Black text on a white background of the poem "A DeafBlind Poet" by John Lee Clark. The poem is comprised of a single prose block.

Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. John Lee Clark’s poems “I Promise You,” “A DeafBlind Poet,” “The Diagnosis,” “The Rebuttal,” and “The Culmination,” appear in the October 2018 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.

The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) has finally selected several good poetry collections. Most of their earlier selections had been duds. They emboss only a few books of poetry each year, because the majority of their patrons’ fingers are hungry for romances, mysteries, and thrillers. I would anxiously check for updates and feel frustrated that they had wasted yet another precious poetry pick. But now I had access to some truly wonderful works.

What transpired when those books arrived in the mail amazed me. I was delighted by the first few poems, and then I stopped. One after the other, I dropped these books. I would love the opening poems but feel unable to go on. It was a relief to go back to Project Gutenberg. Why am I able to spend whole days and weeks lapping up turgid verse while I cannot bear the incisive lines of a contemporary master?

I think environment has a lot to do with it. As a Braille reader, I do not have access to every book I might be interested in. So it is not possible to be as immersed in contemporary poetry as I am in poetries of the past, which are freely available because they are in the public domain. Can one have a favorite from among ten items, or would one need to devour hundreds before acquiring affinities?

Limited access does have its benefits and comforts. I have read many things I never would have if I could read anything. But for some reason, the few books of poetry produced in Braille by the NLS do not constitute such an environment. Project Gutenberg does. It may have to do with numbers, a certain critical mass. A certain scope that is neither overwhelming nor too narrow.

In Chile, books cost more than they do anywhere else in the world. I don’t know all the reasons why, but I have read that when Chileans travel, they often hit a series of bookstores. Here is how the author Julio Ramón Ribeyro described his experience of nervously visiting these stores:

I usually leave without buying anything, because right away, at the sight of all those books, my desire to possess extends not only to several possible books but to all books in existence. And if I do happen to buy a book, I leave without any kind of contentment, because its acquisition signifies not one book more but many books less.

The opening poems in those recent NLS collections at first excited me, but the more they spoke to my heart the more painful they became. They made me realize there are many more poems I would cherish if only I could get my hands on them. Such is the profound effect of arbitrary and partial access. Sometimes it is better to have nothing than to have too little. Access denied is quite different from a natural restriction, such as one’s limited book-buying budget, or a local library not having every book in the world, or one being only able to read in a specific language.

Another natural process is self-regulation. It may have been overwhelming for Ribeyro to see all those affordable books on a trip elsewhere—it surely would be overwhelming for me were all books of poetry to suddenly become accessible—but given time and a growing trust in a new environment, we would be able to self-regulate. We would find our own narrow and happily selfish paths through the forest.

For writers, perhaps it is essential that our reading paths are narrow. After all, we are to write. Some of us write what is missing, so it is good that we do not read everything. It would silence us to know too much. Some of us lean on the tree trunks of literature. That, too, entails not reading everything. Either way, we who have no choice can still write; perhaps we are even compelled to write.

But what does not having a choice mean for us as writers, as human beings? Is the search for reading environments that are small but not too small itself a form of writing, a pre-composing of our minds? Much of what is in our minds and much of what we claim as our perspectives was given to us. Or imposed. Is there a difference between me and a poet who can read a thousand books of poetry? Which of us is experiencing more freedom?

While their haphazard poetry offerings are a torment, the NLS does provide another kind of reading environment, one I inhabit with great pleasure. They emboss a number of magazines, which, unlike their books, we do not need to return. Like print magazines, they are disposable. I get National Geographic, Rolling Stone, Harper’s Magazine, the Royal National Institute for the Blind’s Short Stories, and a few others. And there is Poetry magazine. The editors choose everything, but the environment is congenial. It is not partial or arbitrary access, because it’s all curated. The context is not like a forest, but more like a garden, each magazine a bouquet. I don’t have to read every item; I can throw them into the recycling bin. Those magazines are more than I can read on the john, or in the bathtub, or at the park, or on a plane. They are well matched, magazines and transitory states of mind.

It is no accident that, as a marginalized reader, it is only the marginal that I have access to. Shakespeare and Whitman and Yeats may be available, but they are also difficult to digest. I have not been permitted to be omnivorous. Instead, lesser-known poets are my fare. They fit better. Should access to books for blind and print-disabled readers expand, should our copyright laws be overhauled, would I be able to change my diet and, per the “you are what you eat” dictum, become a different writer?

In addition to my feelings of frustration, I feel pride. There is a brutal integrity in all DeafBlind writing. Some of my forebears may have pandered and peddled and purred, but they all wrestled with their reading environments, as I do today. My work would not be DeafBlind poetry if I had a hearing and sighted person’s access to books. Even if all the books in the world became accessible, it would still be an environment unique to DeafBlind readers who read in Braille, without recourse to audio or to book cover images, authors’ photos, illustrations, pictures, comics, or graphics. Right now, the DeafBlind environment means very little contemporary mainstream poetry. It means plenty of dead imperialists. It means sharing stories and poems and jokes with each other in our many email communities.

As I write this I can feel my environment shifting. It is a living thing, stretching, contracting, intersecting, dividing, sometimes withdrawing in disgust. One upgrade or one policy decision can wipe out an entire source, while a new nonprofit or a technical tweak can land me in a new world. I wish it was less unstable, and I think that we should have more say. Is it possible to be unaware of having a reading environment at all? What would that be like, to just read?

Originally Published: October 11th, 2018

John Lee Clark is a DeafBlind poet, essayist, and independent scholar from Minnesota. His chapbook of poems, Suddenly Slow, appeared in 2008. He has edited two anthologies, Deaf American Poetry (Gallaudet University Press, 2009) and Deaf Lit Extravaganza (Handtype Press, 2013). His latest book is a collection of essays called...