9), disability in education (Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 8), or mad identity (Chapter 4, Chapter 7, Chapter 10), among others. Similarly, readers might approach particular chapters as a study in style, identifying moments where the author uses columns (Chapter 5), graphics (Chapter 10) negative space (Chapter 6), lists (Chapter 4) or storytelling (Chapter 2). Through these variations, Smith offers himself as a co-creator of the text and its meaning, inviting the reader to participate as an active collaborator in the writing process. 

For this reason, readers may need to adjust their approach in order to productively engage the text and savor its many twists and turns. To be clear, this is not a criticism; rather, it is one of the book’s greatest strengths. For example, Smith’s writing often works as a series of puzzles, prompting the reader to parse through the placement of various words, sentences, or paragraphs as a way to uncover implicit connections. The reflexivity required to make these adjustments effectively engages the reader in an embodied exploration into how language contributes to the “territorialization of knowledge,” particularly as it pertains to madness and disability (17). In doing so, the text simultaneously interpellates the reader into the work of deterritorializing that knowledge. Indeed, the changes in pace and non-linear interpretive style demanded by Writhing Writing might even be described as enacting a form of crip time, opening up new ways of creating meaning in relation to printed text.

In addition to experimenting with form, Smith’s book likewise intersects with key field conversations in critical disability studies and mad studies. Echoing recent calls for a cripistemology (Johnson and McRuer), critical disability studies as methodology (Minich) and mad methodology (Bruce), Writhing Writing similarly embodies a move towards mad epistemic emancipation, a method for cultivating a more capacious and liberatory relationship to writing and research that values the wisdom of mad people, mad culture, and mad expression. Moreover, it is particularly well-suited for inclusion in mad studies, critical disability studies, disability arts, writing and rhetoric, and performance studies classrooms, as its experimentation with both content and form will energize students and teachers alike. Fiercely disorienting and powerfully disordered, Writhing Writing ultimately presses at the bounds of research and its representation, deftly affirming the value of, and need for, more mad ways of knowing. 

Works Cited

Bruce, La Marr Jurelle. How to Go Mad without Losing Your Mind: Madness and Black Radical 

Creativity. Duke University Press, 2020.

Johnson, Merri, and Robert McRuer. “Cripistemologies: Introduction.” Journal of Literary & 

Cultural Disability Studies, vol. 8, no. 2, Liverpool University Press, 2014, pp. 127–48.

Minich, Julie Avril. “Enabling Whom? Critical Disability Studies Now.” Lateral, June 2016.

Smith, Phil. Writhing Writing: Moving Towards a Mad Poetics. Autonomous Press, 2018.

This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated.

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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