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.

‘Cycle Ride’ featured on WRITE where we are NOW site

Carol Ann Duffy and the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University have brought together poets from around the world to write new poems about the recent days past and the weeks ahead. The poets were invited to write directly about the Coronavirus pandemic or about the personal situation they find themselves in right now.

Lots of new poems are being added to the site as the pandemic continues and I am very grateful that ‘Cycle Ride’ has been chosen. Read more poems at WRITE where we are NOW


This is my destination now and again,
the cottage, number 13 on Bridge Road,
when I want to remind myself of perfection,
or at least an idea of an ideal abode.

Although I know it is just a dream,
I dream of a different life lived there,
simpler – freshly baked bread, cream
in a blue and white striped jug. A yellow pear.

See the rambling rose round the cobalt door,
birdfeeder in spring sun, a nest in the eaves.
On the slate roof, rain must thrum a gentle score.
Whatever the weather, safe. So goes my make believe

as I pedal past, feel joy at the red geraniums
on each step but can never picture humans.

London: 2 May 2020




Wrote a Post for Proletarian Poetry about Knife Crime and my Poem ‘Corona/Cuts’


Today we have a special treat, as Lisa Kelly has kindly given us a crown of sonnets ‘Corona/Cuts’ (after John Donne). Here she writes about the sequence and the persistent problem of knife crime. It comes from Lisa’s collection A Map Towards Fluency (published by Carcanet). It is a wonderful book about a life lived, as well as a great lesson in variety of form and tone. I highly recommend it. You can buy a copy here.


lisa kelly“Think back to 2017, another time, another crisis. The London Bridge terrorist vehicle-ramming and stabbing, alongside daily updates about knife crime and teenage boys – young victims of the virus of violence. Visiting any public building in London, I was frequently searched, opening up my bag to scrutiny, feeling somehow momentarily guilty of something, somehow accused.

A small insight into how it must feel to be routinely, stopped and searched. Anxiety, anger at the government’s absence of strategy for tackling knife crime, failure to acknowledge that poverty and lack of opportunity fuels gang recruitment, all of this and the fact I have a teenage son, was behind the need to write ‘Corona/Cuts’.

map towardsLike many poets, I write to try and make sense of what cannot be made sense of by logic or argument alone. Aside from the unintended foreshadowing in the poem’s title of the current unfolding horror story, there are connections of powerlessness. Holding a pen in your hand, or having computer keys do their bidding under your fingers, is an outlet for some processing of inadequacy in the face of something you would like to solve but basically can’t. Form is one way of marshalling what you want to say, to help shape chaos into a creative act.

I chose to write a crown of sonnets because it gave me the scope and permission to pursue different but interlinked emotions and experiences as well as reportage on a societal level – the way the last line of each sonnet kickstarts the subsequent sonnet creates an uninterrupted energy, while allowing for sharp changes of direction.

john donneThe stamp of John Donne is evident throughout, with lines taken from various poems. His metaphysical poetry, with discoveries from life and science, married to violence and passion in a bid to explore difficulties in his relationship with a lover or God, has an intensity that shaped some of the thinking. No doubt, there is a collage effect, but just as there is no single answer to any one crisis, the poem tries to reflect the fact the sequence is not a political response, but a personal response subject to shifting moods that inevitably raises political questions.

348px-Knife_Angel_installation_5Some of the sonnets are more indirect explorations of moods – others have a more sustained and obvious focus. Knife Angel pays tribute to the sculpture created by Alfie Bradley with knives donated by police forces around the country at the British Ironworks Centre at Oswestry, Shropshire. The sonnet with reasons for carrying a knife is from interviews in various articles researched on the BBC and Guardian sites. The listing of the parts of the knife and the abecedarian in the final sonnet was a way of trying to control my response to the idea of the knife, a kind of play between signifier and signified. When you say knife, we all have our own picture conjured, but all the names for it in other languages as well as the slang reveals a collective tragic mythology.”

Lisa Kelly’s first collection, A Map Towards Fluency, was published by Carcanet in 2019. Her poems have appeared in Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back (Nine Arches Press). Her pamphlets are Philip Levine’s Good Ear (Stonewood Press) and Bloodhound (Hearing Eye). She has single-sided deafness and is also half Danish. She co-edited the Deaf Issue of Magma Poetry which was awarded Arts Council England funding; and the Conversation Issue. She is Chair of Magma Poetry,


after John Donne

They search my bag like an abandoned flat,
raking for answers to unformed questions,
fumbling with tissues and bits of old tat,
unable to grasp haptic impressions.
What do I know of my son’s compass point?
Why did this prick try to hide in the seams?
Have they not heard we all have a fixed foot,
how the other hearkens after, and leans?
My circle is just. My son is secure.
Absence expansion in a foreign land.
Sharp reminders and tokens underscore
each search a charade, til steel is in hand.
Let us close this bag and let me go through.
This flat is unoccupied, the rent due.

This flat is unoccupied, the rent due.
We salvage the mattress from Spain’s dark street.
Erect steel bars for a four-poster view,
lie on the bloodstain covered by a sheet.
From here, we hear the bells of Aranjuez,
sad chimes from Rodrigo’s Concierto.
Since thou and I sigh one another’s breath,
engrave, Antes muerto que mudado.
Our sons will not dare into Walthamstow,
Battersea, Harlesden, Oakwood, Marylebone.
They will not venture into Enfield, Bow,
Wandsworth, Peckham Rye, Uxbridge, Mile End, home.
Let us close this flat. Rodrigo is owed.
Sooner dead than changed, but seeds must be sowed.

Sooner dead than changed, but seeds must be sowed.
Who can stop him winding down the wrong path?
At the round earth’s imagin’d corners blow
nose, wipe streaming eyes, repair your torn half.
He strayed outside his postcode, and was lost.
The subway where he might play his last scene.
No time even to be idle. The cost
of the cut through, alley, underpass, green.
All whom war, death, age, agues, tyrannies,
despair, law, chance, being in the wrong ends hath slain,
to your scatter’d bodies go. Authorities,
politicians search solutions in vain;
can’t contain measure. The globes four corners
a dream. Sons walk the next street, foreigners.

A dream, sons walk the next street, foreigners
share conversation, customs, cares, break bread,
An Europe, Afric, and an Asia blurs
into one round ball. Dream that no-one bled.
Dream the difference between butterfly
and butter as descriptions for a knife.
Dream the stand-off, after-math pass you by,
dream you applied pressure to save a life.
His dream of diverse shores is a nightmare,
our sons reject the Seven Sleepers’ den.
One little room is not an everywhere,
a dream of safety, his wool-lined pen.
Not thy sheep, thine image, servant. Thy son.
Wake, and batter your heart, What have I done?

Wake, and batter your heart, What have I done?
He stole a knife from the cutlery drawer.
What reason? In their own words, here are some:
To protect myself against my father.
My dad was stabbed to death when I was three.
I will stab them first. It’s for protection.
They would have beaten the shit out of me.
It is a tool for intimidation.
It does not matter how tough the laws are.
The risk that someone will pull one on you.
I would, if anyone took things too far.
People are always tooled up; it’s not new.
Thank God. Chopped, had I not had it with me.
Angels affect us oft, and worshipp’d be.

Angels affect us oft, and wordshipp’d be.
Knife Angel is hoisted by cranes to sky.
Society looks up and strains to see.
Here is a glint that is not in the eye,
not in a voice, not in a shapeless flame –
one hundred thousand confiscated blades,
messages engraved on wings, victims’ names.
This monument, an iron-monger’s trade.
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend.
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
Mettle tested so we can comprehend
weight of wasted lives, hope forged anew.
Stamp your mark. Stamp out this epidemic.
Each loss named, a wound. Each cut, systemic.

Each loss named, a wound. Each cut, systemic.
Handle, point, edge, grind, blade, spine, fuller, guard,
escutcheon, bevel, gut-hook, choil, crock stick
ricasso, bolster, hilt, tang, butt, lanyard.
Athame, Balisong, Cane, Deba bōchō,
Ear, Facón, Gravity, Hunting, Izar,
Janbiya, Kukri, Laguiole, Mandau,
Navaja, Opinel, Pata, Qama,
Rondel, Shiv, Trench, Urumi, Voulge, Wedung
X-Acto, Yoroi-dōshi, Zombie Knives.
Mother, Father, Sister, Brother, Daughter, Son.
Friend, Lover, Neighbour, Society, Lives.
Stab, shank, chib, zoor, jook, slice, wet steel. For what?
They search my bag like an abandoned flat.


(You can buy a copy of Lisa’s book here. Thank you)