Signs of Poetry

Originally written for my column ‘Make it Strange’  issue [61] of the journal Tears in the Fence


Introduce person who? Kathy

Sign name: Pirate (patch over eye)

Pirate why?

She loved pirates: boats, parrots, cutlass, wind in hair

She cheeky why?

go go go

book book book

borrow borrow borrow

open open open

hmmm copy copy copy

create her own book.


This is the introduction to the British Sign Language narrative of my show, Schlock! I made Schlock! with the help of two books: Kathy Acker’s In Memoriam to Identity and E.L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, and several collaborators including Daryl Jackson, who is a Deaf actor and interpreter and an expert in signed theatre.

By changing words and scenarios in my two source texts I tell a narrative that is not present in either book, while exploring themes that are: sexuality, control and mortality. The through line is a story about Kathy’s struggle with breast cancer, and death in Mexico in 1997. This is a linear narrative woven in and out of sound based sections, and it is told using British Sign Language (BSL).

British Sign Language is a visual language; English is an aural language. This is obvious, but it is worth following the fact a little further. The eyes lead a visual language, so in sign language the object comes first because it is seen first. A visual language can put that object in a place, showing the size and even the emotional reaction to it all in one sign. Shape, size, placement and response all come first. Then comes elaboration and explanation (why?/where?/how?). Some parts of Schlock! are narrated, such as the above, others are embodied, which often meant that large portions of my text became irrelevant, and were replaced by facial expressions.

We usually think of translation as from one spoken language to another, and even so, the impossibility of ‘accurate’ translation is generally acknowledged. Translation between spoken and visual languages is even more challenging. It is not a process of translation but of intersemiotic transcodification. I knew sign language could do things that spoken language cannot (and vice versa), so it made no sense to me to attempt to ‘translate’ my text. I had to write directly in sign language. This was a very challenging process on many levels: the challenges of understanding a language I am new to, the challenges of understanding a culture I cannot access as a hearing person, and the challenges of letting go of what I value, and to some extent rely on as a writer and performer – sound and voice.

I was strongly warned against even attempting this project by a number of people – Deaf and hearing. When I met Daryl Jackson my experience changed radically as he was not interested in the impossibilities, but in the delight and potential of playing with one of Britain’s languages, and sharing it as widely as possible. Using sign language in combination with just acting or visual vernacular, I was able to physically ‘be’ my writing rather than ‘say’ it. I stepped into the scenarios I was writing about, rather than describing them.

Learning how sign language differs from English is also a process of learning how to write differently. Learning to see a situation means making it real. Where my spoken text plays with multiple meanings and uses voice as material and language as sound, the sign language had to be located in time and space. Where my spoken language might skip details of character, place and attitude, this is an intrinsic part of sign language. The materiality of the body and face took the role that in my work is usually played by the materiality of the voice. At times I found it hard to let go of ‘words’, and had to change what I valued as a poet, I had to find the poetry in gesture and in clarity. Sign language forced me to tell a story. I had to approach my narrative from different perspectives and see it as entirely ‘shown’. This suggests that sign language requires more clarity than spoken language, but this is not the case, it is different. There is equal complexity and depth in sign language, but it is found in different places, sign language is imaginative in a very different way. If I try to move directly from spoken to sign language then sign language feels to concrete, too fixed, however the same happens if I try to move back from sign language to spoken.

My spoken narrative tells the story of a mother and her child, until I replace the word ‘child’ with ‘cancer’ and we realise that it was cancer all along, growing inside Kathy, taunting her, and warning her that she is going to feel pain. The opening of the spoken version goes like this:


Before being born, the child asks his mother:

How much pain are you willing to experience?


The pregnant woman already knows what it is to be

flogged, spanked, whipped and corporally punished.


“I’ll show you how bad it can be,” her unborn son says.

“Santa Claus doesn’t exist,” she replies, “Ouch! Are you

stamping your little foot?”


In sign language I can show the thing inside her without naming it as either a child or cancer, and I can give it a personality. I can become this thing and speak to Kathy from inside her body. It is impossible to transcribe sign language. Elements such as sign speed, facial expression and the positioning of characters are invisible in written English. However, I enjoy just writing out the translation for the signs in the order they occur in BSL as it demonstrates the different syntax and some elements of how the language functions:


CANCER/BABY: You ready pain you?

KATHY: What?

CANCER/BABY: You ready pain?

KATHY: Been pain! Been flogged, spanked, whipped, bound, been!


KATHY: No no no. You: nothing.

like Father Xmas, fairies, angels, God: nothing

Same you: nothing.


It kicks her

 Ouch! Painful!



The doors to the hospital open;

The doors to the body open.

What this doesn’t enable me to portray is the character of the thing inside her, and the personality of Kathy. Aspects such as speed, and size of gesture and facial expression, time and placement become a part of ‘writing’, forcing me to expand what ‘writing’ might be, to choreograph language on my feet. One of my favourite moments to sign in the above is ‘Me: Worse’, because the sign, with little fingers (little fingers = bad in BSL) and the speed at which the hands move apart from each other gives a sense of how bad something is, how pain is prolonged, how the creature takes pleasure in pain, and through the angle of my body and gaze, I can show that I am looking up at Kathy from inside her body.

The next section, spoken goes like this:


While the child is being born the woman acknowledges that even vanilla heterosexual fucking is painful.

She looks up into rows of blue eyes. What is it with all the immaculate blondes?

I don’t have the strength to lift my arm and feel him.

My baby likes to hurt women. She realises.

The thought is depressing.


I found it interesting to extract moments from Fifty Shades of Grey and change ‘submissive’ to ‘mother’ and ‘dominant’ to ‘child’. The above borrows from the following text in the novel: ‘I wander to the far corner of the room and pat the waist-high padded bench and run my fingers over the leather. He likes to hurt women. The thought depresses me.’

In the sign language version I had to commit to Kathy being in a place, I became Kathy standing outside of a hospital in the rain, not wanting to go in, being taunted by the thing inside her and finally giving up and entering the hospital. While my written narrative ignored the actual hospital, the corridors and the lights overhead, all of these were placed in the sign language. I became Kathy, lying on a bed and then became a doctor looking down at her. My doctor carried a file under his arm and signed in an uptight, stuck up kind of way, peering at her over his nose. The doctor tells her they need to remove one of her breasts by grabbing it, slicing with the other hand, then chucking it over his shoulder, in three fast movements. To Kathy, this action demonstrates the distain he feels for women – a further translation of the line ‘he likes to hurt women’ from Fifty Shades of Grey. This section is even more challenging to represent in English. In fact rather than ‘doors go past, lights go past’ I become Kathy, I use my hands to show the passing of doors on either side of her as she is rolled down a corridor. I use italics in a similar way to how stage directions are used in playwriting, to denote action, with the bracketed italics giving further context. Non-italics are representations of the direct signs (equivalent to speech):


Kathy is lying on a hospital bed

rolling down a long corridor

doors go past

lights go past

she squints, it’s hard to see.


Blue eyes stare at her

6 blue eyes 3 doctors


DOCTOR: We’re all going to die

KATHY: What?

DOCTOR: We’re all going to die. Some will die soon, some later.

KATHY: Are you saying I’m going to die?

DOCTOR: Of course. When? Don’t know.


(The DOCTOR demonstrates that he needs to remove her breast):

Breast hold slice throw.


KATHY holds her breast: Ouch!

(KATHY demonstrates it in the same way, but with many breasts and faster…)


Breast hold slice throw breast throw slice

slice slice breast breast throw throw throw

throw throw throw throw throw throw


KATHY: You like?


The doctor sniffs.

They keep staring at her.


Her head is spinning,

the fan on the ceiling goes round and round, until:

 Breeze air head clear


KATHY: breast hold slice throw? No. But:


careful gentle cradle palm give

– and this one too:

careful gentle cradle palm give


(and so Kathy has a double mastectomy.)


The sections in italics in the above are the sections in which I ‘become’ the poetry. In the next moment I am Kathy looking into a mirror (the audience), observing my flat chest, then seeing a shawl on the floor, wrapping it around my shoulders and transforming into a bird.

After watching this performance a couple of people said to each other, ‘but is it poetry?’ I could respond ‘does it matter what we call it?’ – which is the approach of Tom Chivers (Penned in the Margins) who produced this work and is not interested in labelling it. However in this we differ. I feel strongly that this is poetry. I believe we need to expand what is meant by ‘poetry’ and ‘writing’. I dislike the urge to push something outside of ‘poetry’ because it is often a move that silences alternative poetries and closes down debate rather than opening it out. I believe it is by saying ‘yes, this is poetry’ that ‘poetry’ can expand and thrive and transform.

Through sign language I open a place in the imagination for poetry. Poetry happens in the gaps between literal meaning and imagined – the gaps where we construct our own meanings. Poetry is in the impossible. Poetry is Kathy giving her breasts to the doctor and then walking away from them into a new skin. Poetry is Kathy wrapping a feather shawl around her new skin and becoming a bird. On stage there was no bird, and there was no shawl. The poetry happens in the space in-between perception and imagination.

I find sign language exciting as it enables us to view ‘writing’ and ‘poetry’ through a different lens, it asks us to see the images created by the body as ‘poetry’ and asks us to consider what it might mean to ‘choreograph language’. The lens we view something through changes the way we perceive it. As dramaturg David Lane expresses it:

You might walk into the Tate Modern with a certain set of interpretive tools: are these tools the same ones you expect to take into a theatre? What do you expect from an art gallery in terms of meaning, and how is that different to what you expect when you walk into a theatre? I suppose it’s my contention that we need more of how we walk into an art gallery in how we walk into the theatre.

What interpretive tools do we take to a poetry reading? How did my audience for Schlock! walk into the Britten studio at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival? What lens did they view my work through and how did this impact on the way they experienced… and judged it? As writers can we write the lens through which our work is seen? Do we have any control over it or are we at the mercy of our context? A performance seen in a dance festival is experienced entirely differently to the same performance within a poetry festival, or an art gallery.

Sign language is a beautifully concrete example of how poetry is not constrained to spoken or written words. As John Cage has shown, a composer can compose silence, as Mauricio Kagel has shown, a composer can compose light. Poets can write words, and poets can write silence and space and time and sound and bodies and imaginations.


Schlock! will be at Newcastle Live theatre on Saturday night.