Radio Inspire

How To Learn Sign Language

2007 Interview with Ella Mae Lentz

I’m Ella Mae Lentz. I was born here in California
in the Berkeley area. My parents are deaf. My father was from
North Carolina. My mother went to the
Berkeley School for the Deaf. I have one brother who’s deaf. My grandparents are on
both sides are all hearing. So it’s just my immediate
family that’s deaf. When I was five years old
I went to California School for the Deaf, now
called Fremont, but it’s located in Berkeley. And then I graduated in
1971, went into Gallaudet, graduated in ’75. And from then on, I
worked at various jobs. Directly after college,
I worked with Harlan Lane and Marie Phillips. That was in Boston. And I was a research assistant. I helped with their ASL
linguistic research. After that I transferred
to the Salk Institute. And I worked with
Ursula Bellucci. I was just there
for a few months and then I came back
here, back to my home, where I’ve had a lot of
different sorts of jobs. I’ve performed. I’ve performed poetry. I’ve given workshops. I teach deaf people. At Gallaudet, I taught
deaf people also. I teach ASL to hearing people. Primarily I teach
ASL to hearing folks. I’ve been doing that
for about 30 years. Just recently in June
of 2007, I retired. And now I’ve established
my own business. I’m giving ASL
consulting services. And basically I present to
various audiences about ASL. I present on stage. And I teach people how to
give high level, formal ASL presentations. And in fact, the
company is called ASL presents to help people
be able to do that better. I feel that we need to
improve our signings skills and I keep working on
the Signing Naturally ASL Curriculum. That’s my work
history up till now. I grew up signing. Now at the time when
I was growing up, we didn’t call it American
Sign Language or ASL. My parents were very involved
in the local deaf community. We had such a strong and vibrant
deaf community, full of really amazingly robust leaders. We had deaf clubs. We have teachers in the
schools for the deaf that were deaf still, and even
though oralism was taking over, we still had a fair
number of deaf teachers. It was a small number,
but a good amount. And of course, the
clubs were robust. We had a lot of deaf
service agencies. One was called DCARA, that’s
been running for over 40 years. So that was the
environment I grew up in, a lot of friends who were
deaf, everybody around me was deaf. So of course, sign language
was second nature to me. That’s what we used. When I was about
three or four, I had a hearing grandmother
who could sign a little bit. She just signed
one or two signs. Now she was from Croatia. This was my mother’s mother. And both of her parents were
born on this small island off the coast of Croatia. And they had moved here
when my mother was young. And she knew Croatian
when she was young, and then had English of
course influencing that. I’m named for my grandmother. Actually her name was Ella also. So she taught me English
words when I was little. She would show me how
to write the words that went with nouns of the things
that were all around me. And that’s how I
was able to start picking up written language
early before I even went into school. When I did go into school,
it was an oral sort of teaching paradigm. And we would only be able
in the classroom to speak and we could write. But out in the playground,
it was all sign language. And most of us had deaf
parents, so of course we were quite adept at signing. And all the other kids who
were from hearing families or whatever were so captivated,
and they picked it up from us. And the older kids of course
would teach the younger kids. They would model. So the school for the
deaf had from actually infants all the way up to
the graduates, 12th grade. And the schools were right
there on the same campus. So the younger kids would
see those high school kids. And that’s where they
would get that modeling. In the cafeteria,
everybody ate together and they’d be arrayed
at different tables according to age. Each table had what
they called a captain. And that captain was always a
senior in high school, always a deaf kid. And they were kind of the
parental models for the kids. And they would be modeling
sign language too. After school, we’d all hang
out and if the kids were in the dorms, they’d be
signing and on the playgrounds they’d be signing. So that was a very rich
signing environment and a lot of cross-fertilization of kids
just signing with each other all the time, all the way up
from K through 12/ now as I said, when I first got into
school it was all oral. And that was after a year,
you would get tested. It was really sad
because, you know, it didn’t matter
if it was school for the deaf or
mainstream environment, they just test those
deaf kids all the time. And so it’s as if they
were experimenting on us all the time. So, a teacher who was a coda
that I had at one point, who was really great at signing,
would sign in the classroom. But then after a while,
that teacher was fired. And then we had
teachers who signed and spoke at the same time,
all the way until I graduated. Everything was SimCom And
even the deaf teachers who could have
just signed to us, had to sign and
move their mouths as if they were speaking
at the same time. I had to go to speech
therapy a few times a week. I was pulled out
of the classroom. And my report cards
were really funny, because the first year of school
terms of speech, you know, speech was a grade that you got. It always said, oh, Ella
is excellent, just great. Second year, very good. Third year, good. And then it went all the
way down to poor thereafter. Because when I first got
into school, you know, they teach you very, very easy
phonetics, A, E, P, M, letters that are easy to
replicate and that are easy to make of speech
teacher happy about. But as you get older,
it gets much more tough, and you have to have
a lot more skill. And I just wasn’t able to
demonstrate what they wanted. So my grades went
downhill from there. When I went into
school, it was 1959. I graduated in 1971. And the curriculum was
changing at that time. A lot of people,
including our parents, just felt angry about the
whole oral idea, and said, this is enough. Let’s just stop. And we kids would
see the parents at home discussing
this very heatedly. And there was a
seed of rebellion that seemed to be planted. People were getting
really angry about it. They just felt that it
shouldn’t be happening that way. So it seemed like
there was a lot of animosity between the parents
and the teachers, the school system. And then things
started to get better after a while and the
tension was relieved. o Now, my father, I just
had interviewed him recently about how he grew up. He grew up in North Carolina. And he didn’t even
have any education until the age of
about eight or nine. He did farm work. He lived on a farm. And then his dad,
my grandfather, was in an accident. He worked in a tool and die shop
and there was a big explosion and he became blind. So doctors were coming quite
often to visit the family and help out. The insurance company,
from the company that my grandfather
worked for was working out the claim and such. And they discovered
that my father was deaf and that he’d never
had any education. So he was referred to
a school for the deaf where he showed up not knowing
anything, and just gestured. And of course ask
for speech, there was just none of that
evidenced at all. That he got there and even
though he was eight years old, he was put in with
the kindergartners. But he learned really quickly. They tested him for
speech reading ability, and of course there
was none of that and they thought that he
should go into the slow learner classroom. But he progressed quite quickly
through all the grade levels until he graduated at
the appropriate age with his cohort. He tested and he actually
got into Gallaudet. And he read and
wrote beautifully. He was quite literate. That’s my dad. So, in the school
that he went to, there were two different
groups of students, of course, all the kids who
were considered more intelligent and the other ones who were
considered the slow learners who didn’t talk. It’s very detrimental. If you didn’t speak, it
was very looked down upon. But through sign, he was
able to learn so much faster. They realized that
even though he was showing signs of
more intelligence, they couldn’t put him into
the speech reading classes because he just
couldn’t do that. Same thing with my mom. When she was eight,
she went into school. Now, when she was
younger, she was from a small town in California,
and her grandmother, excuse me, my grandmother, her mom, was
evidently Native American. I don’t remember
what the tribe was. But they lived on a
reservation possibly. I don’t know all
the history of that. But there was an Indian
sign language system that my grandmother knew. And so my mother’s
mother grew up and knew some of that language. She used some of those signs
incorporated into her signs. I need to investigate
that more, actually. My mother’s upbringing
was very positive. She has a younger sibling. She went into the
school for the deaf. And at that time, the
school for the deaf was very slow to allow
the oralism to take over. They were resistant to it. They had a very strong
community of signers who were proud of it. A lot of the National
Association of the Deaf leaders came from the Bay
Area, so they had a long history of community
organizing and strong leaders. So my mother went into
that school for the deaf, and she signed. And she didn’t remember any
oral kind of takeover at all. And the other deaf people who
went to that school with my mom at the time seemed
to be very happy. If they had any
difficulties, that seemed to be things like
disciplinary of nature, but it wasn’t anything to do
with lack of speech or people being obstreperous and
not wanting to speak. Everything seemed to go
along fine for my mother. My dad moved to the area,
met my mom at the deaf club. They fell in love, married
and been together ever. Since had their kids,
and here we are. I don’t know. I don’t know. Born deaf. My brother definitely
was born deaf. Same as my dad. We know they were born deaf. My mother, the story
goes, it seemed that she may have born deaf, but
nobody even took notice of it until she was around
wait, was it one or three? It was really young I know. It must’ve been, I think
one, one and a half, something like that. And so, she tells the story of
running around in the house. Something happened. There was a wood stove. And she bashed it into it. Maybe it was hot. She was burned. She did have burns on
her chest and her arm. But she didn’t cry
out or anything. And that’s when the parents
realized something was wrong. They saw her and they saw she
was injured and brought her to the hospital and that’s when
they discovered she was deaf. And for a while people
thought that maybe the shock of that fall was what
caused her to be deaf. But it seems more likely
that she was already deaf, and that when they had to
finally take her to the doctor when they discovered
she’d been injured, that’s when the officials
got on board and realized it. As for my dad, we
don’t really know. It seems like he
was born deaf also. And as for me, my mom says
that when I was six months old, I was taken ill. And before that it was
very visual anyway. But it’s murky. Who knows? I mean there were no
tests at that time, so we don’t really know. I mean, I think I was
probably born deaf. I think I always have been. I got my degree at Gallaudet. I majored in English and drama. I was a double major. Malls? Malls moved here from
Michigan, I believe. Yeah, I think it was Michigan. And he worked for a
newspaper printer nearby. He had a deaf son also, who
was at the school for the deaf in Berkeley when I was there. And I think when I
was around 10 or 12, that’s when the
family moved here to the school for the deaf. And I met the son, who was
three years older than I was. We kind of hung
out a little bit. Malls got a job teaching
at CSD Berkeley. I think I was in junior
high school at the time. And I was captivated. He was so funny. He was so humble. He was brilliant. He was very poetic, you
know, both in his signing and his writing. Oh, and Malls had graduated
from C SD Berkeley as well so he knew my mother. So he went off to do other
things and then he came back. And he already had a history
with this area and the people here. At the time, he moved
here, Bernard Bragg was also teaching at the school
for the deaf, where he had been teaching for many years. And I think was in the ’60s or
so is when Bernard Bragg got into the TV world. He had that show
called A Quiet Man. It was a mime production. It was so exciting. We were really thrilled to
be able to see this deaf guy on television, big deal. So there was a lot of exposure
to theater in this area, a lot of acting this
time in the ’60s. This was before the
National Theater of the Deaf was founded. But there were so many
different famous actors from this area, Valez, and
Bernard Bragg, a lot of people here, who knew my parents. So we were all
hanging out together. And I was getting
a lot of exposure. Yes, I had a lot of influence. National Theater for
the Deaf did their tour and the first time they
stopped around here, the whole deaf world came,
all my friends, we all went to watch them. My parents said, we’ve
got to get tickets. We have to go. My brother and I went. And we watched them. Let’s see at that time, I
think it was poetry translation and sign, something like that
tiger, tiger, burning bright. You know, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways,
things like that. Jabberwocky, I remember twas
brillig, that kind of thing. And Malls was
involved with that, because he was helping with them
with the translation process. He was a consultant. So there were so many different
threads coming together at that time for me,
and a lot of exposure to different language models. Malls, now let’s see, I
think it was summer school. There was this wonderful
summer school program. Malls taught there. Bernard Bragg did. A woman named Carolyn Burns also
taught there and her husband, Barry B. Burns. He was president of the
National Association of the Deaf for many years, so
a real strong community leader. And his wife was a librarian. And she worked at the
School for the Deaf. The three of them, and I think
there was another man named Ralph, Ralph Johnson, I think
he taught in the middle school. And he was an Hispanic person. He was hearing and
become deaf later. He wasn’t a great signer. But he was a real
force of nature and a real mover and shaker
in the deaf community. So they decided
that they were going to have some instruction in
poetry, have a whole class. So I thought, why not? I joined. A lot of my friends and I went. I think I was around
13 at that time. And TD, let’s see,
what year was that? I believe it is 1967. And that’s when it was. So at that time National
Theater for the Deaf had done their tours
for a couple of years. Bernard Bragg came
for the summer. He was teaching. And he was using a
lot of the poems that were actually from their show. And we were memorizing
them, rehearsing them. We were also learning
how to translate haiku. He was teaching a lot of
technical information, a lot of poetry techniques
to us, which I just ate up. It was wonderful. I was still thinking
English, you know. I felt English was paramount. And of course, English
was what you start with, and you translate it into sign. Malls loved musicals. And so often he would
translate songs from musicals. That was really fun and I
was fascinated with that. Yeah, we’d get the rhythm
of it and how to sign it. So we would learn
these different songs. I think Oliver was one
of the ones we did. I don’t remember, a few really
famous musicals at the time. I think it was the Hammersmith? What are the names of those
authors for the musicals? What is it? Oh, Oscars and Hammerstein. Hammerstein, that’s it. Those were Malls’ favorites. So those are the musicals
he always taught us. We would learn them. And he would tell us,
oh you know, look at how these things
are put together. And listen to how they put
these musicals together. We would memorize them. And we would look
at the descriptions of the people, the actresses
who’d been in the musicals. And he knew everything. He read everything. And he fed us
everything he knew. And he never looked
down at us at all. He treated us as equals. He challenged us to
learn all the time. So we would learn
about these musicals. And then we would go
actually watch them at this special arena. I’m not sure where it was. They would have movies and plays
both at these different venues, Oliver and Oklahoma. And what we would do is, we
would look at the storyline before. We would read them, read the
lyrics, memorize the songs, and then we’d watch them. We would try to lip read
what the singers and dancers were doing with their mouths. And then we would
explain to each other, oh, I think this is that
song that we learned before that we read about. And we saw how all
things were put together. And that’s what we did. We would learn it first
and then we would go. Now Bernard Bragg was
very staid in his signing, very clear and controlled. Whereas Malls wasn’t that way. He was very creative. So the technical
prowess of Bernard Bragg and the creativity of Malls
were both given to me. I was so lucky, because I
benefited from the influence from both of them. Course I was captivated
by Malls’ personality, but Bernard Bragg
has technical ability was really fascinating
to be exposed to. My poetry mostly started
out, it was written, started as written. I started in fifth
grade writing poetry. And I got published in
the school newspaper. Bragg would publish them. One of the earliest ones is in
some of the early newspapers at that time. And Malls, yeah, I wasn’t
translating my own. Let me say, I wasn’t
translating my own. I was translating other
people’s work, but not my own. I would write it. And I just felt that that
was something I couldn’t do. I was thinking in English. I was writing in English. I was thinking
visually, actually. In the back of my mind,
I had these images. But I just had to put
them down on paper in English in these
well-considered lines with rhythm and rhyme and
such, and construct them in certain ways. Malls wrote so many poems. He wrote poems, songs, plays,
and he would give them to me. And I actually have
some of these copies. I’ve kept them in
his own handwriting. It’s really a treasure. It’s amazing. So he fed me all of
these different pieces that he’d written. And there was a lot of
translation going on. And I was doing translation,
but not my own stuff, not until much later. I think I started,
let’s see, ’75, ’76, ’77, somewhere
around there, there was some linguistics research. There was a class I
took in stylistics, it was called at
Northeastern University. It was in English
of course, so I was learning linguistics study
of English poems and poetry. I was looking at linguistics
of ASL in other studies. But this class was
specifically about English. Oh, before I forget,
I have to go back. So when I was in college, let’s
see, in my sophomore year, I took a sign language
translation and class under Gill Eastman. And that was the
first time I realized that ASL and English
were separate languages, but completely equivalent. Before that, I thought that
there was no grammar in ASL. And you know you had to
have perfect English grammar and make the ASL follow it. But now finally, I was learning
that ASL, even street language ASL, was its own language. And I was kind of scared
to tell you the truth. I was embarrassed and I
didn’t quite understand it. I had grown up and
I was completely co-opted by the whole idea
that English was better. And that it was
looked at that you weren’t as smart if
you just signed ASL, you didn’t know any English. So what we used at home and
what we used with each other, we didn’t feel that was
the same as English. And if you ever did say
something like that, they’d say, well, what’s
that mean in English? What’s the English word
for the sign you had? And if it didn’t
have an English word, I’d say, well, I don’t have one. They’d say, you see, it’s
not as good as English. You don’t have an English word
for what you’re trying to say. So I was trying to
figure out, like, wow. This is really puzzling. As I grew up I kept being
puzzled by that whole idea. You were looked at as much
smarter if you signed English. But if you signed
ASL, that was cute. That was quaint. But it was very
derogatory attitude towards people who did. You had to prove
your intelligence by signing English and speaking
English or writing English. And that’s how you
could prove that you were intelligent person. It was oppressive. And it was really distressing. And there was no pride in our
language and we demanded it. So in college it was even worse. The English, the
whole idea had to be drilled into you even more. So ASL was denigrated and
pushed to the side even more. That one class I took help
break me free of that attitude. And I’m very, very
grateful to Gill Eastman for having helped me with that. So I was majoring in
English and drama, as I said before,
double majoring. And there was a man name Ed,
what was his name, Ed Carney? I’m pretty sure the
last name was Carney. C-A-R-N-E-Y. Canny. Maybe it’s Canny. It was a poetry class. I was taking a poetry
class from him. And at that time, liberal,
white, hearing man trying to get our game on. Come on, let’s just
kind of experiment, try to write some poems. Let’s go. And kind of interesting,
I tried to sign and write my stuff at the same time. I thought, I wonder
if I could lay it out on a page in a visual way,
like, the way I would sign it, would be spatially on the
page as well when I wrote it. So starting to play with
the idea of things in space, but not really in space
it had to be on paper, because of course poetry
had to be on paper. Not like today that we see
it as a more free form, and that you could let it go. Course, some poetry is just
spoken, not on the page. But that’s what we
thought it had to be. So I started to think
about like ASL on paper. How could I put ASL
poetry on paper? But it wasn’t yet out
in just signs yet. I went to Boston, to
Northeastern University, to work the summer after
that stylistics class. And I was looking at
linguistics analysis. And I was checking out the rules
of how ASL linguistics work. And I was captivated by this. It was more of a formal science
of analyzation of a poem. And I thought, well,
that’s interesting, because sign language
has its own rules. And they’re not written down. And that means you can analyze
it in a linguistic way. So Ursula Bellucci was working
at that time, a lot of people working at that time to develop
the linguistic rules of ASL and codify them. And I thought, wow, we’ve
got all these different rules for ASL. It’s amazing, just like
any other language. So if that’s true,
and you’re signing according to certain linguistic
rules, we can analyze it. You can experiment. You could play with these
ASL rules like subject, verb, object, or signing in
cycles or putting things in different areas of space. Why not create a poem
utilizing these constructs and these different elements? Why not play with these
rules in a creative way? Because if English has this way
of going about analyzing poetry and looking at how it
works and how it’s changed, how you can play with
the different things within the different
formats of English, and ASL has these
rules, then why not create poetry in ASL the
same way you can in English? That’s when I started to have
contact with Dorothy Myles and Joseph Castronovo, who
were both in NTD at the time. And they were very
independent thinkers, both of them doing
experimental work. People tended to write
things first, and then try to figure out how to sign
it and go back and forth. They weren’t fully
extricating it yet. But they were on the
path to doing that, which was very interesting. So there started
to be some really substantive conversations going
on about creatively playing with ASL in a
poetry kind of way. Valli, Clayton Valli,
well, was getting his PhD and his
dissertation was completely about the protocols of poetry
and doing comparative poetry analyzation, looking at poetics. So from our
discussions that we’d undergone with a lot
of different people, it was interesting,
it seemed that there were parallels between written
English poetry and sign language poetry. Course, English or written
poetry follows sounds. There’s something
called– gosh, I’ve even forgot what it is,
assonance, or what is it? Anyway, that if you had the
same letter in written language, like you know, a
consonant or a vowel, and that you were repeating
that over and over again, you could echo that and sign
language by using hand shapes. So in a sense, you were creating
assonance and alliteration in sign language by limiting
your choices of signs, and focusing and controlling
and only picking a few of them. Let’s see. Think of an example. OK. Suppose I see a tree,
and it’s an old tree. And it’s looking old The
leaves are falling off. And now it’s bare. And that’s sad. Sorry to say, the tree is bare. OK, so if you wanted to
make that more poetic, you could say, I’m
seeing this tree. It’s starting to fade. The leaves have come
down and are all papering the ground below it. And then show my disappointment
and my expression when I look at it completely bare. So fewer signs,
more consolidated. And I had done a comparison
of English poetry and doing a lot of
analyzation of that and finding out all the
ways that imagery is used and all the
different– you know, the elements of
metaphors and similes, all the different things. I’ve kind of forgotten
that actually. But when you do the research,
you can see that everything from that class that
I took, everything that’s in written poetry, we
have in sign language poetry. We have similes. English might say, this is like
that or this is as big as that, or whatever. Metaphors, as well. Metaphors don’t employ the uses
of like and as like similes do. The thing becomes the thing. But the idea that you could
play with those constructs in sign language the same way
you could in a written language was fascinating. Also the idea of a line. Now, how would you create
a line in sign language? That was a big theory
of Clayton Valli’s, which is that we actually
do have lines in ASL. And I can’t remember
exactly how to explain that but it is written down. And he actually receives his PhD
specifically for that theory. So there were a
lot of discussions going on at that time
about the structure. How would you even build a poem? What was possible? What’s possible
in this language? Because remember, I
think I read something that a person from
Czechoslovakia said one time. The more that people understand
about their language, the more possibilities they have
for poetry in their language. And I agree with that. I think it’s really important
that people delve deeply into the constructs of their
language and explore them. Because the more you do that,
if you explore the richness that it employs and that it
has, then from there that poetry will grow. So it’s really encouraging
to deaf people to study. I really feel that deaf
people should always study ASL, not just
use it every day but really to make a concerted
effort to look into it and understand it,
own it, and then be able to play with it more. And then the sky’s the limit. There are different
poems that I’ve developed from writing or signing. And they always have a
meaning behind them, you know, how you start,
what’s the reason. And of course those vary. Just playing around with
grammar, just ASL grammar and thinking, I want
to create something. And what should I
write about to engage in this linguistic experiment? Oh here’s an image I like let’s
see if I can put that together with these different
grammatical functions that I’d like to play with. My poems very much
based on the structure. And later on, they
become more free form. Where a story is and
where a poem begins, sometimes that line
is quite fluid. My poetry, oh, this poem
that I do called Baseball, it’s more of a prose poem
because it’s a story. It’s still poetic within
the storytelling format, but it is a poem. There’s more serious
issues, deep sort of ideas that I
want to Sometimes I’m frustrated or angry. And the only way
I can get it out is to cathart through a poem. You get really angry, and
there’s something there that I have to express. It forces me to
look, like really at what the issue is to find
the right language to be able to express it. And I take these images and
metaphors, whatever I’m using, hand shapes, and then movement,
the different kinds of rhythms, and maybe not just
one hand shape, but maybe if I use
one repetitively, then switch to another one. How I use space. Whether I have turn taking
between characters in my poem. There’s all these
different elements that have to be married together. And my particular way of going
about it is that I build it. And when I find the
right image, when I think it’s all come together
and it’s more consolidated, then I feel that it’s done. But I take disparate elements
together, and what I’m doing is trying to channel all
my angst or all my anger into this one image that
will adequately depict it. Yes, it’s an outlet. It is definitely my
outlet for all the things that happen, all the
frustrations that occur in my life. You mean ABC Stories with
deaf themes or numbers? No, no. I don’t tend to do those. I don’t tend to do stories
or poems or anything not having to do with
deaf ideas or politics. I don’t tend to do those. Again, well why come up with
a poem in the first place? What’s it for? “Silence, Oh, Painful.” That’s one of my poems. That was half the
English and half in ASL. I remember I wrote it
in English with signs in the back of my
mind, know what I mean? Like I didn’t write
it first with no signs at all happening, not that one. They were both working at
the same time in my mind, sort of like Dot Miles. You know, I would look at
a line, and I would think, oh, I’ll be able to sign that. So that’s the way Dot did it. And that was a big influence of
hers, English infusion on that. The other one called
“I Music” was written in English first completely. I just wrote the whole
thing with no signs at all in my mind. And then I saw other
people translating things. And I thought, OK, I’ll do
my own translation later. So other people had
translated “I Music” which I wrote in English. I thought, wow,
I don’t even have to be stuck with the words
I could still keep the idea. And other people had
broken free for it, and I thought, oh,
that’s interesting. They went to a
more ASL rendition. And that freed me
up of doing an ESL rendition of my own English
poem that I’d written. There are other ones
that are more personal, course, that I wrote,
and that I would sign. And again, you know,
who’s the audience? I think a signed poem
has to have an audience. For me, if I’m going
to perform this, I need to have an audience. So who is my audience? It’s always an important
question to ask. At that time in
the ’70s and ’80s in there somewhere, ASL
was out in the ether. And people were taking
more ASL classes. Hearing people were
really interested in it. And a lot of hearing folks
would come to see shows. So out in public, there’d
be poetry readings. Well, they’re called readings. You know there are a
lot of poetry readings. So if there was an
ASL poetry reading. Let’s see, I’m
trying to remember. Remember, there
was this one woman. How did I meet her? I met her through
Jane Norman, I think. It was some summer school
thing or something. So this woman was performing
some poetry in the city, I can’t remember
even where it was. But anyway she’d gotten a
grant from whatever city she was found to go and
teach kids, and then have kids write poetry and
perform their own stuff. So was kind of interesting. This was in the ’70s. So there were a lot
of hearing artists who thought sign language
was just the nuts. Everybody was into it. They didn’t understand
the history, the culture, the background or anything. But they sure loved it. So I was introduced
to this woman. And I was writing some
poems in ASL and in English. And I met m and then
she found some money, so that I could travel with her
and help her teach children. Yeah, we taught deaf children. So we teach them
how to translate it. Well, they’ve taught them
not just how to sign poetry, but also how to
write it in English. And so I accompanied
her to a few classrooms. So I was a deaf
teacher with deaf kids. So when you write a poem,
who is it written for? If it’s written,
that’s something that can stay personal,
isolated, just unto yourselves. And you can choose
to show it or not. But signed poetry is not an
individual isolated enterprise. It’s something that
you share with people. You’ve got to have an audience. You have to have that feedback
of people in proximity. So for signed poetry, you
must have an audience. You have to have that gaze
of the audience on you. At that time, there were a lot
of hearing audiences around, and you’d have to
have an interpreter. And you would translate
your ASL into English. And sometimes we’d
take famous poems and we’d translate
them into ASL. But sometimes we would
tweak them a little bit, so the English wouldn’t exactly
be the way it had been written. It would fit the signs more than
the signs fitting the English. So it was skewed over towards
the ASL side of the world, instead of just to the
English part of the world. Sometimes you’d have to explain
the background of a poem before you’d perform it. Sometimes that wouldn’t work. Hearing audiences wouldn’t get
it if they saw a signed poem. So sometimes deaf audiences
and hearing audiences didn’t react the same way. It was interesting, how
to go about doing that. I always think
deaf audience first when I’m creating something. Because that’s
where my heart is. So when I perform,
I’m always thinking in terms of performing
for deaf audiences. If I’m doing translations
of English poems into ASL, that’s nice. That’s all, that’s fine. You can put it in
into ASL rendition, but I feel as the ASL
that gets the strongest response from people, which
I think is interesting. Or if you have an
interpreter or a person in the field who know sign
language, and then they see it, they really get it. So it’s interesting to gauge
the different reactions of the audiences. Hearing audiences have less
of a resonance with it. But the deaf audiences really
get it, or a mixed audience with more people who sign. Through the touring I’ve done
and creating and presenting I’ve done, I’ve
been noticing this. And I try different
ways of performing to see how the audiences react. I perform less and less now. If I perform for
a deaf audience, I’ll give a short introduction. Because in general,
because of the way the education of the deaf
has been in this country and how ASL has been
denigrated, ASL was never regarded as a sophisticated
language that was analyzed and treated as
equivalent to English, and so poetry wasn’t given
the same sort of credence, the way people would be
able to understand poetry in the deaf world
is very different. And so, they were
never encouraged. They were never given
that at the same time. The message will not
always be obvious to them. So giving a little
background is important. Hearing people don’t understand
any sign language at all. You know, they’re just going
to see hands waving in the air and they’re not
going to care anyway. And so, I don’t necessarily do
anything with a deep meaning. They’re not going to get it. That wouldn’t be something that
they would really appreciate. In translation,
you know, sometimes it’s really, really hard to
get a good English equivalent. It’s almost impossible
most of the time. I’ve tried different methods. You know, sometimes you
can have somebody just give vocal cues or English cues. I’ve tried lots of
different interpreters. Wherever I go, there’s
lots of interpreters there. I don’t bring my own. There’ll be somebody
there that I will work with when I perform. Now, I don’t even
do that anymore. I used to, but now, when
I’m doing ASL poems, I don’t even worry about
having an interpreter. Maybe I’ll have somebody give
a little bit of a vocal cue, depending on the audience. If they don’t know
any sign at all, I’ll just pick really easy
poems that are easy to translate and easy to perform and easy
for them to understand just by watching. But I do less and
less of that now, because it’s just not my thing. That’s not where
my energies lie. My primary focus
when I do it at all now is, people who are
interested in learning sign language, or
people who know it, or deaf people of course. And then I don’t have any voice
at all involved with that. So I let go of the narration. It’s different with
a deaf audience. I don’t have to give any of
that narration or exposition. But with their
young audience they need just a little
bit of a something so they know what
they’re watching. Then they can figure it out
and interpret it themselves. It’s the same as reading a poem. You have to read it
over and over again to be able to understand
it and all the nuances. So it doesn’t matter whether
it’s sign language or a written language poetry rendition. You still have to work with
it and see it many times to fully understand it. Maybe, maybe. It’s the same as spoken, right? You know, you hear it and then
you forget it, same thing. It’s nice to have video
it’s nice to have a way to document m so you can watch
it again and again and again, but in some ways that’s
kind of dangerous, because that freezes
it in a sense. It makes it static in time. But as I perform it, I
change it every time. When it’s something that you
can watch over and over again you can analyze it, but then
it doesn’t change and evolve. Yes, memorizing it. Yeah, a lot of people
have to do that. That’s right. You have to memorize it. Hm, hmm. I’ve seen a lot of kids
who are copying poems. They copy them, and
then they change them. I’ve seen a lot of kids at
the school for the deaf, especially in Fremont,
some of my poems actually, I’ve seen some of
them out there, the kids are picking
them and doing them. And then they’re
performing them. And it becomes a new poem
because they change it. And obviously they’ve
got a little bit more technical expertise than
they would have otherwise. And it’s really wonderful. Alone. Yeah, no Valli wasn’t there. Let’s see, how did I meet Valli. Was it here or was it in Nevada? I can’t remember exactly. Wait a minute. Yeah, somebody gave me a
magazine or a newspaper. And it had Valli’s
picture in it. It was from Reno, Nevada. That’s only four
hours from here. No, I had started
touring at that time, performing and giving
workshops in ASL poetry and analyzing and
discussing poetry. And then somebody
who knew that I was signing ASL poetry gave
me this picture of Valli in an article. I thought, there’s somebody
else doing this not too far from here. That’s interesting. I think I contacted
him or he contacted me. I can’t remember. But anyway, we agreed
to meet in Reno. He was working with
Washoe, the chimpanzee, out there at that time. Wait a minute, who was with me? I don’t know. Someone. I went with some people. And I met Valli. And I had an instantaneous
connection with him. It was just so great
to talk to him. And his work was fantastic. I mean, wow. He was already deeply
involved with linguistics, studying, and analyzing,
thinking very concertedly about it. His personality was captivating. He was married at the time. His wife had four children
from a previous marriage. They were stepchildren
of Clayton’s. And let’s see. What’s next? A whole– now, I have
to go back and give you a little more
history about this. Let’s see in ’70 or whatever
that, I think in northern– was the name of this college? What was it? There’s a hearing woman, who
was teaching at a college and she was learning signage and
she was really, really excited about it. So she heard that
Gallaudet you know was doing some experiments
with written English to the ASL translation. Canney. Oh, I was trying
remember that name. It’s John Canney. That’s the name
of the professor. And he’d written these
articles and gotten it into the literature
reviews, and talking about how we should have these
discussions about ASL poetry. And he knew Lou Font. And somehow Lou Font
knew me and somehow we got some money
together and we decide to host this weekend workshop. It was in northern Indiana. And I think it was called Poetry
in the Palm of your Hand . I still have the brochure
from that actually. Anyway, it was the
idea of signed poetry, how would we do it? And John Canney was presenting. And I was performing. Lou Font was performing and
then a few other people also were part of this whole thing. And we were talking a lot
about the whole subject. It was in the late
’70s, I’m pretty sure. Valli was much later. I didn’t know
anything about him. And then I met him. In the early ’80s,
there was a grant from NAD for sign
language teachers to undergo this
special training. And I was involved with some
work with that curriculum. So we were going to
different regions. And you could come together
with representatives from different regions
to become a trainer. So he was at that one, somebody
said, why don’t you come? And so he came. And Carol Padden was there. A whole lot of luminaries
were at this thing. It was wonderful,
six week training, lots of discussions at the
University of Tennessee. That’s where that
was, six weeks. No poetry involved at all. But they had a special
track for literature. They had ASL literature,
and teaching philosophies and pedagogy and
history and culture. What’s the meaning of culture? Let’s dissect this. A lot of people doing
some deep studies of all these different
really fascinating subjects, everybody put together
whatever you wanted. It was like a
smorgasbord, a taste of everything for six weeks. Just a fantastic time. And that was a wonderful
group that got together. Valli came, Carol Padden
was there like I said. And then soon after that
was the NSSLRT Conference. Those were sign language
trainers and teachers. That was in 1977, ’78, ’79,
’80, somewhere around there. So Valli was invited
to come to that. A lot of people got
together and performed. And that specifically
was a poetry performance. I was giving a talk about
that, about ASL poetry, the meaning of it. I lectured. I didn’t perform actually, but
I lectured about the studies that I’d undertaken, the
analysis I was doing. And that was great. And after Valli performed,
that was rose the heavens. That was just it, early
’80s is when people started to hear about him. And then next thing I knew,
here he was in Rochester, Jim Cohen got that together,
Peter Cook and Debbie Rennie. And there was Valli again Let’s see, ’85, ’86,
whenever that was. Everybody got together,
that group of us. And then there
was Deaf Way also. So it just percolated outwards. There were a lot
more classes in it. It seemed like everybody
was getting on the bandwagon about what ASL poetry was. Valli, he was just an
island unto himself. I think that he knew Bernard
Bragg and Malls and Joseph Castronovo, and
all those people. I had all that influence and
National Theater of the Deaf influence, but he
didn’t have any of that. How do I promote myself? Hmm. I’ve taught ASL for years. I have a lot of students
and a lot of people have heard about me. They said, back in the
day, oh, would you mind? Course now there’s
media, deaf media, specifically this organization
called Deaf Media here in the Bay Area. And then there is a few others. There was a deaf program. It was a talk show. And they asked me perform
on this deaf talk show. Sometimes people ask me
to translate their work, other peoples’ work. So there was a
community TV show. That was from a college. Deaf Media, I got a lot
of contacts from them. They got a grant to create
the show called Rainbows End. I performed in there also. Very active, a real group
of active people who are always working on
something, good leaders. And just through the
grapevine, everybody hears about each other, you know. There’s a woman in New York. Gosh, I can’t remember her name. She gave me some contacts too
about Poetry World Magazine, the Michigan Woman’s Festival. The Michigan Woman’s
Festival, they got hold of me and wanted me to come. Clearwater, Hudson’s Clearwater
Revival, that festival. So it’s just sort of
chain lining, right? Everybody hears
about everybody else. And somebody gets your name
and gives it to someone else. Bookstores, small
bookstores, sometimes wanted to have readings,
colleges, lectures about ASL, I do give lectures about
ASL, how to teach ASL, how to train people. And they’ll say, would you
mind performing your poetry? Fine. So I’ll give a workshop
during the day. And then I’ll perform
at night and I’ll give a lecture as well, so
I think my name’s just sort of gotten out there. People tend to ask me,
so I don’t necessarily have to self promote. They come to me. I don’t go to them. Yeah, I’m contacted just
through the grapevine, Yes, Deaf Way, Deaf Way,
that was the first place. Everybody got together. It was an international
gathering, so everybody was bringing
their own international signs. Some were translators. Some just came just
signing, right? It’s about a week. And everybody was talking
together about the sign to use. Because the old sign for poetry
was used in some countries. Another country brought
forth the sign poetry that came out from the heart,
like expression from the heart. And we liked that. Some people said
poetry with a P, like spirit coming from the
palm of your hand instead of p for music. I had always used the old
fashioned one, the P for music. But this one about
expression I really liked. And that’s one that
tended to take off that everybody liked to use. So now it means
written poetry is the old fashioned P on the
arm that means like music. And ASL poetry is the one
that looks like expression from the heart. It seems that that’s
what’s happening. That’s the difference one means
written and one means signed. Yeah this, goes along with
the point that I made before. But a straight ASL
poem, what’s it for? What’s the reason
that it even exists? What’s the overriding
reason behind it? Written poem can be
written in isolation. It’s for the writer. But you know, back in the
day, poetry was spoken. And it was for an audience. It wasn’t written down. If you look at the history
of how poetry evolved, it changed once it was
written down and codified to the written word. It changed. Previous to that
it wasn’t written. It was a different
style altogether. And I believe that American
Sign Language poetry performance needs to have an audience. And of course, we
might try to tweak it to match the
different audiences and adjust to who
is in that audience, how many hearing people
might be present. But I was reading something
that said poetry and culture are really inextricably integrated. You can read it
and you’ll always see the cultural influence. The language that’s chosen,
the words that are chosen are all dictated by
the cultural experience of the writer and the creator. And you can’t extricate them. You can look at the work of
other poets, other people from other countries
and you will always see when you read the literature
that their experiences and their cultural resonances
are there very clearly. So what happens in
your environment is very much a part of that. You look at the Beat
generation poetry, for example, very
strongly reflected what was going on at the time. And so now, we’re looking
at the ’70s and ’80s, and we call that
the resurgence time. All right, Paddy
Ladd, if you look at his book about Deafhood,
he looks specifically at the ’70s and ’80s, about
how deaf people were really looking at themselves
and kind of getting their game on in
terms of feeling positive about who they were. Previous to that, sign
language, deafness whatever that wasn’t so great. Back in the day
of the Golden Age, it was great that
it was denigrated, but then in the’70s and ’80s,
it was like a Renaissance of rediscovery. And so whereas before,
with National Theater, the deaf were– sign language had
to look pretty. And it was nice. But so what? It was just this artistic
thing with no heart behind it. You know, there was no soul. And hearing audiences
will look at it and think it was so pretty. Oh, isn’t ASL a
gorgeous language? It’s so nice. That’s fine. But that’s kind of a
surfacy thing to realize. You’re not really getting
anything of the profound ideas that are there. And that hadn’t been
blown off the top yet. Nobody had really
gotten to that level. But during the ’70s
and ’80s, the question was, how can we mine those
resources that ASL has? People sometimes say
that I’m political. And I say, no. I think I’m just
showing personal things. I’m showing things that
happen all around me, yes. But you know America’s such
a strongly individualistic culture. And so poems written by hearing
Americans are all about me, me, me, me. It’s all about me. I’m so important, my
experience, my life, everything. But deaf folks are collective. And so a truly deaf
poem or deaf poetry will reflect our collective
experience, I feel. And that’s my view
of what it should be. I’m very firmly ensconced
within the deaf world. I do teach hearing people. I’m out among them of course. But the soul of my life and
my turf, my world is deaf. And I know that the hearing
perspective on deaf people is extremely limited. I’ve worked my whole
life trying to teach them so they have a better
understanding, which they never completely get. You know, they
just can’t, they’ve got the oralism
that’s co-opted them, that then obviously had
co-opted us for all those years. And so, if you take
a step back and you look at the dynamics of that,
I want to fan the flames. So within myself. I see what I’ve looked at
all around about deafness, and I see how hearing
people see us, which I think is an important
perspective to have. Then I go back to my
own deaf community. I want to say, do you know
how hearing people see us? I’ve looked at us from the
outside more objectively. I see how they look
at us objectively. Who are we? Let’s talk about this. And somehow I try to
exemplify that in poetry. And if I can do that
and get a resonance out of the deaf people,
that’s wonderful. Many of my poems were
created in the ’80s, and now I look at
them and I’ll go, wow, there was a really
strong message in these. You know, people don’t really
realize that sometimes. They’ll write down something. They’ll create something, show. It and then once they
revisit it, they go, wow. I didn’t even realize
I was thinking that. There’s more nuance,
there’s more depth to this than I even knew. So things were going
on in my subconscious that I put out
there that I wasn’t even aware of at the time. Oh, your DVD. Yours, the one you gave me, yes. Yeah, it grows, grows better
and better and better. It gets better and
better like wine ages. So that sampler you
sent me I thought one of the interesting
things about it was the panel, Peter and
Debbie, their comments. They were talking about deaf
people and their criticism of the work that they as
poets were putting out. And I remember that at that
time, that comment came up, took me aback, and then
we went on to other things other topics. But watching it this time– you know, at that time you know,
ASL was growing and everything, but the attitude of deaf
people was very honest. They were co-opted
by oddism, I mean just completely
infiltrated by oddism, from the oralist paradigm. And on that panel,
well, Peter, Peter, the way he interpreted
his experience, you know, he was oral. And then he gets
into NTID, and people said he wasn’t deaf enough or
his poetry wasn’t deaf enough or something. You know, it’s
interesting he said he preferred to perform
for hearing people because deaf people
criticized him. I can’t remember
exactly what he said. But I was really– I was kind of hurt. You know, I look at this comment
now with new and better eyes because I understand more
where he was coming from. If I could meet him
now, I would say, no, you’re not understanding. Deaf people as a
community were struggling with their identity at that
time and language was a big part of them, of their image. Their image was put
forward by their language. So you, Peter, come at this
with this new creativity. And you know, you’re influenced
by the Beat Generation poetry. Deaf people in the deaf world
didn’t have that kind of idea yet. They weren’t familiar with this
and you just kind of took them by storm and they
didn’t know what it was, so of course, they
were resistant. Of course, they didn’t trust it. And so of course,
there was a conflict between you and
the deaf community. I would explain now to Peter
that I saw at that time that he wasn’t
necessarily engaged in his deafhood
journey at the time. Sure, he got to NTID,
starting seeing ASL, but he didn’t know
what it meant yet. He didn’t know any of the
depths of what he was actually going through. And so I would have
encouraged him, understand who you
are as a deaf person first before you do that. At the time I saw that comment,
I saw it and it was hurtful. And I felt like deaf people are
just not going to welcome you with an attitude like that. You have to understand
your own internal deafhood and place within
the deaf community. And so, I think that was the
source of the difficulty. It seemed that he was
criticizing deaf people on stage with that comment
and that was difficult. And I raised my hackles
and of course I did. I understand why I did. I understand why
other people did. I understood the
source of the tension. Of course I did. You know, the best
thing that oralists were able to accomplish was the
division of the deaf community. That’s what they did. They caused schisms and
they created a division that didn’t exist before. So they caused all that internal
attitude of people putting down each other and that difficulty
between the different paradigms of deaf education of people
who come from both of them. But really, deaf
people as individuals have to look at
themselves, and they have to like themselves
as a deaf person first. That’s the most
important step of all is to like who you are
as a deaf person first. Now ASL poets, they might
have written it in English and then translated it later,
or taken hearing poetry and done that. When you create ASL
poetry from ASL, it’s coming from a deaf lineage. It hasn’t been mediated through
the lens of hearing or English yet. And there hadn’t been
any history of that yet. I mean, poetry is of course, any
language, any time, anywhere. But it’s just interesting
that now, there seems to be a
transition where people are studying more and
more what ASL poetry is and where it came from. So the poetry will
evolve and will grow as more people study
it, understand it better, and accept it, Great. Yes. It’s really great
with young children. Wow. So impressive, you’re right, Right, I saw that. Yeah, that. I’ve seen hearing
American poets say that. And that’s the background
and that’s the training, and he got the idea from them. What do you mean
by responsibility? Well, not only. I mean you don’t have to. It’s exposure. From different techniques,
and you have to have that. There’s tools. You have to have
tools to utilize. Anger? Related a deaf identity. There was nothing
in there about that. I mean. Subjects could be politics. That’s a hearing thing I think. That’s about what
hearing people are doing. Jim Cohn’s influence, I think. Political. Ginsberg, that whole
group, you know, like what’s going on there. I mean, but deaf people, we’ve
got our own stuff, you know. It’s not just what’s going
on from the hearing people. It’s great to take
different ideas. But if you’re going
to use sign and it becomes about looking at
who you are as a deaf person and going to that
place, then I think that’s more of the true poetry
and it becomes more personal. It becomes your own
experience as a deaf person. Yes. What it showed? An outlet. So I’ll have
different experiences, some relating not at all
with deafness, something about the Earth, you know,
the environment, degradation, whatever, animals, whatever. I mean, I have ideas
that don’t have anything to do with deaf people. But I guess I could write
a poem in ASL about that. I guess I could. But there’s still so much
going on in the deaf community. There’s a lot of movement
from the ’70s and ’80s. And there’s a lot of
negativity sometimes. So if I’m going to
talk about other things and ignore my own people,
my own cohort, or where I’m from, I think I need
to take every opportunity, every moment, every
iota of energy I have to put out
things that I want to talk about that
deals with my community, and not go off into the ozone
talking about other things. I want to show people what
is going on in our lives. That’s what’s important for me. And I want to put it
square in their face and say, look at this. You can’t shy away from it. I want you to look at this. I want to put it
right in their face. Every opportunity
I have, I throw that right in their faces. I feel it’s my calling. It’s who I am. I see something because I think
that nobody really understands. I mean, there’s so many
people out there, right? So many folks. And so many causes and things
you can support, animal rights, oh, the poor animals. Or missing children or
people getting abused or supporting different things. There’s a lot of
different causes, a lot of different groups out there. Stem cell research,
everybody is very upset about stem cell
research and everything. They think it’s positive
in every other regard, but we’re not happy about
it in the deaf community. All this positivity
about it, but, hey, have you thought a
minute about how they’re going to use it
against deaf people and you’re actually
promoting eugenics? We think eugenics has gone but
with the resurgence of the idea of stem cells that’s just
this nice sanitized way to be doing eugenics, which
means cleaning up the race. Getting rid of deaf people. You have to say,
whoa, wait a minute. You know, we think
it’s negative. It’s not a good thing. When you look our way,
and you’re going to use stem cells against us. So you know a lot of people
just don’t even care. They don’t even think about
that there’s a problem or that we have to think
about deaf people at all. Oh, it’s sign language. It’s boring. It’s nothing we
have to think about. Just put them off to the side. We don’t need deaf people. Let’s use stem cell research
and get rid of them. Somebody needs to
say to them, no. This is wrong. I use poetry in different ways. People use art and media,
storytelling, movies, they use a lot of different ways
to get their message across. And I just happen to use
poetry to get mine across. Yeah, I never said they
should be taken away. You get that? I never said that. No, high school. Kids, you know high
school kids, you know, come on, even
hearing high school kids don’t want to be
in a home, right? Which one? The Children’s Garden? That one? Well now I think that my
eyes have changed in a sense. I mean, I’ve grown and I
see things differently. Again, you know, the deaf
community is really small. And here in the US,
different countries have different issues. But I’m speaking specifically
about here in America. We live in a very
political environment. We talk about civil
rights, disability rights. All kinds of things
conflate or intention and– now the word disability,
you know that definition has flexed over time. It has not remain static. It’s always in flux. So the idea of what is disabled
has changed a lot over time. It used to be, it was OK to
factionalize and say, OK, that group of disabled
people or that group. They have their different sorts
of abilities or disabilities. And they didn’t
necessarily want to mix. Then there was civil rights in
the black community that was supposedly separate but equal. But they weren’t. They weren’t equal at all. They were separate
and very unequal until the protests occurred,
which affected their change. Now I lived in
Berkeley at that time and the Black
Panthers were around. And, wow, I mean at that
particular time was also big hippie time, Beat
Generation time a little bit here in San Francisco. So there were a lot
of different groups who were making a lot of noise
all around the same time. The School for the
Deaf and my house were fairly near each other. And separating them
was Telegraph Avenue right down the center. And that was kind of ground
central for all of this, lots of demonstrations. I was a day school student. I didn’t stay
overnight in the dorms. I had to walk right across
that street and right through those crowds. That were police that were
billy clubbing people. It was amazing. There were helicopters that
were dispensing tear gas. In the School for
the Deaf we had to close the dorms, the
windows in the dorms, but it would get
through and we’d be crying all the time
from the tear gas. So I saw all this. I didn’t have a clue
what any of it meant. There was all this
excitement going on. And we deaf kids were
in our own little world, our own little bubble. Even though we saw it, we
didn’t really read the newspaper and understand
what was going on. I didn’t know what
it was all about. Some of the deaf kids
who were like tougher, were like, oh,
yeah, man, hippies. Let’s smoke some pot, you know. And they didn’t know what the
politics were behind any of it, but they thought, wow
far out, because they knew something was happening. But as I grew up, I
didn’t know what it was. Now I look back and I
understand it better. But at the time, that was
just swirling around me and I had no clue. So all that’s going on, trying
to remember what I was saying. I was talking about civil
rights, black community, right, and all this going all
around near where I grew up. And of course, there’s still
a lot of dissension right now. Of course, this has
not been settled. But in terms of the disabled
community, the schools for the deaf. There was school for the blind. There was school for other kids. And it seemed like a lot of
folks weren’t happy with this. Some folks did prefer to be
just in their own enclaves. And others wanted to
be with everyone else. So then everybody starts
talking about mainstreaming. Everything had to be mainstream. Everybody has to be together. And then there was the
Americans Disabilities Act that was later. But there were a few leaders,
a few political leaders, who talked to disabled
people and felt that, oh, these other
groups have more in common with each other. Maybe they should build some
coalition with each other. Remember section 504. There was a big protest
here in San Francisco. I had a friend who was
really involved with that. I didn’t get involved. I observed it pretty
closely, but I didn’t do anything with it. I was trying to understand it. I didn’t really know
what it was all about. And then that kind of led to
the Gallaudet Deaf President now protest in 1988. And then ADA was passed. But back when section 504
of PL 954 142 was going on, that was when everybody
decided that the kids should be mainstreamed. They shouldn’t be hidden away. All the disabled folks
should be out and about. Now deaf people had been
out in the public forever. It’s not like we’d
ever been hidden away. We didn’t have any worries. We hadn’t been put in
closets or anything. We were working. We were in factories or
out doing our own thing out in public. So this whole idea of needing to
like not be hidden away anymore didn’t make any sense. But, deaf people were looked
at, and we looked at each other, and we’re thinking,
are we disabled? I don’t know? Are we like other people? I mean, we can’t hear. We can’t do this one thing. Maybe that means we’re disabled. I mean, nobody ever took
up the charge and said, yes, we’re disabled because
we can’t hear, you know. You didn’t meet a lot of
people saying like wow, I just really wish I
was like hearing people. I hate deaf people. There were some and
that was the ones that were co-opted by the
oralism idea and faction. Because that set us
against each other and caused a lot
of divisiveness. But, for the most
part, the whole idea was, everybody had
to be mainstreamed. Let’s get everybody out
in the regular schools. But the schools for the
deaf were still there. And then they started splitting. So the California School for
the Deaf actually split in two. There was a state
sponsored school for the deaf that was
paid through state moneys and the blind school
was there as well. And then there was a
special education school for the deaf that
was mainstream. Deaf kids were under the
mantle of special ed. So everything was
being reconfigured, because the whole idea was
everybody had to have a choice. We have to have choice. So the parents were
being hounded by AG Bell. Just trust us. We’ll help you. We’ll keep you together. We’ll make sure your kid
goes to a mainstream school. And boy, AG Bell
just really took advantage of people who had deaf
kids like nobody’s business. You parents now have a choice. They were pushing the
whole idea of being more like American culture and not
being islands unto themselves. So if hearing parents
had a deaf kid, they didn’t know what to do. The strong American cultural
influence on everybody, on everybody’s thinking,
your thinking too. You know, you have to
have a cultural view, because that’s the
cultural you come from. I mean, do hearing
American people like say, I’m going to keep my kid with
me for the rest of their lives? They can never go
out in the world. They can never meet anybody. We’re going to keep them close. It’s really, really bad. So deaf people, you know,
deaf people are just saying with schools
for the deaf, just bring your kid to us. Let us have your deaf
kid and raise him in the school for
the deaf so that they have some deaf culture. That’s all we meant. It’s not like we’re
stealing your deaf children. You can’t have them. That’s not what
anybody meant to say. There were all these
misunderstandings about it. And that’s all oralism too. That’s the mindset that was
being propagated by the AG Bell Association, very, very wrong,
very negative about the idea that ASL would
ascend, that anybody would think that sign language
was anything to be lauded. All this idea about
more and more choices, whatever and babies being tested
as soon as they were born, used to be back in the
day a kid would be born and then you’d figure out
that they were deaf later on and whatever. Now the moment they’re
born, they’re tested, and they’re really being stolen
from us by all the infiltration and all of the cochlear
implants and all the money that these businesses have
to try to fix the kids. But that’s what I was talking
about in terms of kids going to schools for the deaf. I mean it’s a really
serious issue. It’s almost like what
deaf kids undergo or what the deaf community
undergoes is like a diaspora, like the Jewish people just
being spread to the winds. And the schools for the
deaf were a place where they could find each other. There are oral schools
for the deaf as well. But now they say you know
disabled children can be out and about. Everybody should
be out and about. And if they’re together,
they’re suffering. But I’m telling you
they’re suffering horribly, the way it’s working now. So that poem, “The Children’s
Garden” and “The Door,” the other poem,
were used to depict this idea of being isolated
and forced to be apart. You know it’s the
death of that child. It was almost like deaf,
D-E-A-F led to death, D-E-A-T-H. Because when they’re separated
from their community, that is the death of that child. That’s what I was
trying to show. I wasn’t trying to hurt people
or offend people or anything. I tried to be really careful
about that for 30 years or so. And then I said, oh, forget it. Let’s just speak the truth. You have to be honest
and be blunt about it. Sometimes sugarcoating
something doesn’t work better. And sometimes, you know,
you can use poetry, or prose and try to put
your ideas in that and that makes it a little
bit easier for people to swallow, using metaphors and
using those sorts of tricks. Poetic language, mm, hmm. Because its eye language. It’s beautiful. You’re playing with language. It’s captivating and
it also affects you, but it has a message,
a subconscious, subliminal message that’s
behind all that beauty. And that’s really the only way. Right, right. If I was extremely
direct about it, I mean sometimes,
in some places, that’s the right thing to do. Be blunt, be direct. But there’s other
ways to do that too. You can’t be direct,
sometimes you have to get your message in
another way and sneak it in. That’s right, through
the back door. It’s just like Paddy Ladd’s
story about the museum. Do you know that? You don’t know that story? Oh it’s great. It’s from his book. It’s fantastic. It’s a great story. And I can tell you the story. It’ll be pretty much
my version of it. I’m going to tweak
his just a little bit. You know, I work as a janitor. I’m deaf, always been deaf. Was looking for a
job, and I found one at the deafness museum. That’s where I work. They hired me. They felt it was important I
was deaf and I’m working there. What do I do? I go into this white room
with all these portraits on the wall. Most of them are of white men
in white lab coats, doctors. They have PhDs next
to their names. They look very distinguished. None of them knows how to sign. They’re surgeons. They’re people who work very
hard to get rid of deafness and improve deaf
people’s speech. There’s all these
other portraits in another gallery that
are all women, most of them speech teachers,
audiologists, people who work one on one to
improve people’s speech. All these portraits on the wall. In the middle of a room with a
special light shining down upon it is a statue of Alexander
Graham Bell, so honored and so lauded as a hero. All these portraits,
all these technologies, all these different cases
full of instruments of torture to try to
help deaf people hear. Things stuck up in noses,
down throats and ears, radiation machines just show
different ways to fix people throughout the ages. I see those and think,
wow, that looks horrible. But gotta earn my pay. I got my job. I’m a janitor in
the deafness museum. That’s what I do. One day I went to the deaf
club, which unfortunately fewer and fewer people are attending. And I went to play
cards as I usually do. And this one night,
this old man shows up. He’s a deaf man, but I’ve
never seen him before. And he asks me, what
do you do for a living? Oh, me? I’m a janitor at the
deafness museum I tell him. Oh, he says. You know, it’s down at the
intersection of that and that? That’s where it is all right. He said, you know, if
you look really hard, there’s a secret door in
the back of the museum. I said, a secret door? I never seen no secret door. I’ve worked there for
30 years and I’ve never seen a secret door. Oh no, he said. You just have overlooked it. You should check it
out next time you work. Go see. OK. So he kept playing cards. I looked up and he’d gone. I never saw him again. Well I work the night
shift so I went down to work at the deafness
museum that night. I was thinking about what he
said about this secret door. I decided to go look
along the back wall. And sure enough, there
was an outline of a door. I had never noticed it before. I gave it a push and
it’s swung the open. It wasn’t even locked. Behind that door it
was dark and quiet. It was laced with cobwebs. And there were portraits that
were turned against the wall. There were shapes and
silhouettes of things. I brushed off the cobwebs
and I turned one around. And one of those pictures
was of Martha’s Vineyard. It was a town hall meeting
showing everybody signing, hearing and deaf. I didn’t know about that. What a surprise. The next picture I turned
around was from Turkey. The sultan, the
ruler of the land, at the time of
the Ottoman Empire the most prized
guards for the sultan were deaf people
because they knew they wouldn’t blab their secrets. And they were chosen as guards. Such respect for them, such
respect for sign language. I turned around other
pictures and there were pictures of
schools for the deaf that had been founded
over the years, things I’d never heard about that I
didn’t know anything about. I couldn’t believe it. There was an old movie
projector that I dusted off. And when I turned it on,
on the wall was projected, we will always love and cherish
our beautiful sign language as the noblest gift God
has given to deaf people. Wow! Look at all this. I never even knew this existed. There was another door
in the back of that room, and when I opened it, it led
to a beautiful grassy garden with a walkway paved with old
stones that were overgrown with moss and weeds. And when I followed that
pathway and turned around, I looked and saw that this
had been the original entrance to the museum. And the sign at the top
said the Deaf Hood Museum. It was covered over with
leaves and what have you. So that Deafness
Museum was actually an annex that was added
on to the original museum. That big fancy place in the
front with all the lights and all the beauty and the
sterile rooms and the pictures and statue was what people saw. But the back part was
hidden and put aside. And people didn’t know. But it’s still there
waiting to be discovered. And that’s the
same as your mind. You have to change it. You have to change your whole
paradigm of how you see things. Deafness should be that,
should be celebrated. That’s the story. It needs to completely undergo a
revolution, a change in the way that we look at things, movies,
books, poems, everything, and more and more now you
see pockets of resistance. It is a revolution,
not a revolution in the sense of
rebellion, but in a change a complete sea change. And so that deaf
doesn’t become death. D-E-A-F does not
become D-E-A-T-H. Right. We have a choice. We can go this way. We can follow the status quo
and go along our merry way, just like the Robert Frost poem,
the road that is taken. Or we could take
the road not taken and be willing to go there. But if we go that way,
it’s really important that we’re active along
the way and that we find that is the true road. You’re right. So many of our leaders,
our deaf leaders haven’t even looked at
their own deafhood yet. They haven’t looked internally. You could look out at who’s
working in the hearing world, some of them are successful. You know, like you can
see how maybe sometimes black people even do that. They try to masquerade as
white people or something just to survive. And it’s the same thing. Deaf people will sometimes
issue their sign language or their deafness, just feel
like that’s not my problem. I leave it to the other deaf
people to take care of that. But, is that really
the way it should be? If you look throughout
history, there have been so many
oppressed people who have decided to
rise to the occasion and undergo those changes
and try to make them occur. There are so many deaf
PhDs out there now. So many deaf people are
becoming more and more affluent. Their skills, their
arts, everything, they should get together
and consolidate. Everybody’s factionalized now. And I think that’s still
a legacy of oralism that still is very much
entrenched and ingrained within us. But we need to
coalesce and the push has to be now,
because time is short. We need to get cracking. We members of National
Association of the Deaf need to make a push
for that I think. But sometimes we’re
kind of stuck. You know, NAD, right
across from them is who? The Volta Bureau. AG Bell office is located
directly across the street from the headquarters
of the National Association of the Deaf. It’s difficult. I think
the National Institute for Deafness and Communication,
something like that, they’re located right there too. So they have these
organizations that are right there,
looking staring right down the barrel of
their gun at the NAD, this tiny little organization
being flanked or looked down upon and controlled
by these two huge behemoth organizations. And I think we
need to figure out a way to effect some sort
of changes in consciousness. And that whole idea of using the
word deafness, that’s gotta go. We need to change the language
to being deaf, becoming deaf, transitioning to deaf. No more hearing loss,
hard of hearing, that kind of thing, can’t hear,
can’t hear, no more of that. We have to embrace who we are. That kind of language
doesn’t fit us anymore. The language needs to change to
accurately reflect who we are and what we’re going for. And I believe that that’s
the only choice that we have in front of us currently. If Gallaudet were to go
under, it shouldn’t happen. I guess it’s possible, maybe. But we mustn’t even think
of that as an eventuality. We have to keep hope. We have to do
something different. There has to be something
new that comes down the road. All the old ways of
being and the ways that we kept doing
things has to change. We can’t just assume
the status quo is going to be good
enough to maintain. If Gallaudet went down the
tubes, that would be serious. It can’t happen. It can’t. The whole world
looks to Gallaudet. We will be fine. We can get along fine. You know, we really
need to do something. I mean Gallaudet is undergoing
some hard struggles. It’s true. And that’s because of oralism. Oralism equals colonialism. If you look at the
history of colonialism, it is exactly the same. Paddy Ladd goes into this
at length in his book. Colonialism, how
different countries, imperialist countries
took over other countries. It’s the exact corollary. And we need to understand
that before we can actually effect the changes and become
a post-colonialist society. We have to. Otherwise it will persist. Look at Paddy Ladd’s book. Just check it out. He explains it. It is a difficult book to
read, but it’s wonderful. The message is very clear. If you understand
colonialism, you understand the deaf
situation and deaf society as we know it now. None. Mm-hmm. If you freeze a
film, if you stop it. Yeah, how can you
show the world? How do you show them? This is the discussion
that we have through the medium of film. That’s great, but
how do we utilize it? Do you have voiceover? Do you have captions? You know, that’s
a big discussion. I’m going to tell you my ideal. If you don’t have a
vision you die, right? I’ll tell you my vision. The Bible says that. People without a vision
is a people who will die. Did you know that verse? Do you know that? It’s in Proverbs. You can look it up. When there is no vision,
then the people perish. So it seems that deaf
people have no vision. When we become post-colonialist,
we will have vision again. And that’s what we’re going for. Right now, we have to
figure out how to get there. Right now, we’re
practicing to arrive in a post-colonialists
society as deaf people. I would say, learn sign. I think people
need to learn sign. Learn sign. High schools often offer
sign language courses. I think they need to learn sign. Yeah, people have
been learning sign. They were curious. There are more people in
business who are deaf. Then we look at in
a more positive way. It solves more problems. That’s the vision,
that signing, you know, is what has to happen. People have to learn sign. They learn sign first. That’s the ideal. That would be the best thing. So for your film, people should
learn sign to understand it. But the second best
thing, of course, is to have some
kind of translation. They can watch it and then they
could read the translation. Oh, yeah, you could
put up captions, but that’s a different
kind of enterprise, right? It used to be that
we would read books. I read books before
I saw movies. I would read the book and
then I’d watch the movie. And I’d try to figure
out as we went along. So that was a
technique that I used. And I had that experience. I think that hearing
people could do that too. You look at me like I’m nuts. But I’m saying, if you
don’t have captions, people could watch the movie. Read the thing before
and then go see it. The whole idea is equal access. People can’t hear. How can they communicate? They write back and forth. That’s what we’ve done
as deaf people, right? So you have deaf
people translating, people who are really
good at English whatever. Like people could
watch it and then somebody could write it down. That’s what we’ve
been experienced, with TV, with movies,
that’s what we went through. And the last thing I’d say is
just add music, but no words. Have emotive music that
would lead people’s emotions. You know, and that
could add that. The very, very, very last thing
I’d say for hearing people to understand a film
like what you’re making is to have a voiceover. That’s my idea. Yeah, music sets a mood. You know, you see
something, and then there’s music that
sort of underscores the mood, no language. You know, ASL is the number one,
and that’s one thing I said, I wanted the only
language to have ASL. Because there’s not many places
where you could go to a movie and you could see that
it would only be in ASL. But if you needed to put some
little cues in there of music to lead people’s
emotions, you know, not have a translation
overlaid it, because that I think things get lost. Right, yeah, control the
audience through the music. Mm-hmm. I know that if movies
are for hearing folks, they have to have music. I know that they’re really
controlled– hearing people are controlled by music. You know like I just
gotta tell you, we don’t– I was so shocked. Somebody told me there’s
music in the bathroom. People told me that when you
go to the store, there’s music. Like is it, getting people
to buy more or something like that? There’s music all over. Cults, so I know there
are special cults that when they get
people in the cult, they bombard them
with music all day and all night to brainwash them. I was shocked to find this out. So why not use that technique
to your own advantage and use music to lead
people’s emotions in your film if you want to? Why not? Why not? You want to, that’s cool. You think that will help
them understand it better? And welcome to my
way of doing things. No language, then join us. We didn’t have language either. No the music’s just
to control them. You know, just to
get our message out. Use it. Use their medium to
understand our message. It’s just an idea. I’m just blue skying it. Remember, that wasn’t
my first choice. I said my first choice is
to not have any language and have people learning
ASL to understand your film. And my last choice,
absolute last is to have voiceover
of any kind. The medium, yeah. Before I understood myself
more, well, you know, I’ve always looked at ASL and
I’m a deaf person and all that. And I do study other
groups as well. And look at the mediums/ and
of course, I realized, wow, men and women function in
a really different way. They’re still unequal
in so many ways. Even just being a woman or just
being a deaf woman, you know? So there’s different ways
they’re portrayed in the media. You know, men are the
ones who bring home the bacon and women are the
ones who cook and what have you. I mean, like, for years that
was just expected, right? I mean my parents have
been married over 60 years and that was their
traditional way. My dad always
functioned that way. My mom always
functioned that way. But she’s a very
strong woman and he had to learn that she wasn’t
that kind of homebody. You know, if he would
say no, she would just go and do her own thing anyway. That was more of a strong
deaf woman way I think. And I had a lot of
influence from my mother, because she was
such a strong woman. My dad too, because he’s a
deep analytic thinker, very studious person. My mom is very brazen. She’s not afraid of anything. I got both of those
influences within me, I think. I don’t think there’s any– well– my mother has
her own special gifts and my father has his. But I think they treat each
other as equals at this point. But they have to do
everything the same or everything in equality? Not necessarily. They go along their
own separate ways and then they cross
over sometimes. They each have their
special ways of being. And I think that they’ve come
down to about 50-50 or maybe 51-49 whatever. And I think that’s what keeps
the world turning right? That balance. The languages are
different of course. When we compare Deaf folks to other disenfranchised groups, there are some similarities but not in all aspects the Black community, immigrants, native americans, feminism, – with the LGBT community we have more parallels in that 90% of those folks come from families with straight parents, just as 90% of Deaf people have hearing parents. That is an interesting similarity. They – just as we – grow up and find our places in life. But that’s where the similarity ends, because they share the same language as their families of origin. So in comparing Deaf people to these other groups we find that we are, indeed, unique. And our presence must be maintained on this earth, to contribute to diversity. We can’t be banished. Yes, right. Yes, traveling all over. yes, his influence is spreading, and where did his signed poetry begin? Where was the spark that set it off? Peter Cook didn’t know sign growing up, he didn’t learn until he
arrived at NTID, then that whole Ginsberg
discussion occurred, and that was his early
exposure to the art form. Debbie Rennie, I think she
has a deaf brother, and she attended a school for
the deaf somewhere, so she had language. She has a fun personality, she’s a mix of playfulness and seriousness, and is a very internal and emotionally connected person. I saw her in Sweden, I think she was still teaching children at the time. Maybe teaching art? I can’t remember… Patrick Graybill is more traditional, he has a strong NTD influence on his work, but he always kept an open mind and was looking into language,
a very reflective person, and he has a lot of soul in his work. Valli was more influenced
by the written word, and started out by writing
poetry and then used what he learned from
that investigation. He had no influence from
NTD the way I had, and that Patrick had. Peter and Debbie were
influenced by theater in a different mold than the
NTD way, but probably got some from NTID. But Valli had none of
that, he was raw and did things in his own way. Peter was what I would
call raw as well, definitely has his own
way of doing things. But Valli had a signature
style of playing with signs and
presenting his work. Some poets really put
their hearts and souls out there, and Valli was
more about keeping the attention on his hands
and the signs themselves. He used a lot of
metaphors, well actually, all of the ASL poets did,
when you analyze their work. There is a legacy to their
poetry, I now see younger Deaf poets and I can
identify the different threads of influence on
them, because they grew up being exposed to that
kind of literature. Those who do are
so fortunate. There are great teachers
who have created curricula in ASL lit, and programs
to foster creativity. It’s a second and third
generation of poets, wow! We have to keep this
precious tradition. You know, there are so
many worrisome things to be concerned about, and
you could just hide and pretend it’s not
happening, but I have a deaf son, and HE has a
deaf son too, who is now one year old. If we don’t do anything
what happens to him? Can I allow things to
happen to him without intervening? It’s like what you’re
saying, how hearing parents fear that their
deaf children are taken away, where is the worry
about my grandson? All of the anxiety tends
to be focused on hearing parents and the deaf
parents are ignored. I see that all of the
time, just wholesale discounting of deaf
parents’ concerns. I get angry when their
struggle for rights are minimized. Both hearing and deaf
parents’ concerns should be heard, and children
should not be divided from their parents. The parents have a right
to their say in their children’s lives. My son took a class at
California School for the Deaf, “comparative
literature,” which looked at English and ASL poetry. The teacher was wonderful
and had a great curriculum, whereby the
students would read and study the English text
and then watch signed renditions. That was at the
high school level. And they used one of
my poems in the class. My son came home and
talked about it with me. He isn’t a natural poet
himself, in terms of creating it, but he
appreciates poetry now. He had to write a few for
school assignments and he showed them to me. Now my work is being
perpetuated to subsequent generations and sometimes
a deaf kid will approach me and tell me they
saw me on video. I like it when hearing
people tell me they’ve seen me, too, but I’m
thrilled when deaf students tell me that,
because it means their teachers are aware and
helping to carry this work forward. My favorite poem? I guess it would be “The
Treasure.” I like a lot of the others, but “The
Treasure” is dear to me because it really shows
how I feel about ASL, because the language is
still under fire, because it is a precious thing. And with that poem I’m
just putting it out there to the world that it’s
your responsibility, that as a user of ASL YOU are
accountable, so what are you going to do
for deaf children? It’s in your hands, and
I’m right here to support you in any way I can, but
it’s not just up to me alone. Everyone – interpreters,
parents, students of ASL, EVERYONE is obligated
to deaf people, to deaf children, and to
sign language. Each one of you. You can’t shirk that
responsibility and think that it’s just on the deaf
people to take up the charge. And that’s what the poem
reflects in the very end, with the final sign, that
the responsibility is on the viewer to
actively advocate. It’s a choice, to turn
away or to join the fight, and it’s up to every
person to face that choice. I have about 11 all together, there were some previous to that but I didn’t include them. I just create them now from time to time. At that time, yes. Sure. Yes, right. That would be nice if you ask them to help pick the colors. Oh, that’s very nice, thank you Good luck! I think it’s a wonderful project – documenting history, and including various perspectives as they evolved over the years, the 20 year period afer the 1980’s. Rochester hosted a
gathering to generate the Claggett Statement,
Christians for the Liberation of the Deaf
Community, where hearing and deaf people came
together and crafted a statement outlining
our beliefs. It was truly visionary. I was involved with that
group, it was 20 years ago, 1984 or 85, and in
2004 they revisited it. I couldn’t go that time,
but it’s amazing what has occurred in the past 20
years, so many things have transpired, some positive
things and some that are incredibly depressing and
dire, so the message is still holds true. Twenty year time spans are
important epochs, think about the ‘60s
to the ‘90s! Looking into that time
period will further inform what occurs going forward
in the years of 2000 and beyond. You’re welcome.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *