Sunday, October 30, 2011

Poetry Unplugged: Deaf Jam

As Bowery Poetry Club founder Bob Holman notes, the most purely oral form of poetry performed at his venue is not even oral. It is American Sign Language (ASL) poetry, which uses the physical components of signing to create stories and imagery. An immigrant Israeli high school student finds her voice through ASL poetry during the course of Judy Lieff’s Deaf Jam (promo here), which premieres on PBS’s Independent Lens this Thursday.

One of the greatest ironies of Deaf Jam is ASL poetry, which defies traditional methods of poetic notation, appear to be the only pieces performed at places like the Nuyorican Poets CafĂ© that are worth recording. While the contemporary slam poems captured in the film are little more than strident political rants set to sampled drum beats, Aneta Brodski and her fellow students of New York’s Lexington School for the Deaf draw on their experiences and emotions to express things that are deeply personal, yet also universal.

That is not to say the Lexington students are oblivious to world affairs. One of Brodski’s featured poems vividly dramatizes the oppression of Communist China. Yet, such macro issues are mostly used as metaphor for individual struggles.

In many respects, Jam is also a film about Brodski finding her place in the world. Legal immigrants twice over, her Russian-Israeli family’s status remains unresolved after ten years of paperwork. A junior whose friends are all seniors poised to graduate, her future social standing at school appears somewhat uncertain as well. Yet, as the standout of the Lexington poetry pilot program, Brodski finds her niche, taking her ASL poetry to the non-deaf world, challenging audiences to engage with it.

Eventually, Brodski begins collaborating with a non-deaf poet who culturally identifies with Israel’s Arabic population during the period of Britain’s colonial Mandate. Unfortunately, their give-peace-a-chance hybrid poetry somewhat dilutes the power and immediacy of Brodski’s performances. It is starting to become the sort of thing we have already heard way too much of.

A bright, charismatic performer, Brodski is a shrewd choice to represent the ASL poetry movement. In contrast, her non-deaf colleagues are rather dull, slavishly conforming to the aesthetic and ideological norms of their peers. Frankly, poetry in general needs more Brodskis. However, Lieff diligently ignores the listless state of contemporary poetry overall, focusing instead on the empowerment of the ASL program. Pleasant and somewhat informative, even including some energizing music from Cyro Baptista, Jam is still one of the more agreeable installments of the current season of Independent Lens. It airs this Thursday (11/3) on most PBS outlets.