An Ear for Poetry
In his strikingly lyrical work, poet Frank Gallimore pays tribute to the culture in which he was raised — a culture, he fears, that may soon die out.
As a young boy, Frank Gallimore lived on 33 acres of forestland in rural Oregon. His father was a social worker; his mother stayed at home to teach her three children. Their small red house sat next to a dilapidated barn that the kids thought was haunted. When feeling brave, Frank and his older brother, Jed, would crawl into the barn to catch sight of the ghost-white owls flying around in the rafters. The Gallimore children never ate meat, or watched television, or listened to the radio. They spent their days running and squealing around the woods and vegetable garden, or swimming in the newt-filled pond, or collecting eggs from a beady-eyed chicken in the backyard coop. The hen's sole coopmate, a rooster, began each morning with a hearty cockle-doodle-do.
But Frank was the only one who could hear it.
In that small country house, four out of the five residents were deaf. They communicated in American Sign Language (ASL), and other than an elderly couple across the road, were rarely exposed to any spoken English. It wasn't until the Gallimores moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, and the shy 7-year-old Frank enrolled in school, that he began the difficult transition into the hearing world. Frank struggled to fit in with the other students because, compared to spoken languages, Sign Language places more emphasis on body language, facial expressions, and eye contact. He would wave at the other students to get their attention, or tap them on the shoulder. And when his teacher would scold, "That's not appropriate touching behavior," Frank would ask why. But after just a few months of interacting with other hearing children and going to after-school speech lessons, Frank overcame his soft stutter and learned English fluently.
Today, when the 27-year-old is asked, as he often is, whether it was strange to grow up in such a quiet house, he laughs. His deaf family was anything but quiet. They didn't know when they were making noise, he explains, "so they'd go through the kitchen banging on cabinets and pots and pans" and loudly rustle the pages while reading a newspaper. His sister, Rosa Lee, would blare Janet Jackson. "She'd turn up her speakers really loud, put them down on the floor to make the floors vibrate," he remembers, "and she'd dance."
This spring, Gallimore completed his first year of the Johns Hopkins MFA program in poetry. The boy who grew up in a deaf world and took so late to English now produces poems known for their sound. "Frank's poems," says fellow poetry student Will Toedtman, "have a lilt to them that's really sophisticated." One of Gallimore's former undergraduate professors, Pulitzer Prize finalist Garrett Hongo, praises Gallimore's rich language, well-phrased lines, and "interior music."
Provocative, too, is the message within these lyrical lines. Not only is Gallimore the hearing son of deaf parents, he is also the product of an interracial marriage — his father is white and his mother is black. As such, Gallimore straddles many cultures, and his poetry tells the story of life at the intersection. His work focuses on the deaf community he was raised in, a group that shares a visual language that defines its identity and its culture. The poems pay tribute to that culture which, because of medical technologies that aim to eradicate deafness, may be dying.
"One day," Gallimore says, "there won't be any deaf people at all, there will be no deaf culture. My poetry is dedicated to telling its story before they're gone."
"There are actually two components to being deaf," Gallimore says, "physiological and cultural." Physiological deafness is the "disability" most hearing people recognize — deaf people can't appreciate the strings of a symphony, for instance, or talk on the telephone, or hear an approaching car when they cross the street.
In the last two decades, modern medicine has created and refined cochlear implants, which enable many deaf people to hear. But for most deaf people, Gallimore says, deafness is not a disability to be "fixed" but rather a minority culture with a long social history and unique language. Culture, he says, depends on language: "It all comes down to how we communicate to each other, because that's how history and tradition pass from one generation to the next; it's what pulls a group of people together."
The American deaf community is united by its use of ASL.
"People tend to think it's based on English," Gallimore
says, "like Morse code. Like somebody sat down and said,
let's make up signs to match English. But it didn't happen
that way." ASL developed like any other organic language:
"Deaf people got together and started making up their own
signs, their own syntax, their own grammar, and it evolved
|Frank Gallimore (left), with older siblings Rosa Lee and Jed, at home in Dallas, Oregon.||
Just like spoken languages, ASL has different "accents" in
different parts of the country. In spoken English, radio
and television facilitate the mixture of accents between
people in different regions, but the deaf have no such
means of overlap. ASL accents include the level of your
elbows, or where exactly your hands fall in the space
between your chest and chin, or how carefully you move your
fingers. "It's usually harder to understand signers on the
East Coast," Gallimore says. "They're more closed in, and
much faster. A lot of the signs are on the fly instead of
completely executed. It's like an English speaker who slurs
over a lot of words."
ASL creates a cultural identity like spoken language, too, with its own modes of inclusion and exclusion, Gallimore says. "There are certain behaviors where if you exhibit them it means 'OK, you're one of us'" — like keeping eye contact during conversation, and using more subtle facial expressions. When deaf people greet each other, they don't shake hands but hug. And because of a long history of American deaf people working in factories, isolated from other signers, the deaf also tend to talk for a lot longer than the hearing. "There's an expectation to tell a story," Gallimore says. "When a deaf person says, 'how are you?' you don't say, 'I'm fine.' They want to hear the story of your day, which is why their conversations tend to go on forever."
This history makes the deaf a community of storytellers, telling tales the hearing world will never know, Gallimore says. "It saddens me to think of all the deaf Shakespeares out there who will never be recognized by the rest of the world."
Gallimore was not born physiologically deaf, but his first language was ASL. It wasn't until he started school that he realized he wasn't deaf like the rest of his family. "It was hard for me to understand what it meant to be hearing," he says. The label "deaf," for Gallimore, "was the same thing as saying your family's American, or your family's black." When people told him, "but you're hearing," Gallimore didn't understand the distinction. "I'd say, no, how can they be deaf and I'm not? They're my family — I'm the same thing as they are."
Around that time, Gallimore says his brother, Jed, had "a big chip on his shoulder" because he had trouble with English. Their mother, Laurene Simms, today is an associate professor of education at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the world's only university for the deaf. (In fact, she was the first black deaf woman to earn a doctorate.) She says deaf children struggle with English just as English speakers might struggle with spoken French if they'd never heard it. "Deaf kids don't have access to the English language every day like hearing children do," she explains. "But they can get some access — like reading English books or watching TV captioning — and then they can learn it. And some are very successful."
Her son Jed's poor English skills only motivated him to study it more, and he's now a novelist. With his big brother's nose constantly in a book, Gallimore also took interest. "I wanted to be just like him," he laughs, "because I was little brother Frank. So I started reading, too."
"Frank was always creative," Simms remembers. "Even before he started speaking, he would play with his signs, dramatize, and draw pictures — but he really took off when he started using English."
For the next few years, Gallimore says, "I started to finally come to terms with the fact that I was a hearing person, and not like the rest of my family." As he acclimated to the hearing world, he began to notice small changes in the way he communicated. "I'd come home to my deaf family and start to behave differently in my body language and in my eye contact," he recalls. His parents noticed, and Gallimore says he always felt they were a little bit disappointed, "like they were losing me in some way." And Gallimore felt guilty. "I always wanted to be as deaf as possible, to fit in with my family," he says.
Gallimore attended the University of Oregon. While there, separated from deaf people and deaf culture, he began to develop his own identity, one of black and white, deaf and hearing. "That's a lot to juggle," he says, "always acutely aware of being all of those things and yet none of them." He quotes lines from one of his favorite poems, Derek Walcott's Schooner Flight: "I had a sound colonial education, / I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me, / and either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation." Gallimore says that that ambivalence is felt in some way by most Americans and is behind every one of his poems. "As Americans, we're quite familiar with the shock of looking at one's parents and not quite seeing oneself in the picture," he says. "One realizes the disconnect between himself or herself and the past — and history becomes less continuous and more distant, untouchable as a constellation."
An English major, Gallimore was one of two undergraduates to take Garrett Hongo's traditional meter and forms graduate workshop at Oregon. Though the professor's reputation was intimidating at first, Gallimore gradually looked to him as a mentor. "He was very encouraging about my writing," he recalls. "He gave me tips on it, and told me to keep working on it."
Unlike most undergraduates' work, Gallimore's "wasn't cryptic or evasive or juvenile," Hongo says. "He had a finish to it, a sense of creating a sound of language, and I always appreciated that. It wasn't just words thrown on a page — there was an interior music."
With Hongo's encouragement, Gallimore says he "finally got
serious about poetry" in his last year of college. He often
walked by the on-campus coffee house to listen to its
weekly poetry slams, and one day decided to try it. "I
thought doing open-mike poetry every week, every Monday,
would be a way to keep myself writing," he says. As a
senior, he wrote and performed three poems a week. "It
created a kind of expectation after a while," he says.
"Everyone would be like, 'Oh, there's Frank again.'"
|"Deaf culture is probably going the way of the dinosaurs, and I'm not happy about it. I want my poems to show the beauty of deafness and not just the disability of it."||
Gallimore considers sound to be a crucial element in his
writing, and says that not being able to share it with his
deaf family has been frustrating. However, on one occasion,
his mother and sister did come to a slam. Gallimore had
given the poems to an interpreter beforehand. "There's no
way to interpret a poem well," he says. "It was more that
they were proud of me, because I was always a shy kid. I
got a standing ovation, and I remember looking over and
they were crying."
"It was wonderful," his mother remembers. "Because he grew up in deaf culture, where you use your body language and facial expressions so much, his performance incorporated that with his voice."
Gallimore's mother and sister weren't the only ones who enjoyed his energetic performances. Toward the end of one semester, he won three competitions in a row. But eventually, the thrill of the stage wore off. "I enjoyed it for a while," Gallimore says, "until I realized I was writing more for the applause and dramatic effect than I was for the actual depth. I didn't feel like I was growing anymore, I was just performing."
Gallimore decided to transition then, from slam-style poetry to a kind that is "more readable on paper, and not so dependent on performance." He entered a few of these new poems, including Poem to the Son I Do Not Have, into the Kidd Memorial Writing Competition at the University of Oregon and won first place. The poem also received honorable mention in the Atlantic Monthly 2000 Student Writing Competition. In retrospect, Gallimore says, Poem to the Son I Do Not Have "reads a little heavy-handed to me, a little sentimental. But the feeling behind it was real and still is, that sense of being at the end of something, of moving, traveling out of one familiar terrain and into what can't quite be described as a new world so much as it is a state of flux, of mid-motion, of being in between or not quite arriving. That's the condition of many people of mixed heritage."
Gallimore believes deaf culture is dying mostly because of the rise in cochlear implant surgeries. Though cochlear implants have been around for more than 20 years, their use in children has skyrocketed since 2001, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved them for children as young as 12 months. In 1995, 95 implant operations were performed in the United States on children under the age of 3. By 2004, that number rose to 662, with 369 more surgeries done on kids between the age of 3 and 5. Overall, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) estimates that 13,000 adults and 10,000 children have cochlear implants today. (Approximately 900,000 functionally deaf people live in the United States.) "Deaf culture is probably going the way of the dinosaurs, and I'm not happy about it," Gallimore says. "I want my poems to show the beauty of deafness and not just the disability of it."
Gallimore explains how Poem to the Son I Do Not Have underscores this cause: "I don't know that deaf culture will die. It may not. It may adapt and evolve, as so many other cultures have. But I have serious doubts about this, which is why that poem ends rather ambiguously. History, in many respects, is a kind of junkyard, and deaf culture could very easily become one more of its disregarded artifacts. This is something I'm resisting fervently, which is why the poem struggles to imagine a son, a future, that it indeed does not have, and why it urges this son to believe in beauty, to hold on to — to remember — what is being lost."
Gallimore knew he loved to write, but at the time of his college graduation, he wanted to write comic books. So he moved to San Diego, the U.S. hub for comic book writers, and for the next year tried to make a living selling comics and doing freelance commercial art. He made very little money, and eventually turned to teaching, though he continues to make comics for the newsletter of Kids of Deaf Adults (KODA).
After a year of low cash flow, Gallimore found steady work teaching ASL at the University of California, San Diego and working as an ASL interpreter for a relay service. After the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, the government provided all deaf Americans with video phones, which can be used with a telephone relay service to communicate with hearing people. If a deaf person wanted to order a pizza, for example, he or she would call the relay service and sign the order over the videophone to an interpreter, and the interpreter would relay the order to the pizza place. (Gallimore's mother was interviewed for this article using a phone relay service.) Gallimore also did freelance signing — things like going with deaf people to their doctor's office, or translating college lectures.
"But then I got tired," Gallimore says. "I was at a point where I was making enough money to stay in that position for the rest of my life, making a decent living just doing the same thing." He had other ambitions, including improving his technique in the Brazilian martial art of Capoeira. He moved to Washington, D.C., worked as an interpreter to save some money, learned a handful of Portuguese phrases — "I'm an American," and "Excuse me" — and moved to Brazil without knowing a soul. "I went to find out if Capoeira was my number one obsession." In case it wasn't, before leaving the States he applied to the Johns Hopkins poetry program. In May of last year — four months into the Brazil stint — he got an e-mail notifying him of his acceptance. He moved to Baltimore in August.
Last fall, Gallimore took a poetic forms graduate workshop with poet Greg Williamson, a senior lecturer in the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. Williamson says Gallimore "really took the opportunity to experiment with a lot of different kinds of poetic styles and voices and subject matter, and from week to week, really challenged himself to take on some kind of new thing." Williamson remembers one poem in particular about cochlear implants: "While most of us might, sort of blinded, unequivocally think they're a good thing, Frank raised the point that it's not necessarily a good thing. His overarching concern is that the culture — folk tales, sign language, whole histories — would be lost." This surprising idea "was something that arrested everyone in the class," Williamson says, "and certainly me."
Nine out of 10 deaf children are born to parents who can hear, according to the NIDCD. If a deaf child isn't exposed to a "base language" from an early age, his or her language development will be severely delayed, says Simms, Gallimore's mother. "The base language means understanding what the environment is," she says. "Understanding communication, colors, numbers, trees, animals, questions, answers — that's all basic for children. Once they have a foundation, they can jump to a second language."
|"Did I ever wish I was deaf? Hell, yes. I wished that for most of my life. For most of my childhood, I thought the whole hearing world was for the birds."||
The problem, Simms says, is that most hearing parents are
scared when they find out their child has a "disability"
and are encouraged by their doctors and nurses to consider
cochlear implants. "If they're heartbroken, they're upset,
they'll try speech therapy and cochlear implants," she
says. "But that's really not the answer." While the child
is getting an implant, a critical window of opportunity for
learning sign language fluently could be lost," she
Simms' own story shows the importance of early language acquisition. She went deaf when she was a baby, before the age of the cochlear implant, as a side effect of polio. Her parents never learned to sign, leaving her socially isolated from them and her seven siblings. "Nobody communicated with her; she sort of sat in the corner," Gallimore says. When she was very young, she was even declared mentally retarded.
"But then she went to school and turned out to be very smart," he says, "and they realized, 'Oh, it's just because nobody talks to her.'" Simms went on to get her doctorate in language, reading, and culture. "She's pretty much devoted her life to trying to change deaf education," Gallimore says.
Gallimore now has mixed opinions about cochlear implants. He used to think they were abominable, killers of his native culture. But in recent years, he has changed his mind. "I recognize that it's inevitable, that deafness itself will eventually become obsolete. And I wouldn't blame a deaf person for wanting to be in the hearing world."
Gallimore does have some mild hearing loss in his right ear and knows he may — like one of his uncles — lose his hearing completely in middle age. If that happened, he would get a cochlear implant, "primarily because I've become so accustomed to hearing and because I love the sounds of poetry and music," he says. But deaf culture always has been and always will be a huge part of his identity. If the children he hopes for in the future are born deaf — which is fairly likely, as his father was a fourth-generation deaf — Gallimore wouldn't give them a cochlear implant. For one thing, he reasons, "I don't think it's right to make such an important decision for a baby, before he or she can decide for themselves." Moreover, his family would take it as an affront, he says, "as if I was ashamed of our history."
But this couldn't be further from the truth.
"Did I ever wish I was deaf?" he says. "Hell, yes. I wished that for most of my life. For most of my childhood, I thought the whole hearing world was for the birds and felt it was some kind of cruel joke that I was so unfortunate to be born a member of it. I always believed, and in some ways still believe, that the deaf world was so much more vivid, expansive, and beautiful than the hearing one. There is something about the way deaf people 'see' that is incredibly profound. In comparison, hearing people always seem rather nearsighted."
Virginia Hughes is the magazine's 2006 Corbin Gwaltney Fellow.
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