Dorothy Miles: Experimenting with Poetic Expressions in English and Sign Language Forms1
and faith in my experience
that’s all I need.
Here are my wings…
—From Dorothy Miles’ “The Hang Glider” (1976)
The literary traditions of American Sign Language as well as other natural signed languages around the world are relatively recent. ASL itself arose from a number of signed languages and gesture systems which began a standardization process with the founding of Deaf schools in the US beginning in 1817. In these schools, as well as in Deaf families and Deaf communities, the face to face tradition of ASL folklore began. ASL folkloric forms have been described as anecdotes, material culture explanations, tall tales and legends, personal narratives, sign play, cheers/chants, rituals and customs, as well as folktales (Rutherford, 1993). In 1913, the National Association of the Deaf began film recordings of “second, third and fourth generation” signers. As these films document, the literary development of ASL was well underway. The master signers of the second and third generations were filmed demonstrating literary genres such as oratorical presentations, personal narratives, and humorous storytelling whereas fourth generation signers were filmed performing various literary arts (a short play, translated poem, and translated song) (Supalla & Clark, 2015). Out of the signers filmed, all were white and there were only two Deaf women —both fourth generation signers who appear as performers. Ruth Knox appeared in a short scene of a play. Mary Williamson Erd appeared in a sign/gestured interpretation “The Death of Minnehaha”–the only selection that featured a Deaf woman alone. While her performance had mixed reviews, she did use some rudimentary features of ASL poetic signing. Furthermore, this film selection illustrated the tendency of educated Deaf people to translate English poetry into sign and include elements of performance. Using the raw linguistic forms of ASL for the creation of poetry would begin much later– after the linguistic analysis of ASL in the 1960s by William Stokoe, Dorothy Casterline and Carl Croneberg and after a Deaf British woman moved to the United States.
Dorothy Squire Miles (1931-1993) grew up in the United Kingdom, coming to the United States to attend Gallaudet University. As a young person, she wrote poetry and at Gallaudet she majored in English, winning prizes for both her poetry and her acting. Having learned British Sign Language in school, Dorothy described learning ASL at Gallaudet as both “confusing” and “like falling in love again” (Miles, 1976; Brown, 1977). After the National Theatre of the Deaf was founded in 1967, Dorothy Miles saw one of their first performances and was awed and determined to join. She said of this experience, “…I saw what they were doing with sign language, things I had never dreamed of. And I went home and started writing poetry that combined English language and signs. That was my first real honest to goodness poetry – before that I wrote, well, just verse – and it was all so exciting for me” (Miles in Sutton-Spence, 2003).
In 1976, Dorothy Miles published Gestures, a collection of 36 poems. Fifteen of these poems were a result of her experiments with combing English and sign. Along with this book was a film of Miles signing her poems. Dorothy Miles performed these poems using both spoken English and signs (she had become Deaf in childhood and still retained speech skills). She explained her “blending or interlinking” experiments in this way:
“I have tried to blend words with sign language as closely as lyrics and tunes are blended in song. In such poems, the signs I chose are a vital part of the total effect, and to understand my intention the poem should be seen as well as read. This is the difference between these particular poems, and those that have been written for English and are freely interpreted by individual signers.” (Miles, 1976, p. 5)
“… a number of those poems were written interlinking the two languages. I thought of a way of signing it and then how to write it almost at the same time. I couldn’t say which happened first…They just fit together… “ (Miles cited in Sutton-Spence, 2005, p. 150)
Not only is Miles’ poetry interesting and important for the forms she was playing with, but also because many of the poems were clearly rooted in the experience of being a Deaf Woman. In Gestures, Miles divided her collection of poems into categories such as “Nature Poems,” “Animal Poems,” “Poems of Love and Womanhood” and “Poems of Experience.” Many of the poems collected under “Animal Poems” and “Poems of Experience” are, in fact, poems of the Deaf experience in terms of resistance, affirmation, and liberation.
Here, we look at two of her poems, “To the Men I Love” and “Defiance.” The first, an English poem that doesn’t play with sign language nor is performed, appears in the subsection “Poems of Love and Womanhood.” The second, “Defiance,” grouped with “Poems of Experience,” is one of the poems that Miles signed and performed on film.[i] In both poems, Miles expressed feelings Women often were told to repress—empowerment and anger.
“To the Men I Love”
Oh, all you men who opened doors for me
That I might enter exits to myself,
I thank you for me. Who would ever know
That the way out was the way in? To see
Mirrored in others’ eyes my certain wealth
Has brought it back to me. Now I may grow
To know you and to love you as I ought—
Incessantly, demanding no return
Yet hoping always. Love cannot be bought
Or sold, but only given, turn by turn.
Now may I give you back your selves, and say
Only that I am richer for your care;
Only that I am more myself, this day,
Because you loved me once, some why, somewhere.
The first line of the poem shows how men who followed social conventions of being polite were, unknowingly, leading the persona to learning more about herself. The poem follows some rules of sonnets in the number of syllables per line (10), number of lines (14) and a pattern of rhyming words at the end of her lines (me/see; myself/wealth; know/grow, etc). It’s interesting to note that one place where she changes the iambic pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables is in the third line —“I thank you for me”—perhaps the most direct comment she intends to communicate “to the men I love.” In the poem, the back and forth, coming and going, giving and taking images ultimately result in a woman’s empowerment rather than loss.
If I were I
I would not say those pleasant things I say;–
I would not smile and nod my head–
When you say–
I would not bear, restrain, repress my disagreement,–
But argue every point to puncturing–
If I were I.–
If I were I, —
I would not stand chained to co-operation;-
Give my hand humbly to your lead–
In your way —
I would unlink the ring that binds my neck and gags me–
And let my great hate vomit in your face
If I were I.
In the filmed version of “Defiance” (which can be seen online), Miles introduces the poem explaining “most of us wear masks…so that the real I is often hidden behind a false I.” She describes the struggle to be true to oneself and honestly express emotions such as anger. In the signed version, Miles creatively signs, “if I were I,” first making the sign for HYPOCRITE and then blending it with the next sign for I. At a brief pause here, the viewer can see the sign for I, but can also see part of the form of the sign for HYPOCRITE behind it. This is followed by signing INSTEAD and the sign for I again, but this time I is signed singularly, emphatically—clearly meaning the authentic I. Throughout the poem, she continues to show the viewer the sign for I backed with the sign for HYPOCRITE, meaning “the false ‘I’ that I show to the world while the real ‘I’ remains hidden behind it.” While a person may choose to accept things as they are, often for an individual from an oppressed group (as a Woman, as a Deaf person), passive acceptance and submission means the repression of one’s anger and a denial of self. Thus, the poem ends with an explosion of anger – a clear expression of an authentic emotion.
And yet, in the signed version when she ends with the affirmation of “If I were I,” she pauses and then slowly adds again the sign meaning ‘the hypocritical false I’ with an expression of cunningness. Padden and Humphries (2006) describe this as “Abandoning the literal translation, Miles has gone beyond the English to create a line in signed poetry that has meaning above and beyond the words. Where her poetry had previously matched the two languages faithfully in translation and structure, here she tips the scale in favor of ASL” (p. 136). The signed version, therefore, not only is performed poetically with creative use of signs and connections between signs, but also extends the meaning of the English poem.
In the written version, Miles again shows her control of poetic form in English by using patterns of repetition and a number of vowel and consonant rhymes. Yet, Miles defies expectations in the patterns of rhythm and structure of the poem—using the poem’s form to further emphasize its meaning. For example, the first stanza has nine lines and the second mirrors the first until the very end, when she sets apart the final line “If I were I.” This technique is effective for emphasis, but it doesn’t quite carry the extra layers of meaning that the signed version so subtly expresses.
Dorothy Miles’ blended poems have sometimes been called more of a pidgin sign English (Rose, 1992), primarily due to her simultaneous use of speech. It is fascinating to compare Dorothy Miles’ version of her poem, “Total Communication,” with a later version signed by Deaf poet Ella Mae Lentz (San Francisco Public Library, 1984). Because Lentz uses ASL (and doesn’t use voicing), the comparison helps us to focus in on ASL poetic features that Miles did use. Both Miles and Lentz use a lot of ASL poetic elements such as creative use of space and neologisms. Lentz, however, is able to sign the poem with stronger non-manual signals (most simply described as facial expressions), which impact both affect and grammar. Her use of ASL mouthing (not speech, but mouth positions which function as adjectives and adverbs) produces greater visual descriptive power. Additionally, she uses different body shifts and pausing in more distinct ways. With Lentz’s version, we see poetry in sign moving further away from English which would eventually be created in and directly inspired by playing with the linguistic features of ASL. Yet, Miles’ contribution to the evolution to ASL poetry was revolutionary. Previously, Deaf poets either wrote English poetry or translated the poetry of others into sign. It was even rare for Deaf poets to translate their own English poetry let alone create a poem from ASL signs.
Dorothy Miles later returned to England creating poetry in British Sign Language (BSL). She became a BSL teacher and Deaf community activist. Yet, her years in the United States, experimenting with the forms of English and sign, were significant especially in her assertion that “Signs have a rhythm meter of their own” (Miles, cited in Brown, 1977, p. 18). In the following decade, the first generation and of ASL poets such as Ella Lentz, Clayton Valli, Patrick Graybill, and Debbie Rennie as well as Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner of the Flying Words Project began creating and performing, discovering how to artistically capture such rhythm, letting go of English. By spreading her wings, Dorothy Miles’ work became instrumental in the literary evolution of signed poetry across the globe.
- This writing appears in a slightly different form in Christie, K. & Wilkins, D.M. (in press). Listen to my hands: Deaf womxn’s liberation through the poetry of American Sign Language and written English. In A. Cruz (Ed.). Culture, Deafness & Music: Disability Studies and a Path to Social Justice. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.
Brown, R. (1977, July-August). Dorothy Squire Miles: Bard of the Deaf theater. The Deaf American, 17-18, 44
Miles, D. (1976). Gestures. Northridge, CA: Joyce Motion Picture Company.
Padden, C. & Humphries, T. (2005). Inside Deaf culture. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rose, H. (1992). A critical methodology for analysing American Sign Language literature. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ.
Rutherford, S. (1993). A study of American Deaf folklore. Silver Spring, MD: Linstok Press.
San Francisco Public Library (1985). American culture: The Deaf perspective [DVD]. San Francisco, CA: San Francisco Public Library/D.E.A.F. Media.
Supalla, T. & Clark, P. (2015). Sign language archaeology: Understanding the historical roots of American Sign Language. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.
Sutton-Spence, R. (2003, December). Dorothy Miles. European Cultural Heritage Online. Retrieved from http://sign-lang.ruhosting.nl/echo/docs/Dorothy%20Miles.
Sutton-Spence, R. (2005). Analyzing Sign Language Poetry. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan.
About the Author
Karen Christie (name sign, KC) grew up in California and taught Deaf Cultural Studies and English at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf for many years. Along with Patti Durr, she produced and edited the multimedia website The HeART of Deaf Culture: Literary and Artistic Expressions of Deafhood. Her latest work is the book, ABC Portraits of Deaf Ancestors, with Nancy Rourke. Her poetry has appeared in Nine Mile Magazine, Deaf Lit Extravaganza, and White Space Anthology, among other publications.