‘Can I Do My Words?’: On the Poetics of Deafness

By | 1 May 2015

The inclusion of text and speech in deaf poetry has often been controversial, given the history of attempts by audiologists, educators and legislators to force deaf people to speak, and deaf people’s long battle for their own, signed voice. However, as Michael Davidson demonstrates, speech or text in signed performances ‘challenges the conventional opposition of signing and speech and allows for more complex, hybrid combinations’ (81). For example, Aaron Williamson, a British performance artist who was profoundly deaf by his mid-20s, uses the syllable ‘ha’ in his 1999 performance Phantom Shifts, because it is ‘the most expressive and primal of sounds, deployed equally in laughter or crying’ (Davidson 91) and draws attention to the body that produces it. The spoken syllable disrupts the assumption that to be deaf is to be without sound or voice.

In ‘The Stars are the Map I Unfurl’, the inclusion of different forms of text encourages viewers to think about deafness in a variety of ways. The accompanying Shetlandic text offers hearing readers the opportunity to understand what it is like to translate sign language into English – it’s close, but not quite the same – while reading the subtitles compels a hearing viewer to follow the performer’s hands and words as deaf people do. The silence invites the viewer to understand how a deaf person might experience their world. In this, as Brueggemann writes in her chapter on deaf poetry, ‘those whose ears are attuned to “hearing” language must attune themselves differently, must enter into another sensory channel for language’ (228). Deaf poetry becomes a way of educating hearing audiences about how to listen and respond to language afresh.

Quinn’s performance can be accessed by viewers with or without hearing. His expressive face and hands, writing in the air, shape the poem for deaf people, while the kinetic text allows for the inclusion of a wider audience, embracing those such as myself who are deaf but cannot sign. It’s a performance that, through its accessibility, invites people into a language, rather than imposing it upon them, as written and spoken language has been imposed upon deaf people. The performance also shows how different relationships to sound lead to surprising and beguiling art.

The World is a Poem

Walking through the Botanical Gardens in Trastevere, Rome, one December morning, I watched weak winter light falling through the oaks and how their yellow leaves spiralled to the ground. Those leaves made no audible sound, although a person with all their hearing might have heard them scratch lightly against the gravel. Yet, as my eye followed the arc of each leaf as it spiralled down, I heard the sound of its descent in my head.

This process, known as ‘auditory closure’, is the ability to use contextual clues to work out pieces of an auditory signal that are missing (National Acoustic Laboratories). I have had a lifetime of practice in decoding the things that I don’t hear. If I only hear part of a sentence, for example, I reach quickly for words and fit and discard them until the phrase makes sense. I’m not unique in using this technique. Donna McDonald, author of The Art of Being Deaf, describes lipreading as ‘an art rather than a science’ (19). She further elaborates, ‘I don’t actually see or read every single syllable enunciated to me. I spend much energy guessing what is being said by filling in any missing information by drawing on the circumstances of the conversation’ (19). This practice becomes so familiar that partly-deaf people extrapolate it to situations in which we can’t hear at all.

While swimming with a friend, McDonald had assumed that she could hear, however faintly, the vowels in his voice without her hearing aid. However, when she thought about it, she realised she could not hear anything. Instead, as she writes, ‘I had tricked even myself because I am so proficient at lipreading, and because I know what his voice sounds like when I wear my hearing aids’ (11). Context is essential at these moments, as is the capacity to automatically fit words into a phrase until it makes sense.

I also use information that I derive from tone or body language. A sentence will rise at the end if it’s a question, while a person’s eyes will convey if they’re happy, lying to me, or troubled, while the restless beat of hands against a body or a man plucking at his suddenly-tight collar might indicate apprehension or nervousness. Each moment is contextual, however, and only gathers meaning when taken as a whole.

Reading a poem demands a similar process of interpretation. A poem is bound together by images, sound and rhythm, which the reader or listener decodes:

Learning to read poetry is … learning the functions of each word within its specific placement in the poem: why each particular word is put in each particular position. Why that word? What is it doing there? How does it fit into the poem, and into what the poem is doing? (Wolosky 3)

The brevity of a poem forces a reader to think about the language they have been given, and this process of interpretation creates the poem’s meaning. Likewise a deaf person asks themselves, ‘What word have they used? What are they trying to say with that word?’ The spaces between unheard words are supplied by a deaf person’s imagination to create meaning, just as a person reading a poem fills in the blank spaces. For deaf people, the world becomes rich with meaning when we read what is around us, and fill in the spaces that we don’t hear.

The Creativity of Deafness

Some creative practitioners who are deaf have incorporated the art of reading and assembling as an art into their professional practice. In Concerto for the Left Hand: Disability and the Defamiliar Body, Michael Davidson describes the work of Joseph Grigley, who has been deaf since childhood and is fluent in American Sign Language. Grigley’s art installations ‘focus on written English and the conversation between the deaf and hearing world’ (94). In his exhibit Conversations with the Hearing, he collects and displays messages, sometimes adding descriptive plaques ‘to explain circumstances of various meetings’ (95). The viewer is left to work out what each fragment refers to. Davidson describes this process as metonymy, the way that pieces of conversations point to larger utterances and social occasions. Acting as ‘an allegory of deaf relations to the hearing world, each written mark instantiates a thwarted relationship to the world that takes speech for granted’ (97). In this way, as with ‘The Stars are the Map I Unfold’, the viewer is offered the opportunity to experience the world as a deaf person, and to employ some of the lateral thinking and problem-solving skills that people with disabilities and their carers constantly use.

Making meaning is relentless work, but it’s also inherently creative. Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand was commissioned in 1930 by the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm during World War One. Davidson notes that there was ‘a surprisingly large repertoire of works for the left hand’, including those by Brahms, Saint-Saëns, Strauss, Prokofiev, and Bartok that were often created to ‘showcase or strengthen a hand that commonly accompanies more difficult material in the right’ (2). However, ‘it is less recognised that many of these works were commissioned by pianists who, through repetitive stress disorders, arthritis or injury, lost the use of one hand’ (2). In this sense, Ravel’s concerto ‘could be linked to the work of artists whose disability, far from limiting possibilities of design or performance, liberates and changes the terms for composition’ (4).

Deafness, as well as leading me to writing, has also influenced my choice of genre and style. I take great care to present writing that is clear and accessible because it’s hard enough for me to understand language in everyday life. I refuse to fight for comprehension in my reading, the one place where I can forget that I am deaf and which is a solace to me. I don’t like my readers to have to struggle in their reading either, so I try to make my work engaging, concrete and accessible.

In my fiction, I have gravitated steadily towards magic realism, a genre which depicts the realism of the lived world, with moments that extend into the supernatural as a way of exposing ‘the deeper reality, the archaeology, of the moment’ (Guest 4). As someone who moves between the worlds of the hearing and the deaf, who is sometimes in reality, but sometimes also makes those extended visits into the fantastical or supernatural when I use my imagination to make sense of something unheard, it is an appropriate genre to use: I hear some things and make the rest up, so I dwell in a world that is always half-real and half-fiction.

The form also enables me to comment on the qualities of deafness itself. My short story ‘Unearthed’ reflects this by playing upon the reader’s uncertainty about how much the protagonist can actually hear, and how much of the action is happening in her mind. In another short story, ‘When the World Shivered’, the deaf protagonist’s psyche blends with her companion’s, so that it’s difficult to discern whose world they are in. My characters show that to be deaf is to inhabit a world that is rich and magical.

Making Meaning

As testified by the variety of these writers’ works, the severity of a person’s deafness and their relationship to language – whether written or signed – results in a specific way of perceiving, responding to and rendering the world. Writing by deaf people demonstrates that not only are there numerous ways to listen, but that to experience life as a deaf person is to constantly assemble, decode and imagine. It is, in short, to grab those sheaves of shiny letters and assemble them into a world that not only makes sense, but is magical and captivating.

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