Review of ‘A Map Towards Fluency’ on Dundee University Review of the Arts


Lisa Kelly
(Carcanet, 2019); pbk £9.99

While A Map Towards Fluency might be Kelly’s first poetry collection, it shows an impressive imagination and originality. The poet is both partly deaf and partly Danish, though entirely unable to understand her mother’s native tongue, and she has incorporated both of these aspects of her life into her poetry, which focuses on the power of words and the idea of fluency.

As a Dane myself, I am particularly fascinated with her use of my mother tongue. A Map Towards Fluency includes everything from Danish insults ‘Se, en anden giraf!’ (look at that giraffe!) to declarations of love ‘Jeg elsker dig.’ (I love you). Kelly’s fascination with the Danish language can be observed in the poem ‘Ø’, despite it only incorporating a single Danish word. In ‘Ø’, Kelly talks about her yearning to be able to speak her mother’s native tongue.

I dream of Ø, wishing
it in my blood
as the English sound
that comes so easily, it is thoughtless [.]

The poem also dwells upon Kelly’s difficulties with the pronunciation of the Danish language. It is an emotionally charged poem, full of frustration and dissatisfaction.

Surrounded by a sea of white
Ø is what it means
but I can’t possess
even this small word [.]

Besides her use of the Danish language, Kelly incorporates Danish culture into her poetry, which ranges from a reference to Danish art in the poem ‘Life Model’ to geography and superstition in ‘Six Perspectives on Lilian Kjærulff’, where the narrator is told that ‘13 was a lucky number in Denmark.’ Thirteen is, by the way, considered the absolute opposite of a lucky number in Denmark – just as it is in most of the Western World.

Kelly’s aforementioned partial deafness is likewise an important aspect of her poetry, and her fascination with sign language – a language to be seen rather than heard – results not only in poems with a focus on deafness but additionally with a structure built upon being seen rather than heard. This is perhaps most clearly shown in the title poem ‘A Map Towards Fluency’, where Kelly has made various unconventional structural choices, one of which is her use of spaces for visual effect.

Words are shifting animals
                       a fish is a handshimmer
a cat is claws, preening whiskers        a bird, a forefinger breaking a thumb[.]

In the same poem, we find a structure focused on the physical shape – or body – of one of the subsequent stanzas. Kelly’s use of the pyramid shape is particularly interesting, as the subject of the stanza is her old teacher. It is not uncommon to utilise the pyramid structure while teaching, as it can help make poetry more approachable. It is also a valuable tool in teaching children about language, and one has to wonder if Kelly’s choice of the pyramid is caused by nostalgic memories accompanying the shape.

                                  Our teacher
                                 is a landmark
                              All eyes look to her
                       What can you see out of your
                   Peripheral vision? Furrows forming
               and reforming on ever-more familiar faces[.]

While many poems in her collection are divided up into more conventionally symmetrical stanzas, Kelly does not shy away from more unusual structures. She generously utilizes footnotes, symbols, and columns to create a unique poetic structure, and one poem ‘Philip Levine´s Good Ear’ has quite literally been turned 90 degrees in her quest for the desired visual effect. Kelly’s use of shape to make socio-political points is reminiscent of the prose-poetry in Microbursts by Elizabeth Reeder, in which she makes use of compacted typescript to simulate a torrent of emotion.

A Map Towards Fluency is an experimentation of the written language and a must-read for anyone interested in the amalgamation of the audible and the visual. In the poet’s own words: ‘How can form not matter?’

Maria Sjöstrand

Fife Contemporary online exhibition ‘Resolve to Make it New’

Fife Contemporary has partnered with StAnza 2021 to celebrate re-making, re-working and the inordinate amount of re-newing that has gone on in this most challenging time during the pandemic.

Darning and mending in all its forms is celebrated in the online exhibition and I am thrilled that two poems in my pamphlet ‘From the IKEA Back Catalogue’ forthcoming from New Walk Editions are featured alongside the work of Glasgow-based textile artist Deirdre Nelson (see pic below) showing off her fabulous mending and knitting skills in short films. But the best thing is, the exhibition is going to grow and develop with your poems (up to 20 lines) and images on this important theme of making it new. Do take part, and looking forward to seeing how you interpret this theme and inspire further creativity. Happy mending!

Check out the guidelines here

The House of the Interpreter, film-poem about d/Deaf Experience and Telephony

During Lockdown, a creative project I was especially pleased to work on was a film-poem in response to telephony from a d/Deaf and marginalised perspective. Working with poets Nadia Nadarajah, DL Williams and Serge Neptune was a joy and although for the most part we had to create and collaborate remotely, we felt like a very close-knit group. I managed to meet up with Nadia once in the summer at The Serpentine to talk about initial ideas. It felt so refreshing to chat away in BSL (me a lot slower than Nadia!) and later we moved collaborative discussions via Zoom (as everyone does these days) and had two wonderful interpreters, Becky Barry and Anna Kitson, through Access to Work scheme.

The commission from Nottingham Trent University was to respond to an object on the Science Museum website. I was asked to find poets I wanted to work with and approached Nadia, DL and Serge because I am excited about their work as innovative artists and poets. We wanted to explore telephony from the perspective of crossed lines of communication; broken communication; feeling marginalised; and crucially a d/Deaf perspective because of the problematic history of Alexander Bell and telephony for the d/Deaf community.

I asked poets to consider the refrain, ‘In the House of the Interpreter’ and respond to telephone calls that might be one sided or lead to a break down in communication or emotional challenges. We were inspired by a pair of Bell telephones on the Science Museum website which had a wonderful collage feel with their own history expressed through cards and digital information. Drawing on the line ‘The House of the Interpreter’ from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), the final poem explores the role of sign and interpretation for those who have been ignored, misheard or forced to speak a different language. Filming separately and adding captions had its separate challenges and we each went through a few different takes and some painful hours getting to grips with captioning software.

Reflecting on Alexander Graham Bell’s complex relationship with the d/Deaf experience, the poem considers alternative interpretations of the history of science and technology, and we are incredibly proud of the result which explores difficult parts of d/Deaf history, including Bell’s support for the decision to ban sign language at the Milan Conference in 1880.

Throughout the project, we were supported by Dr Sarah Jackson, Associate Professor in English at NTU, and we were thrilled with the piece, which we hope you enjoy. You can also see how other artists have explored their relationship with the telephone through new artworks inspired by the Science Museum collection. They include Tone Transmission by Aura Satz; Grandma’s House by beatbox artist Danny Ladwa; Soil Voicemails and Other Trans-Species Calls by Maya Chowdhry; and The Phone and Phone Booth Assemblage Considered as Mise en Abyme by novelist Will Self.

Tentative Tender Tendrils from the Torriano

I am waiting for a delivery from Plamen, my driver. A text has informed me he will be arriving between 13:00 – 14:00. Many of us have been waiting for deliveries in the past months – food, clothes, whatever, as we lockdown and hunker down, but this delivery is part of a strategy to reverse that trend. It is a delivery of bleach and paper towels. And the aim is to bring live poetry back – not necessarily to the masses, but back. In fact, Zoom has been responsible for bringing poetry to the masses, or at least having the potential to. It has opened  up poetry in ways we did not think possible pre-COVID. It was a platform I used to connect with technology companies if I had a journalism commission. I did not associate it with poetry, but now of course we are all Zooming to a lesser or greater degree. It has been a fantastic resource and has connected poets and audiences outside our normal parochial boundaries with its ability to reach anyone connected online anywhere in the world. However, and for me it is a big HOWEVER, I miss live poetry events. The Torriano Meeting House is my spiritual poetry home if I can err on the side of whimsical and I have been going many a Sunday evening for over a decade. Often the audiences are small. It doesn’t matter. And often the small audiences are no reflection on the quality or indeed fame of the guest poet. I have been to readings by well-known poetry names and counted the audience on the fingers of one hand. The trick is with the Torriano to invite people to come along. If you think your name is starry enough to attract Glastonbury crowds you will be severely disappointed. Often, a poet reading for the first time will fill the house because it is a major event for them, and they will invite all their family and friends. Anyway, I digress, but audience size is something I want to come back to.

Yesterday, I cycled to the Torriano Meeting House in Kentish Town. I have not been there since Lockdown, so around half a year. It has been so long that I wasn’t sure which key from my jumble of keys in various drawers would open the beautiful green door (please if you are old enough to remember Shakin Stevens, do not get a nasty case of ear worm) and reveal the familiar space which has hosted all manner of events including poetry, storytelling, plays, anarchist meetings and birthday parties. Many people are familiar with its history and how it was established by John Rety, his partner Susan Johns, and their daughter Emily in 1982. In 1987, John and Susan founded Hearing Eye publications and to this day it is still publishing wonderful and exciting pamphlets and collections. It is an important landmark in the UK poetry world and beyond. The building should really have a blue plaque, but that is another story.

So, fortunately out of my two sets of keys, one afforded me open sesame. It was strange and lovely to feel the familiar wooden floorboards beneath my feet and smell that musty mixture of books, history and good times that has seeped into the walls. There has also been a lot of red wine spilt over the years, which might explain it. The question is – can we open up again anytime soon? Following a two hour Zoom meeting with Emily and poet Katherine Gallagher, we decided to investigate. We spent some fun time going through building risk assessments regarding COVID and various online advice from the government and council and decided it was worth trying. It is not an easy task and there is a lot of thinking about how the space is used; surfaces; signage; rubbish; eating; drinking etc. etc. We decided for the time being to cut off the kitchen and to not allow drinks and mingling in the interval. Perhaps a BYO bottle could work. Perhaps. But for now, it is a case of let’s see what can be done to bring back the poetry first and foremost.

I was fortified to see The New Factory of the Eccentric Actor has one flyer in the window for an upcoming performance of ‘A Journey Together’ Mr and Mrs Lenin in conversation on Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th September, a socially distanced performance rolling on from 1pm to 6pm with only three audience members allowed in the building at one time. This is the new spirit of performance post-COVID. And this is the sort of sprit I hope to bring to poetry events.

Seeing the flyers on the entrance table with the names of all the poets who should have read but didn’t and all the artists that should have exhibited but couldn’t felt melancholy. Likewise, the empty picture rail that could do with something hanging from it, but the Cornell Box that keeps on whirring if you hit the right switch was symbolic of getting cogs in motion.

It felt slightly surreal setting up the chairs as if an event were about to take place. I am used to a bit of furniture shifting, but normally in the knowledge that I will get a few bums on seats. Ghostly bottoms were all I could hope for, but I needed to work out the normal capacity compared to the new normal capacity.

I counted 26 chairs, three spaces on the day bed, two spaces on the trestle at the back and three white stools. A grand total of 34! I do remember occasions with standing room only and audience members sitting on the steps of the stage, but my paradigm didn’t stretch to exceptional.

With my trusty social distancing measurer, going for a minimum of one metre distance with people wearing masks, I took away all superfluous chairs. Room for eight audience members tops, one host in the wicker chair in the corner, two poets on stage and that’s your lot.

I remain excited about the idea….and will give some more updates along the way. How amazing if we can have an event this side of Christmas.

Meanwhile, the hand sanitiser and paper towels have arrived. I’d better line up my panniers and get my Marigolds on.