In an essay collection titled, "Where I Stand," writer John Lee Clark discusses cochlear implants, ASL poetry, trying to get rid of a backlog of Braille magazines, and the joys of the Twin Cities' skyway system.
The book, which was published by the Minneapolis-based HandType Press in October 2014, contains a mix of editorial and memoir-style writing. Clark, a Hopkins resident who is deaf and blind, hopes it has meaning for his peers, while also shedding light on a world that's largely invisible to the mainstream.
Clark embraces his identity as a second-generation "DeafBlind" man, which he describes as a cultural term. It originated with the Minnesota DeafBlind Association to show pride and allude to "its own integral identity," said Clark via e-mail.
"I remember how I felt when I read all of these books by deaf activists and thinkers," he said. "I felt so warm, so safe, so happy to have the truth of my experience on record."
His is a rare case, as most deaf people have hearing parents, he said. (His dad is DeafBlind, as is his younger brother, while his mother and sister are sighted and deaf.)
Clark, who has Usher syndrome, was born deaf. His blindness set in gradually throughout his childhood.
"If I didn't have Usher syndrome and never became blind, if I grew up as a sighted deaf person, it's doubtful that I'd have discovered books and become a writer," he said.
His path wasn't immediately obvious. Clark struggled in school for a long time. "My mother cried over my report cards. She'd say, 'I know you're smart, but why these awful marks?' " he said.
It was soon apparent that he was "becoming blind," as he puts it, as opposed to "losing his sight."
After moving from Como Park Elementary School in St. Paul to the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf, which he attended from grades 6 to 12, he was surrounded by deaf classmates who came from hearing families. Not knowing how to deal with that difference at first, "My nose got buried deeper and deeper into books" — quite literally, he said.
Clark turned to larger and larger print for reading, eventually using magnification, then closed-circuit TV, which allowed him to tweak the display.
Fortunately, he'd learned Braille in elementary school because his father knew he'd eventually need it. Once he started reading more, it naturally led him to writing.
In 1996, when he was in 11th grade, he won a contest through the Junior National Association of the Deaf conference in North Carolina for his poem "Smiling." The poem "was very sentimental and dripped with adolescence," Clark said, but it motivated him to pursue poetry.
Meanwhile, he immersed himself in titles on his parents' bookshelves. That exposed him to the signing community's long tradition of political and editorial writing, he said.
Developing as a writer
As a high school student, Clark took up Braille, got comfortable using a cane and began to use tactile ASL more regularly (following an interpreter's hand, manually). Gaining in confidence, Clark he made friends and graduated as the class president.
In those years, he learned "how important it is to know who you are and how to articulate what you are in a clear way to others," he said.
Later, at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., Clark found an even greater audience for his writing.
It wasn't long before he and his wife, Adrean Clark, an artist and writer who is deaf, started up a small press called The Tactile Mind, which focused on ASL storytelling and poetry. The couple kept the press going from 2000 to 2007. By then, they had three children, and it was tough to juggle everything, Clark said.
Shortly thereafter, a writer they'd frequently worked with, Raymond Luczak, founded HandType Press. In 2008, HandType Press published Clark's chapbook of poems, "Suddenly Slow." The following year, Gallaudet University Press put out "Deaf American Poetry," a scholarly anthology of deaf poetry, some of which stretches as far back as 1827, for which Clark was the editor. Clark also edited "Deaf Lit Extravaganza," from HandType Press, which showcases contemporary fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction from the signing community.
Clark writes every day, using his laptop and a Braille display. He also teaches Braille, which is how he makes his living, he said.
Many of his essays are fueled by conversations he's had with people on DeafBlind listservs. E-mailing with people on everything from sports to accessibility issues, he uses the lists in a way that can be likened to social networking activity, he said.
Those conversations often lay the groundwork for his essays. He's always got several essay ideas in his head, related to a news story, an anecdote or a memory.
For him, writing essays is a way of "finding out what I think" and contemplating broader themes, Clark said. "Writing from the margins of society, as I do, is a way to grab ahold of realities that often just get lost."
He enjoys other kinds of writing, too. Right now, he's also working on a biography, an anthology of DeafBlind literature, a poetry book and more.
Exploring new ideas
Jules Hill, a writer and ASL teacher at Concordia Academy in St. Paul, said of his work, "I have read and reread his poetry and his essays, and every time it feels like I come home," adding that Clark's writing is evocative, "unbounded simplicity as its very best."
Hill, who is deaf, used "Where I Stand" in a high school-level introductory ASL class. The essays are "a true example of groundbreaking advocacy," Hill said.
Bryen Yunashko, a DeafBlind community advocate who is based in Chicago, said that he and Clark often debate all sorts of subjects via e-mail.
Clark "pushes me and everyone else in the community beyond our assumed limits to explore new ideas and concepts," Yunashko said.
It makes for a healthy dialogue within a "community that's not always exposed or able to access social issues easily," he said.
"Being DeafBlind sometimes can lead to being cut off from the rest of the world, usually not because we're deaf and blind, but because the world itself hasn't figured out what to do with us," Yunashko said. "Where I Stand" goes beyond that as it "tears down the notion that we have to live separately."
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.