Transcript from the Panel discussion
On Sunday morning, the poets met to discuss the poems they had performed the night before, talking more about the processes behind their composition and performance. They talked about what inspired them and more about the way they use sign language to create their work.
This transcription is possible thanks to the interpreting skills of Christopher Stone, Christopher Tester, Debbie Taylor, Kyra Pollitt and Mike Canfield who worked with BSL, ASL and English in order to produce the text that we have here. We are very grateful to Jocelyn Adams for her work in preparing this document.
Paul Scott: We all have differences and different skills we could each contribute to this process, to what’s happening in Italy, what’s happening in France, etc. Obviously you’re talking about different sign languages here, and I think you’re also talking about different practices. What we really don’t want to do is homogenize sign language poetry across all of these nations. So we started talking about this whole idea of collaboration and how we might collaborate creatively.
At the workshop, one woman did a performance that was quite interesting. It was based on the theme of two-in-one and it got us thinking about this whole idea of a melting pot and how we might look at structure and so on. I think one of the biggest achievements here has been exactly that, the bringing together of different people.
To take another parallel from that, you can think about feminism and how women have conquered male domination or even challenged it. If I think about my own life, women have been very important to me all my life. I look at that as a real model, I think. When I did my poem “Blue Suits,” I’m talking about two particular female role models, society role models. The color also is very particular because of the associations you can find with blue.
I did another poem, “Stole my Heart,” which was my third piece, and that came from a meeting with Peter Cook in Rotterdam. There’s a famous statue in Rotterdam which has a hole where the heart should be. And that really haunted me. I started to think about that in my work after I’d been to Rotterdam, and then there were various things that happened that kind of came together for me in my own personal experience, that really made me think about issues of colonization and power and control. I was thinking about Rotterdam in that fabulous beautiful country that had been invaded by the Nazis, taken over by the Nazis, and what had happened to their indigenous culture and their indigenous beauty. There were real parallels there for me with the Deaf community. So that’s where the poem comes from. It’s really a plea to the hearing community to leave our Deaf heart alone. Don’t steal our Deaf heart. Respect our indigenous culture and community. That’s how the idea for the poem came about; it was really an integration of all of those influences.
Peter Cook: It’s very interesting, you brought up this question of Rotterdam, and the ship, and I’m very excited to hear that you created that poem because I was inspiration for a poem. At the International Poetry Festival, I created the poem, “A Prayer for Serge,” because we went to a workshop and we focused on translations in the workshop. There was a man there from Romania. There were participants from France, from Germany, and he was asking how they were going to translate this into their own languages. So they did a lot of analysis and at the same time, we were discussing a friend who had died, he was a wonderful friend, a wonderful artist. It was a very moving experience. How could we keep his memory alive – that was the germination for that poem, all that was how we created that poem together. Remember that, Kenny? Remember how it opens with the use of LANGUAGE, LANGUAGE, LANGUAGE, those four hands? I wanted people’s eyes – not even their ears or their minds but their eyes – to suddenly have a revelation for the opening of that poem. It was actually Kenny’s idea quite a while ago, he thought why don’t we juggle with the language, the image for that? Remember that, Kenny? And it failed quite a bit, we had a lot of failures until finally….
Kenny Lerner: Well actually, I was reading a book by Mark Twain called “Pudd’nhead Wilson.” It was a very odd book. It was actually two books – the first half was about a pair of twins, and the second half was the same story about the twins, but they were Siamese twins. When I read that, I instantly had the image of this LANGUAGE with four arms. That is what came to me specifically, the image that we did in the opening of that poem. I immediately said to Peter on TTY, “Come over, come over!” Anyway, we played around with this idea and that’s how it happened.
Peter: However, the poem meant a lot of repetition, a lot of tweaking, we went through so many different versions, so many drafts of it. The same as if you’re writing a poem, and you keep crossing things out on your paper and throwing it away. Remember juggling a cow? You know, a cow, with udders and the moon and whatnot, that was an image that we used. And an old lady, remember that one, too, Kenny?
Kenny: You couldn’t maintain that image if you were using those types of things, so we were playing with signs that could be maintained creatively.
Peter: We felt that if you were trying to be creative with a sign, you didn’t maintain its regional presence creatively. So we wanted to find an image that maintained that visual, creative space. With LANGUAGE, we saw that that was a real hook, so that’s what we decided to go with.
The poem “Made in the USA” was obviously politically motivated. Kenny was always saying, “Get a look at this, get a look at that, get a look at the other,” but what it really came down to was the idea of the sweatshops. For us that was something that could be really visually played with, the idea of sweat. It was a very long poem, and again, sometimes you have a great idea and you see it creatively expands on either side of that and you have to say, that doesn’t work so much, it’s better if we just condense it to maintain the core idea. So there was lots of discussion about that.
Kenny: Also the idea of the oil, and the destruction of the world with oil production, pollution, climate change, all of the people who were being exploited in their work and their life, laborers, and at the same time, the miners who were dying so rapidly: we put all of those together.
Peter: And the last poem, about the baby and its birth, “Twinkle.” I think when you’re young you use your body quite a lot. Now of course, as I’m getting slightly older, I find myself less flexible. It’s interesting to see that kind of transformation of how things change, and I like the idea of using those transformations within sign language, how a flower head can become a butterfly. You can maintain the visual idea, the movement can be used to transform from one thing to another; I like that play, that playful language use and how you can interconnect that together. We know parents, we’ve seen them give birth to their kids, we know it’s beautiful, it’s wonderful. That’s so redeeming in lots of ways and so renewing in respect of all the problems that we have in the world. I think it was generated from my experiences in order to share that. That’s that story.
Debbie: For me, I’ve been working with poetry for about 30 years. First I was looking at English poetry and I would work with that in the theater. It’s funny, Peter’s comment – we worked together in Sunshine Too and they gave us a Dorothy Miles poem, and I actually didn’t know who she was at that time when I translated it. Do you know that poem? It’s called “Stink,” it’s about a skunk. So I translated that poem way back when. From then until now it’s really been an amazing journey. So many, many years until I found my poetic voice.
There was a workshop when Peter and I were working together in Norway about how to use classifiers and how to use all the elements of poetry in order to have a more formal level of poetic language. We really just wanted people to have their eyes be fed and have texture. We wanted to focus on classifiers, handshapes, description, facial expression, all those colorful elements of ASL poetry that Deaf people have. That’s powerful, and that’s given to us. That’s our innate gift. When people don’t understand us, we get frustrated and we want to create things. Taking all that frustration about being understood, I decided to create poetry.
In the hearing world, people want to give medicalization to Deaf people – cochlear implants, Oralism, Audism, all of that – but we have knowledge. Like in my poem, I know what a ball is; it doesn’t matter if I can say “ball” with my mouth. It’s a waste of my time and that makes me very angry. The inner knowledge is what’s important. As a child growing up, I could have become a doctor, I could have become anything, but I didn’t know this because the focus was on English, the focus was on Audism, and I wasn’t given the opportunity to follow my dreams.
In Deaf history, with the year 1880 and the Milan Conference, I thought about how history has changed our lives. There were wonderful years in 19th century England when Deaf and hearing people were in college and university together. It was the golden years for us, there was equality between Deaf and hearing people. And then the 1880 conference happened. It was in secret, like I said, behind closed doors they made these decisions for Deaf people that affected our lives. It really killed us. So my poem “1880” comes from that traumatic event. I was playing with the idea of language itself. For example, the spectacles coming off and becoming the secret discussion behind closed doors at the Milan Conference. I was playing with those visual images.
Regarding the political world, as they were talking about how it’s so frustrating to see everything that’s going on and try to figure out how to help the world. So one day, the Dalai Lama was speaking and somebody asked about how to stop war. And he just gave a little smile and said, “It begins with your own family.” That really struck me, that the responsibility was inside of me, that I needed to focus on my family and solve our problems first before I could solve the world’s problems. Reading the news, seeing the atrocities that happen, and seeing how people can hurt other people, I still had to think about why there is torture and so many horrific events. The glass Coke bottle being rammed into the father’s stomach… war is hard enough, but that’s an even greater atrocity. People dying, and then soldiers peeing on the people who’ve died, and I think why does that level of cruelty exist? So I wanted to express something to show people how we are all human and yet, look at what happens. I was also playing with tempo, slow motion and fast motion, to show anger and how that emerges. Regarding the language itself, I really just want to elevate the language.
Oh, sorry, one important thing I wanted to mention: I think of the work myself, all of the ideas, but then I do have assistance. It’s very important for me to have somebody watch me, tell me whether they understand what I’m saying and give me feedback. I worked with a man named Lars Ottershteldt in doing that. He’s an incredible actor, he’s a linguist, a writer, a translator, and he gave me a great deal of help with my work. That helped to elevate my language as well.
Thank you all for coming! Thanks so much, thanks for bringing us, this is great.
Richard Carter: Okay, so I guess it’s my turn now.
My family are travelers, they live in a caravan and they travel with a fairground. My father used to work at the microphone, calling people to the fair and that kind of thing, and one of the difficulties in my community and my culture is that it’s expected that that will pass to the son. Of course, I couldn’t adopt those practices because I’m Deaf. My mother used to say to me, when you grow up, you can work the microphone just like your father. And of course I couldn’t. So this is an issue in my family. My family are all very good singers and that’s a valued skill within my family and again, that’s something that I was not going to be able to inherit. So I think that’s where the poems come from, because it was kind of a compensatory activity really. I didn’t realize it was poetry at the time, it was just what I could do to make my contribution. It took someone else, a professional Deaf person who was working in the University at the time studying linguistics, to say to me, what you’re doing is poetry, do you know that? I really didn’t realize that. Later on, when Rachel Sutton-Spence was talking to me about how there’s repetition and handshapes and there’s all these linguistic elements in your work, it was only then that I began to realize and accept that what I was producing was really poetry, but I’ve been doing it for some time.
What I tend to do is based on my own emotions and it’s informed by things that I see. A lot of my work to begin with was very romantic, but over the years it’s changed in theme. I work in children’s education as a teacher, so obviously I work in a different register when I’m working with the kids. I think in a way that makes my language use much more visual. I’m not fluent in written English, I’m much better in sign language.
The poems I chose for last night’s performance included the one about the performer, the actor on stage. There were echoes of my family history in that because of the history of my family being good at singing. I’ve suffered from depression before in my life, so the theme of suicide that’s in the poem is very important to me.
For the second poem, I worked recently at an art gallery in Scotland, and I was asked to do some kind of ekphrastic work, really, to translate the images of the art through poetry. One of the pieces that I worked on was a painting, so that’s where that came from.
The third piece was about school experiences. I used my own experiences to inform that poem. The boy finally does get a degree through the use of the interpreter, and that is really important. I wanted to acknowledge the importance of working with the interpreter, and working with someone who understands your culture and your language and can help you access the system.
The final piece was the piece about the changing fashions through the ages. Really that’s a very visual piece, and people find it very easy to cue into that, to know exactly what’s going on, to know exactly what period of time I’m referring to. So again, it’s about the visual culture. That’s it, then.
John Wilson: Over to me now, I think. It’s interesting to hear everybody’s different stories. I was interested in Paul’s talking about the statue that he saw in Rotterdam where the poem “Stole My Heart” comes from. For me, statues have been a big influence in my poetic life. They’re things that are permanently there and allow you to imagine worlds. I thought I was perhaps the only person who used statues as an inspiration, but to hear Paul say that makes me think that maybe it’s a Deaf thing, to imagine what that statue would be like if they came to life, what they would be doing. That’s part of my process, I don’t know if it’s just a Deaf thing or if lots of people do that. Even here, walking around Swarthmore, seeing the statues and imagining what their lives would be like. Some of the themes that others mentioned, like Milan in 1880, I think that’s definitely an inspiration for me as well. There are also three big influences in my life. They’re all hearing people. Sometimes Deaf people react negatively to that, they say, hearing people? Definitely hearing people!
One Deaf person who’s been influential is Dot Miles. When I met her and saw her poetry, at that time, she wasn’t performing BSL poetry or ASL poetry, she was really doing English poetry, in her book which is called “Gestures.” It was the first time I had met a deaf person who had written a book. The bookshelves are full of things written by hearing people so this is really an amazing cultural product for me. Then she had the workshop and was trying to teach Deaf people. We had a very difficult time establishing what she was trying to teach, and she found it very frustrating. She was using English as the language to write her poetry, and for many of us it reminded us of going back to school and being in an Oral education, and failing to get good levels of English. That really caused us to have some sort of internal reflection. There were some beautiful poems during that workshop, but it was very difficult to grasp what we were trying to do, so I think that wasn’t immediately successful.
I then got a job as a Deaf Arts officer, and somebody approached me and said I’d like to establish a poetry workshop. I thought, oh dear, it’s going to be English again, that’ll be terrible for us all. In the discussions we had about that, the idea started to form of actually thinking about BSL as the medium for poetry. At that time, we weren’t really thinking about poetry. Dot Miles wasn’t thinking about poetry, she was thinking about using BSL in a creative way, creative signing, so that it would be attractive to Deaf people and they would stay in the workshop. So I left her to create that workshop idea. She thought nobody would come. This was the first workshop that I’d funded, so I was quite nervous as well, and yet Deaf people came in droves. It was the biggest workshop that she’d ever hosted in her life. She talked about a variety of features, the things that have been mentioned before, things that you can include in poetry. It was very interesting to see that these are things other poets feel too. It’s just fantastic. Unfortunately, Dot died two or three months after that workshop. But many of us are very privileged to have been in that workshop and to have had exposure to that information.
It’s not true to say that Deaf people don’t think about composing poetry in English. That’s where Dot started, so some people did. A younger generation, a new generation of people is undertaking poetry just in BSL, and I think we need to respect all of those different voices and approaches to the creative process. One of the things I think was great is that people often gain confidence if they’re using a written language, and then they creative process using sign language comes about with time.
I then went to France, and there was a person called Augusto Boal, who was the director of the Theater of the Oppressed. He was just a fascinating person. He was very interesting, he would bring different groups of oppressed peoples together, Black people, women, people from Indian heritage, and he would really get them to play with how they could combat the oppression that they faced. So I went along to see what this was like and the workshop was just fantastic. Obviously as a Deaf person there, there were some communication problems. He was very shocked and inspired when suddenly he found out that he was acting as an oppressor. He thought, wow, I’m being part of the oppressive problem in this workshop because I’m not making sure the communication is working successfully. So he suddenly had to think, I’ve been talking about oppression and combating oppression, and now I’m enacting that myself. That really did disquiet him. I finally said, well, you know, don’t worry about it. He was really pleased to see that that was something that could be combated, that was a relief then. It was a real interesting reflection for him.
For Deaf people generally, I think oppression is an important part of who we are. It doesn’t have to be negative. For some of us, it gives us the power, it gives us the energy. It doesn’t have to be bad, and I think many of us have included that kind of oppression in our poetry. And that can be a real factor which makes people identify with the poems that we’re doing. So I think that’s an important part of our work.
Oh, I’ve forgotten my third person… I was going to say all this about Italy. I went to Italy. Dario Fo, who is an Italian political writer who’s very rebellious against oppressive regimes. He enacts that rebellion through artistic performances, plays, theater. He’s a fantastic mime, very similar to some of the elements that Peter includes in his work. I think for Deaf people, that’s truly fantastic to see as well, because we are visual in a different way from the way that he is visual. He’s visual using mime and other items but it’s not sign language. We’re using a language. Even so, some of the questions he was asking as an actor I was wanting to ask him too. He was firing questions away to me to really make me think about the processes I was involved in. I went with him an Italian town and people thought that I was his son. They thought, oh look, there’s two people walking together, they must be father and son. So that was really a strange experience for me as well. I really felt almost like I was a VIP in Italy, just because I was with Dario. It was great, people were saying oh wow, Dario’s got a Deaf son. But he wasn’t embarrassed at all by including me. In situations where there wasn’t an interpreter, he would use gesture and try to make sure I was fully involved in the conversation. From those plays, he would transform his plays into very visually creative works. Probably from a non-Deaf perspective, but it was very interesting for me to have that experience. I will say at the moment that I am still very bound to using creative works within a sign language tradition. Now seeing some of the work that happened yesterday, how movement can be incorporated and how other elements can be incorporated for the performance, I think that’s something that I want to work on next. I would say those are the three significant influences in my creative life.
Peter: I have a question, sorry, when was that workshop? The Dot Miles workshop?
John: 1992 or 1993.
Richard: No, it wasn’t 1992. I remember I graduated in 1992 and she had already passed away by then.
John: She died the same year. So it was 1991?
Richard: Yeah, I would say early ’91.
John: Yes, because she died the following January, it was two months prior to that. I think it was the last workshop she gave. But it was really positive, just so great that so many people were there. It was great.
Donna Williams: I’m not sure I can follow that! How do I follow that?
John: You’ve got more to come, don’t worry.
Donna: Well, hello. Okay, how do I create poetry? I find that a really difficult question. I suppose let’s break it down, go back to basics. I grew up, I was mainstreamed, I was in the hearing world, I used to lip-read, it used to drive me crazy and kill my eyes. I was mainstreamed all the way through school until I was 18, 19 years of age. I didn’t really sign at all.
Then completely by accident, really, I found myself choosing which university I wanted to go to and what I wanted to study. I was doing some research on the internet and I just clicked on some link and noticed that there was this thing called Deaf Studies. I thought, what? There are Deaf Studies? What? So then I researched a little further and found there was Deaf Studies at Bristol in the UK, Deaf Studies at Wolverhampton, and Deaf Studies at a place called Preston. I randomly clicked on Preston and ended up going to that university.
It was quite an experience. There were a load of Deaf students there, a huge cohort of Deaf students all signing to each other and then there was me kind of on the outside of the circle going oh, hi! I was really lucky, I was accepted by them, they were great, very helpful at teaching my sign language. I slowly picked it up, HELLO, MY, NAME, IS, D-O-N-N-A. From three years of university experience I really went from naught to signing. Three years, you know? Nine semesters.
Through that time one of the real issues for me was the question of my identity. Up until the age of nineteen I’d had a certain identity within the hearing world, then suddenly becoming part of the Deaf world I wasn’t really sure who I was. I could still hear noise, did I lip-read, did I sign? It was really quite a confusing time for me. So randomly, I committed those thoughts and emotions and that confusion to a poem. I think that was about my second year at university. Right about that time, Preston organized a poetry festival. People like Richard Carter came along, I remember being incredibly impressed by him, and a few other British poets came, and there was a lot of signing going on and a lot of sign language poetry. I just sat there transfixed. I was still learning BSL at the time, but I really understood what they were saying. I could really understand this poetry. I sat there in the audience thinking that’s what I want! I want that!
In my third year, I decided I’d have a go myself, I’d have a pop at doing a poem to try and express some of the confusion I felt around issues of identity. It was really cathartic, I felt really much better after doing the poem. That was one of the poems I performed last night, the poem called “Who Am I?” At that point it was really helpful for me on my own personal journey. I didn’t know anything about classifiers or handshapes or any of that stuff, it was just about me putting down my feelings, on paper initially and then signing from there, and that’s what it was.
I became involved with Rachel Sutton-Spence’s project and began to hang around with these cool guys, Richard and Paul and John. Through that I’ve been exposed to a whole load of new ideas; it’s really helped me work on my own poetry and look at what I can produce. I guess that’s where I am now. I’m creating poetry really starting with ideas – something comes to me or it’s something that I see, for example, the duck. I watched this poor duck trying to swim up the river and I just felt the same. I was really trying hard to write my dissertation, it was really hard work, I felt like I was paddling upstream too! That just came to me as a metaphor. I guess “Duck and Dissertation” came to me because it was about expressing my own
situation and my own feelings. I take those kind of ideas and build from that, try to make sure that what I’m doing is clear. Now thanks to the project, I’ve got many more tools to try and help me do that. That’s really useful.
It’s been really interesting what John just said about the process of writing poetry and how we should value that too because I like writing. Some of my poetry started off as written poetry. I wouldn’t say that my sign language poetry is stronger than my written poetry, I think it’s kind of 50/50. I express myself 50/50 in each medium. I express myself differently in the different media, though. I tried once to translate one of my poems. I created it first in sign language and then tried to translate it into the written word, and I just couldn’t do it. It was really odd, a really strange poetry, because I can create signed poetry, and I can create written poetry, but to convert one to the other was a nightmare. I gave up after a while. Maybe I’ll try again in the future, some other time, when I feel a bit more confident with that process. That’s an issue with translation. You never express something the same way in one language as you do in another language, so the process of translation is a tricky process I think.
Some of my written poetry is going to by published in a book, I’m expecting, later this year. It’s not a book entirely of my own poetry, it’s just a contribution to a collection. I think three of my poems are going to be published. So it’s not a whole book, really honestly, it’s just a contribution. But one of the poems talks about the theme of translation and how frustrating that process can be. One of my poems is about the voice – I’m trying to remember the words, and I might switch to voice for this if that’s okay. “Words are sterile, unmoving / dead, laid out for all to see / charging, living, breathing / my poems live in me.” Good luck with that, judges. I’ll try – (signs). So those are the two versions. You can see there’s a problem with translation – I had to express it in the spoken word at one point. I did take a sideways glance at the interpreters and they were like do what? Issues of translation! But there are also issues about what I create in what language.
Richard: I remember once I went to the north of England, to Preston University, and I remember talking about poetry, very similar to the event today, and I remember Donna being in the audience. I gave some examples of the poetry that I had created and I think that made a huge impact on Donna. At that time maybe she thought it wasn’t possible to have poetry in a visual medium.
Donna: That’s right.
Richard: So it’s great. Then when she moved to Bristol, I’ve been able to support her in poetry and it’s great for her to be with us today.
Donna: If I can do it, you can do it! Come on, guys, you could be on the panel next time. This is eight years on, so over to you now.
Debbie: Who knows, maybe someone in the audience will be joining us on the panel in years to come.
John: That’s very true.
Rachel: Thank you very much. I found that fascinating and learned a lot, thank you. Can we open up the floor and ask for questions from the audience now…?
Peter: Kenny and I, we’ve been doing our poetry for over 30 years. We have time set aside and we work on one poem until we feel like we’ve had enough of it, then we go to another one. We may show a poem a couple of times and then again. Others we want to do for long time. It depends on our mood, to be honest. There’s one poem, which is called “Charlie.” It’s about the Vietnam war. We practiced that a lot. We did that repeatedly and then we got tired of it. Sometimes I actually miss that poem, we put it aside but I miss it now sometimes. In certain situations, sometimes that poem needs to be expressed again. However, if there’s no feeling left for that poem, if it becomes mechanical, that’s a dangerous moment. You never, never should do a poem in a way that’s mechanical or automatic. It needs to come from the heart. It’s a real living, breathing thing. If it’s not going to become real, then that’s the point to stop with that poem.
Debbie: I never become bored. Actually, I’m always really nervous even after many years.
Richard: It’s not boring. Sometimes I stop I come back to a work at a different time. It is a kind of time based process, it does really depend on your mood. Sometimes Rachel says to me we’re going to put on a workshop, and that’ll inspire a period of really busy creativity. But I can’t say that I’m ever bored. There’s always something new to create, there’s always a new story that’s coming out, a new poem that’s coming out. Sometimes I just see a person signing and there will be a really beautiful piece of language and I think ooh, I’ve got to nab that one, got to take that one, that’s mine. You’re always kind of at work, you’re always alert to it. I find that’s a process of absorbing energy and it’s really enriching and strengthening. That way you feel that all of the people around you are collaborators, almost, with your poetic work. Like when you get rap poems spitting rhymes at each other at slams trying to compete, I think there’s a little bit of an element of that going on with signed poetry.
Donna: I think it depends on the audience as well. There’s always some energy you get from the audience. When I wrote “Who Am I?” and “Duck and Dissertation,” I never at the time expected I would be performing to an audience. I wrote them as a kind of cathartic process, to help myself. But you can do self-art, why not? Poetry for yourself, that’s fine, you don’t necessarily have to write for an audience, you can just go step by step and see what comes. But I agree – boring, never.
John: Something I’d like to add is if we think about the creative process of hearing poems, they write things down in the medium and it becomes crystallized in that form. But when I perform a poem and it’s filmed, and then I perform the same poem and it’s filmed in a different time or space, then it may be different. It may be that I’ve added something to it, but it changes with the performance. I think that’s also something different with what we do. It changes with your age, the fashions change, even when you’re performing that poem. I don’t keep lots of video copies of my poems, I think that’s something I’m acutely aware of.
Kenny: Also, if you perform it repeatedly, it becomes better. You understand it better. Then the poem may change as well.
Paul: I wonder when we’re talking about boring – I don’t know, if you find writing a poem boring, then stop writing. If your life is boring to you, you want to find something new. For me, that creative process is creating something new. But if you find it boring, stop doing it. Wait until you have that heartfelt moment to be engaged in the creative process again.
Question: Suppose you have a Deaf audience, or a hearing audience, would you say that the performance changes based on the constituency of the audience, or do you find that your performance stays the same irrespective?
Richard: I’d like to answer that. I think if I’m performing to a Deaf audience, I perform in BSL. If I’m performing to a hearing audience, I perform in visual communication, because I think they get it more. Also I might adapt some of my signs. If I’m performing, say, something that involves the firing of a starting gun, for a Deaf audience I might substitute the waving of a flag or something to start the race, instead of the bang of the gun. I do adapt the content as well.
Paul: For me, I suppose when I’m performing my poetry, it can’t depend on whether I feel that the audience is enjoying it or not. Sometimes I feel like they have to like it or not. Whether they’re happy or not happy is something I can’t concern myself with. With Stephen King’s books, he’s a very quiet man, almost reclusive, he kind of gives his missives to the world. People read the book, and they love it and they bother him and he says no, no, the book is just my contribution to the world. For me, sometimes that’s how I feel. I contribute this poem, it’s out there, like it or not like it. I don’t care about liking it, or I can’t concern myself with it. As long as the message is there, and it’s out there, that’s enough for me.
Kenny: I have to ask you, Peter, do you remember going to the performance where the person died, in New York City? Want to tell that story?
Peter: Regarding the Deaf and hearing audience, first off – also if there are children or adults in the audience, is it a poetry club, is it a festival, a venue? That’s going to affect your choices. So we prepare and we work on our poetry and when we get there we never know what’s actually going to happen for sure. As far as what Kenny was just talking about – in New York City, we had an afternoon performance. One hour before it, a hearing woman, she was nothing related to our performance, but at the venue…
Kenny: There were a variety of different shows at the same venue.
Peter: So another show was prior to ours, and a woman performer died onstage. Just like that. Maybe, I don’t know, she died of a heart attack or something, who knows? Anyway, she died, and then we couldn’t just get up there and go with our usual happy, energetic mode. It was obvious she had just died on the stage there, we had to respond, make some kind of alteration, do a serious poem and build up our repertoire in honor of the woman who had just died in that moment. So often, you never know – depending on what happens right before your performance, you need to retain an open mind. That experience stays with us.
John: I think whether it’s a Deaf or a hearing audience, all audiences are challenging. Every audience is a different challenge. Every audience is an individual audience and their response is going to be different, their mood is going to be different, they’re enthusiastic or they’re reserved. So I don’t think I would a categorize Deaf audience or a hearing audience, I would just say every single audience is different, and every time you perform, you don’t know what the response is going to be.
Question: I wanted to say, I very much enjoyed your performance last night, I thought it was fantastic. You’re very brave artists, very brave people to be standing up and expressing yourself in that way. So congratulations, well done.
I suppose what I’m interested in is that you’re an international group, that’s really great. You have very similar themes, oppression being one of theme, but liberation as well, irrespective of that frustration of oppression; overcoming that frustration and combating that oppression. Cultural survival for Deaf people is a very important theme generally. In terms of that theme, there are many symbols – trees seem to be very important symbols within many of the poems. One of the main differences just seemed to be the languages, but there was lots of use of classifiers as you’ve mentioned already. Yesterday when I was looking at the BSL – I think many people in the audience didn’t know BSL – so it was just interesting how you felt that those poems could communicate to an audience. Also, with the use of classifiers, I was just fascinated by looking at that, are the classifiers in BSL and ASL the same or different? It seemed that when classifiers were used, I managed to understand what was being communicated. I was also interested in what happens with the American poets when they go to international audiences. Those are just a few of my thoughts, but I was just interested in the common themes that seem to emerge.
Debbie: I’ve taught international poetry workshops in Italy, Germany, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, all around Scandinavia, and we’ve had a lot of discussion around classifiers in those workshops and the responses have been quite varied. Yesterday, for example, we were talking about the ASL classifier for car. In translating my poem from Swedish, I didn’t like the ASL classifier so I decided to use the Swedish classifier. The reason I wanted to use the Swedish classifier was that it was going to conjoin with another sign in the poem, and the ASL classifier just didn’t feel right. So texture is very important for me. But you can understand this was a classifier even though you’re an ASL audience. It’s different, but I feel like texturally you’re able to understand. In Italy, the sign for sitting is like this: (demonstrates). We’re Americans and Swedish, but they do this sign for sit. I think it would be understandable to you, this Italian sign for sit, if I used this sign. Did you understand that? I feel like the classifier world is a rich world, it’s a world in which we can understand each other even if we don’t have the exact same classifiers.
Peter: I’d like to add one thing. Remember in Norway, we went to a workshop? It was beautiful actually. We asked people to draw a tree on a blackboard, what would be their classifier for a tree. We had all these different responses, we did this for cars, trees, all of this, we went around and around and got all these different classifiers, all these different ideas, then we chose from those. Do you remember that Debbie? It was an incredible, it was a wonderful experience.
Paul: I think when we talk about classifiers, just to add to this discussion, classifiers are something which if we look at a linguistics book are legal within the language, they have an acceptable handshape. But suppose you used an illegal handshape, such as one with only the ring finger extended. Do you have any signs in your language which use this handshape? Well, in one of my poetic works, I use that handshape. It’s not a handshape that is permitted in BSL, but it is comprehensible to the audience. You can use an illegal handshape within a poetic performance. In this poem, I use a variety of handshapes, some of which are hard, this one is very hard to perform as well (middle and ring fingers extended). In poetry you might break those rules, those phonological rules, because you’re extending the language into poetic and creative forms, which if you were just using the language in a communicative fashion you wouldn’t do. So part of the creative process is also extending language use, extending the rules beyond that. It’s about experimenting and playing with these rules. Just to throw that into the mix.
Kenny: You don’t want to be limited, you don’t want to limit the language.
Richard: Can I just come in here? I kind of try not to think too much about classifiers. I really try not to use too much neutral space in my signed poetry, I like to use body-anchored signs because I think that helps the audience to empathize. If you place the poetry on your body, I think the audience can experience that along with you. I do quite a lot of role shifting so that I can body-anchor signs. A lot of hearing people are very embarrassed about using their bodies to communicate, and when they communicate in sign language they tend to communicate out there in neutral space. I think it’s really for me also a kind of physical ownership. It takes back from that whole process of Oralism which is about trying to force us to get our communication away from the physical. I like to take it back to the physical and really anchor it, I think that’s a real kind of active ownership for me.
Peter: Well really, regardless of whether it’s BSL or whatever language you’re using, there’s three things: first you have sign, pause, sign, where the pause can be long or short, HI… HI… HI…; there’s handshape, is another element, whether you’re using different handshapes or the same handshape, for example, TIRED GO-TO-BED or TIRED GO-TO-BED with all the same handshape; then we also have stretching out a sign. If you use pause, tempo, and handshape, there’s a whole world with that, a whole visual world. And you just play with those, play with all of those, we’re all artists, right? If you play with the pause, the tempo, the handshape, and that can create a whole visual world.
John: Can I just add to what Peter said and what Paul said about the language rules? I think poetry is surely one of those forms where you can break the rules, you can substitute other rules, you can create your own rules. That’s the point. The possibilities of poetry are endless, and that’s the point.
Donna: I agree. Poetry’s got to be flexible, it’s got to be a flexible medium.
Debbie: Neologisms is what you were talking about, John, too.
John: That’s right.
Question: I think this is a question for all of you. It was interesting last night watching the performances, and also if you think about blogs and other things, if deciding to create your poetry based on your experience or your visual existence within the world, that seems to be a fusion of those two, I think. It was interesting with Donna, when she was talking about her cat, it wasn’t just her experience, it was also about seeing that thing happening and fusing those things together to create that performance. So it seems that the poems are based on experience, or the visual elements of that, or both of those together. That’s just a common theme.
Debbie: Well, both. I have my experiences first, and then what I see, and then third is what I want to share. I think all three of those are wrapped up together.
Richard: I know that when I’m showing something to an audience, it’s something they’ve never seen before. They’re welcome to join in that experience. If I’m not really living that experience, they’re not going to feel it. I think it’s really important to show your feelings, to really put them out there, so I would say both is the answer to your question.
John: Yes, I can’t separate my experience from seeing the world, because I experience the world by seeing. For me they’re not mutually separable. So it’s interesting to hear that comment, because that’s how I’m a visual person, I experience the world through my eyes. So that kind of gives me food for thought to think about what my experience might be if I wasn’t seeing the world, if I was closing my eyes and seeing nothing.
Paul: Can I add? I’d just like to add one thought I had. I think some of these are visual expression, okay, but let’s put that to one side and think for a second about painting. Do people paint from experience? I think they paint from their brain. It’s a cerebral thing, they put stuff on canvas from they’re brain, and that’s effectively what we’re doing in sign language. So I wouldn’t say it’s from my experience or from what I see, it’s from my brain like an artist’s painting comes from their brain or a writer’s thoughts come from their brain. So I’d like to add something to the mix there, I think it’s a cerebral thing.
Donna: I think it is about experience and the visual. If you’re talking about the poem “My Cat,” then yes, definitely. I lived in a flat, I had an aged, rescued cat. When she died, she was 19, so, you know, it was her time to go. I cried buckets, but I eventually got over it. Then last year I decided I was ready for a new cat. So I went to a cat stand and I saw loads of different cats, some were just stunning, some were moody, very aggressive, but then I saw this sweet little thing. I really didn’t want a kitten, you’ve got to train them, they’re a lot of work, you’ve got to make sure they do their business in the right places. But once I found out that the cat was deaf, for me it was kind of that instant emotional response about bonding with a kitten that I didn’t want to leave there. I think that was the thing that I wanted to communicate. Obviously for all of us, our experience influences how we see things. My background influenced my emotional response in that situation. It can be also how my experience influences the way I see the world, the pictures and images I’m able to create, I think it’s not indistinguishable.
Kenny: With Peter and myself, we read, we see things that strike us. But the poem itself evolves out of that from the creative process. It creates itself. We see something, perhaps, it moves us, and the poem begins, but then the poem takes on a life of its own and that’s the poem. We actually end up surprised ourselves.
Question: So I was interested in if you’re talking about the medium, you have a variety of languages, sign languages, English, or Italian, or whatever, but I think you also have the medium of whether you’re using paper, or film, and that whole discussion you may be having. So if you’re wanting to create a poem, and I know this is something that you’ve said before, in terms of the film, film could maybe lead some of that creative process and that can influence the poem and its life. I know that when hearing people are writing poetry, often they can struggle with how they put something on the paper, they have a non two-dimensional representation in their heads that they have to somehow squeeze onto the paper. The way they adapt to using that medium shapes the poem that they create. So for me, I’m just wondering if you’re thinking about ASL and that creative process and how you’re going to generate the poem, is there something maybe within English that you may find useful to shape that creative process? I’m just wondering, many languages can lead the process, but at the same point, writing or the use of film or different media, the dialogue, all of those can maybe guide the creative process. How do they do that? How do they lead you down this road.
Peter: Interesting. We always discuss language, and it’s not related to writing, it’s not related to speaking or to signing. The use of language is about expression. Expression can be through writing or speaking or through film, through painting, through different artistic media.
I don’t know if this answers your question exactly, but there’s a Deaf woman named Johanna Lapik, she’s a performance artist from Canada – I’m going to go back a little bit. So there’s a poem. A poem that, you know, has rules, we’ve talked about the rules for a signed poem, we’ve talked about the threes, and the handshapes, and the whole performance art from beginning to end. The title of this is “Slave.” There’s words from a dictionary, and she’s signing all of these words. She picks up the dictionary and rips it, rips pages out of it, crumples up the papers, actually ties them up, and makes a string, a circular string from the papers. Then she lights it on fire and the fire spreads all around the ring of dictionary pages. They become just a heap of black ash. Then she takes white paper and takes the black ash in her hands and she signs and paints all over this white paper with the ash from the dictionary pages. And that’s the end of the performance. That is a poem, from her perspective. It’s not signed, it’s not spoken, it is a poem though. She’s forcing you to disconnect from the use of words by using fire. Then using the power of that image through language – wow. That was a completely goose-bumpy experience. The whole range of artistic expression is in there. That kind of work is happening more and more now, multimedia – it’s expanding quite rapidly.
Paul: That’s incredible.
Debbie: It’s interesting discussing language, because I have Swedish sign language with my experience and the linguistic process through Swedish sign language of developing Swedish poetry and Swedish language that works, and then having to translate my work to ASL, that’s a whole different process, and even creating in ASL as well. Trying to translate from one to the other is very difficult. So it’s a challenge going through a poem and trying to make that translation happen. For example, when I spelled out C-H-I-L-D-H-O-O-D in my poem, in Swedish, actually, “childhood” is “barndom”; the words for “childhood” in Swedish and English are different. This is the way you sign it in Swedish: (demonstrates). I was trying to work with that and I realized, I have to do that differently in my ASL version of the poem. But I also have to make it move in the right direction, right, because you don’t read in that direction, you read in this direction! So it’s playing with the use of space and language, it’s an artistic process, and you see what emerges when you do that.
Richard: You’re right. When I saw you explain that, I was thinking hang on, that’s the wrong way round, she’s doing that purposefully for the audience to read. That was a real kind of break from the norm.
Peter: Sometimes I’m signing and I see something from my perspective that looks beautiful and then from the audience’s perspective, Kenny will look at it and say that’s not beautiful and I’ll have to turn it around. I have to flip it because I forget that it has to be from the audience’s perspective.
John: I’m interested in something that you just said there. I have issues, I think, with BSL teachers who kind of teach how to do mirroring and so on. When I’m in my BSL teacher role, I might teach that kind of mirroring practice in one way, but in my own poetic performances, I might do it another way. So when I’m teaching it then I get sort of goose bumps and I react against what I’m teaching, it’s a bit of a difficulty! You know, keeping the poetry separate from the teaching of the language.
Donna: You’re being pulled in two directions.
Debbie: When you were just talking about “goose bumps” – you didn’t plan to say that, it just came out as a poetic moment in your comment, you found that visual image. That’s what we’re talking about right here.
Peter: That was a poem. That was a poem, right there, I saw it.
Comment: It’s also interesting the idea of “childhood” and fingerspelling in an audience-centered way. It also gave you time – the way you fingerspelled led the viewer to think about then the way you were changing the time and also it led into that transition. So I thought that was really cool.
Rachel: I think we have two minutes left, but I did promise that someone could have the very last question.
Question: So, I was just wondering, and I’m assuming, I may be wrong, but before you perform to an audience, you have some feedback presumably. I was wondering who gives you that feedback, friends, or other people? How do you gain feedback from your work? And also, how do you make sure that you get the impact that you’re wanting, to make sure that you have the right concepts being delivered to the audience, and that you achieve the goal that you set out to achieve?
John: I’d like to comment on that, if I may. I think that raises a question that came up before about mentoring. Someone mentioned that they had been mentored, and I was kind of really jealous of that process because that’s not something that we see happening very much in England. That really made us British poets think about that, and how we might do something along those lines, because that hasn’t been happening in the UK. That’s one area that we need to get together and think about, to ensure that we bring on the poets of the future. It’s great to be a poet, but you know, you have your own lifespan and then you’re done. I think that’s a real question for us, where we get feedback from, I don’t think we involve ourselves in that process very much.
Richard: I’m lucky, Paul and I live quite near to each other, so I’ll very often pop round to Paul’s house and he’ll pop round to mine. It’s not a daily occurrence, but we do it from time to time. I’ll say I’ve got something brewing here, will you just watch it, will you just have a look and say what you think? So we do that very often. Coming here to Philadelphia, it was great to see John, who I haven’t seen in a long time. We’ve had that kind of valuable relationship before.
John: I’ve been desperate, really, for that sort of relationship. That’s what I really value.
Richard: But I know for the future that certainly over the summer, I’m planning to move, so that means we’ll all be geographically isolated from each other, and I don’t know what will happen to that support network. That’s something that we really need to consider and prepare for, I think. So again, thanks to Rachel Sutton-Spence for bringing us together through her project, because that’s been really supportive. I think without that we’d all be very isolated.
John: We need a genetic clone of Rachel, distributed equally among us, to support our poetry.
Richard: Definitely, for sure.
Paul: I was also wondering, in thinking about feedback and making sure that we have the concepts given to the audience in the way we want to, how feedback interacts with that thinking – every time you come to a place, you learn new things. Today, we’ve had some discussion amongst the British poets to think about wanting to learn from Kenny and Peter and Debbie’s processes. We know that that door’s open now, for us to then think about new techniques that we can bring to Britain. We’re also hoping that we’ve passed on some interesting things, some new concepts. So it’s also about that sharing of ideas, minds coming together. It’s not that it’s inspiration, it’s not that it’s about concepts, it’s wanting to have a single entity – we don’t have a word for that, we don’t have a way of talking about it, but that thing, is very powerful, that essence is really what we’re wanting. That’s what I’ve really felt today.
Richard: I think it’s also very important to remember Dorothy Miles. Before she died, she wasn’t really very recognized. It wasn’t until after her death that we all suddenly realized what she had given us. I think it’s important that we try and get ourselves recognized before we die! But it’s an issue, I think it’s important to recognize people while they’re alive, while they’re performing, while they’re active, in a very positive way. Let’s all pat each other on the back!
Rachel: Well, wow. I just want to say with the discussions, first of all, thank you to everyone who’s been involved in the discussion, but just to name someone who’s been very important who hasn’t been thanked yet, who is here today, and who has unfortunately been very poorly throughout the festival, but who has managed to come from her sickbed – come on, Michiko! We’ve been talking about Bristol University and the project based there to do with supporting all the British Deaf poets and British Deaf poetry, and it’s not the “project of Dr. Rachel Sutton-Spence,” we have to say that without Michiko, the project wouldn’t exist. So I just would like to formally say to Michiko, thank you very much for all your support and work. Thank you. Now you can go back to your sickbed, Michiko, and recover.
Just a few things to say in summary. This is formally the close of the event today.
Donna: Before we go, can I just say one thing? Can I thank the interpreters, because without them, I wouldn’t have understood a word! I don’t know any ASL, so I really want to say thank you to them.
Rachel: Thank you. Well, you’ve saved me one thing I was going to say. Thank you to the interpreters, and also thank you to Doreen, for organizing the interpreters. Thank you to all of you for your patience in reorganizing the room, for enduring bruised bottoms and knees. Thank you so much to our poets. We have some nibbles, “brunch,” I believe, officially, at the back so please do feel free to help yourself. We have until 12 o’clock, so we have 30 minutes for socializing. Please do meet up with the poets. Thank you very much, and goodbye!