I recently completed a short residency at the Scottish Poetry Library, and produced this short (3 minute) film poem. The film debuted at the 30 years’ celebration of the Scottish Poetry Library that was held during the Edinburgh International Book Festival this summer.
The text below explains the film and the process of making it, and was read at a recent cross-disciplinary discussion of the work, which took place at Hugh Miller’s Cottage in Cromarty.
The Scottish Poetry Library’s own blog pages list further upcoming Scottish screenings. Meanwhile the film is circulating through deaf communities via social media.
I’m hoping to get the film screened at some deaf festivals and various other places. If you’d like to screen the film, please get in touch.
The film is a work of translation art; a synthesis of voices, languages, and perspectives crystallising around a remarkable journey.
It was made for the Scottish Poetry Library during a short residency, funded by Creative Scotland and the National Lottery (as part of the PEP programme), with the aim of extending the Library’s reach to communities beyond its existing demographic.
Having just completed a PhD by research into sign language poetry – that is poetry that is created in a natural sign language – I wanted to bring sign language poetry to the Library’s collection and to introduce these poetic communities to each other.
At this point it is probably important to dispel a few myths.
British Sign Language is one of Scotland’s indigenous languages. It is not, however, merely a pantomimic version of English. Much scholarly work over the past half century has determined that British Sign Language is a unique and intriguing language. It can compound, much like German, uses classifiers much like Swahili or Hebrew, has a mainly Subject-Object-Verb syntax- unlike English- and so on.
As part of the residency, the Library’s staff were given awareness training, introduced to British Sign Language, to Scotland’s deaf communities, and to the basics of poetry created in a sign language. Most of this behind-the-scenes work was completed before the film was made. In addition the Library held an evening of sign language poetry performances, and a workshop for aspiring Scottish sign language poets led by eminent practitioner, Paul Scott.
In many ways, then, the making of the film marked the end of one journey and the beginning of another; the end of my residency and the beginning of the Library’s new relationship with sign language poetry.
The original proposal for the film – entitled ‘A Vispo Billboard for the Scottish Poetry Library’ – grew to envision two short films that could be projected onto public buildings in Scotland.The idea was to create two companion pieces- one which took a sign language poem as a source text, the other which worked from a poem by a published Scottish author. Both pieces would be made accessible to both communities.
The subject of each piece was carefully considered, with the intention of offering both communities an insight into each others’ cultures and allowing these communities to speak to each other through poetry.
Gerry Hughes’ solo circumnavigation of the globe via the five great capes was a feat later recognised with an honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow. But at the banquet held in the weeks following the sailor’s safe return Gary Quinn – in the true bardic tradition of British Sign Language poetry – honoured Gerry in verse.
Gary’s original poem witnessed Gerry’s life, his struggles, his determination and his triumph in a full fifteen minutes of flowing creativity.
In the year that passed between its first performance and the making of this film, Gary had been asked to recite the poem so many times he was grateful for the opportunity to commit it to record, despite the necessary dramatic reduction in its length. A kind and generous soul, Gary took news of each further cut squarely on the chin, acquiescing with a gentle nod of his head.
Gerry Hughes lent his support by generously allowing us access to his personal photographs.
Securing the BSL source poem was merely the first step, however. The question remained of how to translate the poem, and how to demonstrate some of the beauty of its poetic form. Gary’s piece, like most BSL poetry, takes its language beyond the everyday, creating arrestingly unusual and beautiful images.
Of course the Scottish Poetry Library famously holds the Edwin Morgan Archive, and in honour of his work I wanted to allow any translation to ‘emerge’, rather than seeking a more direct or literal linguistic translation. And after two decades of working as an interpreter and translator it is the inevitable spaces between languages that interest me – the gaps that are filled with our cultures, our selves, our imaginations.
Enter Christine da Luca.
The Edinburgh Makar greeted the idea of this project with honest excitement. To start the ball rolling, she and I looked over the rough edit of Gary’s poem and discussed the loosely descriptive content notes I had provided. I pointed out particularly creative lexemes and phrases and explained the significance of Gary’s poetics from a BSL perspective.
Over a Skype connection between Lothian and Shetland we giggled as her own poetic imagination conjured words that captured Gary’s metaphors and laced his work with her own fingerprints. A new work ‘emerged’.
And Christine did her homework; researching all she could of Gerry’s journey she noted those in whose wake he had sailed (‘Odysseus, Chichester’), alongside the facts of his voyage (‘8 months, 32000 miles’).
In her native Shetlandic, the flow of the verse changed again – eddies catching around yet other moments (‘smeddum’, ‘aber, foo o sea stories’).
The results were no more a set of literal translations than Gary’s original verse was a literal translation of Gerry’s journey.
Yet despite Christine’s beautiful texts, the majority of people coming to this film BSL would still find the niceties of the BSL difficult to appreciate. An audience might need further guidance to unlock some of the BSL poem’s visual treasures.
David Bell’s kinetic typography, therefore, represents yet another layer of translation.
As we sat in his Appleton Towers office, in Edinburgh University, I explained the significance and particular beauty of Gary’s expressions, handshapes, movements, tempos and spatial placings whilst David harnessed his technical and artistic abilities to bend Christine’s English to the service of these properties.
The technicalities required a little further editing of the source (BSL) poem.
In the final, finished version, you will find elements in the Shetlandic that are not fully represented in either the English or the BSL, elements of the BSL that escape both written (or spoken) languages and so on. I hope, too, that you will find different elements of beauty in each.
The languages and translations of the film do not exactly echo each other, but sometimes follow each other, sometimes travel alongside each other, sometimes cross paths and sometimes divert around the invisible obstacles of language, culture and modality.
I had wanted to make a piece that placed BSL – one of Scotland’s indigenous languages – alongside some of its siblings, that demonstrated how these languages live alongside each other everyday, forming the rich weave that is Scotland.
And I had wanted to create work that might in some way allow those who do not sign to begin to encounter the beauty of sign language poetry.
Sadly the second piece, which would have seen a work of Christine’s translated into BSL, remains on the drawing board. But perhaps its time will come.