BSL is British Sign Language, so BSL poetry… you get the idea. I’ve always enjoyed reading poems, but the first time I saw BSL poetry on stage was when Richard Carter performed in a BSL variety evening at the University of Central Lancashire when I was a student. It blew me away. It was beautiful, it was expressive, it was undeniably a poem, and it was in BSL.
During my third year, I was writing a dissertation about deaf identity, and was working through my own struggles as a deaf person who lives in both hearing and deaf worlds. I was inspired to create my own BSL poem, ‘Who Am I?’ which I performed in the Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre in 2007.
In 2008, I was invited to be part of a research project into BSL poetry, ‘Metaphor in Creative Sign Language’, led by Dr Rachel Sutton-Spence at Bristol University. Through this project, I had the opportunity to take part in in-depth discussions about BSL poetry, assist with workshops and perform at the yearly Bristol BSL Poetry Festivals 2008 – 2012, and I learned a great deal.
In 2012, I travelled with three other BSL poets to America at the invitation of Dr Sutton-Spence, who was then visiting professor at Swarthmore College, Philadelphia. We were to perform at ‘Signing Hands Across the Water’, a poetry slam that would also feature ASL poets. It was big learning experience, not least because this was when I was introduced to the concept of having a voiceover for poetry. It was interesting to note all the ASL poets had an interpreter, none of the BSL poets did. This was the subject of some debate, but it was especially brought home to me when someone gave me a review of one of my poems that was completely unexpected. They’d managed to misunderstand it totally, despite it being – I thought – one of my most visual poems.
I became interested in having English translations for my BSL poetry, and vice versa, and how I might perform them on stage. I had the opportunity to experiment at Portsmouth Bookfest in November 2012, where I was invited to perform some of my poems. I used different ‘levels’ of voiceover for each poem, and the feedback was very useful. In the same month, I applied to the Deaf Explorer project, run by Birmingham Deaf Cultural Centre and aimed at finding six deaf artists to sponsor to travel abroad to meet artists at the top of their field and exchange knowledge with them.
My winning application was to visit Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner who together make the Flying Words Project, an ASL / English poetry duo, whom I met at Signing Hands. Their talent and experience is vast, and I hoped to meet and learn from them. In January I discovered I had won and from there it was a whirlwind to organise a trip where I could meet both poets (one lives in Chicago, the other in Rochester) and ideally see them both perform. Amazingly, it all came together and in March 2014 I went on a two-week chase around the USA, seeing them perform in North Carolina, following Peter to Chicago then meeting Kenny in Rochester before, as a bonus, visiting Doug Ridloff in New York and Teresa Blankmeyer-Burke in Washington DC, both ASL poets. I even found an ASL poetry slam on my last night in the USA, at Busboys and Poets cafe in DC, and did a couple of my poems, but foolishly neglected to give a script to the intepreters. A hard lesson, but well learned.
From there, I have continued to develop my poetry, creating poems in both BSL and English and performing all over the UK. My aim is for my poetry to be accessible to deaf and hearing audiences, and hopefully enjoyed by all.
The ‘Metaphor in Creative Sign Language’ project website, with info about poets and lots of poems – enjoy!
The evening performance at Signing Hands Across the Water can be seen online here: http://signinghandsacrossthewater.com/3-17-12-performance/
Richard Carter’s website: http://www.bslpoetry.co.uk
Flying Words Project website: http://www.deafpetercook.com/home/Flying_Words_Project.html
My YouTube Channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/DeafFirefly/videos