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Signing the Body Poetic: Essays on American Sign Language Literature

Signing the Body Poetic: Essays on American Sign Language Literature

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Signing the Body Poetic: Essays on American Sign Language Literature

430 pages
10 hours
Dec 20, 2006


This unique collection of essays, accompanied by a pioneering DVD, at last brings a dazzling view of the literary, social, and performative aspects of American Sign Language to a wide audience. The book presents the work of a renowned and diverse group of deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing scholars who examine original ASL poetry, narrative, and drama. The DVD showcases the poems and narratives under discussion in their original form, providing access to them for hearing non-signers for the first time. Together, the book and DVD provide new insight into the history, culture, and creative achievements of the deaf community while expanding the scope of the visual and performing arts, literary criticism, and comparative literature.
Dec 20, 2006

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Signing the Body Poetic - University of California Press







For an ASL version of this introduction, see DVD Clip 1.1.

Before you embark on this volume of essays on American Sign Language (ASL) literature, we invite you to see it in its natural habitat, the body-turned-text. Rather than read this page about sign literature, insert your DVD, sit back, and read this short poem, Let There Be Light (Clip 1.2).

We begin with this poem because it is a type of creation myth of sign literature. The signing persona is a sign poet at the origins of this new field of human creativity. Within the first fifteen seconds, the poem embodies the fundamental thrust of this book: a remapping of the field of literature to include an emerging body of literature composed not for the ear but for the eye.

The poem opens with the sign LIMIT, imposing itself in front of the body, then moving mechanically to the ear and placed like a box, locking our attention on this single parcel of the body. This LIMIT-ON-THE-EAR sign does not imply that the limitation is deafness; rather, the limitation is that of phonocentrism, the unquestioned orientation that speech and hearing are the only fully human modalities of language. The sign poet knows better. He pushes, heaves, and coaxes LIMIT-ON-THE-EAR sign around to the eyes where it transforms into an open portal, a lens through which to peer deeper into a new visual landscape of language, a new literary cosmology under a vast dome of STARS.

At this point, the fundamental shift has taken place: from the ear to the eye. But this is only the beginning. In a wild Promethean gesture, the sign poet sweeps the light from the sky, condensing the stellar firmament into a few drops, the pure light of language dropped into the hands of this Deaf bard, who rubs his hands together, conjuring the signs BECOMING and MOTIVATION.¹ Once the poetic work is undertaken, the attar of starlight catalyzes into FIRE-GROWING-OUT-OF-FIRE, visually echoing the sign for SIGNING. As the hand-fire grows, out fly SPARKS, lighting tiny fires in this new field. They at first burn in isolation, then grow, unite, and SPREAD until the entire landscape is afire and AGLOW. The poet watches in satisfaction. This literary practice now lights up the landscape.

Indeed, recognition of ASL literature is spreading, as is its practice. With the growth in recognition of ASL as a foreign language in high schools, colleges, and universities, it is only natural that awareness of this emerging body of literature is increasing. We hope this volume will aid in introducing and exploring a new dimension to the field of literature.

Clearly we are in the presence here of something different from traditional literature. Poetry often conjures images of lines not quite reaching the right margin and the musical incantations of the speaking voice, whereas prose evokes images of justified margins, indented paragraphs, chapters, and books held by silently engrossed readers. But in sign literature, the same hands, face, and whole body used for everyday eating, sneezing, and lifting are transformed into the kinetic shape and skin of the poem. Here, reading becomes viewing, books become videos, and paper becomes a performing body. In a most literal sense, this is a form of writing-the-body; the poet’s body becomes a palimpsest over which course the three-dimensional kinetic images of sign. Rather than hearing word after spoken word, or reading from left to right, we follow three-dimensional, kinetic images, an experience perhaps more akin to watching cinema than reading a book.²

Yet the experience is still very much like reading a book or listening to a poem. Like works of written and spoken literature, creative works in sign open wide enough for the imagination to move around in, to play and conjure its own images. Whether the tale is recited by a blind Homer wandering the Grecian hills in the eighth century BC, an eighteenth-century Ghanan griot, a nineteenth-century British novelist, or an emerging Deaf poet in a dormitory room late at night, the impulse to create and pass down stories and poetry lives on. Whether the work of literature is written, spoken, or signed is of little consequence. What is of consequence is the way the Deaf/ASL literary movement has developed over the years into a vibrant literary tradition that engages the current literary scene in significant ways and poses a fundamental and radical critique of the traditional notion of literature.

In this introduction we first explore the critique that the emergence of sign literature warrants and then consider how the Deaf/ASL literary movement relates to contemporary poetics. As W. J. T. Mitchell points out in the Foreword to this volume, the emergence of sign literature presents a host of implications for the wider category and practice of literature itself. Indeed, sign literature forces us to rethink the whole notion of literature as it has evolved within the assumption that human language is exclusively spoken or written. Even in the early years of the twenty-first century, this assumption is still quite common. Only as recently as 1996, for example, the Modern Language Association International Bibliography changed its classification of manual languages from the Invented Languages category next to Klingon and Esperanto to give them a status similar to that of Indo-European languages. Within this profoundly phonocentric belief system, the discovery by William Stokoe ([1960] 1978) that manual languages are replete with all the linguistic properties of spoken languages is a paradigm shift, forcing a fundamental redefinition of language. Over four decades of linguistic research have forever altered our understanding of the human language capacity to include manual as well as spoken languages. We now know, for example, that upon birth the human mind may just as easily acquire a manual as a spoken language; whether the infant is hearing or deaf is of little consequence.³ Sign, then, is as much a part of the human language instinct as is speech.

Had we realized this all along, we might have ended up with a term other than language, which derives from langue, or tongue, and a term other than literature, which originates from littere, or letter. Clearly, it is too late to change the terms language and literature, so we must open them up to encompass what has been a part of them all along—sign languages. Just as the linguistic term word now encompasses manual signs, the terms language and literature may also include the manual-visual modality. But more is at stake here than simple redefinition. The addition of sign to the body of literature warrants a rethinking of such fundamental notions as textuality, genre, performance, and body as they have been constructed within a decidedly hearing model. As Michael Davidson has written, The time seems right for extending this critique of the literary along a Deaf axis, not simply to add a new constituency to literature, but to re-think the entire edifice of literary production from the ground up (pers. comm., Spring 2002). This volume represents the first such attempt at radically rethinking literary practices in light of sign.

One such redesigning of the literary landscape has been reflected in the evolution of the sign POETRY. The original sign was formed by the signed letter P moving over the outstretched and slightly bent arm. This sign was originally derived from the sign MUSIC or SONG, which has the same hand movements and arm position but uses a flat hand instead of the signed letter P (Clip 1.3). That poetry is a form of verbal music served as the initial default setting that informed this sign; further, the substitution of the letter P for poetry indicates the alphabetic, scripted dimension of hearing-centered poetics. During the 1989 international Deaf Way conference, however, a group of Deaf poets expressed the need for a sign that would not be derived from MUSIC or from phonetic writing but would instead reflect the embodied nature of sign poetry. They decided on a sign based on the sign EXPRESSION (Clip 1.4). This sign begins with both hands on the chest, opening up and moving outward. The current sign for SIGN-POETRY, then, is conveyed through one closed hand at the chest, moving outward and opening up. This sign suggests that poems emerge directly out of the body as offerings from the chest, heart, and lungs, unmediated by speech or writing. Depending on the speed and tension of the sign, poems can shoot, flow, or ooze out into the world. The music-based POETRY signifies written or spoken poetry, while the new sign refers to the unique corporeal, nonphonetic nature of sign poetry.

This new sign—as well as all of sign literature—offers a new critical lens through which to identify the phonocentric bias underlying all literary and linguistic production. This signed etymology is a further example that poetry is not a stable and elite practice handed down through the ages among a privileged few but rather a complex terrain of ideological production that favors certain practices and attempts to discourage others. Now we can bring to light what has been a hidden factor within the evolution of literature all along—that the marginality of sign has itself helped to draw the boundaries that fortify speech’s primacy. The fact that deafness and sign languages have been relegated to the margins of literary production becomes especially evident when one considers the centrality of blindness in the Western literary imagination. Homer, the ur-poet of the West, is reputed to have been blind. As Lennard Davis (1995) has written, The point is that blindness is no bar to creating oral narrative. Blindness may in fact be synonymous with storytelling in an oral culture, while deafness would be the opposite of such a tradition. It is hard to imagine Homer as a deaf bard (107). Through the reification of blindness through Homer, Oedipus, Milton, and others, we have a symbol of language in its unadulterated oral medium; at the same time, blindness precludes, physically and symbolically, any recognition that sign could just as easily produce narrative and poetry. Sign and deafness, then, become the Other of language and literature: muteness and silence.

While poetry may have begun with the figure of the blind poet, now, over two millennia later, a host of Deaf bards are anything but mute and silent, and their live vernacular has coaxed sign literature from the shadows of speech and writing. We now recognize how the margins have informed the center: how the very absence of sign has helped to de-sign the literary landscape. While speech and writing have reigned supreme as literary media, there have always been some poets and writers who have sought to move beyond the phonetic, linear structure of language; they have sensed that speech could be made more visual and writing more kinetic, and, what’s more, that literature could become visual and kinetic at the same time. It is as if poets and writers have experienced a type of phantom limb phenomenon as they went groping about for a literary medium much like sign without ever laying their hands on it. Now that a Deaf/ASL literary movement has emerged into its own, we may note how it stands at the intersection of historical trajectories that push literature, poetry in particular, beyond its linear conventions. One trajectory is the desire to resituate poetry’s original connection to the body through performance, and the other is to make poems increasingly visual through experimentation with the written form.

One of the great ironies of sign literature is that it may be considered a form of oral literature insofar as it has no traditional written form and is passed on through a face-to-face performance tradition. Clearly, oral here refers, not to oralism, the pedagogy of teaching speech to deaf persons, but to the similarities between sign and oral literature. This new form of orality requires its own sign, just as sign poetry required its unique designation. When signing the title of a class by the Gallaudet University professor Ben Bahan entitled Oral Traditions in the Deaf Community, Deaf students have begun to substitute STORYTELLING for Oral, while still mouthing the word oral (Clip 1.5). (See chapters 2 and 3 of this volume, by Bahan and Krentz respectively, for further exploration of oral traditions in the Deaf community.) Yet sign poetry not only resembles ancient literary forms but also engages the current literary practices of oral, performance poetry.

The impulse to perform has surely waxed and waned through the centuries, depending on pressures of printing and reading practices at any given historical moment. For quite some time we have been witnessing a widening and deepening of the impulse to coax poetry off the page and back into the performing body. Consider the widespread popularity of poetry slams, where poems come to life in breathing, sweating bodies; before that, the Beat poetic tradition of reciting poetry to improvisational jazz; David Antin’s semi-improvisational talk poems; Charles Olson’s midcentury call for an orally based, projective verse; the body of multicultural ethnopoetics collected by Jerome Rothenberg and others; the vibrant oral poetry of Amiri Baraka and Ntozake Shange; the feminist performances of Carolee Schneemann and Anne Waldman; and the techno-poetic performances of Laurie Anderson. To all this, add the more mainstream poetry business (pobiz) of university-supported poetry readings, lectures, and workshops where poets like Galway Kinnell, Mary Oliver, W. S. Merwin, and Stanley Kunitz pack campus auditoriums. This urge to free poetry from the page to take a physical, human form is a desire for immediacy and embodiment.

In this resurgence of oral poetry, there have been only a few moments of crossover between Deaf and hearing poets. The most notable was a meeting between Allen Ginsberg and Deaf poets in Rochester, New York, arranged by the hearing poet Jim Cohn. During the 1984 gathering, Ginsberg asked for volunteers to translate the image of hydrogen jukebox from his famous long poem Howl. Deaf poet, actor, and teacher Patrick Graybill was summoned to attempt the translation. Graybill performed the image of a man putting a coin in the jukebox, the record moving into place, the needle touching down, and the record spinning faster and faster to the beating music until finally whipped into the fury of a hydrogen explosion of music (Clip 1.6). As Graybill finished his image, Ginsberg exclaimed, That’s it! That’s what I meant! In Graybill’s rendition, the explosive, musical nature of Howl and the image of a hydrogen jukebox quite literally come to life. Life is what the Beats, as well as many contemporary poets, were after, and that is what sign poetry inherently has, without being sought out. As Jim Cohn (1986) has written: What deaf people DO with language is what hearing poets try to MAKE their language do (263). In this performance-based age of poetics, sign poets have an oral language that remains largely unwritten and embodied.

Sign poetry may also be recognized as a moment of synthesis in the long-standing drive to wed poetry with the visual arts. As far back as Simonides of Keos’s fifth-century BC formulation that Poetry is speaking painting, and painting is mute poetry, artists and poets have sought to fuse the visual and the literary aspects of human creativity. Even the most cursory search of the history of art and literature supports this claim. Dick Higgins (1987), for example, traces the ongoing wish to combine the visual and literary impulses (3) in his study of pattern poetry that spans the globe from 300 BC to the present. Once could also cite the enduring interplay of the Three Perfections (poetry, calligraphy, and painting) in China, the formidable output of ekphrastic poetry, the accumulation of illustrated books over the centuries, and modernist and postmodernist poetic forms—Futurism, Dadaism, concrete poetry, L = A = N = G = U = A = G = E poetry, and multimedia cyberpoetry—as testimony to the fundamental impulse of integrating the visual and literary arts. Such output of visual forms of poetry signifies not a minor tradition but a profound preoccupation with pushing a linear, phonetic language beyond its conventional limitations to form an alternative linguistic perceptual field.

Such an enduring phenomenon has, of course, meant different things to different ages, but, as Wendy Steiner (1986) points out, the desire to fuse poetry with visual arts—through either analogy or practice—reveals a prevalent aesthetic desire to find an art form that approximates the full visual-spatial-kinetic dimensions of nature and human experience. In both cases, writes Steiner, the arts approach each other by appropriating a crucial feature from the other that it lacks—visuality in poetry, motion in painting (12). Not until the advent of sign poetry could the physical material of the poem be at once visual and kinetic. While oral poetry foregrounds movement and performance, and writing foregrounds the visual text, neither of these modalities unites vision and movement as fully as sign poetry.

Now that we have entered the digital age, visual and performance poetic traditions continue to evolve, widening the variety of textual media. As Christopher Beach (1999) writes, American poetry has abandoned its rarefied position as the print genre epitomizing high literary culture, and has increasingly defined itself as a dialogic cultural mode exploiting forms of popular media from public television to MTV, from sound recordings to CD-ROM (170). Surely there is no reason why poems cannot be loosened from the page and set free to assume what media they want for the moment. The entire notion of reading a screen as opposed to a page, for example, takes on new meanings. Screen-space, writes William Marsh (1999), implies a quasi-new location for the activity of poetry where practitioners of cyberpoetics celebrate the dynamism of writing. "Things happen on the screen that quite simply do not happen on the page." While Marsh is referring to cyberpoetic techniques that allow words to spin, dissipate, disappear, and morph, the same holds true for the screen space of sign poetry. Three-dimensional kinetic images happen on the screen. Works of poetry are less beholden to the prescribed form of the page, the line, the voice. When the poetic impulse rises inside the body of a sign poet, it is released from the flat-land of the page and given an arena in which it can fashion poetic texts. The emergence of sign literature, then, can be seen as emblematic of the larger transformation toward visual-digital technology. As a result, sign literature may be considered a type of postmodern bardic phenomenon; it is akin to ancient literary forms in that it has no traditionally written form, yet it engages the current digital transformation of reading, language, literacy, and literature. In a sense, one could say that while literature is reputed to have begun in a state of blindness (that of Homer), it has also been expanding to include the state of deafness by assuming an increasingly visual, kinetic, and embodied textual form. As such, the Deaf/ASL literary movement should not be seen simply as a derivative art form, a minority cultural practice, or something that children do during the Star Spangled Banner before the Super Bowl. Sign poetry deserves to be recognized in its full literary and historical significance: as a culminating moment in the inextinguishable desires to make poetry alive and to make it visual.


The existing body of published ASL literature can trace its origins to the early nineteenth century, after the founding of the first residential schools for deaf children.⁵ These schools established a cohesive American Deaf community and a standardized language, what is now called ASL. Story-telling and language games such as ABC and number stories became the foundation of the Deaf oral literary tradition and continue to be a vital part of Deaf culture to this day (discussed by Christopher Krentz and Ben Bahan in chapters 2 and 3 of this volume). While live performance in ASL was no doubt a hallmark of Deaf social gatherings in the first half of the twentieth century, two key events in the 1960s mark a major shift in the texts emerging from Deaf literary artists—linguistic research on ASL and mainstream use of videotape technology.

In the forty years since William Stokoe pioneered the research that began to uncover the linguistic complexities of ASL, and since the advent of videotape technology, ASL literature has expanded to include a growing range of artists and widening innovations in style and structure. Since many ASL texts are performed live and go unrecorded, it is of course impossible to identify every artist who has influenced the art form’s development. Only a select few have achieved national recognition through video publications, and only a handful travel the country performing and/or leading workshops. It is these few whose work is the focus of the currently small body of sign literary criticism.

As with most literary movements, it is impossible to trace the ASL poetry movement to a single point of origin. Signed translations of written poetry and stories have been around since the earliest filmed recordings of sign language, from M. Williamson Erd’s recital of The Death of Minnehaha, to Charles Krauel’s footage of high school girls performing an Anne Hathaway poem at the Illinois School for the Deaf, to Joe Velez’s version of Jabber-wocky.⁷ Something distinctly different, however, began to occur among the various artists affiliated with the National Theatre of the Deaf, especially in its groundbreaking performance of My Third Eye.⁸ As Padden and Humphries (1988) note, in the performance of My Third Eye a major change took place in the way Deaf performers thought about and used their language (79). While many parts of this performance are still English based, several performers created original poetry and storytelling in ASL without recourse to English. In the 1970s, then, sign literature had begun to unmoor itself from the continent of English and set sail into its own realm.

Like all pioneers, however, early ASL poets carried deeply ingrained notions of what constituted literary standards. It is as if these adventurers began with a compass whose magnetic north pointed to the standards of phonetic languages but soon found that there was another compass whose magnetic north pointed toward a different center⁹—that is, toward the unique visual, spatial, and kinetic dimensions of sign. As Ben Bahan writes, these artists were schooled in literate form[s] of poetry growing up bilingual; so naturally, being exposed to literate forms of poetry becomes deeply imprinted; but when they create work in ASL, it is visual and spatial; it is fundamentally different (pers. comm., Sept. 2001). Surely it would have been impossible to shake the influence of spoken and written poetics, yet, as Bahan points out, it was the very fact that they were not writing in English that was so riveting, exciting, and new.

The initial revelation of sign’s literary potential has become an often repeated story among these early Deaf poets and storytellers. For example, Ella Mae Lentz and Clayton Valli tell similar stories of the initial discovery of the different center of poetic practice. These poets come from opposite sides of the country, Lentz from Northern California and Valli from New England; both wrote poems in their youth, and it never occurred to either of them that their sign language could produce poetry. Yet after the advent of sign linguistics, a much-needed validation encouraged their poetic impulses to be diverted into sign.

After these poets began to create original works in ASL, they gradually found eager Deaf audiences that appreciated their poems full of intricate linguistic patterning and rich visual-kinetic imagery. There was a certain jouissance (the sheer pleasure of the interacting with a text) as audiences saw their language of everyday discourse lifted into such well-crafted poems. The numerous reminiscences and personal narratives that allude to this jouissance suggest that artists had played informally or privately with the creative possibilities of their language before but that sign linguistics gave them license, affirmation, and a vocabulary from which to explore ASL’s different center.¹⁰

At the same time these poets were producing their work throughout the 1980s, another locus of the poetry movement was underway in Rochester, New York, where the hearing poet Jim Cohn organized the Bird Brain’s Society, which featured evenings of open mike nights. Here young poets like Debbie Rennie and the Flying Words Project (Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner) would perform original works. This poetic scene was especially galvanized when, as described above, Jim Cohn arranged for a meeting between Allen Ginsberg and Deaf poets (see clip 1.6). The work of Beat poets was to strongly influence the performance poetry of Peter Cook. Cook, who was raised orally and who began to sign in college, fused a Beat aesthetic with a fascination with the Deaf actor Bernard Bragg’s technique of visual vernacular (for more on this technique, see clip 5.5). After pairing up with the hearing poet Kenny Lerner, Cook began to take sign poetry in a new direction, creating alternative or even avant-garde poetry accessible to both hearing and Deaf audiences.

For some critics, the work of Flying Words Project is more akin to the avant-garde literary tradition of Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, and Allen Ginsberg, while Valli and Lentz represent a more formalist approach akin to Robert Frost’s (Bauman 1998; Cohn 1999; Ormsby 1995). The suggestion of emerging traditions is helpful, especially for hearing audiences familiar with those traditions, in sketching out the landscape of ASL poetic practices. However, the notion of a formalist versus a Beat tradition is borrowed from hearing literary traditions and does not represent absolute categories. Poets who appear to be grounded in formalism use visual vernacular techniques, while poets who may be likened to the Beats often use such formalist techniques as rhyming and metrical patterns. Further inquiry is needed to more accurately identify traditions and lineages.

While ASL poetic practices have been evolving, Deaf storytelling has also been a growing cultural and literary phenomenon. For an in-depth inquiry into the various narrative traditions that have evolved within the American Deaf community, see Ben Bahan’s chapter in this volume (chapter 2). Bahan identifies numerous subgenres within the wider category of storytelling that are akin to oral or, more accurately, face-to-face traditions. In keeping with the domain of oral-formulaic traditions, there seems to be something more than an individual author or teller at work; indeed, a whole community and tradition are funneled into these narrative practices.

Consider, for example, the story of Eyeth as retold by Sam Supalla. It begins on a Friday afternoon at a school for deaf children, with a child who is found crying on the steps by his hearing teacher. When asked why he is crying, the child answers that he does not want to go home for the weekend to his nonsigning, hearing family. The teacher tells him of a far-away planet called Eyeth where everyone signs and says he can go there someday. The child grows up, studies rocket science, and becomes an astronaut. He travels to Eyeth and becomes a teacher of sign at a school for hearing children. One Friday afternoon he comes upon a child crying because she does not want to go home to her nonspeaking, deaf family. The teacher comforts her and tells her that one day she can travel to Earth where almost everyone hears. Here, powerful images of parallel universes, themes of identity and belonging, are expressed through the pun on ear-th and eye-th. Sam Supalla notes that he grew up seeing this story and then incorporated it into his repertoire. While he may be the performer, he is not the author per

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