Winner of the 2023 Minnesota Book Award for Poetry
Longlisted for the 2023 National Book Award for Poetry
A stunning debut from an award-winning DeafBlind poet, “How to Communicate is a masterpiece” (Kaveh Akbar).
Formally restless and relentlessly instructive, How to Communicate is a dynamic journey through language, community, and the unfolding of an identity. Poet John Lee Clark pivots from inventive forms inspired by the Braille slate to sensuous prose poems to incisive erasures that find new narratives in nineteenth-century poetry. Calling out the limitations of the literary canon, Clark includes pathbreaking translations from American Sign Language and Protactile, a language built on touch.
How to Communicate embraces new linguistic possibilities that emanate from Clark’s unique perspective and his connection to an expanding, inclusive activist community. Amid the astonishing task of constructing a new canon, the poet reveals a radically commonplace life. He explores grief and the vagaries of family, celebrates the small delights of knitting and visiting a museum, and, once, encounters a ghost in a gas station. Counteracting the assumptions of the sighted and hearing world with humor and grace, Clark finds beauty in the revelations of communicating through touch: “All things living and dead cry out to me / when I touch them.”
A rare work of transformation and necessary discovery, How to Communicate is a brilliant debut that insists on the power of poetry.
About the Author
John Lee Clark is an award-winning writer and Protactile educator. He has received the Krause Essay Prize and a National Magazine Award for his prose, and the Minnesota Book Award for his poetry collection How to Communicate. A 2021–2023 Bush Fellow, he lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota, with his partner, the ASL Deaf artist Adrean Clark, their three kids, and two cats.
As tonally dynamic as it is formally inventive. — Poets & Writers
[John Lee] Clark’s writing is full of humor and life…[A] magisterial book of poetry. — Andrew Leland - The New Yorker Radio Hour
Funny, angry, inviting, tender, genuine…Clark hasn’t just put his life into verse and prose poems; he’s felt and manipulated and explored and expanded what poetry in English—in print, to the ear, on the fingertip—can do. — Stephanie Burt - Rain Taxi Review
Anybody who reads How to Communicate will see that this book is something special…How to Communicate showcases [John Lee] Clark’s ability to leave the reader finding something new even after the third and fourth read. Every section offers something fresh and dynamic…[H]e invites his readers into a world of texture and touch, with hopes they will want to stay. And they will.
— Victoria England - RHINO Poetry
The collection is less about a message’s content than about ‘how’ that message moves between the bodies who make and receive it…The poems in How to Communicate are too sprawling for the book itself; their ever-growing hands press beyond the edges of pages and up through the spine…Reaching across centuries, [John Lee] Clark models a crip solidarity premised on innovation.
— Clare Mullaney - Public Books
How to Communicate brims with the talent and generosity of a living classic. And what a talent! Take, for instance, Slateku, a form John Lee Clark has created based on Braille: it is both inimitable and available to anyone. Or take his brilliant prose poems that are completely unlike any other prose poems I have read.… There is simply no one else like John Lee Clark and I envy the readers who discover him for the first time.
— Ilya Kaminsky, author of Deaf Republic
The poems in John Lee Clark’s revolutionary How to Communicate work together as a manifesto that lays bare the ways in which a society that assumes seeing and hearing as the norm views touch as suspicious, enough so to try to outlaw touch. And yet, if manifesto, also invitation: what might it mean to write ‘forward in a different direction and from a different spatial perspective,’ Clark asks, and goes on to show us, in poems of formal virtuosity, of fierce tenderness, of triumphant community.… How to Communicate is the steadily revelatory gift I didn’t know I’d been waiting for.
— Carl Phillips, author of Then the War
A rare and gorgeous collection powered by human touch. John Lee Clark’s poems approach, feel, and detail what we thought we recognized—a tree, an airplane, and even Goldilocks—on their way to challenging and enlarging our understanding of agency, community, and, most of all, language itself. How to Communicate is a vital and precious bridge made of language—and once crossed, it will transform readers’ sense of the world.
— Aviya Kushner, author of Wolf Lamb Bomb
Clark writes sensuous, radically intelligent poems. They ‘touch’ in every sense, offering fables in Braille and painful lessons in how to read the human heart: ‘We touch / you. You do not flinch,’ the poet tells a Cubist sculpture by Jacques Lipchitz. Nor do these poems flinch, showing us a scar ‘from a cracked bowl that begged to be broken,’ and scenes of cruelty that instruct in forgiveness. Hard-edged, concentrated, and sophisticated work, thoroughly in command of its art. — Rosanna Warren, author of So Forth
This is a rare and gorgeous collection powered by human touch. John Lee Clark’s poems approach, feel, and detail what we thought we recognized—a tree, an airplane, and even Goldilocks—on their way to challenging and enlarging our understanding of agency, community, and, most of all, language itself. How to Communicate is a vital and precious bridge made of language—and once crossed, it will transform readers’ sense of the world.
— Aviya Kushner, author of Wolf Lamb Bomb
Yes, How to Communicate pulses with distinctive language and artistry, but John Lee Clark’s poems stay with us because they churn with vulnerability and a longing for meaningful connection. These poems surprise us with sorrow, and they make us laugh even when they are tossing many of us out of a train window, clutching our old, empty values. This collection reminds us of the fullness of touch and the power we have to choose how we read and write our world.