Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Interview with John Lee Clark, a finalist for the 2015 Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism

The Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism, sponsored by the CrossCurrents Foundation, recognizes and honors a poet who is doing innovative and transformative work at the intersection of poetry and social change. The award, judged this year by Sheila Black, Martha Collins, and E. Ethelbert Miller, is being given for the second time in 2015. Tickets now on sale! Join us on April 2, at the Arts Club of Washington, as we honor Mark Nowak for his work in establishing "poetry dialogues" among workers around the globe. 

Photo by Louis Miranda
John Lee Clark is one of the finalists this year for his work translating ASL poetry and advocacy for poets with disabilities. He is a second-generation DeafBlind man. His work has appeared in a wide variety of publications including The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, Poetry, The Seneca Review, and Sign Language Studies. He has also been featured in such anthologies as Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, Deaf American Prose, and twice in Saint Paul Almanac. For a more detailed biography, visit his website, Links to purchase his books are also available on his website.

Can you explain for readers who may be unfamiliar what ASL poetry is?

That’s easy to answer. It’s poetry. It’s written in ASL instead of Danish or Arabic or English. Just as there are different kinds of poetry within any language--different forms, styles, and so on--ASL poetry is diverse. You have poets who are more formal and they follow strict rules and structures, usually having to do with handshapes. You have poets who do freer work. There are ASL slam performers whose hands are on fire. There are ASL poets who are shy and hate to “read” their poems.

Also, it’s a young literature. Although white and black Deaf people have been speaking sign languages in North America since the middle of the seventeenth century, not to mention the sign languages First Nation peoples spoke for millennia, these were often suppressed in the modern era and treated as “bad for you.” It was sometimes tolerated for the purpose of conveying English texts, such as sermons and, yes, poems. Reciting English poems in bastardized ASL was acceptable.

In the 1970s, there was a huge change. Part of it was tied to a larger revolution, the Deaf Pride movement. Part of it was the widespread formal, academic recognition of ASL as an actual language, not some sort of broken English or painting pictures in the air. We saw an explosion in ASL literature, including poetry. But it’s still young, most of the canonical ASL poets are still living, and the second generation hasn’t come into its own quite yet.

Does translating from ASL to English differ from translating between written languages? If so, how?

No. It’s the same. Just a quick FYI: ASL is written as well as spoken. It used to be said that we “sign” ASL, but I feel this puts ASL on a lower plane. We’re claiming the word “speak.” After all, that’s how we experience it, like air or water—you don’t even think about it.

Back to your question: The translation process is the same. That is, it would be similar to translating between languages from different families, not like translating between two Romance languages or two Slavic languages. You know? ASL is from a different genus than English; it has a topic-comment grammatical structure, as opposed to English’s subject-verb-object.

What’s true of most literary translation work applies as much to ASL-English work. For example, it’s important that the translator is a good writer in the target language. For another thing, you do need to take liberties here and there if you want to convey the same meaning. And because of the difference in grammatical structure, line by line doesn’t always work. But I can assure you that if you read a translation and then watched the video performance of the ASL original, you’ll “see” that it’s indeed a translation you just read and that you were not being lied to! Ha.

Reading the written ASL versions, however, won’t be like reading a English-Spanish edition of Neruda, because written ASL is ideographic and doesn’t use the Roman phonetic alphabet. It’d be more like reading an edition of Rumi. But if you watched the originals performed, you’d subconsciously recognize ASL words because of the translation. You’ll see the cadence, the rhyming handshapes, etc.

While the translation process itself is the same, there are some challenges that may be unique. ASL poets have historically resisted translation, for good reasons. That has changed lately, but it’s still something to negotiate. Most are also unfamiliar with mainstream literary publishing practices: the rejection-drenched submission process, the long waits for editors’ decisions, and the long waits before publication. “Why not just post it on Facebook?” I don’t have a good answer. Some ASL poets are in high demand within the community as performers and are handsomely paid for their work. This can cause some problems when approaching them for permission without any payment to offer. Overall, though, they have been responsive, gracious, and a joy to work with—they were my heroes as a boy, and they are still my heroes.

Another set of challenges has to do with the literary translation landscape. My very first encounter with “tr-biz” was when I applied for a grant. The director of the program, a renowned translator from several languages, responded to my proposal by saying, “I don’t think this is translation.” When I inquired further, I realized that he was not aware that ASL was a completely different language than English. Lesson learned: When applying for funding, always put the old ASL-is-a-language spiel in there. Where to send translations for publication is also an interesting question. Most of the magazines devoted to translations are international in focus and this usually means they want material from outside the US. Conversely, many magazines focused on US writing do not accept translations. Has the “Best American Poetry” anthology series ever had a translation of a poem by a US citizen who writes in a language other than English? I would love to see some translations infiltrating such venues!

In an interview with the Poetry Foundation you mentioned that publishers are more willing to publish poems featuring speakers with disabilities if the poems are written by abled writers. Why do you think there is such a dichotomy in publishers’ choices in publishing poems that feature disabilities?

It’s because there is a well-established list of things mainstream society is willing to hear about disability. It’s an ordeal, it’s so hard to face each new day. Maybe you should kill yourself. Or you become a success story that, instead of challenging stereotypes and the status quo, actually reinforces them. Abled poets most often come from that society, and what’s interesting to them, what speaks to them, what stands out to them about the subject usually fits. These things don’t fit our realities. Quick example: For a hearing and sighted person, deafness and blindness would likely mean silence and darkness. But there’s no such thing as silence or darkness. My deafness and blindness are as nothing, these concepts don’t exist to me.

At present, I think publishers have a hard time processing that. When I present a poem that is very DeafBlind—in a cultural, identity-related way—I think publishers may have one or both of two things, aside from judgments of quality, style, etc.: First, there’s nothing in there about silence or darkness or it being an ordeal or a tragedy, and this may make it feel like the poem is missing something. Second, the things that I do put in the poem, the wealth it has, go unappreciated because the publishers haven’t learned about our wealth. I think most publishers are well-educated in “multiculturalism,” and they, even if they’re white and male and upper-class, can recognize that this or that cultural thing is important. Alas, their educations haven’t gone far enough, into the ASL or disability cultures.

How can “mainstream” events or venues improve their inclusion of speakers and participants with disabilities?

I firmly believe that true inclusion can’t happen unless it starts at the top. Or at the center. Typically inclusion efforts geared toward disability communities are at the bottom or at the margins. “Oh, that’s right! We need to hire an interpreter! Hmm, what else?” It’s not built-in. It’s added on, usually at the last minute, or not at all. All of which is so superficial.

What we really need is for disability to be part of everything. Look, disabled people make up almost a quarter of the population. If you wanted to see representation, that would mean two or three out of every ten editors, ten publishers, ten judges, ten creative writing teachers, ten anything would be people with disabilities. If that happened, inclusion wouldn’t be a question. Accommodations would be so of-course that they’re no longer considered “accommodations” but just what’s there, along with the lights, chairs, food, air-conditioning, bathrooms, and parking. You also cease to notice that the publisher is blind, the board chair is Deaf, or that the reading series curator is a wheelchair user.

Is there a piece you would recommend those not familiar with ASL poetry to read?

My recent collection of essays, “Where I Stand,” includes three essays that I think will enlighten readers a great deal on the topic: “ASL and The Star-Spangled Banner,” which traces the history of ASL bondage under English tyranny; “ASL Poetry As Novelty,” which critiques the mainstream’s fascination with ASL poetry at the expense of Deaf poetry in general; and “ASL Literature On Paper,” which speculates on the impact further development of written ASL will have on the literature.

Readers also really should watch Miriam Lerner’s invaluable documentary “The Heart of the Hydrogen Jukebox.” It’s all about the nerve center at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf that gave us the ASL poetry we have now.

What are you working on now?

I always have several book projects going. One is an anthology of ASL poetry in English translation. My 2009 anthology “Deaf American Poetry” has a few translations, but this one is going to be very different. I’m also tinkering with a collection of my poems while entering it into some contests. Almost out of the door is the first volume of a huge work on DeafBlind literature, this one covering the years 1820-1925. In progress are a biography of a late DeafBlind poet, a selected poems volume of another forgotten poet, and my second collection of essays.

What is one piece of yours that you are most proud of?

It may not be my best poem, but somehow it landed at the perfect intersection of three languages, so that it’s both an original in all three and a translation offa all three. The languages are English, ASL, and Tactile ASL. It’s short enough to quote in its entirety. Here’s the English transoriginalation:
at the Frogtown Community Garden

What I like best is done underground,
where the warmth and moisture are. I have no need
for a hoe. My fingers sink in
to their calling, following each root
to its uttermost tendril. While others tear
I lift them whole.

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