September 20, 2010

John Lee Clark and "Deaf American Poetry"

In March I received a query from a man named John Lee Clark, asking for the Microsoft Word versions of my two poetry collections. After some hesitation--publishers don't love it when you unleash texts into the electronic sphere--I said yes. I was intrigued by his motives: he needed to feed the texts to his book-reader. Having first read my work in the Braille edition of POETRY, John had mail-ordered both Theories of Falling and I Was the Jukebox, only to find that his scanning program ignored my linebreaks.

"I think line breaks are important," he wrote, explaining he'd hire someone to replicate them in a pinch, "and just having all the words isn't it."

I should have known that since a sensitive request was coming from not only a reader, but a writer of poetry as well, and one who has labored mightily to come to his art. When I wrote John back, encouraging him to come to a reading--I promised a vivid interpretation of the poems on the page--he replied that it might be tricky, since he is deaf as well as blind. Whoa. This led to a fascinating discussion of the nature of ASL-interpreted events, and the challenges of "translating" back and forth between ASL and English, as well as this virtual introduction:

"In the DC area, there are four notable deaf poets," John wrote. "Christopher Jon Heuer, Curtis Robbins, Willy Conley, and Abiola Haroun. And to give you an idea of how little we've been able to participate in the poetry world in the past, none of them has given a reading before."

When someone from St. Paul, Minnesota, is telling me something I don't know about my hometown poetry community, I am intrigued. And while it wouldn't be appropriate for me to further quote from John's emails, I can steer you to a fascinating interview John did for Issue 14 of Wordgathering: a Journal of Disability Poetry, online here. One fantastic excerpt below, on how being deaf-blind affects one's handling of craft:

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"!


Again, I really encourage you to check out the entire interview. And thanks, John, for opening my eyes.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing about this as I was unaware that something we take for granted like a line break can be an obstacle to others...though it sounds as if John Lee Clark might indeed see clearer than I.

Kind thoughts,

newzoopoet said...

Educational post, Sandra!

Greg said...

Wow! Fascinating indeed! It seems to me that we sighted and hearing poets could glean some useful techniques from John's approach. Thanks so much for sharing this!

Anonymous said...

This is so interesting to me! I have been interested in Deaf culture for a long time and I had been looking for some insight into Deaf poetry. The insight into translating poetry for the blind was fascinating. Thanks!