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
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
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
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. For
the time being, though, we have to suffice with print.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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and Sam Supalla. American Sign Language Literature Series.
Videocassette and Workbook. San Diego: Dawn Sign Press,
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Sergei. The Film Sense. Trans. Jay Leyda.
New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1969.
Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
Poetry in Motion. Video. Burtonsville, MD: 1990.
Mae. The Treasure. Video. Berkeley, CA: InMotion
Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema. Trans. Micheal
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Cinema as a Graphic Art. New York: Hill and Wang, 1973.
Poetry in Motion. Video. Burtonsville, MD: Sign Media, Inc.
Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf.
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The Elements of Cinema: Toward a Theory of Cinesthetic Impact.
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