“We Are We:” The Deaf Experience in Literature
An Interview with John Lee Clark: Poet and Publisher
Length of Interview: 23:49
Note: This is a summary of the signed commentary made during this interview and is not a verbatim translation. Text summaries by Karen Christie and Patti Durr.
John Lee Clark: One’s life experiences are apparent in most literary works. My poems obviously reflect the Deaf experience in their use of symbols, themes, and in important ways that the poems are structured. This doesn’t mean, however, that I consciously and intentionally strive to place each of these elements in my poems. They are simply an integral part of me, and my life experiences. These symbols exist inside me and I’m not really aware of them. When I create poetry, they just flow out onto the page, right there.
Intertitle: “We Are We:” The Deaf Experience in Literature
Intertitle: An Interview with John Lee Clark: Poet and Publisher
John Lee Clark: I was born Deaf into a Deaf family, and later in life became Deaf-Blind. Growing up, I was immersed in Deaf culture. Deaf-Blind culture did not become part of my life until much later.
I was raised with a lot of exposure to ASL literature: ASL poetry, ASL storytelling, and my family’s own ABC stories. I had a solid background in ASL literature from the time I was born until I was about 12 years old.
Most of the stories told by my parents and their friends tended to have as one of their purposes the sharing of information. There was a wealth of information to glean from their stories. For me, watching the adults tell stories was a way of learning about the world, about life, and about relationships.
Thus, the ASL literature I was exposed to was my parents’ stories and the stories of Deaf friends. I also watched videotapes and was familiar with many filmed ASL stories and performances. Watching them was a very enjoyable experience. Sign Media Inc [SMI] had a set of videos of well-known Deaf performers who they had brought to their studio to film. Each video was a two-hour performance of creative stories, comedy, or real life stories. Mary Beth Miller was one of the performers who really amazed me. She is truly a FUNNY woman. I would laugh and laugh watching her again and again.
[Clip: Sign Media, Inc. Presents SMI Live!!
Starring Mary Beth Miller
Clip shows an excerpt of Mary Beth Miller’s performance sometimes referred to as “Fighting Hands.”]
Mary Beth’s performance was truly clever and entertaining. One thing that impressed me was how she modified and exaggerated experiences, which were similar to my own. I thought that it was wonderful how she managed to do that.
During my years at the Deaf school, many well-known Deaf people were invited to come and give presentations to the students. These were people like Frank Turk [namesign FT on chest], Bernard Bragg, and others. I was always fascinated to hear their stories and meet them. Those were especially enjoyable times.
Intertitle: Diving into English Literature
Growing up, I didn’t have any interest or motivation related to reading and writing English until I was maybe 12 or 13 years old. That meant from the time I was born until age 13, the only literature I had access to was ASL literature.
Intertitle: Poster with photo image of John Lee Clark
For All the Wrong Reasons
Presenter: John Lee Clark
“One Deaf-Blind Man’s Journey From ASL to English Literacy”
[Clip excerpt from John Lee Clark’s Presentation at NTID. April, 2009]
One lazy summer, I was bored and felt like I didn’t have anything to do. Up until then, I had read comics and books with lots of pictures, but that summer I took it upon myself to try and read a book – a REAL book, mind you, not a book with lots of pictures. You have to understand that as I was growing up, I played a lot of sports, so I had this real jock mindset. That meant, I thought being bigger was better. Thus, I thought a big muscular physique was preferable to a thin slight one. From a jock’s perspective, the key word is BIG. Thus, I thought all the connotations that the concept ‘big’ carried with it must all be good. Similarly, all the connotations of small had to be bad. Anyway, that summer I rode my bike to the store near my home, and began to look for a BIG book since I was still thinking like a jock [laughter from the audience]. I scanned the shelves looking for a thick book. I wanted a book with real heft, one that had some weight. I would choose one from the shelf and then compare it, measuring its thickness against others until I was satisfied that I had THE absolutely biggest book in the entire store. After purchasing it, I rode my bike home, sat down, opened the cover, and fell completely into the story. The title of that book was The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. It was a completely engrossing read. Of course, I didn’t understand everything I read, but I kept on reading. Every once in awhile I would stop and ask my mom what a particular word meant, and she would explain it to me. Because I was very lonely at that particular time, books became my best friends. The book The Pillars of the Earth had the added attraction of having some information in the story about sex and this was during the time I was going through puberty and had a natural curiosity about sex. The story itself took place long ago at a castle where there were guys riding around on horses and sword fights. After that, I was completely hooked on reading. I went on to buy many books and became an avid bookworm.
[End of presentation. Return to sit-down interview]
One thing that was lacking in my educational experience was English literature – particularly English literature by Deaf people. During high school, I came upon short selections of literature here and there, and I remember reading a few poems in Jack Gannon’s book, Deaf Heritage. But that was pretty much it. My parents subscribed to “Deaf Life” Magazine and once in a while poems appeared in that publication, but there was not a lot of literary works published by Deaf people.
One of the first writings I read that really impacted me was by David Armstrong who published an article in the “Deaf American Monograph.” That article was written in complete ASL gloss, and I felt it was a fascinating piece of writing. For the first time, I began to imagine experimenting with how to put ASL on paper, or how to represent ASL in writing. David Armstrong’s article was one of the first readings I can recall as stimulating and fascinating.
Excerpt: “A S L Write Right Rite Wright?”
By David A. Anthony
From: Deaf American Monograph, 1995
© National Association of the Deaf
School teacher always
me English wrong wrong wrong;
correct correct correct
pencil red, my white paper
same blood mess…
People you all read my ASL write,
laugh, laugh, laugh HA HA HA.
Right me talk? Think funny?
There were newspapers like The Silent News that I had access to, and again an occasional poem by a Deaf writer could be found in any one of these Deaf publications, but I wasn’t really exposed to English novels or stories about the Deaf experience growing up.
Intertitle: Behind the Publisher:
Reviving the Deaf Writing Community
After I graduated from High School, I went to Gallaudet University with the idea of becoming a writer. At that time, I was fascinated with the art of writing. I found a few like-minded Deaf folks who also considered themselves writers. We were all struggling with the predicament of where we could submit our writing for publication. We could send it to “Deaf Life” Magazine, but there was an extremely limited venue for publishing Deaf writers.
Because of this, I decided that I would embark on the establishment of my own literary journal where Deaf writers could submit and publish their work and I could distribute it. That is what happened after I left Gallaudet and got married. Together my wife and I founded “The Tactile Mind,” a literary magazine.
Two images covers from “The Tactile Mind
Literary Magazine of the Signing Community”
The “Tactile Mind” was published every three months and our journal was about 100 pages. When we started up the journal, I learned that it was hard to find Deaf writers willing to submit work. I talked with others and asked them if they knew anyone who was a Deaf writer, and via this type of grapevine I would discover Deaf writers and encourage them to submit.
Often after tracking down writers, they would say, “I’m not really a writer, I just like to write for my own pleasure and then put it away in a drawer.” I would try to encourage them to share their works with me, and of course some would reply “Nah, never mind. Forget about it.” In order to convince them to send me their work, I would need to kind of handle them with kid gloves and gently convince them. After reading their writing, I would often tell them, “Wow, this is really good!” They might respond, ” Really? Do you really think so?” Obviously, many Deaf writers expressed doubt in their abilities because they had never shared their writings, or had any constructive feedback. When I would tell them that I wanted to publish their writing, their response again would be along the lines of, “Well, I don’t know. It might be kind of embarrassing to have it published.” Thus, I learned through this process that there are Deaf writers who truly enjoy writing, but don’t really think of themselves as writers.
Without this strong identity as a writer, it is hard to assertively market your work and send it out for publication. In addition, there wasn’t any network or support for Deaf writers to access information about how to get published and advance their writing careers. There was nothing at all.
Although many of these Deaf writers were members of the Deaf community, they had been writing in isolation from one another. They were not aware of one another. In the past, there was a stronger network in the Deaf writing community likely because of the Little Paper Family [LPF] network. At one time, each Deaf school throughout the country had their own small presses and published newspapers or magazines that were shared within the national Deaf community. Deaf people who wrote subscribed to these “Little Papers.” This publishing tradition began to die out in the 1960s or so when community members seemed to show less enthusiasm for reading, and as a result people became less and less aware of which writers were prolific. In this way, the Deaf literary community seemed to be slowly dismantled, and died out.
To revitalize the community, “The Tactile Mind” stepped in and put Deaf writers into contact with other writers. They began reading each other’s works again. This challenged writers to become more critical readers and promoted appreciation of the literary works of others. Another valuable purpose of “The Tactile Mind” was to stimulate Deaf people to be writers.
Editing the Deaf American Poetry Anthology
Image: Cover of the book, The Deaf American Anthology
Edited by John Lee Clark
It is important to read the literary works by Deaf people from long ago so that young Deaf people are aware of our past and what has already been written. By understanding our literary traditions, we are able to move on and explore new realms. Without this knowledge, Deaf people write in isolation, and each need to begin in the same place and address the same issues. If we know what has been written, as a community we can progress in our literary traditions. Similarly, if we can look back at protests that have been fought by our people, we don’t need to fight them all over again, and can focus our energies in a more effective manner.
I immersed myself in researching the history of American Deaf poetry, while also keeping in my sights Deaf history in America; that is, changes in our educational systems, community developments, political movements and so on. For over six years, I was engrossed in this research, which included over 700 books. A surprising number of these 700 books included poetic works. For me, it was fantastic to uncover so many Deaf poets.
It seems like Deaf people were more successful in creating literature before the advent of oralism. One impact of oralism was to throw the Deaf school system into disarray. Before this time, I was able to find many wonderful Deaf writers.
I did come across several oral Deaf writers, but I didn’t find any of their works worth including in the anthology. I think one of the reasons for this was due to the fact that oral Deaf writers are very similar to hearing writers. When comparing them to Hearing writers, there are, of course many more Hearing writers who are better. Oral Deaf poets don’t stand a chance when their work is held up against writers such as Robert Frost, Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson. During the times of each of these famous poets, there were oral Deaf writers, but they could not reach the same levels of literary merit. Those oral Deaf poets created works on topics such as birds singing, which attempted to replicate the same rhythm and musicality as Hearing writers. As a result, they really DIDN’T add anything new to the cannon.
For sure, there are Deaf signing writers who also write about the music of birds singing or whatever, but there are those who write specifically about the Deaf experience, such as Deaf schools, Deaf political issues and how they view the world. Those are the kind of works that are able to draw attention and offer something different from Hearing poets. These are the poetic works that I felt were important to include in the anthology.
As I read through the poems of Deaf writers, I felt it was important to find those that were authentic to the Deaf experience and that were about an individual Deaf person’s truth. This doesn’t mean that the poem needed to overtly mention Deaf all over the page. To the reader, it should be inherently obvious that a Deaf person wrote this work. Deaf readers should be able to connect with that poem on a personal level. I do not believe a Deaf writer should try to “fake writing like a hearing person.” As I researched for this anthology, I was interested in the poetry, which expressed the emotional experiences of Deaf individuals.
Intertitle: John Lee Clark, Poet
“Suddenly Slow” Works
Image of book cover of Suddenly Slow
Poems by John Lee Clark
In literary works, one’s experience certainly comes through. My poems obviously show the Deaf experience as including symbols, themes, and important ways that the works are structured. However, this doesn’t mean that I consciously and intentionally strive to ensure that each of these elements is inserted into the work. It is just part of me and my life experiences, I have these symbols inside me and I’m not really aware of them. When I create poetry, it just flows out and manifests itself right there on the page.
Comments & Excerpts:
“The Only Way Signing Can Kill Us”
by John Lee Clark
The Only Way Signing Can
Would be if the world took
a fancy to the way
certain signs made images
and the world would try
to have things be more
like pictures in the air…
would only have two walls.
It might as well be,
since all trees would
have five leafless branches
that never bore fruit…
I have become impatient with the ignorance of Hearing people who think that sign language is “pictures in the air.” That way of thinking is founded on the belief that ASL is not really a language. The poem, “The Only Way Signing Can Kill Us,” is an ironic response to that. If it is true that sign is only pictures in the air, then I decided to take that comment literally in creating the poem. That means you have to imagine each sign as a purely true visual representation. For example, if we are signing about a house, then we need to think of a house as only having a roof and two walls, just like the sign is made. Thus, you need to imagine all houses built with just two walls, a roof, and blank space between the two walls [transposed on the clip: …Our house…would only have two walls”]. Clearly the wind would blow through this house and it wouldn’t be very good protection from the cold. It is very sarcastic in that it makes fun of the stupidity of taking iconic signs literally.
Comments & Excerpts:
“The Death of Water”
by John Lee Clark
I wrote “The Death of Water” after reading one quote by Helen Keller that really disgusted and annoyed me. She said, “I shall never forget the surprise and delight I felt when I uttered my first connected sentence, ‘It is warm.'” Those were the first three words she spoke. This, she said opened up her world, “…came out of bondage and was reaching through those broken symbols of speech to all knowledge and all faith.” The over romanticizing of the power of speech is truly repulsive to me.
The Death of Water
I shall never forget the surprise and delight I felt when I uttered my first connected sentence, ‘It is warm….’ My soul, conscious of new strength, came out of bondage, and was reaching through those broken symbols of speech to all knowledge and all faith.
What if, I wonder as I drown
In all the praise she drank
On our behalf, what if
Surfaced water had died away—
The last drops joining
mist echoing less and less
separably, becoming one howl
of a hand tracing all about
for an improved history—
before she first drank w-a-t-e-r
(all knowledge and all faith)
only to sign it away, washing
her hands of it by dipping
her tongue in the inkwell
of inappropriate splendor
and of lying?
Helen Keller had language before she spoke that infamous sentence, “It is warm.” She wrote, fingerspelled, and used home-signs prior to this. It was later that she practiced speaking. Clearly, the idea of speech opening up the world to her via language was a huge fallacy, which I don’t appreciate at all.
Members of the culturally Deaf-Blind community certainly loathe Helen Keller and do not at all identify with her. This is not based on the fact that she was an ‘oral’ person, but because of her attitudes and values. At that time, members of the dominant culture were amazed that it was possible a Deaf-Blind person could graduate from college. They made such a big deal about this, and glorified her. Part of the problem was that Helen Keller acknowledged and accepted this adulation. This over praise of Helen Keller is a strong indication of the extremely low expectations concerning what Deaf-Blind folks could accomplish. Thus, by embracing their exaggerated reverence and becoming a ‘mouthpiece,’ she affirmed and reinforced those low expectations.
The other dangerous misconception that the phenomenon of Helen Keller communicates is that unless a Deaf-Blind person is a true genius like her, they will never accomplish anything. Yet, everyday Deaf-Blind people are successful and independent. Members of the Deaf-Blind community become indignant with the world view that constantly associates being Deaf-Blind only with Helen Keller. This extremely limited view is exasperating to Deaf-Blind folks who would love to divorce themselves from Helen Keller. The diversity of individuals that make up the Deaf-Blind community needs to be acknowledged, as well as the fact that we have jobs, families and lead regular lives like everyone else.
Comments & Excerpts “Long Goodbyes” by John Lee Clark
When I write poetry, I can create a good English poem, but to translate it into ASL would be a real challenge. Often, I think it would be better to call upon someone else; someone who is skilled in translation, ASL poetry and English poetry, to translate my poems into ASL. Once in awhile, there are English poems that just seem like they would allow for more opportunities to creatively play with ASL, and thereby add a bit more elaboration of the English poem. For example, the poem “Long Goodbyes” expands on the concept of time, which could be expressed with the circular movement of ASL signs which represent the signs for family; for a group of people who feel connected, for sitting around a circular table, for sharing with each other feelings/stories, and passing things around a table. These signs echo the movement of hands around the face of a clock. I like that this poem, “Long Goodbyes,” as it just happens to be one of those poems that appears to lend itself to being creatively translated into ASL.
I miss all of the long goodbyes
of my parents’ guests
taking their leave by not leaving
when it was time to go. Someone would sign
Better go home we but hours pass
around our round table—
the bowls of our hands offering
confession after confession
assuring us that we are we—
The line, “assuring us that we are we—” is meant to say because all of us are Deaf and come together in fellowship, we automatically reinforce our identity as a people. If I am just one Deaf person among a mass of Hearing people, my identity is a bit different than when I am among other Deaf people. When we are among other Deaf people – that is when we have the strongest sense of who we are as human beings.
Now that I am grown
and have my own family, do come
for a visit but do not leave
when it is time to go. Sign, do sign
Better go home we for our hands
will make time go suddenly slow.
It is important to keep in mind that writings by a Deaf person should be an authentic expression of their experience. That doesn’t mean every other word on the page needs to be ‘Deaf.’ Because of the writer’s way of being in the world and experiencing the world, being Deaf should be reflected in her/his writing. Thus, one should be able to clearly sense a writer is Deaf without obvious references. In addition to being able to use language creatively, a writer needs a story or a message to communicate that can be something ANYONE can understand and relate to. Thus, Deaf people need to tell stories about the Deaf experience in order for them to become an integral part of the vast number of stories of the human experience.
In June 2009, John Lee and Adrean Clark launched ClercScar books