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Miriam and Kenneth Lerner ASL Poetry collection

 Collection — Box: 1
Identifier: RITDSA-0027

Scope and Contents

This collection of Deaf poetry videotapes, dvds, and digital documents has been divided into five series:

  1. National Deaf Poetry Conference, NTID, September 24-26, 1987
  2. Flying Words events, held at Writers and Books
  3. Robert Panara and Allen Ginsberg, NTID, February 1, 1984
  4. ASL Literature conference, 1991, NTID
  5. Hydrogen Jukebox interviews, 2007 [film regarding ASL poetry]
  6. Flying Words Project with the Quebec Theatre of the Deaf, Only 13
Flying Words Project

The following have been digitized for viewing:

1."Only 13" performed by Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner in collaboration with Serge Briere and Johanna Boulanger of the Quebec Theatre of the Deaf (1990) is a poem about a Deaf Jewish young man and his hearing sister caught up in the Holocaust. This piece came out of an experience when Peter and I were housemates. Our landlords, Nathan and Sala Biron, were a Jewish couple who had survived the Holocaust. They told us their story the first night we moved into our apartment and then never spoke of the Holocaust again in the five years we lived in their apartment. We also read a dozen Holocaust memoirs to prepare for this piece, before molding it with Deaf Quebecois poets Serge Briere and Johanna Boulanger. Some of the ideas, we took directly from these books and from Sala and Nathan. This is a poem that seeks only to show the horrors of what happened in those death camps during World War II and convey them to the world. With each generation, the past is forgotten. We hope that this story keeps a little bit of that past alive. The rise of intolerance, white supremacy, and extreme nationalism in the current era is glaring. It makes this story more important.

2. An interview with Eric Frederick Malzkuhn (1989), a Flying Words event held at Writers and Books in Rochester, NY covered many topics: Malz’s early life, schooling at the Michigan School for the Deaf, his Gallaudet years, the Arsenic and Lace Broadway sign language performance, influential sign masters, the National Theatre of the Deaf, mentoring talented Deaf performers (Phyllis Frelich, Linda Bove, Rita Corey, Ed Waterstreet, Gil Eastman, Jonathan Roman, Ella Lentz, Lou Fant, and Bernard Bragg) teaching sign and finger-spelling artistry techniques, Deaf clubs, Bernard Bragg and his influence, the history of sign poetry and his sign rendition of the poem Jabberwocky which was popular and revolutionized the sign poetry field. Malz was known for creating signs when needed to clearly convey concepts and was a sign master breaking new ground in performing signed poetry and stories.

3. Kenny Lerner and Peter Cook (Flying Words Project duo) wrote a New York Humanities grant for this Writers and Books event (1989), inviting Eric Malzkuhn (Malz) to present on sign poetry. Dr. Robert F. Panara introduced Malz and talked about his groundbreaking poem, Jabberwocky due to his creative use of sign language in that poem. Malz was also involved in a sign language performance of the Broadway play, Arsenic and Lace (see collection in RIT/NTID Deaf Studies Archive) and in the National Theatre of the Deaf. Malz shares how he became Deaf and attended the Michigan School for the Deaf where he learned sign language. He describes performing Jabberwocky and getting involved with Arsenic and Lace. After sharing more stories, he plays a game with the audience encouraging creative self-expression. He signs the poems, The Cat and The Centipede in PSE, ASL, and the ‘Malz’ way. He then performs a San Francisco poem using finger-spelling to show the unique features of the city. Finally, he performs the poem, If I were a King in ASL and in the ‘Malz’ way.

1991 National ASL Literature Conference presentations

The following have been digitized for viewing:

1. Clayton Valli,(10 October 1991) an alum of NTID and famed ASL poet created many original ASL poetry works. Here he performs and discusses the context of several of his ASL poems: DANDELION, LONE STUDY TREE, WINDY BRIGHT MORNING, SNOWFLAKE, PAWNS, I’M SORRY and THE CAVE.

2. In this morning analysis session (11 October 1991), Clayton Valli discusses different genres in ASL creative arts and ASL poetry expression. ASL creative arts make use of handshape repetitions, changes to reflect the deaf experience in stories (such as flashing lights), songs (audience participation, clapping, hand and palm orientation), poetry (repeated handshapes, repeated path movements and facial expression), and humor. The characteristics of ASL poetry such as rhyming and repetition patterns, classifiers, transformations, marked signs, eye behavior, and the signer’s location all influence the delivery of the poem. Literary features include personification, figurative language, metaphors, symbols, irony, and frames. He shares his experiences teaching art signs to Deaf children who are enthusiastic learners. Bilingual Deaf education, the importance of early ASL exposure for Deaf children, and encouraging more interactions between younger and older Deaf students will help develop stronger identities and ASL language skills.

3. In this presentation (13 October 1991), Ben Bahan discusses the original ASL Literature video text narratives he and Sam Supalla created and their analyses of them. Bird of a Different Feather by Ben Bahan explores the experiences of a different-looking bird within a family of eagles. For a Decent Living by Sam Supalla is a novella in which the protagonist is a Deaf boy on a journey to find his deaf identity.

1987 National Deaf Poetry Conference

The following presentations have been digitized for viewing:

1. “My Poems in Native and Second Languages” (24 September 1987) Patrick Graybill shares his personal history related to family, education and community experiences growing up with English and ASL. He performs examples of translated poetry (from English to ASL: Not Waving but Drowning/Richard Corey) including his own compositions in English (Deaf Pride). He provides examples of poetic signing and use of metaphor by Deaf community members. In addition, he performs the first poem he created in ASL (Surprise). He also discusses the context and enacts excerpts from his National Theatre of the Deaf performance “On the Harmfulness of Tobacco.”

2. "Evolution of a Deaf Poet" (26 September 1987) The lecture covers significant events and changes in Lentz's life and poetry in both English and American Sign Language. In particular, Lentz explains her youthful fascination with language and theatre. This developed through experiences with her Deaf parents and Deaf community as well as early National Theatre of the Deaf performers. She shares her analysis of ASL storytelling and ASL narratives, categorizing them and describing their purpose. In her analysis of ASL poetry, she performs and discusses her works "Fuchsias" and "Travels with Malz." Next, Lentz performs and discusses the context of several of her ASL poems. The poems Lentz performs are: "Eye Music," "Silence, Oh Painful," "The Dogs," "The Glass Wall," "Signing Is Like a Tree," "Wedding Poem" (later evolved to a poem titled "Circle of Life"), "Untitled Poem" (later evolved to a poem titled "The Door"), "To a Hearing Mother," and "Children's Garden."

3. In this presentation by Clayton Valli (24 September 1987) he discusses the nature of ASL poetry by looking at the characteristics of the structure of spoken language poetry (rhyme, line, stanza, etc.) as well as the recent research in ASL linguistics (comparing spoken consonant/vowel word components with ASL movement/hold sign components). He also demonstrates how one ASL phrase differs when signing a string of citation form signs vs. everyday signing of ASL prose forms vs. signing poetic forms. The specific poems he analyzes here are "Hands" by Clayton Valli and "Wedding Poem/Circle of Life" by Ella Mae Lentz. In Valli's poem "Hands," the end of lines in the poem can be recognized by patterns of final downward movements. In Lentz's poem, the end of lines can be recognized by patterns of final handshapes.

4. “Poetry and the Community” (25 September 1987) In her presentation, Debbie Rennie traces how she became a poet including her experiences in theatre. She explains a number of techniques she uses in poetry such as: descriptive and outline use of fingerspelling, playing with limited handshapes, rhythm, frozen images, transformations, choreography, speed, facial expression as well as other elements. In addition, she describes important aspects of storytelling which she identifies as character development, story line, building of expectation, and audience involvement. During this presentation, she performs Swan, Missing Children, a number of Haiku, a story about her roommate, and an excerpt from Kipling’s Just So Stories. She ends her presentation talking about the dangers of labeling and judging the works of others as well as the importance of community support.

Dr. Robert Panara and Allen Ginsberg presentation

The following two part presentation has been digitized for viewing:

Jim Cohn, an interpreting student at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), arranged for Allen Ginsberg, American poet, philosopher and writer, to visit NTID on February 1, 1984 and perform a poetry reading with Dr. Robert F. Panara, NTID professor and poet. Panara shares how he became deaf and turned to poetry as a substitute for music and to help expand his vocabulary. He performs "On His Deafness" and a Haiku poem. There is discussion of imagery in poetry. Panara then shares his experience directing a Greek play, "Oedipus" and translating it into Sign Language and discovered strophe and anti-strophe (movement and opposite movement) in the Greek chorus section. He then performs a few examples of this movement concept. He also performs "We Shall Overcome," "Tyger, Tyger" and the "Star Spangled Banner." He talks about Patrick Graybill’s involvement with the National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD) and how it helped with the world-wide acceptance of sign language.

The Heart of the Hydrogen Jukebox interviews

Eleven interviews conducted for the film by Miriam Lerner in 2007 have been digitized for viewing:

1. In this interview, Robert F. Panara explains how he became Deaf at age 10 through illness. After six months of recovery, he returned to public school and survived primarily by reading. His interest in writing poetry started when he was 15 or 16 and in high school. His poems were published in the high school literary magazine. He continued writing poetry when he attended Gallaudet and won prizes for his work.

2. Jim Cohn describes how he became involved with poetry as a college student, meeting Allen Ginsberg and other noted poets, and attending the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. As a poetry student, he was interested in the representational aspect of the Chinese written character, and drawn to the visual quality of ASL. In 1982, he joined the two year interpreting program at NTID. He learned about Deaf poetry and poetics from Robert Panara and Patrick Graybill whom he considered his spiritual teachers. Other Deaf poets also influenced him such as Ed Sollenberg and Dorothy Miles.

3. Debbie Rennie shares influences on her development as an ASL poet, starting with transferring to a Deaf school when she was 12. Her world opened up in an ASL rich accessible environment. In the evenings, the students would create stories and she took a mime class which led to performances. Her school also had a strong theatre and arts program which fostered creativity. She reflects upon her NTID years in the 1980s where she participated in Sunshine II, and interned in the Performing Arts department. Classes such as Creative Sign Language (taught by Patrick Graybill), Deaf Literature (taught by Robert Panara), dance and acting honed her translation, movement, artistic and ASL poetry skills. She recalls the challenge of translating works, such as Dorothy Miles’s poems into another art form such as movement. They did works like “Spoon River Anthology” and haiku poems and played with sign language. She majored in Graphic Design and met Peter Cook who also chose this major.

4. Kenny Lerner arrived at RIT/NTID around 1983 due to a teaching intern experience he needed. When he arrived, he spent a lot of time with the Deaf students which facilitated his sign language learning. After 3 or 4 months of the internship, he was offered a position teaching English part-time. At that time, Jim Cohn was on campus and they became friends. He suggested meeting Peter Cook, a Deaf poet and voicing for him. Kenny was unsure as he was not an interpreter, but Jim did not care about that. Jim said he would think about offering that position to another person. Kenny decided then that he would do it. He went to Peter’s apartment where Peter showed him some of his amazing poetry. Kenny was excited about this but wondered how he would voice Peter's work. Kenny talks about how their relationship developed.

5. Bernard Bragg discusses poetry in his life and the influence of Dr. Robert Panara, the first Deaf teacher he met at the Fanwood School for the Deaf, and his Deaf father, an artistic signer who often performed at Deaf clubs. Their influence led him to write his own poetry. Dr. Robert Panara helped him to understand the English plays and poetry which he would act out and translate into sign. He also discusses the National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD), of which he was one of the co-founders, and Dorothy Miles’s work in poetry which was unique as she incorporated both English and ASL which was understandable in both languages. He encouraged her to join the NTD.

6. Wendy Low describes her introduction to the Deaf community. She was an English teacher and poet and was fairly naïve about the Deaf community. She describes how she felt when using signing a poem in sign language. Joe Flaherty, founder of Writers and Books in Rochester, NY opens up the interview discussing the Deaf community in Rochester where you would see them at the public market, at a restaurant or at a bar. In 1984, Writers and Books moved into a bigger building that gave them more space for activities. They started to have poetry readings and other events and a lot of people attended. They had an open mike every month and there was an awareness in Rochester that this (Writers & Books) was the place to go to listen to poets and writers. One of the people who attended was Jim Cohn who was a real bridge between the Deaf and hearing communities…he is a poet himself and was an NTID student.

7. Patti Durr discusses the evolution of Deaf art and how it became known as De'VIA or "Deaf View Image Art," and its' progression, and how the Deaf community identifies with art. Karen Christie talks about her analysis of Deaf poets and their poetry focusing on poetry with Deaf themes and how she found elements of Celebration, Affirmation, and Resistance within.

8. Stepha Zawerucha discusses how her life changed when she came to National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, NY to teach. Since the Deaf community shared so much with her about communication and sign language, she reciprocated sharing her knowledge of dance which she was passionate about. Bob Holman discusses performance poetry which is known as “oral literature” and different from text poetry published in books. Poetry has become the property of publishers and are written for few practitioners. Now poems are vital in the language of youth and the hip-hop culture which is an important global movement and based on poets’ spoken words.

9. Donna Kachites-McCallum, a former NTID interpreting student shares the story of how she got involved with ASL poetry, particularly interpreting for ASL poet Debbie Rennie. She discusses the ASL poetry movement in Rochester and key people who were involved such as hearing poets Jim Cohn and Todd Beers whom she interpreted for at poetry readings in Rochester.

10. Peter Cook describes how he became deaf at age three, his education and his selection of NTID for college and his experiences there, specifically in theatre, poetry and performance art.

11. Todd Beers begins his interview by sharing how Jim Cohn influenced him and his poetry. He describes how working with interpreters forced him to think more deeply about his work and its meaning. The Deaf audiences appreciated his work and he appreciates the gift they gave him. After entering NTID in 1983, Eddie Swayze met Jim Cohn, Peter Cook, Debbie Rennie and others who also affected his creative expression. Jim Cohn encouraged Eddie to perform his poetry which was a new artistic outlet for him as he focused on signing songs and music in his performances. He describes the ASL Poetry movement as an inspiring time for creative artists like himself who could network with other like-minded artists.


  • Creation: 1987-2012


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open to researchers.

Biographical / Historical

Miriam Lerner, an interpreter at RIT/NTID collected performances of Deaf poetry and interviewed deaf poets who were experimenting with poetic devices in American Sign Language from 1984 to 1992 for the documentary film about ASL poetry, The Heart of the Hydrogen Jukebox.

A quote from Miriam Lerner (; accessed 6/27/2013):

Although the roots of poetry lie in the 'oral' or storytelling tradition, since its recasting as a solely written and academic exercise the Deaf community has felt limited access to its expressive capabilities. Their language in this country - American Sign Language- was long considered merely bastardized or substandard English. Deaf poets attempted written English poetry with some success, but until the 1980's had few models for creating poems in their own language of signs. 'The Heart of the Hydrogen Jukebox' utilizes archival footage of performances and interviews by the fledgling deaf poets of the 70's and 80's to chronicle the coming of age of a new art form - ASL poetry. The process of archiving these materials will be addressed in this presentation of clips from the film, as well as from the presenter’s personal collection of old VHS and BETA format tapes.

This film was the culmination of 2 ½ years of work, supported by a Major Design Project through NTID. I was present at many of the performances shown or referred to in the film, and back in those days there were few who could afford the video cameras that were finally available to the public. These early camcorders were expensive ($1,500), large, heavy, and cumbersome, especially when perched on one’s shoulder! When I began to gather materials for the film, I scoured the shelves of the Educational Technical Resources Department and found old tapes of Bernard Bragg and Bob Panara discussing poetry and ASL literature back in 1976. The lighting is grainy, the sets are cheap and just thrown on a barely disguised stage.

The only footage of Dorothy Miles was similarly poorly produced – one is an interview from the old program “Silent Perspectives”, and the other is from her series of taped performances, “Gestures,” which look as if they are copied from a TV screen. I used the footage of Allen Ginsberg’s visit to NTID in 1984, which had been taped by NTID staff, however the masters had been thrown out – I only had copies. I had tapes taken by friends who were sitting out in the audiences of performances, student tapes where they were practicing with the cameras to improve their skills, tapes of unattributed authorship where there was some obvious experimentation going on with early editing equipment, etc. Every source material had a different look, feel, and challenge to overcome. Don Feigel, the editor and co-director of the documentary, was in the trenches constantly dealing with balancing and cleaning up the images, striving for a polished, uniform look to the whole film. After a brief narration and opening montage of signed performances set to music, deaf and hearing performers and academics provide an overview of poetry's evolution through the centuries, from Sappho, rhapsods, troubadours, and the written word being valorized as better than the poetry of the people. The story is told by a hand off of commentaries by Deaf and Hearing poets - archival footage which travels back from current day studio interviews to lectures delivered 22 years ago at the first ASL Poetry conference held in Rochester, NY.

Old styles of slow, controlled signing slowly give way to newer 'beat' poet expressions of younger deaf poets inspired by Allen Ginsberg, who made a visit to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and inspired the audience with his reading and discussion of his seminal poem 'HOWL.' Rochester proved to be the only city in the country with a culture of hearing and deaf poetry happening side by side as interpreters became involved for equal access to both audiences. The film is subtitled for the deaf viewers to read what the hearing talking heads are saying, and there are voice interpreters for hearing viewers to enjoy watching the signing and understanding them through spoken language. Just as a museum visitor can tell the difference in style and content by comparing a Renaissance painting to a Picasso, so will the viewer of 'Hydrogen Jukebox' know what ASL poetry has become compared to the first video taped evidence we have.
"This paper was presented at the Technology and Deaf Education Symposium: Exploring Instructional and Access Technologies, held at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY, June 21‐23, 2010."


1.3 Linear Feet (1 File box)




A collection of Deaf poetry videotapes, dvds, and digital documents containing lectures, performances, and interviews documenting ASL (American Sign Languagae) poetry. The materials were gathered while conducting research for Heart of The Hydrogen Jukebox, a documentary film by Miriam Lerner about ASL poetry.


Materials are arranged by event.

Other Finding Aids

In addition to this finding aid, an inventory is available below. For more information, please contact the RIT Archive Collections.

Miriam and Kenneth Lerner ASL poetry collection

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Accession number(s): 2011:041

Deaf poetry videotapes and dvds were donated to the RIT/NTID History and Deaf Studies Archive in May 2011 by Miriam and Kenny Lerner.

Processing Information

Finding aid created by Amy Vilz in December 2011. Updated in 2019 by Jody Sidlauskas and Ella von Holtum.

Miriam and Kenneth Lerner ASL Poetry collection
RIT/NTID Deaf Studies Archive
Amy Vilz
12 December 2011
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Repository Details

Part of the RIT Archives Repository

Rochester NY 14623 USA