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Deaf Poetry: Expanding the horizons of poetic expression

deaf poetry
Poetry is a way to convey feelings and idea using carefully crafted words and form. While it has traditionally been a written art, it is also an oral tradition. Additionally, spoken word performances are gaining in popularity worldwide.

The Deaf community has its own rich tapestry of visual wordplay, including written and visual poetry.

Written form

Deaf poets have written about the experience of Deafness with great success.

The poem, “You have to be deaf to understand the deaf,” by Willard J. Madsen brilliantly captures the uniqueness of being Deaf. Madsen’s poem has been translated into at least seven different languages, printed in multiple publications, and is highly celebrated worldwide.

Interpreters can transform written poems into sign language, however, even with great dedication and ingenuity, there will be something lost in translation. (The same way that poetry translated from Spanish would lose elements of meaning if translated to English.)

Read more: HLM Book Club Review: “Deaf Republic” by Ilya Kaminsky

Visual poetry

Deaf poets refuse to be bound by the limitations of the written word. All around the globe, deaf artists have invented different ways to compose poetry. Often they use visual forms of expression including sign language and visual vernacular. Deaf poets still use devices like rhythm, rhyme and repetition, but expressed visually, using their hands, faces and bodies.

For example, repetition is expressed by using the same hand-shape, movement or facial expression throughout the poem. Whereas in the oral tradition, emotion and mood are expressed through vocal inflection, deaf poetry show it is possible to express these visually using the face.

“You have rhyme in English poetry and patterns of verbal repetition,” explains Douglas Ridloff, who runs ASL (American Sign Language) SLAM, a space where poets can share their love of ASL and expand their creativity through physical poetry. “ASL is more about the movement, a visual rhyme versus an auditory rhyme.”

“ASL is more about the movement, a visual rhyme versus an auditory rhyme.”


Visual Vernacular

The theatrical technique Visual Vernacular (VV) expresses ideas through body movements, facial expressions and gestures. VV is highly cinematic, with performers manipulating their movements and the space around them. They zoom in and out as a camera would in a movie, and switch characters. The Deaf community used this technique when watching TV and movies to communicate their own version of the story with each other – before subtitles were common.

“VV has been around for decades and is more widespread in Europe and the US, where there are festivals, showcases and the ASL Slam, the equivalent of an MC battle,” according to an article in The Guardian.

 Peter Cook, a landmark ASL poet and storyteller, was inspired by a workshop with the famous Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, according to an article in Gappers Block. His passion lead to him founding the Flying Words Project, which evolved into a flourishing ASL Poetry movement in the 1980’s.

Without using language, Cook is able to communicate a story and meaning that can be understood by an audience without any knowledge of sign.

This is an early example of Deaf poetry. Since then poets and performers have built layers of meaning and experience to the art.

Expanding horizons

The Deaf poetry movement is rapidly expanding and setting new parameters worldwide. Ridloff is currently working on taking Deaf poetry to different countries. He is also working with creatives using VV and International Sign Language as part of the Deaf Poets Society project.

He is also experimenting with incorporating a musical component to his poetry with live musicians.

In the UK, poetry slams are new but gaining in popularity, with the first UK national poetry slam taking place in 2017, according to the BBC.

More recently, in a groundbreaking theatrical experiment, Bim Ajadi a deaf director, blends elements of VV with krump dance and football to create a new kind of visual poetry.

In his short film, Here/Not Here, both hearing and Deaf characters share a space when their local resources shut down. They find ways to communicate physically to set boundaries in the space and are united when one character begins tutting (a way of dancing primarily with the fingers to make geometric angles and shapes), igniting the characters’ interest in each others’ skills.

Together, they merge to create…”a language…without being spoken,” Ajadi told The Guardian.

Set to a hiphop soundtrack – a poetic musical form – the film manages to create a completely new form of expression.

Watch: HERE/NOT HERE: Deaf hip hop music drama exploring sign language, dance, football and Visual Vernacular

It is an exciting time for Deaf poets and the Deaf poetry scene. As creatives find fresh and inventive ways to express themselves, we look forward to what’s to come.

Author Details
Sofia is a freelance writer and teacher. She is the founder of Embrace Yoga, where she offers accessible yoga and meditation classes. She grew up with unilateral sensorineural hearing loss, which became bilateral severe hearing loss in her adult life, and she has Meniere’s Disease. She wears a Phonak Nathos Auto M hearing aid. She is currently learning BSL.