Category Archives: Poetry

A poem in remembrance of the CDS.

They really did it. The University of Bristol really did it. They really shut the Centre for Deaf Studies.

And I haven’t had any reply to my email in which I accused them of academic vandalism.

It is academic vandalism. It’s a crying tragedy. What does a Centre have to do to stay open? Win funding? The CDS did that. Produce graduates with a reasonable prospect of future employment in their chosen discipline? The CDS did that. Conduct ground-breaking research and change perspectives? The CDS did that. Win worldwide prestige for the University? The CDS did all that and more.

The University crippled the Centre by closing down the undergraduate programmes ‘for academic reasons’ then said the Centre wasn’t getting enough income to be viable. This seems somewhat like shooting someone in the leg and then telling them they deserve to get eaten by the big angry bear because they’re not running away fast enough.

In these times of austerity and recession, one could perhaps understand a venerable organisation like the University of Bristol wanting to tighten their belts. Times are tough, after all.

Imagine my surprise then, when I walked into the main entrance of the building that housed the CDS a couple of months ago. I saw something. My step slowed. I turned to look at it fully. My mouth dropped open. The object of my disbelieving attention?

A great big poster advertising the new ‘Priory Road Redevelopment’. It showed a big shiny building with lots of expensive-looking detail. Lots of glass, some fancy landscaping. What?

To recap, they’re shutting the CDS due to lack of money, then they’re building a great big new fancy complex on the site.

I fear I cannot write what I think about that, it might turn the screen blue.

However, what I did do was compose a poem. I had been invited to perform at the CDS Ball on 22nd June (and a big kudos here to the third year students who organised it on top of their studies – go you!) and I wanted to create a poem that a) honoured the CDS and b) expressed the outrage that shutting it is.

It took me a while, but finally, inspiration struck me. The address of the Centre was Priory Road. Priory is an old word meaning religious house, a place for monks or nuns to study, pray, write, etc. But long ago, disaster fell when Henry VIII decided that a) He could come up with a better church than the one in Rome and b) look at all that money the religious houses had. In the “dissolution of the monasteries” most of the religious houses in England were closed and ransacked, with the wealth going to the Crown. Funnily enough, this dissolution was also preceded by cynical rule-changing, with dubious reports and ‘fact-finding’ that led to only one inevitable conclusion.

Perfect. It also occurred to me that an old word for a servant of the king or higher noble used to be ‘squire’. Ahem. Other things that were in my head were the maze-like structure of the CDS, who the monks and nuns might worship, the CDS library (which I really hope the University of Bristol will at least try to preserve), the reams of writings produced in one form or another, the students, the other deaf studies institutions that sprung up after the CDS, in fact there are various references and in-jokes scattered around, I’m not going to give you all the clues, you’ll have to watch it and see for yourself!

Here, with thanks to Amy Claridge for filming, and more kudos to her and the other organisers, is ‘The Priory’, complete with a brief introduction to the poem. I’ve subtitled the intro, but I have no English translation for the poem as yet. Give me time.

Wherever we go, we shall always remember the CDS.

‘Express Yourself’ at Portsmouth Bookfest!

I’m nervous.

I’m excited.

Regular readers of my blog may know that I had an amazing time at the Signing Hands Across the Water poetry festival in Philadelphia and was exposed to different styles of Sign Language poetry, including use of interpreters to give a voiceover. The ASL poets both had interpreters, whilst none of the BSL poets did, and we had many fruitful and interesting discussions that weekend, some of which are still whirling around my head. Everyone I ask has a different opinion as to whether Sign Language poetry should be translated. Should it have a voiceover? Should it be left ‘pure’? Does it make it easier for hearing people who don’t sign to understand it? Or are we making them lazy and unable to appreciate the beauty of the poetry on its own merit?

By almost sheer luck, I’ve been given the opportunity to explore these questions. I’ve been invited to perform at Portsmouth Bookfest next Monday 29th October, just managed to get hold some final details a few days ago (they’re so busy organising I think they may have forgotten about me slightly – I’d better give them something to remember!) and here is the poster!

Express Yourself BookFest poster

I realise it’s short notice, but will be seeing if we can’t get a video made of the event! I will be performing with Sam Cox, Portsmouth Poet Laureate and Joe McQuilken, Portsmouth Young Poet Laureate, so will be exalted company 🙂 Their poetry will be interpreted into BSL, so a fully accessible event!

As you can see, the theme is ‘Express Yourself’ and I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to explore different ways of ‘expressing myself’ through my poetry, by performing various poems with a different degree of voiceover. The first will fully voiced, the last will have next to nothing, and there’ll be varying degrees in between. I’m hoping to get feedback from the audience as to which they preferred and why. The lucky interpeter is Kyra Pollitt, who is not only a highly experienced terp, she’s into poetry as much as I am, maybe even more, and am hoping we’ll be a poetic force to be reckoned with!

I am really hoping that despite the very short notice, we can get some of the deaf community through the doors, please spread news of the event far and wide and see if any sign language poetry lovers would like to come! I am really keen to get feedback from as wide a range of people as possible; from deaf to hearing, from signers to non-signers, from the young to old; everyone – which poem works best and why? Does the voiceover help? Does it distract? Or does the strength of the poem determine its impact rather than whether its ‘translated’ or not?

I’m really keen to get some answers to these questions, even if it only leaves me with more questions! I would love to explore this side of poetry – signed / English, and anyone that wants to join me, and is free at 7pm in the area of Menuhin Theatre, Portsmouth on Mon 29th, is very welcome 🙂

My poems in ‘Whose Flame Is It Anyway?’

“Whose Flame Is It Anyway?” Anthology
A celebration in words and pictures

 

 

Not my book, sadly, but an anthology by Disability Arts Cymru, with poetry, prose, art and pictures of various productions. I’ve been lucky enough to have two English poems accepted for the book, and I’m told there’s a very fetching pic of me in my ‘Queen of the Birds’ Eryr Euraid regalia 🙂

Here’s the official blurb: ‘Through “Whose Flame is it Anyway?” Disability Arts Cymru has uncovered a wealth of talent amongst young disabled people in Wales. For four years, our young poets, painters, performers and musicians have never ceased to amaze & inspire. This anthology is a celebration of their skill and passion.’

Good eh? I’ve been invited to the book launch, where I’ll be performing sign language poems, but sadly, the event is RSVP only. Sorry, folks! The poems – which I still need to compose… – will reflect the English poems I have in the book – ‘When the Dead Are Cured’ and ‘Lament of a Bilingual Poet’. If you wanna read them, you’ll have to buy the book! Speaking of which, you can order here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Whose-Flame-Anyway-Macsen-McKay/dp/1907476091

Just to whet your appetite, here are the first three lines of ‘When the Dead are Cured’, affectionately known as the ‘Zombies Haiku’.

Zombies surround me:
Bodies, faces, say nothing.
Only their mouths move.

Ooh, I wonder what I could possibly be talking about? 🙂

 

Signing Hands Across The Water!

Well it’s about damn time.

It’s been a little while since I updated this blog, and a very surreal few weeks. I know we’d been building up to it for months now, but there’s a big difference between planning and fretting and worrying… and actually going to Heathrow and boarding a plane.

There are various excuses I can offer for not updating for a week after I arrived back on British shores, from jet-lag to attending a Dr Who Convention on the Sunday (having landed on the Friday and still adjusting to British time – madness but isn’t madness fun?) to a post-trip sleepy blues downer for a couple of days, to attending Uni on the Weds, and running various catching-up with real-life errands for the last couple of days before finally finding a nice quiet weekend morning in which to draft my thoughts on the festival. Actually that does sound quite reasonable doesn’t it?

And not at all like not wanting to commit my thoughts on the festival to permanent record, thus drawing a line under it and moving on to the next thing. I don’t want to do that. I want to steal the Doctor’s TARDIS from the convention props display (damn, a missed opportunity there, if only I hadn’t been half-asleep) and go back and do it again. And again. And again. Hell, you’ll have to call the Doctor to help me get out of the time loop I’ll have accidentally trapped myself in.

Signing Hands Across the Water was AMAZING. I still can’t believe how lucky I was to share a roof with five other sign language poets, plan a workshop with them, do said workshop, and perform alongside them. How did that happen? Pinch me!

Thanks must surely go to everyone who organised it, I know it wasn’t all done with me in mind, but I had an absolutely incredible time and I hope everyone who was involved with, or came to watch, the festival did too. See the Signing Hands Across the Water website for a more objective view of events and a more complete list of people who deserve thanks!

And don’t forget the facebook page for some cool pics, watch out for that crazed grin 🙂

Swarthmore College was like no college I’ve ever seen. The college grounds seemed to be sharing civil-war era buildings and houses with Scott Arboretum and an amazing number of plants and trees, including cherry blossom trees that had already started to flower in the unseasonable warmth of Pennsylvania. Did I mention the lovely weather? And the beautiful buildings and grounds?

The guesthouse, ooh. So posh. So posh. And it tickled me that I, as the slightest poet in terms of height and build, had been given the biggest room with the queen-size bed. Oh yes, please, thank you very much. And the food, mmm. And the company! We had a welcoming ‘feast’ for most of the people involved, the crew if you like, and what a great bunch of people. Poets, terps, a few organisers, some volunteers. Lovely, all!

We soon got down to work though, and Friday was the panel discussion, where all the poets discussed various aspects of sign language poetry, from the current situation in USA, UK and beyond, similarities and differences between different types of poetry, and issues of translation of sign language poems, which was something that came up a few times throughout the festival. It was a free exchange of ideas and thoughts, held in front of an audience, it was an interesting experience and very thought-provoking. Even if I did spend most of the time squinting off-stage at the ASL – BSL relay interpreters…

And let me take this moment to thank the interpreters who were terping between various languages, some ASL – BSL, some English to ASL etc., but they made sure everyone kept up, including myself. Anyone who thinks that ASL is similar to BSL or that it’s possible to understand foreign sign languages from the get-go just because one uses a sign language, I challenge them to give it a go and try to follow a fast-moving discussion of the finer points of poetry in full flow in a sign language other than their own. Especially when they’ve only just mastered “Hi… my name is F, no, D, D-O-N-N-A…” in said language.

But I don’t think I did too badly, and by the end of the weekend I was able to communicate in basic ASL and hold conversations in a sort of mix of BSL / ASL. For all that ASL and BSL are different, shared experience of signed languages does, I think, help a lot, and with patience and understanding people can communicate across different sign languages far more easily than they can spoken languages. And for the heavy discussions, read; the heavy lifting, we had a crack team of terps. Cheers guys!

Saturday was the workshop, we had about 30 participants, and it went really well – the morning was spent looking at various aspects of sign language poetry, each poet bringing an element of their own style to the mix, in my case a look at (split) identity that I had spent two months fretting about that was over in twenty minutes. But I like to think I made an impression nevertheless! The afternoon was spent helping the participants craft their own poems, some even agreed to have their poems recorded, and they can be seen on the website, great stuff! I hope all the participants took something away from the workshop, I know I did.

Saturday evening was the big show! It was amazing, from the group hug, to Richard Carter’s singer’s dramatic suicide, to Debbie Rennie’s powerful tale of murder, narrated by interpreter Debbie Taylor, to John Wilson’s visually funny cycle of life of a Christmas tree, to Flying Words Projects’ (Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner) incredible timing in a double act that must have taken ages to perfect. It was a visual feast of different styles of poetry, some visual, some heavy BSL or ASL, some with voiceover and some without. It really was something to see, and I’m glad – and privileged – to have been part of it!

I did three poems in the end, after changing my mind once or twice; I had originally intended to do three of my more ‘visual’ and therefore hopefully more ‘accessible’ poems, but after some thought-provoking discussions with the other poets about language and identity, I decided to perform ‘Who Am I?’. This was my first poem, originally created at a time when I was going through something of an identity crisis, and I wanted to perform this poem to show that identity is not always clear-cut or simple, and not all, indeed few deaf people are born with confident ‘deaf identities’ ready-formed. It all seemed to go down really well; I can honestly say I don’t think my ego has ever been stroked quite so much! The audience and atmosphere were brilliant, so positive and up, and I met some really great people. It was all over too soon!

The last event of the festival was a panel on the Sunday morning, where all the poets discussed their work, and a big Q & A session with the audience that expanded on translation issues, perceptions, how we got into poetry and how we create our poems. I really enjoyed this session, and again it was all over too soon!

For me, at the big performance, it was interesting to note that the ASL poets had some kind of voiceover, whilst all of us BSL poets had none. This and the discussions in the panels the previous and following day really opened my mind to the various issues surrounding the translation of sign language poems. Should they have a voiceover? If so, should it be a full rendering of the poem, line for line, word for sign, or just a spoken word here and there to back up a specific sign? Should the person speaking the lines be on the stage with the sign language poet, or sitting out of sight with the mic? If there is a voiceover, is it pure sign language poetry? Can a voiceover ever do justice to a poem? Can sign language poetry ever be written in English (or other written language) form and still have the same effect? I have all these questions whirling around, and I’m feeling inspired!

One thing that really brought the translation issue home to me though, was a friend telling me about a hearing friend of theirs, a member of staff at the college, who had attended the performance. This hearing person had never seen sign language before, ever, and gave a review of ‘My Cat’ that was completely unexpected. Now, ‘My Cat’ / ‘My New Cat’, is one of my more ‘visual’ poems, I had thought it was fairly accessible, but apparently not.

It seems that this hearing friend had liked my “poem about the cat” but had been confused because “it turned into a devil with horns and it had feathers, and then it died, but she seemed happy about it dying?” By the time my friend had finished recounting this hearing person’s interpretation of my poem, I was crying with laughter, and verging on hysterics.

As I said when I recovered, I like to be flexible about how people interpret my poems but that was more random than I’d ever imagined. Loved it! In fact, I may create a new poem based on the ‘devil cat’, watch out for a Halloween special!

For the record, the ‘devil cat’ was licking its own arse, the ‘horns’ being its legs akimbo, the ‘feathers’ was long fur, and the twitching was the cat dreaming, not its final, anguished death throes.

But when I’d calmed down and had a think about it, I wasn’t sure which I would prefer, a voiceover / translation that would give non-signing members of the audience a clue of what the poem was about, or risk them taking away interpretations of it that were so far left-field of what I’d intended that they were in the next county. This hearing friend had apparently enjoyed the performance despite not understanding much, so did it matter? Does it matter? Lots to think about!

Thanks to The Cooper Foundation and their deep pockets, Dr Rachel Sutton-Spence (visiting Cornell Professor at Swarthmore), Dr Donna West, Dr Michiko Kaneko, Martin Haswell (great website and videos), poets Peter Cook & Kenny Lerner (Flying Words), Debbie Rennie, Richard Carter, John Wilson and one other, the terps Doreen Kelley, Mike Canfield, Kyra Pollitt, Christopher Stone, Debbie Taylor (voicing Debbie Rennie’s poems) and Christopher Tester; Nick Furrow for good food, the participants, the volunteers, the audience, and many more besides that I probably don’t even know about, thanks to everyone who had a hand in this – I’m going to use this word again – AMAZING festival.

Thank you!

Now can someone steal me a TARDIS…?

Signing Hands Across The Water!

Later this month, I’ll have the privilege of joining three other BSL poets – Richard Carter, Paul Scott and John Wilson – in flying over to Philadelphia, to take part in Signing Hands Across the Water, an international sign language poetry festival. We’ll be joined by three American Sign Language poets, the double act of Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner of the Flying Words Project and Debbie Rennie, and from March 16th – 18th we’re going to be putting on an amazing festival!

For the last few years, I’ve been lucky enough to be part of the Metaphor in Creative Sign Language project, brainchild of none other than Dr Rachel Sutton-Spence, and Dr Michiko Kaneko (who organised the first BSL poetry event in Bristol, the BSL Haiku Festival way back in 2006) ably aided and abetted by researcher Dr Donna West. As part of this project I’ve taken part in research and performed at Bristol Sign Poetry Festivals at Bristol Deaf Centre. Thanks to this opportunity, I’ve had the chance to develop my skills and confidence in creating Sign Language poetry and am really honoured to be part of Hands Across the Water – and I hope that this festival will encourage and inspire others!

Dr Sutton-Spence is currently Cornell Visiting Professor (Professor! I must remember to bow when I see her :)) at Swarthmore College, and the festival is being organised as part of her work there. She shoots, she scores! Of course, there are lots of other people involved in organising this incredible event and I’d just like to take this moment to thank them all – thank you!

Naturally, I’m nervous, this festival has been a comfortably long way off for ages, then all of a sudden… all of a sudden it’s March. It’s March! When did that happen? Two weeks from now I’m going to be on stage at an international Sign Language Poetry festival! Quick, someone pass me a paper bag… *breathes*

There’ll be workshops, public conversations and a big evening performance by all the featured poets. It’s shaping up to be an amazing celebration of Sign Language poetry, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in a while, and I really hope that this is part of a resurgence of interest and development of this beautiful art-form!

Plus, look at this cool banner! Martin Haswell is a genius. How can a festival with a banner that cool not be amazing?

Come on down!

I’m feeling so inspired, I’ve come up with a poem in honour of the event;

Professor Rachel Sutton-Spence,
A researcher most rare,
Sign language poetry champion
And linguist extraordinaire

Swarthmore College, Philadelphia
Seven poets will gather there
For workshops and performances
Beautiful poetry they will share

Signing Hands Across the Water
For all who want to see
What are you all waiting for?
Everything is free

Just register your interest
Come along, pull up a chair
And watch Sign Language Poetry
Flying through the air!

Whether or not this is an example of the quality of poetry – English or Signed – that people can expect from me at the festival: no comment. 🙂

The Birds! The Birds!

So I’ve been alluding to a play that I’m in later this year. I haven’t revealed much, partly because I’ve not known much myself, but last Friday and Saturday I was at a long development weekend with Disability Arts Cymru’s Unusual Stage School. I can now reveal that…

It’s called The Birds, based on a comedy by the same name by the Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes (and not the film by Alfred Hitchcock, in case anyone was worried). The original has the birds of the title rebelling against the evil humans who catch, torture and kill birds by creating their own city in the sky and blocking all messages to heaven, thus cutting off communication with the gods and holding humanity to ransom until their demands – generally, better treatment – are met.

Given the parallels, it probably comes as no surprise that it’s being adapted with the disabled in mind. Last Friday I saw a first draft of the script written by writer / director Cheryl Martin with (unnecessary I thought) apologies to Aristophanes; it was funny, imaginative and occasionally scathing! The read through was fun, as were the development workshops, and Cheryl’s going to revise and develop the script some more now. Certain references will probably be taken out or amended on the basis that no-one wants to be sued. It’d be great publicity but…

Actually on the other hand, maybe we should keep them in. A bit of publicity is what we need right now! Tickets have gone on sale, it’s on at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff on the 11th and 12th May; if you feel like watching a surreal, feathery subversive take on the modern world and treatment of the poor birdies / disabled, this is for you!

The theatre is accessible, guide and hearing dogs are welcome, tickets are bookable online, and for the play we’re going to have at least basics of script projected on screens all around the theatre, a BSL interpreter will be signing the whole thing, I’ll be doing visual poetry, and the director – Cheryl – has already started considering where it’s all going to fit in in terms of access and artistic flair.

Oh, if only more directors and theatres could be like that. I’m hoping this play can be held up as an example of how full access to theatre can and should be done.

We even have a great designer on board who’s taken our measurements and promised to come up with some fantastic bird costumes, so if for nothing else, come along to see me and various talented malcontents dressed up and having fun in our featheriest, birdiest finest!

And possibly saying litigious things 🙂

Telling Our Stories

Tomorrow, I’m due to perform my BSL poetry at Bristol’s M Shed as part of Resistance: Telling Our Stories, an event that has been organised as a (slightly belated) nod to Disability History Month, with the backdrop of Resistance: Which Way The Future?, a media installation directed by Liz Crow of Roaring Girl Productions which is on at the M shed from 5th January to 5th February 2012. More info can be found here:
http://www.journomania.net/culture/38-art-and-culture/517-disability-arts-at-bristols-m-shed-for-uk-disability-history-month-.html
http://www.roaring-girl.com/productions/resistance-on-tour/

I was looking forward to this anyway, but with the twitterstorm that blew up over the #spartacusreport (which I gleefully added my little raindrops to) last monday, the triple defeat of the government in the House of Lords over the Welfare Reform Bill, which Lord Fraud, excuse me, Freud, then attempted to roll back as soon as the Labour peers had left* and the governments’ response which basically seemed to be that they were going to keep pressing ahead with the WRB, despite all protests, it seems to me that the themes of Resistance are just as relevant as ever.

*Mason Dixon gives a colourful and Hollywood-worthy version of events: http://masondixonautistic.blogspot.com/2012/01/us-and-them.html

Resistance looks at the Nazi eugenics program, Aktion T4, during which hundreds of thousands of disabled people… well, disappeared. They just went away in grey vans and didn’t come back. And apparently, not very many people questioned it at the time. It probably didn’t help that Nazi Germany was trying pull itself out of a recession, and the propagandists had done their best to tell everyone how much these ‘useless eaters’ were costing the state, via posters like this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:EnthanasiePropaganda.jpg
The translation is: “60,000RM. This is what this person suffering from hereditary defects costs the Community of Germans during his lifetime.”

When some Minister or newspaper bangs on about benefit scroungers / how much the welfare state is costing / benefit fraud, while the coalition sits idly by while the HMRC aids and abets what have to be crimes against the treasury, I think of that poster.

And it’s working. Disability hate crime on the up, people living in terror of Work Capability Assessments, people with mental health issues having to be talked down by kind voices after receiving a particularly nasty letter from the DWP. Well fucking done.

A little fact-checking.
1) DWP own figures put fraud at less than 0.5%.
2) Of the “5.2 billion lost to error and fraud”, only 1.2 billion of that was fraud.
3) The coalition has said they want to cut payment of DLA by 20%.
4) They also say they want to ‘protect the most vulnerable’.
5) Unclaimed benefit in 08/09 was 17.7billion (12.7billion means tested, 5 billion tax credits).

Compare and contrast 3) and 4) with 1), 2) and 5). Conclusion: there are far less benefit scroungers out there than the coalition would have you believe. Am I wrong? Feel free to google it and check. In fact, I want you to google it and check. Challenge me. Challenge the coalition. Just please don’t ignore the Welfare Reform Bill.

And if, after reading the Spartacus Report, you think we should all take a deep breath and be allowed to look at the WRB proposals properly, go over to ‘Pat’s Petition’ and sign the petition to stop and review the cuts to benefits and services.

Spartacus Report/ Responsible Reform:
https://skydrive.live.com/view.aspx/Responsible%20Reform%20for%20screen%20readers.doc?cid=cba86408918caa9e
Pat’s Petition:
http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/20968

For my part, I hope lots of people will come and check out the Telling Our Stories event, there’s lots of happy stuff as well as serious stuff, and it promises to be at the very least an interesting day out! Plus, there’s my poetry 🙂 For those who can’t make it, the media installation will be on until 5th February.

Which Way The Future?, indeed.