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Posts from the ‘Poets’ Category

Sign language festival in Brazil (2016)

Five years later …. Rachel Sutton-Spence took her ideas from the first Signing Hands Across the Water festival in the USA first to South Africa (2014) with Michiko Kaneko and then to Brazil for a festival in 2016, with her colleague Fernanda Machado.

The format of this Brazilian festival also concentrated on performance, discussion and practical workshops, using the same format in both earlier events. This time the guest performers were from South Africa, Brazil, the USA, UK and Sweden. The festival sold out all the available workshops and events, nearly all deaf participants.

The 2016 festival website Festival de folclore surdo explains everything in fine detail (in Libras, the sign language of Brazil) but the film is better in conveying the excitement of those four days. There were familiar faces there from the 2012 festival – Peter Cook (USA), Richard Carter and Donna Williams (UK)

Guest performers (Brazil): Rosana Grasse, Renata Heinzelmann, Carolina Hessel, Rosani Suzin, Carlos Alberto Goes, Marlene Prado, Silas Queiroz

Guest performers (International) John Maucere, Giuseppe Giuranna, Atiyah Asmal, Susan Njeyiyana, Donna Williams, Richard Carter, Peter Cook, Ella Mae Lentz, Johanna Mesch

Martin Haswell’s film, Festival de Folklore Surdo: O filme condenses those four days right down into a few minutes. There is audio in Brazilian Portuguese and subtitles in English and French, so click the CC button and choose the language if you want to watch with subtitles.


Looking back at the Festival

Dr Rachel Sutton-Spence thanks everyone for attending the Performance on Saturday March 17th 2012

Signing Hands Across the Water was a festival for everyone to enjoy, celebrate and explore sign language poetry.  Now that it is over, we can briefly look back on what happened over those three busy days.  We all learned and shared.  The poets taught us so much, and in doing so they learned from each other.  We will all take away a changed view of signed poetry.

On Friday evening, the poets came together before an audience of over 100 Swarthmore and other Tri-Co students and Faculty, members of the deaf community and visitors from the wider community.  The poets introduced themselves one by one and performed one short poem each so we could get an idea of their work and what we might expect over the next few days.  For many people in the audience this was their first experience of signed poetry. Then the poets talked about sign language poetry and its role in the Deaf communities in England and America – sharing their ideas with each other and allowing the audience to look in on the conversation through the fourth wall. Their discussion was a balance of funny and serious, and they provided a fascinating mix of interesting facts, opinions and tales of their own experiences.  They talked about the ways that poetry and deaf community life in England, Sweden and America have similarities and differences, and they talked about poetry as an education tool, a cultural reality and something that can be thought of through language and through art. They touched on the relationship between English and signed poetry – a topic that became a thread that ran through the festival.

Saturday morning saw 30 members of the Deaf community gather to learn and develop their sign language poetry skills from the six deaf poets leading the festival.  Each poet brought a task to the workshop, helping participants compose, refine and even perform their poems in some cases.  By 4pm there were 11 poems on camera and many more in the participants’ heads and hearts.

On Saturday afternoon, while deaf community members were composing and exploring poetry ‘hands on’, Kenny Lerner ran a workshop to consider ways that signed poetry can be accompanied by spoken English.  He introduced several possible methods, including providing occasional English prompts to guide non-signers through the passage of a signed poem, speaking almost word for word translations of the signed poems and speaking an English version of the poem as the signed poem unfolds, even where words and signs are very different.  He illustrated his session with performances by Flying Words, Dorothy Miles and Ella Mae Lentz.

With so many guests from the Deaf community for the performance on Saturday night, Upper Tarble became a ‘Deaf space’.  Donna Jo Napoli opened the event, thanking Swarthmore College and Cooper Foundation and the Deaf community for supporting the festival.  She ended up getting everyone to engage in what was essentially a group-hug of 211 people.

Richard Carter opened, with his dramatic and emotional Make-up Theatre, thought-provoking Abstract Art, and finally treated us all to the wicked and heart-warming Owl Interpreter.  Donna Williams was up next with her poem on identity Who am I? and two new poems My New Cat, adopting a deaf kitten, and Red and Green, showing her battle with a cold virus in terms of a fierce boxing match.

Then Debbie Rennie, dressed up in a wonderful high-necked lace collar and long late-Victorian-style black dress, performed with eye-catching energy and movement. Her offerings included one against oralism’s devastating theft of childhood, one on a deaf woman who narrowly misses all sorts of disasters that happen right by her but she never hears them and curses her bad luck when she misses the bus and a final powerful piece about the murder of a man in front of his young son.

In the second half, John Wilson performed From the Depths, comparing the destructive effects of oralism on the deaf community with the destruction of whaling and an entertaining new take on the traditional signing ‘Tree’ motif about a Christmas tree that discovers life holds many surprises.

Flying Words Project wowed us all with their energy and lively timing in poems including Four-arms Language, and Made in the USA, about Chinese sweat-shop industries before finishing with Double-Twinkle about the birth of a man’s first baby.

Paul Scott’s Blue Suits, showed how a poem from one country can be effectively transferred ‘across the water’ to be read more abstractly and generally. While referring to Mrs Thatcher and Diana, Princess of Wales it encompassed any women who become successful through marriage or career and then lose it all.  His Macbeth of the Lost Ark left the audience with the usual thrill of decipherment and he finished with his new composition I know who Stole my Heart – addressing thoughtless destruction of precious things by powerful people.

Richard Carter closed the show with Fashion Times, which is a good one to have as a dish of petit fours – a sweet ending to such a rich feast of the hot, bitter, sweet and sour poems.

Sunday morning’s discussion of the poems packed out the Wister Room in the Scott Arboretum, so that even the interpreters ended up sitting on the floor while the poets took turns to discuss their work from the night before.  In the Q&A session, they returned to the topic of accessibility and translation of signed poetry, touching also on ideas relating to emotion and embodiment. This event, too, was attended by a good mix of students, faculty, visitors from the general public and members of the Deaf community. The formal session lasted 90 minutes but the brunch event afterwards went on for over an hour, as poets and the audience discussed and shared more ideas. By 12.30, though, most people were gone and we were all left to savour the memories.

Thanks to:

  • Cooper Foundation – for their generous financial support of the festival
  • The wonderful, talented and dedicated poets: Debbie Rennie, Donna Williams, John Wilson, Kenny Lerner, Paul Scott, Peter Cook and Richard Carter
  • Doreen Kelley and her team of interpreters: Mike Canfield and Christopher Tester (ASL-BSL), Debbie Taylor (ASL-English), Kyra Pollitt (BSL-English) and Christopher Stone (BSL-ASL-English)
  • Dave Neal for his unflagging and unflappable technical support
  • Deb Sloman – snacks, drinks and Sunday brunch
  • Dorothy Kunzig – administrative support and knowing the right people to ask at the right time
  • Martin Haswell – video camera and website
  • Congwen Wang – stills photography
  • Rebekah Gelpi and her fabulous team of can-do student volunteers from all Tri-Co
  • Nick Furrow – hosting support at Ashton House
  • Donna Jo Napoli – without whom the whole thing would never even have taken its first step

Workshop videos

At the end of the workshop on Saturday the poets made videos of some of the attendees each with their own poems, and here are those videos – click the name to view each video.

Douglas Ridloff’s ‘Transients’

Saturday’s workshop was well attended. Here’s New York based ASL poet Douglas Ridloff performing his work ‘Transients’ at the end of the session.

Performance on Saturday night

Richard Carter takes a bow after performing to a packed hall at Swarthmore College at the Saturday night performance, photo by Congwen Wang.

There are more photos on the Signing Hands Across the Water Facebook wall.

Swarthmore College welcomes the poets

Congwen Wang’s photo shows John Wilson, Debbie Rennie, Peter Cook, Richard Carter, Paul Scott and Donna Williams as they arrive at Swarthmore College.

Voicing ASL performance poetry in Flying Words Project

We are delighted to announce that Kenny Lerner will run an additional workshop on Saturday 17th March, 2pm to 4pm.  Kenny will talk about his experiences being the ‘hearing half’ of the Flying Words duo and doing the voicing of ASL performance poetry.

The language of this workshop will be English.  This will be of special interest to interpreters, students of sign language and anyone interested in issues of translation and poetry.  The venue for Kenny’s workshop is Kohlberg Hall, Room 115

Richard Carter: how inspiration comes to me

Richard tells us how inspiration comes to him and shares an example – he walks past a traffic signal and starts to think about the feelings it might have.

Closure in Sign Language Poetry

In any poem there will be a moment when we suddenly feel its full impact. It is when we think ‘A-ha!’ It is the moment of the cracking whip that gets the full focus of our attention. That whip-crack is often at the end of the poem. Students at Swarthmore College have made the first ever study of closure in sign language poems, in preparation for the Festival in March. In the piece they have written here, the students show how the sign language poets ‘crack the whip’ to make us feel the full impact of the poem. Have a look at their complete work, in the full text of ‘Closure in Sign Language Poetry‘ and see some of the potential and the richness just waiting to be explored in sign language poetry.
There will be more poems like this performed at the festival, March 16-18 2012.


Welcome to the Signing Hands Across the Water Festival celebrating sign language poetry in March 16th – 18th 2012 at  Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, USA.

Sign language poets from Britain and America will come together and explore this rich and beautiful art form with members of College, the Deaf Community and visitors from the wider community. The festival will include:

  • Friday evening – a “public conversation” between the British and American poets, discussing national, cultural, linguistic and personal differences in their work;
  • Saturday evening – an open performance of poems in British Sign Language (BSL) and American Sign Language (ASL);
  • Sunday morning – a Panel discussion ‘how signed poetry works’, exploring the language and themes used in BSL and ASL poetry.
  • Additionally, on Saturday daytime there will be a workshop for fluent signers to compose signed poetry.

Signing Hands Across the Water will give College members and visitors to College a unique opportunity to discover sign language poetry in the United States and in the British deaf community where traditions, language and culture are different. All events will be fully accessible in ASL and spoken English.

The event is organised as part of the work of Rachel Sutton-Spence, Cornell Visiting Professor to Swarthmore for 2011-2012. Professor Sutton-Spence has worked on creative sign language for over 15 years, especially researching and promoting British Sign Language poetry (

The Signing Hands Across the Water Festival is made possible by the William J Cooper Foundation at Swarthmore College

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