American Sign Language as a medium for poetry

 Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner of the Flying Words project performing ASL poetry (
Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner of the Flying Words project performing ASL poetry (Jessica Munyon)

for Joseph Castronovo & Edward S. Klima, in memoriam

[The great breakthrough resulting from a new signing poetry in Deaf Culture has been to call into question a poetics in which orality & sounding are assumed to be the foundational bases of all poetic expression. That revelation goes back three decades & more, recently & notably presented in Signing the Body Poetic: Essays on American Sign Language Literature, ed. by Dirksen L. Bauman, Jennifer L. Nelson, & Heidi M. Rose (University of California Press, 2006). Still closer to the present is an ASL-oriented web site, Deaf Jam, dedicated to a documentary film of that name, from which the first of the comments, below, is taken. The other two notes presented here represent my own early attempts to bring the poetry of sign into the ethnopoetics that I was promoting in the 1970s & 1980s. They also coincide in a startling way with the exploration of an outsider poetry that has been one of the themes of Poems & Poetics – a poetry distanced enough from the mainstream as to effect substantially our ideas about the nature of poetry itself. (J.R.)]


“Pain” for Joe Castronovo

two fingers,
nearly touch

matching the pulse inside
the skull
a figure “8” explodes

over the temples,
gentle movements of the mind
of words in air

in silence:
do I learn to speak you?
can you hear

the way the lines weave,
moving from the touch

to vanish
as sounds do
writing frees itself

from object-
at last

(1) ASL POETRY is a performance art form utilizing body language, rhythm and movement to create a three dimensional pictorial equivalent to oral poetry. The similarity of hand-shapes can act as alliteration, and using the same hand-shape repetitively works as rhyme. Visual Vernacular (a term and technique originated by Bernard Bragg) involves cinematic concepts. The technique involves references to close-ups, wide shots, images dissolving into other images as well as "cutting" back and forth between characters to show different points of view on a scene.

HISTORY: From 1880 to 1960, American Sign Language Was Suppressed In The Schools And Went Underground, Until Statistics Showed That The Suppression Of Sign Language Was Detrimental To Learning For The Deaf.

Signed poetry grew out of a tradition of playing with the language in Deaf clubs throughout the country, where deaf individuals and their families and friends would congregate for entertainment and to socialize.

ASL poetry has been described "as a kind of writing in space... a language in motion, and, like oral poetry, truly inseparable from its realization in performance." (Edward S. Klima and Ursula Bellugi, "Poetry Without Sound,” 1983)


Translation for ASL poetry into a written or oral form involves crossing modalities. In ASL poetry the body is the text. It exists in performance or through a video recording, not on paper. Rhyming schemes are based on visual elements such as facial expression, movement, locations of the signs, and hand shapes. Therefore an oral or written translation of an ASL poem can only be an approximation of what is being expressed.

(2) Regarding Ameslan [American Sign Language] poetry, you might check the
anthology Symposium of the Whole (edited by myself & Diane Rothenberg) for the article "Poetry without Sound" by Edward S. Klima and Ursula Bellugi. Bellugi has done terrific work in this area & early contacted me on the relation of signing poetry to the way in which I and others had been approaching oral poetry in the course of doing (so called) "total translation." I then published this piece in my magazine, New Wilderness Letter (a successor to the earlier Alcheringa Ethnopoetics) with my very strong sense that what was involved touched on a dimension of poetry that made pure oralism inadequate, however much we had then been (or continued to be) committed to a speech model. I made an attempt (around 1976/77) to work out an experimental approach to a total translation from Ameslan, collaborating with the deaf poet Joe Castronovo, who was himself a native signer. But circumstances got in the way & we never followed through on it, although since then I've come on the work of performance poets like Peter Cook & Kenny Learner composing & performing in ASL & have been hoping to see how much further it would go.


(3) POETRY WITHOUT SOUND. Even in its early, tentative stages, the signing poetry emerging as an aspect of the "culture of the deaf" challenges some of our cherished preconceptions about poetry and its relation to human speech. Ameslan (American Sign Language) represents, literally, a poetry without sound and, for its practitioners, a poetry without access to that experience of sound as voice that we've so often taken as the bedrock of all poetics and all language. In the real world of the deaf, then, language exists as a kind of writing in space and as a primary form of communication without reference to any more primary form of language for its validation. It is in this sense a realization of the ideogrammatic vision of a Fenollosa -- "a splendid flash of concrete poetry" -- but an ideogrammatic language truly in motion and, like oral poetry, truly inseparable from its realization in performance. (Ethnopoetic analogues -- for those who would care to check them out -- include Hindu and Tantric mudras, Plains Indian and Australian Aborigine sign languages, and Ejagham [southeastern Nigerian] "action writing": a history of human gesture languages that would enrich our sense of poetry and language, should we set our minds to it.) // The reader may also want to relate this piece to recent discourse about "written-oral dichotomies, etc., but the revelation of Ameslan, in that sense, isn't a denial of the powers of oral poetry but the creation of its possible and equally impermanent companion in performance. (J.R., from Symposium of the Whole, 1983)

[See also the entry “Uncollected Poems (3): ‘The Silent Language’ with a note on poetry & signing” in Poems & Poetics, August 30, 2008. And for those who want to pursue this further, a relevant online resource is The Deaf Studies Digital Journal, edited by Ben Bahan and Dirksen Bauman, with postings primarily in American Sign Language.]