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Sign Poetry

Whilst we are on the subject of drawing; I met a fascinating artist the other week at the RWA Drawn exhibition. Her name is Kyra Pollitt. Kyra is an artist and sign language interpreter, and she is currently researching at the University of Bristol into ways of representing sign poetry through mark-making. She was hosting a sign poetry performance and drawing session called “Action Assemblage”. It was incredible.

Despite reading literature at university, I had not seen or heard about sign poetry before. This is probably because it is still an emerging art form. It does not yet have a cannon, nor is it widely known in the non-signing community.

There were two performers, Richard Carter and Paul Scott. Richard used his whole body, and created very physical poetry. It was like watching mime-performance-poetry. Paul was more stationary. He sat quite still, and used his hands and eyes to tell stories. It reminded me of an ancient Keralan danceform I encountered whilst in India. I made some visual interpretations of what I saw.

I longed to understand what I saw on a linguistic level. Certain moments of the performance sparked expressions of appreciation around me. Giggles and sighs from the sign-savvy audience encouraged me imagine meaning. I tried to imagine how one would linguistically process a visual metaphor created through a wave of the hand, or interpret a simile painted with the eyes. I couldn’t.

After, Paul explained that there is not an equivalent textual interpretation of the poetry. It is not as simple writing each sign as a word, like you would translate a Spanish poem into English for example. Much more is lost. The language is the movement, and a written form does not convey the intricacies and layers of meaning which are bound into each movement, and each sequence of movements. I found this so intriguing.

Kyra hopes to use her research to explore ways of recording and translating the poetry for a wider audience. She gave a wonderful example of how metaphor is used: Take the American sign for the letter “b”. Turn it upside down into a paintbrush. Dip it into blue, the blue veins on your wrist, and hold it up to paint the sky, paint it blue. Beautiful.

ASL B