Deaf Jam

The cultural clamor of American Sign Language poetry

Now in her late 20s, Barnett creates more complex work, excelling in the use of metaphor and comparison. She is petite with dark hair, and she wears a professor's comfortable, nondescript clothes. In a conversation at her St. Paul home, an old Victorian with overstuffed furniture and heavy woodwork, she comes off as shy. We're constrained, though, by an interpreter and our inability to speak directly. Her signing is quick and intent, and in her e-mails her tone is effusive, funny, warm.

Enveloped in an armchair, Barnett describes one of her latest poems, "The Death of a Tiger." In creating the poem she confined herself to three different handshapes--simple forms like the letter a, which resembles a closed fist--that can be used in combination to construct many different signs. The poem describes a tiger that stalks women; other signs convey the double meaning of the poem, that of breast cancer seeking its victims. "I become a tiger, attacking the women," Barnett explains. In performing her poem, Barnett's face takes on a watchful, stalking expression. With repeated swipes, like beats, her hands draw a tiger's stripes on her cheeks then convey the motion of passing trees. Then her hands-cum-claws turn outward, toward the tiger's victims.

Part of the drama of the poem comes from the use of space. Barnett's hands begin signing close to her body, move out into more "public" space as the tiger plots its attack, then retract to her side again. In the final images of the poem, Barnett says, women band together--deaf, hearing, dead, living--to face the tiger and stop its progress. Her intensity during the performance transforms the surroundings into a kind of theater, with the usual intense transaction between actor and audience.

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

Other poems of Barnett's similarly pursue the ideas of power and victimization, some broaching the treatment of the Deaf by the majority culture, a common theme of Deaf poets. But Barnett's vision is more artistic than strident. Barnett says she's not interested in a poetics of bitterness. "If I were not a happy, content person, I might express those feelings," she says. "But I just focus on situations people face in everyday life."

Barnett and her peers are crafting not just new poems but a new poetics, a fact of which she seems conscious. Though her poem about a tiger may not have to grapple with the legacy of William Blake, as an English-language composition might, Barnett is exploring the possibilities and history of ASL. She enjoys scouting for new or little-used signs by watching children and older people signing. "It is the faces of the Deaf people that I often capture and use in my works," Barnett says. "Going to the Deaf club is like going to an opera, watching Deaf people signing, their hands and faces filled with emotion."

Barnett says she recently attended a Deaf friend's wedding in New York City, where an ASL-fluent rabbi officiated. Barnett saw the rabbi use a new and wonderful sign for the word "union" that she hopes to incorporate in her own work.

ASL poetry is such a fledgling form that it's free from the burdens of formula and rigid criteria. The result is a sense of creative freedom--and poetry of uneven quality, running the gamut from complex literary punning to some pretty heavy-handed political statements. Barnett says formal criticism is relatively unknown in what she calls "the infant stage" of ASL poetry. But this is not to say that she lacks opinions on what makes for good work. Barnett explains that the quality of ASL poetry can be uneven because many Deaf people were not properly educated in the rules of their language. (This is a result of the continuing debate about prioritizing English instruction in Deaf schools.) "I dislike how they express their work because of lack of rhythm or poetry features," Barnett says. "I think in a few years, we will see a lot more of literary criticism."


Though ASL poetry has been enjoying a boom in the Deaf community, its visibility in the mainstream arts world remains low. To some extent, this is a function of the difficulties inherent in bridging languages to bring the work to hearing audiences. Barnett and other poets maintain that translations between ASL and English are rarely workable. "I wouldn't say it's impossible," Barnett says, but she adds that a great deal of the beauty in either language seems to be lost, as well as much of the poetic humor and wordplay. Harbour, who actually enjoys translating her poems between English and ASL, says it can be liberating for poets to say, "ASL only tonight, and if the hearing people don't get it, that's just too bad."

Translations were optional when ASL poetry received one of its regional public debuts last fall: a "Signs of Halloween" event at the College of St. Catherine. Kids in costumes performed traditional, instructional ASL poems based on signs for letters of the alphabet or numbers. And Barnett and others performed original work.

The evening was part of a program launched by the writers' organization SASE: The Write Place to raise the public profile of ASL poetry and to broaden access to literary events in the Twin Cities for deaf and hard-of-hearing people. A recent $12,000 grant from the St. Paul Companies will allow SASE to reimburse venues for providing ASL interpretations of literary readings, and to hold annual cabarets like the Halloween party.

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