Friday, March 27, 2015

Poem of the Week: Lois Beardslee


When I asked my mother
If she could remember
What her mother's mother called December
Before the Black-Robed religious reformers
Named it LittleSpritMoon
After their BabyJesus

She put her open hand
To her own lips
Shook her head
Looked away
Said we are better off
If we do not remember those things.

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From Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas (University of Arizona Press, 2011).
Used with permission.

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Lois Beardslee, of the Ojibwe and Lacandon peoples, is the author of Lies to Live By, Rachel's Children, Not Far Away, and The Women's Warrior Society. Beardslee also preserves traditional Ojibwe art forms, including porcupine quillwork, sweetgrass basketry, and birch bark biting. She is an instructor in communications at Northwestern Michigan College.

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Please feel free to share Split This Rock Poem of the Week widely. We just ask you to include all of the information in this post, including this request. Thanks! If you are interested in reading past poems of the week, feel free to visit the blog archive.  

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Interview with Mahogany L. Browne of Black Poets Speak Out

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 establishing "poetry dialogues" among workers around the globe.


Jonterri Gadson, Amanda Johnston, Mahogany L. Browne
What started as a conversation between Cave Canem fellows Amanda Johnston, Mahogany L. Browne, Jonterri Gadson, and Sherina Rodriguez-Sharpe, Black Poets Speak Out (BPSO) is a poetry collective and movement that began as a hashtag video campaign housed on Tumblr, featuring hundreds of videos from Black poets reading in response to the November 24 grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who murdered Michael Brown. 

The project's purpose "is to centralize in one space hundreds of poems, songs, prayers, and testimonies speaking on behalf of black mothers, black fathers, black brothers and sisters -- thousands of voices insisting on justice. BPSO videos are a collective outcry for our black lives." 

The movement lives through several ongoing phases: 1) Black poets create and collectively house poetry videos with the mantra "I am a black poet who will not remain silent while this nation murders black people. I have a right to be angry;" 2) serve as an off-line literary protest where poets and members of the community can safely gather and share information for marching, understanding and healing; 3) tie the power of the poetic voice to civic engagement through a unique letter writing campaign, where poets and allies submit letters and poetry videos to their elected officials. The letters call for immediate action against police violence and present solutions to the President, Vice President, and Attorney General by organizers across the nation. 4) Lesson plans - available at

Black Poets Speak Out uses the force of art to transform policy. 


When did you first start thinking about language as a means for social change?

I began looking at my work as a tool for change in 2002 when I began working with teenage pregnant girls in group homes. Most of these young women were wards of New York State due to neglect and were initially very unimpressed with poetry. I was very aware that creative writing wouldn't save ALL of them -- but I wanted to show them a different entry into motherhood and self healing. And so my fight began.

How do you see your art as a social change agent?  

Once my students became parents that wrote poetry, college graduates that produced poetry, MFA Candidates studying poetry and authors of poetry collections -- I knew my art was not just changing my life. 

How did you as organizers and artists find each other?  

We are all Cave Canem fellows. We have an on-line forum where the question was posed by Amanda Johnston "What do we do?" -- Black Poets Speak Out was the response. 

As a collective and a movement born as a response to the November 24 grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, can you discuss the roles and themes of evidence and witness throughout BPSO?

The role of BPSO has been to serve as an opportunity to gather our voices: contemporary, elders and futurists in poetic protest. This literary form of activism serves as a conduit for literature, a blueprint for survival and a salve for the community. 

How has the reality and vision of public space in our society inspired and guided your own poetry? 

I am always writing from the perspective of a mother. Because I am one. But I have been so utterly impacted by the loss of these mothers' children...I realized what a privilege -- to NOT have to consider death before graduation, before becoming a grandparent. I write now, with the pure respect and empathy for the mourning of these slain black (and brown) men and women. 

How has your work intersected with or supported the broader #BlackLivesMatter movement?

#BlackLivesMatter is a movement that allowed Black Poet Speak Out to exist. We are direct supporters of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign. As poets we are often aware of the power of activism and art. We stand in solidarity. 

Can you discuss the role social media has played in the #BlackLivesMatter and Black Poets Speak Out movement?

I can only speak about BPSO in that regard. The videos that started in Brooklyn, NY & Atlanta, GA reached the eyes and fists of poets in England & Africa. BPSO became global because of social media. The urgency became palpable. The hashtag congregated the elegies and celebration and faith in one place. This act alone informs a community of the larger body chanting "you are not alone, you are not crazy" and the platform allows educators a portal in which to borrow the tools for the younger generation. Hopefully, this intergenerational discussion articulates the cultural genocide. Hopefully, will awaken the people to demand justice. And not give in to the silence. 

How do you think social media will play into the longevity of these movements?

I think these conversations will always be accessible and of service to the people. I think social media interacts with the world when we physically cannot. 

How do you see the role of intersectionality and inter-generations in the #BlackLivesMatter and Black Poets Speak Out movement? 

Inter-generationally conversations are necessary for us to continue this work. We need young leaders -- we are mortal. And time passes too quickly. It is our duty to build the bridge so the work can continue to be done. Intersectional conversations are necessary for us to continue this work.

We need "accomplices" instead of allies. White people need to speak to their communities because it is obvious Mike Brown isn't recognized as a son. It is obvious Eric Garner is not seen as a father. And because their Black reflections aren't valued, there is a disconnect when Black people are being lynched and their murderers aren't even indicted. 

With voices from the Black Arts Movement and the Harlem Renaissance juxtaposed with contemporary black poets in #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, what do you see as the differences in poetry activism between these eras? 

I think the devastation was more imminent then. I think people were not as free to say and do as we do now -- and there was a fearlessness in that. I think today, we are celebrating celebrities more than we are celebrating the fallen. And we are only celebrating the fallen after they are gone. Which is a disservice to the testimony of black people. 

What are you most proud of as the Black Poets Speak Out movement? 

That people are finding ways within their own bodies in which protest exist. That as we continue to write and produce and stand and yell and breathe -- we are protesting injustice and the continued disregard of our humanity. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Interview with Bob Holman, 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 establishing "poetry dialogues" among workers around the globe.


Courtesy of
Equal parts spoken word performer, professor, impresario, activist, proprietro of the Bowery Poetry Club, filmmaker and host of Language Matters, a two-hour PBS special on Endangered Languages, to Bob Holman it's all just part of the job. He's a poet. From Slam to Hiphop, from performance to spoken word, Bob's been a central figure in redefining poetry in the US as existing on, off, and beyond the page. Author of 16 poetry collections, most recently Sing This One Back to Me (Coffee House Press, 2013), Bob has been dubbed a member of the "Poetry Pantheon" by the New York Times Magazine. As an arts administrator, Bob's served as coordinator and readings curator at St. Mark's Poetry Project, original Slammaster and a director of the Nuyorican Poets Café, as well as founder and proprietor of the Bowery Poetry Club. He is a co-founder and co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance. Read more about Bob and his accomplishments on his website.


What ignited your passion for language preservation?

Hiphop! My students were telling me that my reading list wasn’t relevant. What’s relevant? I asked. Well nothing, really, was the reply -- it’s hiphop, we just make this shit up. What about the contemporary iteration of the African American Oral Tradition? I countered. Where can we find it? they asked. Good question. So I went to Africa in search of the griot tradition. Made “On the Road with Bob Holman” for LinkTV. And discovered from the linguists I met there that these most valuable traditions were dying out as their very languages died.

What role does poetry play in preserving language?

Language is the essence of humanity. Poetry is the essence of language. Poets are in charge of preserving language -- not just our own, but all languages.

How do you think globalization has affected the vitality of language?

The Horrific Triumph of Capitalism’s main job is to create a homogenized consumer base. I agree that it would be terrific if we all spoke the same language, or make that two languages—English and Mandarin, which is what the apocalypsists say might be the case in 300 years. But we don’t need to be monolingual to all speak the same language. The answer to the language crisis is multilinguality, and respecting all Mother Tongues.

Of the different languages you’ve encountered throughout your career, which stood out the most, and why?

I've dived really deeply into Welsh. The Celtic sounds and cynghanedd poetic forms tremble my mouth, and I love the Welsh people. Saying hello in Dogon takes at least 5 minutes, and I’ll never forget how to do that. But I’m inspired by Margaret Randall’s returning to the US after years of self-imposed exile in Mexico because she wanted to speak English again as reason to not denigrate the joys of my own Mother Tongue. Even if it is a bully.

Are new languages being created as old languages go extinct?

First, it’s totally politically incorrect to say languages are going extinct! The revival of languages like Wampanoag, which had not been spoken in over 100 years, show that all languages that have been written or recorded can be revived, if the people will it so. No, these languages are not extinct. These languages are sleeping. But to answer the question, a new language was found a couple years ago in Australia. The linguist called it Light Walpiri. It’s got elements of several Aboriginal tongues including Walpiri, and English, but has a grammar all its own. It is spoken only by people 35 and under.

Is there a specific moment or experience working on Language Matters that didn’t make it into the documentary, but sticks out to you?

When Charlie Mangulda, the last speaker of Amurdak, began speaking in a language that had heretofore never been recorded, it was simply passed over in the moment, until I broke into the camera zone, hooting and hollering about the newspaper headlines that would follow: TV Crew Discovers New Language! So we went back and recorded Charlie’s reaction to my freakout, and Nick Evans, the linguist and I did a section about the discovery of Wurridik. What I wish had made it on TV was my going bananas. There was also the moment that the wave inundated me in Hilo and almost dragged me out to sea, but that’s another story.

One woman in the documentary mentions that she speaks so many languages out of respect to other villages and people. What role does respect play in the preservation of language?

Thinking of languages strictly as means of communications makes it seem like nothing could be better than all of us speaking the same language. The answer, as poets know, is that languages are our true identity, they are who we are. Languages might even be defined as consciousness itself—I mean how can you define anything, except through language? And respect for Mother Tongues is the way to keep languages alive. Each of us needs to take this on as part of our work—to want to know about other languages. To not be afraid to learn a little bit of a language when you are meeting someone who speaks something other than English.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a section of the Brooklyn Rail’s “Critic’s Pages” which includes poets, poet/painters, and poet/filmmakers. I just got a travel grant from the Ford Foundation to take Language Matters to language revitalization centers in Hawaii and Alaska. And my new book, The Unspoken, will be published next year.

What is one piece that you are most proud of?

I’m very proud of my newest poem, “The Hammer of Justice,” which I wrote with Papa Susso. It’s the first time we’ve started with a poem of mine, and then worked out translations into Mandinke, instead of the other way around. It’s about how #BlackLivesMatter will never begin to be healed without Reparations.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Interview with Mark Nowak, 2015 Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism Recipient

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. 


Poet, cultural critic, playwright, essayist, and director of the graduate creative writing program at Manhattanville College, Mark Nowak is the winner of this year's Freedom Plow Award. A true poet activist, Mark has a longtime commitment to labor issues. Encouraging deep workers' solidarity, he exposes every mining disaster in the world through his blog and facilitates "poetry dialogues" among workers across the globe. Mark is the author of three books of poetry, all of which can also be viewed as studies of labor economy under global capitalism: Revenants (2000), Shut Up Shut Down (2004), and Coal Mountain Elementary (2008). He is the editor of Then and Now: Theodore Enslin’s Selected Poems, 1943-1993 (National Poetry Foundation, 1999) and, with Diane Glancy, Visit Teepee Town: Native Writings after the Detours (Coffee House Press, 1999). Since 1997 he has been the editor of Xcp: Cross-Cultural Poetics.  Nowak was awarded the 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship.


What inspired your commitment to labor issues? And when did you first start thinking about language as a means for social change?

My family was certainly my first and deepest inspiration. My grandma, Stella, dropped out of elementary school to become a domestic worker. She was later a Teamster and a Rosie-the-Riveter. Her husband, my grandpa, spent his working life in the roll mill at the behemoth Bethlehem Steel Plant in Lackawanna, NY. My dad was Vice President of his union at the Westinghouse plant in Buffalo for many years. And my mom was a clerical worker for most of her career. Then, amidst a sea of terrible teachers in middle school and high school, one teacher (who I’m still friends with), Michael Pikus, told me I should start reading books by Albert Camus and George Orwell and the existentialists. My life hasn’t been the same since then. I’d also add that being part of the punk and electronic music scene and playing in bands in Buffalo and Toronto in my late teens and early 20s helped to politicize me. I’ve written about those years in an essay that came out in Goth: Undead Subculture.

Can you discuss the role of dialogue in your poetry activism?

To me, the poetry workshop is such an important tool for use in progressive organizations like workers centers or repressive institutions like the prison industrial complex because it can operate in what I like to call both the first person singular and the first person plural – the “I” and the “We”. What emerges from my poetry workshops with workers centers and global trade unions, for example, is both a valuation of individual workers’ stories AND the collective understanding that these stories are simultaneously isolated events happening to individuals and repressions that are happening to workers across the world. Thus, the workshops help to build both the confidence in workers’ individual voices and their belief in shared struggle and collective resistance.

How do news outlets trigger and influence your poetry?

Every day, one of the first news sources I look at is Labourstart. It’s very easy to form an opinion that the working class and the trade unions are a dying breed if all you listen to is the U.S. corporate media. But Labourstart reminds me each and every day of the hundreds and thousands of workers around the world who are rebelling in small and large ways. This kind of daily practice utterly shifts my perspective of living in this world and inspires me to continue to do the work I do.

What audience(s) do you keep in mind when you write and publish your poetry?

Every poet wants to say “the public,” of course. But for me, I really want to create work that is simultaneously and equally of interest to the literary community and to global workers. I want to feel equally confident and proud when reading the exact same piece at a literary center and at a union hall. I can’t just write for one or the other, or different pieces for each group. I have to write for them together. This is the only way I can be satisfied with what I produce.

As a professor at Manhattanville College, how does teaching connect to the process and product of your poetry and community building?

When I arrived at Manhattanville, I immediately developed a required MFA seminar on critical pedagogy and the teaching of creative writing in the community. My students read, watch videos, and examine and critique the history of writers in the schools, prisons, community centers, and workplaces. They watch films like Louder Than a Bomb and read books by everyone from Paulo Freire to Joy James. And I’m happy to see a growing number of my former students now teaching writing workshops at Bedford Women’s Prison, Sing Sing, and elsewhere. Others have gone on to develop poetry workshops for women recently diagnosed with breast cancer and women living at domestic violence shelters. This work by our Manhattanville MFA alums really inspires me.

What are you working on now?

We’ve recently won a three-year grant to open a school/institute for worker writers at the PEN American Center in New York City, so I’m developing the first semester’s classes that will start in early April. We’ll meet for five straight weeks and write new poems that we’ll premiere at an event in the PEN World Voices Festival on Saturday, May 9. More info is available at our brand new website, Then we’re going to put together a weekend retreat/festival for worker writers on Governor’s Island this summer.

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

I’m actually most proud of the poems produced by the workers in my workshops. And though I might cite all of them, I guess it’d be good to turn back to the beginning. The first workshop I ever taught exclusively for workers happened at the Chicago Center for Working Class Studies, headed by the great labor historian Bob Bruno. One of the students in that class was Frank Cunningham from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW Local 139). Frank wrote an incredible poem about seeing the electrical work he’d done in the skyscrapers of Chicago, knowing it was his work that made the lights on the Chicago skyline shine as they did in the night sky. The workshop was more than a decade ago and I lost touch with Frank for several years. But when we got back in contact, he told me that he’d recently entered the poem in a contest and won third place. It was the Robert Frost poetry competition and Frank’s poem was published in The Saturday Evening Post. Frank’s story reminds me how much poetry matters to workers who take these workshops and how powerful and important the stories of their working lives can be in bringing social, economic, and political change for workers around the world.

Poem of the Week: Lourdes Galván

Landscapes that Remind Me of My Children

Utica is a pretty and quiet country
When I was at the bus station
my son would say to me, 'mom, I am hungry'
and a man who was sweeping came up to me
and told me to come
and I went
and he bought him a hamburger
and a milk carton
and that is how a woman came up to me
and asked me 'what are you doing here?'
and I told her what was happening to me
and she said come to my house
because it is very cold outside
and then call the person so that they come get you
she gave us dinner but I
because I was sad
could not eat
or sleep
and this is my story

 Pasajes que me Recuerdan a Mis Hijos
Utica es un país muy bonito y tranquilo
Cuando estaba en la estación del autobús
mi hijo me decía 'mama, tengo hambre'
y un señor que estaba bariendo se me acerco
y me dijo ven
y yo fui
y le compro una hamburguesa
y un bote de leche
y así a mi vino una señora
y me pregunto '¿que haces aquí?'
y yo platique lo que me pasaba y me dijo vente a mi casa
porque afuera está muy frio
y después llamas a la persona para que venga por ti
nos dio de cenar pero yo
como me sentía triste
no podía comer
ni tampoco dormir
y esta es mi historica

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Used with permission.
Translation from the Spanish by Leanne Tory-Murphy.

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Lourdes Galván wrote this poem in her workshops with Mark Nowak. The workshops were part of a collaboration between The Worker Justice Center of New York in Kingston and the PEN American Center/PEN World Voices Festival. Lourdes originally performed this poem at two events in the PEN World Voices Festival (2014), including once at a pop-up poetry reading with fellow Hudson Valley farmworkers at the Union 
Square Farmers' Market in New York City. 

Given the policy of the Department of Immigration and Nationalization Services toward many workers in the US, we have withheld the author's photograph due to her legal status.

This poem was selected by our Freedom Plow Award winner Mark Nowak to be our Poem of the Week. 
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Please feel free to share Split This Rock Poem of the Week widely. We just ask you to include all of the information in this post, including this request. Thanks! If you are interested in reading past poems of the week, feel free to visit the blog archive.  

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.