What Is Sign Language Poetry ?

Dr Kyra Politt,  translator and interpreter, explores the different forms of Sign Language Poetry.

Dr Kyra Politt

What is sign language poetry? That’s a hotly debated question. As things stand, you’ll find ‘signed poetry’, ‘sign poetry’, ‘sign language poetry’, ‘BSL poetry’, or ‘Signart’ scattered all along the path between English and British Sign Language (BSL).

In fact, there is very little that connects these two languages, except for this path, well-trodden by generations of deaf people whose experiences of encountering English range from brutally oppressive colonialism to empowering functionality.

Just a generation or two ago, when the use of BSL was punished in many of the UK’s schools for deaf children, survivors encoded their stories, their identities, and their culture in finely wrought poetry that showcased the beauty of the language they fought to preserve. Any event that brought the community together would be marked by some impromptu display of poetic mastery. But, like all natural sign languages hitherto researched across the globe, British Sign Language has no written form. And without video recorders, these old performances were lost to time.

Now, everything has changed, and the flux is tangible.

Technology has provided easy access to digital recording and sharing, but it has also given rise to deaf infants receiving operations to implant electronic cochlear devices alongside ‘advice’ to avoid signing in favour of speech.

So, whilst native BSL poets explore, record, share, and even perform each other’s work, new young poets are emerging amongst those who come to sign language later in life, confused about their identity and the complexity of their relationships to both languages.

BSL Poet Laureate 2024, Kabil Kapoor. 

So, expect to encounter a great deal of politics and many poetic forms, some that lean towards English and mimic its poetic traditions, others that explore the rich potential of language in a visual, gestural, and spatial realm. Expect poetry that begins its life in written English, and poetry that refuses any form of translation. 

Welcome to a new world.

Dr. Kyra Pollitt 

Kyra Pollitt has done a great interview with BSL Poet Laureate Kabir Kapoor on this topic for Poetry Review. You can read it here or watch it in BSL with English subtitles here


You can find out more about BSL poetry and heritage at the event sponsored by the British Academy and BSL Fest, BSL Cultural Heritage This is in collaboration with Manchester Poetry Library.

These workshops are being funded by;