Read This: Beauty, Poetry, and Lived Experience in Agora

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

I've got a beautiful, important read to share with you today. Agora, by Gretchen Gales, with imagery by Christine Stoddard, is a phenomenological chapbook of poetry that meanders city streets while sharing the lived experience of agoraphobia. 

Read This: Beauty, Poetry, and Lived Experience in Agora

Gales' poems are beautiful, each one creating worlds within. Growing up in books and woods feels safe; as an adult venturing out, the poems show us what the world can look like to someone with this disability. It raises the questions: What is it like to live with agoraphobia? What does it mean to be brave...and what is the toll of such bravery? And how does one find their place in this world while living with agoraphobia?

If you live with agoraphobia, this book will deeply resonate with you. If you don't, there is so much to learn, and so much awareness and compassion to bring.

Highly, highly recommended.

We were lucky enough to catch up with Gales, and ask her about her book, inspiration, the accompanying photos, and more. Here's what she had to say...

Gretchen Gales. From Read This: Beauty, Poetry, and Lived Experience in Agora

Please tell us about your new book of poetry, Agora...
Agora is the story of an agoraphobic young woman navigating college in the city, attempting to overcome her fears while also acknowledging the very real dangers women face in society. My publisher pointed out that it is also about finding one's identity and a sense of belonging, which I love as a universal takeaway from such a focused, short collection. 

What inspired you to write this book?
It's largely autobiographical, reflecting on my own experiences as a "functional" agoraphobic, since it waxes and wanes in severity. Agoraphobia can be debilitating and is often spurred on by a panic attack that turns into panic disorder. It tends to come out of nowhere but can be overcome or managed with therapy or anxiety medication...IF it's properly identified and addressed. Too often, it's not. Worse, limited representations of it in the media can delay real help, because people don't want to be labeled as "crazy" or they believe their problems aren't bad enough to be bothered with. 

In traditional stories involving agoraphobic characters, I've noticed that they're either tragic and never leave, or they are completely cured once they leave their home. Or they're magically cured after a ridiculous, unlikely event forces them outside (like their neighbor being murdered and they're, naturally, the only witness). Or the agoraphobic character's personality is established as some sort of inhuman, strange person who is completely unrelatable. The worst is when the agoraphobic character is a vehicle for someone else's personal development. I read a YA novel with an agoraphobic character a few years ago where a girl attempted to cure the agoraphobic boy so she could use her success for a college essay. And while she did eventually see it was the wrong thing to do, I'm tired of narratives where others have to discover disabled people are people in order to see them as human. This is because agoraphobics are often written by people who have never experienced agoraphobia. Of course, that's an issue with any marginalized population's stories. People utilize stereotypes to craft a spectacle to look at, and when it's over, the likelihood that they'll dig deeper into the information presented is lower than I'd like it to be. Everyone benefits from better representation. 

The accompanying imagery is by Christine Stoddard. How did your collaboration come about, and how did it influence your poetry?
Christine reached out to me with the photos and mentioned she'd like to collaborate on a book of poetry with me. She told me she was thinking it could be about a woman's thoughts while walking in the city. I'm sure she meant something other than what I wrote about, but the reality was that growing up, mine were plagued with "what-ifs" of everything bad that could happen. It's common if you grow up in the suburbs or rural America to be cautious of big cities. But I knew my own perspective had changed, and I wanted to tell the story of slowly going from experiencing complete fear to optimistic curiosity. 

Your beautiful poem, Refuge, led us into one entitled Agora, and then deeper into the lived experience of women. I absolutely loved this line: "Yet I am my own Medusa, stone surrounded by rapids of faces." What do you hope readers take away from reading (and re-reading!) Agora?
I hope that in general, people take away that progress doesn't have to be linear. For women and other agoraphobics, I hope they feel seen and validated in their experience. No one is a failure for being agoraphobic. Women's fears are valid and real. Celebrate the small wins in life and don't be afraid to keep getting back up. 

What's up next for you?
I'm always working on something new, whether it's an essay, a freelance piece, or other literary works. I'm currently revising a longer collection of poetry I hope will find a great home someday. It's about the "zilennial" experience or those born during the bizarre cusp between Millennials and Gen Z. Some poems are lighthearted and strange and others are bittersweet, nostalgic, and tragic. 

How can people find your work?
Grab your copy of Agora here:
Instagram/Threads: @writinggales
Twitter: @GGalesQuailBell

You can find Christine Stoddard's work at:
And on Instagram and Twitter: @stoddardsays 

Is there anything else you'd like to share?
Support disabled writers by purchasing their books and following their socials. We always appreciate it!