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When the Interpreter Is Taking Selfies Onstage

Let’s just keep it down to the nitty gritty. This is about slam, and being deaf, and visibility, but it starts in a very specific, critical experience that I had at the National Poetry Slam in Oakland, CA, this August.

I don’t usually use interpreters when I do slam poetry events, mainly because I have a lot of feelings about whether slam poetry is actually interpretable, and I’m able to get a lot of it as long as I can see the poets’ faces. But I knew the finals venue was going to be huge so I wanted to snag some seats that would make it worth it for me to go.

So I emailed the coordinator of the entire slam and she connected me with an interpreter that I had heard of, the one who followed NPS around every year and interpreted the finals events. From my hearing friends, I had heard glowing things. I heard she was devoted to the cause, that she was sweet and lovely and kind, and that she nobly did all of this without pay. Being the jaded Deaf person I am, with the lifetime experience of interpreters that I have, this all made me suspicious.

You have to be insane to pursue interpreting slam poetry. Poetry is so intensely personal and dense, translating it from one language to another and from one mode to another in real time requires serious balls. I would say it’s either very courageous or very hubristic, and often it’s just mostly the latter. But it requires massive skill to pull off well. And no interpreter should work without pay. It does injustice to their labour, sets a very poor precedent, and is disrespectful to deaf people. If this interpreter were so committed to the cause, that either meant, to me, that she was a bleeding heart, or that she had some other motive, and either way it meant that it probably wouldn’t be good interpreting for me, which was fine. I could ignore it. Even so, I was not prepared for what I was greeted with.

As soon as this interpreter saw me in the venue with my friend, she was intensely rude to me. She scolded me, saying without my even asking that I was allowed only one seat, only one, and that I could sit alone and watch the interpreter, or I could sit with my friends, and that It Was Up To Me. I asked (in fluent ASL) if other deaf people were attending the event and was met only with a very coy shrug. When we got down to the business of seating, her general demeanor was that I could suck it. She asked me if I was planning on “even” watching the interpreters, like she was demanding that I affirm her as someone as I needed—as though otherwise she didn’t see why she had to help me or even interact with me, as though I were being utterly unreasonable in my request that I even be there. I was in shock and enraged throughout the encounter—I have never had such an experience, where it was so clear to me and everyone around me that I was being made to feel like the problem by the person who was supposed to welcome me.

What’s worse, as I walked around the space looking for the best vantage point, I saw her count off the rows and reserve three seats on her own with a scarf. I don’t know who they were for, but the fact it was so easy for her to do what she had just made so hard for me, plunged me into a moment of intense panic and despair. I stood there by myself in the pews and wondered, was this really what I was supposed to do? Sit alone with my hand on my cheek while my entire community was sitting somewhere else together?

Slam poetry is inherently pretty inimical to deaf people. I would never in my life actively suggest to another deaf person that they go to a hearing slam. I have my reasons for going, and I go despite myself. There’s a draw there and I’m still struggling to articulate the attraction that I have to slam as a form, as a venue, as a movement. Many people in the scene have been warm and welcoming, they’ve done a lot to make me feel included, and more importantly, they’ve been open to being taught. Even though everyone fails to some degree. We all do. But this interpreter exhibited no such willingness. Instead she told me I must be alone. She behaved as though I were a burden. As though I had no right to be there. So I thought, am I really supposed to be isolated? Is this the price of inclusivity? And I knew that it was not. I realized I was being punished.

But I couldn’t figure out why. And then I saw the interpreter and her team taking selfies onstage. Then it was so obvious to me that it made me laugh hard, bitterly, and so ironically.

Slam poetry is a great place to be a performer. Especially when you’re performing in another language that nobody in the room understands, and that everybody thinks is beautiful. Where you are not at any risk at all of being evaluated, except to be complimented and lauded. Who on earth would expect a Deaf person to show up at a slam, and actually know what was going on? Poor “Spirit of the Slam” interpreter. She wasn’t accounting for someone like me to show up and scare her in her domain. She was angry at me for taking up her space. This is a story that I have seen a thousand times, yet I was surprised to see it happen again, right in my face.

But I don’t give a shit about the interpreter. In the end, it’s not about her.

It’s about visibility.

Visibility is always the argument. “But at least she brings ASL to the slam.” “At least she brings it to the stage.” “At least people see it.” “At least exposure.”

I am tired of this. I am tired of dealing with people’s surprise that this happened. That this is an experience that I have. That is common, though maybe not quite so in my face, not at a venue that is all about giving marginalized people space to be heard. I am tired of the shock that a very nice seeming hearing person can be totally horrible to people who are not hearing, to people they regard as beneath them. I am tired of telling interpreters that I am ok with their work when I am not ok, because when they ask me how to fix it I will have to tell them that they are the problem. I am tired of questioning whether I should say anything because this might mean I will never have access to this event again. I am tired of being told that I should be grateful for what I have. I am tired of telling myself that I should be grateful for what I have. I am tired of thinking of myself as a bother, or a complainer, or a pest, and I am enraged that I should encounter behaviour that reinforces that feeling. Because I know who should be seen.

It’s not the interpreter standing on the stage. It’s not even the words “ASL showcase” in the program when it’s scheduled at 3pm on a Wednesday, at the same time as two other much more popular events, when the words “ASL creators” are used to create wiggle room for hearing people to use my language to express themselves. It’s not even that there just aren’t enough Deaf poets in the area to attend the event, or who want to. It’s not even that there just aren’t enough Deaf people who are taught, or allowed, to love language and literature, in ASL or even in English, the language of their oppression, and encouraged to consume it in every way they can, and encouraged to express themselves, or even told that they can. It’s not even that we carry an entire history of language and cultural deprivation with us, and that we figure out how to do it anyway through our strangled fingers. It’s not even that there is no stage for people like us that we do not have to build ourselves. It’s not even that there is no audience for us who will not think about us, at best, as beautiful aliens. It’s not even that every poem about people like us by hearing people ends with lines like “if we could just listen.”

It’s that when we talk about visibility, the image that comes to my mind is two interpreters on a stage taking selfies.

Is this the visibility that I am supposed to be satisfied with? Do you look for me in the audience? Do you think about how I am there? Do I feel seen?

Do you see me?