Her pioneering poetry inspired a generation – but you won’t find her work on the Welsh syllabus
Sara Louise Wheeler
She was a talented, path-breaking poet from the north east of Wales, credited not only with pioneering an entirely new form of poetry which became a global phenomenon, but also with finding ways to bridge the gap between two cultures – that of her own, heritage language community on the one hand, and that of the dominant language community on the other.
So why did I not learn about this fabulous woman and her poetry at school? As a budding female poet, growing up in Wrexham and attending Welsh medium schools, I would surely have found her story inspiring and she would have made a great role model?
Well it’s because Dorothy ‘Dot’ Miles was d/Deaf (audiologically and culturally) and the heritage language in question was not Welsh but British Sign Language (BSL). Born in Holywell, Flintshire in 1931, Dot was educated at the Royal School for the Deaf (now the Seashell Trust) in Greater Manchester, and the Mary Hare School in Berkshire. Being sent over the border to be educated in English residential schools was the norm for deaf Welsh children at that time.
There were greater parallels between the Welsh language and BSL back then – both were afforded negative prestige. In fact, sign language was still banned, following the disastrous decision taken at the now infamous Conference of Milan in 1880. So although deaf Welsh children were attending deaf schools, they had to learn BSL outside of the classroom.
Nevertheless, at the age of 25, Dot gained a sponsored place at Gallaudet University. She went on to become a poet, playwright, performer, scholar, teacher and passionate activist. It has even been suggested that she is the source of most modern sign language poetry.
The fact that Dot was d/Deaf and a pioneer of sign language poetry actually makes her all the more relevant to me as a role model. I have Waardenburg Syndrome Type 1, which manifests itself in a number of ways, including my physical appearance and progressive sensorineural hearing loss. I was born hearing into a Deaf-hearing family and have known for some time that I may lose a considerable amount of my hearing. This process has now begun in earnest and I am keen to embrace sign language in all aspects of my life.
Knowledge of Dot’s accomplishments is now a source of inspiration to me and I have great thoughts of writing articles about her and maybe even organizing some kind of celebratory festival someday, in north east Wales. Yet I have only just stumbled across her work, and indeed sign language poetry at all, because I was exploring ways to make Welsh cynghanedd poetry more accessible to deaf poets, as my hearing loss progresses.
Cynghanedd is heavily dependent on being able to hear the stressed vowel and respond with appropriate combinations of alliteration and rhyme. So far, I have only come across one cynghanedd poet who possibly was deaf – William Hope, who, coincidentally enough, was also from Flintshire. However, very little is known about him beyond the fact that he published an anthology of Welsh poetry in 1765, by various North East Wales-based poets, including his own poems, and that he referred to himself as ‘Y bardd byddar’ (the deaf poet).
Since the 1960s, the Welsh language has benefitted from numerous legislative interventions which have improved its status considerably. By the time I was studying for my GCSE in Welsh literature in the 1990s, Welsh language poetry prominently featured on the curriculum. I very much enjoyed studying the work of I.D. Hooson, a poet from my father’s home village of Rhosllannerchugog…although his father hailed from Holywell!
Meanwhile, whilst BSL has in recent years gained linguistic rights through Scottish legislation, this has yet to be achieved in the other constituent nations of the UK, including Wales. Back in the 1990s, when I was studying, British Sign Language had still not been recognised officially as a language in Wales – this didn’t happen until 2004.
This lack of recognition explains, to an extent, why I did not learn about Dorothy Miles and her impact on sign language poetry at school; sign language poetry and literature remains a ‘disrespected literature’ – a matter I am particularly keen to address in a Welsh context.
Dorothy Miles demonstrated that it was possible to create poetry which could be enjoyed by Deaf-hearing audiences – an idea which I have explored in the past in relation to sign-singing. This kind of inclusive shared space opens up new possibilities for cross-pollination of ideas, such as that seen in Nelson Mandela being inspired by William Earnest Henley’s poem ‘Invictus’. The key to creating this space lies in greater equality and respect for signed languages, including language acts for BSL in England and in Wales. There’s a lot of work to be done, but I, for one, am excited by the possibilities.