As a community, deaf and hard of hearing people have a rich cultural outlook on life. The stories and themes can even be quite political. All of this is excellent fuel for the imagination. It’s not surprising that so many people turn to poetry. However, the best thing about deaf poetry is the dual medium. If you’re a writer, you can include deaf themes in your work. If you prefer to use ASL, you can perform your work. You can even mix them up and include elements of both or create both forms of the same piece to expand your audience.
An excellent example of this dual medium poetry is The Deaf Perspective, which is due out next month. Published by Arachne Press and focusing on the theme of movement, the poetry included will be available in print. It will also be performed in sign language. This is what’s so great about deaf poetry – the double format that is so unique and representative of our community.
The Deaf Perspective is a glimpse into the cultural multilingual world we live in. The addition of text to the sign language is a nice way of communicating and harmonizing with the hearing. The addition of sign language to the text is a great way of being inclusive. Offering two different ways of accessing the same material is a nice nod to accessibility. As it’s delivered in a way that makes it more about the art form than inclusivity, it’s beautiful. The title, The Deaf Perspective, almost invites potential readers and watchers into the deaf world for a while, as we are by default more inclusive and accessible a community than most. For instance, most content created by or aimed at deaf or hard of hearing people has a few accessibility options to cover people’s differing needs, such as lipreading, ASL, captions, or transcripts.
“The Deaf Perspective is truly a glimpse into the cultural multilingual world we live in.”
ASL is an elegant and beautiful language that lends itself well to performance poetry. The Deaf Perspective is particularly good as performance poetry, as the theme itself is movement. As ASL is all about movement of the face and hands, using ASL to perform the text is poetic in itself.
There aren’t many performance poets that use sign language, and certainly no high-profile ones. You can usually find some good poets on YouTube or TikTok. Here’s an ASL Poetry Slam and a TED Talk by Douglas Ridloff, a poet and visual storyteller who creates works in ASL.
If you’re lucky, you can find (or even start) an ASL poetry slam near you. Check out ASL Slam for ideas.
Another major poetry book by a deaf poet is Deaf Republic. It’s famous for multiple award wins and comes in a gorgeous Faber edition. There isn’t a sign language option for the volume, but I would love to see it in sign language. It would also make an excellent theatre production. I really hope they create something like this with it.
Deaf Republic tells a story throughout the volume, so it’s a bit like reading a novel. The tale is told through poems instead. It’s a little like WWII, but the warring countries are fictional and remain largely unidentified. It follows the aftermath of a deaf child’s murder. The gunshot that killed him deafens the rest of the town. Their protests at the treatment they receive from the invading army begins through sign language.
Some other deaf poetry books you can read include:
Read more: Book review: Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky
Writing poetry might seem challenging or overwhelming at first, but it’s actually straightforward. There aren’t really any rules. You don’t even need to spell anything accurately. Just jot down, or sign, your thoughts and feelings. You’ll soon start getting a feel for things like flow and rhythm. If you spend a little time each day working on it, you’ll get better at it quickly. Also, the more poetry you read or watch, the better you’ll get at writing your own. It’ll give you many more ideas for your work as well.
Next time you’re bored on quarantine, why not break out the pen and paper, or upload some signed poetry to TikTok?