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Interview With the Author

John Lee Clark
Author, Deaf American Poetry

GUPress: Why did you decide to take on this project of compiling poems of culturally Deaf people?

John Lee Clark: When I started work on The Tactile Mind Press in late 2000, I solicited materials from Deaf writers for our quarterly journal. I quickly discovered that many of the poems resembled one another, especially in content. Many of them were quite nice, but the problem is that they’re more of the same stuff: Odes to the visual world, celebrations of sign language, and the classic hearing-family-at-dining-table problem. I realized that most of the poets had never read the work of their fellow Deaf poets. While my publication, The Tactile Mind, helped to resolve this, I felt that our community needed access to its own literary past, so that new writing would be truly new. For Deaf poets, I hope the anthology will at once give them no excuse for repeating what others have already said and give them permission, or the freedom, to go deeper.

All along, I also knew that the anthology would be an important addition to the general poetry world. The poetry community has been very good with including representative work from a wide range of communities in all of the most important publications and anthologies. But, for a number of reasons, Deaf poets have been left out of this multicultural convergence. I hope my book will be a major step in changing that.

GUPress: Do you see a difference in writing style regarding poetry between culturally Deaf people and nonculturally deaf people?

John Lee Clark: In style, no. Both culturally and nonculturally deaf poets write in all styles—formalist, free verse, experimental. If there is a real difference, it would be that culturally Deaf poets sometimes write in ASL gloss and also there are Deaf poets who don’t write at all but sign their work.

The greatest difference is in content. Because I wanted the anthology to also be a historical record, I was open to including poems by nonculturally deaf poets that touched on their deafness or their real experiences in life. But I found only a few that ever discussed deafness or even suggested it, and those few merely repeated what culturally Deaf poets had already written and a long time before. Perhaps it is just part of the nature, or the goal, of being nonculturally deaf to avoid the subject and to pretend, through writing about sounds and mainstream life, that deafness doesn’t exist at all.

Both culturally and nonculturally deaf poets share the same problem if and when they write mainstream fodder. They compete against thousands of hearing poets in doing this, and there can only be a select few poets who will be widely read and celebrated. Save for rare exceptions—like Earl Sollenberger’s Greenwich poems and Raymond Luczak’s nature poetry—their poems about love, flowers, rural life, popular culture and politics, and so on are not worth preserving. There are just too many poets doing the same.

So the culturally Deaf poets have a great advantage if they do write about what they really know, because what they know is different and as yet largely uncharted in literature. They can still address universal themes and share in the human condition, but if they do so through their own experiences, their own sensations, their work will stand out and last. I hope the anthology will encourage this.

GUPress: How has being deaf and blind inspired your writing style?

John Lee Clark: My deaf-blindness doesn’t have much to do with my writing style, but it is certainly responsible for my writing at all. I was born deaf to an all-Deaf family and I had no interest in reading. I drew pictures instead of words for my homework at school. But two things happened at the same time: I was quickly becoming blind and I transferred to the school for the Deaf. There, I found myself an outcast because the school culture had no room for someone acting strangely as I did, missing visual cues and asking people to repeat themselves. I simply was no longer a sighted Deaf boy.

The loneliness drove me to read books for the first time. While I did regain a happy social life, by learning how to function properly as a deaf-blind person and by educating my peers, I was thoroughly infected with the readerly disease. And reading led to writing.

In my own work, there are two worlds, the Deaf one of my childhood and the deaf-blind one I now call home. But both belong in the same larger signing community, so I experience an interesting mixture of being a native member of Deaf culture yet enough of an outsider to observe it in a different light but still from within. I love my community and writing about it—there is no end in sight for things to write about!

11:3 Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Poetry from the Deaf Literary Canon

John Lee Clark Compiles Verse of Culturally Deaf Poets from the 19th Century to Modern Times

Deaf American Poetry: An Anthology edited by John Lee Clark showcases for the first time the best works of Deaf poets throughout the nation’s history. It includes 95 poems by 35 masters from the early 19th century to modern times. In his introduction to this singular anthology, Clark notes: “Collectively, the poems tell the story of the signing community’s development and how Deaf people struggled against oppressive forces to discover more about themselves and to celebrate who they are.”

“The growing library of books in Deaf studies is rapidly uncovering much of this epic history, but this book is the only definitive anthology of the work of Deaf poets. Aside from the fact that the poems touch upon a dizzying array of topics, which makes this volume quite a comprehensive introduction for anyone new to Deaf culture and the signing community, the book presents a most important group of Deaf people and preserves what must be considered a significant part of the Deaf literary canon. Deaf poets have contributed to the raising of public awareness about their community and its issues; they have inspired and led other Deaf people, both on and off the page; and their poems have, again and again, crystallized for many of their readers what it means to be Deaf and how to embrace it. No understanding of Deaf culture and its history is complete without an appreciation of Deaf poets and their work.”

Order Deaf American Poetry today, and receive a savings of 20% off with your exclusive subscriber discount. When ordering online, type “MAR2009” in the box labeled “use promo code” located next to the “checkout” button. You may also order by mail.


Translation, Sociolinguistic, and Consumer Issues in Interpreting focuses on scholarship from the United States, Ireland, Australia, and the Philippines on a refined spectrum of issues that confront interpreters internationally. The current issue of the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education commends it highly, stating, “This volume is the third in a series on sign language interpreting. As has been the case with the previous two volumes, Translation, Sociolinguistic, and Consumer Issues in Interpreting makes a valuable contribution to the field of sign language interpreting. This book gives the reader a broader understanding of the minefield of considerations, analyses, and decisions that interpreters negotiate each day, if not at each assignment. The book is strongly based on research data, rather than being solely theoretical. I recommend it to interpreters, students of interpreting, and anyone with an interest in the process and practice of signed language interpretation.” Read chapter two, and view the table of contents and the list of contributors online. Order Translation, Sociolinguistic, and Consumer Issues in Interpreting here.


In its most recent issue, The Sign Language Translator and Interpreter (SLTI), an noted international journal, extolls Bilingualism and Identity in Deaf Communities, the sixth volume in the critically acclaimed Sociolinguistics in Deaf Communities series, in its recent issue: “This volume contains a variety of articles which demonstrate the equally varied perspectives on bilingualism and identity in deaf communities around the world. From contact between sign and spoken languages, to the education of deaf children, to the development of a deaf community with a common sign language, this book is not only a welcome addition to the Sociolinguistics of Deaf Communities series, but can also stand alone as a welcome text for all readers interested in all elements of sign bilingualism and the identity of deaf people.” Read an excerpt from chapter one, “Name Signs and Identity in New Zealand Sign Language,” a study of how name signs reveal the self-perceptions of members of a deaf community; and order Bilingualism and Identity in Deaf Communities.


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