People of the Eye are a newly forming collective of (British) sign language poets and visual artists, working together. Each poet has created and performed a poem,to which an artist is asked to creatively respond. The insights of the artists inform a doctoral research study into the nature of the visual in sign poetry.
The second instalment of Tamarin Norwood’s initial response to Paul Scott’s sign language artwork ‘Three Queens’:
2 – After watching for the first time…
Two things came up during this first encounter with the poem.
I was anxious. I hadn’t expected that. At first I thought I was just concentrating too hard trying to understand it, but halfway through I realized I was worried because I was trying to memorize it. Why on earth was I trying to memorize it? Did it have something to do with my inability to understand every word? I didn’t want to interrupt the video to note down my thoughts so perhaps that was it: I was trying to memorize my responses and save them all up until the poem was done. Yes, it was a bit anxious.
Perhaps if I really hadn’t understood a word I might have been more able to let it all wash over me like linguistic flux. But (I think) I understood more than I’d expected. I enjoyed watching the family tree being played out at speed (so these are three related queens?) the descriptions of gowns and crowns, the inscrutable requirement that (who? courtiers?) should hastily but thoughtfully note everything down on little notepads. At one point sign language was being noted down (I think). I’m looking forward to reading the description so I know what on earth was going on there.
You see I could pick out bits of detail, but certainly not the trajectory of the story or the shape of the poem. And I wonder how much I would have been able to pick out if the title weren’t already provided for me, written out in English at the opening of the video?
The other thing that struck me in this first meeting was Paul’s brilliant comic timing, which seems to leap from his fingertips on cue then vanish without a trace. I couldn’t tell whether the poem contained a tight tricky twist or a wry quip at the end, or any kind a structural humour in its shape, but the whole piece felt peppered through with comedy: the smearing on of unwieldy clothes, the earnest characterization of those mysterious scribbling courtiers, the speed with which the queens grew and reproduced and grew and reproduced, and the shifting field and scale of vision we had to assume to accommodate this zooming in and out between individuals and branches of the family tree.
Like the Pina Bausch dance, it was engrossing to watch. But unlike the dance it won’t stop there. The tantalizing form and bits of meaning I’ve managed to scrape together make me want to find out more.
In the first of four diary blogs, Tamarin Norwood guides us through her response to Paul Scott’s ‘Three Queens’……
1 – Before I watched the poem…
You only get one chance to encounter a poem for the first time. On my screen in front of me, in different windows, are the video of Paul’s poem, an interview with the poet and an outline of his own view of the poem. Which to look at first?
I’m invited to respond to the poem in some way, and Paul didn’t create the poem so that I could watch it as a non-signer. He didn’t create it so that the physical forms of his signs would pre-empt their meaning; he created it assuming the forms and meanings would reach the viewer together—just as a poets writing on the page assume the shapes and sounds of their words will reach the reader simultaneously with their meanings. (Such are my own assumptions about Paul’s assumptions anyway…) And from my own perspective I want to understand the poem and I know my level one BSL exam—passed three years ago and insufficiently practised ever since—won’t do much to help me understand the poem, let alone the intricate word play I know goes on in sign poetry.
Then again, I’m very interested both in the physical morphological form of BSL and in the state of being non-fluent in a language. I’ve been asked to respond to Paul’s poem as an artist, and much of my artwork draws on problems of linguistic fluency and comprehension. I’m interested to see how this kind of linguistic form can meet me given the inadequacy of my language. So although it will impoverish my first encounter I’m inclined to watch the video on its own and without any supporting information, then to supplement it with the texts later on.
Last year I went to see a Pina Bausch dance production and didn’t want to read the synopsis or any reviews in advance. A friend was appalled and told me I wouldn’t know what was going on. But I didn’t want to ‘know what was going on’. I wanted to enjoy the bodies and their movements exactly. I wanted to handle the raw material up close, and understand for myself what was happening. And when it came to it I was engrossed in the dance and the dancers from start to end, from the tips of their fingers and teeth to the footprints the light and sound seemed to absorb into curves. Afterwards there was much discussion over which character was which and what bit happened when. It sounded confused and unsatisfying after my thrilled experience of the event. Without a synopsis my understanding of the story was certainly impoverished, but it meant the dance was all I had, so I made it do everything. And so it did.
When I watch Paul’s movements, they will be language and not dance. I’m reminded of a reviewer’s insipid and ill-received remark that an ASL performance at New York’s Bowery had been ‘beautiful’. I don’t want to watch Paul’s movements unaccompanied by a written commentary so that I can aestheticize the form and find it ‘beautiful’, but so that I can appreciate as directly as I can the experience of encountering a new linguistic specimen and a new specimen of creative form while keeping the linguistic gap of my non-fluency in tact.
The problem is all the more complicated because of the linguistically unique form of sign languages, which sometimes make use of a kind of spatial onomatopoeia. Non-signers delight in guessing these meanings – often wildly and hilariously, but wrong or not the proximity of interpretation when I watch sign languages (not just BSL) feels different from the experience of hearing or reading unknown languages. These often erroneous interpretations cloud into the form as I watch, and mean I’m accumulating meanings despite myself.
With all this in mind—or perhaps trying to push all this out of mind—I’ll press play.
Howard Hardiman responds to That Day, by Donna Williams.
I’ll admit I struggled with this for a number of reasons. First there was the wall of performance anxiety that I get with commissions. In particular, being asked to respond to someone else’s creativity, where if I produced something they wouldn’t like or recognise as connected to their own work, I’d feel like I was failing, even if I’d produced an image I was happy with.
Secondly, the poem was more polemic and clear in its intentions than most poetry so the instinct was to directly illustrate the content, but this didn’t seem satisfactory – as if I were creating a still for a film, rather than a poster, so you’d only understand one element, one moment and one angle on something that flows in a less concrete way.
Reading an interview with Donna, something stood out. She described the poem as a response to the ignorant attitudes people have about Deaf people, and the difficult relationship with disability when people think you “don’t look disabled”.
I think that’s what I’ve run with. In the image a pencil-drawn figure walks proudly through a world of colour, surrounded by a chaotic storm of glaring and disapproving eyes. By her hip, she’s subtly giving the finger.
I didn’t want to focus on the text too closely and make this about why Disability Living Allowance is justified because mainstream culture devalues Deaf people. It’s more the underlying themes that I wanted to pick up on, so I wasn’t making a carbon copy of the text in picture form.
It struck me that sticking to your guns, defiance and shoring yourself against a sea of ignorance were at the core of the poem; and the judgement that disabled people encounter (she exists in a world devoid of the colour that fills theirs).
I think with every piece you make, there’s an element of talking about yourself, and I can relate to the scrutiny Donna’s describing. It used to be that when I was having a seizure and desperately needed to collapse into a seat on the bus, people would glare at me for sitting in the priority seat. Now that my back injury means I need that seat, I’m the one leaning pointedly on the stick and hoping someone gets the hint. People look and say “You’re a bit young for walking with a stick” or there’s a peculiar nod of acknowledgement when I pass another person walking with a stick, that’s something like the moment of acknowledgement that passes between queers on the street :“You’re okay, it’s not just you.”
Over the last few months, I’ve had to stand in my underpants in therapy wards while someone watches me move to one side or the other until pain makes me yelp and stop. I’ve had to talk about my bladder and bowels more than I’ve ever had to in my life, and with more people. Over the last few years, I’ve been in scanners to look for what’s wrong with my brain, x-rays to tell me how bad my arm is, scans and scrutiny that leads to judgement and diagnosis. I’ve had to hurt my hands filling out 40-page forms detailing every thing I can’t do to validate the judgement that I’ve got impairments, I’ve had to sit with countless doctors and recount a narrative of my weakness and inability to walk, to use my hands, to concentrate, to remain conscious.
Against that constant, scrutinising glare, it’s hard sometimes to remember that there are many things I can do and areas where I am strong, but I keep doing that, challenging that narrative of failure and inability with the fact I’m fortunate enough to have a similar litany of good things I’ve done, can do, or have experienced, so to think of myself as useless would only be a still from the film, rather than the poster of it.
That day, I’ll wake without pain.
That day, I’ll lift without fear.
That day, I’ll work without distraction.
That day, I’ll think without fear of loss of consciousness.
That day, I’ll be without the weight of grief and doubt.
That day, you’ll see me as I do.
Sophia Burns gives us a peep at her diary as she watches Paul Scott’s sign poem for the first time…..
My first impressions after watching Paul’s poem Three Queens for the first time…. movement in space…I like the way Paul seems to stop in space… do I want to put a narrative? or do I prefer seeing a body in space creating movements that could lead in my case to some lines and colors on a paper or a canvas….. what is it we are trying to experience through this work ? is it a visual translation of a narrative? (…) …when I see Paul ….I see a living visual…..like a dancer…there is no trace…. a work on sensations… (…) I just read the translation of the poem they give on the University of Bristol website…and the story behind the poem….it is an historical piece and already a narrative emerges from the sensations……. (…) but I won’t let that stop the flow….. (…) is it about getting two worlds to collide and merge into a visual sensation? ….. (…) I was wondering if instead of a translation it could be the visual response to the poem…. OR it could be a visual statement of the Three Queens, from what I feel of Paul’s performance ….. but what if I preferred to feel & experience this poem than understand it?
3 June 2012
I approach the performance as a new artistic and visual language because there is the knowledge that Paul works with sign language, if I don’t know sign language and I’m watching this performance as I did when I was younger when I saw for the first time visual and concrete poetry. I didn’t understand but felt it was opening another space of expression through the body that was very close to words with or without narrative. As an abstract painter, a visual space passionate, I see myself enjoying the game of shapes in space creating rhythms….subject is accessory…only the experience I have of a new visual space matters….. With such a poem that is explicitly on a historical subject I might decide to deliberately not want to work with its meaning but work from the re-writing Paul has done by creating his poem. An hermeneutic…re-writing from one form to the next, instead of translating sign language into our comprehensible spoken language I decide to plunge into an unknown language emanating from the body…. … I just watched Paul’s poem for the 3rd time….I realise how precise and how physically involved he is, his arms and body seem to flow through his visual words. I’ll start using my pencils tomorrow to follow his flow and rhythm…I love the way his two arms cut space vertically…
4th of June
I just started using a pencil. I put the Three Queens by Paul Scott on and started following Paul’s body. How he is moving determines where my pencil goes. I had to stop every time my hand didn’t have the required time to follow Paul and start from where I had left. I only managed to get to the scene where he starts eating, or “she” starts eating……5 drawings that result from my first visual intake or response to visual poetry. Paul inhabits the performance, his body is giving me the attitude of this queen, I can see her slowly emerging from the lines I’m setting on the paper, and she’s funny…I realise this poem is going to be ironic….or at least that the character is a caricature. I was suddenly reminded of UBU the King by Alfred Jarry….the whole image became very surrealistic and I felt myself diving back into the fierce sense of caricature when art becomes a tool for re-writing history…..I already feel that this experience is going to open new visual horizons, merci Paul and merci Kyra
Giving away my babies…
My name is Donna Williams and I am a poet. I create poems in both sign language and English, and I lovingly craft them. I start with an idea, build it up, and when I’m happy (this can take a while) I unleash them on a sometimes unexpecting audience. Speaking as a happily childless singleton, with the exception of my cat, my poems are my babies.
I can be quite obsessive; to paraphrase Byron: I spent the morning deciding to take out a sign. Then this afternoon I put it in again. I really, really care about my poems. I used to get terrible stage fright before performing my poems, but now I love it, seeing the audience reaction and getting feedback, finding out what they thought.
Even so, I still get the nerves before performing my sign language poetry to an audience – will they like it? Will they hate it? Will they understand it?
I think that’s normal enough, and I have sometimes wondered what my poem would look like in another language. Again, probably normal enough.
But then, someone asked my permission to take one of my beautiful, lovingly crafted poems, and give it to a bunch of artists, some of whom don’t even know sign language, just to see what would happen.
I said yes.
I had second thoughts when she said she wasn’t going to give any of them a transcript of the poem unless they asked – how could they appreciate the poem if they didn’t understand it? But then, as she explained, she wanted them to take the poem however they wanted. At face value, with or without a transcript, their choice, and just see what, if anything, it inspired them to create.
And I’m fascinated. I may be a bit of an art pleb in that I know what I like – and I like art that actually looks like what it’s trying to represent. But how do you represent a sign language poem? It’s hard enough trying to transcribe one into English. How the heck do you express it in art? I wanna know.
And for that reason, I can’t wait to see what happens, and what these artists create. I can’t promise I’ll like it, but this project isn’t about pleasing me as the poet. It’s about Art.
I love the idea of this project, it has my wholehearted support and I’ll be first in the queue at the gallery to see what all these artists made out of my poem!
But you’d better look after my baby.