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Interview [Robert Panara]

 Digital Work
Identifier: ds_0027_panarainterview_cap_01.mp4


  • Creation: 2007



Part of a collection of interviews made for a film on ASL poetry, "The Heart of the Hydrogen Jukebox." In this interview, Deaf poet Robert Panara explains how his interest in writing poetry started when he was 15 or 16 and in high school. He continued writing poetry when he attended Gallaudet and won prizes for his work. Upon graduation from Gallaudet, he began teaching at the Fanwood School for the Deaf as an English instructor where he established a Drama Club and met Bernard Bragg as a student. Gallaudet offered him an English teaching position where he again saw his student, Bernard Bragg! Gallaudet had a literary club where they put on two-hour shows every month. Later, Patrick Graybill joined in as well. When Panara taught poetry, he tried to incorporate drama, interpretation, and ham acting to bring out the poem's message, meaning, and feeling to the students. Panara believes that "becoming the poem, or the book" is important to get students involved and interested in poetry. In 1966, the National Theater of the Deaf (NTD) was established and he taught Theatre History and Signed Poetry classes for five years. Bragg was there, and once again, they worked together. He met Dorothy Miles and they would sign poetry, following the English language but incorporating ASL and mime features. At NTID where he started in 1967, Panara wore a lot of different hats. He taught Literature on the RIT side and also taught Drama, English, and Literature at NTID. After retiring from theatre, he taught fulltime at RIT classes like Shakespeare, Modern Poetry, the American Novel, and later Deaf Studies such as Deaf Characters in Literature. The Deaf students were so enthusiastic which led to a lot of discussions. They would talk about the Deaf experience and how similar they were to the character in the story, novel or play. They also talked about whether their experiences were different. In 1969 when Panara set up the Drama Club, there were no buildings to use. They used the Webb and Ingle auditoriums and had limited rehearsal times-one week. They would do stories, poems, dances, and skits during the first half of the show while during the second half there would be a one-act play. It was like an RIT Club for the Deaf and it was successful. In the early years Congress gave NTID funding for new buildings, including the new NTID theatre which was beautiful and accessible visually. In 1976, he invited Bragg as a poet-in-residence at NTID for six months. They made videos and Bragg signed Shakespeare such as Hamlet's "To Be or Not to Be" and other works. He shares his views on "New Poetry" and notes that there are historical changes in literature and poetry, and although this is not his favorite type of poetry, he includes it in his teaching of different types of poetry. He enjoys Emily Dickinson's poetry who could say so much in a few words. T.S. Eliot said "Poetry can express itself without being understood". It is like Picasso, Dali or Henry Moore artworks, we may not understand them but can appreciate them. When Ginsberg came to NTID in 1984, it was like "Walt Whitman coming!" Panara and others gave Ginsberg examples of ASL poetry and Ginsberg gave examples of the "new poetry". He talked about the poem "Howl" and the Hydrogen Jukebox image. Graybill gave his interpretation of that phrase which was fascinating to watch. Peter Cook was there and all shook up from that image. He began his own way of signing, incorporating ASL. Cook and Rennie were doing long poems which were like ASL storytelling. Real ASL poetry is very short and works best that way such as the works of Patrick Graybill, Ella Mae Lentz, and Clayton Valli. Deaf poetry is still growing, evolving and it's an ongoing process. It's important to keep the poetry going, make the signs inspirational, and have a message so poetry is both song and eye music. Deaf poets want to contribute to the world, especially to Deaf audiences, who are their people, and their culture.


308.27 Megabytes (mp4)


Sign Languages


General Note

This material was digitized as part of a CLIR Hidden Collections grant: "Sculptures in the Air: An Accessible Online Video Repository of the American Sign Language (ASL) Poetry and Literature Collections at the RIT/NTID Deaf Studies Archive (RIT/NTID DSA) in Rochester, NY." Original VHS recordings were transferred to mp4 format, captioned, and voiced, by the National Technical Institute for the Deaf Production Services department.

Processing Information

Dr. Joan Naturale, NTID Librarian, provided accurate sign language transcriptions of this video; voicing from ASL into English was provided by Miriam Lerner, performing arts interpreter. Dr. Naturale also prepared the description, abstract, and notes.

Repository Details

Part of the RIT Archives Repository

Rochester NY 14623 USA