Donna Williams: Performing at Signing Hands Across the Water

Posted on April 3, 2012



Earlier this month, I had the incredible privilege of flying over to Philadelphia to take part in Signing Hands Across the Water, an international sign language poetry festival.

I was joined by three other British Sign Language poets, Richard Carter, John Wilson and another, and three American Sign Language poets, the double act of Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner (of the Flying Words Project) and Debbie Rennie. From March 16th – 18th, we took part in open panel discussions, put on a workshop and performed our poetry!

Signing Hands Across the Water was AMAZING. I still can’t believe how lucky I was to hang out with other sign language poets, plan and do a workshop with them, and perform alongside them.

Friday evening was the open panel discussion, where all the poets discussed various aspects of sign language poetry, from the current situation in USA, UK and beyond, similarities and differences between different types of poetry, and issues of translation of sign language poems. It was a free exchange of ideas and thoughts, and was a very interesting experience. Even if I did spend most of the time squinting off-stage at the ASL – BSL relay interpreters…

And let me take this moment to thank the interpreters! Anyone who thinks that it’s possible to understand foreign sign languages from the get-go just because one uses a sign language, I challenge them to follow a fast-moving discussion of the finer points of poetry in a sign language other than their own. Especially when they’ve only just mastered “Hi… my name is F, no, D, D-O-N-N-A…” in said language.

But by the end of the weekend I was able to hold conversations in a sort of mix of BSL / ASL. For all that ASL and BSL are different, shared experience of signed languages does, I think, help a lot, and with patience and understanding people can communicate across different sign languages far more easily than they can spoken languages. And for the heavy discussions, read; the heavy lifting, we had a crack team of terps. Cheers!

Saturday was the workshop. We had about 30 participants, and it went really well – the morning was spent looking at various aspects of sign language poetry, each poet bringing an element of their own style to the mix. The afternoon was spent helping the participants craft their own poems, some even agreed to have their poems recorded, and they can be seen on the website, great stuff! I hope all the participants took something away from the workshop, I know I did.

Saturday evening was the big show! It was amazing, from the audience group hug, to Richard Carter’s singer’s dramatic suicide, to Debbie Rennie’s powerful tale of murder, narrated by interpreter Debbie Taylor, to John Wilson’s visually funny cycle of life of a Christmas tree, to Flying Words Projects’ (Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner) incredible timing in a double act that must have taken ages to perfect. It was a feast of different styles of poetry, some visual, some heavy BSL or ASL, some with voiceover and some without. It really was something to see, and I’m glad – and privileged – to have been part of it!

I had originally intended to do three of my more ‘visual’ and therefore hopefully more ‘accessible’ poems, but after some thought-provoking discussions with the other poets about language and identity, I decided to perform ‘Who Am I?’.

This was my first poem, originally created at a time when I was going through something of an identity crisis, and I wanted to perform this poem to show that identity is not always clear-cut or simple, and not all, indeed few deaf people are born with confident ‘deaf identities’ ready-formed. It all seemed to go down really well, the audience and atmosphere were brilliant, so positive and up, and I met some really cool people. It was all over too soon!

The last event of the festival was a panel on the Sunday morning, where all the poets discussed their work, and a big Q & A session with the audience that expanded on translation issues, perceptions, how we got into poetry and how we create our poems. I really enjoyed this session, and again it was over too soon!

There is a little taste of what we discussed though, in this video on Signing Hands Across the Water’s Facebook page, where I discuss how I started doing Sign Language poetry and where I get my ideas, and there are other videos on the page by the other poets discussing why they like Sign Language poetry so much. Take a look!

For me, at the big performance, it was interesting to note that the ASL poets had some kind of voiceover, whilst all of us BSL poets had none. This and the discussions in the panels the previous and following day opened my mind to the various issues surrounding the translation of sign language poems. Should they have a voiceover? If so, should it be a full rendering of the poem, line for line, word for sign, or just a spoken word here and there to back up a specific sign? Should the person speaking the lines be on the stage with the sign language poet, or out of sight? If there is a voiceover, is it pure sign language poetry? Can a voiceover do justice to a poem? Can sign language poetry be written in English (or other written language) form and still have the same effect? I have all these questions whirling around, and I’m feeling inspired!

One thing that really brought the translation issue home to me though, was a friend telling me about a hearing friend of theirs who had attended the performance. This hearing friend had never seen sign language before, ever, and gave a review of my poem ‘My (New) Cat’ that was completely unexpected. Now, ‘My Cat’, is one of my more ‘visual’ poems, I had thought it was fairly accessible, but apparently not. It seems that this hearing friend had liked my “poem about the cat” but had been confused because “it turned into a devil with horns and it had feathers, and then it died, but she seemed happy about it dying?” By the time my friend had finished recounting this hearing person’s interpretation of my poem, I was crying with laughter, and verging on hysterics.

As I said when I recovered, I like to be flexible about how people interpret my poems but that was more random than I’d ever imagined. Loved it! In fact, I may create a new poem based on the ‘devil cat’, watch out for a Halloween special!

(For the record, the ‘devil cat’ was licking its own arse, the ‘horns’ being its legs akimbo, the ‘feathers’ was long fur, and the twitching was the cat dreaming, not its final, anguished death throes.)

But when I had a think about it, I wasn’t sure which I would prefer; a voiceover / translation that would give non-signing members of the audience a clue of what the poem was about, or risk them taking away interpretations of it that were so far left-field of what I’d intended that they were in the next county. This hearing friend had apparently enjoyed the performance despite not understanding much, so did it matter? Does it matter? Lots to think about!

Thanks to The Cooper Foundation and their deep pockets, Dr Rachel Sutton-Spence (visiting Cornell Professor at Swarthmore), Dr Donna West, Dr Michiko Kaneko, Martin Haswell (great website and videos), poets Peter Cook & Kenny Lerner (Flying Words), Debbie Rennie, Richard Carter, John Wilson and one other, the terps Doreen Kelley, Mike Canfield, Kyra Pollitt, Christopher Stone, Debbie Taylor (voicing Debbie Rennie’s poems) and Christopher Tester; Nick Furrow for good food, the participants, the volunteers, the audience, and many more besides that I probably don’t even know about (see the Signing Hands Across the Water website for a more objective view of events and a more complete list of people who deserve thanks!), thanks to everyone who had a hand in this – I’m going to use this word again – AMAZING festival.

Thank you!

And can we do it all over again?

To find out more about Signing Hands Across the Water, go to: http://signinghandsacrossthewater.com/

Donna Williams is a deaf writer and blogger living in Bristol and studying part-time in Cardiff. As well as being a postgrad student, she’s a BSL poet, freelance writer, NDCS Deaf Role Model presenter, and occasional performer. In dull moments, she blogs  and tweets as Deaf Firefly about what she sees as “a silly world from a deaf perspective!”

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