Review of Stairs and Whispers Anthology by Wendy French

Wendy French admires an anthology of work by deaf and disabled poets

Stairs and Whispers
Deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back
Edited by Sandra Allad, Khairani Barokka and Daniel Sluman
Nine Arches press 
ISBN 9781911027195   
£14.99

The poem knows how to enter a room 
                               [“Audience” by Sandra Alland]

And the varied, sensitive but well controlled and intelligent in this collection certainly know how to enter a person’s psyche. Dannie Abse once said that he wanted to enter a poem and come out of it feeling differently; and this collection of poems from deaf and disabled poets do that to reader. There wasn’t one poem in the book that made me wonder why it has been included in this fine collection. None of the writers in this anthology feel sorry for themselves but they are ready to stand up and show the world what it is like to be partially hearing or to have a disability. All manners of disability are represented here including full or partial hearing loss, mental illness, blindness, other physical disabilities, illness and chronic pain.

In between poems there are paragraphs from different writers who identify what it is like for them personally to have a disability and what they perceive it is like for others to see them.

Cathy Bryant writes: ‘Disability informs my poetry because it is part of who I am and how I live my life and perceive the world and how the world sees me. For example, when an article on writing suggests “going for a walk and observing nature,” they assume that the reader can see and walk’.

In “Ms Bryant is Dangerously Delusional from Statements said or written about me and/or my partner Keir” written by Catherine Bryant, the reader enters the world of someone whose life and control of the everyday is taken over by the professionals. I found it a very upsetting poem to read but it is one worthwhile to dwell on as it made me question my own thoughts and sensibilities. That is why it should be read and considered. It is an honest and brave poem.

If she can write a letter then she’s not that disabled. 
In spite of all her disabilities she was able to visit Heptonstall Graveyard – to visit a grave.
You seldom see the curtains open. 

The main body of the book is divided into sections: Bodies, Rules, Maps, Dreams and Legends.

In the section on Dreams, Lisa Kelly provides two fine examples of how poems can be read on different levels to inform, teach, and stand as good poetry without waving a political flag in the face of the reader. In “Hearing Loss” the last three lines:

…as I bang
my head against a brick wall, and hit
upon it was not ‘b’ but ‘d’. Damn!

Kelly writes of her work: ‘Ellen McGrath Smith’s essay in “Beauty is a Verb”, “Hearing a Pear: The Poetry Reading on a New Frequency”, helped me approach my mishearing as something that can generate creativity, word tag and word play being a crucial part of how I compose.’ I warm to this idea of creative play which is surely what writing is about but Kelly has turned her disability into an advantage. The ability to do this is a small compensation for the loss of haring in one ear.

This book is far more than a slim collection of poems. It is an anthology of poetry, essays, photos and valuable links to on-line videos and audio recordings. The book shows us another world of literature that needs further exploring. It is an exceptional piece of work for the poems are well-crafted, informative, intelligent, heart-rendering, angry, happy and sad. It is a remarkable collection written by known and less-known voices but all voices certainly deserve to be heard. Congratulations to the editors and Nine Arches Press for taking on this fine work and bringing it to the attention of us all.

Watching the swelling, I carry my joints
upright, to my side, lift them above
my heart as I edge down concrete stairs.   
                                               [“Structure”, Eleanor Ward]

Wendy French’s latest collection is Thinks Itself A Hawk – poems from UCH Macmillan Cancer Centre (Hippocrates press 2016 ISBN 978-0-957-2571-7-7)

Poem on Amaryllis, Poetry Swindon’s blog

amaryllis logo slim (1)

Very happy to have ‘When I Lose This Tooth, I’ll Age Twenty Years in Half an Hour’ on Amaryllis website today.

‘When I Lose This Tooth, I’ll Age Twenty Years in Half an Hour’

Why do I laugh? At the truth about her tooth,

and immediately I know I will put it in a poem,
but am cautious about rhyming tooth with truth.
Should I extract truth? And immediately
I am cautious about punning. And look at
how far the truth has stretched from the tooth –
how this woman’s remaining front tooth
is somehow a precarious totem for her youth
(I am less cautious about rhyming tooth with youth)
which hangs by a thread, and immediately I am cautious
about cliché (but I do like totem) And later, I read
malocclusion in a poem by another poet, and plan
to include, and immediately I am cautious
about plagiarism. And I think back to the inspiration
for the idea of a poem over a dinner of pizza
with a stone-baked crust, which she could not eat,
and how the inspiration immediately took me away
from the immediacy of the brilliance of her line,
When I lose this tooth, I’ll age twenty years in half an hour.
And immediately, I am bored of that line, and perhaps
not immediately (who can ever say when?) I think,
Why half an hour? When I re-write this line, it will read,
When I lose this tooth, I’ll age twenty years in half a second.
And immediately I am cautious that in the future,
just as there will be no tooth, there will be no poem.

 

Lisa Kelly is half Danish and half deaf. She is Chair of Magma Poetry and co-edited ‘The Conversation Issue’ and ‘The Deaf Issue’. She hosts poetry evenings at the Torriano Meeting House, London. Her pamphlet Bloodhoundis published by Hearing Eye and work has appeared in PN Review, Ambit, Antiphon, The Spectator, South Bank Poetry, The Rialto, Prole, Urthona, Brittle Star and Tears in the Fence. Anthologies include Asterism; and Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back. A selection of poems feature in Carcanet’s New Poetries VII. Her pamphlet, Philip Levine’s Good Ear (Stonewood Press) is forthcoming 2018.

 

Two Rather Lovely Reviews !

Review | Carcanet New Poetries VII: Book Launch at the London Review Bookshop

Gayle Lazda / London Review Bookshop

BY SUZANNAH V. EVANS

The London Review Bookshop, Bloomsbury, 7pm. Wine glasses clatter as they are placed on the floor, animated conversation fills the air, friends are greeted, coats shrugged off. Michael Schmidt, the founder and managing director of Carcanet, steps before the audience to introduce the four poets who will be reading tonight as part of the launch of New Poetries VII, an anthology that brings together what Michael, in the Introduction to the book, calls ‘a chine, a prickle, a surfeit, a blessing – a group – of new poets’. He is delighted to be in the London Review Bookshop, one of his ‘favourite’ bookshops in the city, and to be introducing the seventh New Poetries, a series that is also one of his ‘favourites’. Many Carcanet poets, he notes, began their writing careers in the anthology, and have gone on to ‘star on our list’, including Sinéad Morrissey, Kei Miller, and Vahni Capildeo. These poets, Michael affirms, ‘help me forward’.

The poets performing tonight – Mary Jean Chan, Helen Charman, Lisa Kelly, and Toby Litt – read in the order that they appear in the book. Michael introduces Mary Jean first, recounting how he was struck by three sonnets that the poet sent in to PN Review. Alluding to Mary Jean’s Hong Kong background, and mentioning his own Mexican American origins, he notes that Carcanet is ‘very much an Anglophone, rather than an English, operation’, and that it is ‘wonderful to find poets from outside of England’. Mary Jean begins by reading the sonnets, describing them as ‘a slightly subversive take on the classical Confucius text’ about how you should honour your parents. Her voice is silky, clear, as she speaks. Next, she reads a bilingual poem. ‘I thought it would be interesting to try to rhyme my mother tongue with English – I speak Cantonese at home’, she explains. ‘speaking in tongues’ is a striking poem, weaving together repetitions of ‘mother says’ and ‘poet says’, as well as the two languages:

mother says: separation of voice
poet says: behave, moonbeam
mother says: the way you ask the moon to behave is transgressive, not Chinese
poet says: my voice is a splinter

‘It’s wonderful to hear poems read that one’s read to oneself several times, and the way the poet inflects them’, Michael observes, after Mary Jean’s reading. Helen Charman is the next poet to read, and Michael notes that when he first read her poems, he ‘couldn’t put them down’. Helen launches straight into a reading of ‘Horse whispering’, rocking slightly with the rhythm of the poem as she reads, hovering over the words she wishes to emphasise. Her head is tilted up to the microphone, and she smiles occasionally at the audience. ‘Agony in the Garden’ is a poem that requires some context, Helen says, and she reads from her explanation at the front of her section of the anthology. The poem centres on John Ruskin and a statement he made in 1854, during the annulment proceedings of his marriage to Effie Gray: ‘It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion.’ Part of the latter phrase appears in the poem, which Helen reads playfully, with full attention from the audience. ‘Tampon Panic Attack’ is my favourite poem of the ones she performs. Flicking through teenage magazines, Helen notes, tongue-in-cheek, left her with ‘a crippling fear of tampons’, which the poem transforms:

. . . Waking up in bloodied underwear once felt
like shame but now is gorgeous, a victory: red sheets are
like flirting.

‘One thing you’ll have noticed is how humorous the poems are’, says Michael, at the close of Helen’s reading. He then introduces Toby Litt, noting that it was Toby’s sequence Life Cycle that really ‘got to’ him. Michael is also pleased to welcome ‘a novelist who’s come over, as it were’, referencing the ten novels that Toby has published. Toby himself, taking the stage, questions, ‘Come over, or come out?’, explaining that he started as a poet, but initially wasn’t sure if his poetry would be published. He begins his reading with ‘Politics / 9.11.16, p.m.’, written on the eve of Trump’s election. ‘I tried to be hyper eloquent, but I also tried to be extremely angry and political’, Toby says of the poem. His voice is level as he reads, and he stands comfortably, feet in a relaxed ballet-esque position. The poems in Life Cycle ‘had a long pre-history before they hit the page’, and were written for two friends who had lost a baby. ‘Not just milk’ features a build-up of repetitions that sound very different in the air to their appearance on the page, where the words seem to tiptoe across the white space:

There used to be a woman in this body
not just milk

There used to be a woman in this body
not just milk
and carrying
There used to be a woman in this body
not just milk
and carrying
and saying hush

Toby finishes with ‘an even tireder lullaby’ entitled ‘Hushaby Twinkle’, before Michael introduces Lisa Kelly. Like Mary Jean, Lisa ‘seems to exist between languages’, Michael notes, noting that she once described herself as ‘half-Danish, half-Deaf’. He is drawn to the gaps in her poems, ‘where language has been missed’, and was ‘astonished’ to find himself reading her poems aloud. Lisa begins her reading with ‘Anonymous’, a poem based on a 1993 New Yorker cartoon featuring two dogs at a computer screen, and recites the poem with gusto. The line ‘Once bitten, twice bitcoin’ provokes laughter from the audience, and another poem, on Ikea furniture, is equally witty. ‘A Map Towards Fluency’ is the stand-out poem of the reading, however, and Lisa puts down her book to perform the poem, which requires signing some of the letters of the alphabet using British Sign Language:

I map a——————————————————————to my left thumb
Alex maps a————————————————————to his right thumb
e——————————————————————————to my left forefinger
poor Alex, the teacher can’t map sinistral——————to dextral

The reading ends with thanks to the London Review Bookshop, a clinking of wine glasses, and the steady rise of conversation in the air.

BY SUZANNAH V. EVANS

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Launch of New Poetries 7 at the LRB 30 April

Had a great night last night at the launch introduced by Michael Schmidt with readings from fellow poets Mary Jean Chan, Helen Charman and Toby Litt ! A few pics from LRB proceedings….