Slow Reading or Trying to Slow Read The Cancer Journals
Cut-Ups & Erasures
In front of you, if you have the paper handout or have opened the online access copy at bit.ly/2XkppGt, is a page from The New England Journal of Medicine published in January of 1980. This is the same year that self-described “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde published The Cancer Journals: a book where she “traces her weave back strand by bloody self-referenced strand” and encourages others to do the same so they might begin to “know the tyrannies they swallow day by day” before they ‘sicken and die of them” (Lorde, Cancer Journals 19).
I ask you to circle, bold, or otherwise choose three words (by hand or with a text editor) from the medical journal that describe you in some way. Consider the process. What does it feel like to circle each particular word? What is the relationship between the words you choose and the words you don’t? What are their relationships to you? When you’ve picked three words, speak or otherwise share one or more with all of us. What do they feel like on your tongue and teeth? How are they related to your bodymind? How aren’t they?
Some academics describe their writing practice as on the mind side of a cartesian dualism (even academics that don’t believe in cartesian dualisms). Recently, a colleague and fellow artist practitioner from UC Davis’ performance studies program wrote on her social media about her time in grad school: “My brain (which is part of my body) is so happy here.” But academia is brimming with embodied processes, and I wonder, “What are our bodyminds doing in the process of writing that we forget to consider?” Our writing processes incorporate drugs like caffeine, they incorporate postures that cause us pain later or in the moment, they incorporate assistive technology, they incorporate affects of complaint (how many of us have heard a brilliant colleague say they did a horrible job writing on their sabbatical or during their summer [“did you believe them”]?)(Victor). My writing process incorporates speech to text software that is often a pain in the ass (I once said, “I would like to write a poem” and Dragon NaturallySpeaking typed instead, “I am uniquely alone”). While some modes of writing more quickly cause us to think in terms of their material, embodied, and affective components (or perhaps our own loneliness), all writing involves the material, affective, and embodied.
My understanding of what it means to read comes from writing poetry: particularly cut-ups and erasures. Erasures are made by covering up parts of an existing document and leaving the rest behind to be read. They look like the love letter an academic might receive from the federal government in the United States in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. Cut-ups are often compared to ransom notes in their aesthetic. The author cuts away words from an existing text and places them somewhere else, arranging them to comment on the previous text or arranging them in an attempt to say something new. Erasures and cut-ups are both processes with obvious limitations. The poet can’t say anything they wish. Instead, the poet is always in a relationship with the text, limited by it, and yet still capable of making it into something else.
On the back of the page in front of you, you are prompted to devise a way to “slow read” this text from Audre Lorde:
What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am a woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself — a Black woman warrior poet doing my work — come to ask you, are you doing yours?(Lorde, Cancer Journals 19)
I am asking you to slow read before I’ve defined the term or given its history because slow reading is about multiplicity and particularity: in the text, environment, and reader. Find a way to slow read Lorde’s oft-repeated questions and make an erasure/cut-up poem in response or as an extension of your reading. Don’t cut up Lorde’s text, but instead, use the medical text from the front of the document to answer Lorde. There had been a more intricate prompt involving many medical journals and scissors and glue and pieces of cardstock, but that was when I thought I’d be doing this presentation in one of the more bite-size back rooms and not out here providing crafting supplies for 80+ people on a graduate student’s budget… .
Off to a slow start…
Slow reading emerged from an existing community of artist-&-scholar practitioners at UC Davis. The aim of our project was at one point and sometimes still is to slow read The Cancer Journals through a practice centered on developing multiple embodyminded approaches to thinking with and accessing text. Slow reading asks us to pause with the page, to engage with the page as both object and idea, to remember ourselves as readers with bodies, and to feel what spaces in the text open up when we stay with it. We each devised workshops on slow reading and workshops on devising methods for slow reading. We based these workshops in our embodyminded practices: from dance to poetry to photography to walking to rolling.
Slow reading has been and will be many things, but slow reading is NOT skimming, exhausting control-f to project expertise in a graduate seminar, relying on control-f to document the exact number of times an author uses a particular word, nor is slow reading any of the myriad of other strategies whispered to first year graduate students by their peers and mentors to aid in their survival. We, as first and second year grad students whispering to one another, wanted to create methods for reading that would allow us to do more than barely survive. Slow reading is not always close; sometimes it involves the reader’s relationship to a page that has font too small to read close up or at a distance. Slow reading makes space for mondegreens and generative misreadings. Slow reading isn’t just about texts’ patterns, but instead, slow reading is about the patterns texts make in us.
In my practice of slow reading, I work to destabilize the everyday inaccessibility typical in graduate study by remembering bodyminds in relation to texts. Instead of stacking 10-15 books on a seminar table on the first day of the semester, I want to slow down and stay with a page, a paragraph, a reaction, a muscle cramp.
As I slow read, I must also account for myself as a white reader. How do the power structures I am interpolated within and the body I bring to the texts impact my reading? What does it mean to consider my affects as a reader word by word?
Lorde’s Reading Methods
“Let’s cut you open right now and see what we can do about it. Wait a minute, I said. I need to feel this thing out and see what’s going on inside myself first, I said, needing some time to absorb the shock, time to assay the situation and not act out of panic. Not one of them said, I can respect that, but don’t take too long about it.”(Lorde, A Burst of Light 110)
In A Burst of Light, after being diagnosed with liver cancer, Lorde asks doctors for time to read her body and they don’t listen to her. In slow reading, I make no claim to my ability to repair moments like this, but I do try to listen to Lorde’s words and to learn alongside Lorde what it means to read. She engages in embodyminded literacies describing her desire to feel inside herself, to read her affects, and to write herself another story.
In concentrating on practices and methods created by people often disenfranchised through traditional academic pedagogies, slow reading seeks to engage with Jina B. Kim’s call in “Crip of Color Critique” to “recognize disablement and racism as inextricably entangled, and to enact intellectual practices–like resistance to hyperproductivity–that honor disabled embodiment and history” (Kim). Let’s not act like the hasty doctors, and instead, let’s listen to, imagine, and create multiple ways of reading texts.
In her introduction to the collection Letters to the Future: Black Women/Radical Writing, Dawn Martin quotes Christina Sharpe: “we must become undisciplined” (Sharpe qtd. Martin 16); she describes this as “the meat of” the collection (16). Martin then asks a question this undisciplinarity might help answer for the Black women writers gathered there, “how do we escape these wound messages, these trickeries of (self)destruction and enter the space of the possible with hopes that that possible might be made manifest?” (16). Contemporary Black women poets, particularly those engaged in experimental poetics, are troubling disciplinary and spatial boundaries in their work. Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ 2016 work Spill engages in this troubling; in the book, she undoes traditional notions of literary criticism and citational practice in poetic form while providing a loving engagement with the work of Black women theorists, particularly Hortense Spillers. M. NourbeSe Philip’s 2007 work Zong! troubles the disciplines of history and law; Philip’s book is concerned with the indescribable massacre of all enslaved people aboard the Zong at the orders of the ship’s captain. The text is told entirely from the words and fragments of words found in a court decision regarding the ship’s insurance policy. Philip breaks apart the language of law to “tell the story that cannot be told yet must be told” (Philip).
Slow reading turns to experimental writing practices in order to undiscipline our methods of reading. How do we hold space for many ways of reading and approaches to a text? Slow reading seaks to create coalitional methods for imagining ways of reading that are attentive to the text, the reader, and the cultural systems which attempt to discipline meaning.
By slow reading, I work toward coalitional access while de-stabilizing ableist and anti-Black assumptions found in the everyday practices of academia. While slow reading is an embodyminded practice, slow reading is also a practice that doesn’t end at the skin. I will now write about Audre Lorde by quoting Jina B. Kim writing about Audre Lorde by quoting critical disability studies scholar Julie Avril Minich:
Lorde, as Minich puts it, invites scrutiny of the ‘social conditions that concentrate stigmatized attributes in particular populations,’ or in this context, the disproportionate production of cancer within racialized and economically distressed communities. For Lorde, cancer is not an individual property limited to and contained by her body’s boundaries, but an extension of the state-sanctioned and extralegal systems that seek to delimit, contain, and exploit black life. (Kim)
Slow reading is a crip methodology
Slow reading as a crip methodology is informed by the history of disability activism. The Capitol Crawl acted as a ramp in the direction of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Disabled activists crawled up the steps to the US capitol just months before the act was passed. In reflecting on the event, one participant recalls “Some people may have thought that it was undignified for people in wheelchairs to crawl in that manner, but I felt that it was necessary to show the country what kinds of things people with disabilities have to face on a day-to-day basis” (Winters qtd. Zim). Activists felt each stair and stare during and after. Slow reading demonstrates the need to account for multiplicitous bodyminds in designing graduate pedagogies. Graduate study doesn’t have to be about climbing through a pile of books stacked on the table on the first day of class or seeming to have mastered a text by pressing control-f fastest in response to a professor’s questions. Let’s change the scale: slowly moving across the page, being learned by the text instead of learning the text, expanding a single sentence into a vast space of embodyminded epistemologies.
But slow reading is not disability simulation. The practice of slow reading does not ask readers to imagine facing barriers to texts they don’t. I am not, in asking non-disabled people to slow read, asking them to play crip. Instead, slow reading is similar to putting a ramp on a building: it is good for wheelchair users, but also for people pushing strollers or carts full of books or people with mobilities yet unknown… Slow reading also recognizes we are limited in the materials we have to build ramps and to create worlds. While our bodyminds (and the literacy practices that come from them) do not end at the skin, skin doesn’t stretch infinitely either. I know this from the scrapes cut into my hands by my wheelchair when I forget to pack my gloves. So what are the limits of slow reading?
On Process and the Limits of Archives
Lorde has much to say on limits and language. In imagining her future and the futures of others, Lorde writes, “My visions of a future I can create have been honed by the lessons of my limitations” (13). What we can make is shaped by our experiences and so too is what we can say. Lorde writes, “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence” (19). People often read this passage metaphorically. In fact feminist STS writer Stacy Alaimo has taught it that way to her students before. In Bodily Natures though, she emphasizes the passage’s materiality:
“Notwithstanding the potent metaphorical resonance of “swallowing” tyranny, the swallowing–and the death that results–is also quite literal, since it alludes to the ingestion of carcinogenic foodstuffs. This particular chapter from The Cancer Journals, which appears in many women’s studies anthologies, is often read as a generalized call to refuse to be silenced.(Alaimo 86)
But what does it mean to read materially? What kind of relationship did you have with the text in front of you when you had to work through a particular, possibly distant lexicon to describe yourself? How has the text you’re cutting from influenced what you are able to say?
Saidiya Hartman, performance studies scholar and African American literary and cultural theorist, considers and enacts the limits of what can and cannot be read into the archive of the Atlantic slave trade. Hartman tries to remake the story of two people, two enslaved girls, who are written about in the archive but whose writings she does not have access to. She admits that she fails, that she recreates the violence of the archive in attempting to say anything about the girls, but she publishes her text anyway. She can’t free the past in the present. In fact, her ability to speak about the past at all is limited by the words of the archive. The past is still present in the words she has available and in her ability to imagine the lives of the girls. Hartman writes: “there is not one extant autobiographical narrative of a female captive who survived the Middle Passage” (Hartman 3). Instead of having the words to redress the violence, Hartman’s engagement “depends upon the legal records, surgeons’ journals, ledgers, ship manifests, and captains’ logs, and in this regard falters before the archive’s silence and reproduces its omissions (12). The complication of writing the stories of these two girls is that their stories cannot be recovered, freed, or excised from the archive.
But Hartman tries anyway: “in the meantime, in the space of the interval, between too late and too early, between the no longer and the not yet, our lives are coeval with the girl’s in the as-yet-incomplete project of freedom. In the meantime, it is clear that her life and ours hang in the balance. What do we do in the meantime?” (14). This critical engagement with the language of the archive admits that the archive impacts what we can imagine, limits our revolutionary projects, and yet cannot be accepted as is. In trying to figure out what to do in the meantime, I have suggested you pick up some scissors or markers or cutting tools in an editing program. Remember slow reading is not a nonviolent practice, but it is a practice that requires sustained attention to the violences we enact.
Utilizing slow reading practices, I hope to add to Hartman’s engagement with archives by focusing on affective and embodyminded relationships to them. The language of the archive does not just exist on pages in libraries that are easier for some people to access than others. It also exists in our bodyminds: in what we can swallow, in what we can feel, in what we can do. Thinking with Hartman, I hope to engage the archive in a way that does not avoid or accept its violences. Instead, slow reading practices ask readers to inhabit and unmake texts by considering the felt dimensions of their potentials and limitations. By cutting up a text, is it possible to re-form and de-form archival material into affectively charged places of potential. What readings can be formed on the page that are attentive to our interactions with texts as bodyminds, as texts ourselves? It is my hope that practices of slow reading can create small gaps between words in which we might imagine otherwise.
It is in this process that I propose cut-up poetry and erasure as a way to slow read Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals. I do not come to Lorde’s work to cut it open and extract ideas like hasty doctors. Rather, practicing experimental poetry on medical texts is a way to come to Lorde’s writing slowly and stay with the messy relationships of power in her work. Rather than cut-up Lorde’s text, I consider what the medium of cut-up poetry might bring to the method and process of slow reading. Lorde addresses her readers: “Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am a woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself — a Black woman warrior poet doing my work — come to ask you, are you doing yours?” (Lorde 19). Slow reading means doing our work, doing something in the meantime, trying to imagine otherwise.
Alaimo, Stacy. Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self. Indiana University Press, 2010.
Butler, Tamara. “#SAY[ing]HerName as Critical Demand: English Education in the Age of Erasure” English Education 48:4. NCTE. July 2016.
Hartman, Saidya. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe 12:2. Chapel Hill: Duke UP. 2008. Print.
Kim, Jina B. “Toward a Crip-of-Color Critique: Thinking with Minich’s ‘Enabling Whom’” Lateral: Critical Disability Studies. Cultural Studies Association. Chicago: 2017.
Lorde, Audre. The Cancer Journals. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2006. Print.
Lorde, Audre. “A Burst of Light.” I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde, Oxford: Oxford UP. 2011.
Martin, Dawn. “Introduction: Destructions of [The Yoke of it All].”Letters to the Future: Black Women / Radical Writing. Tucson: Kore. 2018.
Philip, M NourbeSe. “Zong! Recent Readings.” M. NourbeSe Philip
Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham: Duke UP. 2016
Tzara, Tristan. Dada Manifesto on Feeble Love and Bitter Love. December 1920.
Victor, Divya. “Thriving: Embodied Research and Writing Processes in Graduate School” English Department Proseminar Series. Michigan State University. Wells Hall. 2 November 2018.Zim. “‘Capitol Crawl’ – Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.” History By Zim, 6 Mar. 2018.