Sarah Katz: Advice On Finding Identity Through Poetry

Sarah Katz is a Deaf poet who communicates primarily in Cued Speech and English. She is the editor of The Deaf Poets Society, an online journal for Deaf and disabled literature and art.  Katz has received many awards for her poetry and writing. She has an MFA in creative writing, specializing in poetry, from American University.

download (60)Image courtesy The Deaf Poets Society

Interview of October 23, 2018

Alexandra Wang: What initially drew you to poetry?

Sarah Katz: My first experiences with poetry were formative, as I’m sure they are for anyone who ends up falling in love with the craft. In elementary school, I recited many poems during my speech therapy sessions. Mrs. Smith assigned me poems by Jack Prelutsky, Shel Silverstein, and others, and I returned to school with them fully memorized. I was enthralled with the song-like rhythms and the way I was inclined to move my body as I spoke.

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Jack Prelutsky (l) and Shel Silverstein (r)    Images courtesy Poets

Alexandra Wang:  What about writing your own poetry?

Sarah Katz: The earliest I recall writing poems is fourth grade, when I wrote them for my English teacher, Ms. Kawar, whose British accent–which I could “read” on her lips–I adored. I slipped them under her door everyday before the school day began.

Alexandra Wang:  And later?

Sarah Katz:  As time wore on, poetry became way to work through emotional issues, sometimes as they related to being Deaf. I wrote poems through middle school and high school, and after a pause in college, I started writing seriously when I graduated. By then, my poetry extended past personal issues into universal concerns–or the “problem” of being human. And about a year after graduating from American University’s Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing, I launched The Deaf Poets Society, an online journal of Deaf and disabled literature and art, alongside several other talented Deaf and disabled writers and artists whose work I deeply admire. (Read about them on their About page!)

Alexandra Wang: How can poetry be a place of openness or acceptance for Deaf poets?

Sarah Katz: Everybody’s experience of poetry (and Deaf identity) differs, so I can’t speak for everyone. But I believe poetry is a space of openness for everyone in a way that “everyday life” is not; when we write, we are free to control the narrative through various means (words, formatting, tone, etc.) And, as Deaf and hard of hearing people, we can expose false narratives with the kind of nuanced perspective that non-Deaf people writers cannot.

Alexandra Wang: What are some poetic forms that are used by Deaf poets?

Sarah Katz: My background is in Cued Speech, not Deaf Culture. Everyone’s approach is idiosyncratic, and there’s a whole wide world of forms to explore. My work is primarily in English, and did not grow up with American Sign Language (ASL) as my native language. My family is hearing, and although my mother and my siblings learned to sign, my knowledge of ASL is somewhere between rudimentary and intermediate. I’m definitely not fluent.

Image result for cued speechImage courtesy National Cued Speech Association

download (3)Image courtesy Coursea

Alexandra Wang: How does Cued Speech work and how has it helped you?

Sarah Katz: Cued Speech, a visual communication system that conveys spoken language through a combination of handshapes and hand placements, is integral to my identity as a Deaf person. In my day-to-day life, I interact with mostly hearing people.  This is exhausting and, at times, emotionally draining. I could pass for hearing, and that results in misperceptions about my level of hearing. I’m blessed to be able to regain my energy through social interactions with Deaf friends who cue and or sign. Cued Speech helps me feel more at home in my body.

Alexandra Wang: What would your advice be to Deaf people searching to feel more at home in their own bodies?

Sarah Katz: I would say to Deaf people who are perhaps struggling with “fitting in” or with others’ expectations of them: find your tribe. Personally, my tribe consists of some people who are Deaf, and others who are hearing. It doesn’t matter who makes you feel “at home.”  These are people who value your perspective and who are responsive to your needs rather than defensive.

Alexandra Wang:  How has your own search for tribe changed over the years?

Sarah Katz:  Over the years, I’ve identified alternately as Deaf or deaf. I don’t have an ASL identity, but I do have a Cued Speech identity, and that distinguishes my experience from those who didn’t grow up with any visual communication method. The Cued Speech community is, like the ASL community, a subset of the overall Deaf culture.

So, to be honest, I don’t really know what I identify as, as the meanings are tricky, and the politics around naming can be divisive. But I generally fall back on “Deaf,” as everyone, regardless of their communication modality, ultimately belongs to that category. And I prefer the concept of a continuum/spectrum rather than two, black-and-white categories.

As for identity-first vs. person-first, I prefer identity-first language, because being Deaf is a defining aspect of who I am. My life and daily experiences are shaped by being a Deaf person. I don’t think my being a person, too, needs to be spelled out, other than in the context of eugenics. I can sort of understand the argument why people would argue for person-first language–that disabled people are people first, because “disability” is no reason for a person to not exist. But the notion that a disabled person’s person-hood needs to be emphasized, or separated from disability to be justified, seems like an unnecessary and maybe even injurious way of defending a disabled person’s right or justification for existing.

Alexandra Wang:  Is Deafness portrayed accurately in the media?

Sarah Katz: There are a few TV shows and movies in the mainstream like the new Deaf Out Loud show on A&E, which portrays a realistic range of Deaf characters—a CODA (hearing child of a Deaf adult) woman married to a Deaf signing man with both, deaf and hearing children; a Deaf husband and wife with Deaf children who are oral-aural, but also sign, and a Deaf husband and wife with a hearing child and a Deaf child—a family that uses ASL as their primary form of communication.

In general, no, Deafness isn’t portrayed accurately in the media. I see a lot of articles and videos about Deaf people having “overcome” their circumstances, which misleads people into believing that being Deaf is unfortunate, and that by simply living their lives, people “overcome” being Deaf. That portrayal is injurious to Deaf people, who actually lead lives that have all the vibrancy of being hearing–if not more so!

download (63)Image courtesy A&E on Amazon

Alexandra Wang:  What was the motivation for creating The Deaf Poets Society?

Sarah Katz:  A big reason why The Deaf Poets Society was created was to counteract that false narrative of Deafness or disability as something to “overcome.”

But another reason The Deaf Poets Society was founded was to show people how diverse the Deaf and disabled community is. As a civil rights advocate and scholar, Kimberle Crenshaw has argued in her writings, people who belong to various marginalized social categories experience oppression differently from people who may belong to some of the same marginalized categories. Crenshaw was speaking of the differences in struggles between white middle-class women and black, poor, and disabled women–and how the early feminist movement for equal rights between men and women did not take these categories into account. This is still very much an issue–how a Deaf black person experiences oppression is going to differ significantly from how a white Deaf person experiences oppression. With every issue of The Deaf Poets Society, we aim to publish work that conveys that spectrum of experience.

Alexandra Wang: How can school counselors, teachers, social workers support Deaf people?

Sarah Katz: Being a person is hard. Being a Deaf person in a world that expects you to behave or present to others in certain ways is even harder. As a result, many of Deaf and disabled people grow up internalizing ableism (which is another word for discrimination in favor of the able-bodied condition), which causes pain that takes many years to unravel. So school counselors, teachers, and social workers can best support Deaf people by showing them how to be at home with or value themselves as they are.

Alexandra Wang: What can society do as a whole to support Deaf people?

Sarah Katz: Don’t expect every Deaf person to look or act the same. Every Deaf person is different.  So, society can support people who are Deaf by being sensitive to our respective needs. If we use American Sign Language, do your best to learn ASL. If we speak and read lips, do your best to keep your face clear–and don’t get offended if we get tired of watching and listening to you and need to take a break. Being Deaf in a world that expects you to abide by hearing rules and expectations isn’t easy. At the very least, meet us halfway.

Note to readers: Katz’s preference was to be identified with Deaf-First Language.  She usually identifies as Deaf/deaf. For consistency, she is identified as Deaf.

39651470_684787505249105_2929367313067016192_nImage courtesy Zozu.Site

Copyright 2018 by Alexandra Wang. All rights reserved.

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