Redesigning Literature: The Cinematic Poetics of American Sign Language Poetry

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As literature and its criticism have evolved within speech and writing, the emergence of poetry in ASL raises important questions for anyone interested in the study of literature: Because ASL texts have no written form, can they rightfully be called "literature"? Would it be more accurate (though ironic) to speak of ASL texts as forms of "oral literature"? How does one even begin to discuss sign poetry? What lexicon should one use in identifying the poetic elements in a language without sound? This article explores the latter question concerning the lexicon of ASL poetics.

The more the arts develop the more they depend on each other for definition. We will borrow from painting first and call it pattern. Later we will borrow from music and call it rhythm.

E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

AFTER GRADUATING FROM COLLEGE as an English major, I found myself, like most English majors, working in an unrelated field. I was to find out, however, that my job as a dormitory supervisor at a residential school for Deaf students was more related than I had anticipated. One evening as I watched Deaf high school students exchange stories in the cafeteria, a question came to me: Does American Sign Language (ASL) have literature? The thought of a nonwritten, nonspoken medium of literature shook the very foundation of my education. It ran counter to everything I had been taught about literature, yet it made perfect sense. What the students were doing seemed akin to drama in that it was a type of performance, akin to poetry in that it involved creative use of language, and akin to folklore in that it had no written form. Yet I had never heard of ASL literature in my four years as an undergraduate. As I began to discover the Deaf community's active storytelling and poetry traditions, I realized that it was not just my education, but the entire hearing-based definition of literature that was lacking because it did not account for the full human range of linguistic and literary media.

Indeed, as literature and its criticism have evolved within speech and writing, the emergence of poetry in ASL raises important questions for anyone interested in the study of literature: Because ASL texts have no written form, can they rightfully be called literature? Would it be more accurate (though ironic) to speak of ASL texts as forms of "oral literature"? How does one even begin to discuss sign poetry? What lexicon should one use in identifying the poetic elements in a language without sound? This article explores the latter question concerning the lexicon of ASL poetics.

The first critics to embark on the study of creative works in ASL were linguists seeking to validate ASL's linguistic and aesthetic properties. In doing so, they have discerned equivalents to formal poetic elements such as meter, rhyme, metaphor, simile, and line breaks. Leading the way in this effort is Deaf linguist and poet Clayton Valli, whose identification of ASL rhymes and meter the Deaf community commonly accepts today. According to Valli, an ASL rhyme is formed through the repetition of particular handshapes, movement paths of signs, or nonmanual signals (i.e., facial expressions) (Valli 1990a, 1990b). Identifying these counterparts to spoken and written poetic elements has proven indispensable in establishing a standardized lexicon for ASL poetics.

One must ask, though, whether it is necessary to limit the lexicon to the elements of spoken and written poetics. After all, couldn't one view ASL poetry as a visual art that shares similar features such as composition, line, balance, space, scale, and perspective? Couldn't one also discuss ASL poetry in terms of musical rhythm and phrasing? Still, none of these concepts sufficiently accounts for ASL's simultaneous foregrounding of the visual-spatial-kinetic dimensions of experience. In this regard ASL bears greater affinity with another art form that weds vision with movement: film. This article is an initial attempt to apply cinematic language to a discussion of ASL poetic practice and analysis. …