p/Poetry and d/Deaf

Friday night. A London bookshop. The launch of the latest issue of a poetry magazine. Why would this be a surprising event?
If you had come along with me you would have seen sign language interpreters standing next to the poets who were reading, and an audience signifying applause by waving two hands in the air in place of clapping. Many were deaf or partially so, and some would describe themselves as not ‘deaf’ but ‘Deaf’: their language and culture being that of British Sign Language.
You could easily have misunderstood what was going on, however. It looked as though an audience were listening to English poetry through interpreters, but that was only half of what was happening. Some of the poems were being performed primarily in sign language and the interpretation was into spoken English. Many had been composed originally in BSL, the inspiration coming through signs, body movement, and facial expression. English words came later. This raises a number of questions about the essence of poetry inspired by a signing Muse.
But before considering that, I’d better explain a bit. This was the launch of Magma 69 – the latest issue of the renowned poetry journal, Magma – and a hundred people were filling chairs in the London Review Bookshop, just around the corner from the British Museum.

Magma dedicates each issue to a broad theme. Recent topics have been ‘Bones and Breath’ and ‘Margins’. There was a Comedy Issue and one on Risk. The latest is The Deaf Issue, although as the editors said:
“Before our call for submissions, we realised there was a risk in calling Magma 69 ‘The Deaf Issue’; addressing deafness as a theme and inviting responses from non-hearing and hearing poets alike, from British Sign Language (BSL) poets to poets who wear hearing aids and poets who have never misheard a word in their life.”
The 100-page issue, however, shows the imaginative variety of responses. At one end of the scale, for instance, is a poem by Peter Surkov, a medical student, exploring sound and hearing. His poem in free verse spreads across 80 lines; this kept the interpreter busy! He covered the physiology and neurology of the ear, the WHO definition of deafness, a father’s refusal to acknowledge the hearing loss, a violin concerto, and a typical scene in modern life: the airport departure lounge.
A poem by Hannah Lowe about elderly parents, entitled The Stroke, received a very warm reception. It begins with these delicately composed lines (in which the sound of words is delectable):

For days after the stroke, she lay bed-bound,
misdiagnosed – the doctor said ‘Bells Palsy’
of her weeping eye and tilted frown, her hand
cold-numb below the eiderdown. The telly in
the corner spun blue-light, an anarchy
of voices. My father, dying himself, and lost
brought trays of tea and plates of buttered toast.

There are poems about the steady loss of hearing – one by a lady who joked that her husband could not hear high notes while she couldn’t pick up the low ones. There are two rather different poems about hearing aids – one from me, This is Not a Hearing Aid, which I have posted on my blog. Others consider the shock of discrimination or mundane misunderstandings in communication.
These were poems written in English. For a completely different experience, I would recommend that you watch some of the sign language poems on the internet. An English translation is set out in Magma 69, but there is no substitute for viewing the signed original.
During the launch, for example, we had a performance from Donna Williams who had contributed two BSL poems. She herself is Deaf and a well-known poet. One of her poems is an entertaining piece about Dr Who, the TV series. Do view it – it’s at https://vimeo.com/150103141 
I was fascinated by her description of how she composes as a sign language poet. It seems that she begins by jotting ideas down on paper in her own shortened notes, which, she told us, would not make much sense to others. When she is ready, she composes – assembling the poem by signing to herself in a mirror, steadily building it up. The finished version might then be recorded, and an English translation can follow.
For many of us, one of the primary pleasures of poetry is the sound of the poem as it is spoken, or on the inner ear. I don’t need to elaborate; you probably feel the same. I wondered therefore about the nature of poetry that had no sound, for which sound was not merely missing but alien. Where would the poetry lie? I guessed it might be located in the narrative, in the communication of emotional experiences, in simile and metaphor. And these features are indeed present in the sign language poems of Magma’s Deaf Issue. The narrative is particularly strong, but when story-telling is paramount we might wonder whether the piece we are being offered is a poem or a short story.
Donna Williams partly addresses this in her other poem, Bilingual poet’s dilemma. You may view this at https://youtu.be/jackK3GmPHo

This begins:
As I hunt for inspiration, 
for poetry revelation, 
I wonder, if it’s in Sign, 
how to make it rhyme?
Although there is a practice known as sign-supported English, you can’t simply transpose BSL signs and English words. The grammar of signing is entirely of its own making, using positioning and movement in 3-D space to convey thoughts, augmented by facial expression. I wondered whether a poem composed in sign language might have spacial equivalents of line-breaks and enjambment, gestural echoes akin to rhyme, body movements conveying rhythm. In short, whether there would be a pleasure in watching the physical properties of the poem being signed, something distinct from the content but underpinning it.
I think I found the answer, and it was Yes. You might like to look up some of the recorded performances and see whether you agree.