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H-Dirksen L. Bauman, Associate Professor, Gallaudet University
(Sign Language Studies)

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 (149)

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 have literature?  The thought of a non-written, non-spoken medium of literature shook the very foundation of my education.  It ran counter to everything I had been taught about literature, and yet it made perfect sense. What the students were doing seemed to be akin to drama as it was a type of performance, akin to poetry as it involved creative use of language, and akin to folklore, as there was no written form.  And 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 as 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 American Sign Language (ASL) raises important questions for anyone interested in the study of literature: As 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 be used in identifying the poetic elements in a language without sound? It is the latter question concerning the lexicon of ASL poetics that will be explored in this essay.

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 such formal poetic elements as meter, rhyme, metaphor, simile, and line-breaks. Leading the way in this the effort has been Deaf linguist and poet, Clayton Valli, whose identification of ASL rhymes and meter are commonly accepted in the Deaf community today.  According to Valli, an ASL rhyme is formed through the repetition of particular handshapes, movement paths of signs, or non-manual signals (i.e. facial expressions) (Valli, "Nature of a Line"; Poetry in Motion; ASL Poetry: Selected Works). Identifying such counterparts to spoken/written poetic elements has proven indispensable in establishing a standardized lexicon for ASL poetics.

One must ask, though, if it is necessary to limit the lexicon to the elements of spoken-written poetics. After all, couldn't ASL poetry be seen as a visual art that shares such similar features as composition, line, balance, space, scale, and perspective?  Couldn't ASL poetry also be discussed 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.  In what follows, this essay is an initial attempt at applying cinematic language as a means of ASL poetic practice and analysis.

Comparing ASL with film is not a new idea.  Over thirty years ago, Deaf actor Bernard Bragg clearly perceived the inherent cinematic nature of manual languages.  Bragg's insights led the preeminent sign linguist, William Stokoe, to describe ASL grammar in the following terms:

In a signed language . . . narrative is no longer linear and prosaic.  Instead, the essence of sign language is to cut from a normal view to a close-up to a distant shot to a close-up again, and so on, even including flashback and flash-forward scenes, exactly as a movie editor works. . . . Not only is signing itself arranged more like edited film than like written narration, but also each signer is placed very much as a camera: the field of vision and angle of view are directed but variable. (qtd. in Sacks 90)

Given such a close relation between techniques used in ASL and film, one wonders why the lexicon of film techniques is not a standard part of ASL poetics. This hesitancy may be due, in part, to the need to demonstrate that ASL is not simply a collection of iconic gestures, but a linguistic system capable of all the symbolic, abstract content of spoken languages.  Yet, describing ASL in cinematic terms does not mean that it is as purely representational as cinema.  If it were, non-signers would be able to comprehend ASL without training, just as they would mime; yet, they are not.  As four decades of linguistic research have shown, ASL possesses all the symbolic properties of spoken-written language.  Criticism of sign poetry may now be freed from the duty of validating ASL as a language to explore sign's most unique quality: movement within three-dimensional space. 

When Deaf performers seize on ASL's spatial-kinetic grammar, the effect is, as Bernard Bragg puts it, like watching "the camera eye in motion" (personal correspondence). Through his years of performing with the National Theater for the Deaf, Bragg has developed his own dramatic and cinematic method of signing that he calls "Visual Vernacular."  In this method, Bragg explains, "The performer remains all the time within the film frame, so to speak, presenting a montage of cross-cuts and cutaway views.  [Visual Vernacular] liberates latent resources of visual self-expression in creative signing that leads to a new fluency and dramatic impact."  If ASL performers themselves describe their work in such cinematic terms, why shouldn't ASL poetics include these terms as a part of a standardized lexicon? 

It must be stated, though, that borrowing cinematic vocabulary to discuss ASL poetry does not imply that the creative processes involved in the two arts are identical. While film is an intensely collaborative art, ASL poetry is generally the product of a single author who assumes a variety of creative roles. The ASL poet is the screenwriter, who composes the linguistic text; the camera-man, who arranges the visual-spatial composition of individual shots; the editor, who decides how to arrange the various shots together; the actor, who embodies the characters and images; and finally, the director, who unites all these interconnected aspects into a single text.  Despite the differences in the process of creation, film and signed texts bear enough grammatical and aesthetic similarities that the lexicon of film language may be applied to sign language. 

It is also important to note that a cine-poetic lexicon should not replace the formalist approach that is currently in place.  Valli's approach, which forms a foundation of ASL poetics, continues to be a rich area of exploration and research.   A cine-poetic vocabulary can only enhance this approach, as it focuses in particular on the creation of visual, spatial, and kinetic images.  By delving deeper into the realm of "images" we may arrive at a better understanding of how a text produces a particular effect in the mind and body of the viewer--what Stefan Sharff calls "cinesthetic impact."

Basic Elements of Cine-poetics: The Shot and Editing

A shared lexicon logically begins with the basic unit of construction for film grammar: the shot. Like photography and the visual arts, the limits of visual/spatial composition is determined by the "frame."  The shot's spatial composition is largely dependent on the distance between the camera and the objects within the frame, ranging from long to medium to close-up shots. In addition, the duration of a single shot may vary from the split second shots characteristic of MTV to shots carried out over a long period of time.  Unlike the shot in photography, the cinemagraphic shot is able to record movement within the frame and also make the frame itself become mobile. 

By themselves, individual shots do not constitute film grammar.  Filmmaking is largely about using a variety of editing techniques to bring about desired effects. Consider, for example, the famous Odessa steps massacre of Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. Eisenstein's brilliant montage, which lasts for seventy-five seconds and consists of fifty-five shots, powerfully conveys a sense of terror and pathos that a single, unedited camera shot could not.  Through his use of parallel editing, cross-cutting, camera movements, multi-angular shots, and a remarkable array of close-up, medium and long shots, Eisenstein creates an unforgettable cinesthetic experience.

As in film, the individual shot may be thought of as the basic compositional unit in ASL poetry.  The frame in ASL poetry is not quite as rigidly inscribed as the frame in the cinematic shot.  The signer's body and its immediate environment create the frame of the text. ASL poets fill this space in a similar manner as to how cinematographers fill cinematic space: through series of close-ups, medium shots, and long-shots.  As ASL's grammar consists of the body's movements through three-dimensional space, it has a wide array of visual and linguistic tools to create a variety of shots.  Non-manual markers such as facial expressions often convey a close-up shot of a character.  In addition, ASL makes extensive use of a classifier system, which consists of classes of handshapes and their movements that are able to describe the physical properties of objects-their location, size, shape, dimensions, scale and number-and also their movements-their speed, direction, and attitude. Classifiers easily create distant shots (as will be seen in the examples below) but can also be used to describe the shape and dimensions of an object, say a single cell, from an extreme close-up shot. 

While ASL can present visual material in a variety of dimensions and perspectives, it is how a poet edits shots into the stream of a poem or narrative that creates a particular cinesthetic impact. In order to discuss editing techniques in ASL poetry, it is necessary to turn to the poems themselves. 

The following discussion of cinematic technique begins with a brief excerpt from Clayton Valli's "The Lone, Sturdy Tree" (Poetry in Motion 1988). Representing sign poetry through writing itself demonstrates the vast differences between sign and spoken and written forms of poetry. Translating the body's movements through three-dimensions of space into written form obviously entails great aesthetic and linguistic loss. If it were possible, this essay would be much more effective if presented on videotape. [1]   For the time being, though, we have to suffice with print.

"The Lone, Sturdy Tree"

Shot 1: The opening shot operates as a type of narrative voice-over; the signing persona signs: Every morning, I drive through the dry landscape. As the sign "drive" is highly mimetic-the persona holding the steering wheel with both hands-we see the driver from the waist up, similar to a medium shot in film.

Shot 2: Long, reverse-angle, moving shot.  The camera has turned away from the driver 180-degrees, (reverse-angle) now looking from the driver's perspective watching the dry, hilly terrain roll by the moving car. The surface of the terrain is created through the "five" classifier handshape, palms facing the ground, designating flat surfaces. Valli manipulates this classifier to convey the rolling motions, indicating the contour of the landscape.  As the shot comes to a close, the camera moves from facing forward to the signer's left where it shows an object on a hill in the distance. At this point, the camera comes to a standstill, thrusting the viewers' attention directly on the distant object.  

The first illustration shows the handshapes and movements that convey the contour of the rolling landscape.

 The second illustration shows the end of the shot: an object in the distance created through a classifier handshape.

Shot 3: Static, medium shot of a tree centrally located in the frame.   Now we see that the distant object was a tree. Here, Valli modifies the conventional sign for TREE to convey the particularly gnarled nature of the Ôlone sturdy tree'. This shot includes the whole tree, from the trunk to the branches, thus corresponding to a medium shot of a tree in film.

From shots 4-20, Valli cuts between the sun, tree, wind, and narrator voice-overs to convey the tree's endurance.  The poem then repeats the shots described above (1-3) before the final two shots of the poem. The penultimate shot shows the driver, thinking of all the conflicts he must face at work.  He looks at the tree and identifies with its endurance.  The final shot is the familiar image: medium shot of the lone, sturdy tree. 

The initial cinemagraphic phrasing is crucial to creating the cinesthetic effect Valli intended.  Here Valli makes effective use of what is called an "establishing shot," frequently used as an opening shot of a sequence, showing the overall spatial context of a scene.  Typical of Hollywood Westerns, the wide, establishing shot of the open landscape precedes focus on particular elements within the landscape.  As Valli's second shot covers much of the barren landscape, he conveys the broad geographical location of the tree before he focuses in on one particular tree. Had Valli begun with the medium shot without the establishing shot, the Ôloneness' of the tree would be lost, as would the meaning of the poem.

As Valli explains in the videotape, he created the poem about a time he worked in a program for three Deaf students in Nevada.  Perpetually frustrated by the lack of services and support for Deaf students, Valli identified with the tree's endurance in a harsh environment with no support.  This barren environment parallels the educational environment provided for many mainstreamed students: they are forced to endure without being given the essential ingredients for intellectual growth; further, they are constantly monitored by the panoptic gaze of the hearing educators, roughly corresponding to the brutal gaze of the sun on the tree.  While the sun may be responsible for growth, without water and nurturing, no growth will occur. The tree survives, though, on its own, despite its scarce encouragement. The feeling of the tree's solitary position is crucial to the impact of the poem, and is created through the technique of the "establishing shot" in contrast with the familiar and repeated medium shot of the tree.

While Valli's poem uses the popular long establishing shot to direct the viewers' focus to the main object of attention, there are, as with film, numerous other strategies for creating a particular focus of attention.   The opposite technique-beginning with a close-up and then moving back-can also be found in ASL poetry, as seen in the work of another Deaf poet, Debbie Rennie. 

Rennie's "Missing Children" (1988) (created with Kenny Lerner) uses a variety of cinematic techniques to contrast the still photographs of missing children often seen on flyers and milk cartons with the more in-depth narratives offered by film.  Rennie begins the poem with a medium shot (waist-up) of an unidentified child handing a picture to an adult. The second shot cuts to an adult looking at the card. The third shot is a close-up of the photo itself: Rennie's expressions convey an innocent looking child asking the question, HAVE YOU SEEN ME?  The poem responds to this question, not by giving a simple yes/no answer as the questions elicits, but by speculating on the possible lives of abused, maimed, and murdered children throughout the world.  From the central image of a still photo, Rennie tells three separate stories in three sections, each introduced through a location: Nicaragua, South Africa, and Ireland.  While all three sections of the poem use cinematic techniques, this essay focuses on the Nicaragua section of the poem. Space constraints require that the following section be rendered in prose, rather than illustrations. 

"Missing Children: Nicaragua"

The Nicaragua section begins with a close-up of a boy (neck up) described as cute with dark skin and hair. The narrator tells us that the boy is working on a coffee farm.  In the next shot, the camera moves back, presenting a medium-close up of the boy (waist-up) planting coffee beans carefully.  Rennie then cuts to a medium close-up of the father, planting coffee alongside his son. This is shown though the standard "role-shift" in ASL, where a narrator shifts her body to convey the presentation of another character. This is strikingly similar to the film technique common in dialogue scenes where the camera shifts from speaker to speaker.

After one more shot of the boy, Rennie cuts to a wide, distant shot that describes the wider geographical, social context with the help of a narrator-like voice over: MANY PEOPLE   ALL OVER THE LAND   PLANTING HOEING RAKING PLANTING   ALL OVER.  Rennie then cuts back to the familiar image of the father planting, then to the boy planting, and then to a shot of the dense forest surrounding the farmers. The camera moves through the trees, slowly at first, then increasing in speed, leading to a crescendo: out of the jungle come figures, shown by the one-handshape classifier, followed by a horde, shown through all the fingers representing people (distant shot).

The next shot, a medium close up (waist up), informs viewers that it was soldiers coming out of the forest. After a description of a soldier's uniform-buttons, hat, gun-he open fires on the farmers. We then see a long-shot, showing people being massacred; the "two" handshape classifier resembles the legs of bodies thrust backwards and falling to the ground after being riddled full of bullets. Rennie cuts back to the boy planting as before, then to a distant shot of a body being shot, then back to the boy. Hands grab the boy's shoulders. Rennie then cuts to the soldier grabbing the boy's shoulders.  This particular cut matches the action from one shot to the action of another, only shown from different angles. 

What follows is a series of alternating shots that show the soldier putting his hat on the boy's head, offering his gun to the boy, and shooting over the boy's head while the boy offers a coffee bean to the farmer.  The juxtaposition of these acts created through cutting from one to the other creates a poignant contrast.  At the end of the sequence, Rennie moves into slow motion, showing the soldier cock the gun, and fire at the boy.  The section concludes with a gesture signifying a loud noise.

Rennie's poem shows an opposite approach to Valli's "establishing shot" by opening the scene with a close-up of the boy. Here, Rennie uses a cinematic technique known as "slow-disclosure." Beginning with the central focus of the poem, the shots gradually widen, guiding the audience to first connect with the boy and then to see him in the context of his world-father, community, land, brutality.

In addition to "slow-disclosure," Rennie also uses the spatial composition of her shots for cinesthetic impact.  Rennie does not actually show the father being shot, but the audience infers this as the soldier occupies the same location as the father within the frame. The space, once occupied by the image of giving life-father and son planting seeds-is now occupied by a scene of death. Rennie also makes conscious use of modern cinematic techniques as she employs slow motion frequently in the poem: as the Nicaraguan death squad soldier kills the boy, as the South African police riddle a mother with bullet holes in her back, and as Malotov cocktails fly through the air in the Ireland section. Slowing down at these moments opens up the horror, enlarging it for viewers to behold.  By the time she uses slow motion, we are so involved with the characters that we cannot look away.  Interestingly, the moments of slow motion are the moments when the children become missing, which leads to their ultimate stillness as photographic images. It's as if Rennie is slowing the scenes to return the poem to its opening and ending scenes: stills of photographs.

Conclusion: Toward a Viewer-Response Criticism

Through these two examples, we can begin to see how the poet constructs a particular moment in time and space, a particular "lived experience."  Yet, it is not only the poet who creates the images; the viewer enters into the co-creation of the particular cine-poetic experience. As with any medium that incorporates the human body, a type of intersubjective communication occurs between performer and viewer.  Whether flesh, celluloid, analogue, or digitized, the ASL text is always a human body, projecting its own visual-spatial-kinetic experience, awakening similar lived experiences in the minds and bodies of the viewers.  As Merleau-Ponty writes, bodies understand each other:

It is precisely my body which perceives the body of another person and discovers in that other body a miraculous prolongation of my own intentions, a familiar way of dealing with the world.  Henceforth, as the parts of my body together comprise a system, so my body and the other person's are one whole, two sides of one and the same phenomenon . . . . (Phenomenology of Perception 233)

The two bodies together, the poet's and the viewer's, ultimately combine to create the text which is more than a script of linguistic signs, but a lived cinesthetic experience. Valli's shot of the rolling hills can actually make the audience feel like it's moving over landscape. As we witness Valli's opening phrases, we relive the sensation ourselves of moving through landscape in a car.  Similarly, Rennie's editing techniques make us feel as if we are actually in the presence of a boy and a father planting coffee. As the boy looks up toward his father, we perceive that he is shorter than his father; when the father looks down we perceive he is taller. While Rennie's height does not change, cutting from character to character evokes a familiar visual-spatial experience in the minds and bodies of the viewers. As the famous Russian filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein describes, "The image planned by the [filmmaker] has become flesh of the flesh of the spectator's risen image . . . Within me, as a spectator, this image is born and grown.  Not only the author has created, but also I-the creating spectator-have participated" (34).

These two brief examples-Valli's and Rennie's poems-- may begin to illustrate how a theory of cinesthetic impact may help to understand how poets and their audiences create particular visual, poetic effects. Yet, this is only the beginning of a dialogue between film studies and sign languages.  While we have seen how the lexicon of film criticism may be applied to ASL poetry, the next step is to see how the cine-poetics of ASL can enrich understanding of the nature of film studies.

 In opening an exchange between film and Sign, perhaps the first point of contact appears in the question of "film language." In the early seventies, Christian Metz set out to explore the relations of linguistics and film, seeking to understand how films signify.  While film cannot be said to be a language in the strict sense of the word-no one spontaneously acquires the ability to produce film in order to communicate-both systems do bear larger syntagmatic similarities.  Like language, film

possesses the ability to generate a nearly infinite set of propositions from a set of rules. Cinema Ôsyntax,' like the syntax of language, is in itself a creative force, to use Noam Chomsky's terminology. Its rules, no matter what is being expressed, make possible the formation of a large number of film phrases, including ones that have never been used before.  As long as grammatical order is adhered to, those phrases will be accepted and understood. (Sharff 33)

A film thrown haphazardly together would not signify correctly just as words thrown randomly on the page would not make sense.  If scenes are not edited properly, disconcerting jumps will occur, "grammatical mistakes" if you will. If a full shot of an actress, for example, is shown on the right side of the screen, then she should also appear on the right side if there is a cut to a close-up along the same visual axis.  If she were to appear on the left, this would distract the viewer's ability to correctly read the film. As Daniel Arijon writes, "The spectator must be given a comfortable eye scan of the shots with a constant orientation that allows him to concentrate on the story" (20).

While future inquiry needs to be made into the grammatical requirements of both film and Sign, these initial connections raise some interesting questions: To what extent do they operate according to a similar visual-spatial-kinetic logic? Could ASL linguistics offer a more precise means of identifying the grammatical constraints of film? If, indeed, Sign and film grammars behave similarly, we must wonder what this reveals about the cognitive structures of the human mind.

While many presume that film has introduced a uniquely modern means of perceiving the world, we can reasonably assume cinematic-like composition of Sign predated the cinematograph by a good 2500 years. We can speculate that the Deaf signers mentioned by Plato in The Cratylus conversed through a series of visual images that were constantly being framed, cut, and edited throughout the course of a narrative. In this sense, cinematic experience may be akin to aspects of Deaf epistemology that have been around as long as signing communities. Cinema is but one medium through which we can produce moving images; Sign is another such medium-perhaps even the ur-medium-for producing moving images.

In addition to examining the relations of film and Sign within criticism of the arts, a wide-open area for exploration exists in the creative practice of the arts.  Indeed, a theory of cinesthetic impact may also encourage further experimentation with the codes of cinematic language among ASL poets themselves. Conversely, could this dialogue open creative possibilities to directors who understand the cinepoetics of ASL?  We can only assume that a rich exchange between the visual languages of ASL poetry and cinema will take place as both art forms continue to explore the seemingly endless possibilities of cinesthetic experience.


Arijon, Daniel.  Grammar of the Film Language. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1976.

Bahan, Ben and Sam Supalla. American Sign Language Literature Series.  Videocassette and Workbook.  San Diego:  Dawn Sign Press, 1992.

Bragg, Bernard.  Personal Correspondence with the Author.  25 March 1999.

Eisenstein, Sergei.  The Film Sense.  Trans. Jay Leyda.  New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1969.

Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985.

Graybill, Patrick. Poetry in Motion.  Video. Burtonsville, MD: 1990.

Lentz, Ella Mae.  The Treasure.  Video. Berkeley, CA: InMotion Press, 1995. 

Metz, Christian. Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema.  Trans. Micheal Taylor. New York: Oxford UP, 1974.

Nilsen, Vladimir. Cinema as a Graphic Art.  New York: Hill and Wang, 1973.

Rennie, Debbie. Poetry in Motion.  Video. Burtonsville, MD: Sign Media, Inc. 1990.

Sacks, Oliver.  Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf.  New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.

Sharff, Stefan. The Elements of Cinema: Toward a Theory of Cinesthetic Impact. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.

Valli, Clayton. ASL Poetry: Selected Works of Clayton Valli. Video.  San Diego: Dawn Pictures, 1995. 

---.  "The Nature of the Line in ASL Poetry." SLR'87 Papers from the Fourth International Symposium on Sign Language Research.  Eds W. H. Edmondson and F. Karlsson. Hamburg: Signum Press, 1990. 

---. Poetry in Motion.  Video. Burtonsville, MD: Sign Media, Inc., 1990.

[1] For this reason, the future of ASL criticism must be in the form of video, CD-ROM or DVD texts.  Currently, a collection of critical approaches to ASL literature is being edited and will be produced in CD-ROM format. (see Bauman, Nelson and Rose, Signing the Body Poetic: Essays in American Sign Language Literature, forthcoming 2003, University of California Press.)

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