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American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf American Poetry: An Anthology

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John Lee Clark (1978–     )

Perhaps because he led a charmed Deaf childhood with Deaf parents and siblings and was never the only Deaf student at school, John Lee Clark’s poetry about his experiences with signing and Deaf culture is free of angst. “Story Actual Happen,” based on a story about one of his intimate role models, the superb storyteller and American Sign Language (ASL) lyricist Taras J. Dykstra, is an example of the faithful ASL gloss style Clark uses in some of his work. Stories such as the one told in “Long Goodbyes” epitomize a hallmark of Deaf culture—the leave-taking rituals that stretch on for hours. However, this is changing as Deaf people have more access to long-distance communication, making their meetings in person less sacred, which is why this is a nostalgic poem.

In “The Only Way Signing Can Kill Us,” Clark satirizes mainstream society’s romantic ideas that signing is like drawing pictures in the air. As slyly humorous as this poem is, it does suggest that such notions are harmful. He continues his intellectual playfulness in “My Understanding One Day of Foxgloves” by acknowledging that nature does make mistakes and explaining that if deafness is one of them, it is quite natural.

John Lee Clark was born deaf in St. Paul, Minnesota, to a Deaf mother and a DeafBlind father. By sixth grade, when he transferred from a Deaf program at a public school to the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf (MSAD), he was legally blind. After graduating from MSAD in 1997, he studied briefly at Gallaudet University before he and his wife started a family and established a publishing venture. For six years, they ran The Tactile Mind Press, which produced books and DVDs of signing community literature.

Clark’s writings appear in many publications, among them Ache, The Deaf-Blind American, McSweeney’s, and Sign Language Studies, and he is the first signer, Deaf or DeafBlind, to be published in the prestigious magazine Poetry. The only DeafBlind artist featured at the Deaf Way II International Cultural Arts Festival, he is the recipient of the Robert F. Panara Award for Poetry and many grants. In 2005, he edited the anthology Clayton: A Tribute to Clayton Valli, and his first collection of poems, Suddenly Slow, appeared in 2008. Currently, he is the director of Communication Facilitator Services with Hawk Relay.

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