Unfit to Print: Refusing the Page in Deaf Poetics
(listen to the selection, read by the author)
Watch an American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation of Meg Day’s essay on Wordgathering’s new YouTube channel (interpretation by Emily Phipps, ASL Interpreter, NIC)
I experienced a Joseph Grigely installation for the first time as a young person in San Francisco. A long stretch of index cards, torn notepad paper, backs of envelopes, & cocktail napkins—each of them featuring handwritten English words or phrases—were pinned to the wall in a tidy grid much taller than me.
I have thought often of that afternoon. While there is an extensive history of written call & response between hearing & Deaf folks, the gallery featuring Grigely’s work made communication feel strange & fresh, not laborious or inequitable. These fragments of conversation seemed to stay where they occurred—on a lunch receipt, a dry-cleaning bill, the backside of a museum entrance ticket—& simultaneously allow a kind of visual eavesdropping, a transportive self-portrait of the artist via the inaccessibility of the world.
This leveraging of privacy in public fascinated me. Meanwhile, the arrangement of these meta archives on the wall gestured toward both a visual & verbal narrative wherein all parties were present only in the moment(s) of their collaboration, & otherwise invisible. Were these, then, physical memories? A new mode of witness, perhaps, an insistence of observation in situ not unlike that of James Castle or Emily Dickinson? What was happening in the making of these communicative artifacts: were they created in a bar, at a cash register, while waiting for an interpreter? How many of them were exchanges with the same hearing person, & what did the sheer volume of Grigely’s collection—hundreds?—reveal about the doggedness of audism, its sticky residue emerging in both the exceptional and the banal?
Much has changed since then, including my relationship to deafness; I did not experience sound then as I do now, & I did not understand how charged—often negatively, often with desperation & always with power—a pad of paper, passed between people, might become. But what tension I felt then has subsisted. What does it mean to ask artifacts of ableism to become art? What role am I meant to take in these conceptual reimaginings of how one might position a body in conversation? How does a Deaf artist or poet or dancer—a maker—prevent the hearing spectator from reasserting themselves, however stealthily, at the center of what’s made?
As a Deaf poet writing in English, I have long tried to get paper to do what it won’t: accommodate me. Early in my creative education, I reached for what seemed most legible to those around me: the ASL dictionary. There were no Deaf professors in my MFA program—were there any Deaf professors in any MFA program?—& the page became a place I fought for, a neighborhood that kept pricing me out. I had memorized hearing rhymes; I had pretended to understand stresses & accents, patterns of sound moving like a shared secret in the room, until I could sight read meter with passing competence. But where was I on the page? When I started including screen captions of signs from ASL dictionaries in my poems, my mentors warned me: these are images. This isn’t publishable.
When my chapbook, We Can’t Read This, was published by George Mason University’s Gazing Grain Press in 2013, I’d never seen sign language visuals printed in a book of poems. I’d read English glosses of Clayton Valli’s “The Wall & the Quilt,” & I’d learned Ella Mae Lentz’s “Eye Music” by heart from freeze-frame slides of an original performance, but inserting signs into English text felt new & risky to me. When Gazing Grain agreed to put Deaf artist Randy Garber on the cover, I was thrilled; Garber’s work helped me feel less alone as I tried to create a bridge between modes and genres, between worlds.
Did some other Deaf poet precede me? Probably. The ableism of publishing often prevents us from knowing, much less having, a recognizable lineage. I’d only ever seen ASL in visual art, performance, and dance. Was it cultural blasphemy? Probably. I don’t believe ASL dictionaries are, in the end, for Deaf people—nor do I believe them adequate in teaching the fluidity, ephemerality, embodiedness, or constant evolution of any signed language. To suggest, in any passive way, that the page was somehow made more my own by inserting dictionary signs was to fool both myself & my reader. This is, after all, the lie of Disability Poetics. It’s about us, & by us, but not for us.
In 2014, under the editorial guidance of poet Jonah Mixon-Webster, I published a suite of poems in Volume 11.1 of BathHouse, an online hypermedia journal out of Eastern Michigan University. I had buried myself in developing a theoretical approach to linguistic embodiment & performativity on the page, desperate—in the way ableism makes us desperate—to find a way to be a poet who could appear wholly as themselves & not as a fragment, some neatly contained & sanitized, singular version. I felt American poetics had been quite clear: one could not be Deaf & be a poet & expect to publish in English without sacrificing all but the most covert instances of disability. In BathHouse, something new felt possible. I published (“published”?) audio recordings of me signing my poems instead of allowing them to be read aloud; the recordings are, then, full of ambient noise & the occasional tongue click or pah of the body in motion. The poems, themselves, are cocktail napkin homages to Joseph Grigely’s original conceit & pulled from my own exchanges over paper. For weeks, I received emails letting me know the audio files were broken. Yes, I thought. For you, I suppose, they are.
But how does one break the page? Every time I’ve tried, it’s been called experimental. Perhaps this is the new euphemism for disabled? Perhaps this has always been the euphemism for Deaf? Perhaps it’s just proof of the limited, nondisabled imagination, or our collective commitment to capitalism, which is itself a commitment to eugenics.
Publishing has changed, of course; capitalism requires it. When Raymond Antrobus publishes The Perseverance (2018) with signed numbers as section breaks and Ilya Kaminsky publishes Deaf Republic (2019) with amalgamated signs from the imagined Vasenka to bridge the reader’s experience across dramatic movements, it seems each—both beloved Deaf poets writing in English—is reaching toward some kind of common linguistic ground that I am unconvinced exists. Neither text is called experimental, perhaps because neither insertion of sign language seems to interrupt the English. It feels to me as if both texts wish, in content & form, to assert the author’s positionality only as far as it can without losing the reader. This makes sense; I, too, was brought up to believe only hearing readers exist.
The moments in my artistic life where I feel I have succeeded most in communicating genuinely have never occurred on paper. In an undergraduate experimental writing workshop, my final project was an installation at UC San Diego’s Ché Café. I hung a series of thick canvas banners—each of them stenciled heavily with words like audism, oralization, & cochlear implant in black & red—from a twelve-foot-wide PVC pipe frame. In the center of the banners, a space was cut for a television that played the same silent, looped footage of a mouth repeating different words that are indecipherable from one another when lipread. In order to reach the canvas & television, however, a spectator had to move through a small forest of hanging plaster hands—mine—each of them shaped in recognizable ASL signs or classifiers & tethered from the ceiling with fishing wire. I spent most of my PhD trying to replicate on the page what came so easily & audaciously to me as a nineteen-year-old with a toolbox & an extension cord. Must all Deaf poets writing in English be visual artists in order to avoid needing experimental as permission or, worse, explanation?
Later, in my early-twenties, I was fortunate to participate in a handful of Sins Invalid workshops, all of them edifying & life-giving & full of the fierceness that comes from being among queer disabled artists & activists. I witnessed Antoine Hunter’s Deaf dance praxis in person, & Nomy Lamm’s musical creations take shape, & Leroy Moore talk truth to power in monologue. There, I developed the skills and the pride to create a solo performance based largely on the gendered tension between my English name & my name sign. When performed, it was magnetic, alive. When I took it back to the page, however—experimental.
Lately, it seems to me as if every time there is public evidence of a Deaf person’s life on paper, it is the result of the violence of ableism. Perhaps I’m being hyperbolic: medical transcripts, audiology reports, requests for accommodation, news reports of Deaf folks shot by police, speech therapy report cards, cocktail napkins, poems that gesture toward but may not actually include one’s self. Are Deaf poets writing in English, in the end, merely creating examples of Grigely’s exhibition prosthetics? What is the English text of a Deaf poet but printed media that references something else, something larger, that might—if used as such—expand the reach of such making?
In 2015 I started writing contrapuntal poems as a way to try—again, good god—to get the page to bend. The contrapuntal as a poetic form is borrowed & remade from its original purposes in music. Two distinct melodies merge in unison & produce a new harmonic result; as a text, the contrapuntal poem bonds at least two individual poems—each available to independent readings—& activates additional poems by prompting readers to move among them, based on their location on the page. The contrapuntal felt, finally, like a form that succeeded in creating spatial texture and multiple semantic meanings in unison, in an otherwise two-dimensional territory. It complicates readings; it takes time; it deviates in favor of multiplicity. I delight in all of these things.
And yet, where is the ASL? Where is the body, its handshapes & movements & lived negotiations of space? Why—even in the intricately tangled web of narratives that the contrapuntal permits—do I feel like I am asking, again, for access from the page? Why does American poetics seem to feel it’s made ample space for me with experimental poetics & hypertext, video poems & footnotes, glosses & ekphrastic attempts?
DeafBlind poet and essayist John Lee Clark writes in his essay “Against Access,” that accommodation via access is perhaps the lowest bar, & part of a larger, necessary conversation about inclusion & consent. When the nondisabled world—or nondisabled poetics—becomes concerned with making things accessible, “The arrogance is astounding. Why is it always about them? Why is it about their including or not including us? Why is it never about us and whether or not we include them?”
Last year I started making contrapuntals that exist only partially on the page. The English text appears as many printed poems do: evidence of a communicative act that is actually occurring elsewhere. There is no indication that another, signed poem exists—one that mingles with the English text to create an additional, bilingual, bimodal poem—other than I am here, telling you that it does. When I share this new approach to reclaiming my poems from the lie of liberation on the page, other poets ask how it can be a poem if there’s no evidence of it, or indication that it exists, or instructions on how to regard the alleged & mere fragment they can access. What am I trying to get away with? How do they know there is another poem at all? And, given that the complete poems won’t be in my next book, they ask: how will I choose to read the complete, fully realized poems in public? How will the audience know what is being signed?
How, indeed, comrades. How, indeed.
“Disability Futures in the Arts” is supported by the Canada Council for the Arts/Conseil des arts du Canada.
About the Author
Deaf, genderqueer poet Meg Day is the author of Last Psalm at Sea Level (Barrow Street, 2014), winner of the Publishing Triangle’s Audre Lorde Award, and co-editor of Laura Hershey: On the Life & Work of an American Master (Pleiades, 2019). A recipient of the Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship and an NEA Fellowship in Poetry, Day’s recent work can be found in Best American Poetry 2020, Poetry Magazine, & The New York Times. Day is Assistant Professor of English & Creative Writing at Franklin & Marshall College.