Deaf Poetry Jam!
Language has been a lifelong passion of mine, and a major study in college. I think it all started with my father reading Dr. Seuss to me. Languages are individuals, they each have their own distinct beauty and flavor. This can be enhanced by use of the voice, or pictorially, as in calligraphy.
There is one language, though, that is unique, and that is sign language. American Sign Language, or ASL, is best known to us. I worked in public service for nearly twenty years, and many times I had patrons who were deaf. Communication pretty much consisted of pictures. I tried to learn ASL, and built up a vocabulary of about two or three hundred words. But without someone to practice with, you can’t really learn. You also need to be able to understand what others are signing to you. Still, I love the elegance and grace of sign language; to me it’s also an art-form.
ASL is like any language, in its idioms, syntax, nuances, even puns. I have a great example. The word ‘milk’ was originally made by both of the hands making a milking motion. As the language evolved, as they all do, it was shortened to just one hand. If you make that sign as you pass the hand across your eyes, that’s the sign for pasteurized milk.
PBS has an excellent series called Independent Lens, and one of their programs recently was titled, “Deaf Jam.” It centered around a teenaged Israeli girl named Aneta Brodski. Her parents had moved to New York when she was young. They are also deaf. She was enrolled in a workshop teaching sign poetry, along with several other young people. The object was to develop sign movements to develop poetic meaning. Poetry that one reads has different resonances than poetry that one hears. With sign, you’re working with creative exaggeration. Aneta herself bright and enthusiastic, you like her right away. She thinks the dictionary definition of the deaf as people who can’t hear, is too negative. It should be “don’t” hear. Of course the program was captioned, for those of us who can’t, I mean don’t, sign.
So these students were bouncing ideas off each other, and they were all excited. To me, it seemed somehow more dynamic, more intimate. There was another blond kid named Danny who was quite good. In all my years (and they are many), I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. Then came the poetry jam. The audience was about 350 deaf students, I don’t remember if they were from one school or several in the area. They loved it though, expressing eager applause by raising their arms in the air and wiggling their fingers wildly.
Later, Aneta meets another young poet, who also speaks and hears. I think her name is Shanti. She is Palestinian, and the two become friends. They decide to write a poem together; Aneta will sign it as Shanti voices it. Naturally, it’s about communication between Israelis and Palestinians. Their performance is powerful and moving.
Somewhere during the program there was a comment that maybe sign is a perfect language, in that it can’t be written down. This idea strongly resonated with me, as my senior paper in college was about language. One of the themes I explored was that maybe the invention of writing may not have been such a good thing after all, as it began to separate us from the natural world. This is too long an argument to go into here, so I’ll just say that before writing, our perception of the world around us extended to what we could see or hear. After writing, we tuned out all of reality to focus on what was directly before us, either in written or pictorial form. Years later I found the same case being made in THE ALPHABET VS. THE GODDESS: the Conflict Between Word and Image, by Leonard Shlain. It’s compelling reading, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.
Is sign the perfect language? What does that mean, that it can’t be corrupted by propaganda? Certainly one can lie in any tongue. It’s a discussion I look forward to, someday. What I can say is that it’s one of the most beautiful of all the forms of human expression. It’s REAL body language.
“I have so many dreams. Sometimes I dream I’m signing and everyone understands. Everybody is signing!” – – Aneta Brodski