Kenny Lerner stole a wallet from an inadvertent man at a gas station, handing it to Peter Cook, who then gave out the money to the audience in the fully-packed Sanders Auditorium. Row by row, the audience threw the money around, creating a chain of hand waves from the stage to the technical booth. No money was actually present. No voices spoken. No inadvertent man indeed. Only movement and imagination dominated the room. It was an American Sign Language (ASL) poetry performance lamenting fossil fuel investment by Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner, spotlight artists of the Creative Arts Across Disciplines Initiative (CAAD) last week at Vassar.
Chair of the ASL-English Interpretation Department at Columbia College Chicago Peter Cook is a renowned deaf artist who has performed ASL poetry for 30 years, along with his co-author and interpreter Kenny Lerner, Professor of History at the Rochester Institute of Technology. During their visit to Vassar College from Nov. 5 to Nov. 7, Cook and Lerner delivered the lecture “Painting in the Air: Creativity and American Sign Language” and held an acting workshop for students. Forming a poetry troupe called Flying Words Project, the duo also gave their well-praised poetry performance on campus.
Professor of English Leslie Dunn, who invited the poets to Vassar, talked about her encounter with ASL poetry and Peter Cook’s work, “In 2013, I was developing a new course, ‘Gender, Sexuality, and Disability.’ I was planning a section called ‘Disability Poetics’ and wanted to include ASL poetry, about which I knew nothing at the time. So I went online and found Larry Polansky’s essay ‘The Best American Poetry You’ll Never Read.’ The first sentence refers to the Flying Words Projects’ poem ‘Made in the USA,’ which Peter and Kenny filmed in a motel room while they were touring. I found that video on YouTube and watched it more than once, going back and forth between the performance and Polansky’s description of it, trying to recognize the handshape rhymes that are a signature element of Flying Words poetry. It was a revelatory experience for me. I’ve been studying, teaching, and occasionally writing poetry for over 30 years now, but this was something completely new. Watching Peter made me feel as if I was present at poetry’s creation.”
Different from English poems, which embrace aural rhymes and rhythms, ASL poetry replies on the visual rhyme of handshapes, hand movements and body languages. Due to this distinctive form, the presentation of this art genre poses different challenges. “ASL is simply another language,” said Cook (interpreted by Lerner), “The more you do it, the better you learn. Poems that involve big body movements are easy to remember, while ones with smaller signs are hard. To switch between fast signs, I have to practice–it’s like dancing. It creates muscle memories, so that if I perform a piece after five years, it still comes back to me.”
Cook and Lerner’s works include political poems, natural poems and surrealist poems. “We love to play with language and stretch it out as far as we can,” said Cook, “We like to put the real and the unreal together to find new meanings. In ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude,’ a character is killed but refused to die. We do that in our poetry, too. We show the birth of a baby, but at the same time it’s a firework display and a rainstorm. They are parts of the birth as well–that’s what birth is like. With surrealism, you come up with it without knowing why. But after a while, you will understand.”
On Nov. 6, Cook and Lerner led an ASL workshop with students from MEDS 382 “The Arts of Silence” and DRAM 306 “Art of Acting: Comedy” in the Streep Studio. Without vocal expressions, Cook stressed the importance of facial expressions and body movements in performing. He turned the classroom into a “sculpture garden,” letting students shape and construct each another’s postures to express different emotions and attitudes, as if they were clays to be made into statues. Drama student Dan Thompson ’17 liked the experience very much. He elaborated, “I thoroughly enjoyed the ASL Workshop. Peter Cook is an extremely inspirational person and I learned a lot from him. He communicates his energy in such a powerfully palpable way, making his workshop that much more engaging. I hope to work with him again someday.”
The workshop was followed by the Flying Words performance on Nov. 7, which opened with a poem about Israel. Cook explained the creative ideas of this poem. “We were in Israel and we saw everything. Kenny and I wrote ideas together, connected images to make rhythm and rhymes. Finding the words was the last thing,” said he. In the middle of the show, Cook and Lerner involved the audience in a group poem about fossil fuel. Dividing the audience into three groups, they taught them to use sign language. One group imitated a person using golden toilet paper. Another were corpses being paid to play violins. The last group cut down trees to manufacture toothpicks. Commentary on capitalism lurked under the unspoken signs.
Sophie Cash ’19, a member of the Vassar College Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign, noted, “I absolutely loved Peter’s poem, and felt very honored that he endorsed Divestment at the beginning of it. I thought that his and Kenny’s social commentary was very powerful in a witty, jarring way, but more importantly, the poem itself struck me deeply, given my connection and passion about the environment. I loved the way he brought it full-circle, showing the progression of oil to ship to truck to airmail plane to soldier, and then the soldier being killed by capitalist warfare and his dead body being turned into the very oil that sent him to his grave. It was just an arresting, stunningly visual commentary.”
The last piece of the show, “Charlie,” was about the Vietnam War. Lerner talked about the inspiration for the work. He recounted, “Peter read about training dogs in the war, and I researched on the tunnels in the Vietnam War. We then decided to merge these ideas together to create ‘Charlie,’ which is about a dog trained in this war.” President of ACCESS Charles Callejo ’17 commented on the performance. “Watching the last performance, ’Charlie,’ felt like a movie. I was impressed by how Peter utilized his ASL poetry to embody both the dog and the soldiers, switching between the characters without losing the audience’s attention,” Callejo said.
Not only attracting Vassar faculty and students, these events were open for the local public, especially the deaf community in the region. The Interdisciplinary Arts Coordinator for the Creative Arts Across Disciplines Initiative Tom Pacio helped reach out to the local deaf community. He was glad that the performance was able to draw a large, diverse audience. “When my interns reached out to different organizations of the local deaf community, the excitement and the star power of Peter Cook made the audience of the lecture so diverse,” Pacio recounted.
As an artist himself, Pacio spoke highly of Cook’s Flying Words showcase. “Personally, my mind was blown completely. The joy of watching and getting to know Peter and Kenny was electric, and I now want to learn ASL. As an artist, it’s been a long time since I felt inspired.”