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University of California Press
Signing the Body Poetic: Essays on American Sign Language Literature / Edition 1

Signing the Body Poetic: Essays on American Sign Language Literature / Edition 1


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520229761
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 12/20/2006
Edition description: BK & DVD
Pages: 292
Sales rank: 523,010
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.73(d)

About the Author

H-Dirksen L. Bauman is Professor in the Department of American Sign Language and Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University. Jennifer L. Nelson is Professor in the Department of English at Gallaudet University. Heidi M. Rose is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at Villanova University.

Read an Excerpt

Signing the Body Poetic

Essays on American Sign Language literature

University of California Press

Copyright © 2006

The Regents of the University of California

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-22976-2

Chapter One

Face-to-Face Tradition in
the American Deaf Community

Dynamics of the Teller, the Tale,
and the Audience



The brief DVD clip with which this chapter begins (clip 2.1), showing a duo
performance of a "song" whose signs are arranged to a rhythmical cadence,
is only one short moment in a long history of storytelling and performance
in the American Deaf community. As long as Deaf people have congregated
in schools, clubs, and homes, they have passed down cultural patterns, values,
and beliefs in the DEAF WORLD from one generation to the next in
something very much like an oral tradition. According to Goody (1992),
"[T]he oral tradition consists of everything handed down (and ipso facto
created) through the oral channel-in other words, virtually the whole culture
itself" (13). As James Paul Gee (1983) recognizes, "[I]t sounds paradoxical
to say so, but ASL [American Sign Language] exists in an 'oral' culture,
a culture based on face-to-face signed interaction, with writing and middleclass
literacy playing little or no role in much of the heart of the community.
Like many other suchcultures, it has an active tradition of folklore and
performance-centered 'oral' (signed) narrative, encapsulating traditional
values, and passed down from generation to generation" (232).

While similarities abound between signed and oral traditions, the Deaf
community is not a purely oral community; rather, it exists along an oral-literate
continuum. In many parts of the world, oral subcultures exist within
a literate majority culture (Ong 1982; Edwards and Sienkewicz 1990; Goody
1992). In these communities, it is not surprising to find an oral-literate continuum
(Edwards and Sienkewicz 1990). There are people who thrive on
oral traditions when among members of their subculture but who can also
behave as members of the literate majority culture. Those people are likely
to be bilinguals. In such cross-cultural contact situations, the notion of
"pure" orality is probably nonexistent. "Moreover, elements of the oral tradition,
like folktales, inevitably get written down, whereas elements of the
written tradition are often communicated orally" (Goody 1992, 13). The
DEAF WORLD is obviously a minority culture situated within a majority
culture, so the notion that it is primarily an oral culture-without any influence
from literate culture-is misleading; however, the situation is more
complicated than it seems.

There is no widespread use of a written form in the primary face-to-face
language of the community-ASL. In addition, most, if not all, members
of the DEAF WORLD are ASL-English bilinguals to varying degrees (see
Grosjean 1996), so there is some access to literate cultural knowledge. Moreover,
because Deaf people are also members of the majority culture (i.e.,
American culture), they interact on a daily basis with English-speaking
people by communicating with them in a variety of ways: speaking or writing.
Although literate knowledge is accessed in a language (English) that is
not primarily used in face-to-face situations among members of the DEAF
WORLD, we cannot ignore the relationship between the two cultures and
their influences on each other. It is safe to say, then, that many of the patterns
of oral and signed face-to-face traditions are similar and that only the
medium is different. To be more precise in reflecting this difference of
medium, this chapter will use the term face-to-face tradition.

The synthesis of thoughts and observations reported in this chapter
sprang from my role as a storyteller and lifelong participatory member of
the DEAF WORLD. I have had the opportunity of exchanging insights
with other storytellers, poets, and performers over more than twenty years.
From these exchanges, I have come to recognize distinct patterns in our literary
practices, themes, and genres. Here I offer an overview of these literary
patterns in the DEAF WORLD.

The Face-to-Face Tradition in Deaf Culture

To gain some insight into the sociohistorical environment of the face-to-face
tradition of Deaf culture, let us turn to the experience of Gilbert Eastman
(professor emeritus at Gallaudet University and one of the founding
members of National Theatre of the Deaf) (pers. comm., June 1999). He
remembers being exposed to the types of stories discussed in this chapter
while growing up at American School for the Deaf (ASD) in Hartford,
Connecticut, in the 1940s. He vividly remembers watching with awe as
older kids performed various stories, especially when he was a Boy Scout.
His troop would go camping every year, and at night the boys would gather
around the campfire and share stories. The older Scouts would tell and
retell mystery stories, ghost stories, scenes from movies, Deaf-related experiences,
jokes, sign play, and ABC stories. Bear in mind that the "older
tellers" in Eastman's childhood memories were boys who were enrolled in
school in the early to mid-1930s. They must have learned the craft of storytelling
and tales from someone before them. One might wonder: Just
how far back did those ASL story performances at ASD go? Interestingly,
we are fortunate to have one of the earliest records of a signed performance
captured in a film project by the National Association of the Deaf (NAD)
that was produced between 1910 and 1920. The film series contains various
lectures, performances, poems, stories, songs, and narratives of personal
experience. One storyteller in this series, John B. Hotchkiss, a professor
of English and history at Gallaudet, was an ASD graduate. In one of
his performances, a narrative of personal experience entitled "Memories of
Old Hartford," he reminisced about his days at ASD as a child (in the early
1860s) and his encounter with the famed French Deaf educator Laurent
Clerc. He recounted various stories about Clerc, who was already retired
but living nearby at the time Hotchkiss was at ASD. In one instance, he
portrayed Laurent Clerc lecturing about how the subtle difference in English
word order makes a big difference in meaning, focusing on the meaning
difference between the two phrases "eat to live" and "live to eat." In
any case, we know that since Hotchkiss's time Deaf storytellers have been
passing on their stories, culture, and identity through a tradition that has
been kept alive through face-to-face events. We don't know exactly which
ASL literature genres existed in the early days, but we know from the NAD
films that at least the following genres go back to the turn of the twentieth
century: narratives of personal experience, lectures, and translated songs,
poems, and stories.

According to Gilbert Eastman, the environment of sharing stories was
not limited to those inside a school for the deaf. There were opportunities
for contact among regional schools for the deaf through interscholastic
meets (e.g., in football, basketball, and track). He recalls many evenings,
before or after the games, when students from different schools would
share stories in a snack bar or dance hall. Thus it is apparent that stories
were disseminated across a region of several states. It was not uncommon
for people to learn new stories from such gatherings and bring them back
to their local school. These gatherings also gave budding storytellers the
opportunity to try out their craft with a new audience and to establish a
reputation as storytellers. Eventually these signers would graduate and
enter local Deaf clubs and different associations in the region, such as the
American Athletic Association of the Deaf, currently known as USA Deaf
Sports Federation, NAD, and the National Fraternal Society of the Deaf.
At these regional affairs, they would encounter Deaf people they had met
at interscholastic meets and be prompted into performing.

So in essence all these places-schools, interscholastic meets, Deaf clubs,
Deaf associations, and regional or national tournaments or conferences-have
served as settings that perpetuate face-to-face cultural transmission.
Often performances have sprung up at these locations as a by-product of
the gatherings. Sometimes the performances themselves have been the goal
of the gatherings (as in literary societies and theater groups).


Everyone in the DEAF WORLD can tell stories and share ideas and personal
experiences. However, only a few can do so with such skill that they
are often called upon to perform. Those with this special talent are often
called "smooth signers." A smooth signer is someone who as a language
artist can weave a story so smoothly that even complex utterances appear
simple, yet beautiful.

Often these smooth signers end up becoming the community's storytellers
and/or poets and are encouraged by the culture to show their craft in
a more formalized manner. The culture often dictates, through its encouragement
and requests for repeated performances, the kinds of stories/poems
that the smooth signers will end up spinning. The three components of the
face-to-face tradition -the teller, the tale, and the audience-are so intertwined
that it is almost impossible to describe one without the others. The
following sections will address each component and show how all the components
complement each other.


The Making of a Storyteller/Poet

One might wonder how "smooth signers" or storytellers and poets develop
in oral cultures. According to Edwards and Sienkewicz (1990), some people
are apparently born with the gift of being a good talker: "Good talkers
have particular expertise; they have a knowledge of a specialized language
and body of information and have often undergone a lengthy process of
learning and preparation. Yet this training can be of little value if the
apprentice has no basic aptitude" (17). Okpewho (1992) similarly states that
"[o]ne's mind or nature has to be predisposed toward art before the skill
can successfully take root" (21). With this predisposition in place, storytellers
still have to be "made"; they must go through an apprenticeship to
learn the craft. There are two general ways in which one can be apprenticed:
formal training or informal training. Formal training involves a more
structured approach toward apprenticeship: one is selected to attend a
"school" that has master storytellers as teachers who provide specific training
and guidance for future storytellers. In other communities where storytellers
are developed informally, apprentices learn and work alongside
master storytellers (Okpewho 1992), and apprentices undergo a longer
period of training or long-term exposure to experienced storytellers/performers
than they would in formal training. In the course of learning
through either approach, apprentices "inherit" and learn various specialized
techniques: controlling the pauses and tempos in stories, using parallelisms,
repetitions, and digressions effectively, and so on. They also learn
from master storytellers a core of narratives that employ basic themes or
combinations of themes that are meaningful and central to the culture and
audience. Master storytellers pass down technical and artistic uses of language
that were learned from storytellers before them. In sum, smooth
signers undergo a period of preparation.

The Making of ASL Storytellers

ASL storytellers appear to show patterns of the kind described above. From
a very young age, they tend to be exposed to various adult signers in their
community (including their parents) and to have the opportunity to observe
various smooth signers performing stories, monologues, and, in some cases,
poems. Once they go to school, most of them have the opportunity to interact
with smooth signers employed at their school. More importantly, they
have the opportunity, from a very young age, to play out the role of a storyteller
and retell the stories they have heard to their peers. Their peers probably
beg them to tell more stories. To do that, they have to become more active
in remembering stories and/or inventing stories on the spot. In their telling,
they experiment with various techniques that they have absorbed from
watching adult smooth signers in action. This cycle goes on until they reach
adulthood. Then they begin testing their work with a larger audience outside
the school, at clubrooms, associations, and various Deaf social events.

In essence these storytellers become the culture's historians, teachers,
and entertainers (Okpewho 1992; Lane, Hoffmeister, and Bahan 1996).
They pick up various styles and nuances that go into telling a story from
Deaf adults who have picked it up from Deaf adults before them. Their
work combines elements of various other signers, picked up along the way,
and, more importantly, their own "signature." All artists borrow ideas,
some of which can be traced, yet each artist adds his or her own personal
flair. They are also passing down the culture's heritage by sharing the stories
they have heard from the adults in their communities, even if they
modify the story by adding their own personal touch. In this sense, they
are recording life histories of Deaf people and themselves in particular.

Storytellers also teach Deaf people by giving them a sense of identity and
a sense of belonging, as well as providing ways of interpreting and comprehending
the world collectively, thereby perpetuating the survival of their
culture. Each tale has embedded within it messages for ways of behaving
and strategies for surviving as a member of a minority culture in a world surrounded
by others with different cultural values and world knowledge (see,
e.g., Padden and Humphries 1988; Lane, Hoffmeister, and Bahan 1996).

Finally, storytellers' primary goal appears to be to use their gift as language
artists to entertain members of the audience. Their role as performers
is tied to how they bring the story to the audience. This puts the tellers
in the position of controlling how they want the stories to unfold.

Learning Controls in Storytelling

A good storyteller needs to be adept at synthesizing different kinds of controls,
such as the control of language, of paralinguistic cues, of selection of
tales, and, finally, of the audience (Bahan 1994; Lane, Hoffmeister, and
Bahan 1996). Control of the first two-language and paralinguistic cues-falls
in the domain of language use. In the control of language, a teller must
attend to a wide spectrum of linguistic elements, from the smallest units,
such as handshape or eye gaze location, to those on the grammar and the discourse
level. The teller deploys linguistic units by controlling various paralinguistic
elements, including the rhythm, tempo, and pause mechanisms of
the story. The teller also exploits facial expressions and nonverbal expressions
(which may be used for imitation, among other things) to convey additional
messages in an attempt to control the mood and trigger emotions from the
audience for various episodes in the story. In essence, these two types of control
enable the teller to pay attention to the aesthetic use of language.

However, the task does not end there. The teller has to select an appropriate
story. Each teller has a repertoire of stories (and, for some, poems).
Some of these stories are suitable only for particular members of the audience
and particular locations. Some of the stories are still in various stages
of development and have not yet been fully disclosed. There are risks of
releasing these stories to an unreceptive audience. The teller has to evaluate
the situation he or she is facing (e.g., the audience and location) and proceed
to select the stories and tell them. For example, a storyteller would risk
inappropriate story selection if he told a detailed story of hunting down and
skinning a bear to an audience filled with animal rights advocates.

Tellers also need to monitor the members of the audience from time to
time to see if they are engaged in the performance before venturing into
disclosing work under construction. If their story selection is irrelevant for
the audience/location or simply not good, then they are bound to fail.

There have been instances where a teller reportedly misjudged an audience
by assuming that most of the people in the audience were fluent signers,
able to follow a high-speed montage composed of rapidly produced
signs. Especially in a mixed audience of Deaf and hearing people, and of
signers and nonsigners using interpreters, gauging the audience's ability to
follow the work may be difficult. The teller may realize upon gauging the
audience in the middle of a story that they are not following him or her
and then digress in order to work the audience back into the performance.


Excerpted from Signing the Body Poetic

Copyright © 2006 by The Regents of the University of California.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents of the DVD
Foreword—William C. Stokoe
Preface: Utopian Gestures—W.J.T. Mitchell
Users' Guide

H-Dirksen L. Bauman, Jennifer L. Nelson, Heidi M. Rose

2. Face-to-Face Tradition in the American Deaf Community: Dynamics of the Teller, the Tale, and the Audience—Ben Bahan
3. The Camera as Printing Press: How Film Has
Influenced ASL Literature—Christopher B. Krentz
4. Deaf American Theater—Cynthia Peters

5. Getting out of Line: Toward a Visual and Cinematic Poetics of ASL—H-Dirksen L. Bauman
6. Textual Bodies, Bodily Texts—Jennifer L. Nelson
7. The Poet in the Poem in the Performance: The Relation of Body, Self, and Text in ASL Literature—Heidi M. Rose
8. ASL Literature Comes of Age: Creative "Writing" in the Classroom—Liz Wolter

9. "If there are Greek epics, there should be Deaf epics": How Protest Became Poetry—Kristen C. Harmon
10. Visual Screaming: Willy Conley’s Deaf Theater and Charlie Chaplin’s Silent Cinema—Carol L. Robinson
11. Hearing Things: The Scandal of Speech in Deaf Performance—Michael Davidson

Carol A. Padden
Appendix A: Time Line of ASL Literature Development
Appendix B: ASL Video References


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Signing the Body Poetic: Essays on American Sign Language Literature 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There is no other book like it today. Absolute requirement for anyone involved with sign language and the Deaf Community.