Apr/May 2011  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Curtis Robbins

Interview by Elizabeth P. Glixman

What matters deafness of the ears when the mind hears? The one true deafness, the incurable deafness, is that of the mind.

Deaf poet, educator, and photographer Curtis Robbins graduated from Gallaudet University in 1967 with a Bachelor's in Social Philosophy. He earned two advanced degrees, a Master's in deaf rehabilitation from NYU and a PhD in educational technology from the University of Maryland in 1985. For 40 years he worked in a variety of educational and rehabilitation programs for the deaf community. The last 20 years of his career was spent teaching American Sign Language and Deaf Culture. Curtis Robbins has been deaf since he was one year old.


EG     I am sure you have been asked this before. Poetry is a sound oriented art. Do you hear sounds in a different way than people who hear?

CR     Not at all!!! No one has ever asked me that. You are the first. However, I have written poems expressing that as a deaf man my perceptions of sounds has to be different essentially because I have no recollection of hearing actual sounds, therefore, I cannot describe them. I wrote a poem called "A Deaf Poet's Dilemma" to describe that frustration:

I've written so many poems
and have been wanting so badly
to recite them before an audience.

The trouble is
if I verbalize them
there's always this hearing audience
who may not understand me—
but I know, my deaf friends,
they'd be piqued
if I don't sign to them as well.
(The secret is, I can't
sign with such pas de deux.)

I can't do both simultaneously,
or I'll recant poetic decorum.
So what shall I do with my audience?

when I compose
I don't think
in terms of how
my hands should flow
or how my speech should carry
just so
to appeal the audience.

My mind is my audience,
and then again, it is my mouthpiece.
But then again,
I've never thought
with reconnoitering hands.
So what shall I do with my audience?

will all my readers be there?

EG     Many of the poems I've read of yours seem to be painted pictures and the sounds are implicit or associated in the words to readers.

CR     As a matter of fact, I do recall when I showed one of my poems to one of my professorial colleague at Gallaudet University, where I graduated from and have taught for over 10 years, she mentioned that I often explained sounds visually which she would have never imagined them to be. When I read the same poem in a class at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland, most of the participants couldn't capture the image.

Poets often describe the sounds of the seashore or the deep sea. Longfellow and Coleridge did that. They didn't explain the ferocity of the waves during a stormy day by the beach. I did—because I could tell you what I see happening. I just can't imagine what the sounds might be. Keep in mind, I never wore my hearing aid at the beach nor my CI processor. I saw the raging sea at the shoreline. The visual impact at those moments were extremely powerful for me. What happens then is what I wrote here in a poem I wrote, "Death and the Devil at my Door":

Running with the storm reaping the sea.
Rolling Waves riding kneading tides!
Kneading tides!
Kneading tides!

Higher and higher.
Harder and harder.

Rushing to the shores
with fiery splashes
rapping at my door.

Rapping at my door—
running with the storm reaping the sea.

Rising swells riding kneading tides!
Rolling waves riding kneading tides!
Kneading tides!
Kneading tides!

Higher and higher.
Harder and harder.

Rapping at my door.
Rapping at my door.

Most hearing poets seldom explain the ferocity of those waves during a stormy day by the beach.

EG     What was the cause of your deafness?

CR     I became deaf at the age of one from an overdose of streptomycin, which is an offshoot of a quinine fruit. I had a severe reaction from it that all my speech and motor skills were briefly lost as I was in a coma for a couple of days. It took a week to recover but I was not responsive to any noises or calls from my mother and my grandparents. My father was serving the Army during WWII at the time. I wore my first hearing aid when I was about two years old.

EG     Do you have total hearing loss?

CR     It's not an easy-to-explain hearing loss. It's very subjective and individual. I would hate to over generalize and then get arguments from so many deaf people who have their own feelings and thoughts that greatly vary from my own. If you get an audiologist or an otologist or an otolaryngologist to explain what hearing loss is, they will explain their standard definitions based on many scientific studies. But, here, we're talking about the human aspects of hearing loss. What do we hear? If that's the question, then what is "loss"? The most important thing about hearing is that it is one of the five senses. Each and every deaf person will give you a myriad of answers that would throw you in tangents. Thus, there are no right answers. On the contrary, it is clear that hearing is a feeling—that is, feeling vibrations: a thunderous drumroll, kicking the bottom of the bedroom door hard, banging on the floor with your foot, or banging on the table with your fist and whatnot. These are examples are how deaf people "hear."

I remember when my wife and I went camping up in West Virginia in the mid-70's, a deaf friend of ours, whose parents and siblings were deaf, brought 2 huge boom boxes about 6 feet high and 2 feet wide with a complete stereo set. He himself was only 5 feet tall. He set those boxes about 3 feet apart facing each other. He set the bass on high and the treble low, set the volume high, and ran the tapes. He stood right between them, and smiled. He was really enjoying it. I was about 40 feet away from it and felt the beats pounding on my chest! And I didn't have my hearing aid on. It was unbelievable. Out of curiosity, I tried to get closer to get the idea. I just couldn't, it was just too loud. After about an hour, the campground owner came by asking that my friend turn off the stereo set because it was impossible for the hearing campers to tolerate it. So, the question still remains: how can we define hearing loss here?

Now, what do I hear, you ask? For the last nine years of my life, I have been using the cochlear implant which is remarkably far better than the hearing aid because of sound quality, hearing higher and lower ranges of sounds, and being more aware of my surroundings by recognizing different noises and sounds that I never heard with my hearing aid most of my adult life.

In terms of both the hearing aid and the cochlear implant, I could only hear what they amplify or pick up. Indeed, a hearing aid is a miniature amplifier. It picks up sounds and makes it louder so that it could force the nerve endings to react. The cochlear implant, on the other hand, is an electronic device surgically inserted into the cochlea, and stimulates the nerve endings with whatever sounds picked up. The processor that is magnetically attached to it acts like a microphone picking up sounds to activate the electrodes which tantalizes those nerve endings which sends signals to the brain. It does not amplify sound the same way the hearing aid does. Therefore, with the implant we can hear more sounds than with a hearing aid. There are many deaf people who never wore hearing aids in their lives because they simply cannot perceive those sounds even with amplification. And still many more, who refuse to have a cochlear implant through surgery for a lot of reasons.

A few weeks after surgery and within a few days after having the implant activated, it was already summer. For the first time in my life, I was able to hear nine bird calls while having coffee in our backyard. My hearing daughter came out to have a smoke. I asked her if she could hear those calls so I could feel validated. After a few puffs, she looked at me and said she heard 11 of them and was astonished at how much I heard! I was elated because I was never able to hear them with the hearing aid. I got a well-deserved kiss from her.

Then came October, almost four months later, I was watching television—waiting for the water to boil to have my afternoon tea. The teakettle was whistling. I got up and turned it off and made my cup of tea. Within moments, my son who was in his room, came running out and screamed: "Dad, you heard that? You really heard that, Dad?" My reply was, "That's what the implant is all about." He smiled. In the past, he would grab a toy (for the dog) or a ball from the floor from the loft and throw it down at me to get my attention to turn off the teakettle. I never knew how annoying the whistling from the teakettle could be until I had the implant. I never heard it with a hearing aid in my entire life!

EG     When did you start writing poetry?

CR     I started writing poetry when I was 14 years old. The essence of my early works was mostly about loneliness, deafness, and miscellanies. They clearly helped me understand myself better. I wrote a poem called, "Two Hundred Burning" (1964):

I have been writing poems
since I was fourteen years old.
I felt like a lost youth
in the real world without prelude.
Written words however
or ponderous
never seem preposterous to muse.
While at college
the stack of two hundred
unread and untested poems—
no one to share them with, then.
And then, no one seemed to care.
Thoroughly impoverished,
I incinerated the two hundred.

Yet, the waft of the smoky stench
beckons the insistence to write.

The poem was written several years after graduating from Gallaudet University. The hiatus was a tremendous boon because I was testing myself artistically to try other forms of art. I took up several sculpture classes in a couple of small private art schools and the Art Students' League. It didn't work out. I tried watercolor—to no avail. Then I started writing again while studying for my masters degree at NYU. Even then, something was missing. I was going in tangents and couldn't find that focal point—the voice to reckon with. Yet, I kept writing with hopes that someday—that one day would come when I'd hit the nail right there and then. Yet, my professional life kept me from doing it. That stench always stuck to my mind—I never stopped trying.

EG     Has your deafness limited your "career" as a poet or enhanced it?

CR     I never intended to make a career out of writing poems—although I have deaf friends who have—they're of the younger generation. Most of us who have been poets and writers most of our adult life, but merely did it out of pleasure or rather as a hobby. Many of us, myself included, were teachers, but quite a few of the others came from different walks of life.

When I was younger, many of my poems were submitted for publications and contests for many years but none were accepted. I incinerated all 200 of them I wrote while a freshman in college, because no one wanted to publish my poems. I felt it was perhaps deaf poetry was not "politically correct." Finally I stopped doing it out of the notion that it was a waste of time. But what really behooved me the most was that black poetry, women poetry, gay and lesbian poetry, and Hispanic poetry were widely accepted. The point of it all was that I was basically writing about the similar feelings and situations of being stigmatized by abled-bodied and hearing people as they were about the differential treatment they were getting from the white, male society. So, why am I getting such differential treatments for the same things they say as a deaf poet?? Indeed, I am not seeking sympathy. I just feel I have written wonderful stuff that shows and tells what deafness is about with flair, intelligence, and artistry.

Perhaps, one of the greatest vagaries in the literary field that truly put us deaf poets and writers in a dark corner is presenting our works in reading sessions. When I write my poems, I show them to my friends and colleagues. I recall reading Allen Ginsburg's biography at one time. When he finishes writing a poem, he doesn't hand them out to his friends. He gives them tape recordings of his readings—and they either give feedback on tape or discuss it on the telephone. It was never on paper. Today, everyone reads their work and tapes them as well. Not too long ago, there was a dialogue with 4 disabled women poets that took place with Wordgathering, which Michael Northen conducted. One of them, the blind one, made a very, very poignant comment that when she reads her poem, she can tell if her poem is good or bad by the reaction from the audiences. Yes, the ohs, the ahs, and the mmms tell the tale. If audience's reaction was different, she'd know immediately the poem wasn't successful. So now, how can I, a deaf poet, who may have good understandable conversational speech, who could read my own poems but with the greatest fear that any mispronunciation would throw the audience off? I was once criticized for mispronouncing a very simple word in a poem I read in a creative writing class—and no one said anything about the contents of my work after that. I was deeply devastated. So, I will never read my poems aloud again. It is this fear that kept me from trying to enter contests again.

EG     Did you study poetry?

CR     We have to keep in mind that the creative writing programs were just starting grow, and I was already more than half way through my doctoral studies at the University of Maryland. So, I didn't have the courage to make a career change into something that has never been field tested for deaf writers.

However, after so many years of failing to win any of the poetry contests or getting published, I decided to take a different route to see if it would do me any good . One day, at the Student Union Building at the university, I picked up a community paper and saw the advertisement from the Writer's Center. I called them through the relay service to have them send me the schedule of classes. I managed to fit some of the courses with my already busy academic schedule. In the seven-year period, I took over 12 poetry courses—without the help of sign language interpreters—which wasn't readily available at the time. For the most part, I had to rely on my lip reading skills—which was often truly torturous when trying to understand what the participants and the teachers were saying, and at the same time, being mindful of improving my writing techniques and working on the critical points of the poem. Yet, one of the significant achievements in attending the Writer's Center was that I found my voice.

I just learned recently at the AWP Conference in Washington, DC, that the Writer's Center has had a number of deaf writers taking courses there and that interpreters have been provided.

EG     Before I read the following lines from your poem "Shofar," I never considered how religions accommodate or do not accommodate people with deafness in terms of liturgy or education and that this can be an obstacle for people who want to participate in their chosen faith.

Blare out Your shofar—
I shall hear You not,
nor ever see Your Hands.

CR     I have written many poems about my Jewish identity especially as a deaf person. In rabbinic theology, there is a phrase: Heresh [deaf], Shoteh [imbecile], v'Katan [infantile] which follows the Aristotelian philosophy: he who cannot hear cannot learn. Much of the Mishnaic commentaries, which is based on that Aristotelian philosophy, does describe deaf people as being utterly incapable of taking responsibility of owning property, or raising a family. Interestingly, the Mishna does point out that the ancient rabbis did recognize sign language as a means and mode of communication—and that the non-deaf spouse has the responsibility to learn how to communicate with the deaf spouse. On the contrary, the rabbis have yet to accept the responsibility to educate the deaf Jews. I have heard so many arguments that much of this has changed over time. From what I've seen how the deaf people are treated in Israel as well as in the United States, nothing has essentially changed. The differential treatments have always been the stumbling blocks for any significant improvements in our quality of life as Jews. In Israel, it is very hard for deaf people to get gainful employment without being underemployed. Here in America, Jewish education for the deaf is practically nil. Here is a poem that captures the essence of these feelings called "Vidduy" (Confessions):

Do not be deaf to our pleas...
You are my G-d, and my Redeemer.

I've nothing to confess—
nothing beyond
the foibles of living—
ingrained anger.

I cried for my G-d—
my G-d, have I cried!

Every day is my Yom Kippur
never to hear Shofarot.

How could I beg to forgive
nor will I ever!

The morosity of my
painful innocence
from the ignorance
of the rabbis.

Heresh, shoteh, v'katan!

My G-d, what have You done?

EG     Do you write poems that do not deal with deafness?

CR     Oh absolutely. That's how I got started. Yet, I did write about my deafness occasionally. I wrote about my ambience because as a deaf person I am always looking around to see what's going on around me—especially in my hometown, New York City. Watching people skedaddle about. Watching all kinds of vehicles whiff by. Watching workmen and cranes build skyscrapers. What I saw, I wrote. What I felt, I wrote. What I envisioned, I wrote. What I thought, I wrote. It was a time I was learning to develop my writing style—concretizing my thought processes. Indeed, I had language problems early on—that is, in itself, the handicapping factor of deafness. In fact, I also was doing this blindly without reading works by other poets or literary critiques—I guess because I was just too green to tackle the technicalities. Although most of those early poems—which weren't quite the caliber they should be before being submitted for publication at all—were rejected. It was a rude awakening, needless to say. I couldn't make the connection, then. In due time, I did.

Here are a couple of samples of non-deaf poetry. Here is "A Portrait of a Dream":

A glimmering dream—
a stream
running over
smoothened pebbles
laid out
a mosaic cameo
of you.

A glimmering dream—
winds rhapsodizing
rustling leaves
strains of your hair
catching the ruse
of our dance.

The morning is empty.

And here is another one called "Et Tu Buonorotti":

...scrambling to protect their machines
before highly destructive computer "virus"
known as Michelangelo strikes.

—Washington Post, March 5, 1992

On this day the world stood still!

You're the butt of a bad joke—
repudiating with
intentional wicked cackling.

A viral epidemic in full rage—
the Black Plague of the day!

You're accursed
with computational implosions
destruction beyond recognition—
charring informational volatility.

Out of fear from technological scourge—
the bit baiting, byte biting,
data devouring bug—
the world stood still.

what's left for Man to create?

EG     I experience silence in one way as a hearing person. What does silence mean to you and how do you experience it?

CR     That is a very tough question. Again, silence is a very subjective feeling. For deaf people, it doesn't mean "quiet"—they are far from quiet. It also doesn't mean "make no sound"—almost every possible movement we made as humans, there is sound, but deaf people do make much more noises because they have no idea that they are making them! I recall a time when I invited three of my college-mates to come to my parents' place in New Jersey so that they could sightsee New York City. One of them comes from a large deaf family and that he is a sixth or seventh generation deaf member. My mother once called me to my bedroom and said that he was constantly humming as he breathes. Clearly, he had no idea how much noise he was making.

I was brought up in a hearing family of 6. I was the only deaf person in my family. Often I used to make a lot of noise, the family would tell me to be more quiet. So, I became or conscious of noises I make over the years. Today, my kids doesn't think so! My wife and I make certain sounds that we used to think it was normal to make because everyone does the same thing. As it turned out, we were making mores noises trying to avoid making the other noises we were making.

While a student at Gallaudet University, I used to complain that the students were making a lot of noise. Those who had better hearing than I did used to laugh at me because I was just as noisy as the others!

EG     Often what is considered a handicap in life is often a great gift. What do you think of this statement?

CR     We must recognize the difference between "disability" and "handicapped." We are not handicapped people. We are disabled. I can hear some sounds with very little or no comprehension, therefore I am deaf. Deafness is a disability. The characteristics of deafness is one cannot hear at all, or one may have some hearing to understand certain sounds with difficulties. Also, speech impediment is very much a part of the deafness factor.  Some deaf people can speak understandably, and some others can't. Those are handicapping factors. So, most of us, dwell on our disability not the handicaps.

As a deaf artist, whether painting or writing, we tend to look at the beauty of ASL, espouse our strengths as deaf men and woman, spite the differential treatments by hearing people, and show the love for our fellow deaf brethren. Of course, there are contraries, but the empowerment to be solvent as proud deaf Americans is overwhelming.

As for me, being a deaf poet has many channels. It's like a being a bonsai creator, taking a very young sapling that could grow into a gigantic tree and reveal its ugliness, its strengths, and its powers to survive each year with the harshness from nature. The creator would take the sapling and stop it from becoming big and ugly by making it smaller, stronger, and beautiful. No disability has the characteristics of such a big tree. Yet, I made it so by writing what I believe is important to understand myself, and my deaf brothers and sisters. I write about everything—whether it hurts or not. It is not a gift—it is a job—as a Jew it would be called a "mitzvah."

I wrote a poem that reflects on how a well-known poet and painter felt about Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is one of the great novels about that "disabled" man who among other things is deaf. His poem "Quasimodo May Not Dare" deals with the shortcomings in his own life.

It's Esmeralda, Felix

And constant morning gave me grace to say
Simply "Good Morning." (Darling!) "Will you play?"
And daily you'd defeat me, sun or showers.

—"Quasimodo May Not Dare," Felix Kowalewski

It's Esmeralda, Felix—
She's such a simple girl
pretty and shy.
She's a peasant
pure and simple.

Quasimodo, O Quasimodo
ugly and shy
who thinks himself
so good and so fine—

everyone else doesn't see it that way.

But, O my word, Felix
how they gossip
how they banter
how they plaster
and poison minds

Should we err
how rue is irked
Should we falter
how ire is irate
Should we laugh
how contempt is rapture
Should we succeed
how jealous is Frollo

It's Esmeralda, Felix—
she saves us grace
she feeds us hope
she loves us dearly

as long as the broken vase
endearingly enthrones
our thorny rose.

I have more to say about this idea of contribution.

EG     Okay.

CR     While I was vacationing in Australia, I learned that their greatest poet was deaf!! He was a poet and short story writer. His name is Henry Lawson (1867-1922). He essentially had a very difficult time all his life. He blames his deafness and alcoholism for his miseries. In a word, he was bitter. The irony of it all is that he is considered the greatest but he was never successful as a writer as compared to his hearing nemesis, Banjo Patterson, who was a lawyer and a very successful poet—but not as great as Lawson. An editor friend of mine said to me that he feels my poems are quite similar to his. When I got to Australia, all I heard was that their most "beloved" poet is none other than Henry Lawson. He was the first poet to get a state funeral in 1922. Mary Gilmore also a poet, and a good friend of his was the only other to have one as well. His picture was on one of the banknotes and a number of postal stamps commemorating his birthday or death. No other poet received so much accolades like him—not even Banjo Patterson.

When I got to Sydney, I was looking for books by him as well as biographies. Fortunately I was able to get a few collections of his poems and stories. The rest of his works, to my great surprise, was obtained from the internet for free. Someone at the Dymock Bookstore mentioned that Lawson's statue is at the botanical garden. I was so excited, I walked 8 miles to see it! When I got there, I sat down staring at his face, read his famous story, "The Drover's Wife", and a few of his poems. Then, I wrote "The Sydney Monologue at the Henry Lawson Statue":

Oh Henry! Oh Henry.
I am so utterly mesmerized
at the presence of your likeness
in black patinated bronze.

I see the bridge by the opera house
across the river from the garden—
it tings of Sydney's cultured artistry
but your statue speaks of Australia's soul.

Light breezes sway multitudinous trees
sumptuously tall and lanky variates
that beautify the greenery stumped
with sandstone walls and statues.

Wooden benches align winding walks
implanted along the hilly sprawl
some taken by lovers and
some by tired strollers

Endless walks laid in esses,
jays, and us that ribbon along
on the swelling lawns
laden with mottled daydreams.

In your environs on top of the hill
cars curb the streets
joggers amble by at times
to impede my thoughts momentarily.

It's a good thing, Henry! I'm
so intense and need to recollect.
My American mind has been tackling
accents of the Australian Bush.

Cultural clashes make mishmash
out of literary mincemeat
laced with cacophonies
of acrimonious local color.

Words dance about the open page
yet, every syllable seem so hard to say
trying to let our languished tunes
entertain those imperturbable ears!

I'm so sorry I am not attuned
to your shantytown songs of the Bush—
I'm just so used to words that make mettle
out of being what you and I are.

It makes sense, Henry! For both of us—
it doesn't matter—the senselessness—
what matters is our impassionate voices
that sound so different to them.

Yet we are singing to them, Henry.
Our voices are tenors of our glories
I'm standing by you reciting the silent opus—
can't you see how those words blossom?

I have spent many months reading much of his work and 2 of the 3 biographies about him, since returning from Australia last November. I am so amazed at this great man's body of work and what he has accomplished—especially as a deaf man. It's immeasurably remarkable how he overcame the subtleties of his deafness to phonetically reveal the spoken word of the Australian Bush, to describe the behaviors and mannerisms of the squatters, drovers, bankers, jackarooes, women, and whoever else, to witness great moments in the Australian country and her municipalities, and above all, to explain his own relationships and mateships with the Bush people, his family, his fellow writers, and his editors and publishers.

EG     Are there any deaf performance poets?

CR     Yes, indeed, there are. Gallaudet and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf have been training people to perform ASL poetry—which is not my forte. There are several troupes of ASL performers throughout the country and Canada which also uses ASL as a primary language except Quebec which have its own signing system. I do not have all the details to explain the functionalities.

EG     Do you have other favorite poets?

CR     It's not the individual poets that had any impact alone but the movements: Woman, Black, and Jewish/Yiddish movements. Each one had unique impact on me as a person and as a poet. As I've said before in this interview. In spite of the vast differences, they all had the same goals—the freedom to be what they want to be in America—and not to be treated any differently than the white, abled-body man. As a deaf man, I've always had a problem showing that I am an intelligent being and that my deafness doesn't mean that my mind doesn't work. My disability is a communicative one and it prevents me from being privy to higher echelons. It is my intent to use my poetry as a symbol for ability.

EG     What plans if any do you have for your poetry in the future?

CR     I am mainly interested in having my poems published outside the deaf community in the very same ways that the black, woman, and Jewish/Yiddish movements reached out in society.

More importantly there are many, many deaf poets, writers, and playwrights. There is a loosely formed Deaf Writers group which started a few years ago. I've been a member since its inception back in 2002 during the Deaf Way II gathering in Washington, DC. We had the Deaf Writers Symposium to discuss the ways and means of being successful in the literary world which has been somewhat hostile to us. Nonetheless, we keep each other posted with our progresses, frustrations, and make announcements about contests and publication deadlines—as if we were a "Deaf Poets and Writers" magazine. Often, we would learn who is open to having works by deaf writers published, and which contests are receptive to our submissions, etc. The bottom line is we are good writers but we are hampered in the sense that we are not of the caliber—which is humbug!


Editor Note: Thinking about buying In Spite of Everything or another book today? Please click the book cover link above. As an Amazon Associate, Eclectica Magazine earns a small percentage of qualifying purchases made after a reader clicks through to Amazon using any of our book cover links. It's a painless way to contribute to our growth and success. Thanks for the help!