Saturday, April 25, 2009

Oregon teen becomes first deaf person to compete in national Poetry Out Loud event

From Oregon Public Broadcasting News:

April 27, Oregon is sending a finalist to the national Poetry Out Loud competition in Washington D.C.

She’s eighteen-year-old Tiffany Hill of Eugene (pictured).

Poetry Out Loud is a national recitation contest in which teens memorize and deliver classic poems. Only, Hill won’t be saying anything -- at least not out loud.

Hill is the first deaf student to compete in the national competition -- she’ll deliver her poems in American Sign Language. Jefferson Public Radio’s Jessica Robinson has this profile.

Here’s the thing about Tiffany Hill. She brings to mind words you’re not sure you’re supposed to use about her. Like “talkative,” and “eloquent.” Words not typically associated with teenagers – much less, ones who communicate with their hands.

Tiffany Hill performs "Inside Out" by Diane Wakoski at the Oregon finals of Poetry Out Loud on March 14 in Salem.

Hill sits in the common room of the girls’ dorm at the Oregon School for the Deaf in Salem. She’s with the school’s interpreter Sandra Gish.

It’s just after class and right before the girls’ evening ritual -- watching Spanish soap operas with English captions. But soaps aren’t really Hill’s style. She signs rapidly -- and Gish speaks the words – that Hill is more into crime shows.

Hill/Gish: “I do like Tomboy things – I like enough girl things, but no I’m more of a tomboy.”

When Hill signs her eyebrows furrow above her glasses and the corners of her mouth look perpetually close to relenting into a laugh. Hill is an avid people watcher. She enjoys a good puzzle -- like the hunt for the perfect poetic phrase.

Hill/Gish: “There’s a word in poetry that people search for and find so that they have the feeling they want in their words – I do the very same thing, with my sign language.”

Take the words “cat” and “hat.” Together, they make up one of the most familiar rhymes in the English language – but in American Sign Language, or ASL, the two words don’t look anything alike.

Hill encountered them in a poem called “Inside Out” by Diane Wakoski , the piece she chose for the Poetry Out Loud Competition. Hill had to both translate the words into ASL – and the rhyme.

Hill/Gish: “I looked at those lines, and I can’t imagine the cat and the hat issue, but I kept trying out signs and not feeling satisfied with it. Until finally I ended up changing the handshape for cat in a way that gave cat a specific meaning and then used that same handsign for hat.”

To demonstrate, Hill’s thumb and index finger tug an imaginary whisker, making a quick little up-twist at the end.

Hill/Gish: “There’s cat.”

Then she gestures as if donning a fedora, with the same little twist finishing it off.

Hill/Gish: “That’s hat.”

A visual rhyme.

But how do you compare visual and spoken poetry in a competition? When the School for the Deaf contacted the Oregon Arts Commission a year ago about Poetry Out Loud, organizers knew they’d have to re-think their judging criteria.

For example, one of the categories students are judged on is “voice and articulation.”

Deb Vaughn: “And you can tell that that’s going to be tricky when you assign it to a signed poem.”

Deb Vaughn of the Arts Commission coordinates Poetry Out Loud in Oregon.

Deb Vaughn: “And we talked about how the voice of a signer is how they move their hands – the way their facial expressions are used – really signing is your whole body, it’s not just hands and face. How does their body language communicate the unique voice of the individual.”

When judges tallied their scores at the state competition in March, Hill came out on top. Oregon’s poet laureate Lawson Inada sat on the judging panel.

Lawson Inada: “I think those of us who weren’t versed in ASL hadn’t a clue. We didn’t know how it was going to go, and uh, (chuckles) it was very exciting. She wasn’t just spelling out the words, she was expressing the words, she was expressing with her whole total being so to speak. It was quite powerful, it was quite stunning.”

Inada says the judging criteria were straight forward enough so that Tiffany didn’t get special treatment. Officials at the National Endowment for the Arts are now following Oregon’s lead for evaluating an ASL performance in the finals.

Back at the girl’s dorm, Tiffany Hill pulls out her backpack. She still has a stack of homework to get through tonight. The fact that she’ll soon be appearing in a national poetry competition, and the only deaf person at that -- has only vaguely kicked in.

Hill/Gish: “You know it’s that sort of thing when you’re planning anything, and the closer you get to it, the more nervous you become? Sort of unknown. But the minute I start my poems, it’s all smooth from there.”

Hill and her interpreter joke about being too tired to talk any more. Then, a rare sight this evening: The corners of Hill’s mouth finally relent and she lets out a little laugh.

Hill/Gish: “Ha, ha”

And with that, Hill is off to dinner.