Deaf Jam

The cultural clamor of American Sign Language poetry

But formal ASL poetry didn't occur spontaneously. It built on a long tradition of ASL storytelling, including folktales and legends where wily Deaf heroes often outwit the more plodding members of the hearing world. A typical one goes like this: A Deaf man trying to figure out which hotel room held his waiting Deaf bride simply leaned on his car horn. When sleepy hearing folks turned on their lights and staggered out of their rooms, he headed for the only dark bedroom, and his search was complete.

Such stories were handed down in Deaf families and also in the state-sponsored residential schools where students may have been forced to speak English in the classroom but used sign language on their own time. Over the years children learned to build original stories on patterns of ASL numbers and letters. Along the way students developed styles and methods of storytelling with literary features and devices specific to the grammar and mood of their language.

The poetic elements of formal ASL poetry are almost too varied to list. Handshapes are at the core: They are basic forms like letters or numbers, which can be used in combination to construct many different signs. Repeated handshapes become the rhymes in ASL, while repeated signs or sequences generate the rhythm. In addition to handshape rhymes and repetition, poets can create tone through fluid or jerky movements. Two hands can perform different signs at the same time to juxtapose images. A poem can progress through different uses of space, with the performer turning to face different people or take on different personas. Signs for English letters may be incorporated into the poem, to intertwine the spelling of an English word among the signs. Eye contact, or a break in it, can signal shifts and interruptions. Signs can be ironic depending on the performer's facial expressions. ASL poetry can bend or break linguistic rules to incorporate elements of mime or theatrical expressions.

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

With such a diverse expressive arsenal, it's no surprise that the art form remains distinct and personal: Poets sometimes perform one another's work but more often deliver their own pieces. The medium of publication and storage is videotape--a fact that suggests the newness of ASL poetry. Its development comes with a period of newfound confidence--a renaissance of Deaf language and culture that stands apart from the traditional Deaf stories and folktales of the past.

The idea of ASL standing as a wholly valid system of communication is a new development itself. The language has its roots in the sign language of deaf French street children. A French monk, the Abbé de l'Eppé, founded the first school for the children, and he used their sign language as the mode of instruction. Deaf schools, including Gallaudet University, the nation's premier Deaf college in Washington D.C., were created out of the monks' pedagogy. Consistent with its socially humble roots, signing did not have an easy path to mainstream acceptance. The language was repressed beginning in 1880, when a conference of educators in Milan (organized by Alexander Graham Bell) determined that deaf people must be made to learn and speak English only.

That belief persisted until the 1960s when William Stockoe, a linguist at Gallaudet, published research in which he determined that ASL is a separate, distinct language, not a mime- or English-based system of communication. "Finding out we had a real language led to the realization we had a real culture," Harbour says, suggesting the way this theory nurtured a positive conception of Deaf identity.

The next phase of ASL's emergence was not academic but political, and it followed the emergence of the Deaf Pride movement epitomized by the "Deaf President Now!" campaign at Gallaudet University. Student protests, which were nonviolent yet passionate, shut down the school for a week in 1988, after demands to appoint a deaf president were ignored. As students turned the campus on its ear, TV cameras flocked--at one point student leaders appeared on Nightline--and trustees appeared flustered by the uproar. Finally the board's hearing candidate resigned and the institution's first deaf president, I. King Jordan took office. The Deaf Pride movement had taken off, and with it the confidence of Deaf performers.

In the hierarchy of Deaf culture, those born hearing and speaking English, like Harbour and other ASL interpreters, are seen as somewhat compromised in their ability to "speak" ASL. They would rarely be hired to teach ASL in the classroom, for example. It is Deaf children of Deaf parents who are most fluent in ASL and are seen as the language's true caretakers and artists.

Cara Barnett, a professor of ASL literature at the University of Minnesota and the region's foremost ASL poet, is such a person. Barnett attended Gallaudet in 1990, in the wake of the Deaf President Now! effort, and was elated at her exposure to ASL poetry through her professors. Well-known poets like Clayton Valli were then experimenting with new ways of composing in ASL through repetition, juxtaposition, and symbolism. In this creative cauldron, Barnett began to create original pieces.

Her first one, she recalls, was "a cutesy poem for my parents' 25th wedding anniversary, about their courtship and marriage," Barnett says. But their enthusiastic reaction was a revelation compared to the lukewarm reception her English poems had received years earlier. "They said, 'Whoa! That was good!'" Barnett recalls.

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