Introduction to: BSL Poetry

Arts Editor Esther discusses BSL and BSL Poetry with alumna Daisy Edwards and current Sign Soc president Federica Rizzi.

Last year, Arts Editor Esther was fortunate enough to hear Daisy Edwards talk about the importance of BSL Poetry at one of the University’s fantastic Poetry Exchange events. One year later, she now catches up with both Daisy, and current Sign Soc president Federica Rizzi, to further discuss the intriguing topic, as well as Sign Soc, the importance of BSL, and what the university could do to make our campuses and community more accessible to the deaf community.

Tune in by hitting play below to listen to the insightful conversation, and feel free to scroll down to read through the provided transcript down below, as well as checking out the video referenced by Daisy during the discussion.

Esther Kearney, Daisy Edwards, and Federica Rizzi



Esther: Hi everyone, I’m Esther, I’m the Arts Editor at Impact, and today I’m going to be in conversation with Daisy Edwards, and Federica, from Sign Soc about BSL Poetry. So, Federica, as the current Sign Soc President can you tell me a little more about what your society offers and how and why students should get involved?

Federica: So, Sign Language Society, also known as Sign Soc, is a student-led group where members get to learn about British sign language, as well as the deaf culture. So, we meet weekly, on Tuesdays, and for an hour we go through different topics. So we teach people different signs, and then we have a sign of the week which usually goes together with the topic that we’re exploring and we get people prepared to a level 1 basis, so British sign language has 6 different levels, we teach level 1, so that people know the beginnings and y’know what BSL is, how it works, how to use it when you talk to both deaf people, hard of hearing, or people who wear hearing aids, so that they can have a full-on conversation about simple topics.

And then at the end of the year, we put on a sign dub, so we sign along to a song so that people can show off what they’ve been learning throughout the year, and it’s also really fun to do.

There are different ways to get involved, so the easiest one is definitely fresher’s fair or the new get involved fair, so you can come to our stall, talk to our people, usually the president is there so you can have all the information about it, about memberships, times, and what we do, all of that, but you can also visit our social media accounts especially the Facebook page, and Instagram @uonsignsoc, we have all of our highlights so you can see what we’ve been up to throughout the year, all different pictures, since the beginning of sign soc four years ago (we’re really proud of that), and obviously the SU page which shows you who the committee it, what we’re doing, all the events, and all of that. To be a member you either buy the membership at fresher’s fair, or online, it’s really easy.

This year we also organised some volunteering opportunities for people so we went to the Dunkirk community centre, just down the road, and we taught some children some basic BSL which was really really fun to do.

We also have been signing the national anthem at Varsity games so-

Esther: Yeah I last saw you when you were about to do that didn’t I?


Federica: -we did basketball yesterday night and it was really fun, but we’ll also be doing ice hockey and futsal next week so that will be exciting. We’re also getting involved in a musical performance with a revival gospel choir to celebrate the diverse university community and the video will be released ahead of Nottingham pride in July.

Esther: So it sounds like you’re doing an awful lot.

Federica: Yeah

Esther: Like, a lot a lot.


Federica: We try our best!

Esther: So, when I first met Daisy, it was at the Nottingham poetry exchange event where you were talking about BSL poetry, which was the topic that you chose to do your dissertation on. Can you explain to our audience what BSL Poetry is, and why it’s so unique?

Daisy: Yeah, so in my dissertation I described BSL poetry as ‘language for the eyes’, so essentially BSL poetry is about trying to get the poetic form of a written poem, which is largely contingent on sound, so it’s about rhyme, it’s about rhythm, speed at which someone speaks, into a visual register. So it’s about taking patterns of movement, speed, iconicity I looked at a lot, so essentially how certain signs and their path of movement will mirror what they describe, i.e. in sign language poetry this will be exaggerated. So, I looked at a poem which was about a boat, and essentially the path of movement of the hands mirrors the way a boat will move, but this is exaggerated, and given an artistic register in a BSL poem, so if you like it’s kind of about painting a poem. It’s visually representing and taking a language that is already kind of visual and spatial and giving it an artistic register, so really exaggerating those poetic elements and this can be achieved through mirroring hand shapes. So, whereas in a poem at the end of a line you might have words which rhyme, in a sign language poem, you’d have, say, a hand shape mirror the start of the hand shape which starts the next line so it kind off adds a rhythm and a flow which is almost more like a dance, if you like, it’s kind of converting those sound patterns into visual patterns.

Esther: So you actually showed a video of that when we went to see the event previously, which we’ll try and include a link to below.

Esther: So let’s talk a bit about accessibility, why do you think it’s so important that mediums such as BSL poetry are discussed in mainstream media and why have we heard so little about it before?

Federica: Well sign language, as a language, and in this case, specifically BSL, is not well-known around the kingdom, despite being it being the 4th official recognised language of the U.K.

Esther: Oh I didn’t know that.

Federica: Yeah so it’s obviously English, Welsh… Scottish..? And BSL, so although it is officially recognised and is an official language, not many people can sign, so although there is about a million deaf people* in the U.K., so it’s a massive number, but not many hearing people can sign, so clearly poetry counts underneath one of those topics that people don’t talk about because they don’t really know it exists, and for this reason I’m just going to let Daisy explain all about it because she’s the expert on the topic so I’ll hand over to her and she’ll tell you more about that.

Daisy: Yeah so I think with poetry in particular, how BSL Poetry really differs from written poetry is that with a written poem you have the poem, it’s there, it’s a physical thing that’s permanently recorded. And then you have the poet, whereas with BSL poems they kind of exist temporally, if you like, so they’re performed in the moment, and then that’s it, they cease to exist. So if you see a deaf poem performed live, then you’re there in that moment to experience it, but until technology such as videos came along, there was no way of creating a permanent record of a poem so there was no record historically of BSL poetry. So, it’s kind of just how stories would have started off within communities being spread through spoken word until people started to write them down you don’t have that permanent record so it’s only really now that y’know videos, YouTube, social media, has created such a huge platform for these things to be permanently recorded and shared can we now really share this form of poetry. So I do think we’re kind of entering an age now where it can kind of be spread far and wide if you like and that it’s really important to raise awareness of it because otherwise it really was something that just existed in the moment and then it passed.

Esther: How did you first come across it? Was it accidental, or…?

Daisy: I wish I could remember. I honestly don’t know how I first came across it, I remember being really interested in BSL, and I think it was on a social media channel because BSL poetry slams are becoming an up and coming thing, and it received news coverage not too long ago. A few months ago, BBC News reported on a BSL poetry slam, and I think it was just of a case of, possible on social media, just seeing a quick video, and going ‘Oh I’m really interested in that, that’s fascinating’, and it’s the kind of thing where once you start researching it there’s a whole wealth of material out there but you kind of don’t know it exists until you see it. But I think particularly social media now really is providing a bit of platform for these videos to be shared and spread, particularly with the poem which we’ll hopefully have included a link to. This poem features on screen translation, so it’s accessible to people who won’t necessarily be fluent in BSL, and the translations move on screen to mirror the shape on the sign. So not only is there a written record, but it incorporates the form of the BSL poem, the words move in a way which mirrors the path of movement of the signs themselves, so this kind of technology I think really provides a bridge between the hearing and the deaf community, people who want to learn BSL but aren’t fluent, it’s accessible to everyone.

Esther: Yeah, and I think that’s why having a conversation like this is so important is to sort of draw more attention to it on sort of a university basis as well, just to let people know what’s out there and how they can get more involved in it. I don’t know if we’ve already covered this, but why is BSL poetry such a different form of expression, what makes it so unique to the individual poet themselves?

Daisy: So I think this comes down a lot to not being able to separate poet and poem with BSL poetry because the poem is performed, there is no poem separate from the poet and therefore the poem itself is constructed through the subtle nuances, facial expressions, movements, of that particular poet. One poem in BSL could never be repeated by a different poet, because it is in itself, the poet is the poem. So, you have adaptations, and different versions, but the way that a particular poet will change the speed of movement even, a BSL poem will be different every time that it’s performed, so it exists in the moment, yes you’ll have a video record perhaps now, but the next time that poem’s performed it’s completely different. So it’s therefore extremely unique to the individual poet because you don’t then have this poem separately to say okay here’s a written record that’s not how it works, so therefore it’s kind of a very personal thing.

Esther:  And also like, one of the things I found very interesting from the talk last year was the fact that you were discussing something, maybe I’m just a bit ignorant, about the fact that BSL and different sign languages it’s almost like diction changes from region to region. So in that sense that makes kind of sense for poetry because obviously it’s like how does any one person interpret a feeling, or a mood, or something like that, how would you be able to reconstruct it, or have somebody else perform what is essentially your poem.

For both of you, how did you get involved in Sign Soc, and what drew you to want to learn more about the deaf community and sign language in general?

Daisy: So I remember being interested in BSL when one of the part-time jobs I worked at, at University, in a hotel we had a talk about accessibility and about making the hotel accessible for people with varying disabilities or additional needs, and they discussed sign language and deaf people, and gave us various statistics about deaf people feeling isolated, and lonely, and various rates of this and that and it really struck me how isolating it can be, and it really took me by surprise to be honest, some of the statistics that they hit us with and I just thought, hang on, there’s certain things that, if you want to, you can make things accessible, but how much of a difference can you really make, but for us to learn sign language is so easy. You learn the alphabet, you can communicate at least on some sort of level with a deaf person. Deaf people can lip read, we had basic training on don’t talk very very slowly because you think it will make lip reading easier because it won’t, from then I just thought, why don’t I know about this, and why don’t more people know about this? And as Federica has said, it’s such a huge part of our community. And I remember in one our lectures studying cochlear implants, about deaf people being able to hear, and I kinda thought, hang on, we discuss how much we can mould deaf people and their culture and their life to fit in with mainstream society, when actually mainstream society could make such small changes to be accessible. Why are we talking about this when actually, surely we should be talking about how we can accommodate people not how they can change to accommodate us – we learn sign language.

Esther: I agree, I think it’s a very easy thing that could be implemented especially when you’re in primary school, I mean, as children we were always pushed to learn foreign languages and stuff like that. It would be so easy to incorporate it into the curriculum.

Daisy:  Yeah absolutely, even the BSL alphabet can go a huge way to communicate with a deaf person and I’ve always found BSL visually beautiful, I think it’s beautiful to watch and see and it just fascinated me, from a linguistic side of things, from my course, to have a physical language that you express with your body I just thought was a really beautiful thing. I’d been looking into course outside the university they can be more expensive so when I found a society that did a session for a pound, now when you know how much a course costs, that is crazy cheap and you will not find that outside of university really without additional funding so I just went from there really and really thrived with the society.

Esther: And obviously it’s gone great because, here we are! And Federica?

Federica: Yeah with me, as Daisy said, I had already been interested in it as a child, you know when they do the News and they have that tiny window at the bottom where there’s a person that signs and I always thought that was so cool, I wanted to be that person. But then I moved away from Italy, came to England, and discovered it’s two different languages so that dream kind of went away, but… so I learned sign language with the society, I went to a couple of sessions, you know the try it, thought ‘I’m gonna give it a try’, loved it, ran for Publicity Officer three weeks in, was the only candidate and won, I know, really hard, and that’s when I really started to get involved with it and that’s when I started to learn so much about the deaf community, it’s mind-blowing, you would never know unless you actually get involved with it.

And  BSL is so fun and easy to learn. Most of the signs, it’s just like mime! Like some of the signs are, logically, you’ll get to it. And once I started to get involved with deaf people, I was terrified at first, but then I realised how easy it is to just follow conversation if you just pay attention, cause y’know, you think ‘okay, I don’t speak sign language, I don’t know any signs, y’know, what should I do about it?’ But once a deaf person starts signing to you, you might get, 60% of what they’re signing, but you still get the overall sense, which is great, plus as Daisy mentioned, sign soc does sessions for a pound, if you’re a member, and a full-on course costs about £300.

Esther: Oh my god!

Federica: So, if you come to every single session it’s about £25, so you end up spending about £25 compared to 300, so obviously you don’t get a paper for it, but you can still communicate with a deaf person if you wanted to which is great, and now we have almost 200 members, with a good 60 that come to every single session, and it’s so great. From the President’s point of view to just see these people learning different signs, every week, and part of it is really proud, cause y’know, I’ve been teaching them. Then on the other side, you have 200 people, in the world, in the world who now know more about sign and then they go and a spread the sign around, so it’s just a great impact on the university community.

Esther: And the society is still growing?

Federica: It is, it is still growing, we still have people who come to every session, and are not officially members, so they spend £2, god knows why because they could be saving one, but that’s  their choice, but we do have people who come in, maybe they come to three sessions in a row and then we never see them again but it’s good to know that somebody is interested anyway, so maybe they cannot commit to the whole thing, but if they come in, learn what they can, and then tell people ‘oh y’know I’ve done this really cool thing, I’ve learned sign language’. So there is the guy I know, he’s friends with my friends, I’d never seen him before, but he came to sign once and then I’ve seen him with my friends and he just went ‘Oh my God! You are from sign language. This is what I’ve learned’ and he shows me five signs that he could remember from that one time he actually came, but it’s just so great that he told all his friends oh I’ve learned this, this, and that, so it’s just amazing to see amazing that people just go out of sign soc and still talk about it.

Esther: So another question I had was, what are your thoughts on accessibility in general at university for people who are hard of hearing, or deaf, how do you think the university can improve at making itself more accessible?

Federica: So as a society, we try to advocate for the university to become deaf friendly, cause as for now, it really isn’t. So most auditoriums have a loop system which is a system by which professors talk into a microphone, hearing aids set to the frequency of that microphone, so either hearing people or deaf people can only hear what the teacher says. The problem is they ask a question, and the student answers, whatever the student says is lost forever, they’ll never be able to hear it. So it would be really easy to just train staff and say, especially to professors, guest speaks, or whoever comes in, ‘if you do ask a question, into a loop system, and you get an answer, just repeat the answer so that that hard of hearing person is able to just note that down, or at least know what’s going on.’

And also, it would be easier for them to get trained in how to communicate with deaf people, so one example is: if you ask a deaf person ‘do you have your hearing aid on?’ to them it literally means do you have it on your body, it doesn’t mean it’s switched on. So there are certain ways to ask certain questions that you would never think of, so obviously if I say, ‘do you have it on?’, I assume it’s turned on, but they don’t. So all of these things, we tell them to students, but students at some point leave, so as a society we try our best to get in touch with the SU, or with staff member, to teach them these things, because obviously when you train a student, if first year, they’re going to graduate in 3 years’ time, whatever you train him is going to get lost, but if you train a staff member who might be here for the next 10, 15 years, it’s such an investment for the future of the university, because, right now, we don’t have any deaf students at Nottingham, but it might be the case that deaf students don’t come because university is not deaf friendly, which is really sad.

Esther: Yeah I agree, I think it’s one of those things where we know that staff get trained to use the lecture capture recordings and there’s, I think there’s videos online on how to set certain things up for staff members, but, so maybe just having a video by sign soc, or having them come along and do a 4-week training course thing-

Federica: -Yeah cause we did some staff training days in the past few years, but you train people for an hour, and off they go, so it’s not, it’s clearly not enough.

Esther: Yeah.

Federica: And you train only a group of people in one department, so I know for a fact that we trained someone in the English department, but it’s ten people, they come in for an hour, they learn the basics, they learn alphabet, they learn the numbers, and off they go so if any deaf students, hard-of-hearing, come in, they still wouldn’t know how to deal with that, so it’s not enough. So the uni trains students and staff for so many different things and a bit of deaf awareness training would be so easy they have deaf awareness training at QMC for staff, like nurses and medics, so why not bring it here for professors to learn? It would be so easy, and it would help the university massively.

Daisy: I agree, and I think there’s two levels to accessibility, and the first level is awareness. And I don’t believe that it’s a university full of people who are deliberating making this not accessible for deaf people, it’s a case of not being aware. When I first went and did my talk about Sign language poetry and I went to the English department and said to them why don’t we, not even study this, why don’t we talk about this? Or mention it? Or even for a moment, in the whole of our studies, we talk about all these different groups,. how can this not have been mentioned? Now, this was met with a very positive response, and I think one very positive impact which Sign Language Society is making it making people aware, because once people are aware, that’s when changes start to filter through, it takes along time for big changes to be made which need to be made. But the first step is making people aware, and once that is achieved, we’re one step closer to that full level of accessibility, and that was something I loved from being from being on the committee for Sign Language Society cause seeing the look on people’s faces when they’re like, ‘how did I not know that?’ It’s a really important thing.

Esther: I think that’s very much what my response was when I was doing the poetry placement and saw the event, I was like wow! This is something that Impact and stuff should get involved in and make it more known to the university which obviously Sign Society is doing an amazing job of!

Federica: Thank you.

Esther: So um, yeah. So I guess my last question I want to ask is, obviously the society is fast growing, what opportunities does Sign Soc offer to students?

Federica: Well as I mentioned before, we offer weekly classes to BSL level 1, and as of next year level 2 as well as we have some people who are first years, who want to return next year, but obviously we can’t teach them the same stuff again and again, so what we’re trying to do is get one class lecture style where we teach you the basics, and then a smaller class where you can have a conversation and more level 2 things. So it’s more advanced for people who want to carry on but don’t have the money to spend on a professional course, y’know, and as I said, classes are a pound for members, £2 for non-members, and it’s really easy, it’s relaxed, it’s a fun environment. It’s students who teach it so it’s not stressful in any way and we laugh a lot especially when you need to stand up in front of 100 students and talk which can be weird at first, but then you just create a sense of community Sign Soc is a family by now, we just love it.

And it’s an hour a week, signs are always recapped at the following session so if you can’t make it to every single one you’re not going to miss out cause signs get used for different topics obviously if you talk about food, and the week after you talk about family you can always go back and go ‘oh my mum likes pizza’, you use the sign from last week, it’s interactive that way.

We also invite deaf guest speakers who come and lead a session, so that people know and can actually experience a BSL conversation, cause when you’re a hearing person, there are certain things you don’t think about, whilst a deaf person can come in and tell you ‘oh one tiny thing, fire alarm, if the fire alarm goes off, I will never be able to tell, because I can’t hear it’ and you wouldn’t think about it, but then he just says ‘all I need is a light that goes off, and I can tell the fire alarm is off.’ So, tiny things that if you didn’t tell me, I would never know, those kind of things.

And outside of our usual hours, this year for example we offered a conversation, cultures, and signs events which we organised with the Colombian, Mexican, Arabic, contemporary China, and Russian speaking societies.

Esther: Wow.

Federica: Yeah, it was quite a big thing. Because different languages have dialects, and accents, and so does BSL, so we wanted to teach people about dialects and so we tried to make a comparative event for people to learn about accents and dialects in BSL as much as in Spain, and in Argentina, those kinds of things. So we wanted to see how languages are shaped in different countries, and how BSL is shaped in different cities, so Nottingham people sign differently from London people. But again, you would never know unless somebody told you.

We also organised a sign song workshop. So we had a professional BSL poet and teacher he came in and taught us how to sign BSL Christmas songs.

Esther: Aww, that’s nice.

Federica: Which was really fun. We did the volunteering at Dunkirk community centre as I mentioned before, we did Varsity, and now we’re filming with the university for the pride event that I was telling you earlier, and that is quite a big thing as we’re helping to make the university more diverse so it was more about, y’know other than just the LGBT+ community we have this kind of diversity getting highlighted as well, and so we’re really proud about being asked to do that too.

Esther: Well, like I said, it sounds like you’ve got a lot going on and if anybody listening to this podcast, or reading this transcript, wants to find out more information about how to get involved, I believe we’re going to attach two more articles which deal with Sign Society, and also Daisy and more about her speech, and lot’s of information on BSL poetry. So yeah, it’s been really great chatting to you both, and I hope this inspires some people to go away and find out some more about it, and yeah, start a conversation! So, thank you so much, I have been Esther, and this has been…

Daisy: Daisy.

Federica: And Federica.


Daisy: Oh no guys we can’t have that bit, please!

Transcript by Georgia Butcher

*Though Federica said there are about one million deaf people in the UK, this figure is actually closer to 11 million.

Featured image courtesy of Georgia Butcher.

Image use licence here.

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