My love of poetry slam comes from the control it grants its performers. For the three minutes I am on stage, I am the loudest thing in the room and I do not fear interruption. The stage, the spotlight, and the microphone all afford a performer the privilege of being heard, which allows more energy to be focused on the content of communication. Onstage I present a nuanced, impassioned argument in a way I am unable to in daily conversation.
In going viral, control and nuance are lost. A performance that was full of rage in the moment becomes a cute or interesting video passed around social media.
The response this poem elicits is telling. The comment section of most viral poetry videos is lousy with hate speech, but not mine. I expect to receive negative comments, but for the most part I really haven’t. There’s the poet who accused me of faking my stutter for the sake of performance, and the commenter who thought I was lazy for not pursuing fluency, but that’s really the extent of it.
And that bothers me. People aren’t getting angry with me, or disagreeing with my work, because they fail to understand the message I am trying to communicate. The consensus among Youtube commenters isn’t that I am a poet writing about stuttering, but that I am a poet despite stuttering. My work is presented as demonstrative of strength and perseverance in a way I really don’t believe is warranted.
The term “inspiration porn” refers to this extremely common response to disabled self-expression, in which stories of disabled people excelling in sports, art, or even just performing daily tasks, are marketed for the consumption of the non-disabled. This rhetoric - that it’s inspiring to watch someone overcome hardship - is incredibly infantilizing and reinforces the essentialist notion of the disabled as irreparably different.
Watching the work I intend to be angry and radical used in this way is frustrating, to say the least. Some incredible conversations within the speech community have come from this video, but it’s also tagged as “daily motivation” on diet and exercise websites alongside such gems as, “This man has no arms, no legs, and an amazing attitude!” Recently, I was compared to a dancer with lower limb difference. As in: “Look at the speaker with the broken voice! Look at the dancer with the broken body! Gee, it’s just so inspiring!”
When Honest Speech was posted to Upworthy, we submitted the contact info for Did I Stutter to be linked under the video. If you look closely, the post also links the National Stuttering Association. This isn’t information we asked to be posted nor were we consulted on it. On the surface, it seems like a simple choice to reference the largest national group relating to stuttering. And while our work aligns with the NSA in some ways, conflating the two because they have stuttering in common fails to recognize that our message and mission are nuanced. It fails to recognize that we, as stutterers, have something specific to say. The simple fact that we are speaking while stuttering isn’t the point.
I don’t know how to respond to these people. I want to be angry with them, to explain why their well-intended comments are offensive. I want to re-assert my control. But that works a lot better online than it does in the workplace, the classroom, or while crossing the street. I appreciate the irony here, that a poem I wrote to celebrate my difference is being used to further oppress disabled voices.
When I choose to use this poem in competition, I’m not seeking pity from the judges. I didn’t write it because I thought it would score well. I wrote it because I own a marginalized voice. I wrote it for the kids who have been taught that there are parts of themselves best kept hidden. I continue to perform it because it is an authentic expression of my experience in reclaiming dysfluency.
In performance, I can’t control the way an audience interprets my work, but I can choose the way I present myself. Which is to say, I will always be angry. I will always be proud. I will always be honest.