Deaf Jam

The cultural clamor of American Sign Language poetry

Morgan Grayce Willow, a writer and ASL interpreter, is spearheading the SASE program, which also includes workshops to help ASL interpreters become more comfortable with creating literary translations of works in English. Willow, who writes poetry in English, says interpreters' fears of not doing justice to a poem--in either language--are a significant barrier; she has had trouble finding people to interpret her own readings so Deaf friends could attend. Usually, she says, it's translators' poetry skills, not their signing skills, that make them apprehensive.

"They've been mistaught how to experience poetry: It's less a head thing than it is a body and heart thing. They just need practice reading poetry, essentially."

To address this gap, Willow is about to publish Crossing That Bridge: A Guide to Making Literary Events Accessible to Deaf and Hard of Hearing. One passage suggests the difficulty in conveying the substance of a piece in another language without losing the alchemy that turns signs into poetry:

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


The interpreter must strip the poem down to its essential meaning, dropping the English form. From this essence, meaning must then be reconstructed, newly composed, and swathed in ASL form. When languages are as different as English is from ASL, the process can be daunting.


Even more daunting in the translation process can be the historic caution and occasional mistrust that the Deaf maintain with regard to the broader society. Willow says Deaf poets fear having their language co-opted or misinterpreted by the hearing culture.

Yet, in some perverse sense, this sentiment only reinforces the extent to which ASL poetry has established its artistic credentials: Hasn't it always been the role of the poet to be misunderstood?

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