Shared Thinking Processes with Four Deaf Poets: A Window on "The Creative" in "Creative Sign Language"

Article excerpt

A WEALTH OF literature now exists on the subject of signlanguage poetry. Building on the recognition of sign languages as bona fide languages, various authors have engaged with poetic, creative, expressive sign-language compositions and performances as a way not only to celebrate, analyze, and understand sign-language poetry and poets (Klima and Bellugi 1979; Sandier and Lillo-Martin 2001; Sutton-Spence 2001, 2OO5;Tommaso 2004) but also to critically examine and establish their rightful place in a wider literary tradition (e.g., Bauman 2003; Rose 1992). By taking existing, digitized recordings of poetry performances by largely established, professional poets, linguists are able to analyze sign-language poetry for creative uses of symmetry, neologism, iconicity metaphor, repetition and rhythm, handshape and space (Valli 1990, 1993; Ormsby 1995; Blondel and Miller 2000; Russo, Giuranna, and Pizzuto 2001; Sutton-Spence and Kaneko 2007). Alternatively, analysis of established poems provides us with an opportunity to align sign-language poetry with other literary, cinematographic, and expressive art forms (Krentz 2006; Nelson 2006; Rose 2006). Occasionally, Deaf poets themselves offer insights into and analyses of traditions and features of sign-language poetry (Valli 1990, 1993; Bahan 2006; Lentz in Lerner and Feigel 2009) as performers with firsthand creative linguistic experience.

Other authors may (rarely) invite Deaf native signers to comment on and offer their own observations on sign-language poems (Tommaso 2004, although in this instance, they are simply thanked as advisors in the acknowledgments). Wolter (2006), to our knowledge, is the only person who has interviewed a Deaf poet (Peter Cook, United States) in a publication about traditions of sign-language poetry, its parallels with creative writing, and its importance for future Deaf generations. In this largely descriptive piece, Cook describes and offers perspectives on his established repertoire and reflects on his influences. In our research, we wanted to understand the thought processes that British Deaf poets engage in, the strategies they employ, and the resources they draw on - individually and jointly - as they begin to compose sign-language poems. We wanted to know how they approach, sidestep, overcome, challenge, and experiment with specific language problems that arise in specific language tasks.

Anthropomorphism and Sign Creativity

Sign-language poets draw on a wide range of tropes in their work, but we chose to focus on anthropomorphization as one that is very challenging to less skilled signers and yet so apparently effortless in the hands of certain poets. Although our focus in this article is the method we used to understand more about creative processes, it is helpful to explain a little about the end product they were working toward.

Anthropomorphization and personification overlap considerably, but, essentially, as a working definition, we take the trope as a figure of speech in which signers apply particular human characteristics to nonhuman entities or qualities, whether in form or behavior, including human communication, perhaps through the use of language (Bouchauveau 1994; Bechter 2008; Sutton-Spence and Napoli 2010).

As a framework for understanding how nonhumans are given human characteristics in creative sign language, we are guided by the understanding that the signs created in the process will be highly iconic, and thus we are able to draw on models of sign creation such as Christian Cuxac's transfer of person (as described in Sallandre 2007, for example), Sarah Taub's analogue building model (2001), and Paul Dudis's (2007) work on depiction using a conceptual blending model in ASL.

Taub's cognitive-linguistic view of iconicity is that it "is not an objective relationship between image and réfèrent; rather, it is a relationship between our mental models of image and réfèrent" (2001, 19). Sign-language poets' creativity extends to their unusual perspectives of the referents and the subsequently alternative mental models of the image, perhaps before they even set about developing the creative relationships between the two. …