ELLA MAE LENTZ: Visionary & ASL Poet
Length of Interview: 26:31
Note: This is a summary of the signed commentary made during the video interview and is not a verbatim translation. Text summaries by Karen Christie and Patti Durr.
Opening Comment by Ella Mae Lentz: In Proverbs, you will find the verse: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Deaf people have had no vision; it has been lost due to colonialism. But now is the time in which we must craft our vision.
ELLA MAE LENTZ: Visionary & ASL Poet
My early attempts at creating poetry were all in writing. Beginning in the fifth grade, my English poems were printed in school publications at the California School for the Deaf in Berkeley (CSDB). One of those early written works was “Fuchsias.” All my poetry was in text form until I saw what Malz did [referring to CSDB teacher, Eric Malzkuhn]. At that point in time, I had not yet translated any of my written poems into ASL.
I had translated other people’s poetry into ASL but never my own. I just felt it wasn’t possible to translate my works as they were written with English in mind. There were some visual images in my word choices, but these early poems were written experimenting with English words, lines, and rhyme schemes. I would play with the word arrangement and construction of the poems. I didn’t feel that passionate about those written poems — something always seemed to be lacking.
Malz was a prolific writer of poems, songs and several plays that he shared with us. He gave us copies, precious copies that I created a specific file for and saved. He showed us the “Deaf Can Do” attitude in terms of creative writing, which served as an inspiration. “I can too,” I thought.
When I was about 12 or 13 years old, we had a wonderful summer school poetry program. The instructors included Malz, Bernard Bragg, and a woman named Caroline Burns. All of my friends and I took this program together. This occurred in 1967 or 1968, during the early years of NTD [referring to the National Theatre of the Deaf]. Bernard Bragg, who was a member of NTD, had just finished touring when he became one of the summer school teachers. As an instructor, he used many poems and haikus from the NTD tour for us to memorize and perform. Bragg demonstrated techniques for translating and performing poetry. We just gobbled it all up. It was an experience that was both fascinating and tremendously satisfying. Still, English was at the forefront — it was clear that English was important and that one needed to start with English and then translate the English works into ASL. English was of high prestige and that was the attitude at that time.
Because Malz loved musicals, he’d translate many musical plays and songs. I was just fascinated by how he’d capture the rhythm and musical beats in his signing. We learned so much about literature! He really was a genius in this area — so well read. He was constantly bombarding us with literary works to read. He never viewed us as his subordinates. NEVER. He always treated us as equals and was forever challenging us.
[Excerpt from Ella Mae Lentz’s poem: “Travels with Malz.” The poem describes a journey into outer space where Ella and Malz would gather up mountains of literary works and load them into their space ship.]
Bernard Bragg’s focus and expertise was more on the signs themselves, and how the signs connected smoothly to each other to make a cohesive form. Malz, on the other hand, was not much of a sign technician. He was more concerned with creativity while Bragg’s focus was on sign technique. I got the best from both of them — a perfect balance of skills needed by a future poet: creativity and sign art techniques. I was truly blessed to have been influenced by both of these craftsmen.
When I was a sophomore in college, I took a course in sign language translation taught by [Gil] Eastman. During that course, for the first time, I realized that ASL and English are separate languages and equal languages. Before that, I had always thought that everyday ASL was to be used for casual settings and that it had no formal grammar like English did. If one wished to sign on stage or in a performance, it was believed that it must be precise and follow English.
At that time, the thought of taking our natural ASL off the streets and up onto the stage was scary for me. We were all fearful. “No,” we said, “that’s wrong, it’s wrong. That would be embarrassing.” We had been raised with this mentality imposed on us. This idea of “ASL is for casual chatting, it’s for people who aren’t very smart. They are more comfortable signing ASL and it’s F U N, but it’s not a good idea to show publicly. It’s just not proper. It would be an embarrassment.” That was the mindset. In those days if we signed in ASL, another person would always challenge us and say “See that signing you just did there — what’s the English word for that? Huh, huh?” And we’d be dumbfounded and say we didn’t know. So, they would exclaim, “See, that makes you look stupid! That sentence is WRONG, that sign is WRONG.” That was how using ASL was viewed. At the same time, there were the contradictions that while we could understand ASL just fine, it seemed what we signed didn’t always have an English equivalent. That meant ASL signs were wrong? It didn’t make sense and was puzzling, but it stuck with us. I grew up wondering about it, but accepting the notion that English was for bright people and ASL was a lesser street language. There was a definite stigma there due to Oralism. Deaf people and ASL were so oppressed. We were constantly trying to prove our worth via speech or Sign English as measures of our intelligence. Prove it, prove it, prove it. This is a hard way to exist. This constant oppression of what is natural and normal for us. There was no pride in our ASL and Deaf culture. None whatsoever.
So I always had a ‘hands off’ attitude towards celebrating ASL and Deaf culture. By the time I got to college it was worse because that was all about English, English, English. “For academic purposes, you MUST use English.” ASL was to be weaned out and used less.
It was Eastman’s class that helped me to relinquish those old ways of thinking, and to see the beauty and value of ASL. I’m indebted and grateful to Eastman for that.
Another professor I had for a poetry class was Canney, I believe his name was Canney. He was a very open-minded liberal white Hearing man. He was open to our ideas. He encouraged us students to create ASL poetry and then write it down on paper. Initially, I was intrigued by the novelty of it — to go from ASL to written English. I was curious to see how it would work. I would play with the ASL composition of it in the air and then bring it down to the printed page — thinking of how to put words in the space of a the blank page and thinking of how to artistically represent signs in space.
People had and still do have an assumption that poetry must be written down on paper. Of course, it is true that some people create poetry with spoken words only, forgoing any written form. We were experimenting with this radical idea of putting ASL down on paper as opposed to the traditional way of prioritizing English text and then translating it into ASL. These experiences took place in 1974 to 1975, during my Junior and Senior years of college.
Intertitle: ASL Linguistics & ASL Literature
I recall reading a quote from a Czechoslovakian writer who said that “the more people have an understanding of their language, the more possibility there is for poetry.” When I saw that, I thought that’s exactly right! People need to have a truly deep understanding of their language and value it deeply. Once we, Deaf people, have that in depth analysis and value of ASL, then poetry can flourish.
During the 1970s-1980s, there was a period known as the “resurgence times” according to Paddy Ladd in his book on Deafhood. This period saw a surge of analysis and discovery. People began to understand that it was all right to be Deaf. It was a thriving and positive time. This came following the “Dark Ages” of Oralism. Prior to the Dark Ages, Sign Language was considered dignified and worthy. After its decline and dormancy during the Dark Ages, the resurgence time was when ASL was recognized as being a full-fledged language and when there was pride in Deaf cultural identity.
During this time, Deaf people began to sign in public more often and it was also the beginning of the linguistic analysis of different features of ASL — the language rules of nouns and verbs, the use of movement and spatial relations. We began to think about how we could utilize these components in the creation of ASL poetry, and play with those structural rules. We thought, why not? If other languages create poetry by playing with language patterns, rules and structure, then we should be able to do this with ASL too. We started to say, why not look at what ASL has and use it?
Clayton Valli eventually went on for his PhD, and his dissertation focused on identifying principles in ASL poetry and comparing ASL poetry with spoken language poetics. Much of his analysis emerged from our round-table discussions.
His work addressed the meaning of a line in ASL poetry — it was Valli’s work that advanced this theory of what a “line” is in ASL. He also examined rhyming features such as the rhyming patterns created by the use of similar ASL handshapes. For example, spoken / written poetry might use consonant / vowel rhyming where all the words use consonants sounding the same, or all have similar sounding vowels. Traditional poetry has that type of rhyming. Looking at ASL poetry, you will see signs limited to using the same handshape, repeatedly. It’s not just free form signing. The signs in an ASL poem are controlled and selected intentionally in order to produce a rhythmical signing.
Intertitle: A Comparison of ASL with Poetic ASL
[Ella demonstrates the difference between conversational ASL as compared with a more poetic performance of the same imagery about the transition of an old tree from fall into winter. One way in which she makes this expression poetic, she explains, is to make the language more compact and utilize a limited set of handshapes–in this case, using signs with an open-5 handshape.]
Intertitle: The Medium and the Message
[Note: see the DVD “The Treasure” distributed by DawnSign Press for ASL poetry by Ella Mae Lentz referenced and/or excerpted in this section].
All of my poetry that I have developed or written has different messages and inspirations behind them. Their origins and motives are all different.
The poem, “Silence, Oh Painful” was written half in English and half in ASL. It was written in English, but was influenced by the ASL signs I had in mind. Some of my poems are written in English only or created in ASL only, but with that poem, in particular, it was a combination of both languages coming together in one work. It was done in style similar to that of the poetry of Dorothy “Dot” Miles where she would navigate between the two languages. “Silence, Oh Painful” was inspired by Dot’s influence.
The poem, “Eye Music” was originally an English poem with no influence from Sign Language. I just created it in writing, without ever signing it. Later, I saw other people translating this work using signs, which I thought was really cool. It inspired me to later I come up with my own translation. So, other people translated “Eye Music” first, and I was struck by how they were not tied down strictly to English words. They left English on the printed page. They were liberated in how they signed the images in ASL. It helped me to see the process of the poem moving from English text form to translated ASL. This gave me the opportunity to actually see how I too could more freely play with poetry and ASL.
I saw some works where I noticed people playing with the grammar of ASL. So I tried to play with ASL and create something new by searching for an image to synch up with ASL poetic features. It was not complete free form as I was still bound to some conventional structure and rules. Eventually, I moved into a more free form style.
My poem, “The Baseball Game,” was an exploration where story and poetry intersected. I experimented with a more free form technique, which pushed the boundaries between storytelling and poetry, using both prosaic and poetic features.
From there, I moved into exploring more serious topics and deeper issues. I admit I do get frustrated and my anger can get pent up. The result of unleashing it on people leaves me looking like an angry person. Poetry actually serves as a therapeutic tool to control my emotions and contain them. It forces me to identify what the core issues are and focus in on how to express this using language. The important elements to consider when composing a poem are the images and metaphors in addition to: working on the rhythms, not only with handshapes but also movement and spatial relationships, and balancing the use of space in horizontal and vertical patterns. These principles and components blend together with the feelings to be expressed. I look for that one image and the right form in which to present my message. More and more, I tend to take something that is important to me and channel it into a poetic work.
When I look at many of my favorite poems, which I created back in the 1980s, I see many of the themes are still relevant today. People often don’t recognize this. When looking at these poems, I realize that there are things I had forgotten I had said and thought about before. Sometimes my subconscious is at work when creating a poem, and poetry can serve as a record in which one might not truly appreciate the meaning and depth of the poem until much later.
Deaf people are still in the process of liberation. The intensity of the movement, which started in the 1970s and began growing in the 1980s and 1990s, is now facing a huge backlash. While this backlash is going on, I think it is impossible to look the other way a create poetry about “something else” while ignoring MY PEOPLE and MY LANGUAGE. No way! Instead, we must seize the power of every poem to speak the truth. I simply cannot abide by the idea of creating frivolous poetry while oppression is happening to my language and my people. I want to have a poem right here in my hands that exposes our oppression, right there in front of you, right in your face. “HERE IT IS! See this! Do NOT forget it!” That is vitally important to me. My poems become an opportunity to confront people, and they are needed to bear witness to the cause of Deaf liberation. So with every chance I get, I will push that truth in people’s faces. That is my calling, my purpose, because no one TRULY understands.
Many people care and speak out on behalf of the environment. Many will rally for that cause, giving money, and showing their support. In the case of animal rights, people will express their compassion and gather to show their support. With missing children or victims of abuse, people will protest, complain and lobby to make things better. With the issue of stem cell research, people will donate money and search for solutions without realizing how this can affect Deaf people. People naively think all of the stem cell research is good without understanding that its application related to Deaf people is a form of eugenics. Eugenics had gone by the way side, but we see it resurfacing now in genetic engineering. People gloss over it saying, “it’s a good thing” when really it is a subtle form of eugenics in which their goal is a “cleansing of defects.” We need realize this, wake up and say “WHOA!” This means we are viewed as defective, but we do not view ourselves that way. What’s happening amidst all this? Deaf people try to intervene and advocate for their rights. Yet, the response is “Deaf people are an inconvenience and bothersome. We are too bored to learn that signing stuff. Be gone, you nuisance!”
With that kind of attitude, we cannot afford to be frivolous and unfocused. We must show them the truth and say “you are WRONG.” Therefore, poetry can be used to touch people’s hearts. There are many different artistic mediums: film, storytelling, and personal narratives, which can put forth the image and show our truth.
My poems, “The Children’s Garden” and “The Door,” illustrate that isolation for a Deaf child is, in effect, the death of that child. Deaf transforms to death. Deaf people who are alive but isolated, become dead. That’s my message. Before I was careful about stating this. Actually, I was silent about it because I was worried about hurting or offending folks. But now, I throw caution to the wind. For thirty years, I was so careful and saw no progress. Now, it is time tell the truth and put it out there for all to see. The symbolic language of poetry or even storytelling with a poetic touch sometimes can better encapsulates the message and the truth.
We have to address the question of who poetry is created for. Written English poetry often happens in isolation. They might choose share it with others or even send it out to be published. In contrast, ASL poetry can’t really be created in isolation. You’d really be talking to yourself without any audience. You can’t really just create it out of thin air without any viewer. There must be interaction with ASL poetry — a give and take with the audience. ASL poetry begs for an audience. My primary audience in mind when creating ASL poetry is made up of Deaf people. I feel committed to this audience. In the core of my conscience, I know this MUST be my focus: to raise us up.
When Deaf audience members watch English works that have been translated into ASL, they often respond with subdued thoughtfulness. However, if a work is originally created in ASL without being bound to English, Deaf audience members will respond with immediate and powerful reactions straight from the heart. It is very revealing to see the difference in responses.
If someone like NTD [National Theatre of the Deaf] performs for a Deaf audience using pretty signs, the Deaf audience will sit there and enjoy it, but there isn’t a really powerful reaction. For a Deaf performance to be effective, it must really touch our hearts. When Hearing audiences see ASL, they are often feel the performance is touching simply because they think it’s so pretty. They might find the message is interesting and may notice that there is a different way of seeing things. Their response lacks the same emotional depth that Deaf audiences express with regards to translated poetry. ASL poetry performances with a Deaf audience, the response is “Yes, that, that!” Still, to a great degree, the profound messages possible with ASL poetry have yet to be unleashed. These images and messages that speak to our experiences hook Deaf audiences and grab us emotionally. That is what ASL poets need to figure out how to do.
Some people have labeled me “political,” but I don’t see myself that way. To me, my poetry has been just a personal expression of what I see around me, in my environment.
Keep in mind that America is a very individualistic society so many American poets write poems that are all about “me, me, me.” Their poetry communicates that “My experience is so so important!” The Deaf culture is more collective and therefore, D E A F poetry reflects that collective experience. My point of view has arisen from being fully immersed in the DEAF-WORLD. Even though I have taught Hearing people and interacted with them, my soul, my home is the DEAF-WORLD. I know that outsiders have a very limited understanding of us. We can teach Deaf culture for many years and still they won’t fully understand. Of course Deaf people are best suited to expressing and understanding our experience, but too many of us have been head deep in the fog of Oralism for many years. This has colonized them and left them completely paralyzed. It seems we should all get together and discuss this, but we don’t yet have enough distance and perspective. We need to stand back to truly see the whole picture of what is happening, and artistic expression can help mobilize us.
We have many talented Deaf people who have doctoral degrees, who are financially successful, who are skilled in a variety of fields, and who are artists. We need to come together, unite, and become powerful. Right now, we scattered and divided due to Oralism which has encroached on our brains, our hearts, and our souls.
We need to eliminate oppressive thinking. Time is short and we must push back now. We have to say, “Out!” We must change our consciousness. The word ‘deafness’ should be no more. We have to change our language. We will say “being Deaf, becoming Deaf, the transition to being Deaf…” We will no longer talk of “hearing loss” or “can’t hear.” Instead, we will say “this is who I am.” Those other terms do not fit. We must change our language to fit US. It can happen, and I think it is the only choice we really have.
If you look at Paddy Ladd’s book [Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood], he explains a lot of this. The book is really challenging and complex, but the main message is that if you understand colonialism, you will understand the situation of Deaf people.
In one part of his book, there is a story that I cherish. I’ve performed it before so I’ll show you my version now.
“The Deafness Museum”
[Ella describes the story of a Deaf janitor who worked in a museum called “The Deafness Museum.” First, Ella describes the Deafness Museum as a modern space that displays portraits in tribute to a number of people, such as doctors who have devised surgical procedures to improve hearing and women teachers who were committed to teaching speech to Deaf children. In the center of the room in a place of honor, stands a huge statue of AG Bell. The Deaf janitor pays little attention to these works, cleaning around them and earning a good salary.
One day, the Deaf janitor goes to the Deaf club to play cards and meets an elderly Deaf man whom she had never seen before. After explaining to him that she worked at the Deafness Museum, he tells her about a secret door in the back of the museum. Later that night, she spies the outline of a door she had never noticed before in the back of the museum. This door leads to a dark space full of cobwebs with many pictures turned facing the wall. By righting each picture, she comes upon evidence of signing communities such as Martha’s Vineyard. The room also contains an old film projector. The black and white film shows a Deaf man signing about protecting sign language, and about sign language being a noble and god-given gift. It becomes clear to the Deaf janitor as she explores that she has found the original building. The modern Deafness Museum had been annexed to this, the original Deafhood Museum. At last, she realizes the Deafhood Museum has been there all along.]
That story is an analogy for how our thinking needs to be shifted to return to the original state of what it means to be Deaf — to define for ourselves what D E A F should be. This change can be instituted through poetry or other ways such as theatre, writing books, and films. These means of artistic expression are emerging all over and their revolutionizing effects are being felt. There must be a revolution, not an evolution, but rather a revolutionary change. It is a must. We must or we become D E A T H.
[credits roll with Ella signing]
There are children today growing up with ASL literature Some are lucky, not many, but some are getting it. If they have good teachers who expose them to ASL literature, the children will take it all in and want to create their own. That is really cool. To see the third generation taking to ASL literature is so amazingly precious.