St. Paul poet John Lee Clark explores change, miscommunication in 'How to Communicate'

National Poetry Month is officially over, but we couldn’t get too far into May without hearing from one more poet who is a finalist for this year’s Minnesota Book Award. The winners will be announced on Tuesday.

John Lee Clark is the author of the poetry collection “How to Communicate” and he lives in St. Paul. He is DeafBlind and a leader in the Protactile movement – it centers on a language that uses touch.

Clark spoke with host MPR News Cathy Wurzer. In this conversation, you’ll be hearing the voice of interpreter Halene Anderson.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: National Poetry Month is officially over, but we could not get too far into May without hearing from one more poet who is a finalist for this year's Minnesota Book Award. The winners will be announced tomorrow as a matter of fact.

John Lee Clark is the author of the poetry collection, How To Communicate. He lives in Saint Paul. He is deafblind and a leader in the protactile movement. It centers on a language that uses touch.

In our conversation, you will be hearing the voice of interpreter, Helene Anderson. And [? Aigo, ?] is with us, another interpreter. All three of you, I'm just so happy you're with us. Thank you for being with us.

SUBJECT: Well, thank you. Thanks for having me, Cathy. I'm so thrilled to be here with you and all the listeners.

INTERVIEWER: Well, John, congratulations. Oh my goodness, congratulations on being a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award, How To Communicate. This is so exciting.

SUBJECT: Thank you. Thank you.

INTERVIEWER: How do you typically begin working on a new poem? What's the spark?

SUBJECT: I usually will think along many different lines, and may have an idea, but there's no language attached immediately. The idea is kind of amorphous, and I massage it a little bit, and I let it ferment. It bubbles up. And then there's this expanding that happens in some direction or other, and a gaining, a sense of excitement on my part.

And that's when I know something's going to come. And sure enough, there's an offshoot that happens. And that offshoot might be in English. It might be in protactile language. It might be-- who knows?

I'll get to a point where I can feel like something's been stopped, and now something is building. It's like magma maybe, beneath the surface. Like, all of a sudden, you get to a vent and you go, oh wow, something's here. And then you figure out what's going on beneath it. And then you have to find a form to be able to really release it.

INTERVIEWER: All right, wow. Let's talk a bit about creativity in the use of language and how you work. There's spoken language, ASL, and you use protactile language. And there can be limits to language, but I'm wondering, how does the use of protactile language maybe broaden or deepen your work?

SUBJECT: There are many influences when working between languages, ASL, or English, written English. ASL has its own poetic tradition and its own literary history. And so I have made use of that in my poetry. And now, I'm working between protactile and written English to do similar things.

Protactile language is new. It's an emerging language. And then you think about the English language, and it's so, so very different when you're writing into a historic tradition like that versus when you're using an unprecedented form, which a tactile language like protactile is. It has its own phonology and syntax, but it is newly emerging.

So every day on a daily basis, we're using forms that we've never used before. We're cross-pollinating in a way that is nearly unimaginable. And it is so fruitful. So my book, obviously, isn't representative of all of the work that I do in poetry. It's a sampler, basically, of just what has been written in the English form, but there are so many other aspects to my work. And I do hope that those of you who read the book will realize that there is an underbelly to this that is vast, vaster than what is there on the page. And hopefully, what you find on the page will push you, will nudge you in some of those other directions.

INTERVIEWER: You know, because there are limits to any language, how do you explore miscommunication or misunderstanding in your work?

SUBJECT: I accept that they're inevitable, that it's a part of communication, misunderstanding is. And I don't want to try to manage or tightly control how readers are going to understand me. Like, I don't want to seize the process of understanding. What I want to do is get people into the process of wondering.

And if it's not what I intended in a certain poem, that's fine. That's OK. You know, you're wandering off in another direction. And wondering and wandering, it's an inevitable part of the process. For me as a deafblind person, it's hard unless I'm in touch with someone right in front of me conveying the message, for example, through an interpreter to you, Cathy, and then out to a radio audience. It's going to be a bit skewed. There's some skewing happening.

So what I want to do is allow for that. Maybe the goal isn't to be understanding. Maybe the goal is to be experiencing, enjoying, opening up, unfolding. Maybe it's not about wrapping something up in a tight, neat little package for someone to consume as I've intended it in a very rigid way. In fact, it's really to open up, and to open out, and to bring in all that is asking to be included in any number of conversations about the work, or in any number of readings. I really just want to offer up all that can be gleaned and all that folks want to bring to it, really.

INTERVIEWER: Wow, beautiful response. Yes, points we'll take, and thank you so much. I'm wondering, you know, every time I talk to a poet, I try to get them to tell me about the first poem that really got them hooked on poetry if they can remember that. You chose a poem that I'm just fascinated by. It's called "Deaf Again." Can you tell me about the poem and why you chose it?

SUBJECT: The deaf poetic tradition was one that I was interested in initially as I edited an anthology. And a lot of deaf poets were fighting against the canon that only wanted their works on shunted in one direction or another. And instead, now, there's this whole movement that's here.

And so what I wanted to do was look at both deaf and deafblind writers, and that led me down an avenue that was very, very fruitful. And when I was anthologizing, I came across "Deaf Again," oralism, and deaf education held sway in the United States for a long time. ASL was forbidden in many schools, even schools for the deaf. Deaf families would continue obviously, the tradition of sign language, but the schools would not.

And so oftentimes, teachers were in charge of managing and maintaining that oral environment for students whose instincts were to sign. And what we have in this poem is a deaf man who puts on a front to blend in. He knows how to act, right? He knows how to follow the hearing norms that he's expected to follow, which again, were part of the oralist tradition.

And my mom had a similar experience, where she grew up during the time when oralism was the dominant. And my mom was a great student. She loved working for the praise of the teacher. And her speech wasn't great. And so what she did was everything else in her power to get the pats on the head and the gold stars. She wanted to assimilate as best she could.

And so she learned etiquette. She learned what fork to use, what knife to use, what social rules needed to be abided by. And she ended up staying in the deaf world. She didn't give up her sense of herself and ASL. But in this poem, the character in this poem, the person in this poem does.

INTERVIEWER: John, I have a final question to listeners who are listening to our conversation, and maybe there are some among us who are not still sure if they like poetry. What do you say to people about what poetry can add to their lives?

SUBJECT: That's the question, Cathy. That is the question, isn't it? Most poetry isn't fantastic to me. It's not the kind of poetry that sticks with me. When I do happen upon something that does, and there are a few that resonate deeply, I can't imagine living without it. Sometimes, people will say, oh, well, oh, you read this poem and you liked it. Well, did you like it because of this element, or this feature, or that?

And I said, you know what, I don't want to pull any one thing out because it's how all of these things work together. It's how all of these things work together. And it's ineffable, it's ineffable. I'm not one to say poetry is good for you, like, take your vitamins. Read your poetry. [LAUGHING] That's not my aim.

What I really think is that poetry is like a fantastic meal that you just can only really ever have one time. And you keep thinking back and remembering it. And you never forget that taste. And not everyone may like that one meal that was fantastic to me, that nourished me, and that I would never, ever forget.

INTERVIEWER: Well, John, thanks for sharing your buffet with us. It's really, truly been my pleasure and honor talking with you. And Halene Anderson, you are amazing. Halene is a protactile interpreter. John Lee Clark is the person we've been talking to, Saint Paul based poet, author of How To Communicate. He is a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award, and winners will be announced tomorrow.

And by the way, special thanks to the second interpreter who has been with us here today, [? Aiko. ?] [? Aiko, ?] thank you.

SUBJECT: Yes, thanks all around. This is John. Thanks Cathy, so much.

INTERVIEWER: By the way, the award ceremony is tomorrow, May 2 at the Ordway. And we have talked to all the nominees in the poetry category here on the program. John Lee Clark, you just heard John. Real Work by Janna Knittel, Surface Displacements by Sheila Packa, The Wet Hex by Sun Yung Shin. You can check out all those interviews by going to

It was so much fun. I have to say, that conversation with John and his interpreters, one of the most interesting conversations I've had in recent memory. Really enjoyable. Congratulations to all the nominees. We'll talk more tomorrow.

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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.