Heuer is the author of the "Man On The Street" column that appeared in the e-zine Tactile Mind Press Weekly. His poetry and short stories have appeared in No Walls of Stone, The Deaf Way II Anthology, Kaliedoscope Magazine, and in The Tactile Mind quarterlies. The Tactile Mind Press published Heuer's book, All Your Parts Intact: Poetry, in 2004. Another book, Bug: Deaf Identity and Internal Revolution, will be published in September, 2007, by Gallaudet University Press. Heuer and his wife, Amy, live in Alexandria, VA.
How and when did you become interested in writing poetry?
In the second grade, my teacher asked the class to write a story to complete the sentence “It was a dark and cloudy day….” Everyone else turned in one-page stories about rainstorms and such. I turned in eight pages (with handwriting on both sides) about mutant rat-men aliens invading the Earth; my friend Terry and I had to fight them off with bows and arrows. That was the first time I ever got a writing rush. Poetry just followed naturally from there.
Has any poet, living or dead, inspired you particularly? What poems do you know by heart? What poems do you like to read?
I really liked the confessional poets. Anne Sexton was a big influence on me. Sylvia Plath was another. I had a lot of influences—Charles Bukowski, Henry Rollins, Stan Rice. “Fire And Ice” (by Robert Frost) is a poem I hope someone reads at my funeral. “Their Share” by Stan Rice reminds me of trying to get through my teenage years. “Which Part Was Me And Which Part Was You” by Orson Scott Card is a poem my wife and I included in our wedding ceremony.
There are lots of ways to write and lots of advice on writing, but tell us….when do you do your writing? Do you write every day? Do you keep a journal? If so, do you use anything from your journal in your poems?
I’m a natural night guy, so I do most of my actual sitting-in-front-of-the-computer-and-pounding-away writing at night. There’s more to it than that, though. Thinking is a part of writing. I am in the constant process of noticing things and interpreting them in my own “voice.” I keep a journal for that reason, but I don’t try to be poetic there. Mostly my journal functions as a diary—it’s straight reporting, things that happened to me, things that are happening in the world. The poetry grows out of that later.
Do you think people have to be in love or miserable to write a poem?
I think a lot of poetry is naturally emotional whether it tries to be or not. I think being depressed or angry is really just a natural reaction to the influences of real life events. You can’t always see those influences, though, so you don’t always know why you’re depressed or angry. Poetry can help you figure that out. A poem doesn’t have to be clear in any sense of the word, but you can connect a lot of loose symbols and images in a poem and end up with a much clearer explanation of why you feel the way you feel than you ever would through straight reporting in a journal. Poetry picks up things hiding in your mind.
What do you think makes a good poem?
For the poet? Honesty. But here’s a twist: A poem can be about a lot more than it seems to be on the surface. Images stand for many things. I remember once reading Anne Rice’s description of a tree. If you look at a tree in one way, Rice said, it’s “a beautiful thing, turning the landscape green. Look at it another way and it’s a root-system monster gobbling up all the water, tyrannically blocking out the sunlight for smaller, frailer flowers.” When you read poetry, you have to decide consciously to suspend judgment and let the poet really speak to you. If you let the emotions as well as the images get through your defenses so you can feel the poet’s frustration or contentment, you’ll walk away from the poem having been opened to something you never saw before. It changes you, and I think that kind of change is a good thing and much needed.
How do you handle sign vs. the written word in your poems?
In my poetry class at Gallaudet, I have my students perform their written poetry in ASL. Sometimes what they don’t capture on the page comes out in the signs, and vice-versa. I also know of an editor, John Lee Clark of the Tactile Mind Press, who actively hunts for hidden ASL signs in English poetry. He thinks such poetry is a very important cultural expression of our art, and I agree with the man wholeheartedly. The deaf community needs poets, and not just ASL poets, either—English language poets. There are so many things waiting to be captured out there, things that deaf teenagers, children, young and old adults alike are all going through. It would be so wonderful to share those things, to have someone pick up your book of poems and realize “Hey, she felt the same way! Wow! I’m not alone in this!” That’s what I strive to do, with love, with anger, with grief, with calmness. I try to share who I am. That’s what I hope to see in poetry every time I pick up a book by a new deaf writer. And that’s starting to happen a lot these days—many voices struggling to really be heard, to really change things! It’s a wonderful, exciting thing! Wouldn’t it be great to be a part of that?
Obviously, people think it’s possible to teach someone how to write a poem, but do you think it’s possible to teach someone how to be a poet?
You can only teach yourself to be a poet—teaching yourself to recognize what is truly you as opposed to what everyone else wants you to be. When you can say, “This is me” when writing about everything from discrimination to a toothbrush to an oily pigeon outside of Union Station, you’re a poet. I can’t teach you how to do that—nobody can. You have to look deep into yourself and pierce all the beliefs that you protect yourself with. Now turn that gaze on the world and tell me what you see. That’s a poem waiting to be written.
Have you taken any classes in writing poetry?
I did—all through college. It was a great time. We had poetry readings in coffee shops, dance halls—you name it. People would come from thirty miles away to hear us read. The other students in the class were SO brutally critical! My God! But it was wonderful for me, because I was awakened from my own narrow-mindedness to those places where I was not being honest and where I was hiding behind other people’s perceptions. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.
Have you ever taken a workshop in writing poetry? What do you think of the workshop format itself?
Workshops help—definitely! I think the best teachers get out of the way and just become group participants. In my own class (which follows a workshop format), I have everyone sign up to present a poem. They make fifteen copies, hand those copies out to fifteen students, and then perform the poem. The class then critiques the poem and comments on the performance. This is how the poet learns what is not clear, what is a cliché, what is good, and so on. I give my own critiques right along with all of my students and beyond that try to let the class find its own way. I give brief explanations of what meter is, what different forms poetry can take, and I teach them games that help them to come up with metaphors and similes and images. The point is to have a great time and to learn to see in new ways. I really love those kinds of workshops.
You’ve mentioned several “ confessional" poets—people who write about disturbing things. It’s not as if these poets are not popular. They are. Why?
In modern life, everything is sanitized and sterilized. You aren't allowed to see deathly sick people wandering around, or even very, very old people. There is an institution for everything—including deafness, when you think about it. What everyone suspects and fears is true is hidden behind an institutional wall. In a way that's good. Order is kept. Society functions. But in a way it's bad, too, because a very large natural component of healing emotionally and moving on is facing something and accepting it. Since nobody can face it, nobody can accept it. The appeal of confessional poetry for me is that it rips down these society-made barriers. A lot of people keep saying, "This country/world is going to the dogs." They remember the “good old days.” The truth is, the world has always been like this.
Another appeal of confessional poetry is just knowing there's someone else out there who feels the same way you do, who sees the same way you do, who has enough spirit and bravery to say, "...what you think is going on is actually what is going on." I think reading this kind of poetry can be a recovery program, a giant pat on the shoulder—“There, there.” It's comforting. It's validating. It makes you feel less alone.
Is there another side of that argument?
Joseph Campbell argued that we have institutions and rituals and so forth—"coming of age" events like graduation, confirmation, marriage, etc.—to serve as a yardstick for people to measure their progress by. You need that yardstick to keep from being overwhelmed in a world of what would otherwise be senseless data, unconnected information. We coordinate and correlate that information. Marriage is associated with "being at least 18," and not being 13 (in the way it was back in the 1800s). A work day is considered 8 hours, and not 18 or 20 the way it was back in 1910 or even 1920 before labor unions. You didn't get a college degree before you graduated from high school, and you didn't buy your first house before you graduated from college. With institutions, with ritual, with coming-of-age events, we have order instead of chaos. Without that order, chaos is especially destructive.
It's strange how art and technology are often blamed for destructive behavior, when in fact I think that behavior is caused by something much deeper. People lose themselves. It's not "caused" by poetry or technology (the internet, for example) any more than it is caused by everything being swept into an institutional closet and hushed up. It is the tension between these two extremes and the lack of guides on the road between these two extremes that cause people to lose their way.
The line between order and chaos is very confusing. I have just as much trouble finding my way as anyone else, and I've made just as many mistakes. But overall the balance I've found forces me to look as deeply into myself and others as I possibly can, to really look and question which side of the line I'm on at any given moment. I think that's a good thing