In 2003, Slope, an on line poetry journal, published a special issue devoted to American Sign Language (ASL) poetry. The issue featured the winners of the 2003 Heart+Express National ASL Poetry Prize and presented their work in video format. There is no other way to "read" this work. Unlike Deaf poetry, which can be signed and/or written, ASL poetry is in, and only in, ASL. At first, I assumed that the videos would feature subtitles, some printed "translation" of what the poets were signing. This wasn't the case. Instead, the videos are completely silent--that is, to someone who doesn't know ASL. But it's clear from the careful hand, body and facial movements that a great deal is being expressed, and it is maddening not to be able to understand the poems. On the other hand, I think that the decision made by the Slope editors was brilliant. ASL isn't simply a way of "miming" or literally translating English, rather, it is its own language and needs to be approached on its own terms:
ASL incorporates all the functions and structures of a fully developed language system, capable of expressing abstract ideas and poetry....Variations in handshapes, palm orientation, movement, and placement create rhyme, rhythm, tropes, symbols, stanzas and other recognizable characteristics of spoken and written poetry. You need a video camera to publish a "book" of ASL poetry.
The judges of the contest, Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner, are also known as the Flying Words Project. For over twenty years, they have traveled around the United States and abroad sharing ASL poetry with deaf and hearing audiences. Cook, who is deaf, signs on stage while Lerner, who is usually off stage, provides a voice for hearing audiences (you can view two of their performances on the Slope site and also in this YouTube video). Cook is committed to sharing ASL poetry with hearing audiences but when asked if there is a sign for poetry, he draws an important distinction between "hearing" and "Deaf" poetry:
The sign for Hearing poetry is a generally traditional sign. The handshape is "P" (at dominant hand) and flat "B" (non-dominant hand). The P moves while the B stays. It is almost the same sign as for music. This sign is strongly associated with rhythms/rhyme. The other sign was created at the Deaf Way Festival at Gallaudet University in 1989 (I think)...I remember a meeting where we were discussing that we needed a sign that shows our poetry. Finally, we decided to use this sign: Handshape "S," start at the chest then move forward into handshape "5." This sign is similar to "Expression." It looks like this: HEART+EXPRESS.
Lerner's voice gives the hearing audience a sense of the poem, that is all. "My words are not designed to create the whole picture...If you close your eyes and just listen to my voice, you won't understand the poem," he says.
Amy Radil's excellent article "The cultural clamor of American Sign Language poetry" explains in greater detail the formal elements of ASL poetry:
Handshapes are at the core: They are basic forms like letters or numbers, which can be used in combination to construct many different signs. Repeated handshapes become the rhymes in ASL, while repeated signs or sequences generate the rhythm. In addition to handshape rhymes and repetition, poets can create tone through fluid or jerky movements. Two hands can perform different signs at the same time to juxtapose images. A poem can progress through different uses of space, with the performer turning to face different people or take on different personas. Signs for English letters may be incorporated into the poem, to intertwine the spelling of an English word among the signs. Eye contact, or a break in it, can signal shifts and interruptions.
Cook thinks of the process as creating a "language sculpture" that can be experienced as a pause or in motion. I think that attempting to translate these details of motion and gesture in writing would encourage written poetry to move in new and surprising directions. This certainly was true of translation into ASL.
In 1939, Eric Malzkuhn ("Malz"), a graduate of Gallaudet University, translated Lewis Carroll's poem "The Jabberwocky" into ASL. His masterful translation is regarded by many scholars and poets as the beginning of ASL poetry:
[Malzkuhn's] ASL translation walked the same line between known signs and previously unimagined combinations. Not only was it a hit with audiences, it awakened Deaf people to a new dimension of their language. The performance helped ASL speakers in the audience see their language's potential to astound, to transform normal communication into something else entirely.
I wanted to see if I could locate a clip of Jabberwocky in ASL and found Carl Schroeder's version on YouTube. From the comments left on his blog, I gathered that his version differs from Malzkuhn's but I recommend that you check it out.
Jabberwocky has been translated into many languages, and in most cases it requires that a translator really push the limits of the target language and, ultimately, embrace the creation of total nonsense. This means, of course, that what results is not really a translation but a new poem entirely. The same is true, I imagine, with the ASL translation(s) of Jabberwocky. In Schroeder's version, his hands seem to fuse into each other in constant flows of movement. In ASL, which Cynthia L. Peters calls a "visual-kinetic vernacular," Carroll's linguistic hybridity and play is animated, activated in ways that seem to me to be very true to the original.