In Conversation: British Sign Language Poetry with Daisy Edwards

Esther catches up with Daisy Edwards who gives us a crash-course on BSL poetry!

I first met Daisy last year at a Nottingham Poetry Exchange event where she wowed the audience with her presentation on BSL poetry. I had never heard of the art form before and was astounded by how ignorant I was to it. Daisy had stumbled across the subject, and, being a member of Sign-Soc and wanting to draw attention to a subject the media has been slow to pick up on, she decided to delve into it for her dissertation.

Now, more than a year on I had the chance to chat with Daisy again in anticipation of Impact’s latest podcast collab featuring both herself and SignSoc President Federica Rizzi.

You’re a graduate now but when I first met you it was at an NPE event on BSL poetry. What is BSL poetry?

It’s different in that the poet visually represents poetry by mirroring shapes and patterns through their hands rather than through speech. Because it doesn’t involve sound you need to use verbal images, therefore converting sound into images. For example, the poet might use handshakes that relate to each other to create a vivid image and emotion rather than spoken rhyme schemes. In this sense, they create their own stylistic techniques and rhythm in poetry through movement.  The interesting thing about BSL poetry is that it doesn’t correlate as an oral poem would… I would say it’s more like painting poetry with your hands.

“It’s like painting poetry with your hands.”

Why did you choose to do your dissertation on that topic in particular?

I really think there’s a gap in the research. People like Dorothy Miles have done such amazing work and in terms of what we study at university, there’s a huge gap in what we look at regarding literature in different communities. My topic seemed very up and coming in terms of research as it teaches about the deaf community and different forms of literature to conceptualise poetry. I’m interested in Sign language generally, and, after watching a BSL poem, I found it linguistically fascinating and felt I could really correlate the poetry visually. I hope more people will find it as interesting as I do and though there’s currently a gap in the research, I hope it is one that will be breached soon.

Do you think BSL is an art form that needs more coverage in the media? Why is it such an unknown genre?

Definitely. Generally teaching BSL in schools and having basic courses available should be something everyone has access to. Life can be really lonely and isolating for deaf people if they can’t communicate with the community. There’s a huge amount of research in learning how to hear and communicate with deaf people. People in the deaf community don’t have that choice whereas we, as a society, do have the capacity to learn sign language. Even just learning the BSL alphabet would go a long way to making society more inclusive. I think that’s one of the reasons that SignSoc has continued to grow as a lot of the issues with learning BSL is the expense of the courses. So, being able to learn it at university for only a couple of pound a session is such an amazing opportunity and one I would urge people to take whilst they still have the chance too!

“In terms of what we study at university there’s a huge gap in what we look at regarding literature in different communities.”

For some readers, this will be there first time encountering BSL poetry, can you recommend any poets for those who may never have heard of it before?

I would highly recommend The Stars are the Map I Unfurl by Gary Quinn and Jerry Hughes. It’s a BSL poem but also has a translation on the screen. Although, what’s really unique is that the translation moves to mirror the shapes of the signs following the meaning through the movements. I found the poem to be hugely helpful as it was an artistic translation. It retains the poets initial meaning as it’s not a poem translated word for word but is translated as an art form and therefore very accessible. I’d really recommend it to people who aren’t familiar with BSL poetry as it’s a really good one to begin with.

Listening to your talk is what triggered the cross-society collaboration between Impact and Sign Soc -how does it feel being involved in the process and starting a conversation?

I’m really excited and honoured that people wanted to get involved and start a conversation on the topic. I think it will have a really great impact on the university and am especially thrilled that the subject and research for my dissertation can be used to have real-world impact.

“It retains the poets initial meaning as it’s not a poem translated word for word but is translated as an art form.”

As a previous member of Sign Soc, why should people get involved?

It’s super fun-  I think sign language is a hugely important thing to learn and a great skill to have. SignSoc is a very accessible society as you can join at any time and the committee is extremely welcoming and will readily help you regardless of whether you’re brand new or have been to some of the sessions. Another key reason is that usually, BSL courses aren’t that affordable so to have a society that does it at an extremely reduced price is amazing. I’m not kidding when I say you won’t find a course that cheap outside of the university. As well, it’s run by a very hard- working committee who really care. Not only are they interested in it but they’re aware of the importance of it for making our society more inclusive. The wide variety of events is an added plus as the society manages to find fun and unique ways to learn the language.

Lastly, what are you most looking forward to about the podcast?

I’m really looking forward to seeing people come together to experience BSL poetry. As well as, to get the chance to do more talks and get more people involved with it through the university where it isn’t really as prominent a subject yet. After doing my research and initial talks last year and getting other people involved I got really into the idea of people coming together to celebrate it!

Want to get in on the conversation? Keep an eye out for the upcoming podcast next week where we catch up with Daisy Edwards and SignSoc president Federica Rizzi! 

Esther Kearney

Featured image courtesy of Daisy Edwards. 

Image use licence here.

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