Deaf Jam, a documentary which celebrates American Sign Language poetry, is screening on the afternoon of May 10th at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. People unfamiliar with sign language may find it difficult to conceive of ASL poetry. “Like, how does it rhyme?” Poetry in any language is about more than the sounds of the words and sentences; it is about creative ways of expressing ideas and emotions. And ASL is at no disadvantage in that department.
Whereas a word in English is made of syllables and letters, a sign in ASL has the following five components:
- Orientation (which way the palm is facing)
- Location (of hand(s) in relation to head/body)
- Hand shape(s)
- Movement (of hands/head/body)
- Facial expression
By manipulating these elements, an ASL speaker can express simple and complex thoughts in amazing, innovative ways. Sign language is equal to spoken language in emotional and intellectual range, and, just as English does, ASL uses metaphor, connotation, wordplay, and all manner of poetic devises. ASL is handy with puns and can be flat out ironic. English poetry can make patterns of word sounds; ASL poetry can make patterns of sign shapes. Signs can be shuffled, pulled apart, and reconfigured in ways parallel to how words can be in English and other languages.
ASL does not differ from spoken languages in its boundless capacity to convey even the most nuanced and subtle concepts and feelings. The difference is that, whereas a spoken language is, for a hearing person, an auditory experience—even when read silently—, sign language is visual (except for the Deaf-blind, for whom sign language is tactile), and although it can be transcribed for academic purposes, ASL is not written and read communicatively. Therefore, ASL poetry is not written and read; ASL poetry is performed.
Remembering the observation that, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture”,I will not try to describe ASL poetry, but for a hint about the sorts of things involved, consider this scene from the film.
In Deaf Jam, Aneta Brodski,* a student at Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, NYC, is participating in an extra-curricular poetry program.
When Aneta introduces herself, she fingerspells her name (lightning fast) as one normally does, but when she performs (“raps”) her name, she signs each letter (designated by shape) with movement/location that incorporates the meaning of another sign so that her name becomes a story:
A + “dress up”; N + “look at me”; E + “I’m cool”; T + “walking in high heels”; A + “stumble”.
There is a lot more to ASL poetry than that; it’s really something you have to see. And the same goes for Deaf Jam, so if you can, go see the Canadian premiere on May 10th at 3:30pm, Bloor Cinema, 506 Bloor Street West, Toronto. If not, find out more at http://www.deafjam.org/ or PBS.
*Aneta, like her parents, was born deaf. Her language, and the language of her family, is ASL. Statistically, this is uncommon. The typically hearing parents of Deaf children have to—or should!—learn signing as a second language.