On Contents and Content Warnings

content warning: suicide

 

First, some background: for my capstone project, I’ve chosen to write a poetry collection about my uncle’s death by suicide. I intend to place my poems in public spaces (railroad tracks, riverbanks, parking garages, highway bridges), take photos, curate an Instagram account, and hope that people stumble upon the poems and maybe read them and maybe like them.

Cue the worries—

how do I treat the topic of mental health with the attention and sincerity it deserves; how do I avoid cliche when writing about grief; how do I avoid presuming I’m an expert; how do I bridge the chasm between private rumination and public declaration; how do I invite conversation without unintentionally harming the very population I’m seeking to help.

On this last point, I’ve been thinking about content warnings. This week was mental health week on campus, and I know numerous people—myself included—who were triggered by one of the events held on the Diag for the purpose of suicide awareness. A friend posted a Buzzfeed video titled “I Jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge” on Facebook, and it hit me like a shiver. On one level, these public conversations are important to have; on another level, they are wholly unproductive if those most invested in the conversation are blindsided, unprepared to discuss their own pain. Indeed, conversations on “awareness” and “prevention” and “healing” should be held on people’s—survivors, those with suicidal ideation, loved ones—own terms.

I mention all this because it’s important, but also because it carries serious implications for the ethos of my project. How might placing poetry about suicide in public places (even if it’s rooted in my experience as a suicide loss survivor) injure those around me, however unintentionally?

I suppose the challenge here is one of audience. It’s not as though I haven’t written about suicide before: for my final project in a course on Latinx Literature (which I took the semester after my uncle’s death), I made a poetry zine that became a simultaneous letter to my uncle and to Oscar Wao (from The Brief Wondrous Life of). And as I begin to draft my collection, there’s a lot I want to draw from this project. My zine was hybrid and disjoint in a way I want my Instagram account to be hybrid and disjoint. My zine was vulnerable in a way I hope to be vulnerable. My zine taught me to find words I didn’t think I had.

But I haven’t written anything about suicide with the intention of showing it to others—because the zine was private, the conversation existed solely on my own terms. Which begs the question: how do I conscientiously engage my audience? Visiting an Instagram account is a choice, I suppose, and I can put content warnings on each post. But leaving these poems out in public spaces becomes infinitely trickier. The safety of privacy simply isn’t an option this time around—and, quite frankly, the potential for feedback is scary.

 

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