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Sign Language "Poetry"

Dance and poetry combined into a single (new?) art form.
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Poetry often relies on rhymes and usually relies at least on the sounds of the words and their rhythm. But these critical elements are lost to the deaf when they are "translated" into sign language. For written poetry, a deaf reader may reassemble them from memory if (s)he acquired language before becoming deaf. For those born deaf, even written poetry cannot (I imagine) communicate its full beauty.

But what if someone fluent in sign language, who is also something of an artist, set out not to translate existing poetry into sign language, but instead started from scratch to create a work of art based entirely on sign language as the medium? With no regard to how the written/spoken version would sound, the "words" would be selected so they would convey rhythm through the combined motions of the signs. And "rhyming" words would be selected for common physical elements in their respective signs. For instance, to rhyme with "see," the composer would not select "me," "key," or "tree," but would select a word whose sign has one or more similar motions to those used in the sign for "see." The signer could add artistic interpretation in the way the signs are performed/embellished, etc. With multiple signers and choreography, harmonies, counter-rhythms, choruses, etc. could be introduced. Props, sets, costumes, etc. could be added for further visual appeal, if called for by the artist.

I think it would be thrilling to witness the performance of such a work, even though I know very little of sign language. I've tried to find evidence that something like this already exists, but have (so far, at least) found none.

If this is an old idea, where can I learn more about it? If this is a new idea, is there an artist out there to pioneer something that could be really beautiful?

beauxeault, Jul 07 2000

Slope magazine: ASL edition http://www.slope.org/asl/
With embedded movies of some spectacular ASL performances. [jutta, Jul 07 2000, last modified Jun 25 2006]

HandSpeak http://www.handspeak.com/
sign language dictionary online created by a multimedia artist (www.i8media.com), specializing in video arts in Sign Language poetry, storytelling and other performing arts (dances with artistic sign langauge) [jolanta, Oct 06 2004]


       This has been around for a while. Do a search query for "ASL poetry" to get started. Work by Clayton Valli, Ella Mae Lentz, Patrick Graybill, Debbie Rennie is available on Videotape.
jutta, Jul 07 2000

       Seeing (and reading about) deaf people performing or "singing" poems/songs written by hearing people always makes me sad. Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with deaf people communicating poetry and the lyrics of songs using sign language, but *performing* those works just seems indignifying.
mar, Jul 19 2000

       That's not what this idea is about, though, right?
jutta, Jul 19 2000

       Jutta is right. The idea is that the poetry is created in sign language from the beginning, rather than translated from a spoken/written language.
beauxeault, Jul 22 2000

       BTW, Jutta, thanks so much for the references. I searched as you suggested and ended up ordering a video by Ella Mae Lentz. It amazes me to see how similar the real thing is to my conception. The one thing missing in Ms. Lentz' performances is the use of multiple signers for harmonies and chorus effects, though of course some of the other poets may use this.   

       It amazes me that the same person capable of creating the Halfbakery also knew about the existence of ASL poetry, which is obscure enough that it had eluded my attempts to find it, even despite asking among some in the deaf community. Very impressive.   

       Because ASL poetry existed before I thought of it, I'm considering deleting this idea. On the other hand, though, it's such a cool thing that I also feel like leaving it up for a while, since I assume most people don't know about it.
beauxeault, Jul 22 2000

       Thank you! Please leave the idea around, if you like; it's one of those things that people would invent if it didn't already exist, and that's just intrinsically cool and interesting. (You seem to get into a lot of those.)
jutta, Jul 23 2000

       Another demonstration by Jutta, the Search-Engine Ninja...<grin>   

       Wouldn't choral effects be hard to reproduce in something like this, where you have to pay direct attention to the signs, and can't watch the whole thing at once?
StarChaser, Jul 23 2000

       I initially worried about choral effects being incomprehensible, too, but I don't think they'd need to be. Like some of the conventions in choral music, a few examples could be: 1) A choral phrase is begun while the soloist is "silent," giving the audience time to understand the phrase. Then the soloist (or duet, trio, etc.) begins a relevant passage while the chorus repeats the phrase in the background. The rhythms of the choral phrase are timed to reinforce the rhythms of the solo passages. 2) The chorus is sometimes silent, but joins in to emphasize certain parts of the solo passage (envision this, for instance with the sign for "bloom"). Keep in mind that the signs can be artistically modified (amplified, for instance) without losing their meaning. 3) The chorus can engage in movements that are more dance-like, and may not actually have specific meaning in sign language, but which relate to the movements of the soloist (similar to "oohs" and "aahs" in choral singing.   

       I also envision harmonies in at least three possible dimensions: 1) In time -- two or more signers could sign the same phrase in interweaving rhythms, offset from one another, rather than in lock step, to create a rhythmic harmony. 2) In space -- two or more signers could combine motions to form single signs or phrases for spatial harmony. 3) In meaning -- As an example, one signer could form the "OK" sign, while a second signer could harmonize with this by simultaneously forming the sign for "relationship" (two interlocked "OK" signs) to create added meaning.   

       Of course, I'm basing all of this only on my own experience and perspective as a hearing person. I realize that from a deaf perspective there could be entirely different possibilities that would make more sense.
beauxeault, Jul 25 2000

       I recently learned that hula is also very much like the original idea, though it doesn't use ASL, and the motions may not really amount to a language.
beauxeault, Apr 11 2001

       I have seen this... a deaf woman in a poetry class that I took performed a poem for us... it was absolutely beautiful... her hands really expressed the changing of the seasons... something like modern dance done only by the hands... wow.
luciente, Jan 03 2002

       Excellent post. I've often wondered about this kind of thing myself. People seem to see sign language as just a "translation" of ordinary language - but if you've been profoundly deaf from birth, then it's your primary means of expression, and there's nothing "second-best" or lacking about it. There must be all kinds of physical linguistic puns in sign language - and, in the same way that countries who speak different languages from us will sometimes inadvertantly name a bar of chocolate "Schitt", us non-sign speakers must sometimes accidentally make a sequence of gestures that make deaf people smile.   

       Loved the idea of a signing chorus - perhaps they could be made up of a group of dancers who accentuate and echo the signs of the poet? Not just mirroring the gesture, but using their bodies to reflect it and accentuate the flow behind the poem. Poetry is all about the weight and rythym of words anyway - in prose, it's the meaning that's paramount, but in all the best poetry it's the physicality of the words themselves that is brought to the fore.
lostdog, Mar 05 2003

       At a church I used to attend, the signer would engage in something akin to this. You could tell she enjoyed her gift.
RayfordSteele, Mar 05 2003

       On the subject of visual puns. I am taking a college level sign language class and have learned some by accident. It seems if you touch your nose when trying to sign "parent" it means "penis", and if you sign the verb "to meet" at 90 degrees, it implies a very different sort of meeting...
dbsousa, Mar 06 2003

       I was at a Marilyn Manson concert and they had a woman down to one side who was translating the lyrics on the fly into sign language. She was also clearly grooving and dancing to the music. A cool idea and not something I would think MM would come up with. Too bad his lyrics are lame and derivative.
bungston, Mar 06 2003

       Sign language is cool. I did a very short (i.e. an afternoon) introductory course on it a couple of years ago and found it great fun. It's a very expressive and emotional language and also very funny. Humour is an embedded feature of some of the language. I wasn't aware of signing poetry until now, but it's existence doesn't surprise me at all.
DrBob, Mar 06 2003

       ASL Visual Poetry is very beautiful. There are some forms of poetry that include a chorus type thing, although I believe the chorus is more common in ASL plays. The choruses I have seen, though, tend to sign the same sign at the same time, as the eyes tire very easily. There are no published records of deaf poets or poetry in America before the 1970's, though I would guess they were around. In America, I know, there was a lot of resistance to it because the sign for poetry was so close to the sign for music and because a lot of it was only translated English poems. Something that a lot of Deaf poets will do now is record themselves signing as opposed to writing the poem on paper, and they will do this even in the early stages of forming the poem. ASL is a language equal to any other, it was declared so in 1960 by William Stokoe in fact. The culturally Deaf people I know do not enjoy either translated English poetry, or translated songs in general because the people signing them tend to not be fluent in ASL and use a type of manually coded English. Deaf poetry itself is both written in English by Deaf people and later translated into ASL, or can be originally created in ASL and never recorded on paper. Deaf people have a great amount of literature and poetry and don't really need to have the works of hearing cultures translated for them, although if translated correctly they can be quite enjoyable.
Gracie, Apr 09 2003

       Yes, to second Jutta, ASL and Deaf poetry (from all over the world) is a widely recognized, though mostly non-understood art form. Some of the poets Jutta mentions (Rennie, Valli, Graybill, Lentz, Peter Cook, and I would add Rosa Lee Galimore as well, whose work is really fascinating to me) are available on DVD. But this work is nearly impossible for hearing audiences to grasp, since not only is it IN a completely foreign language (ASL, or other signs) but these poets bring that language to extraordinary places. It's difficult to translate (as is all poetry, but this poetry adds a modality change as well), yet important. I would also add Gil Eastman's extraordinary "Epic" (a giant poem/story about the DPN movement) to the list. There are a number of younger poets/storytellers (like Manny, for example) who are worth checking out as well. However, watching this work (which has existed, presumably for hundreds of years, but has only recently begun to be documented and written about) can be fruitless if you don't know ASL, and difficult even if you do. For those interested, there are a number of books in English (like Dirksen Bauman's book on ASL poetics, or Cynthia Peters on Deaf American Literature) that can give one a sense of this work, without having to actually understand it (Bauman's book, wonderfully, has an accompanying DVD).
rodney, Jul 26 2009


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