difficultbusiness, beinga passage notreally fromonelanguage into another (though Niki constantly spoke of sign as her languageandEnglishas ours), but fromonemedium, or even fromonewayof beingintheworld, intoanother. Athingwe takeforgranted–thatmanywordsinapoemwillbearbotha literal anda figurative freight –made a halt intranslation againandagain, while the double senses were disentangled. The epithet ‘bible-black’, for example; the well-knownfirst line‘Shall I comparetheetoasummer’s day?’; andeventhe comical idioms of everydayspeechsuchas ‘Pigs might fly’ or ‘Raining catsanddogs’,allhadtobeprocessedintointelligible sense, before they couldbe translated, or better, re-invented, re-created, insign. We were beginning to understand, by the time our discussionsended, thatsignhasamongitsresourcesmanythat languagepoets wouldacknowledgealsoas theirs: agrammar andsyntax; degreesof clarity, rhythmandpace–all thesenot in words and their groupings and sounds, but in ‘a facial vocabulary’, a fluency and quickness of the hands, the dispositionandmovementofthebody.Anuance, ambiguityor ironymightbeconveyedby thepositionofalittlefinger orthe raisingof oneeyebrow, or thepointingof thechin. Inpoetry workshops participants would be tutored in the learnable thingsbutalsoencouragedininventiveness–inthevaryingof signs, for example, andthe devisingof newones. Apoem wouldgothroughdraftsonvideo, notonpaper. Niki Johnsonthinkssigningisnatural. Todeaf babiesborn of deaf parents it is themother tongue. Theybabbleinsign, theirmotherssignthemstories. Naturallythen, signwillhave itsownpoetry, strangetothehearingobserver, butpersuasive too: a language without words, the whole body’s language, movinglyexpressive.
DavidandHelenConstantine WithgratefulthankstoNikiJohnson, DebbieParkes, Pauline VernonandCatherineRogers.