Peter Cook

American Sign Language

Peter Cook brings poetry and storytelling to life with ASL performance.

On stage, American Sign Language (ASL) Chair Peter Cook speaks with his entire body—he performs live poetry and personal stories in sign language (as an interpreter translates into English). Cook moves his arms wide as his fingers form words; his face shifts from elastic expression to expression. In his 30 years of performing, Cook has traveled the world, leading workshops on ASL poetry and storytelling.

At Columbia College Chicago, Cook’s art background influences classes like Creativity and ASL, where students learn to express themselves creatively using sign language. Here, Cook talks about his storytelling history and what makes Columbia’s American Sign Language interpreting program so special.

Can you talk about your storytelling?

I’ve been telling stories for more than 30 years. I tell personal experience stories—stories growing up as a Deaf person, seeing the world in my very particular way. Giving people things to think about that maybe they haven’t thought about before. For example, a lot of people assume that because I can’t hear, I can’t read. Or that I might need braille, something like that. So I tell funny stories about real-life experiences based on misunderstandings or misconceptions. I’ve been doing it for many years, traveling around the country—around the world, even.

How does your storytelling background affect your teaching?

Being organized. Making things visual. In my ASL class, I’d rather show pictures than words. I don’t want students to get hung up on putting ASL into English or attaching the two languages.

What should students know about the ASL program?

We are one of the very few colleges in the country that offer a four-year program in interpreting.

How do Columbia students connect with Deaf culture?

Part of our program is that they are immediately encouraged to engage in the community. You can’t become an expert in a language with just classroom experience. We provide a toolbox in the classroom, and you have to take that toolbox out into the world to really enhance and improve your signing. It’s just like any other spoken language—you have to be using it to get better at it.