In 2023, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, John Lee Clark discusses his curatorial approach and his own creative work.
Poets.org: How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day?
John Lee Clark: For this particular opportunity, I decided to gather folks from the worlds of disability. The nature of disability culture is such that I knew I didn’t want everyone to be, you know, “here’s-a-document-to-prove-it” disabled. I wanted it to be more porous. So, in addition to Deaf, DeafBlind, blind, cyborg, neurodiverse, wheeler, mad, sick, and chronic poets, we’ve got the odd father of an autistic here and a CODA there. (“CODA” refers to someone who’s hearing but grew up with a Deaf parent or two or more.) That’s how a world works—not with a passport.
But even if you did want to go legal and medical, the disability population is huge—a full quarter of the total population. Yet disability representation in literary publications is—wait, let me show you. [Blowing air on the back of your hand.] Which is why I thought it worthwhile to devote the entire month’s curation to our voices. And I do mean the entire month. I am excited to present readers with ten historical poems for the weekends along with my selections of contemporary ones.
Poets.org: If you could direct readers to one poem in our collection at Poets.org that you haven’t curated, what would it be and why?
Clark: You know, many of the all-time classic poets were certainly—had to be, and this goes beyond statistical probability—on the autism spectrum. And it’s not like their epics and best-loved shorter poems don’t reflect this fact. They do; remarkably well. But I just love Mark Akenside’s 1,744-line long poem “The Pleasures of Imagination.” To me, it feels like a neurodiverse epic in a way other candidates for the honor don’t, with the way it moves cosmologically, with such ease. The rest of Akenside’s work is masked and forced, except for one ode.
Poets.org: Who are you reading right now?
Clark: T. S. Eliot, actually. His verse play, “Murder in the Cathedral.” It’s a wonderful exercise in sheer poetic language. There’s almost no plot; it isn’t a play, but—the leaven! Language as cotton candy. Not good for you, I know. I’m also absorbed by Anahid Nersessian’s “The Calamity Form,” a brilliant engagement with four Romantic poems.
Poets.org: What are you currently working on in your writing, teaching, and publishing life?
Clark: I just got back from a first-ever convening of Protactile poets in Rochester, New York. We weren’t worried about “poems.” We just had a lot of fun playing with prosody, and poems came up anyway. My next three trips are all related to the Protactile movement. A new language, a new modality, a new realm—you’ve got to do everything: research, teach, write, cook together, commune with animals, hit the hot tub’s gurgle button every fifteen minutes. For my poetry, I want to finish a few more slateku for a series about our cats, then pick twelve of the best. I have a dozen, but I want some excess so that I can winnow.