Detail View: Deaf Studies, Culture, and History Archives: Interview for Heart of the Hydrogen Jukebox

Interview for Heart of the Hydrogen Jukebox
Lentz, Ella Mae
Deaf culture
American Sign Language literature
Deaf, Writings of the, American
Part of a collection of interviews made for a film on ASL poetry, "The Heart of the Hydrogen Jukebox." In this interview, Lentz discusses the concept of Deafhood, social justice, the Deaf community, colonialism, the popularity and awareness of sign language, stem cell research, education of parents with Deaf children, Deaf culture, mainstreaming, captioning and voicing of videos (and how hearing people would do well to see the videos with sign alone, or sign and music, first before reading captions, in order not to be distracted from the beauty of the sign), a "Deafness museum" imaginative story, her poetry work, Deaf poets, the influence of a Gallaudet professor, John Canney, ASL poetry conferences, and her Deaf school background in Berkeley where she was exposed to civil rights protests daily on her treks to school.
Rochester Institute of Technology
Digital Publisher: 
Rochester Institute of Technology - RIT Libraries - RIT Archive Collections
Lerner, Miriam Nathan
Date of Original: 
Date of Digitization: 
Broad Type: 
moving image
Digital File Format: 
Physical Format: 
Dimensions of Original: 
113 minutes
American Sign Language
Original Item Location: 
Library Collection: 
Sculptures in the Air: An Accessible Online Video Repository of the American Sign Language (ASL) Poetry and Literature Collections
Library Collection: 
Miriam and Kenneth Lerner ASL Poetry Collection
Digital Project: 
2018-2019 CLIR Grant-ASL Poetry and Literature
Catalog Record:
Catalog Record:
New York - Rochester
RIT Libraries makes materials from its collections available for educational and research purposes pursuant to U.S. Copyright Law. You are free to use this Item in any way that is permitted by the copyright and related rights legislation that applies to your use. It is your responsibility to obtain permission from the copyright holder to publish or reproduce images in print or electronic form.
John Canney, Keynote Speech Transcription Total run time - 00:45:05 Female Introducer (perhaps named Ruth): I’d like to introduce John Canney. He’s a teacher of English and Creative Writing at Gallaudet College. He has devoted, uh, probably as many hours as I have to this. Uh, he’s devoted large, long distance telephone bills, all on Gallaudet College’s account, to this. (laughter) And, um, we’ve spent a lot of time planning together, and uh, he’s here to share some of his ideas with you. And I hope we can all explore together. Thank you. (Applause) John Canney (00:00:50): (inaudible rustling with wires) This is not normal for me. My classroom usually is a small place, with, about 10-15 students. We never have large classes at Gallaudet College, and I never need to use something like that. Or, feel myself wired (laughs), like that! Okay. I want to thank all the people, uh, who thought about this program, planned it, and are participating in the program. It is such a new thing, really. It’s the first program of this nature that I know of. Uh, there are programs, and meetings and conferences on a variety of things related with deafness. But, uh, there’s never been anything related with poetry for and by, and really from, the deaf. So, I just want to thank all the people concerned and participating in that. The first thing that I want to do is, to ask Ella to sign one of her poems from last night. If you missed that, uh, you missed something beautiful. And I thought that for the people in the group who couldn’t make last night, I thought that the best way to begin my talk is to have an example of signed poetry, created, uh, acted, preformed, uh, from Ella. Okay? (Applause) This poem is titled, “Eye Music”. If you were here last night, you will remember that. (Mumbles) Let’s see where I can go with my wire… Interpreter speaking along with Ella signing (00:03:05): The Eye Music Of the telephone wires Or the music sheets And lines that rise and quiver, sway and lower Along with the passing of space and time No ears needed to hear Nor any instruments to play Eyes are the ears And the piano and flute are the wires And an occasional pole is a drum Here’s one bold, wandering wire And now five are dancing, high and low in turns With the rhythm of the poles Five disappearing into one again And then a crowd, overlapping Quickly and then slowly So beautiful to the eye and heart One wonders, what happens inside? (Applause) John Canney begins again (00:04:32): Let me begin—I was looking during-- (laughs) excuse me, there, there are too many different ways of talking today. Okay. I was looking at the child sitting here, during her reading of the poetry, and he was fascinated looking. I suspect that many times during my talk, uh, his attention is going to wander, hah. But not during that poetry reading, and I think that that’s an example of what I’m talking about. There is a way of communicating the feelings that hearing people can get from poetry, through the sound of poetry. There is a way of communicating that through the visual communication that deaf people have. ASL or signs. Okay, I’ll ask my interpreter to come to help me during the talk sometimes. I’ll stand out here and talk, and sometimes she’ll interpret for me. It helps me with some of my notes to myself. Okay? Thank you. (00:05:52) ASL, the native language of many deaf people in America, is equally valuable as English. ASL has the capacity to transmit and transform a whole culture, a whole way of life, attitudes and feelings, experiences. This is the same function that any language has: English, Italian, Greek. ASL is capable of nuances, of jokes, of puns, of metaphoric manipulation, and in the hands of some, of creative shaping. These are two separate and equal languages, two separate and equal cultures. The complete acceptance of both will in the end will perhaps transform and enrich both cultures. In a small way, this conference is a beginning. I am pleased to see that we have a mixture of deaf and hearing here, members of these two cultures. Both of whom are interested in the possibilities for poetic making in Sign Language. I believe that poetry in Sign Language will help a number of areas. I believe over and above any personal response to an individual poem, there will be such advantages and benefits and the slow and subtle growth of pride among deaf people themselves in their language. It is no accident that one of the ways that one culture will oppress another culture is to say that that other culture’s language is inferior; is not the language of intellectual thought, or not the language of poetry. If you remember Dante, Dante took a great step when he used Italian to write his magnificent poem. I’m sure that he had many friends who told him, “You’re committing poetic suicide using the vulgar tongue of Italian. Why not use Latin”? But as every Italian knows today, in making that attempt, Dante did much to shape the Italian language. I think, again in a small way, this is what many young deaf people are doing, at Gallaudet and at other places. These things are happening on the grammar school level now, on the high school level. I have a few former creative writing students who now are teachers in deaf high schools or grammar schools. And now for the first time instead of reading, and word-by-word interpretation of hearing poems, these students - teachers now - are beginning to encourage their young deaf students to try writing poetry. Not just looking at it, interpreted. Not looking at it as some strange, linguistical puzzle, but instead, looking at it as gain, as enjoyment. I have to agree with Ruth when she emphasizes that you should be enjoying yourself today. She has some very good people behind her, supporting her in that idea. One is an American poet, William Carlos Williams, who said that, “If poetry ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t poetry”. And I think last night we were pleased it was a pleasure, and it certainly was poetry. We are focusing on the possibilities for poetry and Sign Language. This is such a new area, that I’ll ask you to excuse me if I try to do a little bit of classification for you. I think this will be of some help. This would be my own interpretation or classification of different ways of signing poetry. Ella touched on a few last night. If you watched and listened carefully, she really gave an example of every possibility. She began with a famous poem by an 18th century American, woman poet. What she did with that poem, a poem written to be read, to be heard, was an interpretation. She used Sign Language as a language of translation. This is one possibility for Sign Language. It is a very viable means of translating any poem, written in English, Italian, French, into signs that can be understood by deaf people. The next possibility - and one that Ella showed last night too - is what is termed, “Sign Mime.” The first kind of translating, I think tries to be very careful in its choice of signs, tries to be very faithful to the original choices of words. The second possible use of Sign language for poetic interpretation is I think a little more fluid. And the term itself, “Sign Mime”, puts the emphasis on dramatic interpretation. In effect, it really is a kind of recreation or new creation. What Ella, or other people who “Sign Mime” a poem are doing is almost making another poem. A third classification, which we saw last night, would be poetry in which sign language is not only the medium for the expression of the poem, not only the way in which you see and feel the poem, but it is also the very means of creating the poem. It is the prime language of the poem, not just the language of translation. In theory, when Ella, or another deaf poet, writes a poem in ASL, they are not only writing it in ASL, but it is being created in their imagination with ASL, with the language of the deaf. To a certain extent then, because Sign Language is the prime language of this kind of poem, English now serves as the means of translation. We now have flip-flopped. In effect then, if you’re teaching a class of deaf students a poem by Robert Frost, you have two possibilities: you can do a fairly strict word-by-word interpretation – which I think is important, too for entering into the poem; it is important to be faithful to a fine poet such as Frost – a second possibility would be Sign Mine, a much more dramatic interpretation. Now, we are entering a new area when we speak of ASL. If Robert Frost were sitting in the audience and wanted to understand the ASL poem, if he was unfamiliar with signs, he would need a translator to translate the AS poem—ASL poem into English. Finally, there’s a fourth category, a fourth area of writing utilizing signs. This would be writing in English that has as one level to the poetry, signs. Ella spoke of a fine deaf poet in California. I have her book, it’s called “Gestures: Poetry and Sign Language”, by Dorothy Miles. I would like to quote from what she says about this fourth kind of poem. This is a poem that’s written in English, but never the less if you understand sign, or other things open to you in your interpreting of the poem, and in your entering into the experience of the poem, she says, and I quote: “In recent years, I have tried to blend words with Sign Language as closely as lyrics and tunes are blended in song. In such poems, the signs I choose are a vital part of the total effect, and to understand my intention, the poem should be seen as well as read.” Last night, after Ella had finished reading her poems, a question from the audience asked when she began to write. If I remember correctly, I think she said five, six, it was very early. But, these were things she kept to herself. She said it wasn’t until she was a senior at Gallaudet that she really began to try writing poetry. She mentioned my creative writing class which she took that year, and paid me a very beautiful compliment which I’ll carry back to Gallaudet with me. But I hope people didn’t get the wrong impression (laughs), if Ella said things began to happen there, it didn’t mean that she learned from me. Ella had the gift of song, and the gift of poetry, before she entered my class, and she’s always had the beautiful gift of hands. No one taught her that. I encouraged her a little bit. It was only my second year at Gallaudet, and I was so new to everything myself. I sometimes speak of her at my teacher, and I think creative writing classes at Gallaudet after I had Ella are a little bit better now because she was in my class. At times she mailed me poems that she was working on, and it always made for a very good class when I would come into the creative writing class and put one of her poems on the board. So she has been my teacher. This whole possibility for poetry in Sign Language confronts a number of problems. I’m not sure how many of those it’s necessary to even bring up, especially to this group. You would not be here if you were not interested. Uh, you’re not a member of that group that is frightened by signs, or people using their hands. Again, you would not be here today if you were a person who felt like that. Nevertheless, I think the whole possibility for poetry in Sign Language does run up against this kind of feeling. For example, we know that English teachers in colleges around the nation regard poetry as the highest form of writing. Therefore, ironically, there are many teachers of English who are a little shocked when you say that the American Sign Language of the deaf is suitable - not only suitable, but is perhaps very beautifully used - in creating poems. I’ve only slowly begun aware—became aware of this. There’s some things that I’ve done in class, that I realize we can do in class but we don’t talk too much about it outside of class. For example, I have spoken to colleagues about the possibilities for poetry in ASL, or interpreting poetry in ASL, or just passing poems around in a class and having several people interpret the same poem. Because I’ve often found that a deaf student may write a beautiful poem for ASL but occasionally is too embarrassed to stand up and sign it. But inevitably, we will find a student in class who will stand up and sign it and the entire class benefits, certainly the student who wrote the poem benefits. But once in talking with a colleague about this, I was getting a blank kind of look and he said, “That’s fine. I know that is makes for an interesting class, but it doesn’t improve their written English.” Here again we confront this problem of two separate, equal languages. But we do have feelings of cultural superiority even among teachers of the deaf. They will use signs in the classroom, but many do not really believe that you can create a poem using sign language. And in the final analysis they would like to relegate everything that is done with language to achieving some kind of “normal, English use in writing.” I think anyone who reads poetry and enjoys poetry would laugh at that idea. You know that when you read a beautiful poem, perhaps translated, a passage from Dante translated into English, which is exactly what we’re talking about with uh, translating an English poem into Sign Language. Reading that poem translated from Italian doesn’t make you a better speaker or writer of Italian. I don’t think you can even claim that it makes you a better writer of English, but we know it has great benefits to the individual person, we just can’t necessarily say that those benefits are in written skill. They’re human benefits, and I think that’s what we come down to again and again. Last night was very exciting to me because I’ve seen Ella’s work in the past. It’s been four or five years now since I’ve seen her poetry, and it’s growing, and changing, and it’s exciting to see. I looked at those as you did for the first time. One that captured my eye and attention was the one about the two dogs on the chain. I know Ella’s basis for writing that poem, I know what she was doing. But, as every reader or viewer of poetry should be permitted, I think I should be permitted a certain flexible interpretation. I see those two dogs on the chain as two cultures: hearing and deaf. And what finally has to happen, is that both cultures, and most certainly the culture that seems many times to be on the controlling end, the tugging end of the chain, has to look across at the other culture and say, “We are linked.” We’re not linked by written expression. If I meet someone today, hearing or deaf, we begin to talk. I don’t have to first give them a test in written competency before we can relate. We relate immediately on a personal, individual, human level. And that’s what we’re talking about, I think. However, this dichotomy is so old in the history of the world; I would like to give you just a little bit of a historical perspective. If you think that our time is the first time to confront this problem obviously it isn’t. The Greek philosopher and scientist, Aristotle, wrote about the possibilities for educating the deaf. The deaf have always been with us. However Aristotle, being a good scientist, began with a good proposition, or at least to his mind it was a good proposition. He said that to be a man, to be educated, to learn, one must have the ability to speak. Which is a very nice syllogism, however the next leap in Aristotle’s analysis was to say the deaf cannot speak, therefore they cannot learn. They cannot be educated. That thinking influenced Western civilization’s attitudes towards the deaf for almost 2,000 years. At the same time, within Greek society was another writer and thinker, and if I may use the word “poet”, because to me, Plato has always been a poet. Plato disagrees with Socrates. Excuse me, disagrees with Aristotle. That’s for those taking notes (laughs). And in one of his dialogues he has Socrates, the Greek philosopher, comment on deaf people. And again, it’s interesting to see that more than 2,000 years ago a writer had observed deaf people using the language of hands. The quote is from Cratylus; Socrates says: “If we had neither voice nor tongue, and yet wished to manifest things to one another, we would, like those who are at present deaf and mute, try to signify by the hands, head, and other parts of our body. I think therefore that if we wish to signify that which is upwards and light, we should raise our hands towards Heaven, imitating the nature of the Thing itself. But, that if we wish to indicate things downward and heavy and depressing, we should point with our hands towards the Earth.” (rustling) I think what the deaf people in the group can understand immediately is that Plato had a good eye. What he’s saying here is exactly what you see every day, right? How you use signs to signify the meaning of a feeling or an idea. He says for example, that if you wanted to show things that are light, happy, you would use heavens, that your signs would go upward. And isn’t that true of signs like (signing) “imagination”, “beauty”, “happy”, “enjoying yourself”. But the opposite, if you wanted to show “depression”, “sadness”. So he had seen that with the deaf. So, here is a man, a poet, who sees something a little bit different. What he sees is I think what you say last night, and this morning: the possibilities of Sign language being the first language of poetic expression. (papers rustling) I must apologize to my interpreter for all those Greek names (laughter). I’m going to do a very short poem in ASL: Sky, blue No clouds So is my mind Blank Okay, okay (laughs). I put the interpreter on the spot here, asking her to do that. They’re telling me that I must leave and go home (laughs), okay. I put her on the spot because I wanted to emphasize that when we’re talking about interpreting a poem in ASL, we’re talking about many possibilities. Uh, I think that Ella maybe after looking at that poem for ten minutes would interpret it a little bit differently, or maybe I would. So I think one of the interesting things about interpreting a poem in signs is that you can have a variety of interpretations. Uh, for example I think that I would say (signs along), “Sky, blue. No, Clouds. So is my mind, blank.” Blank (laughs). Putting the emptiness in my mind, that would be interpreting. Ella is nodding so I think maybe I did it okay (laughs). Hey, you must remember that I am the teacher of creative writing; I am not the dramatic person that Ella is. I can make suggestions, and then a person like Ella puts it into actions, and words, and hands. (papers rustling) I’d like to emphasize just a few more things before our workshops this afternoon, maybe to put a few ideas into your head. One of the things that the conference, and workshops and discussions that have led up to the conference, has tried to probe are the differences or the similarities between poetry written to read aloud, and poetry written to be signed. I would like to face that question just a little bit. It came up last night in a very interesting question from a member of the audience, who herself is deaf, I believe. Her question touched on this idea; she wanted to know if Ella’s poem read aloud would somehow convey things that the poem signed did not. And the response to that was, that no. I think with many hearing people, there is too much stress put on poetry being read, and the voice being the prime feature of poetry. I would disagree with that, and I would also say that many poets sitting in the audience, if you analyze what you do you might come up with something that is even more primal than voice. Long before you begin to say your poem aloud to yourself, or to preform it before an audience, using your voice on the audience, the poem was an image. And this is where poetry written from Sign Language or poetry written from English meet. Before it is anything else a poem is an image. Poetry written and performed in Sign language can, I think, lead us back to that knowledge, that awareness. Poems should not be presented as they often are in high schools and colleges, as intellectual puzzles, as philosophical statements, as monuments to truth and beauty; Ella knows that she’ll probably change lines in her poem next year. Any poet knows that the poem can always be reshaped and refashioned. Before it is anything else a poem must be an experience, a physical experience. Even a poem we don’t understand, a poem in another language: Italian, Greek, or the language of Signs, can engage us with its rhythms, its sounds, its dressings, its phrasings, its images. Images like that image of the chain in Ella’s poem last night. There are words that you will not remember from a poem, but there are images that you will never forget. So too, there is the possibility for poetry in Sign Language, in a language that many of us don’t understand, but can at the same time engage us with its movements, its dressings, its kinetic quality; poetry which can remind us that all life is movement in time and space. I’d like to, I’d like to say that I have at least five or six pages left over, and those who come by my workshop will get those—(laughter) I’d like to end with a reference again to the debate between Plato and Aristotle, who never met. Aristotle was certainly the superior scientist, but I think Plato was the superior poet. We today are still faced with the question that these two Greek thinkers were faced with, and it does grow out of such a discussion as ours here, about the possibilities for poetry in another language. So we have the question: do we define our humanity, or normality as a scientist like Aristotle did, by saying to be a person one must talk? Or, do we define and enrich our humanity in ever-widening circles as Plato did, by looking at the possibilities for symbolic communication in poetry in Sign language? (Applause) Canney: (00:42:34) (to someone) Are they going to stop the tape now? Unidentified Female Voice: Yeah, I think so. Canney: Could I just mention a few books, do you mind? Could you stop the tape? (laughs) Stop it. You’re what? Unidentified Male Voice: We’re still rolling. Canney: How many minutes do I have left? (laughs) An actor never leaves before, no. I’m just going to talk a little bit about some books that I’ll be showing in, where, where will we have them? Unidentified Female Voice: The books will be on display in the display area in room 001B, I think it is, down in the training center in the administration building. It’s where we were last night, uh, where all the videotape equipment is set up, the display tables will also be there. And you can stop the video now, Dan (laughs). Thank you Canney: Okay, just some of the books-- I felt that if you could look at some of the books, uh, it would mean more than giving you a list of books on a piece of paper. This is a very interesting book created by two English teachers in my English department. It’s by deaf and about deafness, it’s called “The Deaf Experience”. Secondly, a very good book by David Wright. Okay, it’s called “Deafness”. This man is deaf himself, he’s and Englishman, a poet, a translator of poetry. I use his translation of Chaucer, Chaucer’s stories, in my English class. He’s translated it into modern day English Prose. And when you talk about the possibilities for poetry in sign, or for deaf people becoming poets, here is another living example. He’s an older man now, but a beautiful poet himself. Okay, his book is an autobiography. He writes the first one half about his life, and then the second part is about deaf education, and I think one of the best--- (audio recording stops)