Submerged Structure: A Book of Outsider Poetry

The most respected website on the subject of Outsider Art and Poetry describes it as art created by those who create with mental illness, are self-trained, or create art and poetry that challenges cultural and academic norms. In the past it used to be referred to by more demeaning terms such as art brut, naive art, or primitive art. The term “Outsider ” was coined in 1972 by Roger Cardinal in in his book “Outsider Art.” It has been hoped that the development of more  enlightened attitudes towards the mentally ill and marginalized among us would lead to better treatment in institutions and society at large, but there has, however, been an unfortunate trend to simply exploit outsider artists without addressing the larger issue of mental illness in our culture.

Thomas L. Vaultonburg is a poet who was diagnosed with Schizoid Personality Disorder at the age of sixteen. It is likely with modern diagnostic standards that he would now be diagnosed with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, but at the time these still relatively rarely diagnosed. Using poetry as his mechanism to translate his inscrutable interior world to those around him, he created a language of metaphor and analogy to describe what it is like to have part of oneself become virtually inaccessible or untranslatable to others. In 2102 Vaultonburg published a book of poetry titled Submerged Structure that is a poetic memoir of what it is like to struggle with Schizoid Personality Disorder.

The title, Submerged Structure has a dual meaning, one, typically, is completely solipsistic. On Route 72 between the cities of Byron and Oregon, Illinois, there existed for many years a street sign that read Submerged Structure. The poet drove that stretch of road on occasion, and every time he saw that sign it occurred to him that having Schizoid Personality Disorder was very much like have a very integral part of one’s personality that had broken off, sunk to the bottom of a body of water, and was now inaccessible without taking extraordinary means. Every day was an effort to try and relate to others while having no immediate, innate, or instinctual (so to speak) native language or shared set of understood cues, facial and bodily expressions, and general sense of belonging to the same species. That is what personality disorders such as being on the Autism Spectrum feel like. Vaultonburg relates a story of how he would practice “being human” late at night in his room, mimicking the gestures, facial expressions, and postures of others, going so far as to go out late at night and practice walking.

The word “Outsider” rings true and holds meaning for many others besides the mentally ill. Those who did not have the luxury of formal art training. Those ostracized and marginalized by the culture, and those excluded from academic and professional inner circles all know what it is like to create in the shadow of the ivory tower.

The Gifted Program At Byron
Elementary School

Was two isolated makeshift cubicles
Shoved into one corner
Under a map of Antarctica where me
And Michael  Robinson
Studied humanity

Antarctica is the place where
Special people go,
Ms. Stieglitz said

We spent the year alternately
Being President, Vice President
Ultimately declaring anarchy
Though the mordent precision
Of our isolated orbit
Assured nothing would ever be
Out of place

They fed us Animal Farm,
Rice crispy treats,
All the loneliness the “special”
Among us deserve as they learned
To make more and more elaborate
Dunce caps out of papier mache

You designed something I can’t
Even pronounce, died last week

Maybe you’ve gone back to Antarctica

I hear they need an Ambassador

-Thomas L. Vaultonburg


While it is certainly true that schools and most teachers were not prepared to deal with students on the Autism spectrum in the early 1970’s, one wonders if things have gotten much better these days.

Submerged Structure 2

Submerged Structure is a book of Outsider Poetry published by Zombie Logic Press in 2012. The cover photograph was taken by Ryan Davis. The book deals with the complex issue of trying to communicate with others who do not suffer from a personality disorder.

How Having a Kooky Uncle
Can Scar Children For Life
Watch the colors
The director’s choice
Of colors
I yell
As a zombie
Buries canines
And incisors
Into a soccer mom’s
Let’s go to
The park now
They say
Ignoring my madness
The way the masses
Ignore a bum
On a park bench.
They’ll be ok.
-Thomas L. Vaultonburg
Bus Station
Please don’t steal my bag.
Please don’t steal my blue bag
With all my poems in it.
Please don’t try to to steal my
Blue bag with all my poems
In it and a bag of pepitas
And the number for my caseworker
Then feign confusion when caught
Because you, too, have a blue bag
That says Downtown Mental Health Center.
Please don’t try to lift my blue
Bag with all my mom’s cancer poems
And the name of my caseworker in it etc…
It’s far to heavy.
-Thomas L. Vaultonburg
Faking Bad
In anticipation of my
Evaluation to be declared
Non Compos Mentos
I slept under a bridge
For three days
“Getting into character,”
But on the morning of
My intake interview
My hair fell perfectly,
I mean I looked like
A fucking rock star.
College girls on the bus
Were giving me their
Numbers and my skin,
Which I’d purposely sunburnt
And caked in the finest filth,
Glowed like an Austra
Chippendale dancer named Weegie
And even the female Assisstant D.A.
Who had busted me for vagrancy
Waved her panties from
The third story building
Of the Courthouse.
No matter how much I
Tried to speak gibberish
Poetry and philosophical
Tracts spewed from my mouth.
Shuffling past the park
I beat eight
Grand Masters
At chess on move 1
Inadvertently I solved
The Phi Epsilom Theorem
By kicking stones
Into an algorythym.
When I arrived they didn’t
Make me wait at all.
My caseworker giggled like
A schoolgirl while I told her
Each day was like an endless shift
In a Chinese fish- gutting
Sweatshop and every one of my fellow
Employees was motivationalist
Richard Simmons.
She ungirdled her enormous
Tits and as they spilled
Like fishguts onto the desk
She began to howl
“Fuck me, fuck me, oh fuck
Me right here in
Front of the open window
On State Street as everyone
Watches me fucking the strongest,
Healthiest, smartest, most popular,
Well-adjusted man in the world.
The rest of the examination was
Also a success.
But as I left the Mental HealthCenter
feeling marvelous
I accidentally bumped
An old woman with the door:
“Watch out you manic-depressive
Schizoid with Socially Avoidant
Features klutz.”
-Thomas L. Vaultonburg
I am Thomas L. Vaultonburg. And I am an Outsider.




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