Sign Language Poetry

This Week’s Bit of String: Children’s hands tied to their chairs

Imagine going to a special school, for children who share with you a unique difference from much of the world. But if you use this difference, you’ll be punished. This school tries to make you as un-different as possible, in accordance with the wishes of Those Who Know Best.

It would be a bit like taking Defence Against the Dark Arts without being allowed to do magic, wouldn’t it?

Shockingly, this was the experience for many hearing impaired children from 1880, when hearing people took over the deaf schools and prohibited sign language, through the 1960s and possibly even the 70s. One woman who went to deaf school in the 70s remembers that if she were caught signing there—despite coming from a deaf family with whom she signed all the time at home, not to mention her classmates were deaf—her hands would be tied behind her to her chair.

Curbing minority languages has a long history. African slaves brought to Haiti were banned from drumming, as they’d used drums to communicate over long distances. The drum again became an important art form to Haitians once they’d battled their freedom back. Gaelic and Welsh were previously marginalised by the British education system before making a comeback.

Likewise, sign language is once again a vital means of communication for the hearing impaired. It is becoming more of a fixture in public life, too, including at Ledbury Poetry Festival on the 8th of July, when I attended an event showcasing British Sign Language (BSL) Poetry.

Sign Art
Tudor street in Ledbury
Ledbury street

I’m ashamed to say it never occurred to me that sign language poetry existed (also known as sign art). I was thankful for the opportunity to be enlightened.

Ledbury’s event featured the signed poetry of Paul Scott. How can you have poetry without words? Well, poetry is more than just words, I would argue. It is emotion, rhyme and rhythm. You can have all those things without words.

Mr. Scott makes his poems rhyme by using repeated hand gestures, coming back to the same signed refrain, in a way. There is certainly rhythm in his movement. These elements were further illustrated at this performance with Victoria Punch’s ‘vocal gestures.’ She did not use words to echo Mr. Scott’s poetry, but sang notes and sounds to correspond with his phrases. This way, she did not detract attention from his language but lent emphasis to its patterns.

The performance was further complemented by film-poetry by Helen Dewbery and Chaucer Cameron. Most of the images used were abstract, and timed to correspond with Mr. Scott’s phrasing, as Ms. Punch’s vocals were. In all, this became a rich sensory experience while also allowing us a glimpse into the world of those whom some might see as sensorily deprived. Very fitting, as the message of Mr. Scott’s poems is that he feels the world deeply and wants us to know he is not deprived.

Matters of Translation

Because BSL uses a different syntax to English, hostess Kyra Pollitt did not offer a straightforward interpretation, but gave a summary of the poems between performances. This method made me realise the power of sign language. A single hand motion and/ or facial expression can indicate a great deal, without equivalent sentences being necessary. These generously provide the emotion necessary to poetry.

Tudor-sided corner building with gothic-style tower.
Ledbury’s former library building

Signed poetry can easily utilise the second person point of view. Mr. Scott’s poem ‘Who Stole My Heart’ implicated us as an audience, not in an excessively accusing way, but by making us aware of issues that concern him. Some of the audience felt this new language was more open to interpretation, but it seemed very direct to me (particularly when teamed with the preceding summary, the vocals and the film).

Other unique sign language qualities which enhance poetry: it allows for simultaneous symbols, which can add layers of meaning. It’s also a constantly, rapidly evolving means of communication, enabling the creation of new words to suit the work. There’s a cinematic aspect to it: sign language poets can zoom in or out, pan or freeze. As Ms. Pollitt described the art form, it creates ‘a collage of experience, making a medley.’

This uplifting event forced me to realise how intimate, and perhaps healthy it is to have an occasional holiday from words. I don’t know about you, but for me as a writer I’m often describing or narrating things in my mind. Of course it’s good to keep exercising those author muscles, but sometimes the phrases we’re turning turn our attention from the people in front of us.

This, on the other hand, was poetry with its heart on its sleeve, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s scary that this form of communication was repressed for so long and generations missed out on learning from it–but as so often happens, trying to stifle a group of people results in feeding their resourcefulness and creativity. For other examples of sign language poetry, here is DeafFirefly’s website, linking to her YouTube channel and to the pages of other sign language poets.

Inclusion Versus Appropriation

This Week’s Bit of String: A thriving literature festival in a tiny Cotswolds town.

Hawkesbury Upton hosted its third annual literature festival last week, featuring among many other events a panel on ‘Writing About Difference.’ I went along to hear seven people who had written about firsthand experiences with disability or chronic illness. They were carers or had disabilities themselves, writing in fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose, for children or adults.

The Inevitable Appropriation Question

Someone asked the panel how they feel about other writers with less personal experiences, writing about characters who have disabilities or illnesses. Concerns over appropriation and mainstream publishers’ sidelining of ‘Own Voices’ are prominent, particularly following Lionel Shriver’s controversial speech at Brisbane Writers Festival last year.

The panel generally responded that it’s necessary to have some knowledge. If you don’t have it, get it. If you’re not sure, ask someone to check. Moderator Dan Holloway emphasised the importance of sensitivity. ‘If you see no risk that you will offend, then you’re not the right person to write this.’

House up for auction in Hawkesbury Upton
I couldn’t resist taking a few photos while in Hawkesbury Upton.

We need to be aware of our characters and the resonances they carry. We may think we’re being grand and inclusive, but assuming that we’re portraying something correctly could be arrogant. If we’re taking the time to fully consider what our characters have gone through, if we’re getting to know and love them as we should, we’ll be aware of the risks and take precautions to avoid them.

A couple panelists seemed dazed by the question, and it occurred to me that in a way, making this an issue is selfish of us. Some of the speakers care for children with disabilities and parents with dementia, and spouses with mental illness, all at once. They don’t have time to assuage our artsy worries. We must ensure we don’t see them as potential plot devices, existing only to provide feedback on what we write about their difficulties.

‘Help us…’

The Hawkesbury Upton session got awkward when a prim older woman in the front row posed directed a question Jo Allmond and her grown up daughter Jess Hiles. Jess writes children’s stories based on her experiences living with learning disabilities, and gives educational talks. Despite these achievements, Jo had just told us that sometimes when she accompanies Jess to appointments, the professional will take one look at Jess, assume she can’t communicate, and speak solely to her mother.

‘But why shouldn’t they assume she can’t communicate?’ the front row woman asked. ‘She looks different, you’ve said as much yourself. If I were to approach any of you others on the panel,’ she addressed Dan and Thomas Shepherd, who’s written a novel called Mr. Tumnall and also happens to have Aspergers, ‘and speak to you as if you were normal, you’d take offence, even though you look normal. It seems to me that people in your situations almost want to be offended. Obviously we can’t expect you to wear a label informing us of your capacities, but how can you expect us to know them? Help us, we need you to help us.’

Rustlings from the audience, fixed smiles from the panel. I immediately detected the acute, uniquely English fear behind the woman’s question: For the love of God, don’t let me embarrass myself by offending somebody. I felt for her a little bit. I know people enslaved to that fear.

However, she neglected to think, even in the presence of these exceptional people facing terrible struggles, that worse fates can befall someone than embarrassment. In obsessing over her desire not to be perceived as offensive, she was genuinely offensive.

Tulips in Hawkesbury Upton
Tulips in Hawkesbury Upton.

While the speakers reassured her that basic, respectful communication (Good morning, isn’t the sunshine lovely today?) probably won’t bother anyone, the woman decided her point hadn’t been fully made. She wasn’t getting the help she wanted.

‘But you’re communicating for your daughter right now!’ she informed Jo. ‘She’s clearly not able to respond without you.’

Now, that’s crossing a line. I could see where the first question came from, misguided though it may have been. But how can someone insist that a person right in front of them is unresponsive, after being told that’s disrespectful and untrue? Jo and Jess had been answering in tandem, and let’s not forget that there are nonverbal means of communication.

‘Everyone’s Disabled’

So there was more backlash to that one. The panel kept impressively cool. Another lady in the audience, pink-cheeked and breathlessly earnest, stated, ‘I would like to suggest that we’re all disabled, we’re all restricted in some way.’

The audience liked this, and murmured assent. I wish I’d caught the panel’s faces at that moment, because the well-intentioned sentiment bothered me, and I imagined it might have bothered them.

Certainly, we all have problems. That’s why we need empathy! But a disability or chronic illness is a specific type of challenge. We wouldn’t say to a widow or widower, ‘Well, we’ve all lost somebody.’ We wouldn’t tell a refugee, ‘Well, we all have to relocate at some point.’ Okay, a few people might. But I don’t think that lovely woman would say those things.

So let’s not appropriate other people’s problems in perhaps an effort to diffuse our embarrassment or sense of survivor’s guilt.

How Can We Actually Help?

Buy and read books from all sorts of writers and listen to their Own Voices. Jo Allmond worked with another of the speakers, Joy Thomas, to publish Silent Voices, a wonderful volume of poetry from often overlooked people coping with disability. Thomas Shepherd’s book Mr. Tumnall sounds clever and intriguing. Check out Dan Jeffries’ memoir of coping with a rare medical condition, and don’t miss the children’s series Jess Hiles created, Jess the Goth Fairy. Follow Dan Holloway’s incredible Dandelion Project. Read Debbie Young‘s blog and books to see how a talented writer with first-hand experience depicts the journey of her family members with Type 1 Diabetes.

Stone pig statue and milk bottle outside Hawkesbury Upton door
A small town still life outside a Hawkesbury Upton door.

And as always, when we write let’s use well-rounded characters, and let them drive the story rather than be single-issue flagposts. LISTEN, observe, research. We should be doing that anyway, with any issue.

In my stories a few people happen to have mental illness or disability. Those are just parts of them; they have completely unrelated experiences that delight and move them. Because I’ve spent so much of my working life close to amazing people who cope with these challenges, it’s inevitable they’ll appear in my writing.

In The Wrong Ten Seconds, for example, the main character’s wife, Harriet, is paralysed and speechless after a stroke. He and his daughter struggle to care for Harriet’s physical needs while treating her mentally if nothing has changed. It’s a difficult balance, and one that writers about difference try to carry out. As the daughter says: ‘If we keep pretending Mum’s not in the state she’s in, don’t we risk minimising what she’s going through?’

Finally, let’s not seek a simple answer or a quick reassurance on this issue. Disabilities are tough–thankfully, the people who cope with them are often tougher. The balance between including diverse characters and appropriating those experiences from diverse writers never should get easy, so we need to maintain high sensitivity, and keep listening.

 

Writers with Day Jobs, Part 3: Goodbye, Post Office

This Week’s Bit of String: Letters to Putin

If you were a cultivator of stories, working in a post office, would you find yourself quite curious about what you were helping people send? I’ve always been quite numb to the letters and parcels—professional or perhaps just zombified—but sometimes my curiosity is truly piqued.

‘I need to send this letter to Russia.’ The soft-spoken piano teacher puts the envelope on my weighing scales. His thick, square glasses glint in the fluorescent lights.

I stamp the letter. It’s meticulously addressed to the Minister of Justice in Moscow. ‘I keep seeing these today,’ I tell the piano teacher. ‘What’s going on?’

Letterbox near Park Gardens in Stroud
Letterbox near Park Gardens in Stroud

He informs me Russia has begun proceedings to label Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremists. So the steady stream of polite, earnest customers posting letters to Russia’s Foreign Minister, Prime Minister, Justice Minister, and even President Putin himself—are attempts to reason with the enormous state.

I had no idea. And that’s just one thing I’ve learned working at the post office. I shall take my leave with a little mess of weird but possible story threads.

Grief, Observed

A pale old man collects his pension from the post office every Monday, his fingers trembling as he tries to remember his PIN. One week he told me his wife had cardiopulmonary disease, and a bad car accident a couple months before while returning from a hospital appointment certainly didn’t help. But he smiled as he said, ‘I know all about being a woman now, since my wife’s laid up. Running about doing all the work! Tell you what, if I have to come back as something when I die, I hope it’s not a woman.’

Monday comes around again. ‘It’s beautiful out today.’ The man says as his fingers jitter, uncertain, an inch above the card reader’s keypad. ‘The sun was so warm in our garden.’

I ask how his wife is doing.

‘She passed away yesterday morning. Sixty-three years we were together. I used to call her my little ray of sunshine…’ His voice is hoarse.

I’m nearly moved to tears myself. I’ve worked in a nursing home; I’ve seen bereavement and death before. But it’s different seeing it ‘in the real world,’ watching someone stricken so recently go through the necessary motions. At the post office, I’ve had to tell relatives we can’t ship human ashes to distant loved ones (apparently it’s a fire hazard). I’ve certified copies of death certificates, and helped bereaved parents close their late daughter’s bank account—the mother quietly explaining what she needed, the father sitting in the waiting area staring straight ahead.

Stories aren’t just big moments; they’re little ones. They’re how we drag huge burdens through each tiny step.

Beyond School Doors

Likewise, I’ve seen disability before. I’ve supported secondary school students with all kinds of difficulties, who worked tremendously hard to get through the schoolday. Once again, the post office showed me a different perspective.

Village Post Office and shop
This is not the Post Office I worked in. But I wonder if their mini-dramas would be so different from ours.

A girl in her late teens or early twenties comes to my counter, taps her ear, and utters ‘Deaf.’ She slips a note under the heavy glass partition of my ‘Fortress’ (that’s literally the Post Office terminology for the secure cubicle). She needs a box for posting a jacket to the USA, the note explains. I take her to the stationery and show her what the shop offers for packaging. We communicate with hand motions and the odd inarticulate noise. She seems pleased with the selection.

I think about how it must feel, forced to introduce oneself in such a way; to be immediately distinguished by what some might perceive as a deficiency. What bravery and resourcefulness surround us, and we barely even realise.

My previous jobs have inspired a great deal in my stories, as I’ve gotten to know students, colleagues, and nursing home residents very well. In the post office, interactions are fleeting, but still colourful and informative. It’s a lesson in efficiency. If my imagination can be so fuelled by a two-minute encounter, maybe I could shoehorn my observations into a flash fiction piece. My notebooks bristle with label-backs and till roll fragments scrawled with funny place names: Bald Knob Ridge, North Carolina. Thistley Hey Road, Liverpool. Runaway Heights, Jamaica. Thanks to these, I could still feel, despite being locked alone in a ‘Fortress’ at the back of a perishing shop in a town classed as a ‘Rural Area of Deprivation,’ that the world was at my fingertips. Not just geography, but the realm of words, with its truly infinite possibilities.

What windows does your job allow on the wider world?