American Sign Language Poetry

american sign language poetryThis year, our library hosted an amazing event I’d like to share – American Sign Language Poetry. It was inspired and coordinated by Princeton University freshman Serena Alagappan.

Serena, who is very involved in ASL initiatives both on and off campus, was planning a workshop for Cotsen Critix, our children’s literary society. During one of our development meetings, she mentioned ASL poetry and how she wanted to share some poems with the kids in the group. I immediately proposed a standalone community event, and she eagerly rose to the challenge of coordinating it.

Serena invited 4 incredibly gifted artists and teachers to campus to share their poetry and answer audience questions about their compositions and experiences. They were beyond fantastic. I’ll start by sharing their bios.

JW GuidoJ.W. Guido has been teaching at the Sign Language Center in New York City since 2014. In addition to teaching ASL, he is a professional actor. J.W. is also the Artistic Director for the non-profit organization, New York Deaf Theatre. In addition to working as an actor/director, J.W. is the ASL consultant for productions, using his studies and experience to oversee and assist all ASL translations. He graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology and New York University with degrees in Theatre and Educational Theatre.

Shelly Guy

Shelly Guy is originally from Haifa, Israel and is fluent is Israeli Sign Language, Hebrew, ASL and English. She has a bachelors degree in Social Work and a Masters degree in Deaf Education from the University Of Northern Colorado. Shelly’s passion for teaching ASL began at the University of Anchorage in Alaska. After numerous jobs throughout Alaska and Colorado she decided it was time to pursue her passion in New York. Her goal here is to expand and enrich her approach to teaching ASL and to spread awareness within the hearing community.
She currently is a full time ASL teacher at Cathedral high school. Shelly has worked as an ASL consultant/ producer for numerous companies and productions. She serves on staff for New York Deaf Theater as their outreach community coordinator. She has worked as an actor in collaboration with Hamilton on Broadway, The Public-Shakespeare in the Park and New York Deaf Theater. She is a creative artist, painter and very proud Aunt.

Siena RafterSiena Rafter is a recent graduate of LaGuardia High School’s drama program in New York City, where she played various roles, her favorite being Sylvia in Sylvia. Ms. Rafter can be seen as Irena in the upcoming primarily-signed web series Don’t Shoot the Messenger. Fluent in ASL, Siena was the ASL production assistant on Deaf West’s production of Spring Awakening on Broadway. At Brown University, Ms. Rafter is double majoring in Theatre and Deaf Studies, as well as teaching theatre at the Rhode Island School for the Deaf.

Emmanuel von SchackEmmanuel von Schack is the Coordinator of Access Programs at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York. He works closely with, and provides guidance to, cross-departmental senior-level staff to ensure that the 9/11 Memorial Museum is an accessible, inclusive, and welcoming space for visitors and employees with disabilities and other underrepresented communities. In addition, Emmanuel is a consultant, professional development trainer, and contractual educator at various museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Jewish Heritage. For his work, Emmanuel received the 2016 Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability Award for Emerging Leaders from The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

siena signsThe ASL Poetry event was extraordinary.The artists performed pieces both alone and together. They presented skits, shared original pieces, translated existing poems, and took breaks in between to share their thoughts. At the conclusion of the event they answered questions from the audience, and then stayed afterward to sign one-on-one with people. Mara Eva, an extremely engaging and talented ASL interpreter, was present for the benefit of hearing audience members.

About a quarter of the way through the event, I realized I should be recording it. Doh! It was one of those totally-caught-up-in-the-magic-and-just-wanting-to-absorb-it versus this-is-so-beautiful-it-should-be-shared-with-absolutely-everyone dilemmas. Out came the camera phone, and below are the 3 videos I captured.

First, we have Shelly sharing a number story. All of her beautiful, fluid movements incorporate the numbers 1-10. One thing to note towards the end of the first video – raising your hands by your head and fluttering them is the ASL sign for applause.

The next video is Emmanuel sharing a touching personal poem about coming to terms with the different facets of his identity.

In the final video, we have J.W. sharing his hilarious translation of “The True Man I’m Meant To Be” by Kai Cofer. I’ll start with the poem:

I am not the man today
That I was yesterday.
I keep getting better looking
Each and every day.
I grow my beard. I grow it long,
I grow it endlessly,
Because I want to be the man
That I was meant to be.

I refuse to live my life
Looking like a clone,
Walking down the pavement like
Another mindless drone.
Cookie cutter people,
No sir, that is not for me.
‘Cause I am really into

Just because I’m bearded
Doesn’t mean that I’m a joke.
Doesn’t mean I’m dirty
And it doesn’t mean I’m broke.
I’m an individual.
I’m rugged wild and free.
I am just expressing
The true man I’m meant to be.

Many thanks to Serena Alagappan for inspiring and coordinating this event, and to Mara Eva for interpreting ASL for our hearing audience members. To our artists, J.W. Guido, Shelly Guy, Siena Rafter, and Emmanuel von Schack, I send my love, respect, and deep appreciation. Thank you for sharing your poetry and experiences with us. You are amazing.

american sign language artists

From left to right: Emmanuel von Schack, Shelly Guy, Serena Alagappan, Dr. Dana, Siena Rafter, J.W. Guido