“The Noblest Gift”: The Fight to Preserve American Sign Language Poetry Takes Center Stage at CUNY Graduate Center

October 02, 2018

For too many years, the minority language of American Sign Language—and the Deaf community that cherishes it—has been relegated to the sidelines, oppressed by the dominance of English and the hearing world. Meet the scholars and artists fighting colonialist and paternalistic attitudes by embracing—and preserving—signed poetry.

When Douglas Ridloff was a sixteen-year-old teenager growing up in Queens, his mind was blown when he saw Peter Cook, an American Sign Language (ASL) poet who is Deaf, perform for the first time. As a Deaf person, he realized that ASL was not only a way for him to communicate, but was an artistic language. Now the Executive Director of ASL Slam, a monthly community poetry slam event for the signing community, Ridloff is fighting to preserve American Sign Language poetry along with other artists and academics, who all gathered for a workshop on the topic in the Skylight Room of the CUNY Graduate Center on September 13. The day-long event, which included not only a workshop but also an evening performance, was co-organized by ASL Slam and the Center for the Humanities at CUNY Graduate Center.

The only child born to hearing parents, Ridloff is now the father of two Deaf sons, and he is proud that his sons have grown up with ASL as a first language—providing them with access, a way to express themselves freely, and a community.

Douglas Ridloff signing on stage. Photograph by Jordan Lord.
Image description: Douglas Ridloff signing on stage. Photograph by Jordan Lord.

When Ridloff performs, he uses his whole body in the grammar of ASL. The title of his poem, "The Noblest Gift," which he performed at the afternoon workshop and evening performance, pays homage to George Veditz, a pioneer who used film to preserve ASL even in 1913. In a one-reel film produced by the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) and entitled The Preservation of the Sign Language, Veditz signs, "As long as we have Deaf people on earth, we will have signs. And as long as we have our films, we can preserve signs in their old purity. It is my hope that we will all love and guard our beautiful sign language as the noblest gift God has given to Deaf people."

Since the 1970s, the Deaf community has been fighting not only to disseminate more Deaf literature, but also to preserve a body of work that has no written form. This formed the core of a thought-provoking afternoon workshop in which some of the most respected activists, academics, and artists in the signing community came together.

To understand ASL poetry, you have to understand the history of the Deaf community that so cherishes it. Debate has raged for decades as to the best modality in which to raise and educate Deaf children. Between 1880 and the mid-20th century, sign language was banned in schools for the Deaf. Oralism—the philosophy that prioritizes lip-reading, the use of residual hearing, and speaking—reigned. ASL became a language not only of resilience, but of resistance.

Dirksen Bauman and Ben Bahan in front of a group of workshop participants. Photograph by Jordan Lord.
Dirksen Bauman and Ben Bahan in front of a group of workshop participants. Photograph by Jordan Lord.

Dirksen Bauman and Ben Bahan discussed poetry in the context of Deaf history. This is not the first time the men have collaborated. While Bauman, who is hearing, may be best known as the editor of the seminal works Open Your Eyes: Deaf Studies Talking (University of Minnesota Press, 2007) and Deaf Gain: Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), he and his Deaf college Ben Bahan, Professor of ASL and Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University, co-produced the documentary Audism Unveiled (2008). Dorothy "Dot" Miles saw a need for Deaf poetry, and tried to find an equivalent through different modalities. In the 1980s, sign language classes filled up quickly and frequently in America. While ASL has been recognized as a language since the 1960s, in academic settings recognition has been slow because some administrators do not see a full body of literature. In the 1980s, such concerns spawned the Deaf community to start producing literature.

Like the rich storytelling tradition of the griots of Africa, the oral poetry tradition of ASL is also "a different consciousness," asserted Bob Holman, who is hearing, from the Bowery Poetry Club, where ASL Slam first started in 2005. How can this "unwritable" tradition be published and preserved? Holman is working on an anthology that will contain poems about New York City in the languages of New York City. There are some 800 such languages, 100 of them endangered. The anthology is entitled Kexaptun, which means "saying something in few words" or "I have spoken" in Lenape, the language of the indigenous peoples of New York. Ridloff's poem "NYC Life," will be produced as a "flip book" in the corner of the book. In this way, ASL will inhabit every page.

When later asked about her personal perspective on ASL poetry, Joan Naturale, who is Deaf, wrote in an email, "My own journey in learning about ASL Poetry occurred when I was a Gallaudet student and came upon [British poet] Dorothy Miles's poetical works in 'Gestures'. It was intriguing to me that she was able to produce poetry understandable in English and ASL. She also produced videos based on this work through Joyce Media. This began my journey in appreciating poetry by Deaf poets, written or signed." Today, Naturale is the NTID/Education Librarian at Rochester Institute of Technology in liaison with the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. She has digitized 61 videos of ASL poetry and is using her professional work as a librarian to create a digital archive for ASL scholars and as well as students to those never before exposed to such works.

Also working in the digital space, Patrick Boudreault, the Quebec-born Deaf editor of the Deaf Studies Digital Journal, which is undergoing a relaunch, discussed different ways of providing a translation of ASL poetry online. Breaking away from the traditional English-language captions that often accompany an ASL video, Boudreault demonstrated some more innovative ideas that prioritize the purity of ASL, such as a scrolling ASL "gloss" that the user can control. He is looking for feedback from the community, and the room buzzed with anticipation.

While Naturale and Boudreault have turned to the Internet to publish signed poetry, Adrean Clark has taken an altogether more "old school" approach. A Deaf author and artist who has advocated for ASL to be recognized by the U.S. Census as the minority language that it is, Clark has been instrumental in developing a written form of ASL called ASLwrite, in which symbols embody the five parameters of ASL—handshape, palm orientation, movement, location, and non-manual markers. Her chosen mode for preservation is paper, an accessible and affordable medium that allows people to experience the words at their own pace. She has also experimented with pop-up paper engineering, a tangible object that—like a flip book--can bring the visual-spatial nature of Sign to life in one's hands.

After the afternoon workshops there was an evening of performances in CUNY Graduate Center's Proshansky Auditorium. "I really hope that for those of you who are witnessing ASL poetry for the first time, witnessing the creative talents of the Deaf community for the first time, I hope that you walk away with more than a sense that just 'Oh, ASL is beautiful,' because it really is so much more than that. It is a complicated, rich language, deeply connected to the identity of the Deaf community, and it is a sign of resilience against a society that for a long time has tried to suppress it," declared Alisa Besher, who is hearing. She is the Programs Director at the CUNY Graduate Center's Center for the Humanities, which is committed to exploring the relationship between poetry and social justice

Rachel Mazique on stage in front of a slide that reads "Deaf Literature: What is it and Where May it be Found?" Photograph by Jordan Lord.
Rachel Mazique on stage in front of a slide that reads "Deaf Literature: What is it and Where May it be Found?" Photograph by Jordan Lord.

A Deaf literature scholar and professor of English at Rochester Institute of Technology, Rachel Mazique took the stage to discuss the evolution of Deaf literature and its current definition. Mazique began by listing various literatures: "English lit, American lit…African lit…African-American lit…Chicano lit…LGBT lit…" Drawing a parallel between these diverse literatures of different ethnic or community groups, Mazique noted that "this is an emerging field of study with a variety of definitions of what comprises Deaf literature…" Most definitions are US-centric, neglecting the literature of various sign languages around the world—such as Lengua de Señas Mexicana (LSM), Lengua de Señas Argentina (LSA), and British Sign Language (BSL). Mazique drew attention to online platforms that are publishing signed literature, namely the BSL Zone and DPAN.tv. While she used to include works written by hearing authors that include Deaf characters (even if they are reduced to the trope of the isolated or lonely deaf individual), Mazique now considers these works to constitute a separate category, "literatures of the hearing line," a term coined by Christopher Krentz. This "invisible boundary that separates Deaf and hearing people…[is] a way of negotiating deafness…"

Mazique's lifelong love for literature radiated as she described how "Literature represents our lived experiences, the reality, which is that Deaf literature is not just written in English but also produced in Sign, and it could be produced in Sign and then written, but it is a linguistic expression of our experience…in two different modalities which are part of our experience."

John Lee Clark, editor of the anthology Deaf American Poetry (Gallaudet University Press, 2009) which features poems in English by Deaf writers, and whose book Where I Stand (Handtype Press, 2014), discusses his experiences as a DeafBlind man, took to the stage to discuss the power imbalance that exists between ASL and English, a subject he also discussed during the afternoon workshops. He lamented how many ASL translations are done for fascination, analysis, or scholarly purposes benefitting only the dominant language (English) and its non-signing users. (Consider how poorly done ASL music videos, often with the grammar of English overlaid onto ASL signs in the hodgepodge that it Pidgin Signed English [PSE], garner hundreds of thousands of views but benefit only the hearing performer without giving agency to the many enrapturing Deaf performers, such as Rosa Lee Timm.) Despite "the oppressive nature of the dominant language taking over the minority language," John Lee Clark asserted that there is nothing inherently bad about translation and that there could be a mutually beneficial relationship for both languages and communities, creating a symbiotic relationship.

Then it was time to see ASL poetry in action. While signed poetry had been just as engaging in the afternoon workshop, on stage, below the bright lights of the packed auditorium, the poets riveted the public. John Lee Clark ended his presentation with a poem that he originally wrote in English but has translated. He performed it in Pro-Tactile ASL, a new language for the DeafBlind developed in the early 2000s. His poem, entitled "Order," captivated the room. We have been broken so many times, we are unbreakable. We have been forced apart so many times, we are always whole. That is our story.

Echoing the theme brought up by John Lee Clark, albeit in a different way, Douglas Ridloff's poem "Symbiosis," spotlighting how the Deaf community cannot exist without ASL, and ASL cannot exist without the Deaf community.

Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner on stage performing. Photograph by Jordan Lord.
Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner on stage performing. Photograph by Jordan Lord.

Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner, both of the Flying Words Project, have been performing together since 1978. They took to the stage for a unique performance; Cook signed while Lerner (who is hearing) voiced, incorporating humor into their poems.

Except for a few moments, Ridloff's poems, unlike Cook's, were not accompanied by voice interpretation. Over the years, signed poetry has gradually moved away from English; while the early ASL poems were fixed interpretations of an original English text, Ridloff's poems put the linguistic purity of ASL front and center, turning power dynamics on their head by privileging the signer over the non-signer.

L to R Sara Novic, Kenny Lerner, Peter Cook, Douglas Ridloff, Rachel Mazique, Adrean Clark, John Lee Clark and interpreters on stage sitting in chairs. Photograph by Jordan Lord.
L to R Sara Novic, Kenny Lerner, Peter Cook, Douglas Ridloff, Rachel Mazique, Adrean Clark, John Lee Clark and interpreters on stage sitting in chairs. Photograph by Jordan Lord.

Kicking off the panel discussion, moderator Sara Nović, author of the novel Girl at War (Random House, 2015) who has also written about her experiences as a Deaf novelist, declared that ASL has been denied its rightful place alongside English. Indeed, for hearing people, the idea of language is aligned with the idea of spoken language. Sign language is considered "less than" or left out of the conversation altogether. Says Rachel Mazique, who, like all of the other panel participants, addressed the audience in sign language while an interpreter voiced for the non-signers, "People ask me, Why can't I talk for myself? Well, I am talking for myself."

Many issues were brought up. For example, once a signed poem is recorded, can it be changed, or does the version captured on video represent its final form? While Clayton Valli, considered to be the "father of Deaf poetry," was firm that once a poem was recorded, it could not be altered, Cook takes a more liberal approach. Sign languages are fluid. Print is static.

Representation was a theme of the night, and many participants drew on their own experiences as Deaf children to bring attention to the needs of today's Deaf children.

"Deaf children are starving for art that represents their lives, their language," said Cook. "And it's cool!"

Ridloff also brought up the issue of representation of race and ethnicity within the Deaf literature community, All agreed that more efforts need to be made to encourage and include Deaf poets of color.

Said Ridloff, "Some poets lack the confidence in ASL because of language deprivation they experienced as children….Sign your poem…Get it out there."