This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which was enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1990. CavanKerry Press is committed to finding ways to educate others about this law–especially about its impact on the lives of those in the CKP community. Therefore, in keeping with the CavanKerry Press tagline of “Lives Brought to Life,” we will be publishing a monthly blog in which a member of our diverse community writes about an ADA-related topic.
This series kicks off with “ASL Poetry: A Moving Experience,” by Karyn Lie-Nielsen, a member of the CKP ADA Advisory Board. My first conversation with Karyn taught me how very, very little I knew about the fascinating world of American Sign Language poetry. I’m so glad Karyn is willing to share her extensive knowledge of it.
Teresa Carson, Associate Publisher
ASL Poetry: A Moving Experience
by Karyn Lie-Nielsen
It doesn’t take long to discover how American Sign Language, the unique language of the Deaf, can increase our enjoyment of poetry. Most of us realize how listening to poetry, recorded or delivered live at poetry readings, seems to enliven the words, mood, and meaning. Likewise, those of us who have seen a poem performed in ASL find that poetry can transcend to yet another level. The experience makes us feel like we have entered another dimension.
That’s because ASL is a visual language. “Speaking” in Sign involves not only fingers and hands, but also eyes, mouth, head, shoulders, arms, legs, and space—Signers call it the “sign space.” In ASL, printed words are freed from the flat page and lifted into space. Viewers have the chance to realize a poem that is truly embodied.
The language of ASL has no written equivalent. It is based on English, but it’s movement, not writing, not sound. Users of ASL do not speak English while they sign, because the sign-order of ASL is often very different from the word-order of English. Moreover, there’s not necessarily a gesture for each word in the English vocabulary. Sign consists of handshapes, facial expression and body positioning that make up a vocabulary of what we might call “words,” yet the lexicon of ASL is more accurately described as signs, or symbols, that represent ideas or concepts. If there isn’t a word-sign equivalent for a word written in English, the signer might fingerspell that word. (ASL has a manual alphabet.) Or, since fingerspelling is slower and more difficult to “read,” a sign-translator can pantomime the idea. When you want to communicate visually, you’ll sign, spell, gesture, turn your body, move your feet, anything it takes to get the concept across.
Translating a poem from English into ASL is different from merely word-to-word interpreting. Sign language interpreters are called in to help the hearing impaired with doctor’s visits, news announcements, lectures, meetings, and general conversation. But when it comes to translating poetry, the methodology isn’t the same. After all, poetry is not casual conversation, it is a literary art. Poets, as we are well aware, intentionally measure each word, carefully calculating line and space. An English-language poem translated into ASL requires the same skill and attention it takes to translate poetry from French or Spanish or Swahili. Translators pore over the original language and distinctly make choices that allow the original intent to live on and reach the reader, or (in the case of ASL) the viewer. It’s not an on-the-spot task. Yet, I am convinced there is no idea that can be written in English that can’t be represented with Sign.
You can see my own translations of two English language poems on my website. One, “Among Vegetables,” is a contemporary poem written by CavanKerry poet Jeanne Marie Beaumont. Another is Yeats’s “Never Give All The Heart.”
Strictly speaking, ASL poetry is at its most fascinating when the poem is originally created in Sign. One of the most beloved poets in the Deaf signing community is Clayton Valli (1953-2003). His original ASL poem “Dandelion” has been one of the most-watched Sign videos of all times.
Valli was a pioneer in the art form, defining how the repetition of handshapes are the signer’s equivalent to rhyme and meter. There are English translations of “Dandelion,” available, but the best source is translated by the poet Raymond Luzak, and can be found in the anthology Deaf American Poetry, edited by John Lee Clark, a gifted poet himself, who is not only deaf, but is also legally blind.
While you’re looking around the web for ASL poetry, don’t miss “Flying Words” featuring Peter Cook and his speaking/signing partner Kenny Lerner. This is a collaborative effort of two wonderful artists who bring unforgettable energy to their performances of ASL poetry and story-telling to both Deaf and hearing audiences. Cook is deaf, Lerner, hearing, so that the Sign is simultaneously spoken in English. Watch some of their work as well as some of the great pioneers of ASL poetry at slope.org.
When you look closely at ASL poetry, you’ll surely start to notice how imagery, metaphor, and emotion are enhanced through visual expression. As Jim Cohn, teacher and early trailblazer of ASL poetry said, “What deaf people do with language is what hearing poets try to make their language do.”