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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Teaching from the Heart and Soul: The Robert F. Panara Story

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In 1984, RIT invited the beat poet Allen Ginsberg to discuss poetry. Left to right are Jim Cohn (coordinator), Kip Webster (sign language interpreter), Ginsberg, and Bob.
Jackie Schertz reflected on the engaging approach Bob used in class: “After we gave our “performances” by reciting monologues or teaming up with class members to do scenes as part of our assignments, he gave us feedback on a positive note and demonstrated ways we can improve. He created an environment that made us want to get involved. He combined the best of both old-fashioned traditional and modern innovative ways.”20

Bob’s students could also express themselves through other art forms. One student chose to model costumes in miniature for Oedipus Rex, while another developed a stage set model for The Glass Menagerie. As with his courses on poetry, Bob based his evaluations on accuracy of interpretation, translation of the printed word (script, verse, etc.) to signed form, coherence, creativity, and emotional impact.

The notion of making verse “come to life” through sign language also brought Bob into contact with the internationally known poet Allen Ginsberg, who was invited to meet with him at RIT in 1984. Articles in the Rochester newspapers welcomed the poet laureate of the Beat Generation, reminding readers that the political activist had been arrested several times for his antiestablishment protests, and that he was a self-styled “gay, Buddhist-Jewish peaceful poet in a hyper-military landscape.”21 Bob looked forward to this exchange with Ginsberg.

Some people who attended the workshop had expected Ginsberg to simply come read his poetry, and they were pleasantly surprised that he had come to learn about deafness and signing as a means of enlivening his own poetry. They first discussed Bob’s experience as a person who had once heard as a child and how this affected his ability to interpret poetry. Pat Graybill, deaf from birth and also on the faculty at NTID, was also there, and he described his own concept of poetry. Graybill explained that he enjoyed reciting poetry in sign, “but I don’t know its rhythm.” Ginsberg and Bob discussed with Graybill how this might mean he saw poetry as a “picture and an idea.” As Ginsberg explained, “That’s what most 20th century poetry is—ideas in the forms of pictures. Two of the greatest ‘Imagist’ poets are William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound. There’s a tendency to develop an international poetical style without rhythm and rhyme, but with harder and clearer pictures.”22 Through their discussion of how signing poetry was like “painting pictures in the air,” Bob and Ginsberg agreed that a performance of poetry becomes pantomime or “poetry in motion”—another art form like dance. Bob got an up-close understanding of what one of the most famous, and eccentric, of the Beat Poets was like.23

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