On Shapeshifting and Surrender: A Conversation with Abi Palmer

By

Abi Palmer didn’t know she was writing a book when she started Sanatorium. Having received a grant from Arts Council England to explore what it means to be a disabled artist, Palmer traveled to a thermal water-based rehabilitation facility in Budapest, which she refers to as an “institution-deluxe.” Documenting her journey, she kept video diaries to stave off the pain she experiences from the physical act of writing. Once home, Palmer continued her recovery using a one-hundred-dollar inflatable blue bathtub, which is essentially a character in its own right in the book. As Palmer explains, “The tub becomes a metaphor for the intrusion of disability: a trip-hazard, sat in the middle of an unsuitable room, slowly deflating, and in constant danger of falling apart.”

Palmer’s work regularly explores her experiences living with psoriatic arthritis and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and her debut book centers firmly on her body, as well as out-of-body experiences, and an ever changing understanding of what it means to be disabled. Alongside Sanatorium, which was published in April by Penned in the Margins, Palmer created Crip Casino, an interactive gambling arcade parodying the wellness industry and institutionalized spaces, which has been displayed at the Tate Modern, Wellcome Collection, and Somerset House.

As two writers with chronic illnesses, Abi and I spoke about her work from our respective beds, which is pretty romantic when you think of it. We discussed the creative process and disability, the creation process of the Sanatorium (which included the aforementioned video diaries, dictation, and other forms of writing), and launching the book during the COVID-19 pandemic as a disabled artist.

***

The Rumpus: I’ve always thought of you as a poet, because we met at the launch of Butcher’s Dog poetry magazine, but this feels different. Did you always set out to write a book? How did Sanatorium come about?

Abi Palmer: I had no idea it was going to be a book. I didn’t think I’d physically be able to write something so long. I keep a diary for myself and write poetry, so I considered writing a poetry collection. But I found the idea of a series of individually contained poems a bit alienating. For a long time, we didn’t know what genre it was going to be.

A lot of people would see me as a poet, so there are reviews of Sanatorium as a collection of poetry, and there are reviews of it as a novel, and I’ve never corrected anyone, because it has at least one poem in it. I feel like because my body is such a shapeshifter, and as an artist I’m such a shapeshifter, so it’s nice that the book is hard to define. It’s a bisexual book; it’s written by a queer person. It’s written by someone who sometimes can dance around in a clown costume, or sometimes, like now, is lying in their bed.

Rumpus: I’m in my bed, too. That’s my office.

Palmer: I love that.

Rumpus: What has the response been like so far?

Palmer: What I didn’t expect about the book was that some people responded with their own really personal information. It felt a little like I was giving out nudes and then being sent dick pics, and, at first, I was a bit scared about that. It felt really raw and visceral. People have inserted themselves into the gaps. I keep imagining it like a sponge, where the sponge has these porous holes, and people are filling those holes with themselves. It felt like a big responsibility to carry the weight of their experience as well as my own.

Writer Sinéad Gleeson told me, “By writing a book, you’re giving people words for experiences they might never have had previously. You don’t need to add any more. Say thank you, and be thankful. Experience that gratitude.” I found that helpful as a way of processing the responses. I never want my book to be speaking for an entire community, but the subject matter is something very personal that isn’t much talked about. I was expecting people to come back to me with their stories about their disabilities, but I hadn’t expected the types of responses that I was getting.

Rumpus: Is the partner you describe in the book a real person?

Palmer: I didn’t want to write too much about my relationship. Partly for consent reasons. I changed my partner’s name in the book. A while ago, I posted a picture of us on the internet, it went viral, and one of his colleagues saw it. He’s really private. He grew up in communist Germany. His family have had so many experiences of being watched, and none of them have social media. There was the idea of him walking into a work meeting and someone having read Sanatorium, and knowing the argument that we had about a cactus. If I talk about us fucking on the first page of this book, he might be okay with that in the abstract, but we don’t know how many people are going to read it yet. In an ideal world, quite a lot of people will read it.

Rumpus: Because the narrative is so fluid, and jumps between different eras and spaces, I wasn’t always sure what was real and what was not.

Palmer: Everything in there happened. The encounters that I had. My biggest fear was that a man would read the book and would accuse me of making a mountain out of a molehill, ask what was so bad about the scariest moment in the narrative. Halfway through my trip to the sanatorium, a member of the orchestra started giving me unwanted attention during mealtimes. He told me I was beautiful, but I didn’t want to be beautiful; I just wanted to eat. For me, the whole book shifts around that moment. A man reminded me that I’m skin, that I’m flesh and bone, and that I’m a body. At a time when I was experiencing things as a whole person, he reminded me that I was no more than a body.

It wasn’t the most terrible incident, but you have to understand the context: I’m alone in a hotel on an island and suddenly a man is watching me. I was sure that I would have to go back in and dramatize the whole thing, that no one would believe me. And isn’t that the entirety of rape culture?

Rumpus: Obviously you’re telling a very personal story in the book. How did you create and sustain such a personal tone throughout?

Palmer: The sections that start, “Hi, it’s Abi,” were video diaries. My friend, disabled artist Jackie Hagan, convinced me to keep a video diary. I wasn’t quite sure what the outcome would be when I went in, but thought I should start keeping some kind of notes, and it was easier than writing. One of the main symptoms of my condition is chronic hand pain, and I’ve always identified as a writer but really struggled with the physical act of writing. The hardest thing about writing Sanatorium was, genuinely, the physical process of it. I was expecting to have to take the video diaries and rewrite them, to take one point of view or voice. Instead, I started weaving those fragments together as a skeleton plan of what the book was going to be, and then that ended up being the book.

The book speaks in multiple voices. When it comes to my writing, I think most fluently and articulately by hand, so some of it is written by hand from my bathtub. Then there are sections I’ve either dictated or used my phone. My book proposal included eight selfies of me in the sanatorium, and ten pages of writing. I was thinking about how I sat in the space, in a hospital gown, in a dressing gown, in a Marilyn Monroe pose. The book’s about space, about how my body sits in that space.

Rumpus: As a disabled person, I’ve struggled with my creative practice, and whether I’m a theater-maker, a writer, or something else entirely, which is why this book meant so much to me. Finally someone was exploring what being a disabled artist means, and it’s not just one thing. Was that focus inevitable?

Palmer: The question I posed was, “How, as a disabled practitioner, can I create a sustainable practice?” I was getting more interested in disabled arts as a genre. I’d written an essay for Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back, called, “No Body to Write With: Intrusion as a Manifesto for D/deaf and Disabled poets.” As disabled practitioners, we are constantly faced by these interruptions and intrusions to our body and our experience. The example I always give is, if I’m scooting down the road on my mobility scooter, and I get to a curb, and there’s no curb drop. The way you’re meant to move through space as an artist is to be in this constant creative reverie as you’re moving through space, and you’re always thinking about your practice. But the moment I get to that curb, I’m not thinking about the creativity anymore. I’m thinking about the physical obstacle of not being able to move forward. And what I have to do is literally, physically turn around and go back and search for a different way around.

What’s going on in the head of a disabled person is far more logistics and interruption-based. For me, I wanted those intrusions to be the jumping off point for the practice. If I can’t physically hold a pen, why am I not using the fact that I can’t hold a pen to inform my practice? I didn’t know the answer was going to be video diaries. The book that came out of it is fragmented. I didn’t have the capacity to rewrite it all in one voice. But my argument is that every time the book interrupts or inserts a new voice, a new position or memory, that’s exactly what it’s like to be in a disabled body. Every time there’s a blank page or a big gap, that’s what one of my days is like. If you have one line on a page and fuck all else, that is my body. Then there’s another section where there are five incredibly intense pages, and a lot’s going on and it’s very articulate—that’s my body, too. The book is the most accurate depiction of my body I could have created. It comes from this idea of allowing those intrusions to be present and allowing them to inform the work. I wrote a lot of Sanatorium when I was in the bathroom hiding from my carers. If all you can produce is a sentence, then that’s your practice.

The only reason I could possibly do this is because I was funded. It completely freed me up. I wasn’t having to tutor, or hustle for paying my rent, because I had a year of a grant that allowed me to have a day off when I needed one. The answer has offended some people. But how can you be creative if you’re worrying about your bills?

Rumpus: Why has that offended anyone?

Palmer: I spoke to one person in the art world, and told her about my research, and that the answer I’d come to was money. And she said, “Yes, but there are lots of other things as well,” like ramps and transcripts and all of that other stuff (which, I would point out, also require money). Obviously those things are so important. They’re vital. But if you want disabled people in the room making art, they need money. Every disabled artist I know needs money that isn’t entirely dependent on one output at one specific time. I don’t know why that’s an offensive concept. I think it seems a bit gauche. Is it radical? It shouldn’t be radical.

Rumpus: The reality is, being a disabled person is more expensive. Going to the sanatorium was something you wanted to do to help your body, but you also knew it would help your art.

Palmer: My art can’t work unless my body’s working. I was in so much pain from writing, and I started using my access grant to pay for acupuncture and massage every week, which is something I would never be able to afford normally. But it reduced my pain enough from the physical act of writing that I was able to write the book. It seemed so outrageous, and I try not to mention it because I’m so ashamed of it. There are so many disabled people who wouldn’t dare ask for these things from a grant because they have been conditioned to believe those are luxury items that they don’t deserve. But you can ask for these things, and they are valid and reasonable adaptations to need.

Rumpus: Your book launched just as the pandemic was gaining speed. How did you navigate launching your debut at such a challenging time? Did anything have to change as a result?

Palmer: Just before the pandemic was taking hold, I was going to venues and discussing where we would hold the launch. Every time they suggested a venue I would physically go there myself because I was so convinced that when able-bodied people say it’s accessible, they’re normally wrong. For instance, when people say there’s a fifty-person capacity, they mean fifty standing people, not fifty people in wheelchairs needing to navigate the room. We were having this ongoing debate about the physical space, and I was starting to become something of a diva. [Laughs.] We were trying to make this surreal, immersive art party where you would come into the space and it would feel like you were underwater. I was working with a stylist, Mia Maxwell, who was trying to get me a dress made of balloons that would slowly pop over the night, and would get more awkward. It would be a huge performative dress that would be so uncomfortable to wear that people wouldn’t be able to come close to me, and it would slowly disintegrate. The pops would come at unexpected moments, that being a metaphor for what disability is like.

Instead, I did my book launch in the bath from my house. Doing it on Instagram Live felt really lovely, because everyone who wouldn’t have been able to attend was there. I was able to call in a dancer from New York, Jerron Herman, and commission him to perform an avant-garde piece of dance that totally bewildered my dad. It was stunning. It spoke so much to my disabled body. I felt like we created that surreal, art-party space that we’d hoped for. It wasn’t captioned, so it wasn’t as accessible as it could have been. I’ve got someone captioning it, and I want to repost it on Instagram and YouTube so people can watch it. But I really like that there was a way of making it accessible, and because the able-bodied public were suddenly in this space where they were confined, too, accessibility was centered rather than an afterthought. And people could dip in and out and not feel ashamed about that. And, it was designed for Instagram, so it was in small segments and could be fragmented. Like the book.

Rumpus: It sounds like having an online launch was a positive thing.

Palmer: For me, yes. When the pandemic hit, I was sad at first, because you need that ritualistic letting go of this thing you just spent your whole life and body making. Early on, I said to my publisher, “Even if the pandemic’s over by the time the book launches, chronically ill people won’t be comfortable being in a public space.” If my mom, who is also chronically ill, couldn’t come to my book launch, that would suck so hard. I definitely didn’t want that.

I started thinking about the book as a story of isolation, which I don’t think I had previously. And it is a story about isolation. People have more time to read now, but they’re struggling to read. It’s a book written for short attention spans, and brain fog, and not processing well. I feel like the chronically ill community was always going to be supportive of it, and I’m grateful for that. But I’m also grateful that people who consider themselves able-bodied are seeking out fragmentary, isolated experiences during the pandemic. I think that’s been an advantage.

The idea of surrender is such a difficult concept for many able-bodied people, and I think having a body that forces you to surrender makes an experience like the pandemic much more manageable.

***

Photograph of Abi Palmer by Mia Maxwell and Faith Aylward.


Amy Mackelden is the weekend editor at Harper's BAZAAR US, and her bylines include Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, ELLE, The Independent, The Guardian, New Statesman, and Bustle. As a disabled writer, Amy has written about health for MS Society, MS Trust, The Paper Gown, The Checkup by Singlecare, Folks by Pillpack, HelloFlo, and Byrdie. Find Amy on Twitter at @AmyMackelden. More from this author →