Interview with Elizabeth L. Sammons

Diane R. Wiener interviewed author Elizabeth L. Sammons for Wordgathering. The conversation took place via Zoom; the transcript was edited collaboratively.

WG: Good morning. How are you?

ES: I’m going to visit a friend who is DeafBlind later on today, bringing him some terrific home-baked Russian cookies I learned to make in Siberia, so it’s a good day.

WG: I’m here with Elizabeth Sammons, author and scholar-activist, a person who’s committed to disability rights in many respects. In the spirit of networking and engagement, Elizabeth and I are talking today about writing and disability arts and culture. So Elizabeth, can you tell the Wordgathering audience a little bit about yourself as a writer and as a creative person?

ES: Sure. I was very fortunate to grow up with great parents. My father was a librarian and my mother was a nurse, and they very strongly believed in me as a person with a disability, with blindness from birth. But they also highly believed in the value of literature, so I was raised on everything from scripture, first and foremost, in an observant Christian home—in the best sense of the word—to classical Greek and Latin stories and poetry, and also more modern things. My parents, as restrictive as they were on some things, like movies or earrings or make-up or dancing, they still said, “read any book you want.” I suppose this was my first genuine independence, and it felt endless. I always felt an utter sense of freedom in reading, whether it was Braille or talking books or with my friends. Literature was every bit as much a part of my life as any friend I ever had in childhood or any family member. Then I went on to get an undergraduate degree in French in communications (I’ve always loved languages) and then a master’s degree in journalism. It was all about loving languages and loving to ask questions. My father was a librarian because he liked to ask questions and find information, and I was a journalist because I love to ask questions that nobody dared to ask.

WG: You know, I have a lot of meaningful associations with the different things you said, in my own biography, but this interview is about you, so I’ll hold those thoughts until another time and just say it’s nice to hear some of those parallels.

My first follow-up question is: can you tell me a little bit about your friendship with words and your friendship with literature and then, in a related vein, what were some of your favorite books when you were a young person growing up?

ES: For one thing, my friendship with words developed a sense of the world around me that I didn’t see visually. When I read descriptions of “golden finger dawn” or “the wine-dark sea” or “the twinkle in her eye,” these were things that I could only imagine, but the words somehow brought them to life for me.

There were characters in some books that became friends of mine. I love many knights and ladies of the Arthurian legends, for example. As a very small child one of my favorites was Peter Rabbit, and later on Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White—really anything by White. As a teenager I became fascinated with history and time travel, so historical novels were my mainstay. Among these were Perilous Guard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, which is a beautiful book of imagination and what is truth, set in the Elizabethan era, and Rebecca’s War by Ann Finlayson, set in the American Revolution. And I liked The Three Musketeers, too. True confession: I’ve never quite recovered from my crush on Athos, the musketeer with a noble, tragic past and a strong façade that protects a sensitive heart. There were just so many books I couldn’t even start to name, all of the books that I love, but those are just a few highlights.

WG: Thank you. And since you studied French later I love to think about the possibility that maybe you read Dumas’s The Three Musketeers in French.

ES: The first time I read it in English, but yes, I have read it in French, and I assure you it’s even funnier in French. And it’s the same with Russian books—you read them in English and they’re one thing and in the original, they have a different kind of greatness, especially the classics. I’ve also had a few opportunities to translate into and out of Russian and French, and a lot of oral interpreting in both formal and informal situations. I love the comparison and I do not know who originally came up with this, but a translation is like the same tune being played on a different instrument. I think that is an absolutely as close to perfect a comparison as I can think of, because a piano doesn’t have vibrato or can’t slide the way a trombone can. On the other hand, it has eight full octaves.

WG: Yes, and since we’re thinking about arts and culture and frameworks around creativity and imagination…and the idea of a framework being open rather than restrictive, I just wanted to say also, while I’m listening to you, I’ve been nodding and nodding and nodding and nodding, so I feel like that should be in the transcript too, and also, of course, I want to be inclusive and make sure you know that and that you’re accessing my nodding by my telling you about it.

ES: [Laughs]

WG: And so, one of the things that I was drawn to in what you said is this idea that you wanted to find ways to experience your imagination, that it was almost like a necessity or music, that you repeatedly came to these different, new ways to engage in your imagination—and reading made that part of what worked for you and gave you possibilities you might otherwise not have had, or would have had differently. So my response to all of that is to ask when did writing start to be something that was part of your creative arsenal?

ES: The first thing I wrote was when I was four years old:

Green, red, yellow and brown,
The leaves are falling, all over the town.

When I look back at that now, I say, you know that actually has a good little rhythm to it. And it acknowledged all the different colors of leaves. I had just enough vision to see color. Before that fall, I always thought that they were all brown leaves that fell. In that poem I had to express my amazement that no, they’re green leaves, yellow, and red that fell along with the brown ones. I’ve been really writing ever since then, most of which will forever remain unpublished. As a teenager, I wrote a couple of romance novellas and some poetry. When I was about 14, I had a friend who was dying in the hospital. She was an artist and older woman neighbor. I decided I was going to learn how to write sonnets and I wrote her a sonnet every day for about a month-and-a-half and it made me start to really work on what’s a form, how do you make things rhyme, and rhythm. She was always so encouraging.

WG: What a powerful example of the intertwining of friendship, loss, engagement, and creativity. Thank you for sharing that story. And I’m sorry for your loss, of course. To have an older friend and mentor at a young age who encourages you as a writer is a really cool example of so many ways that our connections with other people inform our creativity and engage us as thinkers and as artists and writers.

ES: When I was about 15 I was invited to a local poetry group. I’m sure the youngest lady there was 65 years old. One of the group members knew I wrote some poetry. They didn’t exactly mentor me, but the fact that I found out there were people interested in poetry, and as excited about words as I was, that really encouraged me, just their kindness to me.

WG: So they’re 50 years older than you are, and your peers, in a way, right? Because you’re all poets. One phrase that I’ve been using a lot, all through the pandemic, I’ve been thinking about this idea of “being in company” with people and the different ways that we are in company with one another, not just in one realm of engagement, but in so many. Partly that’s maybe borne out of an awareness of our separations during this time, but also just different ways of defining things. So your example is a beautiful one for me to hear about among so many you’re sharing. And you have shared some prior work with us, so I was actually wondering if you could tell the readership a little bit about your nonfiction work we published most recently in the journal, and also your book review.

ES: Well, thank you for inviting me to write that review of Elsa Sjunneson’s Being Seen. Reviewing is not my forte, but it was a very positive challenge. I really had to look at it deeply. First of all, I had to divide what I thought, and what I felt, and second, try to make a commentary that would help people understand both what the book was and what the book wasn’t, and, despite a few reservations, to express my admiration for a writer who is a profound thinker. Sjunneson has both vision and hearing loss, and I’m no stranger to this situation. In 2016, I was the director of the only known Braille adult literacy camp for DeafBlind adults. And so, being able to review that book by a writer with both visual and hearing limitations was really interesting for me. In terms of the other publication, my nonfiction piece, it was an edited excerpt from my journal written in Central Asia. Because I knew Russian through a mix of study and active volunteering with older refugees coming to the USA, when I was 24 years old in 1990, I had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit the then-Soviet Union, neither as a tourist nor as a totally government figure. There was a 30-plus year cultural exchange Design USA series of exhibits that visited the USSR traveling around to different provincial cities. As a freshly graduated journalist, I took my little portable manual Olympia typewriter and wrote about my experiences as a guide on that exhibit, meeting hundreds of people every day. As far as anyone knows, I’m the only representative on that exhibit in its entire history who had a visible disability. During those seven months, I typed over 400,000 words. To compare, the Bible is a little over 800,000, so I wrote half the Bible in seven months! My biggest pandemic project was going through that work and paring the journal down to under 100,000 words. I’ve called this manuscript American on Display. The particular excerpt you published dealt with disability, but much of my journal has nothing to do with my blindness. It has to do with being a young woman on her first serious job, her first time in the USSR as a foreigner, who had a good (but not a totally solid) grasp of Russian, who was open-minded about meeting people and very aware of being a representative of her country to a country that really did not know at all who Americans were. The journal is full of different quotes and talking with amazing people. Although the exhibit was there, and full of artifacts—everything from an American kitchen to a Corvette—the 24 of us who went as the representatives were really the exhibit. The Russian people really wanted to talk with us. They would ask us things like, “What do you eat for breakfast?” “What TV shows are popular?” “Hey, can I trade you some silver for those blue jeans you’re wearing?” So, it was just an amazing experience. I hope our readers of last quarter’s journal will get a little feel of a Soviet factory with blind employees, and visiting a blind family, just what it was like then for me looking at how things did and did not work there, compared to my experience as an American.

WG: Right. And we’re talking here, in part, about your piece, “Kazakhstan’s Soviet Blindness Community Remembered,” which was published as an excerpt in the Spring 2022 issue of Wordgathering. One of the things that really intrigues me about this story is the connection, in part, to the “human library” types of exhibits that have happened all over the world. I think about the first time I was asked to be a human library “book.” I’m not going to be too elaborate about it, now, but I was more than a little concerned about what it meant and means to be put on display, how the so-called “others” often were put on display for the person who’s the insider, and whatever “contents” we’re talking about. And then over the years as I’ve thought about it more and also, as I got older and had different experiences, I had a different way of thinking about how it might be possible—with very clear boundaries and also an understanding of the role—that someone could willingly be a human library “book,” or, “the exhibit,” without it being about something icky or more seriously exploitative. I was wondering when we think about what some people call disability literature—some people would call it cripping—but, you know, we have different ways of talking about disability arts and culture… What are some other ways that you found yourself willingly being in that role, an expert with humility whose engagement with the world of disability and creativity and literature, in particular, were meaningful to you and to other people? Can you give any other examples of that?

ES: Well, this isn’t exactly literature, but I volunteered on my state job which I had till 2018 to do a weekly newsletter which I called “The Ability Front.” I read dozens and sometimes hundreds of announcements from various sources every week, and I standardized, summarized, and broke them into kind of a “did you know?,” a fun section, and also upcoming events, opportunities, and then some ongoing reminders of supports and other websites that I thought were really important. That newsletter ended up going not just around the state, but around the world. It kind of collected a list of followers who didn’t have the time to look through all the sources I found. Creating this digest, even though it wasn’t literature, gave me a great feeling of advocacy and of really sometimes providing people things that even changed their life. One time someone read about this scholarship to go to England and study and wrote to me thanking me for learning about that. And so not only literature, but being a journalist and a diligent finder of information—like my librarian father—and then having the ability to share it around really gave me a sense of positive empowerment. And I also sometimes would challenge people’s words. I remember there was a certain agency I won’t name that was talking about the burden of blindness and I said, “yeah i’m not going to say being blind is easy, but the word ‘burden’ is such a negative word, can you put this in different language?” They very quickly did so. So a lot of my reading and writing has been being a collector of information and kind of a watch person and a listening person to try to help people think about their language and be mindful of the way that they voice things.

WG: I see a number of different ways that your relationship with journalism has been a whole other example of connecting, with sharing of yourself, with humility and openness, and I was wondering while I was listening to you about your Dad and about librarianship and journalism, so that was cool because we were thinking in a parallel way. So that was meaningful to me. Let me ask you a couple of things about journalism. In a sense, the piece about Kazakhstan, although it is certainly coming from a space of a different kind of maybe literary nonfiction, or genres often now called creative nonfiction, there is a journalistic element to it. So let me ask you this: what’s the relationship between your imagination and journalism and your imagination and something more in the realm of the poetic or the fictive? How does your imagination work differently and similarly in these different genres of writing and your life?

ES: I always say the worst and the best of journalism are both creative writing. [Laughter.] So I would say the central guidepost in my nonfiction writing is, what are the facts? As you said, if you’re doing literary nonfiction you have some creativity, but it’s based on facts. In my creative writing, both prose and poetry, the central column is who is this person and so that can involve feelings, it can involve thoughts, any number of things, but its elements go beyond the visible quantifiable facts. So, if you will, one is kind of quantitative and the other is qualitative.

WG: Okay, so can you say a little bit more about how the qualitative and quantitative work, if at all, in the not journalism as compared to in the journalism? Is there a quantitative element in your creative writing that’s not in the journalism?

ES: Oh yes, absolutely. For example, in the novel that I’ve published, The Lyra and the Cross. This is a book set in the Roman Empire in the first century. As you know, thanks to my childhood with Greco-Roman literature, I had a lot of immersion, but also, I did a great deal of research to make sure that even little things came together. For example, in my first draft, I talked about a girl putting a little bit of lemon in the water in a clay canteen to give to someone who was hot and I thought, “I wonder, in Greece, in Israel, and places now, there are lots of lemons.” But I found out, “oh dear, lemons came from Asia” and were only just starting to come into the Roman Empire as a very expensive luxury in the first century.

WG: Yes, I understand.

ES: And I said to myself that this very bordering on poor girl would not have had lemons, so let’s be safe and make it pomegranate. I knew that fruit was available from the myth of Persephone. But little details like that, yes, even though you’re in fictional realms or even in poetic realms, you want to think about those elements. Parenthetically, I’d like to add, it’s often details like that which get non-disabled authors in trouble when they don’t do the critical groundwork to portray someone with a disability. Anyhow, as a journalist, I think just like Hemingway or Steinbeck who were journalists before they were fiction writers, you feel that devotion to the factual world as well as the freedom to create the “Who are these people?” beyond that.

WG: Well, one of the great things about having this conversation with you is that there are all these different pathways you’ve just been opening and opening and opening and I’m trying to think of which path, or which road, to traverse with you next. Can you tell us a little bit more about the published novel (The Lyra and the Cross) and if people want to get a copy, how they can do so, because one of the things behind these interviews is supporting the work of the contributors to the journal, of course, and also supporting our readership in learning more about the different subjects we’re talking about.

ES: Sure. The Lyra and the Cross is available as an ebook via Smashwords, Amazon, and Bookshare. It’s something I started as a short story almost ten years ago and it’s the only short story I’ve written that just grabbed my throat and would not let me go and basically said “thou shalt write me someday into a novel.” I thought it would be after I left my job, but in 2016, my only true childhood friend was dying of cancer, and I felt very strongly that this was the time to really start this novel. Because it is a tragic novel. But it has many humorous, positive and happy elements, too. It’s the story of two boys, childhood friends. Then gradually throughout the novel because of differences in faith a schism develops and the gradual division becomes so wide that one of the two friends sets up the opportunity for the death of the other friend.

But my central question on which I based the entire narrative was, “how does it happen that two friends can become enemies?” but also in our 21st century, “how is it that faith, in differences in faith, in the non-acceptance of faith can create such barriers to people in their lives?” So I feel like it’s a very relevant novel. And it also talks about gender identities. One of the main characters is the sister of one of the friends who, for her own safety—and she’s very willing to do this—travels with her brother as a boy. Then, she truly lives as a boy; she talks as a boy, dresses as a boy. Then later when she’s trying to re-assume the identity of a woman, she realizes that it’s almost impossible for her. So the book talks about some issues that are very relevant to our day and age. I assumed the wording style of some of the Greco-Roman literature that I’d read, so this is not a book in completely modern English, but instead, it’s in lyrical English, the kind of English that I think would have been used in that time if they had spoken English. Going back to our earlier comparison of instruments and translation, I tried to use a type of ancient scale or harmony but to play it on a modern keyboard. For bad days, I keep in my heart two great compliments. One reader in my writing group said, “this reads like a translation.” And I said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” This is what it is intended to reflect is that time. Then a work colleague said, ”You put scripture in your book, but scripture will never be flat to me again.” Those were the two things that I’ve held very close as an author. I loved feeling how my literature could change people’s lives and change people’s worlds, just like it did for me as a child.

WG: Well, if I were writing this up as a journalism article, which of course I am not, I would think that that would be the featured quote, what you just said. They’ve been so significant, all the things you’ve said. Hmm, so here’s the question I’d like to ask next. Could you share a little bit more—to the degree you feel comfortable, of course—about the role of faith in the work? And then I have a kind of follow-up question. Just a little bit of context for my thinking: my colleague Bryan Doerries is the Artistic Director of Theater of War Productions.

ES: Oh yes, I watched many of those ancient plays put in modern context.

WG: I’m glad you know about that because, yes, Bryan translates all of these different Greco-Roman classics. Bryan and I came to know each other through a Wordgathering connection, and I collaborated with him and many other people to put together an online engagement around disability poetics, “The World on Fire: Ecology, Poetry, & Disability Justice: An Intergenerational Performance and Discussion.” So, I was thinking about the compliment that you received that was so important to you about how the novel read like a translation. I guess my two-part question is: 1) what is the role of faith and spirituality, and maybe religion, more specifically, in your writing? and 2) how does that connect with your trajectory as someone who spent so much of your life, including in childhood, studying the Greco-Roman classics, because that of course is so connected with the gods and faith and the role of mortality, etc.?

ES: Well, if the Greco-Roman classics are the garden of flowers blooming around me, the faith is the soil, under my feet. For me, faith is not only something I believe in. It’s constantly being mindful that my life, my privilege, my artistic journey is “Only by the grace of God,” and it’s what I try to breathe and live every day. And I do make a big distinction between personal faith and religion, because, as we all know—I’ll be the first to sorrowfully agree—religious institutions have done a lot of good through the centuries (they’ve preserved literature, they’ve kept education), but they’ve also done a lot of negative things. And while I don’t espouse any one organized religion over another, I love having read that when J. S. Bach wrote his music, on every page he wrote initials that represented “In the service of God.” I’m sorry I don’t know what the initials were.* I hope that everything I write, I see as a service. This isn’t about Elizabeth getting famous or Elizabeth signing books. It’s about Elizabeth sharing something of who she is and having the dialogue between God and me with others.

And something that will go after me. Because we live on this earth, and perhaps, I really don’t know, perhaps we will simply pass away into part of the dust and the water and the things around us. I’ll never know that if that’s the case. And then perhaps we will die and rise to see God’s face, in which case that’s great. But regardless, I want to leave something on this earth that goes beyond me and can touch people’s souls, as well as their minds. That’s what a lot of my writing has been about.

WG: Well, I think that’s a beautiful place to pause, and I want to ask you, as a final question for now, if there’s anything that you would like to add that you think would be especially meaningful to the readers and engagers of Wordgathering, or is there anything that you wanted to add just because you felt like it?

ES: I would encourage our readers—first of all, thank you for reading this interview—but second, venture out in your reading. There were so many things I read as a child and even as an adult that initially I didn’t understand, or I didn’t even like. But one of the greatest things for me, being a member of a book club, is embracing literature that I never would have read for myself. One great example is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy O’Toole.

WG: That’s one of my favorite novels.

ES: I don’t know why I guessed that… But… [Laughter.] Gentle readers, just venture out! There’s so much in this world that we’ll never know, yet there’s so much of this world that we can discover, and having any kind of a disability literature is even more special to us, because it brings times and cultures and parts of the world to us that we may not be able to physically access. It’s descriptions of things we wouldn’t have known as a person who’s blind or a person who’s deaf. Literature is allowing us to live in a different way than might have been possible, so embrace it. Enjoy it. And I hope, if you read my books, that you will enjoy those and just let them dwell as part of your thought world for a while.

*Editor’s and Interviewer’s Note: J. S. Bach wrote “SDG” at the bottom of his musical pages. SDG = Soli Deo Gloria – For the Glory of God Alone.

Read Elizabeth Sammons’s excerpt “Witness of Saul, River Jordan, A.D. 28” (from her novel, The Lyra and the Cross), in this issue of Wordgathering.

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About Elizabeth L. Sammons

Doctors told Elizabeth Sammons’ parents to institutionalize her at birth; she was blind. Instead, they raised her with a sense of self-respect and wonder, along with a vast selection of books. After graduating with a Master’s degree in journalism from The Ohio State University, she worked with nonprofits and schools in Central Asia, Siberia, and Europe, including service with the Peace Corps. Returning to the U.S. in 2000, Elizabeth pursued a federal and state government career until 2018, when she gave in to living life full-time as a writing artist and an international/disability advocate. Sammons’ writings and research have been featured in Ethics in Journalism, Plough Quarterly, The Columbus Dispatch, Geohistory, and Vision Aware, among others. Her first novel, The Lyra and the Cross, was published in 2019.

About Diane R. Wiener

Diane R. Wiener (she/they) became Editor-in-Chief of Wordgathering in January 2020. She is the author of The Golem Verses (Nine Mile Press, 2018), Flashes & Specks (Finishing Line Press, 2021), and The Golem Returns (swallow::tale press, 2022). Diane’s poems also appear in Nine Mile Magazine, Wordgathering, Tammy, Queerly, The South Carolina ReviewWelcome to the Resistance: Poetry as ProtestDiagrams Sketched on the Wind, Jason’s Connection, the Kalonopia Collective’s 2021 Disability Pride Anthology, and elsewhere. Her creative nonfiction appears in Stone CanoeMollyhouse, The Abstract Elephant Magazine, and Pop the Culture Pill. Diane’s flash fiction appears in Ordinary Madness; her short fiction is published in A Coup of Owls. Diane served as Nine Mile Literary Magazine’s Assistant Editor after being Guest Editor for the Fall 2019 Special Double Issue on Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics. Diane has published widely on Disability, education, accessibility, equity, and empowerment, among other subjects. She is a proud Neuroqueer, Mad, Crip, Genderqueer and Enby, Ashkenazi Jewish Hylozoist Nerd (etc.) who is honored to serve in the nonprofit sector–including as a Zoeglossia Board member. You can visit Diane online at: