Interview [Debbie Rennie]
- Rennie, Debbie (Person)
Part of a collection of interviews made for a film on ASL poetry, "The Heart of the Hydrogen Jukebox." Debbie Rennie shares influences on her development as an ASL poet, starting with transferring to a Deaf school when she was 12. Her world opened up in an ASL rich accessible environment. In the evenings, the students would create stories and she took a mime class which led to performances. Her school also had a strong theatre and arts program which fostered creativity. She reflects upon her NTID years in the 1980s where she participated in Sunshine II, and interned in the Performing Arts department. Classes such as Creative Sign Language (taught by Patrick Graybill), Deaf Literature (taught by Robert Panara), dance (taught by Steph Z.) and acting honed her translation, movement, artistic and ASL poetry skills. She recalls the challenge of translating works, such as Dorothy Miles's poems into another art form such as movement. They did works like "Spoon River Anthology" and haiku poems and played with sign language. She majored in Graphic Design and met Peter Cook who also chose this major. They were exposed to new ideas in the art world which influenced their works. During this time, she, Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner became roommates. They constantly discussed ideas for their poetry work and performed. She discovered the realization that she did not have to write in English to produce poetry that she could create in ASL. English was not a language she was fluent in, and she felt inferior and devalued in that language which affected her self-worth. Expressing herself in ASL was natural as she was fluent in that language and could express herself freely and creatively. One poem that stands out for her is "Hamburg" which she did with Peter and considers it the best work they have done. Other creative works that stand out are "Cigarette Smoke" and "Big World Compared to Small World" which she felt were excellent. She started attending interpreted poetry readings where she saw Jim Cohn read his works. He had a great influence on her and encouraged her as a poet. She also met Donna Kachites who became her interpreter when she performed. Rennie discusses the importance of the first 1987 National ASL Poetry Conference which brought together poets with different expressive styles like Ella Mae Lentz, Clayton Valli, Patrick Graybill, Peter Cook, and herself. Valli gave them credibility as he was also a linguist and validated that their work was poetry. So much was shared that weekend and she grew from that experience. ASL poetry exploded and she along with Patrick Graybill and Dennis Webster performed at "The Cellar" or "The Ritz" on Tuesday nights with fellow poets like Peter Cook. Another venue for performances was Jazzberries where interpreted performances was conducted for a mixed audience of Deaf and hearing people. She recalls Howie Seago, Patrick Graybill, Clayton Valli performing as well as herself. Around this time, there was a group of Deaf and hearing poets and interpreters (Debbie, Peter, Kenny, Jim, Donna) who called themselves "Bridge Of", a short-lived group. They performed group poems which was difficult to create. She performed along with her fellow poets at a festival, "Clearwater Festival". In order to prepare for her poetry performances, she would videotape herself and give the video to her interpreter, Donna Kachites who took notes. Then Debbie would review the notes and they would meet to discuss how best to interpret the work and practice. They practiced a lot together so they could get the timing right and give a flawless performance. She marvels as to how this occurred because they freely volunteered their time without pay. Today, that probably would not occur. Debbie and Donna were committed to having the whole community involved, including Deaf and hearing, so all could have access and understand the performances. Debbie said it was great to work with Donna who was a gifted poetics interpreter. There was some controversy about whether ASL poetry should be voiced with many discussions about this. Debbie believed it was important to give access to everyone, thus her work with Donna. Some of Rennie's poems highlighted social issues she cared about, such as "Veal Boycott", and "Missing Children". Debbie likes to project emotions into her work and wants to "hit" the audience with those feelings. There are several influences on her works she has incorporated techniques such as the way Ella Mae Lentz uses rhythm and repetition, handshape formation from Patrick Graybill, backward/forward movements and shifts in time and place from Peter Cook, and infusing symbols and metaphors. She discusses the importance of using classifiers as they provide perspective and a rich and visual image, such as showing the different ways a person walks, or showing trees going by. Peter Cook talked about film language which is similar to sign language and can show perspectives such as a person walking, a bullet coming towards that person, and becoming the bullet. ASL poetry expression involves so many other features and elements such as choosing the correct sign angle, showing emotions, using facial expressions, moving the body for special effect, standing a particular way and more. She takes all of these ideas and techniques and mixes them up to refine her poems. Not surprisingly, Debbie sees her identity bound with being an ASL poet which is a source of pride and self-actualization for her. It makes her feel good about herself as a Deaf person. Being a poet is a developing process and reflects who she is. Over the years her work has evolved in its maturity and elegance. She finds poetry therapeutic and will create poems out of painful experiences or increase awareness of social issues that she cares about. She loves playing with ASL poetry and performing her work which is a source of self-esteem. After she left NTID, she settled in Sweden. The 1980s was a time of discovering ASL poetry, as if a flower was blooming. At that time, she thought the seeds from that flower would be dispersed widely, take root, and grow elsewhere, but that did not happen. She believes she has taken those seeds and disseminated them in Sweden through educational videos where an appreciation of sign poetry is part of the curriculum at five Deaf schools. She considers this a positive development as sign poetry is on par with written and spoken poetry. Deaf students exposed to sign poetry will keep it alive as they start creating their own works.
365.39 Megabytes (mp4)
This material was digitized as part of a CLIR Hidden Collections grant: "Sculptures in the Air: An Accessible Online Video Repository of the American Sign Language (ASL) Poetry and Literature Collections at the RIT/NTID Deaf Studies Archive (RIT/NTID DSA) in Rochester, NY." Original VHS recordings were transferred to mp4 format, captioned, and voiced, by the National Technical Institute for the Deaf Production Services department.