Interview with Sarah Katz
WG: As a poet you are probably aware of the work of anthologies like John Lee Clark's Deaf American Poetry and know that the writers included there come from quite varied backgrounds and experiences. Will you talk a little bit about your background and how you were led to write poetry?
SK: Well, I come from a middle-class background. I grew up in the Maryland suburbs in a neighborhood called Potomac Chase Estates, which is a rural and wooded area of mostly horse farms. Sometimes I'd see people riding horses around the neighborhood. It was–and still is–quite tranquil and removed compared to the bustle of Washington, D.C.
As far as my family, my dad was a mortgage banker before he became disabled due to a traumatic brain injury. My mother is a clinical social worker, although she currently works with deaf students as a Cued Language transliterator. My twin brother is a photographer and graphic artist; my younger sister is a teacher for students with intellectual disabilities; and my youngest sister, who just graduated from high school and will attend the University of Maryland, wants to work in neurology.
Due to my own disability, my father's, and my paternal grandmother's (she became paranoid schizophrenic due to her experience during the Holocaust in Poland), I think I've always felt that certain stories have gone unnarrated and misunderstood. And this may sound especially far-fetched–but as a child, I wanted to be a singer-songwriter. Being deaf, I thought it was my responsibility to "undo" the expectation that I could not sing because of my so-called speech impediment, but I also felt this overwhelming yearning to express myself. Annia, my aforementioned grandmother, encouraged me to write and nurture this need–she gave me journals and singing and piano lessons. She was an incredibly talented woman herself–as an opera singer, piano and accordion player, and a teacher for students with intellectual disabilities.
When I got older and took speech and language therapy in elementary school, I learned to memorize and recite poems by poets like Jack Prelutsky and Shel Silverstein. That was when I really began to love poetry and live in that form.
WG: What prompted you to begin writing poetry? Was it a natural outgrowth of your early journal writing or did it come about more to address the stories that, as you said, go unnarrated?
SK: I wouldn't say that there was a particular event or moment when I was inspired to begin writing. But as I said before, my grandmother, Annia, used to buy me journals on a regular basis–and I filled them. I was a shy kid and I spent a lot of time by myself with either my books, or the stories and poems that I'd written. I think I often felt like an "outsider" in my family and in school because I was deaf, and writing gave me an opportunity to voice thoughts and feelings to myself. I've always been privileged with a great family and education, but there were times when I was treated differently or as "less-than" by either teachers or peers for being deaf. That has never really stopped entirely–I have experienced it "on the job" and in higher education. So, I think, at the heart of it, I've come to writing to have a voice somewhere even if I'm not literally telling the stories that have "gone unnarrated," or explicitly writing about disability – although I have done that as well.
WG: Now that you have come to have your own voice as a writer, how do you assess the writing that you have read in terms of its portrayal of deaf individuals and Deaf culture? Are there stereotypes or particular language that bothers you? Which writers are doing work that you would encourage readers to take a look at?
SK: Disempowerment is a common theme in disability writing, but it's important to be clear about where that disempowerment comes from. I'm troubled by writing that depicts the disability experience as something to grieve, as something that "gets in the way," without at the same time articulating the politics of embodiment or being a "body-in-the-world."
You said that I've "come into my own voice," and I feel like I have to push back on that a bit. While I've believe grown as a writer, I'm still learning how to write about disability. I'm still challenging myself to look past the writing that is out there about the body, and to "re-see" or "re-imagine" the body. I cringe at some of my old writing about the deaf experience–at poems that reflect the grief of feeling isolated from others, for example, as real as that emotion is–because it doesn't reflect the totality of my experience.
I think most disabled writers will tell you that the metaphors that have become part of our everyday speech, and that refer to bodily experiences in denigrating ways, are extremely harmful. I think they need to be eradicated from literature altogether. The verb "deafening," for example, is often used for dramatic effect: "The deafening roar." But it's such a cliche! To which someone might argue: but it's visceral! It brings people to the very edge of their mortality! To which I say: the reality is, we disabled folks are very much alive and our experience of life is not frightening by any means. Our lives are very ordinary, in fact. People have a hard time accepting "ordinary" and "disabled body" in the same sentence–they want the maudlin, the sad, the grotesque.
I'm in the middle of reading Jillian Weise's The Colony, a novel about a teacher from the south who accepts residency in a research colony, where scientists hope to "cure" her of a rare gene that affects her bone growth. Like Jillian, the character has a missing leg, and uses a prosthesis. I haven't finished it yet, but I've been marveling at how refreshing it is to read about an ordinary, if a bit acerbic, character, who is caught in a weird situation inflicted upon her that she only half-accepts. She has her boundaries. She even befriends Darwin, who hilariously makes an appearance.
It's refreshing because the few books and poems that I've read about disabled characters tend toward tragic, which I find invalidating as a reader. Writers have a responsibility toward their readers, and I think a big part of that is validating their experience.
WG: I definitely agree with you that The Colony is a great example of taking so many of the stereotypes about disability and giving them a Swiftian turn. I think Weise's ending is a tour-de-force that shows the kinds of things disability literature can do. That leads me to ask if you can give some examples from your own poetry of where you have tried to counter the kinds of stereotypic language or images that you have just mentioned.
SK: Yes, exactly. That's her strength, and I admire it. I tend toward exploring connections between characters in a different way, and how I do that has varied and changed over the years.
For example, "The Deaf Body", published in So to Speak Journal, is a poem I wrote a few years ago while in the MFA program at American University in Washington, DC. I was specifically countering the stereotype of the deaf female as the "hero" or "saint" in a sexual relationship (with a man), and the danger of that. The white space in this poem gave me room to convey the distinct sensibilities interacting, and hopefully, the tension.
Over the last couple years or so, I've grown increasingly fond of prose poems and the different kind of humor found there. My poems operate on different registers, but I think the tendency toward surrealism has been pretty consistent. I love Sarah Vap, Charles Simic, Robert Bly, Jean Follain, Zachary Schomburg, Russell Edson, and David Keplinger (my former thesis advisor)–all for differing reasons–but mainly because of the ways they use the compact space of the prose poem to create a seemingly incongruous expansiveness. The prose poem is a pressure cooker or magic suitcase that contains much more than it should. It's a Joseph Cornell box. It's a genre-bender. And because a prose poem must "transcend its borders," every word must count toward enlarging the space.
Here's an "object" poem (in the spirit of Robert Bly or Francis Ponge) that I wrote a few weeks ago, about my hearing aids:
Here, I'm investigating these ordinary objects that I wear each day, and their bulkiness. Their so-muchness. And perhaps their violence, as well. This is a "willful derangement of the senses," as Arthur Rimbaud called it. The intention is to find something new about something that seems "difficult in their obviousness" (which is a line in Simic's "The White Room").
The prose poem allows me to push up against my own view of things and potentially knock down the borders we've constantly drawn around them.
WG: Your use of the Ponge-style poems to investigate objects linked to disability is really an interesting example of how disability poetry can appropriate the explorations of other poets for uses particular to their field. You've mentioned several poets whose work you enjoy. Is using the work of other writers as a starting point, something that you do frequently to write? What is it that generally prompts you to write a poem?
SK: Great question. I love object poems because they read like metanarratives about the practice of poetry. It's a poet's duty to look long and deeply at so-called "ordinary" objects and situations for what might be found and hasn't yet been expressed. It's a compassionate act of empathy– to look and find more than what one had expected to see. And it's a great form in which to write poems about disability, given the plague of low expectations. The need to re-see things is an ordinary need for me since, despite seeing my disability as a source of pride and livelihood, I face unbelievable stigma; that tension requires an approach to language that upends stale notions about either deaf life or the disability experience.
I'm always looking at what other poets are doing since they inspired me to transform my reality through language in the first place. Sometimes that means that I will read a poem over and over again to try to inhabit it and get a sense of how and why a poem is working. Occasionally, my readings of other poems trigger poems of my own. For example, the tone of Simic's "I am the last…" inspired a poem I wrote that was published in MiPoesias, and even though I "borrowed" syntactical structures and his rhythms, the poem was still a significant departure and definitely "mine."
Great was the apartment.
I am the first child here.
Poland, scatter your music.
(One of the lines in my poem is, "I am the first child here," whereas in Simic's poem it's: "I am the last Napoleonic soldier.") Simic's poem worked to trigger my own poem, which I instinctively knew was hidden somewhere in his.
At other times, poems seem to come out of nowhere. I say "seem" because I don't believe writers work in a vacuum. There would be no urgency to poetry if poems weren't meant to be responded to (and vice versa)! I'm always reading something new and every poem or book, regardless of how I feel about it, has an effect on me.
All that said, I've never set out to write "disability poetry," a name that feels daunting to me in the enormity of work it suggests. I do think that my constant circling back to the subject of disability is inevitable, though, given the tensions that I mentioned.
WG: You have recently become involved in a starting up a new literary journal. Can you talk a little bit about that?
SK: The Deaf Poets Society was founded in May 2016 by me and four other disabled editors, including Ava Cipri, Cyree Jarelle Johnson, T.K. Dalton, and Janet Morrow, because of the unfortunate underrepresentation of writers and artists with disabilities in the literary community.
I have to credit my clever husband, Jonathan, with coming up with the name! The other editors and I decided we liked it not only because of the obvious riff on the movie title, The Dead Poets Society, but also because of that strange tendency of people to mispronounce "deaf" as "death." It's a frequent slip of the tongue, and I hope that our tongue-in-cheek name invites critical thought about how we discuss disability. As I said before, people often equate a discussion of disability with a discussion of mortality. Although it's relevant to some degree–we all become "disabled" at some point in time–people with disabilities are living full lives. It shows in their writing, but you wouldn't know that unless you could find their writing!
That's why The Deaf Poets Society wants to showcase that full, gorgeous range of experience across disability experience and across identities–and not, as the name could suggest, just pieces from deaf writers and artists. We're looking for poetry, prose/cross-genre, reviews of disability-focused books by disabled writers, and art from anyone who identifies as Deaf or disabled–whether as deafblind, blind, neurodivergent, or any other disability I haven't listed. People with chronic pain are very welcome.
Ultimately, we want to be another beacon in the literature community–joining Wordgathering, Breath and Shadow, and Pentimento. In that same spirit, we want to also specifically promote writing that explores intersectionality and the complex experiences that arise from having intersectional identities. Like our name, I hope that our pieces make people read or look twice, considering their own privilege (white, cisgender, or otherwise) as they engage with new voices. Currently, we do not charge submission fees; however, by issue two we plan to charge submission fees out of the interest of paying authors and artists in the future. Given that many people with disabilities are unemployed or underemployed, we want to start to change that paradigm.
I also want to add that we will be transparent about our finances by sharing all of the data on what we've pulled in through submission fees and advertising, and how we're allocating that money to authors and artists, as well as to things like website hosting, Submittable fees, and business licensing. We look forward to receiving submissions–we've received stunning pieces already–and our hope is that we can give that community to those of us who starve for it. As Emily K. Michael said in a recent blog post, "My salvation came in community. I could submit work to a few places committed to disabled writers. At these journals, the editors had crafted a powerful trust with their readers and their writers. I didn't feel compelled to footnote each experience, to clarify every nuance. I didn't have to define braille or tapping canes or the strange play of light that is my vision. I could give myself completely to my art."
WG: Sarah, I want to thank you for taking the time to participate in this interview and tell us about your work. I just heard that your poetry manuscript Country of Glass was a finalist in Tupelo Press's 2016 Dorset Prize judged by Robert Pinsky. Congratulations – and good luck with The Deaf Poets Society. We definitely need more venues that highlight the work being done in disability literature.
SK: Thank you for taking the time to interview me and learn more about my work. I appreciate the work Wordgathering has done on behalf of writers with disabilities. I'm glad to work alongside you and learn from you as well.