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January 29, 2005

Poetry is out of hand for masters of signing

From: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle - Rochester,NY,USA - Jan 29, 2005

Words alone can't convey what they have to say

Greg Livadas
Staff writer

(January 29, 2005) — Even if you don't know sign language, it's not hard to understand that Peter Cook is acting like a bullfrog while reciting a poem on stage. His hands aren't the only way he conveys the language.

His cheeks are bloated to capacity; his eyes are shifting from side to side. You expect him to jump and croak.

In another poem, Cook depicts the horrors of war. His waving hands mimic helicopters kicking up dust, then show a man being shot in the head.

Cook, 42, of Chicago, and his stage partner, Kenny Lerner, 48, of Geneseo, Livingston County, make up the Flying Words Project. They perform a few times each year, and a performance is scheduled for today at Rochester Institute of Technology's National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

Cook, who is deaf, uses American Sign Language to recite poetry. Lerner, who is hearing, vocalizes — often out of view — so hearing audiences will better understand Cook's motions.

"My words are not designed to create the whole picture," said Lerner, who insists he's not an interpreter. "They are a support, helping hearing folks to see the ASL picture Peter is creating.

"If you close your eyes and just listen to my voice, you won't understand the poem."

Lerner, who teaches history at NTID, paired up with Cook when Cook was a student at RIT in 1986.

Cook attended deaf poetry nights at Writer's and Books and the former Jazzberry's restaurant and nightclub then, and he was approached by someone wanting him to perform elsewhere.

"How can I voice for myself?" Cook asked.

A mutual friend introduced Cook to Lerner, and their friendship began.

"Our brains are similarly deformed," Lerner said.

Soon the two men were in demand and winning state grants to perform around New York and elsewhere.

Neither is eager to take credit for the new material they perform. They say they collaborate on new works.

"There's no ego involved because we want it to be the best possible poem," Lerner said.

Many of their poems involve nature, the environment and social issues.

"It's what we believe in," Lerner said.

When Cook moved to Chicago in 1990, it got more difficult for them to update their show and practice.

"We'd think of an idea, but we can't send it on a TTY (text telephone)," Lerner said. "And images fade away. ASL is a language of many pictures."

Using high-speed Internet technology that became available to them only a year ago, Cook, who teaches ASL at Purdue University in Indiana, and Lerner practiced their performance earlier this week, even though they were 600 miles apart. They conversed with sign language and Web cams.

"I watch Peter, give him feedback, make sure the images are clean," Lerner said. "It's like someone invented the telephone for us."

"It's absolutely amazing," Cook said. "We can see each other. For 10 years, we couldn't create new work."

Cook and Lerner say they will continue to create poems to perform not as a statement that deaf and hearing people can work together but simply because of their love of language.

"It's not about deafness; it's not about hearing. It's about the words," Cook said.

"Mostly I tell stories and jokes, but poetry is beyond everyday language. We're pushing the limits of language. It holds a very special place for me."

Copyright 2005 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.