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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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:

 

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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