“I am almost entirely locked out of contemporary American poetry.”
JOHN LEE CLARK
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
How are you? What’ve you been up to today?
I’m a bit stressed. Four sources, at least: First, it’s the end of the fiscal year, and I need to get all of my work authorizations in order. You see, I make my living as a Braille instructor, and I get most of my business from the State of Minnesota. They have to have those things.
Second, I decided to rent an office, starting July 1. I’ve been traveling all over, to where my students are. I love working with them, but all that travel has meant less time with my family and less time to write. The office will change that. But right now, I need to buy stuff for the office, help my students arrange for their transportation . . . whew.
Third, the American Sign Language Teachers Association conference is in town later this week. My wife, the ASL artist Adrean Clark, and I have two tables there. I’m still working on nailing the details for my part—my assistant, my transportation to and from the site and various other places where I have classes with students I cannot miss, and a meeting—itself related to the end of the fiscal year.
Fourth, I’m anxious because I finished what I think is an awesome translation of an ASL poem but I haven’t heard back from the poet. That wait for the poet’s response is always nerve-wracking. It has always turned out fine, but I always have this fear that a poet would say no. This would be a horrible outcome, because translation is an art too, and I pour as much into it as I do my own poetry. I don’t think I can sleep my real sleep until I know that it’s all right. If it’s not, okay, I can handle that, but please tell me now!
Sounds dizzying. You talk about finishing a translation of an ASL poem. Forgive my ignorance—what's the unit of an ASL poem? Would a "book" first have to be translated into Braille? Is that what you're doing?
As there are all kinds of poetry in English, there’s no one kind of ASL poetry. We’ve got everything, really, including rhymes, erasure, handshape-acrostics, purposeful mangling of words and syntax, duets, yawps, everything.
Although there exists written ASL, it’s not available yet in a tactile form. Most of the ASL poems out there are recorded on video, with their creators performing them or, in a few cases, someone else reciting them. As a DeafBlind person, video is of no direct use. To get my hands on the ASL texts, I hire a Deaf interpreter to relay them exactly. Her or his job is to be a tactile copy of the videos and, if needed, to clue me in on some extramanual markers. Since I can’t have an interpreter on hand for days on end while I’m wrestling with translations, I seize on one or two poems and I memorize them. Once memorized, they are available to me whenever I sit down to work on them. I love it when these poems take up residence in my mind. After I’m done with a translation, the original does fade away—after all, I need room for other poems—but favorite passages stay and I often recite them.
That's amazing, you're actually memorizing the poems in order to translate them. So, they're going from ASL to Tactile ASL to typed English, then?
That’s roughly correct, yes. But because there is a separate language called Tactile ASL, I should say that it’s from ASL to ASL to English. The ASL I take in tactilely from these videos is still standard visual ASL. There are parts of that language that are not tactilely robust, which is why we have a separate language, TASL, that’s all tactile. But I don’t ask my interpreters to translate the video ASL into TASL, because I want to get as close to the original as possible and get it into English from there, not from some other place. Because I’m a native ASL speaker and knew it basically as a sighted person for the first eighteen or so years of my life, before I became too blind to take it in visually, I am able to follow standard ASL tactilely very well and need only a little additional information here and there.
Do you (or other translators of ASL) send these to traditional journals as translations, then? Also, can you talk about obstacles for an ASL poet translating their own poetry into English?
There aren’t many translations out there yet. When my anthology Deaf American Poetry came out in 2009, it had only four translations. There were, and still are, good reasons for ASL poets to resist translation. Indeed, some classic poems speak of the tyranny of English and the crimes of oralism, which tried, and is still trying, to suppress ASL and to force Deaf children to speak English orally.
Some things have changed to open the way for more translations. One is that a lot of ASL poets now feel more secure about the status of the language. For my part, I got interested in translating ASL poetry because it has been celebrated for the wrong reasons. Many hearing people claim they love ASL poetry, but they don’t understand a word of it. Simply the idea that it’s ASL poetry is enough, and they just love it. I bet many communities with histories of oppression will recognize this phenomenon. Well, one of my goals for the anthology of ASL poetry in English translation that I’m working on is to disappoint a lot of hearing people, because they can no longer look at ASL poetry through the fog of fantasy. They are going to hear what our poets have to say.
Yes, I and some other translators are sending translations out there for individual publication. It’s a slow process, but in a year or two we should have enough translations for the anthology to go ahead.
As for the obstacles ASL poets face in translating their own poems, I think most of these would be the same ones facing any poet writing in a foreign language and for whom English is not his or her first language. Many ASL poets are quite fluent in English, but most are not immersed in English poetry. I can’t say I blame them—contemporary English poetry is so rarely enjoyable and worth the trouble of reading. There are a few poets who do hybrid work, playing with both languages. There’s a whole spectrum. But for someone to do a full translation, that person needs to be a good writer in the target language and be immersed in its literature.
I'm interested in the way you word that, "worth the trouble of reading." The physical act of reading is more involved for a person with a visual disabilty; the act of skimming a text is effectively not an option, right? Does that change the way you select reading material? I imagine the availability of tactile texts is also an issue.
Not “worth the trouble of reading”: I was thinking of the ASL poets I know and answering your question. For a lot of them, English capital-L Literature isn’t attractive. The books that most do enjoy are the same ones that the great masses do, mass-market stuff that are clear, accessible, dramatic.
For me, the source of trouble is different. I enjoy English literature and translated works. I think my favorite area is eighteenth century British poetry. But I can’t be sure if that’s my true favorite, because I do have trouble accessing modern and contemporary stuff. You see, eighteenth century British poetry is available on Project Gutenberg. It’s in the public domain, and there are loads of accessible text files. By contrast, I am almost entirely locked out of contemporary American poetry. Lowell, Larkin, Bishop—they’re not available. I have no use for all those books on the shelves in the library or in a bookstore. Scanning them doesn’t work well—the program disregards line breaks and often confuses between poems on facing pages. E-books are no good. They were supposed to open it up for the print disabled, but no, the publishers are concerned about copyright.
One way you know that you are a disabled person is that you are reduced to begging. As a poet, I need to read. Good poets borrow, great poets steal. How to get my hands on the loot? Well, one of the things I do is I go to poets themselves and ask if they wouldn’t mind sharing the text files of their manuscripts with me. These files need not be the final book versions. They would be for my fingers only. I pledge not to spread it all over the Internet and spoil sales. This is messed up, awkward. I feel grateful when a poet is gracious—don’t get me wrong there. But all of it is wrong. Print capitalism is bad, let me tell you. I wish everything would go into the public domain after ten years, not ninety years after the death of an author.
Maybe it doesn’t make that much of a difference. I sometimes wonder if I’m not a better reader precisely because I cannot always choose, yet it’s still the right reading environment where you don’t have to read anything if you don’t want to.
It's interesting to think about the important work being done to level the grounds of publishing in terms of amplifying queer and minority voices, and then to consider that there are readers in the disabled community who are being completely shut out from even reading what's being published by the major presses, let alone participating in the conversation. What can publishers do to become more accommodating? As an editor of a poetry site myself, what can I do to improve the accessibility of my content?
First of all, publishers need to let go of the piracy paranoia. They want to protect the books they publish, protect any sales they can get. But this protectiveness is deeply questionable, and the Braille situation exposes that.
I would like to see more publishers embrace open access publishing, along the lines of Athabasca University Press and Open Humanities Press. But those two do need to take a step or two farther. AUP, for example, uses PDFs. No good. They need to also offer .doc or .txt. You can still sell hard copies. There could be all kinds of other creative schemes for releasing texts into the public domain earlier, after sales potential has all but been exhausted anyway, which is, in most cases, two, three years after publication, right? Why lock it up for the next ninety years only to earn fifty dollars more?
As for print journals, archive contents online. I’d love to see more online journals having mailing lists for sending out content. In the Braille world, e-mail reigns supreme. Going online is a hassle, one made worse if you have a lot of links to wade through before you finally hit the first sentence or line of the main content. Surely many sighted people would love e-mailed contents too.
It's interesting to consider the way the available mediums restrict both how widely and how deeply you're able to read. I do want to say I've been spending a lot of time with your manuscript, and to sort of move into talking about that, I was wondering if you could talk about your writing process?
I’m not sure what the particulars of my process are now. I’ve gone through many different phases. When I started out, I was deeply enamored of words. I’d write down words I liked on index cards and, when I had enough words, assemble and craft a poem. Keep in mind that this was when I was starting out. The poems were very good at getting rejected.
Later, I realized that I needed to communicate. No more index cards, and my poems began to appear in publications. Even though I cannot tell you what rhymes with what or how many syllables there are in words, I found that I liked poems in traditional forms better than I did poems in looser forms. Not always, of course—I’m just talking about a general thing. Just looking at the language, it’s usually better when it has had to struggle against the confines of form. To have my poems go through a similar process, I’d come up with various rules, invent some forms of my own that had nothing to do with meter.
Then came the time when I could no longer read via a CC-TV, which is a machine that you put a book under and you can have the screen zoom in, change the colors. I was already a fluent Braille reader, but now Braille would be the only way to read. I discovered that a lot of what I had liked in print no longer appealed to me as much. Poets whose work I didn’t enjoy before suddenly spoke to me. My own writing changed as well. Stanzas, for example, are not really a good concept in Braille. Also, it became paramount to keep all of my lines within the space of a single Braille display line, which is 40 cells across. This does not correspond to 40 characters in print, because there are contractions. “Because there are contractions” uses only 18 cells, whereas it is, what, 30 characters in print?
Later, I shifted gears yet again, still with Braille in mind but thinking more and more about who my audience is. It became more and more important to me that my own friends, my family, my people could read my poems and enjoy them. That’s one reason I went narrative. Another reason is that, as I grew older, I became more disillusioned and believed less and less in sweeping statements. I found that I didn’t have much to say, at least not on the lyrical level.
But here’s what I do know about my current process: I write a lot in my head. When it’s time to type, the first draft is often the final draft or close to it. However, what I type is almost never the same as the poem I thought of. So a transformation, full of revisions, does occur, but it occurs during the typing process, one or two steps ahead of my fingers.
I still make up “rule” poems. One recent string of tiny poems are what I call “slateku.” Those poems have to fit inside the space of the classic Braille slate. A slate has two strips of metal or plastic connected by a hinge. One strip has depressed dots, and the other has windows, and you clap them together with paper in between. You use a stylus to make Braille dots. You sort of write backwards—but not in the sense of spelling backward. You still spell in the order that a word is spelled, but the direction in which you do it is opposite, and you also make impressions that are the obverse of the dots you want to pop up. Anyway, a classic slate is 28 cells across and four rows down. Those are very relaxing poems. Lazy poems. I suppose that’s what I need these days!
I love it—I love the idea of a "slateku." It reminds me of the poet Fady Joudah, who does "textus," poems that fit exactly in the space of a single SMS text message. He drafts them exclusively on his phone, which is another poetic form shaped by its medium.
I want to ask about a specific favorite poem from the manuscript, "Goldilocks in Denial." There's a long history in the LGBT tradition of queering historical and fictional characters, and this poem reminded me of that kind of gesture, assigning this silly children's character a visual impediment and watching how she reacts. It's a fascinating poem—can you talk a little bit about how it came to be?"
Hey! I’ve always enjoyed Fady Joudah’s poems in Poetry magazine, which is the only poetry publication available in Braille. He does lovely work. I need to grab my tin can and look for him, maybe he will throw some textus my way.
“Goldilocks in Denial”—it’s one of my favorites, too. There’s a long tradition, as well, in the ASL communities of appropriating fairy tales, comic book stories, and especially movies. One of the first ASL plays I saw as a boy, for example, was a spin on A Christmas Carol, with Uncle Scrooge as this oralist tyrant, always trying to correct Tiny Tim’s speech and slapping his hands whenever he reflexively spoke in ASL. One of my favorite poems in Deaf American Poetry is “How the Audist Stole ASL” by Damara Goff Paris and Katrina R. Miller. I believe Deaf schools are central to spurring such adaptations. The great majority of ASL literature is cinematically inspired, and it’s in Deaf schools that many of those stories are born. This isn’t really possible if you have one Deaf kid or a few Deaf kids mainstreamed in a public school. What might (did) happen at a public school is they would produce “Children of a Lesser God” and get a token Deaf girl to play Sarah, no matter her acting skills, and hearing kids would play all of the other Deaf and hearing characters. By contrast, what the Illinois School for the Deaf did after the movie won the Oscar for best picture was produce a subversion called “Adults of a Greater God.” Isn’t that splendid?
How I came to write “Goldilocks in Denial” is unusual. I was attending the American Association of the Deaf-Blind conference in San Diego in 2003. There was a group of linguists there to do interviews. They were studying TASL. They were like trolls under the bridge. They’d approach a DeafBlind person, offer money, and haul him or her down to their lair, where they had video cameras and release forms. I was one such victim—I wanted the money and thought it wouldn’t hurt me. As the interview began, I immediately started to read the mind of the test, if you know what I mean. I naturally resisted and sought to protect my mental privacy. At the end of the interview, I was asked to tell the story of the three bears. I realized that this was the “control text”—everyone had to tell the story, and the linguists would be able to compare and contrast, notate and measure, and come to conclusions.
Instead of telling the story straight up, I decided, on the spot, to do a DeafBlind version. I took pleasure in ruining the pure lab culture. That’s how that story was born. Goldilocks is, of course, an intruder. At that time, I was frustrated by how many half-baked DeafBlind people there were at the conference. It’s understandable that many would be in denial when they start going blind, and the leading cause of deaf-blindness is a progressive condition called Usher syndrome, where most are born deaf and become blind at varying ages, at varying paces. So there are always many people in the middle of their journeys. But some people get stuck deep in denial for years or even decades, as they cling to their dwindling vision. They’re under pressure from their sighted families, teachers, doctors, professionals in the “field,” and society to rely on their vision for as long as possible. This is very sick. And it’s a burden on the community of DeafBlind people who are happy and proud to be tactile. But it’s also complicated because almost everyone has been in denial once.
What hearing-sighted readers may not realize when reading the poem is that this particular Goldilocks will become a bear. DeafBlind readers know that, because most of us were Goldilocks at one time. They would see themselves in her as well as the three bears. Many of them would find that their exact words are quoted in the poem—the dialogue is absolutely classic. The real intruder is ableism, which Goldilocks has internalized. Once inside the house, she’s not really harmful—a nuisance, yes, but she is a loser and will stay that way until she wakes up.
Yes, I had the most fun writing it, and well, I got paid for it. Thank you, linguists.
Haha. That's a terrific story. I’m fascinated by so much of what you just said. There’s so much about this world, people clinging to their dwindling vision, I'd never thought about before this interview. Can we talk about your poem from a ways back in Poetry, "My Understanding One Day of Foxgloves"? It's really a lovely piece.
My much younger self thanks you for your kind words about that poem. My present self, though, doesn’t really recognize it. It was written so long ago--thirteen or so years ago. That distance in time is compounded by the fact that I wrote it when I was still reading large print. It’s in my chapbook, Suddenly Slow, published in 2008, now all sold out. When I started work on my current manuscript, I looked over the poems in that chapbook to see if there was anything I’d like to include. Nope.
There are many reasons I no longer identify with the poem. Chief among them is that it’s too literary. And that, to a large degree, means it’s too hearing. True, it has a set of references so precise and so informed by ASL and Braille that no hearing poet would be able to make the same references and in the way I did. But the poem in its basic bent, in its perspective, is altogether bound up with the romance of silence, the greatest lie about what it means to be deaf.
I accept it as a document showing where I was in my struggles against expectations set forth by canonical literature. The poem has its good points, and maybe a critic would be able to say that, no, this is truly a DeafBlind poem, it’s great, it smashes the canon into a million pieces! Maybe a scholar would see in it a Kafkaesque kidnapping of the majority language. That’s not for me to say.
One part you may be interested in looking into deals with the word “understanding.” It refers to an ASL pun, the word “stand” upside down. You see, “under” has the passive hand’s palm facing down while the dominant hand, in the thumbs-up handshape, goes under it, like a bridge. The word “stand” is made with a “two” handshape that literally stands on the passive hand with its palm facing up. By turning that upside down, you get a compound of “under” and “stand.”
It’s pretty iconic, and the image is that of someone standing upside down, or doing a handstand, or dangling by the feet, or, with the passive hand removed, floating in the air feet up. What I do like about the poem’s little story is that the speaker is, at first, thought to be of an insignificant social stature. While he’s gardening, the wind in its blithe arrogance pushes him over and is about to take him away. But he reaches for his foxgloves, and the plants take hold of him—their hold is stronger than the wind’s. Don’t ask me how that works—this is fantastical, maybe a little surrealistic—but the man is hovering there in the air, feet up, as if he’s the rope in a tug-of-war contest, like the man’s coat in the fable about the sun and the wind. The foxgloves win, his connection to them wins—that connection is ASL. The wind is speech, oralism, audism, and, well, wind. In the poem, I do quite a bit of word play that imbues foxgloves with ASLness. There’s the fact that the word “glove” is in the common name of the plant, and Digitalis in its scientific name, and “finger hut” part of its etymology. All of which is fun, but the poem aspired to a hearing audience, to a hearing quality.
So, so many fascinating insights in what you just said. I love your explanation of the ASL "understanding" pun; that's the sort of nuance a hearing person would never understand without having it explained.
I'm fascinated too by what you say about "the romance of silence, the greatest lie about what it means to be deaf." I think about something Jillian Weise said at the Poetry and Disability panel at AWP, about how poets put on "crippleface" to romanticize elements of disability in their work. Ever since hearing her speak, I notice it in every fifth poem I read, a hearing/seeing/walking poet talking about deafness, blindness, limblessness, in the first person. I was wondering if you might comment on that specific type of appropriation, how (or if) it reaches or affects you?
Jillian is a tremendous poet. I love her incisive wisdoms—(dentists, beware!). By mentioning her name, Kaveh, you’ve raised the bar here out of my reach—but wait, I think I can tap it with my cane, like I do basketball rims when I show my boys how to shoot hoops.
Okay, silence. Where to start? It’s difficult, because it’s so huge that it’s also a kind of blank, a blanket over my mind. Not silence itself, which doesn’t exist, or, if it does, exists in ways that have nothing to do with deafness. Nor darkness with blindness. The idea of it, the mythology. The silence-deafness-death matrix wasn’t always there in European culture. If you look at poems about death from centuries ago, you’ll see that death was a very loud affair. Celestial music, angels singing, or else the awful sounds of Hell, the gnashing of teeth. And you have the racket people make, as in the opening lines to John Dryden’s tribute to the memory of the Countess of Abingdon:
As when some great and gracious monarch dies,
Soft whispers, first, and mournful murmurs rise
Among the sad attendants; then the sound
Soon gathers voice, and spreads the news around,
Through town and country, till the dreadful blast
Is blown to distant colonies . . .
In the meantime, deafness was just deafness, a matter of fact. Sometimes it was associated with stupidity or being duped, but not silence. Jonathan Swift, who became more and more deaf after 1720, wrote several poems about his deafness, but he never used the word “silence” to describe his experience. He used the word many times, in other poems. The connection was just not there in the literature. It was imposed later, along with the connection between silence and death. I won’t go into detail here about all of the forces at play, but suffice it to say that these three became a fearsome trio. It got to be so powerful that it justified the killing of deaf babies, the sterilization of deaf people all over Europe and North America, oralism, and the sometimes fatal drilling of infant skulls so that noises, however twisted, could get through.
Of course, something as big as that, fueled as it is by fear and very, very, very profitable exploitation, affects everyone in our society. Just as no one can honestly say they’re not racist or sexist, no one is free from audism or ableism. No one. What we can do is to be more aware and to struggle out of these traps we’ve fallen into and will fall into again.
That’s what assembling Deaf American Poetry did for me. Looking at what Deaf poets had written since 1827, I realized that a lot of what I was writing was nothing new. The themes were already established—not by me, as I thought, but by audism. Of course, Deaf poets protested audist messages. To the message that says we live in a world of silence, Deaf poets responded by writing about eye music. To the message that says we’re mute and dumb, the natural response is to discuss our sign languages.
The problem with this is that, in our daily lives, we don’t go around telling each other that our world isn’t at all silent. We don’t go around saying how beautiful ASL is. No. The reality is that ASL is nothing. We just talk and that’s all. We’re busy shopping, cooking, videophoning, working, fighting, procreating more Deaf and DeafBlind people along with other varieties of the species, and mowing the lawn. That’s the reality. Yet very little of our lives have gone into our poetry in English. It’s more apparent in our ASL poetry. Isn’t that telling?
After I published Deaf American Poetry, I began shedding the blankets that were suffocating my writing. First, I had to resist what used to seem so noteworthy based on what the media and audist literature love to dwell on. I had to come up with things from my actual life, not the mythical life that was already written for me. Next, I had to think differently about who my audience is. I also had to negotiate my way out of the pitfalls of gloss. I had to rethink word choices. For example, it’s almost universally said that we “sign.” He signed, she signed. Wait a minute, there’s something wrong with that. What we’re doing is talking. We say. Sure, beginners are conscious of “signing” with their hands, but we native, fluent speakers are not conscious of it. That’s one example of how deeply a lie can seep into everything. There are so many things that relegate us and everything we do to a lower plane.
My most recent step was to stop saying that this or that person is Deaf or DeafBlind in my poems. Instead, they would be people, which is exactly the way I experience them. My own people are the default. There are hearing and sighted people, if they do show up, but otherwise what I have are people. I can’t wait to find out what my next step is! I often wonder if, one of these days, a necessary step would be to cease writing in English, or even cease to write at all. If that does happen, it won’t be because I’m finally being silenced. It would be because it’s a move toward the ultimate anti-silence, living life so fully that it would be an insult to my dignity to reduce it into art.
Interview Posted: August 24, 2015
MORE FROM DIVEDAPPER. (Drag left)