Opening doors, minds through sign language

Sign language poets performed Saturday in Upper Tarble. (Courtesy of Congwen Wang)

Following a weekend packed with performances, workshops and lectures, the seven poets featured in the International Festival of Sign Language Poetry “Signing Hands Across the Water” kept shaping the same sign in describing their experiences to the event organizer: an opening door. Representing a span of ages and geographic locations, and communicating in both British Sign Language (BSL) and American Sign Language (ASL), the poets’ collaboration opened new avenues not just for audience members witnessing a novel exhibition of language, but for their own experiments in poetry.

The festival, made possible by the William J. Cooper Foundation, featured poets Peter Cook, Kenny Lerner, and Debbie Rennie from the United States and Richard Carter, Paul Scott, Donna Williams, and John Wilson from the UK. The performers were kept busy with a conversation with the public on Friday evening, performances and workshops on Saturday, and a concluding panel discussion on Sunday morning. Of the seven visiting performers, six are deaf, some from birth and others who lost hearing earlier in childhood. Some grew up in deaf households, while others grew up with hearing families. Many of the poets did not begin learning sign language until 18 or 19 years old, previously “mainstreamed” in a hearing world. In panel discussions, one got a sense both of the differences in their experiences as well as the common bonds forged through a more universal Deaf culture, a prevalent topic in many of their poems.

Sign language poets performed Saturday in Upper Tarble. (Courtesy of Congwen Wang)

Spearheading the event was Cornell Visiting Professor of Linguistics Rachel Sutton-Spence, a Reader in Deaf Studies at Bristol University. She was enormously excited to find so many of the poets signing an opening door. “In the Deaf community, and in Deaf poetry, the symbol of a door is something significant … Doors are real barriers to information and communication, and these doors kept opening, so all these barriers kept falling. Being a sign language poet is a pretty isolating thing, and for [the poets] to come together themselves over these four days, learning from each other and sharing their ideas, has been very enriching for them as poets.”

Event organizers succeeded in making the event accessible to all audience members — no easy task with the collection of languages present. Both American and British sign language translators were available to convert one system to another via a live feed projected onto a screen, and additional interpreters translated sign into oral English.

The intersection of various languages and cultures was a sign of a job well done for Sutton-Spence. “The role of the Cornell Visiting Professor is to bring different cultures to the college, and because of my field I was able to bring British culture and deaf culture as well,” Sutton-Spence said. “So it was kind of like two for the price of one.”

In addition to Swarthmore students and faculty, many members of the local Deaf community convened on campus to witness the weekend events. Prior to panels and conversations, hands flew through the event spaces, marking a transition from the hearing to the Deaf world. High attendance not just at the poetry performances, but at scheduled discussions and conversations, “speaks volumes for the interest there is not just in being entertained, but in understanding sign language poetry,” Sutton-Spence said.

The conversations with the poets on Friday and Sunday raised critical issues concerning the past, present and future of sign language poetry. One of the larger topics under debate was the translation of signed poetry into written or spoken English. The dissonance between wanting to garner appreciation in the hearing world for signing as a language equal to any oral tradition and creative medium while also noting the inability of poetry to transcend translations from any language to another manifested itself in the varied views of the poets on the subject. This issue was also exhibited in performances on Saturday: while some performers chose to highlight or supplement their signed poetry with snatches of narration for hearing audience members, others proceeded completely in sign with no added description.

Peter Cook, a deaf poet whose collaboration with hearing signer Kenny Lerner combines visual and auditory forms of expression, noted in a discussion that his perception of his poetry changes based on the composition of the audience. In performing for a deaf audience, he describes his performance as “signing,” whereas for a primarily hearing audience, he thinks of his poems as “visual communication.” This dynamic approach to performances was noted by many of the other poets, who saw sign poetry as being liberated from the more crystallized nature of written poetry, which is preserved on the page.

Regardless of auditory prompts or fluency in sign language, audience members sat mesmerized by the poets. Capturing poetry within the body and manifesting it through signs, movement, and facial expressions transformed what is typically thought to be an oral tradition into a performance, a dance, a play. Cook and Lerner, founders of the Flying Words Project, demonstrated one of the ways to incorporate a hearing performer into the world of Deaf poetry. The Flying Words Project combines Cook’s signing with Lerner’s oral cures to create both an auditory and visual experience for their audiences.

The cues are not a translation of the signed poetry, Lerner explained in an e-mail. “If you close your eyes and only listen to the words, you won’t get the poem. Our goal in the voicing is for the words to say just enough so that you … see the image for yourself. For example, at the end of the poem ‘Made in the USA’ (about the Chinese sweat shops and the Chinese mines) I voice almost nothing for the last minute of the poem. I’ve set it up so that you already understand what is happening. The miners are digging down into the earth forever. You see that for yourself. You see the sweat drop go down and down and down,” Lerner said. Lerner is not interested in simple translation, as his work aims towards “helping you to see the image we’ve created in ASL,” Learner said. “Our goal is to create art, not to create deaf art or hearing art.”

Jocelyn Adams ’15, currently enrolled in Sutton-Spence’s course “Sign Language, Literature, and Folklore” and a volunteer at the festival, thought the weekend’s events drew attention to the more visual aspects of poetry for audience members. “When writing [poetry], you’re always removed from that idea you’re trying to express,” she said. “With sign … you can capture more than you can with letters or words. It also made me more aware of the performance aspect — in that regard, I think spoken word and sign language poetry have a lot in common. There’s so much energy in seeing [the poets] perform in front of an audience, and there’s not the same passion in type.” The heightened energy in sign language poetry was noted by many of the poets as well, and underlies many of their composition preferences of creating poems in ASL or BSL without relying on written outlines.

Many of the poets performing were “celebrities” in the classroom, as they are some of the best-known living sign language poets, according to Adams.

The poets, despite their different experiences with poetry, all seemed to agree that there was great potential for the medium in the future, both in exposing the hearing world to deaf poetry and kindling enthusiasm in Deaf communities. To learn more about the individual performers or the festival, visit

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