Book Review: More Challenges for the Delusional (Ona Gritz and Daniel Simpson, eds.)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
Given the paucity of presses dedicated to the publication of quality books by disabled writers, almost every publication in a mainstream press is a cause for celebration, and, as the numerous book reviews in journals like Wordgathering attest to, these occasions are growing rapidly. What is much rarer, however, is for writers with disabilities to be chosen as the editors of anthologies intended for a more general audience. Fortunately, that is exactly what has happened with the publication of More Challenges for the Delusional, edited by Ona Gritz and Daniel Simpson.
Gritz and Simpson are both well known as poets and essayists in the disability literary community, but, despite the title, this anthology has nothing to do with mental health or any other area of disability. As the subtitle – Peter Murphy's Prompts and the Writing they Inspired – implies, this book has an entirely different focus.
While the central purpose of the book is the work that came out of Peter Murphy's "Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway" workshops, originating in Cape May, New Jersey, Ona Gritz's "Introduction" is an impressive essay in itself. Despite her current literary success, Gritz recalls how in 2005, she first attended one of Murphy's workshops doubting her own ability as a poet, and takes the reader back to that experience. She'd chosen the workshop because it was affordable, close by and one of the poets leading a workshop was a favorite of hers, Stephen Dunn. For readers who might be wondering about the value of such a workshop and their own potential as poets, it is an effective approach to a book that includes poetry from writers like Kim Addonizo, Tony Hoagland and Stephen Dunn. Faced with a topic, idiosyncratic requirements, and two hours within which to bring back a poem, Gritz found that she was able to respond to Murphy's charge, "Now, go write a shitty first draft."
Readers of books like Stephen King's On Writing and Julia Cameron's The Arist's Way may sometimes wonder if they do not have to adopt the equivalent of a monastic life to consider themselves writers. In her introduction, Gritz argues that there are alternative approaches – such as the one Murphy provides. This isn't to say that dedication and perseverance aren't still key to becoming an accomplished writer, but being placed in a situation where one has to come up with something tangible within a very limited time is often just the catalyst a person with many other demands in their life needs to produce something that they can move forward with. In Gritz's case, not only did she come up with a poem, she met her future husband, Dan Simpson.
If Gritz's charge is to get readers revved up and ready to dive into the book, Simpson has the task of laying out the nuts and bolts. Even under the less than sexy title "How to Use this Book," Simpson manages to convey the creativity involved on the editors' part in putting the anthology together as he describes the book's purpose, which is essentially twofold. The first part allows the reader to try out some of the prompts that confronted writers in the workshops. The second allows them to see some of the results.
Each of the twenty-six prompts is prefaced with quotations from several writers, so, for example, preparation for the prompt, "Place a mirror in a poem about something that you fear," is introduced with a quote on fear from Joan Didion. Following the prompt are two requirements. In the case of the mirror poem, the requirements are to begin the first draft with the words "If instead" and to include two words from a list of words excerpted from the Oxford English dictionary. While this is challenge enough for most writers, Murphy always includes an optional "Challenge for the Delusional."
Originally the prompts were strictly for poetry but as the workshops developed, fiction and memoir were added as well, so for each of the poetry prompts, Gritz and Simpson developed comparable fiction and non-fiction/memoir prompts. Because part of Murphy's philosophy was that creativity is developed out of being pushed to attempt writing that you may not ordinarily have chosen for yourself, to each prompt for a poem he always added the phrase, "Tell a secret and tell a lie and never tell anyone which is which." The editors opted not to include Murphy's directive to lie in the fiction and memoir prompts because, as Simpson points out, the nature of memoir is that it is truthful. Having said this, however, he does point out that there is much in memoir that is reconstructed. As proof, he describes a time when after reading one of Gritz's memoirs, he pointed out a detail that he particularly liked. She told him that was the part she had made up.
Anyone who has read Dan Simpson's School for the Blind or Ona Gritz's Geode knows that they value poetry that deals with particularities. While humor and imagination are very present in their work, the quality that stands out is that their poetry is always characterized by its sense of humanness. Through the use of detail, they strive to tap into experiences and feelings that are accessible in some way to almost any reader. As editors of More Challenges for the Delusional, they have brought that philosophy along with them to make their choices of poetry to include in the book. They have chosen to combine the work of writers ranging from nationally established poets to locally known Philadelphia writers like J. C. Todd and Peter Krok to writers who mention no written publications in their bio. Listed alphabetically and with only one poem apiece, the effect is a kind of democratization. Also important is what one does not see: no L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poems, no imitations of e. e. cummings, no poems studded with esoteric allusions. In short, as much as Murphy's prompts push toward creativity, none of the poems chosen are primarily showcases for the writer's talent. They are meant to connect with and evoke a response in others.
I will leave it to the reader to purchase the book and decide which poems resonate with them and discover whether or not they can ferret out the lie or secret that may be present there. But I can't help throwing out the names of some of the poems that particularly appealed to me. Sandy Gingras' "Poof" had me laughing out loud because it is so ridiculous and so true – not an easy task since I generally avoid "humorous" poetry. Peter Krok's "They Visit Her Eyes" is a wonderfully poignant and disturbing description of a woman sliding into dementia that would fit easily into Wordgathering. And then there is Karen Z Duffy's "I Am Silenced for the First Time in Twenty-Four Years" that slaloms from cheekiness to an existential dead halt. These are proof to me that – at least for some writers ‐ Peter Murphy's strategy works.
In addition to poetry, Gritz and Simpson include a sample of fiction and non-fiction that originated in the workshops. One of the boons of reading these pieces for beginning writers is a realization of just what can be accomplished in prose in relatively few words. Poets considering using their language skills to ease into prose will particularly appreciate the visceral language of Anndee Hochman's brief "Egged On."
Ona Gritz and Daniel Simpson have established themselves in the disability literary world with credentials that most writers would envy. They have both had poetry collections published, had essays appear in the New York Times, been the featured poets in literary journals, given numerous poetry readings, and had their work included in anthologies. It's a far cry from the fledging writer that Gritz describes herself as in the introduction to More Challenges for the Delusional. Nevertheless, the editing of this collection is a significant accomplishment because it shows the power and influence that writers with disability can have and bring to bear on literature that has nothing to do with disability. In this sense, it is also a cautionary tale. Many disabled writers fear mentioning disability in their poems or stories and are apprehensive about submitting work to literary journals like Breath and Shadow or Deaf Poets Society over concerns that they will somehow be pigeon-holed as niche poets and not "real writers." It's a concern that the editing of More Challenges should help assuage. If they were of a mind to, not only could Gritz and Simpson say that they have "rubbed shoulders" with writers of the caliber of Dunn, Addonizio and Hoagland, they have gotten to decide whether or not to include the work of these authors in an anthology – not too shabby.
Title: More Challenges for the Delusional