Interview with Poet and Fiction Writer Christopher Jon Heuer
WG: Chris, your story "Trauma" was published a few years ago in John Lee Clark' Deaf Lit Extravaganza and within the past couple of months has been re-published in two other literary anthologies. What is it about that story that you think appeals to readers?
CJH: Off the top of my head "Trauma" has been republished quite a few times over the years. The story is based on a character named Dan and I wrote three other stories about him, all which I think were also republished. So the character got a pretty wide audience, yeah. I think the appeal is the brutal realism of the story. And the fact that this isn't about heroes. Dan is not… "a good guy." He's a good person, I think, fundamentally, but the violence around him at all times is stark, and you have to keep in mind these stories center deafness around his teenage years. His deafness if anything goes to the extreme backdrop, even though he narrates about his deafness quite often throughout the story. His father's alcoholism, all of the fights he's getting into, all of the violence he's reliving through traumatic flashbacks… I think that sucks a reader in. Because in this market we're talking about disabilities, right? And so many of us were in mainstream settings in our teenage years. And we endured some of the worst emotional abuse of our lives at that time. Children lack restraint. Thank God they lack finesse, too, or the devastation they dish out in their emotional abuse of others, especially other children they deem 'beneath them' would penetrate so deeply it would end up killing a lot of us. Adults have experience. We know how to plunge the blade deep. But we lack the strength of children, the raw energy. If they could harness the cynicism with which we emotionally wound our adult contemporaries, and compound it with their energy that we cannot match, they would be deadly. In fact I'm a bit scared by that because I think social media and media in general exposes them to how we as adults treat one another in our worst moments, and so those children are learning our language. And that's why you see all of these increased suicides among children who cannot handle that. All the vicious bullying.
I think Dan puts people in touch with these realities. And in an age where some disabled kid just recently had a coat hanger shoved up his ass by a member of his football team, and this other kid kicked that hanger several times after the boy fell–this is in the newspapers, you can check–I think that when people start reading Dan's story they start making some sense of all this. It puts you in touch with your empathy. Your heat breaks for that kid. Even though Dan is a violent and unstable kid.
WG: You seem to have a pretty Hobbesian view of human nature. I'm wondering how much of the story came from you own experiences. Are your own childhood experiences the starting point for most of the fiction that you write?
CJH: Let me make a distinction. The story is based on Dan. Not me. So there are two separate realities. His and mine. His is based on mine and his is based on a combo of half a dozen people I knew long ago who I've molded together to bring key components of his character into sharp relief. My view of life is a lot more healed than his is. More mature. More aware of choices and consequences. I have information that he doesn't. My view of the world is a deeply Buddhist one actually. I will avoid violence until I absolutely cannot. Dan on the other hand has not yet learned that restraint. He will. But it will require more stories.
Adding to that, though, if you want to know how much of this is based on reality, I ask you to look at the range of who I am as a person. The most recent story I've tried to market is a horror story about a monster that eats people. Is that based on me? Well, for starters, I haven't eaten anyone (yet! Bahaha! Kidding!). On the other hand, here's an absolutely true story. I got a group message on Facebook recently from a friend of mine that I went to high school with. This is one of like two people from high school that I still know. Turns out this guy we both used to know is in the hospital. I barely knew this guy even then but, you know, this group was composed of all these people I went to high school with and haven't talked to in thirty years. I said "Oh I'm sorry to hear that. I hope he'll pull through!" I didn't even know what was wrong with the guy.
But then all the people in this group start talking, and I recognize them by name. And they're all talking about getting together in the park outside our old high school and taking a group shot of them all flipping the bird so they can send it to this dude in the hospital. And a few days later they do, and they post that, and bam I get to see what they all look like now, and it brings back memories for days. Stuff that happened back then. And then, okay, they start talking on Facebook about another guy we all know… let's call him John, who came for the picture. John showed up late, as usual. It was clear they all love him because they started talking about what a dick he is, and then started mocking him for being late. And one person said something like: "I wouldn't have been surprised if John had shown up covered in blood." And everybody instantly agreed. Yep. John was the guy who would show up at a party after having just taken eight stitches in the emergency room. "THAT" guy. He's in my story too. The spirit of him. I recognize something of a kindred spirit in John. He and I got in a fight once when we were much younger. I lost badly. Then later in high school and a couple times after, we had some good times. Last time I saw that guy, in fact, was just after Brad died. Brad is a character in Dan's story who goes by the same name and is taken almost directly from actual experience. Right down to the broken collar-bone and how he got it. Although there's a lot more to Brad that I leave out of the story.
That's the lens through which you have to view Dan's world. He's me, he's many people, he's none of us. Same for the other characters in the story. The important thing is, if you know me, and you're a part of this story, or at least think you are, then just don't get so caught up in whether this is the truth or fiction. What's important is the gist of it all, what feels true. And what's communicated from that truth. And what choices should you make now based on what you've read?
Just for clarification (and this is not something I am asking you to answer for the interview), when I was referring to a Hobbesian view of nature, what I had in mind was the idea that in contrast to Rousseau who basically thought that given a chance people will be good, Hobbes thought this view unrealistic and, thus his famous quote that human life is "short, nasty, and brutish."
CJH: I'd say people can be good but it depends on what goes into them. I have a nine year old son. We try to limit the violence he's exposed to in say, video games and television shows, but we don't really duck letting him know what the world is. Profanity for example. We have the understanding that if he hears something and wants to know what it means we'll tell him but he can't repeat it. Because hey, people swear. I could send him off to be raised among the Amish and he'd still learn how to swear. Or why he can't play outside of our direct line of sight from the front and back windows of our house. We tell him directly it's because there are bad people out there and while it's not likely he'll come into contact with one, you never know. And for anyone who thinks that's paranoid there are sex offender registry websites you can go to in order to find out how close to your house the nearest registered sex offender is living. Give it a try, man. It's an eye opener. The point is we're simple and direct while being supportive and helping him process tough things. Fighting too. We know it's coming. Makes absolutely no difference that he's hearing. If he lacks confidence, a bully will home in on that. It's like blood in the water. We don't explain it to him in those words but he goes to Tae Kwon Do practice two to three nights a week and he just earned a high green belt. And if he ever faces the problems I faced, along with the same level of administrative neglect that I faced when I was a kid I will sue that school and any hypothetical bully's parents so fast your head will spin. It's a delicate balance. You don't want to be a helicopter parent but we have kids now who are taping their own suicides on Facebook Live. You have to keep a sharp eye out.
So summing up this part of the discussion, are people basically good? It depends. Let me put it this way. If I hadn't gone deaf, and if I hadn't gone deaf in a world that could basically care less about deafness, if the communication barriers hadn't played their role in screwing up my emotional and social development, if I hadn't been born to an alcoholic father, would I be better off? I can't say. I'd be different. I know all kinds of hearing people who were born to good parents and never moved more than fifty miles away from their hometown and now they work in Green Giant Canning Factory. Or if I had just gone deaf but people around me were still basically cool instead of being infused with the hostility, irritation, contempt, and so forth that was a basic reality for me while growing up, I might be different too. Maybe in a better way, maybe worse. My own hardships fuel my current capacity for empathy and compassion. I don't want to give those things up. Maybe in that sense I was lucky.
WG: Chris, in addition to writing fiction you are also a poet. You said of your fiction, "What' important is the gist of it all, what feels true. And what's communicated is the truth." Would you say that this holds true for your poetry as well? What is that makes you decided whether you want to communicate a particular truth in form poetry or in fiction?
Poetry, yeah, same general issue. A lot of my poetry is pretty raw. Especially the autobiographical stuff. "The Hands of My Father" is sort of the equivalent of Trauma in terms of how many times it has been reprinted. There's another poem too entitled Visible Scars that also gets a big reaction. The first is about a guy basically narrating the real obituary of his dead father and making peace with that. The second is about a deaf guy who goes for an interview and is turned down. But how he is turned down is what's so screwed up (a Black woman–another person who is from a minority group–yells at him and basically tells him to stop feeling sorry for himself and stop being so angry). That's based on a true story as well. I used to work for Milwaukee Public Schools. ROUGH school system. They actually made it into the Dance of the Lemons segment in the movie Waiting for Superman. I saw some really disturbing things while working there but I'll get into that another time. For now, this is the story. I wanted to move up, right? And MPS was interviewing internally for this position…a multicultural curriculum instructor or something like that. So I figure okay, I'll take a shot at this. And I'm interviewed by this woman, this black woman. And bam, instantly, with the opening question, she asks me what I would do if I spent a lot of time preparing a curriculum that I was proud of only to find that my principal didn't support it and wanted me to use a state approved book or something.
I said, in an entirely professional and reasonable tone, that I'd make the change but I'd try to discuss the issue with him. See what I could hold onto. Or go with what the school wanted at first but over the years try to work in changes where I could. But through this all she just keeps shaking her head saying "No, that's not what I'm asking you. Do you make the change or not." And she just keeps looking at me like I'm the biggest idiot she has ever seen, so eventually I get a little exasperated and say something like "Look, we're not here to be a bunch of good little Nazis. We have brains. Bringing up our own ideas is a good thing. Right? New blood in the system and all." To which she replies "I'm here to hire someone who will do what their principal tells them to do." And this started a mini-argument because I had just said I'd try to work with the guy but she wasn't having it. And this ended with her saying "Don't bring your anger in here to ME, young man." Which is a line that made it into the poem. I'll tell you this. I wasn't angry going in there. I was hopeful. But I was pissed when I left. Then again this is Milwaukee Public Schools for you. In my day, the high school I worked at was 98% Black, 2% white. But the staff was 98% white. So you see how that game works. I figured this was survival mode for her. For that woman who interviewed me. I've since met plenty of Deaf professionals who will happily fry your ass to protect their own jobs. Because they know that if they lose those jobs, and if they're stamped with a "reputation", that's going to follow them to the next job they apply for, and the staff at their next school is probably also going to be mostly hearing people. So they'll say what they're told to say, thank you very much. Sad. But that's the world. I've made my peace. The key is seeing it for what it is.
WG: So is a poem just about "telling it like it is" or does it have some other function? What makes it a poem to you? What do you look for when you read someone else' poetry?
CJH: A poem, or a story for that matter, doesn't have to "tell it like it is." About a year ago I published a poem right here in Wordgathering entitled Deaf People Defend New York City from Giant Space Octopi. So that's not really telling it like it is unless an armada of giant space octopi suddenly descend from the clouds and start blowing apart the Earth. But even in that poem, which is humor/satire, there are sections meant to jab a little bit. Such as this:
deaf people, perhaps inoculated
So what's the big deal here? Okay, there's the reference of how our culture, which was once heavily dependent upon clubs that deaf people used to go to in order to socialize, form political movements, etc have all but died out, though there are a few still around. And that last line about the bong hits no longer illuminating the signer, that's a playful jab at drug use in the Deaf Community, which I absolutely do not look down on. But I did want to include it in a poem because hey, it's there. And usually such imagery is used to shame us and the community as a whole. Here in this poem though it's just a big joke.
I think poetry should express what's honestly there in your mind in the moment. I mentioned earlier I have a profoundly Buddhist view of reality. Poetry fits into that nicely. Poetry is Mindfulness in words. When it's done right, anyway. It is as difficult to be Mindful as it is to write a good poem. Or a good story. Or dance a good dance or paint a good painting. Or cook a great meatloaf if that's your thing. Mindfulness is the key. When you're Mindful, your inner Truth naturally expresses itself. And when it does it recognizes simultaneously that it (your Truth) is subjective in that it's yours. But it also recognizes broader Truths, of which yours is a part. A lot of my recent poetry incorporates savage humor into end-of-the-world scenarios. There was a poem about a guy who saved a whole library of books on how to rebuild society on his Kindle in preparation for the Apocalypse but when the electricity died so did his Kindle and so did he. I think my poetry has evolved over the years from trying to capture the lunacy of my life and upbringing, which made it dark and raw and painful, to trying to capture the lunacy of humankind as a whole, but I deliberately make it funny because it would otherwise be so hopeless. So what else can you do but laugh. Nobody's getting out of here alive, right?
WG : In answering the previous question, you talked about honesty in your own work, but obviously that, as you said, is pretty subjective. I'm wondering, what you look for when you read the poetry of others.
CJH: I don't really "look for" anything when I read the poetry of other writers. Beyond what moves me, that is. Poetry is an experience. In the midst of Mindfulness each breath however is an experience, and a unique one. You have to pay attention. When you do that everything moves you. Now of course I do have my own particular tastes. My own favorite poems. Plath's "Daddy" to this day floors me every single time I read it and I've read it thousands of times. Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love," though I think that was originally a song before it became a poem–not sure–is fantastic, as is Ella Wheeler Wilcox's I Love You. But I also love Sexton, Bukowski, Auden. During the last poetry class I taught I used Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal times (edited by Neil Astley). Loved pretty much every single poem in there. I try to take the poem as it is. Really focus on it, excluding focus on everything else. I do this with science fiction stories too. Ever heard of Daily Science Fiction? They specialize in short-shorts… stories under 1500 words, though stories that are significantly shorter than that have a better chance of being published. It's HARD to write stories that short. You'd think it would be easier, less work. That's absolutely not the case. I've submitted to them a dozen times. Only had one story published. I make it a habit to read what they run every day. But then, you know, I also make it a daily habit to sit out on my deck and watch the grass grow, and have a nightly campfire, and burn one different scented incense stick while I'm out there. Intense…focus. Do you see? You have to train yourself. Took me years. It's not just absorbing what's there. It's excluding all the other stuff that's not what you're focusing on. And yet at the same time taking it all in simultaneously: the focused and the unfocused. This is Zen. This is Awareness. This is Mindfulness. This to me is the best way to read. To write. To sit. To breathe.
WG : In the poem you cited previously, you referenced activities of the Deaf community, something that you are in a great position to witness first hand as a professor at Gallaudet. I want to ask what you have done in your own classes to encourage the reading of work by D/deaf writers.
CJH: In my own classes, I try to impart some of the Mindfulness I've just described – perhaps not directly in terms of Buddhism but in terms of awareness of oneself and one's words, one's performance. We give live poetry readings all over campus, and later off-campus. And oh my God do students hate it at first. They're self-conscious, nervous, embarrassed. But they grow to love it. There's this restaurant/bar on campus called Rathskellar where we give weekly performances. There are crowds of fifty people in there sometimes. Mostly friends of the performers. It can get completely nuts. We invite people from the crowd to read if they'd like. We have the philosophy that if we get the crowd to do more reading than we (the class members) do, that was a success. Later on at the end of the semester we give outdoor performances where we all bake cookies and bring them and we bring blankets for everyone and lots of candles and incense sticks and readings can go on well into the night. It's fantastic. People aren't used to poetry being taught like this. They aren't used to living like this. With the sharp tang of poetry in their mouths and the crackle of it on their fingertips and the itch of the grass under their asses and incense smoke making their eyes water. Everything is so god damned muted these days, so… appropriate…pared down, acceptable, professional…FAKE. Jesus. It' exactly like Dead Poet' Society. Comes as absolutely no shock to me at all that dude (Robin William' character John Keating) got fired. Of course he got fired. He was mainlining Life. He was doing, he was a living example, of exactly what poetry is for. And unfortunately there aren't many college administrators that get that. Not many elbow patch wearing Ph.Ds. who get that. To them, if you can' assess and score it and ship the data off to the MSCHE so you can justify your next round of government funding, it' a waste of time. And that attitude is exactly why I go to work jeans that are so ripped and worn out they're practically falling off my rear end, why I don' own a shirt that doesn' have a science fiction theme on it, why I hold classes outside as much as I can and one of our standing rules is every time you speak up during a class discussion you have to punctuate your statement with the act of plucking a dandelion and flicking it at someone else in the circle. You know what you end up with when you don' live like this? You end up with Steve Fucking Bannon and the fascist hordes of Breitbart running the United States of America. I say let' use Education to avoid that scenario, you know? If we use it for anything at all. Not so much prep students for a career but rather make sure we don' reduce the Earth to a glowing nuclear cinder of hate due to all the shit we're repressing. As Williams said in Dead Poets Society: "We're writing poetry here. Not laying pipe."
WG : Chris, I want to thank you for taking part in this interview. I think we have covered quite a bit of territory in a relatively small space of time, but before closing, I want to ask if there is anything you would like to add about your work that we may have passed over.
CJH: Currently I'm editing an anthology of science fiction, horror, and fantasy stories entitled Tripping the Tale Fantastic: Weird Fiction by Deaf and Hard of Hearing Writers. This is coming out via Handtype Press this fall, maybe a bit earlier, so watch for that! It's the first anthology of its kind, I'm pretty sure, in that it focuses exclusively on genres for writers from this community … though of course we have had stories from these genres show up in various anthologies. But those stories were more of a stand-alone deal. It's important that we keep pushing the boundaries of our fiction, of any type of creativity within this community, because inasmuch as our community provides us with a sense of identity–even if only in part– creativity and art is what completes the loop…it's how we as individuals feed what is uniquely ourselves back into the community. Plus this is about representation. I just did a sort of promotional gig for Deaf Poets Society…they are putting out an issue soon called Crips In Space (their deadline for that is April 4th, by the way, check out their website!). Did a short vid clip for them where I was talking about the movie War of the Worlds. Not the 2005 one with Tom Cruise. The original one from the 1950s. It had an unintentionally funny scene…the asteroid containing the alien ships had already crashed into the Earth, and three guys who had been left behind to keep an eye on it suddenly saw that alien eye machine rise up out of the crater. And these guys were talking trying to figure out how to communicate with the aliens and one had the bright idea to use sign language because it's "universal." Of course they were incinerated. Not because hearing people at the time–the film makers especially–knew that signs can vary from state to state, let alone country to country, but because they had to start a war and those just happened to be the first three guys to die.
But the scene underscores my point. If we don't write our own fiction and represent ourselves…ACCURATELY… then nothing remotely cool is ever going to happen to us. We're not going to meet any aliens, we're not going to travel in time, or get on a rocket ship and go to Mars (though we can all get on a plane just fine, so I don' see what the problem is). We're not going to get the girl, we're not going to be the private eye that nabs the mustache twirling mastermind. We're just going to be in the background. With all of the mistakes and the embarassments. Where everything that isn' White, Male, Straight, Christian, Middle Class, Able-Bodied, and College Educated gets placed. Or we're going to be Geordi LaForge on Star Trek…a blind guy played by a sighted guy. So we have to create. Not just fiction and poetry and art, but we have to create loyal readerships, loyal followings, loyal pools of artists. You know, I've been an English professor for sixteen years now and one thing that never fails to piss me off is this comment I see popping up sometimes about my stuff overall… "He's good! But he needs to try to reach wider audiences with his work." See what they want is for me to go mainstream. Which isn' to say I never do, or that I don' try at all…it's just that science fiction is ferociously competitive and I'm rejected much more than I'm published. But one thing you definitely can't say about the field is that it' not mainstream. It' as mainstream as anything. The problem however is that even making this argument feeds the bigger lie. Because NOTHING is "mainstream." Do you think your average factory worker or pipe fitter in Iowa gives a shit about the most prestigious poetry magazines out there? Do you think that the crowds who go for Men' Health care about Shakespeare? Hey maybe some do. Maybe there' an overlap. But I'll bet my career the vast majority of people reading Popular Mechanics aren't skimming through Vanity Fair on the side. And if both those magazines are "mainstream," why is that? Oh, do you mean because they're White, Abled-Bodied, Highly Educated, Middle Class… etc? Am I starting to make my point yet?
I don't think anyone means to inadvertently spit on us lowly disability-fiction writers or us lowly sci-fi writers but in a way that's'exactly how they end up coming across. And I find that irritating. This is what I mean by loyalty. Nobody took Marvel Comics seriously when the first titles started coming out, and look where Marvel is today. Sure, Hollywood helped them get there. But loyalty helped them get there too. And that's what we need here. People dedicated to pushing the boundaries of our art, people who take it seriously, who pour themselves into it, who READ it, who take the time to think about it. And not just blow it off or look down their noses at it or classify it as an oddity… "special" fiction by "special" people! It makes you want to friggin' pop someone. But we can't that so let's do the next best thing. Let's keep doing our best to make our stuff GOOD. To make it interesting, cool, absorbing, raw, painful. In everything. All fields, all genres. All art. Not to impress the mainstream critics. But to honor ourselves and our creations and the artistic process. If you're doing that already, that's a worthwhile life, man.
And if you're not, why aren't you? Get going. Art doesn't create itself. It depends entirely on you.