Deaf Jam

The cultural clamor of American Sign Language poetry

The only thing an artist might dread more than a bad review is a shallow compliment. The five writers onstage at the Minneapolis Public Library on a frosty February night find so much meaning in the possibilities of language that they don't really enjoy the praise of uncomprehending observers who might call their efforts "beautiful" or "musical." These writers are also translators--they're Irish, American Indian, Cambodian, Chinese, and Deaf--and they've been assembled for a panel discussion on "language and politics." The auditorium is spare, the audience decent but not large. Yet the authors are compelling as they describe the perils of translation, the struggle of keeping languages alive in a global monoculture, and the happenstance that engendered their own commitments. At a time when reading is said to be a fringe activity for the cultural mainstream, these artists have committed themselves to even smaller audiences.

Poet and performance artist Wendy Harbour explains how she came to her adopted language, American Sign Language (ASL), unwillingly, when she slowly lost her hearing in her early 20s. "I thought my life was over," she says. Lesbian among straight people, and now deaf among hearing, Harbour found herself "in the enemy camp" twice over, and wasn't happy about it. Yet through this misfortune she would inadvertently wander into one of the most newly vibrant--and most unknown--scenes in the literary world: The field of ASL poetry.

Harbour, a young woman about 30 years old with short brown hair, signs, speaks, and laughs before the audience. Her reflections on crossing cultures are tinged with wry humor--maybe her comedic ability to tell stories draws on her background in performance art. She describes how her loss of hearing left her stranded between languages, noting ruefully that her ASL retains an "English" accent, while her English has acquired a "deaf" accent, a lack of precision that is perceptible although not a threat to comprehension. ("Deaf" with a capitol D connotes an affiliation with Deaf culture and ASL, while little-d "deafness" means the inability to hear.)

Sign of the times: Deaf poet Cara Barnett performing an original composition
Daniel Corrigan
Sign of the times: Deaf poet Cara Barnett performing an original composition

Harbour says that at first her lack of proficiency in ASL made her entry into Deaf culture difficult. "I had some Deaf people shun me. They didn't want me involved," Harbour starts. "[But] others embraced me with open arms." She took their response good-naturedly, she reports now, comparing herself to an overeager exchange student wanting to practice her newfound language. "Sometimes it was me not being comfortable," she elaborates.

Harbour tells the audience that attending a performance of the National Theater of the Deaf turned her life around, opening the door to the riches of Deaf culture, and the creative possibilities of Deaf life. Harbour was first amazed by the vivacious Deaf audience, where people in the balcony were constantly signing to friends in the seats below. "It was the first time I met culturally Deaf people," Harbour says. Watching the audience around her, Harbour says, she realized these people were out driving, working raising their kids, living their lives, and having fun.

Harbour's second revelation that evening originated onstage, where a language she had seen as merely functional was being transformed into boundary-pushing poetry. Traditional ASL signs were combined with one another, and with theater, opening Harbour's mind to the possibility of creating formal ASL poetry. Though Harbour composes mostly in English--she's won a SASE/Jerome Fellowship and is at work on new performance projects--she has now ventured into ASL, too. Like any performance artist standing on a stage with a captive audience, Harbour feels inspired to give an impromptu performance, signing one of her original ASL pieces, "Rainbow Surrounded by a Sea of White."

The spark for the poem came on a sunny afternoon in St. Paul's Como Park, when Harbour says she looked around and realized that her laid-back gathering of queer friends had become a tiny island amid the sea of newlyweds in photo sessions. All around her were brides and grooms decked out in formal garb, trying not to sweat. "It was too good a moment for the poet in me to pass up," Harbour says with a laugh. She describes the circumstances of the poem and gives a loose summary but does not actually translate it--her performance takes place in silence.

Harbour's chosen attitude of bemused tolerance--for the wedding dresses surrounding her, and for the uncomprehending hearing people in the audience--suggests that cultural understanding can begin in these awkward silences. As she points out, such clashes make great material for poetry.

The birth of ASL poetry is traced in part to a translation of the Lewis Carroll poem "The Jabberwocky." A Gallaudet student, Eric Malzkuhn, created his original rendition of the poem in 1939. When the National Theater of the Deaf (the same theater that transformed Harbour's views of ASL years later), was created in 1967 with Malzkuhn on board, his "Jabberwocky" translation was assigned to a young actor, Joe Velez. The performance whimsically recombined parts of ordinary signs into nonsensical monsters as suggestive as Carroll's own fruminous bandersnatch: Carroll's words don't exist in English, yet you think you understand them because their sound and context somehow feel familiar.

The ASL translation walked the same line between known signs and previously unimagined combinations. Not only was it a hit with audiences, it awakened Deaf people to a new dimension of their language. The performance helped ASL speakers in the audience see their language's potential to astound, to transform normal communication into something else entirely.

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