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American Sign Language Poetry: "Hearts and Hands"

Lori Hawk

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 underlying emotions.

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.

Works Cited
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, 34-47.

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.

Also see: Deaf Poetry: "Hear my Hands"

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