American Sign Language (ASL) Literature Series features ASL Poets/Storytellers

Six American Sign Language (ASL) poets and storytellers will visit Cornell between Oct. 12 and Nov. 28, in conjunction with this semester’s ASL Literature course in the Department of Linguistics in the College of Arts and Sciences.

American Sign Language does not have a standard written form, which leads to an erroneous tendency to discount ASL Literature as not being “real literature,” said series organizer Brenda Schertz, senior lecturer in linguistics (A&S). ASL Literature has a strong oral tradition where folklore, humorous stories and poems are passed down through the generations.  Individual ownership of such stories has been rare, although rapidly-evolving digital video technology is changing the landscape.

The first presentations will be by Ben Jarashow on Oct. 12. From 2:45-4:00 p.m. in 110 Morrill Hall, he will present “Basic Principles of Stories with Handshape Constraints,” during an ASL Literature class open to the public. As Schertz noted, handshape constraints use a subset of handshapes – for instance, numbers or the fingerspelled English alphabet – to create works of literature in ASL. The constraint makes ASL storytelling a challenge. From 6:00-7:30 p.m. in 165 McGraw Hall, Jarashow will offer what he describes as a “visual journey filled with jellyfish, a grumpy wife, vivid imagery, and laughter.”

On Oct. 26 from 2:45-4:00 p.m. in 110 Morrill Hall, Patrick Graybill, known as the “grandfather of ASL Poetry,” will discuss his ASL poems “Defiance,” “Liberation” and “Reflection,” during an ASL Literature class open to the public. From 6:00-7:30 p.m. he will perform “Leaves of the Deaf Tradition” at 165 McGraw Hall. This performance will include narrations of personal experiences and folklore, some using old and now-forgotten signs, as well as several of his own poems. “All of them are, in a way, autumn leaves falling from a tree known as the Tree of the Deaf Tradition,” says Graybill.

On Friday, Nov. 4, from 6:00-7:30 p.m., Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner, collectively known as the Flying Words Project, will perform in Call Auditorium in Kennedy Hall. Schertz described their work as a “combination of American Sign Language poetry, movement, visual theatre, and above all, extraordinary poetry using three-dimensional imagery.” Cook and Lerner are pioneers of ASL poetry, and have been at the center of the movement since it began in the early 1980s, helping to establish deaf poetry as an artistic form and contributing to a new vision of poetry itself, according to the series organizers.

On Nov. 28 from 6:00-7:30 p.m. in Rm. G78 Klarman Hall, Cassandra “Cassie” Simmons will perform “What My Life is Like,” consisting of narrations, both humorous and serious, of Simmons’ personal experiences as an African American deaf woman raised in Detroit. The performance will include classic coming-of-age tales in the slapstick comedy tradition.

For more information or interviews, please contact Heather Russell, or Brenda Schertz,

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Two people performing with dramatic hand gestures and facial expressions
Provided The members of the Flying Words Project