Flying Words Project to Land at U.Va.

March 16, 2010 — Poetry will actually be in motion at the University of Virginia on March 23 when the American Sign Language/Deaf Culture Lecture Series presents the Flying Words Project.

The project includes Peter Cook, a poet who is deaf and uses American Sign Language, and his hearing poet collaborator, Kenny Lerner. They will give a performance, "Live! Poetry in Motion," free and open to the public, at 7 p.m. in the Old Cabell Hall Auditorium.

Cook and Lerner have performed together as Flying Words Project since 1984. Their visit is sponsored by U.Va.'s American Sign Language Program as part of the annual ASL/Deaf Culture Lecture Series, which is now in its 16th year.

(For an example of the work of the Flying Words Project – a piece advocating for the election of Barack Obama, with Cook signing and Lerner narrating – click here.)

The lecture series brings three or four nationally known scholars and performers in deaf studies or deaf arts to the University each year. Its goal is to foster appreciation and understanding of deaf people's history, culture, language and world view, said Christopher Krentz, director of the program and associate professor with a joint appointment in English. 

"These events attract many deaf people from the central Virginia region and allow U.Va.'s American Sign Language students to gain valuable exposure to the language
and culture outside of the classroom," Krentz said.

For deaf people, and especially children, Krentz said he thinks the events give them pride that a premier university such as U.Va. recognizes and supports their sign language and culture, which is all too often marginalized in academia. For many hearing people, these events are the first time they have been in a room with a large number of deaf signers – often a powerful experience, he said. 

Krentz and other ASL teachers have taught the duo's poetry in their classes. "The Flying Word Project's work is an important example of ASL poetry and storytelling," he said. Plus, Lerner earned a master's in deaf education at U.Va.

Cook is internationally known as a performance artist whose works incorporate American Sign Language, pantomime, acting and movement. He has appeared in Live from Off Center's "Words on Mouth" and "United States of Poetry," produced by Emmy-winning poet Bob Holman, both of which aired on PBS.

In addition to performing in storytelling festivals around the nation and in Europe, he has worked with deaf storytellers and poets in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Japan and the U.S. The White House invited him to join the National Book Festival in 2003.

Cook is an assistant professor in the Department of ASL/English Interpretation at Columbia College in Chicago.

Lerner serves as co-creator of poems and the voice of Peter Cook in Flying Words Project. A graduate of Beloit College in Wisconsin, Lerner came to U.Va. for his master's in deaf education, where he began to learn American Sign Language from Jerry Grizzle, a deaf man who worked as a printer at U.Va. for 42 years. Lerner also volunteered at the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind in Staunton.

He now teaches history at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, New York.

Cook has said that his poetry is not just about deafness. "Why not let ASL poetry be poetry? No more, not less," he said. "This is why Flying Words Project was created – to educate the American mainstream poetry that there is a wonderful corner in the literary field, and that is called ASL literature."

— By Anne Bromley