True to His Voice

Humanities6 MIN READ

Poet Adam Giannelli’s work shows us “how to hear a stutter”

By Kardelen Koldas ’15Photography by Gabe Souza
June 3, 2021

Adam Giannelli developed a passion for poetry at a young age, first as a devoted reader with a certain perceptiveness for words. He crafted his first poem in high school, where a teacher helped him realize his talent for the medium. Poems about nature, his observations, and life in general followed.

But it took many years for poems to emerge about a deeply personal subject: stuttering.

Giannelli, now a teacher of poetry and writing as a visiting assistant professor of English at Colby, was a graduate student when he wrote “Stutter,” a poem about the everyday experiences of people who stutter, like himself. It opened his debut book, Tremulous Hinge (University of Iowa Press, 2017), which won him the Iowa Poetry Prize. Ever since, stuttering has become increasingly central in his work. Now, a recent winner of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in Poetry, he’s embarking on a journey to write a poetry book focusing solely on stuttering.

“I see this as part of my journey and as part of my acceptance,” he said. “I hope that when I’m open about who I am, it will make people see stuttering in a new way.”

Stuttering was what drew Giannelli to this medium in the first place. “I was always sensitive to words,” he said. “And poetry utilizes the density of words. Poems have a thought-life, and they’re tangible things, objects, with sounds and shape.”

But Giannelli never aspired to be a poet. The very idea was far-fetched. Becoming a teacher wasn’t anticipated either. “I don’t think I saw myself in a job where I talked so much,” he said. “As a kid, I’d imagine being a librarian.”

Yet he came to enjoy both writing and teaching poetry through his studies.

In college, Giannelli pursued an English and creative writing double major at Oberlin. There, he was introduced to poetry translation—something he’s done since, translating Italian and Spanish poems to English. Next, he pursued an M.F.A. in creative writing at the University of Virginia. Following that, he went to Costa Rica, teaching at an elementary school and discovering a passion for education. As a Ph.D. student in literature and creative writing at the University of Utah, he wrote “Stutter.”

“I wrote it because I was stuttering more significantly,” he said, “in part because I was in a new place and also doing more public speaking in class.”

From there on, stuttering gained more prominence in his art—not just as a subject but also as a poetic form.

In “Stutter,” for instance, he refers to circumlocution, a common method used to avoid stuttering by replacing or rearranging words.

“I don’t stutter on every word,” he said, “but there was a time when I avoided certain words and situations to pass as fluent,” a strategy he tried to exemplify in his poem. Later on, he realized replacing words did a disservice to him as well as to his voice and thoughts.

The same was true for not writing about stuttering.

“Because of my stuttering, I was ashamed of my voice,” he said. But he no longer feels this way, partly because of having started to write about it and also because of the positive response he received to his work.

“People really liked that poem,” he said of “Stutter,” noting that audience members—both with and without speech disfluency—approach him to talk about it after readings.

Other transformative events occurred after the poem’s genesis, influencing Giannelli to continue writing about this personal subject.

Giannelli’s mother had a stroke, impacting her speech and causing her to temporarily stutter. This experience brought mother and son closer in a renewed way. “I felt my relationship with stuttering was changing,” said Giannelli, who also began spending time with others who stutter at National Stuttering Association meetings. “It made me more aware and also comfortable with who I am.”

Following “Stutter,” he wrote “How to Hear a Stutter” and “Stutterfied” (a combination of stutter and stupefied). The former poem is inspired by negative listener reactions to stuttering. “I wanted to show that one of the debilitating things about stuttering is the way that people respond to it,” he said. “Instead of giving advice to people who stutter, I wanted to give advice to people who don’t stutter.”

“Stutterfied,” on the other hand, is composed of stuttering metaphors, of which there’s a shortage, Giannelli explained. One common metaphor is an iceberg, developed by psychologist Joseph Sheehan, who believed physical shuttering is the tip of an iceberg with emotions like anxiety, fear, and shame looming beneath the surface. “I just thought it was cold—iceberg—and I wanted to describe my voice in my own terms.”

In its place, “Stutterfied” offers metaphors for different aspects of stuttering. For example, Giannelli describes delays in speech as “migratory cloud shifts,” and speech blocks as “cliffhangers” or tea that is “steeped and slowly poured.”

Giannelli plans to continue creating more metaphors and using stuttering as a form in his new book project. He’s working on a poem that uses alliteration as a technique to resemble stuttering. “There’s a similarity between alliteration and stuttering since you stutter on initial consonants.” He explained how for most people, stuttering occurs in three ways: repetition, prolongation of sound, and blocking on words.

“I hope if I show in my life and work that it’s okay to stutter, it might change how other people perceive stuttering,” he said. “I know stuttering is stigmatized in society.”

While he doesn’t know if stuttering will remain a focus of his work, he knows it will always be an inherent part of who he is.

“It shaped my relationship to poetry,” he said. “All my poems are written by a person who stutters, even if they’re not all about stuttering.”

How to Hear a Stutter

Do not say spit it out.
I’m not chewing. I’m humming.

Do not interrupt.
Bask in palpitation.

Do not look away.
The eyes are eloquent.

Do not intercede.
Presumption tapers.

Do not laugh. Nothing
is more human than a tremble.

Do not mimic. The miming of frailty
is the mastering of frailty, and mastery is not frail.

Do not say stop and start again.
A sentence is serendipitous.

Do not interrupt.
I have my own walls already.

Do not say stop and start again.
A word is a stairwell.

Do not hang up.
Make silence your envoy.

Do not ask if I’ve forgotten my name.
A name is not an order. It is an invitation.

Do not intercede. Here is my voice,
made of strain and spittle.

Listen. Here
is my voice, seismic.

Here is my nonvoice.

First appeared in Kenyon Review


beneath disfluency
I say mosaic

beneath disorder
I say texture say my own species of sigh

beneath distortion
I say a gratuitous greenery

beneath impediment
I say a ghostly percussion a soft marginalia

beneath impurities
I say the body as minute hand as calendar

beneath impairment
I say stuttered

beneath delay
I say migratory say cloud shift

beneath deviation
I say filigree say the body as city lights as cinema

beneath deficiency
I say innocent

beneath abnormal
I say the air of elsewhere say bubbles and buoyant kernels

beneath aberration
I say a single commotion say quartet

beneath abrasive
I say my own lunar surface

beneath prolongation
I say prelude say like standing under a marquee

beneath repetitions
I say erratic as freckles as rain against the window

beneath blocks
I say cliffhangers say steeped and slowly poured

beneath unable
I say here harnessing a space

beneath untreated
I say attention say the breadcrumbs between us

beneath unsung
I say here beside you say tendril

First appeared in Kenyon Review