DL Williams’s “Interdimensional Traveller” explores dimensions, particularly the two dimensional world of poems on a page and the three dimensional world of sign language. There is a QR code link to the YouTube channel where the poems appear in BSL (eventually all of them will) and also QR codes with some of the poems that links to the individual poem. This is not done in a binary spirit, where sign language is put in competition with English, but as a translator and interpreter, building links between these dimensions. An early poem, “Bilingual Poet’s Dilemma”, will be as familiar to translators as to sign language interpreters,
“What’s beautiful in a Sign
is boring in a line;
what’s pretty in a line
is confusing in Sign,
and if the twain should meet,
wouldn’t that be a feat?
So tell me, please,
which language should I use?
Which one should I choose?”
British Sign Language is not English in signs, or Sign Supported English, but a language in its own right with grammar and sentence structures that differ from English. Sign language is not universal, each language has its own version. In languages, words rarely stand alone with the same meaning each time, but pick up meaning according to the context used. A word such as ‘beacon’ may mean light, warning or hope and an interpreter has to judge whether to only translate ‘beacon’ as light or whether one of the other meanings may be appropriate. A phrase in sign language that looks like an elegantly choreographed ballet for hands, can be rendered simplistic and boring on a page. A sentence that starts in the present tense and moves into the past tense to signify a memory, is tricky to render in BSL. These issues throw up dilemmas for interpreters. However, if you are bilingual and can move back and forth between languages, how would you choose one over the other? If decide to use the best language for the poem, how will an audience react if some of your poems are in BSL and others in English? How can you interpret for the part of the monolingual audience who need interpretations?
“Isn’t this Art?” explores different types of art,
“Poetry of pen and page,
words picked with the greatest care.
Obsessing down to a comma;
to put something here or there.
Is this art?
Tapestries painstakingly woven,
thread upon thread upon thread,
until someone goes blind or mad
and all the subjects dead.
Is this art?
And what of signs of hands?
Pictures weaved in air,
beguiling an audience entranced
a poet’s imagination shared.
Isn’t this art?”
The refrain is different in the final line. Is a language an art or a means of communication? A poem is considered art, a selection or curating of the best words to convey what the poem says. A tapestry is considered art because it depicts something beautifully and takes work. Sign language combines words and pictures but there’s a doubt, can it be considered art?
Not all the poems are about BSL. DL Williams is a Doctor Who fan, and explains the origins of this in “Captivated By…” which could have the alternative title, ‘how I became a young Whovian’,
“I saw a beacon of light.
I was a young thing, strolling past the TV,
when I saw…
A blue box bouncing side to side
in a swirling vortex.
Ooh, looks interesting… nah.
It has subtitles!
I’m drawn in…”
The importance of subtitles and how they make TV programmes, films and social media videos accessible. It wasn’t the story or characters that initially drew the child into watching, but the programme’s accessibility. Naturally, it also helps when subtitles are done well. Anyone who has watched the closed captions (which only capture speech; subtitles describe non-speech sound effects as well) on video conferencing software will know that accuracy has a lot to be desired. It is also a lot of cognitive labour to switch from watching the speaker, to the subtitles/captions and back to the speaker to try and interpret body language or lipread for context clues so the words make sense. It can be draining, because it’s usually unseen and unacknowledged labour.
There are also poems about cats. “My Cat” is about finding a replacement for a much-loved pet and eyeing up potential replacements in a rescue centre when the speaker sees a kitten,
“Our eyes met.
Beautiful! White fur all over! Aww.
No, too much, too hyper, too young too…
That’s my cat.”
In performance, DL usually renders “My Cat” in BSL. So the next poem, “The Devil Cat”, is a logical partnership and in the collection the two poems are on facing pages,
“To the bemused (non-signing) audience member
watching a heartfelt rendition of ‘My Cat’ in BSL,
my ears were my horns;
my teeth were extra sharp,
as sharp as my pitchfork claws.
My tail was a mark of the devil;
I was the devil cat.”
It illustrates the “Bilingual Poet’s Dilemma”. Should a poem conceived in BSL be delivered in English first or as the poet intended first?
The title poem takes readers back to Doctor Who (TARDIS is an acryonym: time and relative dimensions in space),
“I have no TARDIS,
yet I traverse dimensions.
2D planes of paper and words,
3D spheres of movement and signs,
the fourth dimension
of the time
it takes to move a hand
Endless zooms warping 3D
Unfolding focal fatigue.
In “Interdimensional Traveller” DL Williams has captured the tightrope of considerations bilingual poets weave into the fabric of poems, which is the best language for this particular poem, what happens if I perform in one and not the other, how do I manage poems that were conceived in one and now need interpreting into the other? It also throws down the gauntlet to entrenched ableist views, asking that accessibility is not some afterthought or poorly conceived add-on but built in from the source of an idea or performance. DL approaches these themes with compassion, this isn’t a rant or polemic, but questions and shows how it can be done. The book itself is three dimensional, it’s focus isn’t just about deaf issues and identity but also a love of cats and “Doctor Who”. It speaks to the heart as well as intellect.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.