I am so excited that two of my favorite poems have been published in Deaf Lit Extravaganza, another anthology put together by the wonderful John Lee Clark, author of Suddenly Slow and Deaf American Poetry: An Anthology.
If you are at all curious about the Deaf community, I urge you to pick this up. It had great range, from fiction to poetry to non-fiction, and features some very talented writers.
From the introduction by John Lee Clark:
“…this book represents the latest blow to the audist vision of deafness as a calamity, as something that must be fixed at all costs.”
The cover of the book, a dandelion, is a tribute to Clayton Valli, a ASL poet and linguist. His famous ASL poem “A Dandelion”, which is about the persistence of ASL despite oralists attempts to weed it out, is transcribed in the book, though I love the ASL version below:
[A note from Wikipedia:
“Audism is the notion that one is superior based upon one’s ability to hear, or that life without hearing is futile and miserable, or an attitude based on pathological thinking which results in a negative stigma toward anyone who does not hear.”]
[A note from me:
Many hearing people are audists without even realizing it.
They are audists when they feel bad for someone who is deaf—because of their deafness.
(Though when they just feel bad about a deaf person being left out, or when they wish to learn ASL to communicate better with a deaf person, that’s not audism.)
They are audists when they see a deaf person as disabled, or hearing impaired, or suffering from hearing loss.
They are audists when they think that person should have hearing aides or cochlear implants, or speak with their voice rather than their hands.
When you are part of the Deaf community or use ASL, hearing loss is not something that is “suffered.” Hearing loss then becomes deafness. It doesn’t include words like “impaired” or “loss” or “disabled.”
I do feel disabled when I am surrounded by hearing people who cannot sign. Or when someone turns on a movie that doesn’t have captions or subtitles. But that doesn’t really make me disabled. It just means I can’t hear English, despite the fact that I speak and write in English.
English was my first language, and Hearing culture was my first culture. Gradually, I’ve become a part of Deaf culture, too, and I’ve realized, it’s okay to be both. It’s okay to feel a part of two different cultures—the same way I feel at home in India or Ireland, but I was not born of those cultures, either.
I love ASL, but I’m not a master of it. I need it, but I cannot sign nearly as well as I can speak or write. This is why—this is exactly why—I’ve chosen to read my writing aloud, in English, because it was written in English. But if Deaf individuals attend my readings, I will always deeply want to sign for them.
I wish to take hold of my own voice with my hands as well as with my mouth. But I don’t feel adept enough to translate my English into ASL. And for a true ASL performance, I would need to read my work aloud, and then sign it in ASL. Not every venue would be open to that (being that it would take twice as long to do a reading), but that is something I might later wish to attempt in the performing of my own work.
Until then, I’m proud to be a part of anthologies like this—where my words can exist alongside other deaf writers speaking about the Deaf experience from their minds and from their hearts.]
This is a poem I wrote back in 2005, for my Hearing dog Willow:
THE REST OF ME
Sometimes when I am away,
I find myself longing for you like a lover.
I want to bend your ears,
feel the pads of your feet pushing against my thighs.
You lick tears before they even come.
You sit close to me when I am
stuck in bed with bodily aches.
And you know the greatest medicine of all
is your head, resting heavy,
across my stomach.
Instead I am sitting on a jagged gray rock,
the wind trying to steal my hair
or these pages.
Pulling at me as you have done.
I am here because I can fly.
I can put an ocean between us and
you are left, staring
into the sea from the other side.
While on Commenole Beach in Ireland, I hold
handfuls of sand in my fists because
it is the color of your fur.
In the deep brown of your eyes,
widely searching my own, I see—my body:
the home you guard with the passion
of twenty panting lovers. Your tail: pumping
like a heartbeat.
But I call you
as I’m supposed to.
I call you by your given name. Though
when I write such words to myself,
such prayers, I call you—
And I know you as
The Rest of Me.
I spent all of Willow’s life leaving and returning to him often, because I couldn’t be without a dog and I couldn’t stop traveling either. My parents, who always had dogs, gratefully accepted Willow as their grandson and always took care of him while I was in India or Kenya or Ireland for months at a time.
When Willow died last year, on August 1st, I felt myself adding up all the months I spent away from him. It broke my heart that out of his almost 11 years, I spent a total of 2.5 of them away from him. Now I’m more understanding of my own needs. I need a Hearing dog, I need that companionship and the social comfort they give me, but I also need to immerse myself in other cultures.
I’ve come to understand that it’s okay for our dogs to be shared between us—that only means they have more people that love them, and more people they can love in return.
I have more to say about Hearing dogs, and dogs, but I’d like to keep this post a dedication to Willow, the greatest dog that ever lived, who will always be “the rest of me.”
I’ll never stop longing for him, I’ll never stop feeling the shadow of his fur against my legs when I run, and I’ll never stop seeing his face between the trees of a forest, or popping up over the marshes, eyes on fire.
I suppose there are worse things to be haunted by.
A friend recently emailed me about feeling like she is pulled between two different directions for life work and graduate school. It reminded me of my own experiences during my 20’s, and I feel like this is something many people must go through, so I want to devote a post to how I came to decide between my art and my writing.
I grew up writing poetry and drawing, because my mother used to write poetry and she did a lot of sketching, toll painting, and craft projects that made me really inspired to do my own things with pencils, paint, and pens. I loved English and Art throughout High School, so when I went to college, I double majored in both English, with a writing focus, and Studio Art, with a painting focus. The first job I got after college was painting a mural of a sunset and a Robert Frost quote. After that, I painted a handful of murals in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, North India, Kenya, and Key West. I also taught mural painting to primary school children in Dun Chaoin, Ireland (which was even more fun than painting murals). You can see these murals on my author website HERE. I am most proud of my experiences teaching mural painting in Ireland and of the Key West mural, but during all of these projects, I was always writing poetry, memoir, or fiction on the side.
I was doing a lot of smaller paintings while living on the west coast of Ireland from 2005 until the end of 2006. It was during this time that I wrote the first draft of my memoir of Animal Care in South India and the life of my dear friend Ann, who I lost to colon cancer in 2005. I’ll always love that magic that happens when I sit in front of a wall or a canvas and just paint. Or the magic of travel photography, which I also dabbled in, but I never developed my ability to edit my photos after taking them. I just loved taking great travel pictures, which made me more of a snapshot photographer than a real photographer.
Anyway—it was through the writing of my memoir of stray dogs, and through the poetry I was perpetually writing about my romantic relationships and my relationship to the world, that I came to realize something important:
I might LOVE painting and photography, but I also LOVE writing.
So how do I choose which to devote my life to 100%, knowing that the “runner up” would probably only get 30% of my attention henceforth?
I decided on the writing because I read my words and I looked at my pictures, and I saw that I was a much better writer than I was an artist/photographer. I also needed to write far more often than I needed to paint or take pictures of things. And that’s what prompted me to apply to Goddard College for my MFA in Creative Writing, instead of going to art or photography school.
So what I’m offering to you with this post, if you are thus “undecided”, or “balancing between” two passions, or three passions) — do the following:
1. Seriously critique your work thus far in those fields. Answer this question honestly—which thing do I do better?
2. Think about your NEEDS. Ask yourself—which thing do I need to do more often? Which thing can I live without, and which can’t I live without?
Don’t think about money, or which would be easier to devote your life to, because we aren’t here to sit back and take it easy. We’re here to follow our passions and go on adventures—right?
One BIG QUESTION for all writers is – how many drafts do we really have to write for our manuscript to become that elusive “DONE”?
I’ve been struggling with that question for years, but I think with the completion of each project, the answer gradually gets clearer. I would now advise any new writers (those without at least one published book-length manuscript, in Prose or Poetry), to do at least 10 drafts of their project before submitting it to publishers/agents or self-publishing. I thought that might be the “rule” to always follow, but I’m realizing, at draft 5 of my newest manuscript, that the more books you write, the more “finished” your writing is from the start. It’s all about practice, though there will always be those books or poems that take ten years or longer to finish, or twenty revisions before they get to the point that feels like they have hit their true form.
I am a firm believer that no piece of writing (or art) is ever “finished.” We can always always revise it more, go deeper, let it grow, evolve, dream itself into new forms, but there is a point where something has taught us as much as it possibly can teach us—the point where our journey and the journey of a manuscript has certainly reached the point of parting ways.
It’s terribly hard to know sometimes, when we are done, or even just—when we need a break. I get obsessive with my writing, I dive into it like it’s a parallel world, and if I don’t have the right goal/dream in mind, sometimes I carry a project to a place I didn’t mean to carry it, a place it shouldn’t be.
I thought draft 4 was DONE for my latest work, so I sent it out, and sure enough, it wasn’t done yet. It was missing the deeper energy and lyricism I think of as my own personal style of writing. And I realized, that draft was missing something because I was just trying to get it done fast—I was rushing it. Rushing the first few drafts of something is absolutely FINE, though. It’s the part where I thought they were DONE that was wrong. So now, with draft 5, I’ve started over completely. I’m telling the same story, but I’m changing a lot of the world facts, some of the plot, some of the characters, etc. And I’m writing it slowly—I’m not forcing myself to write every day, and I’m only letting myself write when I NEED TO WRITE, when the desire to write surpasses every other feeling in my heart. Because then, I’ll know, I’m writing from the right place. I’m writing from my heart.
I’ve so far written almost 5,000 words, some of them taken from the 4th draft, but most are new. And it’s been one week (which means, I’m writing in pretty much half the speed I wrote the first 4 drafts, where I wrote 10,500 or so words a week for 6 weeks). So, really, I’m still obsessed enough to make good progress, but I finally feel that amazing, mysterious sensation that my story is telling itself. I think that happens when the words are flowing exactly the right way—it doesn’t mean I’m writing the final draft, but I’m writing the real story, and my characters are speaking from their hearts, too. It’s the most incredible feeling and probably my favorite part of writing.
So, in speaking to new writers, and writers everywhere—remember that deadlines are nobody’s friend. This is a sailing lesson, too. If you rush a boat, you might wreck your boat. The same is true for our novels and poems and memoirs, but thankfully, with our writing, the repairs are easier. Of course, writing “repairs” are less tangible, they’re only words, they’re not a hole in your hull, or a torn sail, or broken mast, but they might feel that way. When we work so hard at something, when it takes over our lives, and we find out—alas—it’s NOT DONE YET, that can be devastating, but when we get over the initial shock, the initial feeling of loss and emptiness (because I have felt empty of words), we realize that we CAN ACTUALLY REVISE, that the words never leave us. The words never leave at all.
I’ve heard some people say that “writer’s block” is a myth, and we can always get out of it, we can always free write ourselves out of those kinds of blocks, and sometimes I believe it. But sometimes I don’t. Sometimes, I think it’s okay to take a break, feel the emptiness for a while, and then let the words come back slowly (or quickly), like wild animals we might meet in a forest, or on the water. You can never predict when a dolphin will decide to play between your hulls when you’re sailing a catamaran, just like you can never predict when a fox might step towards you, might even walk straight up to you, and look you in the eye—when the words just appear seemingly out of thin air, and it’s like floodgates opening.
Part of me is writing this to tell other writers: don’t despair when you realize you’ve revised your work to death and it STILL needs more revising. Or when your work gets rejected. I don’t yet have an agent (though I feel absolutely blessed to have one published novel out there circulating in the Universe), but I’ve heard that even when you do have one, you’re still going to get rejected, or be forced to revise things so many times, you might find yourself going crazy. Take a breath, and keep going though, this is our dream job, isn’t it?
Wishing everyone the best of luck in their endeavors, whether they are writing or sailing, and remember, two things from this post:
THE WORDS NEVER LEAVE US.
I was 35 weeks pregnant when I flew from Rhode Island to New Mexico in order to attend the AROHO Women’s Writing Retreat back in 2011. Many people were concerned about me flying alone to spend a week at the high elevation of Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, when I was so close to giving birth. I also wouldn’t have a reliable cell phone signal there, and the nearest hospital or birth center was hours away. I listened to my body and I took that risk because sometimes, we are faced with risks that we absolutely need to take, and it’s a personal, private choice that no one else can make for us.
I needed the opportunity of that retreat for my writing, and I needed it as one last trip before my entire life was about to change with the birth of my first child.
The retreat was amazing. I made contacts with other writers and with a wonderful literary agent who has given me a lot of guidance with various writing projects throughout the past two years.
I gave a presentation, called a “Mind Stretch”, while at the retreat. A lot of people enjoyed it, so I am happy to post it here (because I am currently still in the process of my latest YA novel, and I’ve got to get back to it):
I’d first like to begin by saying that most Deaf people who also speak American Sign Language and are part of the Deaf community, which has its own culture revolving around the sign language of its members, do not view deafness as a disability at all. The reason for this is that deafness is not something that limits any of us physically until we encounter a hearing person trying to speak to us. We can all do everything that a hearing person can do and everything we need to survive. In a sense, deafness is like perpetually living in a foreign country where most of the people around you do not speak your language.
I also believe that deafness becomes a disability when a deaf person chooses to be in an environment where they are surrounded by hearing people conversing and expecting them to be part of a conversation. In this instance, deafness is literally a disability because the deaf person cannot follow a conversation. I don’t think it’s possible for a deaf person in these circumstances to ever feel equal to the people around him or her.
In the deaf artist, Susan Dupor’s, painting, Family Dog, she is in the position of a dog under a coffee table while the rest of the hearing people in the room have blurry faces to signify that they are speaking things she cannot understand. Her deafness makes her feel lower than everyone else, like a pet dog that sits on the floor with their tongue hanging out. I’ve often felt this way in groups of hearing people, and I know this is a component to my lifelong attachment to animals and dogs especially. This feeling drove Susan Dupor to paint the scene exactly as she has felt it happen to her, and for me, this feeling has prompted me to fly to India and help stray dogs and to train my own dog as a Hearing dog and companion. I literally do not feel complete without my dog or any dog by my side, and it’s because of how marginalized I’ve felt growing up and going deaf while everyone just kept talking.
As a side note: I wanted to bring my Hearing dog on this trip, but my current disability of being pregnant has basically made me decide to make this trip on my own and have as little as possible to worry about. Although my dog helps me to feel more comfortable and equal in groups of hearing people, he is still like a child in many ways because I haven’t yet been able to train him to feed himself or take himself for a walk or carry my bags for me. So, it was easier to leave him home.
The painter, Frida Khalo’s, disabilities greatly influenced her self-portraits. One example is her painting the Broken Column:
Carole Maso, in her cross-genre work Beauty is Convulsive, The Passion of Frida Khalo, explains:
“Three concerns impelled her to make art,
she told a critic in 1944:
her vivid memory of her own blood flowing during her childhood accident,
her thoughts about birth, death, and the conducting threads of life,
and the desire to be a mother.”
Frida was never able to be a mother and suffered through three abortions before she stopped trying.
Anne Finger, in her short story Helen and Frida, imagines a meeting between Helen Keller and Frida:
“So now the two female icons of disability have met: Helen, who is nothing but, who swells to fill up the category, sweet Helen with her drooping dresses covering drooping bosom, who is Blind and Deaf, her vocation; and Frida, who lifts her skirt to reveal the gaping, cunt-like wound on her leg, who rips her body open to reveal her back, a broken column, her back corset with its white canvas straps framing her beautiful breasts, her body stuck with nails: but she can’t be Disabled, she’s Sexual.”
I think what Finger means here about Frida being “Sexual” not “Disabled” is how Frida has painted her perfect breasts despite all the nails sticking into her skin. She is emulating her sexuality, and was known for her many affairs with both men and women. I find myself wondering if Frida is actually hiding behind her sexuality and using that as well as her art as a means to escape the feeling of being disabled.
In a poem by Kenny Fries, Excavation, he is focusing on the scars that mark his disability, but he is also digging deeper, trying to figure out who he was before such scars were made. His poem reads:
“Tonight, when I take off my shoes:
three toes on each twisted foot.
I touch the rough skin. The holes
where the pins were. The scars.
If I touch them long enough will I find
those who never touched me? Or those
who did? Freak, midget, three-toed
bastard. Words I’ve always heard.
Disabled, crippled, deformed. Words
I was given. But tonight I go back
farther, want more, tear deeper into
my skin. Peeling it back I reveal
the bones at birth I wasn’t given—
the place where no one speaks a word.”
We are left with the questions:
Where do we end and our disabilities begin?
Is it even possible to separate ourselves from our disabilities?
I’d like to call up the concept of disability as something that everyone faces at one point or another in their lives. We all can’t physically do something we want to do at some point, whether it is due to pregnancy or a broken leg or arthritis or old age. I’d like to present disability as something people should be more accepting of rather than marginalizing because of the fact that disability is part of being human.
We live in a society that does help each other and has moved away from Darwinism in the sense that, in the animal world, a disabled animal is a target, it’s something that will die much faster than any other animal in its herd or its pack, and no one will help it. Everyone is focused on their own survival and a disabled creature is a liability to the whole pack if they all try and help it. With humans, we have created a different sort of society here where disabled people often live as long as other people. We do help each other. But I think its hard for us to do this, somewhere inside we are all still animals, and disability is often a social stigmata because its something no one wants to face or experiences for themselves.
Chistopher John Heuer has written a poem called Visible Scars, which details his desire for deafness to be as well-known and as the persecution of black people. Deaf people are just as marginalized as other minorities of America and in other countries, but we look just like everyone else and our language is silent. In many ways, the discrimination against us happens privately, but it’s understandable that Heuer wishes it were more public. I’ll read and sign his poem:
“In my dream the old black woman
said My but ain’t you an uppity nigger
for a white boy,
and threw a copy of the Americans with
Disabilities Act at my chest.
She said What whip were you ever under?
What land did you ever lose?
Then she showed me her back, tugging down
the heavy brown sweater that protected
her oppression. Her scars were black
in the way that skin visibly shudders
when ripped open, black in the way
that melanin reasserts itself in fury.
I reached for my ears but could not pull them off.
I felt in my ears but nothing was there.
I wished for scars like hers.
I wished to stand up and scream Look!
Look, look, look!
I wanted proof to show her, I wanted
centuries of songs to the Lord, I wished
for a hearing overseer
with a whip, I wished for rows of deaf men
in the cotton fields, signing in the sun.
I wished for the hearing man you could see,
so that I could point and shout
Look, look, look!
She said Don’t bring your anger here to me,
white boy, and pointed at the door.
I left the interview with a deaf man’s guilt,
Because I had no proof.”
Disability, for me, can often be frustrating to deal with (especially in groups of hearing people who are not trying to slow down their conversations, or who are trying to over compromise and slow things down so much that I can feel myself holding everyone back)…but if I was not gradually going deaf, I don’t believe my imagination would be as powerful and my writing wouldn’t be the same either.
I’ve learned to use my deafness as a way to reach out to people through both writing and art, as many other deaf and otherwise disabled artists have also done. I think its something everyone can use, regardless of how obviously disabled they are. Think of disabling emotions like fear, anxiety, paranoia, pain, depression…these are disabilities that begin in the mind or the heart but they can easily extend to our bodies… most people have these feelings at one point or another and as writers – we need to be able to tap into these universal human emotions in order to make our characters accessible. So in a sense, I feel that disability is the key to making a character we are writing about more human. It’s about making sure there is conflict in a story or a poem – because without some sort of tension, your reader isn’t going to be interested or feel connected to it. Disability becomes not just how we connect but WHY we connect.
It’s only when you consider a person or character’s disabilities – the things they can’t do – that you are able to figure out what things they are able to do best and what might be the gift or lesson you can learn from their disabilities. Humans often find the strongest communities through the things that they struggle with – like deafness or blindness or depression, or addictions or writing – they come together in support and compassion for each other and are able to help each other really figure out what they can do and where their strengths are.
I’d like you all to consider your characters and fellow humans this way as you write and live. See someone’s disability – but also look past it to find their talents as well, and connect their strengths and weaknesses with your own. We aren’t whole without this balance of disability and ability.
John Lee Clark is a deaf/blind writer and he illustrates the beautiful community that Deafness, other disabilities, and writing, CAN PROVIDE if we are able to reach out and connect with other people. I’d like to read and sign this poem of his to you in closing:
I miss all of the long goodbyes
of my parent’s guests
taking their leave by not leaving
when it was time to go. Someone would sign
Better go home we but hours would pass
around our round table—
the bowls of our hands offering
confession after confession
assuring us that we are we—
before anyone stands up.
Then others, sighing, will stand up
slowly and slowly walk
through our house, pausing
where the walls offer stories,
reasons to stay longer
and touch more things with our hands.
I remember how long,
how wonderfully they stood
unwilling to open the front door,
signing away with warm faces
and hugging goodbye again
before going gently into the night.
My family would huddle to watch
their cars’ headlights roll away
but pause to flash in the Deaf way,
waving goodbye to our house.
How we children dashed inside
to light switches for our house
to wave back goodbye,
light to light bright in the night!
Now that I am grown
and have my own family, do come
for a visit but do not leave
when it is time to go. Sign, do sign
Better go home we and our hands
will make time go suddenly slow.”