(Thanks to Abigail Gorman and Luce Clark for the inspiration.)
Poetry and Sign was a unique event exploring the relationship between sign language, spoken poetry and dance, which took place at King’s Place in central London on 15th May.
Originally published on Disability Arts Online, 19 May 2014
As a harbinger of Deaf Awareness Week, which begins today, Remark!’s collaboration with Poet In The City was a strategic move that enabled sign language poets Ashley Kendall and Jean St Clair to showcase their talents alongside actor Tim Barlow (a cochlear implant user), Rambert dance choreographer Deborah Galloway, and performers from Roehampton Dance.
I am always more drawn to poetry when it is performed in BSL, rather than seeing it performed in spoken English with the words projected alongside on-screen. It’s not just that it is more accessible; rather, by default it calls for a much more animated and physical delivery, ensuring that images of flowers, snow, horses and even wind materialise from one solitary upper body alone.
I liked all of them! But one stanza that stuck in my mind was from Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by the woods on a snowy eve’:
‘He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.’
What the performance did admirably was to demonstrate how spoken poetry contrasts with its BSL interpretation. (Here, I use the word ‘interpretation’ loosely, for reasons given below.) Essentially, the event was structured so that each time a poem appeared on-screen – it could be Robert Frost, Louis MacNeice, or Ted Hughes – it was first recited orally by Barlow, and then performed in BSL by Kendall and St Clair, taking turns.
Rather than relay information in the manner of a formal interpreter, they developed their own take on the poetry, enabling them to bring not just a fuller BSL perspective but also their warm, individual personalities into their performance.
I liked the fact that instead of having voice-overs, it was left to the audience to follow their performance using projected words on-screen behind them, as guidance.
That some of the poems initially looked difficult to translate into BSL, but in actuality never were, also made me smile; it reinforced how fluid BSL is as a language. “It is not the fittest, or the strongest, or the cleverest that survive,” Charles Darwin is claimed to have said, “but those who are most adaptable to change.” Given its protracted oppression, no language can be proven to be more adaptable than British Sign Language.
Here and there, the poetry was intercut with speeches. Jean St Clair gave a sounding-board for how creative English-to-BSL translations work; Tim Barlow talked about how he became deaf and how that influenced his decision to become an actor.
Unfortunately, Deborah Calloway provided one of the few irritations of the evening when she perpetually obscured her assigned sign language interpreter with her exaggerated choreography. This might have been fine if she was dancing. In fact, she was simply explaining the theory behind her movements. As for the Roehampton dancers moving (and signing) abstractly to a solitary drum – the less said about them, the better.
That aside, Poetry and Sign attracted a full house, and for three perfectly good reasons – Kendall, St Clair and Barlow – I’d say, “More please!”