Hearts and Hands: ASL Poetry
ASL poetry is a
literary form that evolved from the art of sign-language storytelling. Like
English oral poetry, signed performance poetry uses the conventions of
repetition, rhyme, alliteration, rhythm, and meter to construct linguistic
patterns that add emphasis, meaning, and structure to word forms. Unlike
traditional verse, modern ASL poetry transforms “phonetic nuances into visual
ones and one-dimensional words into three-dimensional shape[s]” (Burch, 1997).
Put simply, ASL poets use their hands to sign words and their bodies to express
vivid images, related concepts, sudden realizations, conflicting thoughts, and
Susan Burch, a Gallaudet University history professor, believes that it is
precisely this extended use of physical space that allows ASL poetry to expand
beyond the conventional framework of written and spoken verse. Rather than
simply stringing words together in an abstract fashion, ASL poets combine
dynamic handshapes, facial expressions, and body movements that provide
simultaneous narrative and commentary during the performance of a work. As a
result, ASL poetry is rich in multi-layered meaning yet pristine in its fluid
simplicity. However, this literary form did not simply arrive on the scene in
its current sophisticated state. Many poets, linguists, and performance artists
have played substantial roles in defining, developing, and refining ASL poetry.
Dr. Clayton Valli, a Deaf linguist, author, and poet, was one of the first
individuals to analyze and define the basic characteristics of ASL poetry.
Identifying traits in signed poetry that corresponded to conventions found in
spoken and written forms, Dr. Valli developed the foundational principles for
constructing and analyzing ASL works.
Rhyme, according to his findings, is “formed through the repetition of
particular handshapes and [the] movement paths of signs” along with the
non-manual signals such as facial expressions and body movements (Bauman, 2003).
Signs that repeat the same handshape create the basis for ASL’s rhyme scheme
which is somewhat similar to English alliteration. In a DVD presentation of
Valli’s poems, the narrator, Lon Kuntze, clarifies the idea that this repetition
does not refer to the reiteration of initial letters contained in a sign’s
English translation, such as the letter “b” in “boy,” “baby,” and “bad” (Valli,
1995). Instead, ASL rhyme refers to the recurrence of a single handshape that is
fundamental to a variety of signs, such as the “b” shape used to sign “birth,”
“children,” and “adult.” Just as English poetic rhythm is created through
stressed and unstressed syllables of verse, ASL poetic rhythm is produced by the
intentional action or inaction of signs. By adjusting the pace of a sign,
repeating its movement, or pausing to hold it suspended in the air, recurring
patterns of motion and stillness shape the rhythm of a poem and structure the
meter of its phrases.
Bernard Bragg, a Deaf actor and one of the founders of the National Theatre of
the Deaf, uses the terms “spatial-kinetic grammar” and “cinematic poetics” to
describe the dramatic application of these movement conventions in ASL poetry
(Baumann, 2003). According to Bragg, when a performer signs a work, he makes use
of the space around his body in much the same way that a film actor occupies a
frame. Framing techniques in movies range from extreme close-up shots to medium,
full-body, and expansive long shots. Bragg believes that the large sweeping
movements featured in signed poetry are analogous to the close-up shots employed
in many films. A tight focus on an actor’s face reveals his inner thoughts just
as the unrestrained movement of a poet conveys her genuine emotion. To achieve
this level of cinematic variation, poets expand and contract their gestures
depending on the audience perspective that is most appropriate to the lines of
poetry being delivered. Bold gestures draw observers close and enable intimacy.
Discreet movements distance audiences and provide context. Bragg’s research
introduced ASL poets to a world of cinematic language and validated the use of
non-manual markers and modified signs for performance purposes.
As in most literary forms, current artistic thought and creation is often
inspired by the work of that genre’s predecessors. While ASL storytelling and
poetry have existed in one form or another since the middle of the twentieth
century, it was not until the 1980s that a modernist philosophy took hold. In
1984, the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) invited the beat
poet, Allen Ginsberg to participate in a workshop focused on poetry and
deafness. Ginsberg stirred attendees with his genuine enthusiasm about the
visual nature of signed poetry. “Unlike wit and rhyme…a picture can be
translated into another language,” he told the crowd (Krentz, 1999). One of the
workshop attendees, Patrick Graybill, a Deaf poet dedicated to translating
English works into sign language, volunteered to spontaneously interpret a few
lines from Ginsberg’s poem, “Howl.” This daring act set the modernist ASL poetry
movement on fire.
With his approach toward literature newly altered by Ginsberg’s ideas, Graybill
stopped translating English poetry and began composing works of his own in ASL.
Graybill’s poetry, in turn, encouraged a generation of emerging ASL poets. One
poet named Peter Cook, motivated by the work of Graybill, went on to create a
performance duo called Flying Words Project that inspired a hearing poet named
Jim Cohn to explore the theoretical parallels between ASL poetry and the
modernist writings of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Allen Ginsberg in
a book called Sign Mind: Studies in American Sign Language Poetics.
As ASL poetry moves into the 21st century, Valli’s notion of the “poetics of
visual language” continues to guide authors toward a future that is not reliant
upon verbal or written forms for definition or validation (Valli, 1995). New
techniques and analyses will undoubtedly continue to emerge to meet the needs of
ASL poets who are shaping this exciting literary form.
ASL Poetry: Selected Works of Clayton Valli. (1995). Dir. Clayton Valli. Prod.
Joe Dannis. DVD. Dawn Pictures, 1995.
Bauman, H-Dirksen, L. (2003). Redesigning literature: the cinematic poets of
American Sign Language poetry. Sign Language Studies. Vol. 4, No. 1 Fall 2003,
Burch, Susan. (1997). Deaf poets’ society: subverting the hearing paradigm.
Literature and Medicine. 16.1, 121-134.
Krentz, Christopher. (1999). Sign Mind: Studies in American Sign Language
Poetics by Jim Cohn. Sign Language Studies, Vol. 6, No. 3, Spring 2006, 347-354.
Deaf Poetry: "Hear my Hands"