A Conversation with Olivia Muenz

Olivia Muenz is a disabled writer from New York. She is the author of the poetry collection I Feel Fine (Switchback Books, forthcoming 2023) and the chapbook Where Was I Again (Essay Press, 2022). She is the winner of the 2022 Gatewood Prize. She holds a BA from New York University and an MFA in creative writing from Louisiana State University, where she received the Robert Penn Warren Thesis Award in prose and worked as an editor for New Delta Review. Olivia Muenz’s writing has been supported by the Tin House Summer Workshop, Zoeglossia, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in New England Review, The Missouri Review, Poetry Daily, Michigan Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, Black Warrior Review, Pleiades, Massachusetts Review, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. She is currently  Music Column Editor at ANMLY. She lives in the Hudson Valley.


We often look to poetry collections to ascertain a measure of the poet’s soul and to imbibe their take on various aspects of the human condition. It is equally rewarding to gain insight into how a poet’s brain functions and how their experience of the world imprints itself on their use of language. Yet that is what Olivia Muenz offers readers in her spellbinding debut collection, I Feel Fine. Muenz provides a window into her patterns of thought and how someone with a neurodivergent mind processes the modern world. I have known Olivia since I was in high school (her mother was the choreographer of the school’s spring musicals). Her book provides a window into both the poet and person she has become as well as what it means to experience the world from a non-neurotypical perspective. The book shatters conventions and linear thinking: It’s a  testament to the power of craft and the ways in which poetry can allow readers to access a world they couldn’t before. Muenz offers readers a window into what writing with her brain looks like, as opposed to trying to write against it, but in a more traditionally accessible way.

Phil Goldstein: The form of the poems in I Feel Fine is so distinct—it’s not free verse and not necessarily what you think of when you think of typical prose poems. To me at least, the form embodies a structured stream of consciousness. How did you decide on the form of the poems and what were you aiming to communicate through it? 

Olivia Muenz: I wrote I Feel Fine at the end of my first year in my MFA program. When I was applying to MFA programs, I was worried I was never going to write anything because of my intense cognitive fatigue, and my worst fear was coming true: I didn’t write anything outside of assignments the entire year. I intentionally kept my summer completely obligation-free so I could write, but right as the spring semester ended, I became bedridden. I had to accept that I was waiting for health conditions that may never arise. And through that acceptance, I realized that I’d been accommodating of my body’s physical needs, but not my brain’s: I was trying to make it write neurotypically. And so if I wanted to write, I needed to try to write with my brain instead of against it. So I let it take the reins and this is what it did. There really wasn’t much decision in it. It was more replicating the way my thoughts moved associatively and incompletely. The period disrupts the line as a caesura, but also pivots the direction of the line. While that was intuitive, I did make a more conscious decision to use the period as the only punctuation mark, which accomplishes a lot, I think. One of the primary things it does is create a dissonance between what’s being said and how it’s being said. A question becomes a declaration. An exclamation becomes affectless. 

PG: How do you think the way you use language to convey how your brain works connects with or sends a message to the reader?

OM: Readers are maybe forced to take on a nonlinear way of thinking, which, if they’re not used to it, would likely require a letting go that might be uncomfortable. The book makes you follow along in feeling rather than in logic. I’ve had people—from people who never read poetry to people who are themselves poets—tell me they sort of puzzle their way through the first few pages, but after a while, they fall into a rhythm with the book, which I think is the moment they let go of trying to solve the book like a riddle and instead are just present with it, bobbing along.  That seems to be a fairly universal experience of reading the book regardless of your place in the literary world, which is pretty interesting. I work very intentionally to have my voice, no matter how it changes from piece to piece, sound like my everyday self. I use a lot of idioms, clichés, slang, and I do think that helps. It’s very accessible at the line level, so I think people have something familiar to hang onto that allows them to loosen up.

PG: One of my favorite passages from the first section of the book, from a prose poem, is: “Here you went. I let you die without asking. I could have done it. I could have made it easier for all of us. But here you were and I couldn’t say a thing besides no I am not my mother. It was too late for talks about The Great Depression. Our great depression. I don’t know why but I knew. I will save them for us forever. We will live on forever.” That stream of thought is both fragmented and flows together so well. How do you think individual pieces like this highlight this conversation with the self that is so prominent throughout the book? 

OM: Multiplicity was really important for me I think—allowing the multiplicity of the self and the “other” to breathe and coexist and not try to reduce them. And I don’t know if this is true or if it’s even what I even really think, but in this moment, I think a neurodivergent brain is much more respectful of the inherent multiplicity of the world and much better at resisting order-making (which feels contradictory with some of our tendencies toward rigid thinking or pattern recognition). Boundaries are more blurred, more flexible. Generally speaking, I don’t think there’s as much of a distinction between self and other as most of us would like to think. Here, and everywhere, the “you” and “I” and “we” needed to be containers rather than something singular.

PG: You noted that a neurodivergent brain is much more respectful of the inherent multiplicity of the world. Do you think that readers who aren’t neurodivergent may need a nudge to consider whether their conception of themselves as a singular self is as solid as they might presume?

OM: I’m not sure. Personas are a universal experience, so being aware of those different expressions of self definitely isn’t exclusive to neurodivergence. But neurodivergent people have to mask a lot, so it may be that we’re a bit more aware of its constant presence, in the same way that other marginalized people that are often code-switching are more aware of it.

PG: The poems are simultaneously frank, cutting, and really funny and silly at many points, and they sometimes run together this way. I’m thinking of when you write, “But the phone calls are not going through. Hello. Operator please give me. A real out. / But I can’t find the end. Of the line. It grows faster. Than me I am playing. A big game. I eat all. The bits.” And the next page is simply, “But I never run out of bits. Do you like my routine.” There’s another section not that long after, which also jumped out to me: “But I am the Big Normate. I am fitting in. Fine I am. Up to my ears in normal. I am business. As usual. I am nothing. To see here.”

How did you try to balance the relative heaviness of discussing and dissecting the meaning of  living with disability with the real humor that is so often prevalent in this book? Was that necessary?

OM: I don’t think I gave it much consideration. This is just how I think, I guess. I approach life both very earnestly and very satirically. I think you have to have a sense of humor if you’re sick, especially if you’re chronically ill. When I experience my fourth symptom of the day of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, my genetic connective tissue disorder, and I’m dealing with one disablement after another, I start laughing out loud while I’m writhing in pain, which then makes me laugh harder (a very odd scene). The experience feels like a great cosmic joke. 

My dad thinks we come from a long line of unlucky people and he has taught me to respond to unbearable pile-ups with humor because it’s often the only thing left in your arsenal. And humor is a really powerful tool. It’s a way of reclaiming control when you’ve lost it. And it’s also just a lot more fun. Being unbearably sad all the time is a bummer, and frankly after a very long time the monotony of the experience of chronic illness and its reactive feeling of sadness (etc.) is just too boring. Playfulness is a really important part of my life and I’ve made it an important part of my writing. In this project in particular, I was very interested in the contradiction it offered—the “frailty” of sickness with the power of a cutting voice. The farce of that voice’s aggression when followed by a kind of deference: “I can eat you alive if you let me.”

PG: There are a lot of recurring visual motifs that are present in the book: to me, the balloon among the most persistent and interesting ones. Dusty balloons, water balloons, balloons being blown up, having the air sucked out of them. What does the balloon symbolize in this universe? 

OM: I don’t think that’s for me to say. They’re not supposed to be any one thing. A water balloon was included, for example, because that’s literally how my head feels when I have a migraine. It’s the best language I can think of for describing that feeling. I think I’m really drawn to writing about impairment not only because it’s the most present and disruptive part of my life, but also because of the pressure it puts on language. 

Trying to describe a sensation is like trying to describe a color. Communicating the body requires metaphor. I don’t think anyone who isn’t a migraineur—and maybe no one who isn’t me—would make the connection between a water balloon and migraine, and I like that. The book really relies on the reader. I have my own associations with each line, but I didn’t mean for others to be able to follow them. I hope they move through their own associations, or if they’re sick, maybe their own will be aligned a bit with mine.

Ultimately, I think the function of these recurring visual motifs has less to do with the things themselves (balloons, in this case) and more to do with recurrence itself. The fact that each individual has their own personal language comprised of their own personal vocabulary, and the way that vocabulary both slowly morphs over time and echoes all over the place. Where the self is influenced, a bunch of others are sucked in and back out. Where the self is fundamental and untouchable. What’s linear and what’s cyclical. 

PG: I think it’s great that you place faith in the reader to move through their own associations with the work. What do you think is the benefit of that process?

OM: I don’t think there’s really an alternative. Derrida explains it much better than I can. We’re always acting as both creator and spectator—when we’re writers and when we’re readers. All art is dependent on the subjectivity of the spectator. So leaning into the associative is a way to heighten a process that’s always already happening. Maybe that awareness is the point, and possibly the benefit. Being aware of the gift and burden of creating your own existence. 

PG: There’s such a dearth of creative writing that explores disability, though I think that’s starting to change. How did you want to approach representing or inhabiting disability through your writing? 

OM: I’m compulsively interested in the idea of total representation, which is a fallacy and part of its allure. Here, I wanted to represent my brain as it is more than anything, but also gesture towards my broader experience of being multiply disabled. In my other writing, especially nonfiction, I deal very directly with different aspects of disability, like the intersection of ableism and sexism in the medical setting. But here, outside of the replication of neurodivergence, I centered my emotions more than anything else. 

There’s an intense alienation in being disabled. We’re very systematically tucked away in institutions or at home. The pandemic made that obvious. And we’re chronically invalidated and devalued. We work in opposition to capitalism defying the conflation of productivity with value. Alongside loneliness—physical and emotional and psychological—there’s a helplessness (augmented by neoliberalism) and an underlying fear from an inability to control either your body or the systems that make you disabled. And so I wanted those feelings to be present while also not allowing myself (and disabled people in general) to be pitied or to label disability as something inherently bad or negative.

PG: Clearly, this book is grappling with a lot of the ambient social forces that the pandemic brought to the fore, including alienation and invalidation of disabled people, the desire to place capitalism and a return to “business as usual” above public health, the loneliness of so much of modern life, and more. Do you think it’s important to have all of that as background conditions for the book? What do you think about the role all of that plays into how you write?”

OM: Funnily enough, I actually wrote this book before the pandemic. When the pandemic first started, I kept joking that my life was fundamentally unchanged, which wasn’t untrue. I felt like a veteran. I really grew to resent nondisabled people because of how novel the experience was for them, and how difficult they found it to be, when isolation and an ongoing threat of illness and systemic issues of accessibility and all these things had been a constant presence in my life. 

And there was so little deference to the wisdom of disabled people. Nondisabled people dominated public conversations. It really highlighted how little awareness they have of the basics of disability. How little nondisabled people seem to care about us (which has only gotten much, much worse as the pandemic has gone on). 

But I do think the pandemic has somewhat allowed nondisabled people to access a sliver of the disabled experience. Everyone who has experienced the pandemic knows that it was the entire fabric of the experience that made it so challenging. It’s not possible to isolate the individual parts because they have a reciprocal relationship with one another that ultimately defines the larger experience. Capitalism defined our decisions around public health. I am a maximalist so I’m always moving toward totality, but I do that because I think it’s sacrilegious to disentangle and clean up and make orderly a very complicated, disorderly web of systems and feelings. 

I can’t talk about being disabled without talking about capitalism. I’m isolated because I can’t afford adequate healthcare to make me more functional. I’m isolated because all my energy goes toward maintaining employment in a country that has an unhealthy relationship to productivity, taking away from my ability to properly invest in my relationships. I’m isolated because the ADA is only “enforceable” if I sue an inaccessible organization. 

These parts are not only an important context of the experience of disabled isolation, they are the experience of disabled isolation. Excluding them would be reductive or minimizing. To do that, to lean into my impulse for maximalism, does change the way I write. I think it’s why I write more associatively in general, remove connection tissue and gesture toward relationships. I write lots of lyric essays, things in fragments. That space between words allows for a lot of unspoken ideas to exist that I could never adequately sum up in language.

PG: There is a real movement through the sections of the book—I’m here; But not; Or am I; Let’s see—from introducing the relationship between fractured selves to more conflict and tension, to then a kind of apathy or stasis, and then finally, a more adventurous tone, playful, and almost a resolve to break free of the shackles of the world. This isn’t a book with a traditional linear or chronological narrative. But was there a specific journey you wanted to take readers on as you move from section to section? 

OM: I actually considered incorporating the four humors, which I eventually abandoned but still used as a loose inspiration for the tone of each section. I think each section naturally took on the feeling of its refrain. “Here” is very declarative. “But” contradicts, which for me often comes in the form of centering problems rather than possibilities. “Or” offers an alternative. And “Let” feels optimistic—something is being allowed. 

PG: This book is coming out not that long after your chapbook Where Was I Again, which is basically the first two sections of I Feel Fine. How does I Feel Fine build on or evolve from Where Was I Again and how did the process of writing the second half of this story unfold? 

OM: I wrote the first two sections in a few days, each section in one sitting. And then a few months later, after workshopping the first section, I wrote the last two sections. also in one sitting each. So it has more or less always existed as one complete project. The latter two sections feel a bit distinct from the first in that I knew more of what I was doing rather than just witnessing what was coming out and trying to make sense of it. And I think I became a bit less emotionally raw and a bit more disability theory-focused.

PG: What are you working on now, and how do you think I Feel Fine will inform, or not inform, your writing moving forward, including your planned lyric memoir?

OM: My lyric memoir is my “magnum opus” in that it combines the ideas of what I’ve written on disability so far. It tries to totally represent my process of getting a diagnosis, which is really my experience with gendered disability more broadly. There’s a lot of auto-theory, incorporating ideas about the archive, translation, language, aestheticism, postcolonialism, Marxism, and of course disability. 

Authority is a big question in my lyric memoir. Who is the authority of the archive? Who is the authority of the narrative of my body? And I think that was a big stylistic consideration in I Feel Fine. The voice is very authoritative while also being deferential, sometimes in the same line. I incorporated that same play with authority more directly and more theoretically into my lyric memoir. And I think I do that across the board with the ideas in I Feel Fine—I take the criticisms of capitalism that I gesture toward, for example, and more directly and thoroughly engage with that rhetoric in my memoir. Outside of this memoir, I’m also working to finish my second poetry collection, which so far seems less project-based and more focused on loosely connected individual poems on disability and illness. I’ve also started to write fiction, which has been very fun,  a real surprise.


Phil Goldstein

Phil Goldstein’s debut poetry collection, How to Bury a Boy at Sea, was published by Stillhouse Press in 2022 and it reckons with the trauma of child sex abuse. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net award. His poetry has appeared in South Florida Poetry Journal, Rust+Moth, Jet Fuel Review, The Laurel Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Jenny, and their animals: a dog named Brenna, and cats Grady and Princess.

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