John Lee Clark’s resume is impressive. He’s the first Deaf poet to be published in Poetry, he edited Gallaudet University’s new anthology Deaf American Poetry, and he for several years ran The Tactile Mind Press out of his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. Clark’s introduction to the new anthology is printed in earlier form on the Poetry website, and offers an articulate introduction to Deaf poetry in America.
I connected with poet Clark through his publisher, the Deaf poet Raymond Luczak of Handtype Press, which recently published Clark’s first chapbook of poems, Suddenly Slow. Clark recommended that we communicate by email, so that we wouldn’t need the mediation of an American Sign Language translator. We corresponded for a week, talking mostly about the mainstream perception of Deaf poetry in literary America. I was continuously impressed by John Lee Clark’s attitude, his drive to offer alternatives rather than despair, and his good nature.
Lawn Chair, 1984
It was not on the lawn
until I tripped over it.
My legs tangled in its legs,
I felt eyes on me.
I didn’t want them to know
anything save that I must be one tough boy
to play this strange game
of clambering to my feet and circling
to run and trip over the lawn chair
over and over again.
from Suddenly Slow, published by Handtype Press in 2008
I’m pretty sure I’m guilty of audism, albeit unconsciously. Tell me about audism in both the mainstream and literary communities.
I better not start listing the examples of audism in the mainstream, not only because there are so many but also because many are hard to explain in a few words. The concept of audism is far from familiar outside the signing community, though there are now books and a fine documentary on the subject.
But let’s take one example: Yenter Tu, a good friend of mine, worked as a delivery truck driver for UPS. That is, until a state manager inspected the branch where he worked and discovered that he was deaf. The manager cited liability issues and company policy and Yenter was summarily fired, in spite of his impeccable performance. The person who had hired him in the first place was not guilty of audism, because Yenter was given a fair chance. But that person turns out to have gone astray from the company policy against having deaf drivers. So in this situation, what we have is institutional audism. Never mind that the deaf happen to be the safest drivers. When Yenter challenged UPS, it kept on coming up with one excuse after another for why deaf people should not drive their trucks.
Fortunately, we have laws and precedents in court that are slowly enforcing equal rights for people with disabilities. But there are no laws under which we can, for example, sue W. W. Norton and Company for failing to include any deaf poets in The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. But in a way this is as it should be, for the government has no business dictating which poets should be in or kept out of literary publications.
So, in terms of deaf representation in the major venues, I’ll have to let this happen in the same way that other groups came to be celebrated widely and become important to the mainstream consciousness. So we’ll just have to keep working on our art, keep on trying to get published, and so on.
But we deaf poets do face a peculiar challenge. Off the page, we use a different language. Let me share with you three examples of how this can affect how well deaf poetry gets out there.
1. For public readings, there is a need for interpreters. This effectively limits our opportunities when it comes to those coffee shop affairs and bookstore readings, because interpreters cost money and this can blow away all of the proceedings and then some. For this reason, I’ve given only one reading in the past eight years I’ve been publishing poems in earnest. Of all the poets in the anthology, only two other poets have given readings. True, a few of us don’t like the idea of readings anyway, because it would mean translating the printed poems into signs, and the signs can feel funny because it’s not the same. But even the hams among us would still have readings only with university reading series, largish nonprofits, maybe some libraries.
2. Access to training is a big issue. Imagine having to go to a MFA workshop with an interpreter translating between two totally different languages on the spot. The workshop would be extremely unproductive. But Kristen Ringman, one of the deaf poets in the book, hit upon a solution: Low-residency MFA programs. That way, she did not have to deal with getting filtered information in the classroom day in and day out and being bored to tears on a campus full of non-signers. What would be really dynamic would be a MFA program for deaf writers! And it could be open to hearing writers, too, but you have to learn ASL, and fast!
3. It is unfortunate that a lot in the publishing world has to do with your friends. Networking is key. Conferences, retreats, the local groups. Talking shop is important to publishing success. But we don’t have easy access here, not only because of the language difference but also because of cultural differences. Deaf people socialize and do business in very different ways. I was once invited to join the board of an arts nonprofit, and they were good about providing interpreters. But I could not stand the way the board meetings were conducted, which went contrary to my ideal—the deaf ideal—which is to be blunt, get to the point in a matter of seconds, and go through the agenda in fifteen minutes. After suffering through hours-long sessions of what felt like to me sheer incompetence, I had to step down. I thought the board would be a good networking opportunity, but they would vanish instantly after the meeting, whereas the reason we deaf people like to get done with the meeting in fifteen minutes is so we could stay around and chat away for the next forty-five minutes or even longer.
So, as you can see, audism isn’t always the problem. There are other issues that are just natural. Language and cultural differences. Matters of taste. As our work emerges more and more, it’s my hope we can work things out. Maybe we won’t fit in some of the traditional molds in the literary community, such as going to conferences, doing readings, and sitting on those boards. Or maybe we should do those things, but under our own terms and injecting some good o’ Deaf Way in them!
How should Deaf American Poetry be categorized? Is it dismissive to categorize it as “Deaf American Poetry”?
I am not big on academic classifications. This or that school, this or that genre. But, no, it would not be dismissive to say it’s Deaf American Poetry. I mean, that’s what it is. It is broad enough a label, like African American poetry or Women’s Poetry. Like these, there are all sorts of poets and poetics within Deaf American Poetry. I guess, at bottom, it’s a political, and not an artistic, categorization. But because there’s a big cultural influence, I think this type of classification is more comparable with African American poetry—what with the role of a shared heritage, unique customs, and even language—than with Women’s Poetry.
I think most Americans think that ASL is a derivative form of English, but it’s of course actually a fully generative language. What’s happening in ASL poetry today?
You are right. ASL has its origins in Old French Sign Language, which itself is not a derivative of spoken French, either! So ASL is on a whole different plane from English.
Since ASL was largely banned from use in the classroom in schools for the deaf, or used only by lower classes and not with the more successful students, between 1880 and the 1960s, ASL was in survival mode for the longest time. Deaf people in the community had too many basic needs to meet through ASL, such as sharing important information with each other because they had learned next to nothing under oralism in school. There’s strong evidence that ASL storytelling, theater, and poetry flowered in the middle of the nineteenth century, before Alexander Graham Bell and oralism happened.
When the Deaf Pride movement started rolling, reinforced by groundbreaking linguistic studies into ASL, deaf people began to experiment with ASL storytelling and poetry. Save for a few exceptions, however, most of ASL literature until the late 1980s is preoccupied with special effects. The things signers can do with their hands are absolutely mind-blowing, but if I were to translate their stories or poems into English, the resulting pieces would be dull. Why? Because there is no real story or message. It’s a little like the early days of Pixar, when they were just working on mastering computer generated images—they were just working on the techniques. When Pixar became very good with CGI, it could then use it for a good film—a real story, and not just special effects.
So what’s happening with ASL poetry today is that a real message is there, too. There are more and more poems that I could translate and you’d read a poem. Yes, some of the spectacular stuff the hands capture or convey would be lost, but there’s still good content. What’s more, more and more ASL poets are recognizing the need for their work to be translated. They have been very reluctant, for several reasons, not least of which is that many of them are not literate in English and do not appreciate what English can do because it does so little for them when they read. I hope we’ll soon have some DVDs with translation voice-overs and text booklets of the translation inside the DVD boxes!
What’s the relationship between communicated ASL and English-language text? I know that you have some poems transliterated from ASL, right?
Well, you asked for it! There are so many possible interactions between the two languages; I hope I will not overwhelm you by listing some examples.
Yes, there are transliterations of ASL poems. In this case, the ASL poem was created first, and then the poet or someone took down gloss notes and the notes make up for a more or less readable document. One example of that is in the anthology: E. Lynn Jacobowitz’s “A-Z poem” called “In Memoriam: Stephen Michael Ryan.” The ASL poem uses a device in which the poet uses only the handshapes representing the English alphabet and in that order. So glossing this is easy. You just put down what the first sign, using the A handshape, signifies, and then B and then C. It could be “A: knock on door; B: door open; C: eyes widen in surprise . . .” A fuller translation might be “I knocked on the door, but when it opened I was totally taken aback by what I saw . . .”
There are two other examples of transliteration in the anthology. One is Willy Conley’s “Salt in the Basement.” If you were to sign along with the words, you’d be signing ASL poetry as well. But the other example, my “Story Actual Happen,” is different in that the signs that the words record do not make up an ASL poem. Rather, the ASL content it represents is conversational or prose ASL. I imagine a conversation and then I “quote” it in gloss but do so to make a poem in print.
Here’s the poem we mentioned, from the anthology you edited on Gallaudet University Press, Deaf American Poetry (2009).
Story Actually Happen
After Taras J. Dystra
Me remember longago 1967
Italian Restaurant mouthwatering
Buddies us “¿Want? Sure!”
Seataround: relax cuttingup.
Me story jokes. Laughter.
Waitress arrive. Me gape:
beautiful luscious shapely
black woman. “¿Drink?”
Wow. Too sexy, me can’t seduce.
Turnturn order drinks.
Then myturn: me squeeze
(on breast) like sign “milk.”
Black woman expression,
vanish. Buddies they pointme:
“Dare! Awful you!”
Snicker, elbow nudge.
Me more story jokes.
Waitress back, servedrinks
turnturn, except me nothing.
I wave her “¿Huh?”
She smile, gesture wait.
Finally she back, handover
tallglass. Me gape
Neckswallow me, whew.
Not milk. ¿Know what?
That transliteration is really interesting, I’d love to see it signed. What else are Deaf poets doing?
There’s “Deaf English,” the way that deaf people usually write to each other. It resembles the English of first-generation immigrants, but it has strong influences from ASL. Debbie Rennie’s “As Sarah” and Peter Cook’s two poems in the anthology are examples of poems written in “Deaf English.”
And then you have the Flying Words Project. This is a performing duo, with the ASL poet Peter Cook working with his hearing collaborator and voicer Kenny Lerner. They would create an ASL poem first and then work on what Kenny would voice so that the non-signing audience would have access. But instead of translations, or even transliterations, what is voiced is only suggestive captions. Only words or phrases, serving as the bare minimum crutches for non-signers to follow what’s going on in the space that Peter Cook fills. Although I included two transcripts in the anthology, they really should be heard while watching Peter Cook perform. For example, the transcript has “Butterfly”—just that word—for a stretch of ten seconds in which Peter Cook mimics a man watching TV numbly, and then a butterfly swoops in from the window and hovers near the man’s head until the man suddenly notices the butterfly, smiles, and pushes it away gently. In this segment of “Ode to Words,” that Peter is staring numbly is obvious to the audience, and his smiling, being surprised and happy to see the butterfly, and pushing it away playfully are all acted out clearly and require no translation. Although the sign for butterfly is very iconic, many non-signers’ minds are not attuned to even the most patent hand iconography. So, to be on the safe side, they put down “Butterfuly” for Kenny to speak out at the moment the butterfly enters.
There’s more, but this should give you an idea of all the possibilities between pure, printed English and pure, signed ASL.
Should English readers engage with poetry by deaf poets as if engaging with poetry in translation, or as if with English-language poetry? —I don’t know that there is any great difference in practical terms, but perhaps in conception of the finished product’s relationship to its poet’s intention—
The poems that deaf poets write in conventional English should be read like any other poem in English.
But as for translations of ASL poems, transliterations, Deaf English, ASL glossing in print, and all of that, I am not sure. On the one hand, I usually read translations of foreign-language poems in the same way I read English-language poems. On the other hand, ASL and English are so different, the translation work so challenging, that even the best translations available right now—the two very best ones of which are in the anthology, Raymond Luczak’s translations of Clayton Valli’s “A Dandelion” and “Pawns”—don’t do the originals justice, even if the translations themselves are fine poems in their own right.
My best recommendation is to present both the original and the translations together, as some publisher do—the original on the left hand page and the translation on the right. But for ASL poetry, this means using film, not paper. There exists film collections of ASL poetry, but none of them have voice-overs of translations. The Flying Words Project has some DVDs with voice, but that’s different.
One challenge is marketing. When I was the publisher of The Tactile Mind Press, we produced two DVDs, not of ASL poetry but of ASL literature. In both cases, the DVDs were really books, just “written” in ASL instead of in print. Even though they both were fully translated into English, and voiced, I had trouble getting distributors and bookstores to carry them. Both sold well, but only within the signing community, with only maybe ten non-signers who had the privilege of watching them—and all raved about them, too. We did market them as “documentaries” to the film industry, but that’s not what the DVDs really are, and besides the competition for film distribution is stiff. For this reason, I cannot quite fault DawnsignPress and Sign Media Inc. for not having their ASL poetry collections translated and voiced.
Yes, I believe it is worthwhile to invest in translation and voicing costs, to keep it coming, and let it seep into the mainstream more and more. But I also respect these two companies’ need to run a profitable business. So I am wondering if a mainstream poetry publisher would be interested in producing a DVD. I should ask around!
How about a few softballs? What projects are you working on now?
Among other things, I am working on an international anthology of writings by deaf-blind writers since 1820. Actually, I embarked on this project first, but I kept on coming across books by deaf poets while searching for books by deaf-blind authors. Because I loved poetry, I decided to take those books as well, and I quickly realized that there was a real need for a definitive anthology of deaf poetry. So I’ve been doing two books all along—the Deaf American Poetry anthology just happened to be completed first. It was a joy to assemble. But now I need to finish the other one!
Who are you reading or watching?
As for my personal reading, I am reading my usual number of books at once. The poets I am reading at this moment include Henry Lawson, Elizabeth Bishop, Ronald Wallace, and Bob Hicok, as well as some I am re-visiting: Robert Francis, John Clare, and John Milton.
You may be interested to know that I read slowly. Though I have been reading Braille for a long time, it was not until about five years ago that I started to read Braille full-time. Until then, I would read Braille whenever I was away from the desk, but on the computer I read very large print.
While it is normal for one’s tastes to evolve over time, I have noticed that some poets read to me very differently now in Braille as compared to before in print, when I read them faster. Quite a number of old favorites fall apart badly under the slower, closer scrutiny of my fingers. Some I wasn’t so fond of are now wonderfully rehabilitated. A few remain essentially the same to me. And this has affected my own poems. For example, my earlier work seem to have pretty short lines and stanzas of the same number of lines, but now I seem to be writing more and more stanzaless poems with lines that are a bit longer.
But I can assure you that reading in Braille is a blessing. Slow reading means more is absorbed and retained. That’s as far as my reading is concerned, though. Whether this is good for my poems, only time will tell.