"Signing Hands Across the Water" is a particularly ambitious effort for this expert in deaf culture. "This is my first time organizing anything this big or internationally," she confessed.
Many people think sign language is a translation of language into movement, but signing is actually a distinct language. It has vocabulary and grammar, such as the speed with which signs are performed or the space between signs. Expressed as poetry, sign language pushes its own boundaries. Poets will sometimes abandon traditional sign language vocabulary in favor of miming, creating a performance that becomes a mix of dance, theater, poetry, and storytelling.
To Sutton-Spence's knowledge, this is the first such festival to bring together American and British poets. That distinction is noteworthy: American Sign Language (ASL) and British Sign Language (BSL) are different languages. "Over the years BSL has been a little influenced by ASL and both have been influenced by French Sign Language, which used to be dominant," Sutton-Spence said. "But the vocabulary is very different." Translators for both languages will be present at all events during the festival.
ASL poets attending the event include Peter Cook and his collaborator Kenny Lerner, who is not deaf but is fluent in ASL. The duo have created the Flying Words Project, an ASL poetry troupe dedicated to creating real 3-D imagery through their work with language.
Cook became interested in poetry as a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology. There, he saw deaf poet Robert Panara mime Allen Ginsberg's Hydrogen Jukebox from "Howl." Cook realized that the same types of mimes he had used to joke with friends had been his own way of composing poetry.
Lerner and Cook met in 1984, when Lerner was asked to translate for Cook at a hearing poetry performance. "We just clicked," Lerner said and the two have been working together ever since. Over time, Lerner's role in the performances has changed. He doesn't directly translate into spoken language what Cook is communicating through ASL, but he sets scenes to help a hearing audience better understand and visualize the images Cook creates.
Their collaborative work seeks to do more than just communicate. They want to make use of the artistic possibilities of sign language. "Different languages have different qualities," Lerner said. "Italian is a beautiful language for music. Persian is a beautiful language for spoken poetry.
"ASL is a 3-D picture language," he said, "so it is a beautiful language with which to create such imagery in poetry."
"Signing Hands Across the Water," Swarthmore College, 500 College Ave., Swarthmore, today through Sunday. Open performance at 7 p.m. tomorrow, Tarble Room in Clothier Hall. All events free, but some require registration. For more info: signinghandsacrossthewater.com.
Art Attack is a partnership with Drexel University and is supported by a grant from the Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge, administered by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.