Richard Carter really was the poet who didn’t know it (as the English rhyming phrase goes).
From watching him perform live or on his DVD, there is no clue that this master of the art of poetry in sign language found his calling, almost by accident. When he was a teenager, Richard enjoyed attending deaf storytelling groups. Anyone who has watched a good story in sign language will know how addictive they can be and what makes it completely unique. The motion, the expression, the imagery.
Those are the elements of Deaf poetry that Richard Carter fell in love with and although he didn’t actually realise it was poetry at the time – that love would change his life forever and take him around the country and eventually to Buckingham Palace.
“I think I was 19 years old when I started performing poetry.” Richard told me on Sunday morning via Skype from Bristol.
“I went to a deaf story telling group and didn’t realise I was doing poetry, I just thought it was the Deaf way of telling stories and that was it.
Then it was later, in about 1999, when I was about 30, I went to Green Lanes Deaf Club in London. They and had a BSL competition on. They said it was a poetry competition. Two of the judges, Francis Elton and Clark Denmark, were watching me and they told me to stand on the stage and have a go.
“Stand on the stage! Me? What for? I said”
“They told me I could do it and I didn’t realise! I thought poems were like singing but no! It is telling a story. That is deaf poetry and I was amazed!”
“So I stood up and performed some deaf poetry and the audience watched and some poeple were saying ‘wow’ that’s the clearest example of deaf poetry. I couldn’t believe they were telling me this. The judges made the decision and I won the competition.”
“After that, I travelled around and went to Birmingham to the Sign Fair And I was standing there signing poetry and people who had never seen it before gathered around. More people turned up watching and the word spread around. People loved it.”
Richard isn’t the first Deaf poet, but possibly the best known. He runs his own Facebook Group dedicated to Deaf poetry and hosted the evening event at this year’s DeafFest where he gave a performance.
His new DVD, Made by Hand, has taken two years to make. Richard is rightly proud of it but appreciates that the great Deaf poets of the past hadn’t been lucky enough to have their creations recorded.
“Dot Miles was one of the first deaf poets, she did lots of work on See Hear and travelled around the country and did lots of teaching. She passed away so I feel like I am carrying on what she started.”
“Dot Miles was around a long time ago when they didn’t have lots of ways to record her work. Now we have the opportunity to film and put poetry it on the internet and on YouTube, send it around and keep it for the future.”
“My DVD means that the deaf poetry is recorded and will be around for people to see forever. It can be used to educate and inspire people for years to come. I think it’s important to encourage more people to perform Deaf poetry.”
In November, Richard was invited to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen along with 300 other writers and poets. Looking back on the day, Richard said that he recognised some of the faces of the people there but had never read their work. Why was that?
“I have never really taken an interest in English poetry. It’s for hearing people. I’ve read it before but I don’t understand it. It’s a different culture. It doesn’t really interest me although when I was at Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen, I was the only deaf person there. We watched some performances and the English poems were interpreted into sign language. It was then, for the first time, I could begin to connect with them.”
“I realised that me and the other poets have a connection. It may look very different but there are similarities. Similarities in the structure of deaf and written poetry. Similarities in expression of emotions.”
Richard is clearly passionate about his work and I’m curious to know why he developed his fascination with poetry. He travels around the country sharing his creations and has put two years of effort into perfecting his DVD. What is is about signing poetry that he loves so much?
“Why do hearing people like music?” He said. “It makes me feel something inside. I share my emotions and I can see people sharing those emotions with me as they watch me perform. Through my skills, I give people the opportunity to connect with their feelings and emotions and enjoy it. I think that’s the same with music.”
“The DVD is interesting – worth a watch. There are eight poems on there and I chose them because they are the popular ones, the ones that get the best reaction from the audience.
“The poems on the DVD are more visual and less lip patterns or signs. It’s more international sign and is just as easy for hearing people to understand. It’s about seeing the emotions and expressions. It’s certainly for both deaf and hearing people.”
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