Published: 09:18, February 24, 2024 | Updated: 09:18, February 24, 2024
Power of the unspoken word
By Cheng Yuezhu

Inclusive sign language poetry workshop broadens horizons of expression and explores beauty of the medium, Cheng Yuezhu reports.

Beijing Body On&On Cultural Exchange Center and Sign Alley co-host an inclusive poetry workshop, in which most participants are deaf or hard of hearing. (LI XIAOCAO / FOR CHINA DAILY)

"In the flowing sands, I seek my own voice. Calling out to life: I love you, myself." This poem was by Wang Yiming, a performer and blogger with hearing loss.

She wrote the poem at an inclusive poetry workshop, in which most participants had hearing loss, that was hosted by the Beijing Body On&On Cultural Exchange Center and Sign Alley.

Wang says that the inspiration for the poem came from the interactive icebreaker exercises at the start of the workshop, where the participants and the instructor gathered in a circle, moved their fingers in the air, and then massaged the people next to them.

"I felt I could see sands shifting to vibrating sounds in a deserted area, forests, mountains, rivers, the sun, clouds, blue sky … Endless beautiful images of nature unfolded in my mind. I've never felt so carefree, comfortable or relaxed," Wang says.

"In that wondrous space, I truly felt that life comes from the Earth or nature. Although our lives may not be perfect, they deserve to be valued and cherished."

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After the interactive exercises, the participants sat around a table and introduced themselves, describing the feeling of giving and receiving a massage, and then engaged in a series of poetry collage exercises, with each participant writing down a noun, verb or adjective and then passing it on to the next person, and the sixth person arranging the five words into a verse.

The last and main part of the workshop was writing a tercet (three-line) poem. As most of the participants were deaf or hard of hearing, the poems were presented in sign language in front of a camera, and participants without hearing loss were taught how to sign their poems.

The workshop begins with the participants and the instructor gathering in a circle and moving their fingers in the air. (LI XIAOCAO / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Theater artist, writer and curator Ai Kuo was the workshop's instructor. He says that to provide the participants with an experience that would involve different senses, he condensed his previous workshops.

"They usually kick off with getting the body involved. Physical interaction during activities not only brings the participants closer emotionally, but also shows them that the workshop isn't just about arranging words, but that everyday movements can also be a form of poetry," he says.

Ai also chose a variety of exercises to show the participants that they could write deep-reaching poems in a fun and enjoyable way.

"When it came to performing and recording sign language poetry, I wanted the participants to see it as an important way of expressing and performing poetry. Learning and filming the movements and symbols was a way of recording and sharing the poems," he says.

While Wang has written, published and performed poems before, she says that this workshop was a refreshing experience, as well as an opportunity to write poetry and share experiences with other people.

"It was a rare chance for me to write and perform poetry in a joyful environment and share my feelings with others. I love interacting with different people. It gives me unexpected inspiration," she says.

Wang first learned about accessibility in 2019, when she was in the audience at the first edition of the UK-China Disability Arts Forum, which is co-hosted by Body On&On.

Last year, she became a speaker at the forum, and gave a speech in sign language about her experience as a theater performer and the impact of artists with disabilities in performing arts and cinema in China.

"The concept of accessibility was like a beacon of hope, because I need to be respected, affirmed, understood and supported, and I yearn to be integrated into mainstream society. From the Body On&On platform, I can use my own voice to tell others that people with hearing loss can achieve so many things," she says.

"I like poetry, and I like to express myself through performance. I want other people to experience the beauty of sign language from my performances."

Theater artist, writer and curator Ai Kuo (right) serves as the workshop's instructor.  (LI XIAOCAO / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Sign Alley, the workshop's co-host, is an organization that spreads awareness about people with hearing loss and sign language, and promotes social integration. Its founder Feng Gang, a sign language instructor, director and performer with hearing loss, also took part in the workshop.

"This was my first time writing a tercet. What made this interesting for me was that everyone was able to share their thoughts and feelings. Participants without hearing loss also learned to perform in sign language and shared their experiences. It was a lovely and unforgettable time," Feng says.

"Artistic creation is a journey of experience, and a bridge connecting individuals. I think performing sign language poetry in public is an effective way of promoting inclusivity. It reflects the need for mutual respect, understanding and support to enhance social integration."

Feng says that the decision to collaborate with Body On&On was spurred by shared ideals to promote inclusivity, diversity and equality. Raising public awareness of people with disabilities through sign language and art performances has been high on the organization's recent agenda.

"What joy it is that we can use our own language, sign language, to express ourselves in poetry. On behalf of Sign Alley, I sincerely hope to work long term with Body On&On to create a wonderful future together," he adds.

The poetry workshop, hosted on Jan 13 at Beijing's 798 Art Zone, was one of three organized by Beijing Body On&On, alongside a dance workshop for people with learning disabilities on Jan 7, and a sensory integration workshop for people with vision loss on Jan 14.

The workshops were hosted as a continuation of 2023's Fifth Luminous Festival. This edition of the annual festival centered on inclusive arts was themed "to see the other", and was focused on getting to know and care about others in an open-minded and inclusive manner.

"We have organized many different kinds of inclusive workshops, mostly drama and dance. So we are trying to explore new ways of communication and expression for groups we haven't reached," says Ge Huichao, founder of Body On&On and the Luminous Festival.

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Among the groups they have started to work with are people with learning disabilities. Ge says that to do so, they have been developing experience by collaborating with international art troupes of performers with learning disabilities.

"We hope to work with people with learning disabilities in the long term, and provide them with good art resources. Also, because our workshops have primarily focused on the performing arts, we are trying out poetry and sensory integration, but for all these inclusive workshops, I think our goals are one and the same."

As its next step, the organization aims to produce art projects and works jointly created by people of different identities. Instead of stressing particular identities or social groups, they would like to simply focus on people, Ge says.

Contact the writer at chengyuezhu@chinadaily.com.cn