“Flying Words”: A review of a performance by deaf poet Peter Cook

*Photo courtesy of Getty Images

I walked into Sanders auditorium a few minutes before 6 p.m., and as I took my seat I sensed a new balance in the room, as if it were slightly tilted in some subtle way. The room was very full, with people standing to wave at others across the room and plenty of commotion, but without the usual cacophony of voices that preludes a weekend performance at Vassar. I finally realized I was completely outnumbered in the audience as a Vassar student, a young woman, and a hearing person. The audience was mostly middle-aged people not affiliated with Vassar, and exuberantly catching up with one another across the room through sign language. I watched as they would communicate across the room with one another, mesmerized by the crisp, graceful movements of their hands and how their faces lit up along with the signing. The woman next to me began making conversation, and as we got to know each other her hands would subtly sign along with her speech, and she explained that she has been signing for so long now that speaking and signing are inseparable for her, it feels like hopping on one foot instead of walking to do one without the other.

As she said this, a moment of poetic irony: the lights dimmed, and a man walked out, with another man hopping on one foot behind him, his other foot in big purple cast. The second man had broken his foot, forcing him to sit, hop, and hobble around the stage, but this handicap seemed only to excite and amuse the two performers rather than in any way hinder them. This propensity for humor and lightheartedness would be the main theme of the entire show. The men introduced themselves as Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner, the partnership behind the Flying Words Project. Throughout the performance, they explained their process and history as friends and collaborators. Their poems are first written in American Sign Language, and then the two collaborate on how to voice and perform their poems for audiences of both deaf and hearing persons. The poems celebrate and mine the visionary power of ASL, while also utilizing traditional poetic devices like rhyme and meter.

While Cook stood center stage, Lerner would hop back and forth from sitting down and voicing the poems through a microphone, to standing beside Cook for intermittent comedic bits and stories. They mentioned that they were old friends since college, and that they have been working together for years. This was obvious in the ease with which they depended on one another, for physical disabilities and emotional and creative support. At one point, Cook touchingly instructed the audience to refrain from the ASL practice of waving hands instead of applauding, but instead to clap with elevated hands, so he could see our appreciation, and Lerner could also hear it. They had a warm, generous rapport with one another, and their generosity with one another seemed to come from the tightness and familiarity they had with one another in communication.

Lillian Kalish, a senior at Vassar, also attended the performance as well as a workshop with Peter Cook and his interpreters as part of her Verse Writing class in the English Department.

“Before the Flying Words performance, I went to a workshop by Peter Cook with my Verse Writing class. There, he taught both my Verse Writing and Leslie Dunn’s Performing Disability class the basics of deaf poetry. We all learned how to sign a few words and how rhymes are created with the repetition of signs. Then, we all broke up into groups and with Peter’s instruction, we created and performed brief poems using sign language. This really challenged my perception of what poetry is and can be. After Cook’s workshop and performance, I now understand poetry as something that the poet can completely embody and become. Cook’s poetry is translated to the hearing world through different interpreters and his “voice” comes through different mouths each time. Despite this, his meaning, movements, gestures, and presence are received in different ways, forcing the audience to think, listen, and see poetry in other terms.”

The workshop and performance also had an impact on how Kalish thinks about her own writing and process:

“As someone that occasionally writes poems, I think I’d most like to reflect on Cook’s attention to detail in his poems. In the workshop, he was very attuned to our gestures, how big or small we made them, how emphatic they were, and what kind of expression we held on our faces. This kind of attention is extremely important in deaf poetry, where visuals are the mode through which the audience understands. However, even in spoken poetry, I think this kind of attention and precision is important. Going forward with my writing, I’d like to place more emphasis on how I read each word, the stresses, intonations, pauses and moreover how I can use my body to perform and become the poem.”

In Cook’s own performance, the poems were absolutely exquisite. Cook is a performer with astounding vitality and exuberance. Being in the audience of his performance is to watch a magnetic field ripple and warp around his body as he signs. What was surprising to me was the soundscape of the poetic performance— not only was Lerner voicing the words as Cook signed and performed, but Cook was constructing a soundscape of breath and voice that was a compelling, powerful part of his entire performance. The same unaffected, enthusiastic quality of sign language that I noticed among the audience members before the performance was intensified a million times in Cook’s poetry. His poems were kaleidoscopic in scope, zooming in and out of fantastic chaos and quiet heartbeats, and throughout the performance was the intensity, almost heartbreaking to watch, of Cook’s burning, blazing ability to communicate. He told the audience later in the night that he did not learn ASL until college; though he went deaf at a very young age, he relied on mouth reading and writing to communicate. Learning ASL was a turning point in his personal and professional life, and he now wields the power of ASL in his body with a gratefulness and earnestness that is humbling to watch.

Professor Paul Kane in the Vassar English Department commented on the ingenuity of Cook’s poetry, and how reading, hearing, and seeing are rediscovered through Cook’s power to combine and reconcile them into a singular experience:

“Cook’s poetry performances remind us how much poetry can be a matter of embodiment. We sometimes make a distinction between the poem in the eye (on the page) and the poem in the ear (as heard), but in his case, we “hear” the poem through the eye, in the various gestures, facial expressions, body movements and postures that make up the presentation of the poem.  Our poetry class talked about this afterwards in reference to how words on the page have to find a way to get transformed into imagined speech, to create a voice that is heard (without the physical presence of the author in front of us).  In that sense, Peter Cook shone a light on what we’re trying to do.”

Kane made the point that poetry can fulfill its purpose in an infinite number of ways, and the limits, challenges, and creativity of deaf poetry actually yield extremely exciting new possibilities:

“If good poetry defamiliarizes the world for us, making it new again in giving us new eyes, then Peter Cook has ‘written’ a lot of good poems.”

After the performance I thought back on my own experiences in acting, or even reading or reciting poems in front of others, and how in my body and voice I would hold back just slightly most of the time, perhaps even apologizing slightly for the attention and energy I was asking for in performance. Cook holds nothing back, asking and giving so much energy simultaneously, there is no room for affect, it can only be in real time, and real emotion in rapid fire succession. The earnestness and heart of the performance were not only refreshing, but thunderously loud and joyous— perhaps extroverted in a way hard to achieve in poetry experienced on the page. As audience members, we were included and celebrated as an integral part of the performance, and that generosity and kindness were the impulses radiating out of every moment of each poem.

You can watch some recordings and read more about Peter Cook, his work, and the Flying Words Project on his website: http://deafpetercook.com/home/Winter_Edition.html

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