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Poet Wants You To Rethink What It Means To Be Nonspeaking

Tanya Rosen-Jones Photography
DJ Savarese's 2017 poetry chapbook "A Doorknob for the Eye" explores the lives and works of autistics artists across the globe.

Simply by his resume, poet and documentarian David James Savarese is exceptional. His poems and prose have been published in journals and magazines across the country, including the Iowa Review, and his 2017 documentary Deej: Inclusion Shouldn’t Be a Lottery, which he co-produced, earned a 2018 Peabody Award and Emmy nomination.

Savarese is also autistic and nonspeaking. He describes poetry as his native language.

“I learned how to sign and use photos and objects to communicate before I learned how 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,” Savarese says. “Eventually I learned to read and write at school, and slowly started to use words to talk about my life… The world came into focus and I loved what I saw.”

In A Doorknob for the Eye, his first published chapbook of poetry, Savarese explores a broad, global community of autistic artists, focusing on their often under-recognized work and artistic experience. Despite being a published author and film maker, Savarese is no stranger to having his abilities doubted -- an experience he describes as “infuriating. Sometimes even debilitating.” He hopes his book will be one step towards changing this misconception.

“I want readers to research these artists' work and to recognize the ways they communicate without words as sophisticated.”

Savarese graduated with honors from Oberlin College in 2017, and has since moved to Iowa City with his family. He regularly travels the country for speaking engagements and other creative endeavors, but plans to set aside several months this spring to write creatively. He’s working on a digital version of his collection, and says he’s writing another book based on his college honors thesis in anthropology.

On this episode of Talk of Iowa, host Charity Nebbe sits down with DJ Savarese to discuss his prose, poetry and ongoing work to make literacy-based education and communication inclusion a reality for all nonspeaking people.

Katelyn Harrop is a producer for IPR's River to River and Talk of Iowa
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa