Listen 2 Us - Literacy, Self-Determination, and Interdependence for Nonspeakers

Poet Wants You To Rethink What It Means To Be Nonspeaking -Transcript

Transcript of interview 

Talk of Iowa, February 20. 2020 

Transcript for “Poet Wants You to Rethink What it Means to be Nonspeaking”

Audio recording is available here:

Charity Nebbe and Katelyn Harrop interviewed David James (“DJ”) Savarese as part of Iowa Public Radio’s Talk of Iowa on February 27, 2020. Photo by Tanya Rosen of Rosen-Jones Photography in Oberlin, Ohio. The interview appears in it’s entirety.

Charity: It’s Talk of Iowa from Iowa Public Radio. I’m Charity Nebbe. David James Savarese, better known as DJ—Deej to his friends—is an award-winning filmmaker and poet. He graduated with honors from Oberlin College in May of 2017 and he now lives in Iowa City. What makes his story remarkable is that he is autistic and nonspeaking. For this interview, he communicated with me primarily through typing and text-to-voice software. He also signs, does some vocalizing, and writes messages with a pencil on paper. DJ grew up in Grinnell. His parents worked hard at home to help their son develop the tools he needed to communicate with others. That made it possible for DJ to reveal his remarkable intellect and pursue his education with a passion. You can learn more about him in his documentary Deej.

Charity (continues): Speaking engagements have occupied a lot of his time in recent years, but I wanted to talk to him about his latest collection of poetry. It’s called A Doorknob for the Eye. We decided to meet DJ in his home in Iowa City. His mother Emily joined us in their living room, and in the interest of time, she provided some support with transferring a couple of DJ’s handwritten responses to his software. DJ is very thoughtful and sensitive to the language that people use to talk about autism. So that’s where we started.

Charity (continues): I want to start by asking you a little bit about language because the language that we use when we talk about different groups of people can be very powerful. And sometimes it's hard to know the right language to use. So I would love for you to tell me how you prefer me, a broadcaster, to talk about people with autism, the kind of language you’d like me to use.

David: I prefer to use  autistic or autist instead of person with autism. Just like I prefer poet or scholar or artful activist.

Charity: Ok. That’s really helpful to me. Thank you. I want to go back in time to when you were a little boy, and after your parents—Emily and Ralph—adopted you. They helped you learn how to communicate in a way that other people could understand after they adopted you. Can you remember what it was like when you started to be able to communicate with them through words?

David: I learned how to sign and use photos and objects to communicate before I learned to read and write. I loved having ways to communicate what I wanted or needed, but I didn’t have any way to communicate my hopeful ideas. Eventually I learned to read and write at school and slowly started to use words to talk about my life.

Then I knew I would be able to study anything I wanted to. The world came into focus and I loved what I saw.

Charity: You have said that poetry is like your native language. Do you remember when you first discovered poetry?

David: In Mrs Schultz’s class in the fourth grade. I still have the book we made in Language Arts. We studied simple forms like haiku, diamantes, and acrostics. I liked the way the words formed less formally, more fluidly.  I still use the forms to entice other kids into language.

Charity: So when you describe poetry as your native language, what do you mean by that?

David: I mean that for me, poetry is the best approximation of my experience I can find. It’s sounds and rich associations lured me into literacy.

It reminds me of my life before words—less sad, more sensory-based.

Charity: You have written some poems about your life before you were adopted. And some of those poems are in your movie Deej. Do you have memories of your time before you were adopted?

David: I have memories in the back of my mind, but I never know when they’ll pop up. Imagine a video player that selects what it wants to play. It’s never in words. Just action and color.

Charity: As the conversation turned to poetry, I asked DJ to read some of his poems for us. In an email he told us that his software voice is a little stilted. He says, “It’s fine for conversation but too stilted to capture the nuance and cadence of poetry, so I borrow the voices of poets I trust to read my poems aloud.” The voice you’ll hear is DJ’s dad, Ralph Savarese.

Charity (continues): I want to talk about your poetry collection. It’s called A Doorknob For the Eye, and each poem in this collection is inspired by the work of other autistics. Deej, can you tell me about your inspiration for the book?

David: I had always wanted my film to be about a community of autistics, not just about me, so I wrote the series in part to showcase the amazing art of other autistics and in part to acknowledge the high art I love.

I was in a creative writing workshop at Oberlin and we were learning about poetic series. I liked the idea of introducing some autistic artists to my college friends. I wanted them to see that autistics are talented, and to honor the sophistication of their wordless communication. I started by looking at the collection called Drawing Autism and gradually branched out from there.

I’m about to launch a digital version on line, one that will foreground the artists and their artwork more.

Charity: I would love for you to read “The Horns of a Dilemma” for us, but before you read the poem, can you tell us about the person and the work that inspired this poem?

David: “The Horns of a Dilemma” pays respect to an amazing sculptor, Shinici Sawada.  Sawada lives in an institution for the mentally disabled in Kusatsu, Japan.  He produces his art, as one website puts it, “in a small potter’s cabin, located deep in the wilds, a few kilometers from the institution.”

Charity: So when I first read your collection, I read the poems first, and then I read the abstract at the back, and then I read the poems again, which I really loved as an experience because the first time that I plunged into the poetry, I didn’t know the background of, of the different people that the poems were about. And so I got to experience each poem twice and in a really different way each time, which I really, really loved. Um, would you read “The Horns of a Dilemma” for us?

Poet reads: “The Horns of a Dilemma.” [Unfortunately, the form of this poem makes it difficult to reproduce in a transcript and copies of A Doorknob for the Eye, published by Unrestricted Interest Press, are currently sold out. However, a digital version of the chapbook soon will be available online for free through DJ’s website ( If you’d like to receive email notification of its launch, you can email DJ at]

Charity: That’s beautiful. Let’s talk about “The Unmerited Favor of Light,” which is a different kind of poem because it’s also it’s about the shape of the poem, not just the sound of the poem, but we can’t really share the shape over the radio. But first, tell us a little bit about the person and the work that inspired that poem.

David: “The Unmerited Favor of Light” is written about Iris Grace Halmshaw, a British painter who became an international sensation by the age of five. Her mother, Arabella Carter-Johnson, manages her artistic career and generally titles her paintings.  She thinks of her daughter’s art-making—as well as her Maine coon cat, Thula--as drawing her into language and sociality.

It might also help to know that the human eye registers visible electromagnetic waves as color; that Nadia Chomyn was a famous autistic savant who lost her remarkable drawing skills when she learned to speak and write at age seven, at which point she began to draw like an infant and later stopped drawing altogether; and that the mandarin dragonet is a colorful, popular, salt-water aquarium fish.

Charity: Would you read the poem for us? “The Unmerited Favor of Light?”

Poet reads: “The Unmerited Favor of Light.” [Unfortunately, the form of this poem makes it difficult to reproduce in a transcript and copies of A Doorknob for the Eye, published by Unrestricted Interest Press, are currently sold out. However, a digital version of the chapbook soon will be available online for free through DJ’s website ( If you’d like to receive an email notification of its launch, you can email DJ at]

Charity: When someone sits down with this collection of poetry, they’re going to learn about the people who inspired the poems, they also learn a little bit about you and how you think. What do you want them to take away from the experience of reading this collection?

David: I want readers to research these artists’ work and to recognize the ways they communicate without words as sophisticated. 

Charity: Your film, Deej, did that for a lot of people. A lot of people, in learning about you, have come to realize how sophisticated your mind is, and, I think, give a lot more credit and a lot more thought to the minds of other people who communicate differently. You’ve been doing a lot of traveling. You’ve been giving a lot of speeches since the film came out, but there are still people who doubt your abilities. What does that feel like to you?

David: It’s infuriating. Sometimes even debilitating.

Charity: In thinking about the educational opportunities that you have had—and your parents worked hard to make sure you had those educational opportunities—why do you think that your mom and dad could see in you what so few others could imagine could be there, could see there?

David: I think they saw me as able to learn. And before long, lots of other people did, too. 

Charity: Do you know of people, of autistic people, who have been helped because of your work? Maybe somebody has seen Deej or they’ve learned about your poetry or just learned about you and they’ve had an opportunity to learn because of your work?

David: I hear from people all the time. Probably one of my favorite stories is Malcolm Corley’s.

Malcolm uses visual art as his primary form of expression. A couple of days after he saw Deej, he brought home a brochure about a post-secondary art school near where he lives. He decided to apply and got in.  Just this year he won a $2000 award from the Kennedy Center for the Arts. We hope to start on a collaborative project of paint and poetry later this year.

Charity: I know I didn’t ask you to prepare an answer for this, so we can take our time, but what does that feel like when you learn about somebody else who has the opportunity to learn because of your example?

David: It’s gratifying, of course. I hope more and more kids will find the courage to breathe their dreams into life.

Charity: Deej, you have made a Peabody Award-winning movie. You have published a beautiful book of poetry. What are you working on now? What’s next?

David: Well, as I mentioned, I’m launching a digital version of my chapbook, writing a book based on my honors thesis in anthropology, collaborating with Malcolm, and pitching new ways to use artful advocacy to promote literacy, inclusion and self-determination for alternative communicators. I hope to base at least one of the projects in Iowa City and am actively pursuing partnerships with local organizations.

Charity: That is so exciting. You moved to Iowa City after you graduated from Oberlin. What is life like for you now?

David: I love my life here. It’s not as meaningfully engaging as I’d like it to be. I’m usually fundraising for the next leg of my journey, writing fellowship applications and pitching new projects. But I’m giving myself March and April to just write creatively.

I’m pretty well-known nationally, but most people in Iowa City don’t know who I am. I am meeting more and more young poets and that’s been good. I also volunteer at Table2Table and serve on two national boards.

Charity: What do you like to do for fun?

David:  Read. Row. And write.

Charity: Deej, thank you so much for talking with me and for inviting us into your home. This has been really fantastic.

David: Thanks for taking the time to get to know me. I’m always grateful for the chance to talk poetry.

Charity: DJ Savarese is an award-winning filmmaker and a poet. His latest collection is A Doorknob for the Eye. I spoke to him at his home in Iowa City. I’m Charity Nebbe. This is Talk of Iowa.