A new kind of poetry: “A picture makes a thousand words”

When we think of the arts, we think of expressions of emotion that touch on a particular sense, or senses. Music touches our hearing; painting our visual perception. With poetry, words on a page attempt to evoke images in your mind. Yet a group of deaf poets have since the 80’s created “sign language poetry,” which mixes poetry and visual representation inherent in sign languages to place images directly in viewers’ minds.

Courtesy of www.sharkreef.org.

Today at 4:30 p.m. in the Scheuer Room, Visiting Professor Rachel Sutton-Spence of the Linguistics Department will host a talk on “Metaphor and Other Figurative Language in Sign Languages,” highlighting some examples of sign language poetry, one of her passions.

Sutton-Spence visits Swarthmore from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, where she teaches post-graduates at the Centre for Personal and Professional Development. She has also previously worked at the Centre for Deaf Studies in Britain.

At Swarthmore, Sutton-Spence received the Julian and Virginia Cornell Distinguished Visiting Professor, an annual fellowship for one professor to teach at Swarthmore for an academic year. This fall, Sutton-Spence is teaching “Sign Languages and their Social Contexts,” which aims to help students understand the structure of languages and how this affects how ideas are expressed.

Sutton-Spence has a long-standing partnership with Donna Jo Napoli, Professor of Linguistics. The two have co-written a book titled “Humor in Sign Languages: The Linguistic Underpinnings.” Professor Sutton-Spence first came to Swarthmore to guest lecture for Napoli’s linguistics class. “Rachel brings energy like the most well-behaved of hurricanes and wisdom of a type that leaves you feeling peaceful, like you’ve just left the most beautiful yoga class,” Napoli said. [“She is also] one of the most intellectually open people I know. I’ve never seen her find a linguistic question uninteresting.”

Although Sutton-Spence majored in psychology at Oxford University, her path was changed by a course in sign language, an area that very few professors taught during the 80’s. In fact, sign language was not always taken to be a real language at the time, and was a source of debate among the linguistics community. “The thing that completely blew me away [about sign language] was finding out that you can compose haiku in sign language,” she said. “In fact that was my argument: if you can compose haiku in it, then it’s a human language. I find the strong visual nature of sign language absolutely incredible — it just shows you what human languages can do.”

In fact, poetry in sign language has fascinated Sutton-Spence throughout her career. In cooperation with a group at the University of Bristol, she has created the Metaphor in Creative Sign Language Project, the first online collection of poems and short stories in British Sign Language (BSL). “This is a linguistic medium [sign language poetry] that ties text and performance so tightly together that you can’t separate them,” said Sutton-Spence. “When the performer shows you the images they’d like you to see, rather than giving you words to create the image in your own head, the poet shows them to the you. You work out what they mean.”

The lecture will focus on metaphors in sign language, which may be difficult to imagine at first. How can a poet visually express a metaphor? “On Thursday, I want to talk about how you can use your body to show one idea in another way. For example, we think about status in terms of height – ‘climbing the ladder to success.’ In sign language, you can show the height of a person through the height of your hands,” Sutton-Spence said.

But not all sign language poets perform in the same sign language. British Sign Language and American Sign Language (ASL) are different, and usually not mutually intelligible. The British community is smaller and got off to a later start than its American counterpart, especially because Britain necessarily has a much smaller deaf community.

Looking ahead, Sutton-Spence has organized “Hands Across the Water – An International Festival of Sign Language Poetry” with the help of the Cooper Foundation for March. The Festival will bring British and American poets together for a public discussion on the differences and similarities in American and British sign language poetry.

The talk should be of interest to linguistics students and anyone interested in exploring the nature of language and of communication. “As an aspiring linguist and a member of the deaf and hard of hearing community, I am excited by [lectures like this] because they are relevant to my hope that more people will be interested in signing as an avenue of expression just as important as learning a foreign language like Arabic or Chinese,” Frank Mondelli ’14 said.

Looking forward, Sutton-Spence’s lecture will speak to current and future linguists. “I hope students will fall in love with sign language, just as when I realized that you can have haiku in sign language – that’s just so exciting!,” she said. “[I also hope] they’ll come away thinking, ‘I don’t know anything about this, and I want to know more.”

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