BSL Slam: in conversation with Pazbi Zavatzki

In June 2017, London hosted the first ever poetry slam in British Sign Language. Pazbi Zavatzki is behind BSL Slam. He describes that first exciting event, offers advice to budding slammers, and explains why the rich language of BSL can’t be translated into English.

The top three slammers in the first BSL Slam
The top three slammers in the first BSL Slam. Photo by Jordan Tetley.

Thank you for talking to us about your work on BSL Slam! How did you get involved in the project?

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. I started learning British Sign Language about three years ago when I met my current girlfriend. I fell in love with her and the rich culture of BSL. 

Starting BSL Slam was actually a spur-of-the-moment decision. I saw a video about ASL (American Sign Language) Slam and lots of comments on Facebook asking, “Where’s our BSL Slam?” but even after a few weeks of this no one had made a move. I decided to take the initiative. I’ve been interested in poetry for several years, although I’m not that good at composing myself, so I was very excited to start this movement.

Could you tell us a bit about the first event?

The first BSL Slam night was very nerve-wracking for me. I couldn’t sleep all night. But we actually sold out all 80 seats, and even had some people waiting to get in, too. I’m really glad I asked Stephanie (from Stephanie Buck Parties and Events) to help me organise the event, otherwise there’s no way it would have gone so well. And our host Zoe McWhinney was phenomenal – I couldn’t imagine a BSL Slam without her now.

We started the evening with some warm-up games that got the audience involved, which was so fun it lasted 30 minutes instead of the planned 10! We then held an “Open Stage”, where anyone who wanted to could perform a small piece. After the first hour we had a little drinks break and started with the main slammers, pictured below. The slam pieces were very varied. For instance, Emilie had a creative story, whereas Sahera went for a BSL version of two short written poems with very different styles.

From left to right: Zoe McWhinney (MC), Emilie Pace-Soler, Honesty Willoughby, Jonathan Neal, Sahera Khan, Thomas McWhinney, and Pam Trujillo (who is out of frame as she’s in a wheelchair in front of the stage).

The audience voted for their favourite slammer by placing a bean into a jar labelled with each contestant’s name. The top three were selected, from which three judges chose the overall winner. We did it this way to avoid a pure popularity contest, but the audience and judges were unanimous in choosing Jonathan as our champion. His piece ‘Flutters of Hope’ was one of the most beautiful poems I’ve ever seen. It’s a visual poem following the journey of a butterfly that flies through a WWI war zone, witnessing the lives of two soldiers fighting against each other.

Jonathan performing his poem 'Flutters of Hope'.
Jonathan performing his poem ‘Flutters of Hope’. Photo by Jordan Tetley. 

I think my favourite moment of the night was when Zoe “awarded” Jonathan the trophy. She made a big show of it and in the end we only had an “IOU” note because the trophy hadn’t been delivered yet! We had to find him at his work the following week to give it to him. But the whole scene was very funny.

Nowadays, there’s a lot of debate about ‘page’ vs. ‘stage’ poetry. Do you think slam poetry is different to written poetry? And do you find composing in BSL different to English?

When I write page poetry, I get a spark of inspiration and jot it down, and then refine it later. But in the competitive environment of slam poetry, when there’s a theme or time limit on stage, it’s harder. A slam poem has a bit of rigidity to it: there’s an underlying structure and purpose that isn’t generally found in other poetry.

Composing in BSL is like English but I find it more fluid: you can express quite abstract notions visually more quickly and elegantly than by using verbs. Poetic elements like rhyming and puns, though, are very difficult to convey. There is a way to rhyme using the same handshape but a different sign, but it’s hard to pull off well.

Do you have any favourite poets – page or performance – who you’d recommend?

C. P. Cavafy is my favourite poet. I like the way he mixes a nugget of wisdom into many of his poems. I’d recommend ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ and ‘An Old Man’. Reading his poems made me think ‘this guy gets it’, even a century later. Recently, I’ve also started reading some more international pieces, like Maxim Gorky’s ‘The Song of the Stormy Petrel’. And amongst BSL poets, Richard Carter is my favourite (he even came to our event, although incognito). You can watch some of his poetry, such as ‘Time’, online.

Following the first event, BSL Slam received some attention from the BBC. Do you think that the project is a way to raise awareness of, and encouraging people to learn, BSL – particularly amongst young people?

Yes, though I started up BSL Slam almost by accident, I knew the event had to have a purpose. Looking at the great work the British Deaf Association are doing for BSL recognition in the UK, it’s clear that England is dragging behind Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

I think the reasons are twofold. First, there is not enough awareness of BSL. Then, because of this, there is a misconception that BSL is not a language but a crutch for Deaf people. BSL is the native language of many people who are Deaf, but there are also lots of people who aren’t Deaf who use BSL to communicate. Those who can’t speak or are autistic find that BSL allows them to express themselves in a way that spoken language doesn’t. It’s depressing to see such a rich language and culture so marginalised.

With BSL Slam we’re raising Deaf and BSL awareness, and at the same time showcasing how beautiful it can be. It’s definitely made an impact on several people’s lives already – many of my Hearing friends and family who heard about or came to the event have begun learning BSL. I hope that more young people will take the initiative to do the same.

In the green room with the slammers
In the green room with the slammers. Photo by Jordan Tetley.

It must be quite scary to get up on stage and perform! What words of encouragement and/or advice would you give to budding slam poets?

I’ve heard that more people in the UK are afraid of public speaking than anything else. It is scary! I have to talk in front of people on a weekly basis for work, and I’m just glad my legs have stopped shaking after all this time.

My advice to budding slammers is to practise beforehand. The more you practise your performance the smoother and more confident you will be. Before you start, take a nice deep breath and take your time. I’ve seen many people speak so quickly out of nerves that you can’t enjoy the performance. Take your time – the audience will wait.

Douglas Ridloff, founder of ASL Slam, prefers not to have his poems translated into English: ‘The beauty is lost. Think of music. If a song had its lyrics removed but the melody remains, the mood is still there, but something is lost. Or if the melody is removed but the lyrics remain, sometimes the song no longer makes sense.’ (Huffington Post, 2017) Do you agree with his analogy? Are there some things you can only say in BSL, and do you have examples?

I agree with Douglas – translating from one written language to another is tough, and often translations miss out on the original language’s subtleties. This is even more the case with BSL. When you take a message communicated through the whole body – where positioning, rhythm, facial expressions, and signs all contribute cohesively to meaning – and then try to fix it onto paper, it feels like you’re robbing it of its energy. There are plenty of things that you can only say in BSL, which is exactly why I can’t give you examples in English.

What do you think young people can get out of performing or engaging with slam poetry? What has most inspired you working on BSL Slam so far?

Besides the boost to confidence, I think it’s a great way to express your views and emotions to an audience in a physical way. It’s a form of catharsis of the mind and body.

I think what’s inspired me from this world is the plethora of styles and perspectives of the poets. It’s really amazing to experience their views in this way.

Finally, where do you hope BSL Slam will go in the future? Where do you see the project in five years’ time?

We’re keen to get some friendly competition between Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England, and are hoping to have many more events around the UK to attract people from every corner! We are also considering changing BSL Slam into a social enterprise to help young Deaf people get into the arts. And maybe one day BSL will be mainstream enough for a BSL Slam TV show.

Emilie and Pazbi
Emilie and Pazbi at the first BSL Slam. Photo by Jordan Tetley.

You can find out more about BSL Slam on their website, and keep up with all their future events by liking their Facebook page. Check out Cloé Pace-Soler’s YouTube videos about BSL Slam, including one by Pazbi on ‘Why I Sign?’

If you’re feeling inspired by BSL Slam, check out The Poetry Society’s national slam championship SLAMbassadors. Last year’s winning entries can be seen on the SLAMbassadors YouTube channelPrevious winners include Anthony Anaxagorou, Megan Beech, Kayo Chingonyi, Aisling Fahey, Tommy Sissons, Vanessa Kisuule and NAGA MC.

SLAMbassadors 2016 with prizes
SLAMbassadors 2016 winners. Photo credit: Christa Holka for The Poetry Society.

Published September, 2017

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