Interview with John Lee Clark

(Poet John Lee Clark is the editor of Deaf American Poetry and the author of Suddenly Slow.)

JLC: I've never been afraid of biting the bullet, much less biting the air ahead of the bullet. So allow me to start by offering you a glimpse of my office. It is in one corner of the bedroom my wife and I share. My desk is a wooden board with four metal cylinders supporting it. On the center sits my Dell laptop. It, in turn, sits atop my Braille display, a Tieman Voyager 44. To the left is a scanner. I use it to turn books into text files I can then read on the laptop or transfer to my Braille Wave, which I use for reading when I'm away from my office. To the right is a LaserJet printer covered in dust. The last time I used it was three, four months ago. On the floor is a brown paper bag. Inside are library books, which I return after scanning them.

Aside from my chair, that's it. Pretty Spartan, isn't it? I imagine my chair makes it seem more so, because it has no back. I've been meaning to buy a new one with a back, but other things keep on snatching away the money. Although we are not starving, this does help me appreciate what a deaf-blind poet, Howard L. Terry, once wrote: "A poet is a thing that starves."

WG: Was it the Spartan nature of living as a poet that led you into editing Deaf American Poetry?

It is true that most all poets have to have a job other than being a poet. Mine is as an independent contractor who offers copy and content editing services. My clients include writers, scholars, and publishers. That's how I make my sporadic living.

As for assembling Deaf American Poetry, that was a personal project. I actually set out looking for materials by deaf-blind writers. But I kept coming across Deaf poets in my research. I soon realized that there needed to be another anthology, the materials were so rich. Although there were already whole shelves full of Deaf studies titles, an anthology of Deaf poetry was absent. So I added this project to my main one. I finished it first, which makes sense when you consider that I focused on American Deaf poets only, whereas my deaf-blind project is international in scope, requiring translations from many languages. It's a far more monumental work. I am happy to report that it's almost finished. It includes prose as well as poetry: memoirs, essays, polemics, letters, and selections from diaries. It begins with poems from a 1788 collection. I'm very excited, as you can imagine.

WG: Is there anything that particularly surprises you about the material you are finding in your work on deaf-blind authors? Who are some of the most important deaf-blind poets?

JLC: I am more pleased than surprised. This is because I was given advance notice on how much material there is. In 1972, Terry Batson and Eugene Bergman put together a book called The Deaf Experience: An Anthology of Literature by and about the Deaf. They enlisted the help of Gallaudet's librarian in compiling a comprehensive bibliography. In the preface to this list it was noted that deaf-blind authors have written so many books that they could not be listed. While this did make it harder for me to launch my research--that book, along with Jack Gannon's 1980 book Deaf Heritage, is the place to start for almost any research project related to the literature of the Deaf community--I have come to understand why it was necessary to exclude deaf-blind authors. In spite of the deaf-blind population being a fraction of the deaf population, deaf-blind writers have written just as many books as Deaf authors have, if not more.

One of the big questions my research is seeking to answer is: Why have so many deaf-blind people turned to writing? One answer is that writing is a way to stave off isolation. Prisoners, for example, do regularly find solace and a kind of freedom in writing. Though we did not choose to be isolated, and it is wrong for society to make itself inaccessible to us, it is possible to empower oneself in this situation anyway. As the hearing-sighted Canadian poet A. F. Mortiz puts it, "When we turn isolation into solitude by being creative and seeking ways to make this the basis of social life, we are poets."

The distinction between isolation and solitude is an important one. Isolation is imposed, whereas solitude is a choice. Making the best of isolation is a logical human response to it. For the deaf-blind community, writing offered a particularly satisfying way to not only turn isolation into solitiude but also create a social, political life by having their writings communicate with the world. And to each other. Before deaf-blind people began to get together locally in the Twenties and for national conventions in the late Sixties, there already existed a community, a virtual one, through many publications and correspondence clubs. Almost every aspect of social life was conducted through writing, including meeting others, becoming friends, dating, feuding, rooting for sports teams, celebrations of birthdays and milestones, weddings, funerals, running for office or editorships, and church services. If you saw a film montage showing all of those people sitting at their desks tapping away on their Braillers, you would have no idea that this one is a sportscaster responsible for keeping the deaf-blind community posted on box scores, that another is a minister who writes homilies, that a man in England and a woman in Utah are having a courtship and excitedly planning their first meeting in person after "dating" for two years. And you know what? This virtual community still exists, more than one hundred years old, only it has moved to email discussion lists. There is a list for every imaginable topic in the deaf-blind community. Writing remains the community's best way to empower itself and maintain a social life.

It's no wonder, then, that I have plenty of material to work with! The best writing will blow your mind away. I promise you that.

Interestingly, the first two Americans--Laura Bridgman and James Morrison Heady--are only the fifth and sixth in the book, preceded by three Europeans and one writer from Japan. Heady made quite a name for himself and is still a local historical fiture of note in Louisville, Kentucky. But the four most successful deaf-blind poets, in terms of books published and other publication credits and awards, would be Evelyn M. Watson, a close contemporary of Helen Keller's; R. C. Scriven, who wrote many verse plays for BBC Radio 4 in the Sixties and Seventies; Robert J. Smithdas, the first deaf-blind person to earn a master's degree; and the eccentric, self-proclaimed "erotic mystic" poet from Cornwall, Jack Clemo. Right now, that's the Mount Rushmore of deaf-blind poetry.

From the very beginning, deaf-blind writers have coped with their condition in empowering ways. Getting to know them helped me respect even more the human spirit, its natural drive to secure as much power as possible, to achieve the highest possible standard of living. I've read some academic and other critical work on disability literature, and many seem to think that empowerment happened suddenly, with this or that movement. But what my research has shown me is that it is a much more gradual, steady process. I suppose disability literature is like sex. A new generation thinks it invented sex. But if that was true, then how on earth did that new generation come to be? No matter how ignorant we may be of our predecessors' literary work, we have much to owe them for what we are writing now. It is good if we have direct access to older works, but this directness is not a requisite for their influence on us today. The influence is still there. Nothing we do is entirely new.

WG: It sounds as though, despite it being a look at the work of deaf-blind poets across the globe, you are also going to take an historical approach, much as you did in Deaf American Poetry. I'm wondering if, in looking at non-American poets, you find that they have a different perspective or come with a different approach. I am thinking, for example, of deaf Nigerian poet Osumon Sylvester who makes a great deal in his poetry of the way that the church in Nigeria held him up as an example of God's punishment and how he had to deal with the ethical stigma attached to being deaf. Do you find a different these kind of difference in deaf-blind writers from other cultures.

JLCP: Deaf-blind writings from different cultures are different only to a limited, superficial degree. The example you cited--a disabled person being set aside or rejected because he is seen as a manifestation of evil--has its parallels in other cultures, including our own society in America. It just has a different shape, and the periods of time may vary from one culture to another for when there is more or less tolerance, more or less education, increased or reduced access and services. In spite of larger social forces, however, deaf-blind people are remarkably consistent in moving away from believing that there's something wrong with them toward believing that their limitations are imposed by their societies. Some writers would, of course, internalize the lie of there being something wrong with them, internalize this so deeply that they believe in it their entire lives. But most come to the realization that there's really nothing wrong with them and they begin to assert themselves as human beings. This dawning has come to writers from all points in time since the first writer, from all countries, no matter what cultural trappings there may be. In Japan, for example, women put a premium on their ability to cook for the family. In America, driving a car is a huge symbol of independence. When someone becomes deaf or blind or both at the same time, it seems devastating because at first they do not know how they can still cook and drive a car. But if they have the normal human resourcefulness, in time they will realize that they still can cook, or travel, or do anything. How well they do it or not, and in what ways, would not be connected with their deaf-blindness but with what resources they have, what they need that society may or may not provide or allow. But always, always, there is this same drive, going in the same direction. It's the same direction mankind has taken since Adam and Eve put on their first clothes.

Aesthetics: The poems themselves come in all styles. Some formal, some free. Some written, some signed. The interesting things are in the content of the poems. Themes that have emerged are explorations of the tactile-kinesthetic world we live in, orientation and mobility, communication, the various forms of oppression and manipulation we experience, childhood memories of sounds and sights if the poet became deaf and blind later in life, and, what strikes me as the most important one, relationships with others, especially significant others. In many countries, deaf-blind people do not find it easy to get into intimate relationships that result in marriage or partnership. While there may be no laws against them doing so, their families may be against the idea. If there are limited services, poor or no transportation, they are unfortunately dependent on their families, and so their families wield great power. But then again, in those same countries, families wield a great deal of power over everyone and all aspects of life. Still, finding companionship is one of the most vital, enduring human needs. The poems that deal with this, then, are usually the most passionate.

Back to the matter of the styles used in the poems, it is possible that deaf-blindness plays a role in how some of the poems are written. Unfortunately, I can't ask most of the poets in the book about this. I can only speak for myself. I wrote most of the poems in my chapbook, Suddenly Slow, using large print. I've been reading Braille since age seven, but it wasn't until I was twenty-six that I was able to get my first Braille display for my computer. I had long wanted it, but the state wouldn't provide me with one, saying I had enough sight to read large print. Translation: "The Braille display is expensive, so we want you to use large print for as long as you can possibly bear it." As a starving poet, I couldn't just go and buy one myself. So I was forced to use large print. Until I finally got my Braille display, I didn't know how much difference reading and writing methods made on the shape and style of my poems. In Braille, my poems have grown shorter and shorter. The lines are somewhat longer and I no longer use stanzas at all. Part of this may be due to the natural development of my work, but I am convinced the switch to Braille played a big role.

WG: How do you think that being deaf and blind has affected your development as a poet? I'm thinking about Dan Simpson's essay "Line Breaks the Way I See Them" in which he describes how he was asked by the poet Molly Peacock why as a blind poet he was worried about visual line breaks in his poems. Does being blind affect the kind of poetry you write or the way you write it?

JLC: From my birth, it was ordained that I would approach writing a bit differently. I was born deaf to an all-deaf family. My native language is ASL. I did not begin to read until I was twelve years old. Until then, I always got poor grades in school. You probably know how it is in any branch of special education: They move you up the grade levels no matter what. I have old documents here stating that, in sixth grade, my English literacy was at the first grade level.

When I did start reading, though, it was a natural process picking up English. Unlike many deaf students who come from hearing families and who did not have ANY language until they went to school, I was fluent in a language. So it was only a matter of learning a second language.

In poetry, the first thing that is different for me is that I do not recognize rhymes or syllables. They don't exist to me. But one shouldn't assume that this means I wouldn't enjoy reading formal poetry. I have many favorites in traditional verse. I think that poems are often better when they are wrestled into place within a form--the very process of working and re-working the poems makes them stronger.

I do recognize line breaks. For me, they are about pausing and also suspending meaning. Take what James Wright wrote on a notepad to Donald Hall when Hall was visiting him in the hospital. Wright had throat cancer and could no longer speak, so he was writing notes like a deaf man. "Don, I'm dying," Wright wrote on one line, pausing before moving his pen to the next line, "for ice cream." I love it when poets use line breaks in this way, shifting the meaning, giving things double meanings.

Another thing that I recognize is repletion. When a poet repeats the same words in a poem, it does have what I think is a musical kind of effect on me.

When I wrote in large print, I sought out impromptu forms. Most often it would be using stanzas with the same number of lines. It's not a heavy, line-by-line scheme, but it would still require some struggle. It would require me to re-think all sorts of things in different drafts before a poem comes to rest. Some poems would yield themselves better to two-line stanzas than to four-line stanzas. I would need to make sure each stanza made some sense as an unit unto itself, that each would help unfold the poem in meaningful ways.

But when I started writing in Braille, stanzas no longer made much sense. Why? Because the Braille display shows only one line at a time. Sighted people can look at a page and know how long a poem is, that there's another stanza coming up. But in Braille, I have no way of knowing if there is more. So each blank line at the end of a stanza could be, possibly, the end of the poem. I do go on to the next line to find out if there's more. Often I can tell that a poem is not finished, and I'd expect there to be more. Sometimes I'd think a poem is finished, and I'd think, Wow, what a great poem! Wait a minute! There's more. In such cases, I'd often be disappointed by what follows. One poet who does this to me more than any other is Billy Collins. I love his work, but many of his poems are one or two stanzas too long. I think he knows it. He told an interviewer that his wife helps him by telling him where a poem should stop, because he can run away with a poem.

It is logical, then, that I would abandon stanzas and also try not to go on too long in my poems. While I am not particularly interested in line length, I do keep all of my lines within forty-four Braille characters. This is the length of my Braille display. When reading, I hate it when another poet's poem has lines going over this limit, requiring me to move to the "next" line which would only have a few words before the end of that line. This breaks up the experience of that line.

One last thing about Braille: It has many contractions, such as "rcv" being short for "receive" or a single character, "k," when standing alone, meaning "knowledge." This does influence certain word choices I make. Misreading print or typos have produced some famous poems, and my misreading or typos in Braille have given me happy accidents, too. For example, "quick" is "qk" in contracted Braille. The character "Q" is one dot shy of the full cell of six dots. The full cell itself is short for "for" and consequently the word "quick" can feel like "fork." When I misread "quick-tempered" for a split second, I thought it was "fork-tempered." This, in turn, made me think of my mother. She has this way of being kind and mean at the same time, or lofty and base at the same time. Like being two people at once, having two heads, as if her personality is "forked." Soon I had a poem about her that used "fork-tempered"!

WG: Linda Pastan in a talk she gave at the last Dodge Poetry Festival made a point similar to the one you did about Billy Collins, saying that one common fault of poets is the tendency to continue a poem past the point when it should have stopped. How do you recognize when a poem you are writing has gone on too long? Can you lead us through an example of how you have had to revise a poem by making it shorter?

JLC: Yes, it's interesting that Linda Pastan has said a similar thing. I don't know what was said, but it might be worth nothing that I don't think Billy Collins goes THAT long. Collins wouldn't be Collins if he practiced Pastan's rigor or brevity. Collins is a talker; his poems HAVE to do some talking. Cutting out too much of the talk would necessitate massive changes in his work. He'd end up like the hundreds of other poets who have cute ideas but misplace them in poems coiled too thight. Charm, after all, needs a dollop of excess. Poets like Pastan or me are not talkers and should not aim for that kind of charm. We wouldn't do it right. We have to do what we can do right.

As for poems of mine that were short and needed to be expanded, you've asked the question wrong. There was only one poem that was too short. All of the others have been too long and required cutting.

Because of my writing process, it would be difficult to take you through a traditional play-by-play account of a poem's creation. You understand, I do most of the writing in my head. And often it wouldn't be in words but in the form of ideas. Those ideas have individual presences in my mental environment, like how people and objects exist in my physical one. An idea may have some words, some memories, and some of them are like experiences, as if I am living it, interacting with it.

But I will try to take you inside a poem called "Thanksgiving." Not one of my best poems, but it is probably the clearest example. Now, my first idea was to give the reader a taste of my kind of music. Most people think that I am missing out on something because I do not listen to music. The reality is that our world is full of phenomena, billions of stimuli swirling around us. It's only natural that we would recognize all sorts of patterns in this great swirl. In fact, recognizing patterns is precisely how we become aware of anything in the first place. Equally natural is that certain patterns would please us more than others.

One thing that pleases me very much--don't laugh, or, better, go ahead and laugh and get it over with--is urinating into bottles. I discovered this pleasure on the road, of course. The roar of crashing waters against your palms, but without your hands getting wet at all. The heat of it, too, is sublime, not to mention the pleasure of urinating itself. Different bottles are like different concert halls where the music would echo off the walls in different ways.

This seemed like a good idea for a poem. This idea included many things, such as phrases like "my kind of music" and saying something like "If you don't believe me, I'll sing / on you." That is, I would be putting people into my shoes by urninating on them--and in my mind, I became a reader, for some reason lying on the floor, and I experienced John Lee Clark, all six feet of him, towering over me, peeing on me. Weird, huh? You may be disappointed to read the poem after reading all of the above interesting things, but it reads:


Traveling in the dark, we pulled over for me
to sing into a bottle. Maple leaves
are burning somewhere in the distance. It fills
with warmth and the heft of my relief.

Yes, that's the whole of it. How did a cool idea for a naughty, more polemical poem become this whisper? I had every intention of going on to talk about "my kind of music" and leading things up to where I challenge the reader to believe me or else be doused in my kind of music. But I couldn't. I am not a talker like Billy Collins. In my hands, such a poem would be too cute, didactic, cheap. When I wrote the word "relief" I knew it had to stop there.

I like this poem, and I think it carries a lot of possibilities within its small space. It has many references to things that are in my world. "Thanksgiving": I love food, and when I eat I suppose I absorb more of the experience of gestation than do some people, as my eyes and ears are in my mouth. And it also means giving of thanks, and one of the things I am thankful for is relief. Then there's the nod to William Stafford's most famous poem, though he uses "through" whereas I use "in." I think "we pull over for me" is neat. It's not for me alone that we better pull over--my relief will be most acute to me, but others in the car would also be relieved. To not pull over would not only distress me; the tension would spread to everyone else. Then I didn't quite want the reader to be absolutely sure of what I am doing with the bottle. The reader would have an idea, but I don't want the reader to put down her cup on the table yet. Instead of going directly to what happens to the bottle, I interrupt this logical step by introducing another source of pleasure, that scent of burning leaves in late fall. I suppose you could say that this is another instrument, and the two instruments join together in the end.

That's my reading, anyway. I did not think of any of this in advance of writing the poem. I am sure most readers will not think much about the poem. They'll just read, and it'll just be an experience. It doesn't matter what experience it is. Any would be valid. A yawn of boredom is commentary as important as a twenty-page analysis.

WG: I want to pick up on your statement that any experience that a reader had of your poem would be valid. Of course, in a certain tautological sense that is true, but I wonder if you also feel that any interpretations of that poem (or any of your poems) is equally valid. I have a hard time believing that even post-structuralists really believe that, but as an author I would think - assuming writing is more than therapy to you - you have certain expectations about the kind of response a poem might provoke and that given those responses you are going to feel that your poem is more or less successful. My question, I guess, is, as an artist, what kind of expectations do you have of your poems and how do you judge whether or not you have succeeded.

JLC: I believe that, as Sam Walton liked to say, the customer is always right. The reader is always right. When a reader dismisses me or any other poet after reading two or three words, she is right. Even if she dismisses a poem before reading it, she's right. Of course, I would like her to like my work, but I cannot expect that. After all, I can't stand most of the poetry I read.

The best I can do is to be aware of the great investment the reader is making when she picks up a poem of mine and deigns to read the title and the first few words. I try to make these few words pay. The first two lines should set up the poem or at least say something interesting. It is a mistake to open with a long series of adjectives or mere description. I also try to keep in mind the value each word carries. I think that verbs carry the most value and that adverbs carry the least. How apt it is that adverbs is called that--the negative opposite of verbs. Adverbs are to be avoided at almost any cost.

I hope this care on my part helps me succeed more often at returning the reader's investment. But the bottom line remains the same: I cannot expect anything. I have no right to. When I read, the only expectations that matter are my own. If any writer dares to argue with me outside of the text, I would be turned off. It is a blessing that the writer, as a physical person, doesn't exist when you read her work. I mean, the writer isn't there breathing down your neck, is she? If she was, I am betting my last Helen Keller quarter that you would not like it at all. The optimum reading experience is when you are free to throw the book away after the first sentence, or even before then. Not to say that you would, but if that freedom is there, you are also free to enjoy it, if it is worthy of your attention. This is why school isn't the place to cultivate readers. Students are not at full liberty. Only when it is OK that they don't read a single word do we have a proper reading environment.

WG: So you are saying that as a writer, you have absolutely no expectations at all of your poems? Given all of the work you put into a poem, that seems a little strange.

JLC: Yes, that's right. I have no expectations for my readers. I've explained that I do have expectations for myself when writing--trying to make the first few words do their job, use words with carrying power instead of words that detract from the power of the poem. But no matter how much work I put into a poem, no reader is under any obligation to even glance at it.

If someone likes Apple better than Microsoft, that's the end of the matter. Microsoft can run around crying, "But we spent $6 billion in research and development on this! Don't you know you can have more games with us than with them?" But that wouldn't change anything. If a movie is a flop at the box office, that's that. How many years the studio put into the movie doesn't change a single thing. The product failed, period.

Things are more complicated than that, of course. Readers have different tastes, for example. Poets have different styles, things they can do well and things they cannot do well. Still, the fact is that when a poem is written, it is a product and it is on its own. Marketing can help bring people to it, but whether they stay to read or not still depends on the text. There are expectations, as certain elements can buy more of the reader's attention. One such case is Sylvia Plath. Her tragic story enhances her following. If she had lived to a good old age, she would still have been a great poet, but she would not have the same following.

Another element that can buy more of some readers' interest or patience is the Helen Keller Card. The poet is a little boy dying of cancer, for example. Even if his poems are crap, they can get a lot of attention. As a deaf-blind poet, I am aware that some readers come to my work for "wrong" reasons. Instead of fighting against this, I work with it in the hope that they will soon have better reasons to like my work and to recommend it. Don't get me wrong. It is not all right to exploit a poet's disability for the sake of marketing alone. But the Helen Keller Card can be and should be used as part of a larger marketing strategy, the most important part of which should be the quality of the poet's work.

When I produce a poem I think is very good, I do have faith in it. Take "My Understanding One Day of Foxgloves." After writing it, I thought it was one of my best poems. Excited, I sent it to a dozen magazines. All rejected it. They were mid-level venues. I then send it to places down the food chain. More rejections. On a lark, I decided to send it to the top, to POETRY magazine. Well, what do you know--they accepted it. I was tempted to go to all those places that rejected it and tell them how stupid they were. "Look, look, POETRY--yes, THE magazine--accepted it!"

Since that time, however, I have come to appreciate that all of those rejections were just as valid as the acceptance. In fact, I now agree with what one editor said about my poem when he rejected it. They were not stupid to reject it. They were just doing their job. And I was just doing my job, having faith in my work and giving them the chances they need. Poets are often surprised by what their readers love the most. All I can do is write, try my best, and send my poems off to be on their own.

WG: As a poet with a disability, I'm sure you face some challenges in doing readings that not every poet faces. Will you talk about those?

JLC: For Deaf poets, giving a reading presents a peculiar mixture of problems. Aesthetically, there is the question of how to read their poems in public. Although some can speak, many don't feel comfortable using their nasal, broken speech in public. Others, like me, do not speak at all. Signing, then, is a strong preference. However, it is not easy to translate one's own written poems into ASL that is also ASL poetry. A Deaf poet is not necessarily an ASL poet. Many are not even native signers, and would feel equally awkward signing poems in public. If they can only sign pidgin versions that would not be very pleasing to Deaf audience members and if the hearing audience members are listening to an interpreter reading the written poems while they gape at the signing Deaf poet, what's the artistic point of the reading?

Still, I am sure that Deaf poets would be able to resolve such aesthetic issues if they had more opportunities. They could, for example, enlist the help of an ASL poet in producing rich, full translations and be coached in the art of sign performance. But there's a practical problem that has long limited Deaf poets' opportunities to do readings: Interpreting costs. This same issue also means there are very few literary events that are accessible to Deaf people. In most parts of the country, interpreting services start at $120, which covers the first two hours and is required even if you only need one hour or fifteen minutes. So it's automatically $120, and sixty dollars per hour after the first two hours. This effectively excludes bookstores, for the costs would blow away any sales. The great bulk of other readings are hosted by small organizations with little or no money. This leaves the larger organizations and colleges which could handle the costs, in theory if not in practice.

It's no wonder only two Deaf poets in my anthology have given more than one reading. A few, myself included, have given just one. The rest has never had the privilege.

While this is a sore spot for some, I and some others are fine with it. Why? Because, at heart, poetry readings are a hearing thing. The whole point, after all, is to hear the poet reading her work. I've attended some and have never enjoyed them, because most of what the interpreter is trying to sign makes no sense. It's much better to stay at home and READ the poet's work. Since most people at a hearing poet's reading would be hearing non-signers, it's not a social event I'd enjoy either.

As a deaf-blind person who listens to ASL tactilely, the practical side is different for me. Standard practice requires that there be two interpreters for a tactile listener. They would switch places every twenty minutes. This means $240 to start with. This further diminishes my opportunities to do readings. Because I am a native signer, though, the aesthetic side is no problem for me. In the end, the greatest problem is cultural. Unless there are Deaf people involved, such as the person who picks me up at the airport being Deaf or a signer and there being Deaf people in the audience with whom I can socialize afterwards, I would be hard pressed to accept an invitation to do a reading. I'd feel like a stranger in a strange land asked to perform a foreign custom.

WG: As a native ASL speaker, if you wanted to translate one of your written poems into ASL (or translate an ASL poem into written English), what would be some of the aesthetic considerations for you? In Deaf American Poetry you discuss Clayton Valli's original reluctance to let Raymond Luczak translate his poem "Dandelion" from ASL into English. Knowing what Luczak came up with, do you think Valli was right in being leery of the translation? If you translate one of your English poems to ASL do you consider it a completely different poem?

JLC: Some ASL poets remain skeptical of translation. After all, some do not know English well, let alone English poetry. The most beautiful English poem in the world would mean nothing. It can be hard for some to imagine how it is possible for all of those stupid fancy words to convey what they sign. Also, many of the pioneering ASL poets taught ASL and linguistics for a living and were engaged in academic battles against mainstream linguists who were not yet convinced of ASL's status as an actual language. So they may have felt protective of their ASL poems, preferring that one know ASL first before having any access to their work.

Now that ASL is widely recognized as a legitimate language, some ASL poets are growing more practical about their work and agreeing to have it voiced, glossed, or translated. I am slowly working on getting more poets to allow me or others to translate their work. It may take five more years before we have a full-length collection of translations of ASL poetry.

I think the way I approach translation is the same way most translators do: Crumple the original poem into a tiny wad, chew it for a while, spit it out, unwrap it, try to pat it down as flat and neat as possible. Because ASL grammar is quite different, though, the process may be more like translating between English and Chinese than between two Romance languages. ASL's basic grammatical structure is topic-comment. Sometimes this means short, contained passages are object-subject-verb. Instead of "That's a beautiful blue car" it is essential in ASL to start with the topic, which is the car, and then comment on it: CAR THERE BLUE THAT WOW BEAUTIFUL.

The "there" is important for placing the car somewhere in the spatial signing space. The next time the car is referred to, it will appear in the same "place" as would things and characters in movies. If the hero looks to the left of the screen and the heroine in the other direction, they stay that way throughout the scene if not the whole movie. This helps orient the viewer. We do the same in ASL. If I am recounting a conversation I had with my six-year-old son, I would look down to the right as if talking to my son, and when I quote my son, I'd be looking up to the left to reflect the way he looked up to me during that conversation. In my recounting, I create a short film in which I play both myself and my son. The challenge in translating this is to create equally clear and consistent switches between people and things, what they are like or doing. Fortunately, there are nifty tricks in English that accomplish all these things, though not in a literally cinematic way.

When translating from English to ASL, I often have to start with something later in the original poem because it offers the best point of entry, that is, the topic. Otherwise, the descriptions would mean nothing in ASL. The thunderstorm, the winds, the crashing sea would mean nothing without first knowing there's a house on a cliff. In English, it may be all right to hold the house until later, but not in ASL. If the English depends too much on the house being held back, it is possible that the ASL version wouldn't be a good poem. That can happen. Sometimes, it's not worth it. But if the English poem has other sources of power, it shouldn't be a problem to start with the house and make up for the rearrangement somewhere else.

Some of my poems in English I have not bothered translating. It COULD be done, but the best possible result in ASL wouldn't be worth performing to a Deaf audience. The best translations come from poems that lend themselves readily to sets of similar handshapes or a visual space that has a pattern in it that distinguishes it as ASL poetry. For example, my poem "Long Goodbyes" plays with the idea of time and is about Deaf people talking around the table in the kitchen, which is the most important place in Deaf culture. When Deaf friends come, they stay forever around the table, chatting for hours and hours before anyone stands up to go. When everyone stands up, it will take hours yet before they actually leave. The sign for "hour" is the index finger as the hour hand going around the face of an imaginary clock, and the table is round too, and the Deaf people, whether they are sitting or standing, stay in a constant circle. So a pattern emerges for the ASL version in which the circle as a shape plays a prominent role. This influences how I choose to sign other things, all toward the circular motion of signing hands and the passing of time.

Are the versions completely different? No. That one is on paper and the other signed would give the illusion that they are. But if someone translated my ASL version back into English, the skeleton should be there, maybe some meat. But the skin and hair and the clothes would probably be different. For example, I doubt that the line "light to light bright in the night" would reappear, because this is more of an English flourish. It would disappear in the ASL version. In its stead is an ASL flourish in which the two hands signing the flashing of light segues into an innovative doubled sign for "night" that happens to be circular in shape. As different as the two flourishes are, they don't alter the skeleton at all. They're just flourishes.

WG: John, I think that the whole process of translating is fascinating to put in general and really appreciate the window that you have provided into how this works with ASL. Obviously, there are many more areas that we could go into from here, but as a practical matter, we need to wrap things up. My last question to you is: What advice would you give to aspiring disabled poets?

JLC: My first piece of advice to any aspiring poet would be to read. It's shocking how many aspire to write who don't read much at all. But the result of this is simple: They will not write well. I love what Raymond Luczak has said many times: "You write what you read."

This saying may be repulsive to a young poet who wants to be a rebel, who wants to write "original" poetry. I know that I feared influence when I started out. I didn't want to be influenced; I wanted to be my own man. What I did not realize at that time was that influence is food. Without it, my writing starved and stank. You are what you eat.

It took me years to realize that reading and being open to influence wouldn't mean I would be a copycat. Instead, it is a complex, organic process like digestion. Eating nothing but pizza for a month wouldn't mean I would have cheese for skin and tomato sauce in my veins. But it would certainly mean growing very fat and pushing my heart thirty years closer to a heart attack. Conversely, eating vegetables for a month wouldn't mean I'd turn green. I'd still be me, but my health would be much better. Reading is vital to the health of my writing.

My next bit of advice is to submit your work. And I mean submit. Submit everywhere, all the time. I began submitting my work right away, even if my work was crap. Reading Poet's Market, submitting, and getting rejected taught me more than years of classes would have. Aside from the practical bits about the business side of writing, I learned to become detached from my poems. Putting them through the machinery of submissions helped me appreciate them for what they are: products. I would still love them, but in a different way, respectful of their limitations, of their small place in the entertainment business.

Something must be dead to me before I can bring it back to life in poetry. If it's still alive, the art is compromised. When I started writing poems, they were about things still alive to me and so they were poor poems. Submitting them mechanically taught me to let things die. First, it taught me to let go of the poems in the first place. When they were rejected, I learned to let go of the poems in another way. Later, I was letting go as I wrote. Now, the subject of my next poem is already dead, making my job as embalmer much easier.

For disabled poets, my best advice is to write about disability. Or, rather, let disability, as part of your life, appear in your work. Disability is everywhere. It is, in fact, universal, for to be human is to be disabled. The only reason some people don't think of themselves as disabled is because most things out there are designed to accommodate their type of body and not other types.

No matter how disabled people are marginalized, disability has influenced all human history, and its place in society today is as unavoidable as ever. Since disabled poets are going to influence society anyway, they might as well make it an honest exercise. I know many disabled writers who don't write about disability at all. I think they are making a great mistake. There's space for them, and society cannot help but respond in some way, and they use this power to . . . write "mainstream" fare?

It is sad that it's even called a "choice" to write about one's disability. I never consciously chose to write about my Deaf upbringing or deaf-blind culture. I just write, and my deafness, my blindness, my life is just flows out.

So there you go: Read, submit, and embrace disability in your work.

WG: Thank you.