Conversation: Videographer talks to documentary maker about filming sign language poetry

Posted on January 3, 2017

When in doubt, ask an expert. Videographer Martin Haswell (below) did exactly that when planning to film a sign language poetry festival in Brazil. An admirer of the American documentary ‘The Heart of the Hydrogen Jukebox’, he emailed the director, Miriam Lerner, to ask for her help and guidance when briefing the volunteer student video team who were going to film the festival in Florianopolis, Brasil (Festival de Folklore Surdo, 10-14 December 2016).

Miriam Lerner (below) is an interpreter with the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, in Rochester, USA.

She made the film in 2009, telling the story of ASL poetry and storytelling exploding into public view in the USA in the 1980’s. She was the perfect person to make this film because, like Woodstock, she was there, a young interpreter in training on the Rochester campus during that extraordinary time in the history of deaf performance.

Hydrogen Jukebox can now be watched in full below, after being uploaded in full to YouTube by NTID just before Christmas:

What was the best way to interview sign language poets? Best questions to ask? Technical hints? It’s a wide ranging discussion, later translated into Portuguese for the deaf Brazilian student volunteers on the filming team.

Here are Martin’s questions (in bold) and Miriam’s answers in their email conversation.

Note: Hydrogen Jukebox (cover above) is the film Miriam Lerner and Don Feigel made in 2009, the full title is “The Heart of the Hydrogen Jukebox.”

I’ve been watching Hydrogen Jukebox again (fourth time I think) and been struck by how clearly and early the theme of ‘poetry in your own language’ is introduced, and how strongly as a main theme.

That was the challenge – they didn’t think they could call it poetry – Ella [Mae Lentz] did, Clayton [Valli] did, Patrick [Graybill] suspected it might be, Peter [Cook] and Debbie [Rennie] were totally resistant to the label. It was political as well as literary ( not that the two aren’t inextricably intertwined anyway…)

Did you have a firm structure in place for the film when you started the project or did you start with a big archive, a lot of film cans and an empty notebook and looked for the theme that came out of looking through the archive?

The latter – I totally had tapes and tapes in different formats by different people from different times, cities, video folks, etc and i knew it would coalesce into something, but wasn’t sure what.

I started out by wanting to focus on NTID/peter/debbie/kenny/patrick/ella/clayton rochester scene but realized that without learning about [Eric] Maltzkuhn, [Robert] Panara, [Bernard] Bragg, and [Dorothy] Miles that it made no sense…. Or, rather, it made sense but I didn’t want to present it as discrete or somehow that it just spontaneously arose without precedent or lineage.

So when I realized that, I had to go backwards and try to find even older things than I already had. I had our tapes ( Kenny [Lerner]and Peter [Cook], including bridge of… And Debbie[Rennie]), all of the stuff from the 1987 conference which we had received as part of our payment for being involved in it), some 1991 literary conference tapes. I had to look up and beg others.

Patrick [Graybill] introduced me to Shanny Mow on email, and he was coming to give a lecture at NTID in the spring that year, I think, and he agreed to bring me a tape of an old NTD play with Dorothy Miles in it, and I ended up using a short piece from it.

I contacted Susan Rutherford in California for permission to use the Dorothy Miles footage, including the mosaic interview….Just all over the place.

I remember I was interpreting on stage one time at jazzberries and I remembered seeing a red flashing light out in the audience and wondering who was taping me ( big, old equipment back then, expensive, not many folks had them…Who was that in back of that flashing red light ? Ahhhhh….. Sherri Hicks Glover had a camera and I contacted her and she sent me her old tapes….. I just thought about everyone I knew and where there might be something lurking….

Did you have a log line for the film at the beginning of the project? Or a big question to answer?

I’m sorry, I don’t know what a log line is …… Like a thesis ? Nope….. I just wanted to show what happened, and then I realized there was a kind of hand off, like in a relay race, then a big group of talent at the same time, when ASL was experiencing a real coming of age, cochlear implants had barely begun, there was a good group of literary-minded hippie interpreters who were willing to mess around with it all, having great parties, doing improv dance and translation groups – the time and chemistry here were right for it to coalesce. I wanted to somehow transmit that excitement and discovery.

Did you go through the archive first then do the contemporary interviews, the other way around or both simultaneously?

As soon as I decided I might be able to do it I started to set up interviews. I didn’t want to waste time waiting for approval, just thought I would do as much on my own as I could but hopefully get some support.

So I made up questions for every person on a document, tailored to them, then sent them, ask if we could interview, etc.

First I made a “sampler” tape of old performances and lectures and panels, so they could see the history I was trying to show. I made a bunch of copies of that and I might have one left, I stupidly gave them all out, and it was a nice overview of what the whole film would encompass, sans commentary. Of course, the conversations would travel hither and yon.

Was the film driven by you feeling strongly that the story needed to be told (and maybe wouldn’t be otherwise)? Or something else?

Nope , nothing else, you got it. I was afraid that if I gave this stuff to a library it would go up on the shelves and be totally uncontextualized, like someone might say, “wow, that’s kinda cool…. I wonder blah blah blah” but never have a repository of information about where that particular puzzle piece fit. I was hoping just to give a history of it, boom boom boom in order.

I think that the pacing and sense of enquiry in the film drives the viewer forward – as you watch you discover more and more interesting things coming out.

I have a sense that it’s like Woodstock, that the event’s importance grows with the memory of those present, that they didn’t appreciate how important it would be until later in their lives. Ron Howard has a new documentary on the Beatles just out and it sounds like he’s found something new to say on a subject that you’d have thought had been covered completely. Haven’t seen it yet but looking forward to it.

I’ve heard about that one too…. I’m a total Beatles freak, so I’ll be lighting a candle, pouring some wine, and spending concerted viewing time when I get it !

Did you conduct the interviews youself and if so, how strict were you about following themes vs letting your subjects just talk more broadly?

I conducted all interviews myself except Debbie Rennie, who was interviewed by Susan Chapel. The interview with Malz [Eric] Maltzkuhn,] was not mine, it was from Peter [Cook] and Kenny[Lerner]’s interview with him back in 1989. Dorothy Miles, too, of course, was from a tv program she was on, I got permission and lifted it….

What was the format, a length of tape per interviewee etc?

As long as it took, as long as they had !

Don Feigel was the videographer I see (he’s on Vimeo too), so I’m guessing that he handled the tech part of camera and sound and you interviewed? Did that work well – was there a bigger crew or just you two?

Well, Don was kind of my partner in crime. I was doing voice over interpreting work for some projects he was editing and one day I was telling him I had this project in mind, I didn’t know if i could ever get it done, and he said he would help me.

Before we even got money he just said, tell me what you need, bring me stuff , when I have time I’ll do it for you. So we made the sampler really fast, then I applied for this grant money, and I interviewed Patrick Graybill and Bob Panara before I got word that the funding would come through.

I heard Debbie was coming to Rochester from Sweden that summer, so I booked her, and I had already gotten funding from my department to attend the rid conference in San Francisco, so if they approved meIi could just pay for Don to come out with his equipment and we could interview Ella there.

So it was really just him and me. I took his advice, sometimes I had to insist that he take mine. I always had final say, but he is listed equally as director because I really couldn’t have done it without him. He really made so many things happen. I had to fight for editing in the right linguistic place, he didn’t really sign well or “get” ASL and he always wanted to cut at the wrong time because it looked better, and I had to always make the case that this film is for deaf people, and may hearing people will enjoy it, but it must be read clearly from deaf folks’ eyes….

You’re very even handed with audio in the film, there is good audio, voiced over commentary, It feels made for both a hearing and a deaf audience, yes?

I started to answer this one pre-emptively above, I guess ! Yes, I wanted it to work for hearing audiences. I did all of the translations of the interviews. I asked the different people who voiced over the poets to please use my translations as guides, not verbatim, they could ad lib, but none of them did….

Did you re-interview at all? If so, why. And if not, would you have wanted to?

I wish I could have… But not too much, honestly I’m surprised at how amazing the footage is that I got. I didn’t have the time or money to do it, but I know there were things I would have gone more into depth about, or just had a chance to think more myself about what more I could mine on a second go-round.

Did you learn anything in the course of this film-making, particularly about interviewing as a process? (Though you’ve already told me a lot, below)

I did learn that I should not be afraid to ask someone to repeat a good bit. Stick to the questions to get them answered eventually, but let folks ramble too.

Is it harder getting focus in a signed interview (than say a spoken one? I’m thinking that we need to get Rachel [Sutton-Spence] and Fernanda [de Araujo Machado] (Rachel’s PhD student) here to effectively direct this part, they’ve both been looking at a lot of qualitative interviewing recently.

Not sure….. Honestly, this is the first time I did this kind of thing, interviewing in this way, so I don’t have a basis of comparison. I had such specific stuff to ask. Always about family and school and affiliation with deaf stuff and asl, etc etc before we even got to poetry…..

Do you want me to send you the transcripts ? They were transcribed in this bizarrely funky way – no contractions, and the person who did it sometimes didn’t understand the words. I wonder if it wasn’t fed into a machine ! So I need to fix them, but I could. I also have copies of the interviews if you want, but I imagine that’s too much time !

Lastly, I don’t know your own history well enough – were you there at the time? How much difference did that make, telling partly your own story?

I was an interpreter during these events. I arrived at NTID in 1985 and was part of the group of interpreters who were trying to translate the hearing poet stuff into ASL on the jazzberries stage, and started voicing for the deaf poets too.

I sort of fell into it because Jim asked me to join, and I really had no experience at all, but it seemed like so much fun, although terrifying because we didn’t know what we were doing. Donna and Susan were the real queens, so so good, and many others were dabbling and doing just wonderful stuff! You might not want to do a whole set, but if there was a chance to do maybe two or three poems you could pull it off and feel really, really good !

So when I was looking for validation that me, a hearing chick, was making this film about this ASL very deaf thing, my friends would say, well you were there, it’s not like you’re telling it from a totally outsider point of view, you were in the thick if it.

So even though I wish it was shorter, and that a deaf person had made it, and that I could have had more money and more time to tighten it up, it was an important time to me too, and when I watch it I’m right back there again !

Again, whatever you can give me will be well used but feel free to skip anything too blunt or insensitive.

Thanks again for your interest ! Oh – one silly thing I forgot to say – I was really really tempted to make a flip book and have it as a transition sequence and we just didn’t have the money to do it. You know, you can send in a 5 to 10 sec clip of film and have it made into a flip book. Like old fashioned animation ! I thought it would be cool to do kenny and peter doing ‘poetry poetry poetry ” , like show hands holding it and flipping the pages. And I really wanted to make 1000 of them and give them out at the screenings, but I couldn’t afford it !

I conducted a series of interviews just before I left the UK and I was really struck how difficult it was to get anything very concise out of anyone. Long stories rambled on about nothing in particular but a couple of people absolutely shone in their descriptions of small things. One was a retired accountant but he had such a good recall, he really knew that period, I wanted to spend all day with him alone. Another were a pair of secretaries who swapped stories so fast I did a joint interview with them (one of the best I think)

Two years ago I went to Akron, Ohio to try to interview older folks about their time growing up when there were 1100 Deaf folks in the town working at Goodyear and Firestone tire companies. It was like a mini Martha’s Vineyard, I think…. So I got about 15 folks who showed up at the local Deaf club, only one of whom was old enough to remember working in the plants, he was 90, the others ranged from 50-70.

And even though they didn’t have info about what I had come to ask, one by one they just came up to the front of the room and talked about their jobs, their service to their companies, what it was like to be deaf there, and how proud they were to have worked there.

So this footage I still have, there is something in there about deaf folks and work, but not Akron and the tire factories, per se….. Something to be explored and mined, someday…..Thank you!

If you could go back in time and get more footage of those early years, the archive footage, when you made Hydrogen Jukebox, what would you have wanted more of?

I would have liked to have cleaner prints, meaning sometimes there were great performances but not watchable because of technology constraints, or great prints but the performances weren’t up to snuff…. Frustrating. I didn’t always pick the best rendition for the examples in the film, a source of never-ending frustration…

I wish I had more interpreters working with hearing poets and doing translations…. There were few of those, and even fewer of the ones we had that were either translated well, performed well, or filmed well. I was pleased that my friend Susan’s work was highlighted because she was the best in town at the time, but it would have been great to have done a whole film just about that stuff….

What problems were the hardest to fix in the edit? What was important in the edit that was missed at the time?

You already know this, but I’ll say it anyway….Editing people signing is really hard. You have to decide to either freeze in mid-sign, or “ghost” it into another clip…. I wish I could have asked folks to say that perfect nugget again and stop at the right place.

Later I realized that I could have. If you are conducting interviews and someone says something drop-dead perfect but they keep going and you feel in your gut that you won’t be able to make a clean edit, stop them and ask them to just say that part again as a stand alone.

It’s not that I am planning to make a film out of this event, but if the material was used, some time in the future, what would it be useful to make sure that I get at the event itself?

Get rehearsals/blocking/lighting/staging. Film their notes to themselves, their translations on paper or on film. Film them talking to other poets, deaf and hearing, and film their conversations with Rachel or researchers, or anyone at all !

See if they’ll send you some of their back and forth emails, there might be something funny and/or interesting in there about the logistics of the whole things, either from political events/situations going on in the world which have an impact ( Zika ? Olympics fall-out? US election? You never know !)

I would rather make sure that I get plenty of coverage. I think students may film the events themselves but I will try to get more b-roll and environmental shots. My gut feeling, having editing small projects is that these things are important: environmental and b-roll footage of the audience

Yes…. Definitely audience reactions are a must !!! Live performances rely on that energy, so any documenting of the event needs that audience-performer synergy represented

Artistic b-roll that can cover transitions in time and place and particularly showing emotion?

Yeah, I wish I had had someone with a good aesthetic sense helping me with jukebox… I know there were many opportunities which could have been seized to make great transitions with artsy/fun/cool ideas leading to the next sections…

B-roll of the poets not signing but nodding, being involved, reaction shots?

Yes, definitely…you might even later see them incorporate something into their own work or lecture about it, and you will have the influence on tape from the first catalyst for the idea !!!

Having notes on which roll of film refers to which event and performer?

You better believe it !!! My laptop still has folders with things on iit i don’t feel i can get rid of… Not sure why, it won’t be useful anymore really, but it’s nice to know i had a system…. Make a system that works for you, stick to it ! I had a folder for every poet, a transcript of everything they said, then I color coded for various topics and then I could build sequences with clips about that subject by each person, just building a script by copying and pasting transcript sections ( which also had the time codes noted and on which tape or dvd I was using….)
Notes and permissions to take part in filming/release forms completed?

Yep….Harder than you think it is, too….. Get that done first thing and you’ll never have to worry again. Make a form or get one that is tried and true, copy a bunch, get folks to sign, you’re home and dry.

Miriam, thanks for all your help and advice, it’s very valuable and useful.

Photo: Martin and the media team at the festival.

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