Miriam and Kenneth Lerner ASL Poetry collection

RIT/NTID Deaf Studies Archive

Table of Contents

Collection Overview
Scope and Content
Additional Finding Aids
Subject Headings
Information for Researchers
Administrative Information
Related Materials

Collection Overview (Collapse)

Miriam and Kenneth Lerner ASL Poetry collection
Lerner, Kenneth
Inclusive Date(s)
Deaf poetry videotapes and dvds contain lectures, performances, and interviews regarding ASL poetry.
Miriam Lerner, an interpreter at RIT/NTID collected performances of Deaf poetry and interviewed deaf poets who were experimenting with poetic devices in American Sign Language from 1984 to 1992 for the documentary "The Heart of the Hydrogen Jukebox.” A quote from Miriam Lerner (http://www.rit.edu/~w-tecsym/papers/2010/W8B.pdf; accessed 6/27/2013): Although the roots of poetry lie in the 'oral' or storytelling tradition, since its recasting as a solely written and academic exercise the Deaf community has felt limited access to its expressive capabilities. Their language in this country - American Sign Language- was long considered merely bastardized or substandard English. Deaf poets attempted written English poetry with some success, but until the 1980's had few models for creating poems in their own language of signs. 'The Heart of the Hydrogen Jukebox' utilizes archival footage of performances and interviews by the fledgling deaf poets of the 70's and 80's to chronicle the coming of age of a new art from - ASL poetry. The process of archiving these materials will be addressed in this presentation of clips from the film, as well as from the presenter’s personal collection of old VHS and BETA format tapes. This film was the culmination of 2 ½ years of work, supported by a Major Design Project through NTID. I was present at many of the performances shown or referred to in the film, and back in those days there were few who could afford the video cameras that were finally available to the public. These early camcorders were expensive ( $1500), large, heavy, and cumbersome, especially when perched on one’s shoulder! When I began to gather materials for the film, I scoured the shelves of the Educational Technical Resources Department and found old tapes of Bernard Bragg and Bob Panara discussing poetry and ASL literature back in 1976. The lighting is grainy, the sets are cheap and just thrown on a barely disguised stage. The only footage of Dorothy Miles was similarly poorly produced – one is an interview from the old program “Silent Perspectives”, and the other is from her series of taped performances, “Gestures,” which look as if they are copied from a TV screen. I used the footage of Allen Ginsberg’s visit to NTID, which had been taped by NTID staff, however the masters had been thrown out – I only had copies. I had tapes taken by friends who were sitting out in the audiences of performances, student tapes where they were practicing with the cameras to improve their skills, tapes of unattributed authorship where there was some obvious experimentation going on with early editing equipment, etc. Every source material had a different look, feel, and challenge to overcome. Don Feigel, the editor and co-director of the documentary, was in the trenches constantly dealing with balancing and cleaning up the images, striving for a polished, uniform look to the whole film. After a brief narration and opening montage of signed performances set to music, deaf and hearing performers and academics provide an overview of poetry's evolution through the centuries, from Sappho, rhapsods, troubadours, and the written word being valorized as better than the poetry of the people. The story is told by a hand off of commentaries by Deaf and Hearing poets - archival footage which travels back from current day studio interviews to lectures delivered 22 years ago at the first ASL Poetry conference held in Rochester, NY. Old styles of slow, controlled signing slowly give way to newer 'beat' poet expressions of younger deaf poets inspired by Allen Ginsberg, who made a visit to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and inspired the audience with his reading and discussion of his seminal poem 'HOWL.' Rochester proved to be the only city in the country with a culture of hearing and deaf poetry happening side by side as interpreters became involved for equal access to both audiences. The film is subtitled for the deaf viewers to read what the hearing talking heads are saying, and there are voice interpreters for hearing viewers to enjoy watching the signing and understanding them through spoken language. Just as a museum visitor can tell the difference in style and content by comparing a Renaissance painting to a Picasso, so will the viewer of 'Hydrogen Jukebox' know what ASL poetry has become compared to the first video taped evidence we have. This paper was presented at the Technology and Deaf Education Symposium: Exploring Instructional and Access Technologies, held at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY, June 21‐23, 2010.
1.3 Linear feet (1 File box)
C.S. North, Shelf 267
RIT Archive Collections
RIT Libraries
Wallace Center
90 Lomb Memorial Drive
Rochester, New York, 14623
(585) 475-2557

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Scope and Content (Collapse)

Deaf poetry videotapes and dvds can be divided into five subjects:

  1. National Deaf Poetry Conference, NTID, September 24-26, 1987
  2. Flying Words events, held at Writers and Books
  3. Robert Panara and Allen Ginsberg, NTID, June 11, 1987
  4. ASL Literature conference, 1991, NTID
  5. Hydrogen Jukebox interviews, 2007 [film regarding ASL poetry]
  6. Flying Words Project with the Quebec Theatre of the Deaf, Only 13

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Arrangement (Collapse)

Some materials are in numerical order.

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Additional Finding Aids (Collapse)

In addition to this finding aid, an inventory is available below. For more information, please contact the RIT Archive Collections.

Miriam and Kenneth Lerner ASL poetry collection

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Subject Headings (Collapse)

Personal Name(s)

  • Lerner, Kenneth
  • Ginsberg -- 1926-1997 -- Performances, Allen
  • Lerner, Miriam Nathan

Corporate Name(s)

  • Flying Words (Event).
  • National ASL Literature Conference .
  • National Deaf Poetry Conference (1987 : Rochester, N.Y.).
  • National Technical Institute for the Deaf.


  • Deaf -- Education
  • Deaf -- Education -- Congresses
  • Deaf -- Means of communication
  • Deaf -- New York (State) -- Rochester
  • Deaf -- Poetry
  • Deaf -- Poetry --Congresses
  • Deaf -- Social life and customs
  • Deaf artists
  • Deaf culture
  • Deaf poets -- Interviews
  • Deaf, writings of the
  • Deafness -- Literary collections
  • Deafness -- Poetry


  • DVDs
  • Video recordings

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Information for Researchers (Collapse)

Preferred Citation

Deaf poetry videotapes and dvd, RIT/NTID Deaf Studies Archive

Restrictions on Access

This collection is open to researchers.

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Administrative Information (Collapse)

Collection ID


Accession Information

Accession number(s): 2011:041

Source of Acquisition

Deaf poetry videotapes and dvds were donated to the RIT/NTID History and Deaf Studies Archive in May 2011 by Miriam and Kenny Lerner.

Processing Information

Finding aid created by Amy Vilz in December 2011.

Revision Description


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