Lisa Kelly

This week, Signature share with you more about Lisa Kelly, a poet who has had a fascination with literature from a young age. Lisa expands on her experiences of single-sided deafness and some of her proudest achievements.


1. Hi Lisa, first, could you please introduce yourself to our weekly readers here at Signature.

Hello!  I am Lisa Kelly and I am a poet, writer, editor and educator with two collections of poetry from Carcanet – A Map Towards Fluency and The House of the Interpreter. I am the Chair of Magma Poetry magazine and have co-edited several issues of the magazine, including the Deaf Issue with another deaf poet, Raymond Antrobus. Recently, I co-edited an anthology of poetry, short fiction and scripts, What Meets the Eye?: The Deaf Perspective (Arachne Press) with Deaf activist, writer and performer, Sophie Stone.

2. Where did your passion for poetry derive from, and was there anyone or any piece in particular that sparked this passion?

I wrote poetry as a girl because of the encouragement of a brilliant English teacher. I enjoyed reading as it was an escape from the playground rough and tumble and having to negotiate a noisy and confusing environment. Reading felt like a safe space and fired my imagination. I prefer poetry to prose as I am not keen on long, drawn-out plots, and was forced to read Charles Dickens! When I was young, I liked the craziness of poems like Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll. Today, my tastes are very broad, and I have a huge appetite for contemporary poets’ work. There are some very exciting voices out there, and many great d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing poets, like Raymond Antrobus, Ilya Kaminsky, Zoë McWhinney, DL Williams, Sahera Khan and Josephine Dickinson. We now have the UK BSL Poet Laureate – this  year Ismael Mansoor is wearing the crown of laurel leaves, and last year Kabir Kapoor was the inaugural Poet Laureate in a competition organised by the British Deaf Association.

3. As an individual with single-sided deafness, do you feel that your personal relation with sound has changed the way you personally approach your poetry?

Definitely. I have to be very attentive to sound. Being deaf in my left ear through mumps when I was around five meant that I was told to sit at the front of the class. When I am in a crowd of people or even a one-to-one, I am very controlling about my space and where I am in relation to another speaker. I like people to be on my ‘hearing’ ear and will dance around them if they forget and are on my deaf side. Listening can be tiring if you have to focus on sound, but it has made me super-aware of it, and also silence. I enjoy silence perhaps more than sound and love the white space that poetry plays with on the page. It can mean silence, but it is also a way of playing with time, giving significance to the eternal. I find its creative possibilities immense.

4. Do you find that your poetic style differs from the style of poets who are hearing, do you try and be more visual throughout your stanzas?

Shaping the poem on the page is important to my practice, and I do relate it to my single-sided deafness because of my focus on spatial dynamics in my everyday life. Having said that, there are many hearing poets who are fixated on form, and I really admire the concrete poets, who do visual things with poems that are mind-blowing. Also, the visual shape of a poem is like a picture for me. For the Deaf Issue of Magma Poetry, we framed some of the more visual poems and exhibited them in a gallery which was incredibly satisfying. Sometimes the shape of a poem will draw a reader to it. I am not that keen on a very dense block of poetry on the page. I don’t find it inviting. It makes me feel I am being shouted at or lectured, which is a prejudice, but for me the visual aspect of a poem is the first and most important thing I encounter. But I have friends who say poetry is all about sound. We have big disagreements on this.

5. As a successful poet, what has been your proudest achievement and why?

I just want to say that no poet I know ever feels ‘successful’. You are always struggling with the next poem and thinking you can’t do justice to the spark that inspired you. Every time you write a new poem, you are starting out. Perhaps my proudest achievements looking back have been linked to collaboration. I was proud of the Deaf Issue – not least because we got Arts Council England funding for it, and if we hadn’t the magazine was on the verge of going bankrupt. I work with a board of poets, most of whom are volunteers, and the magazine is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. I am currently co-editing the Grassroots issue with poet Patrizia Longhitano. I feel great satisfaction in seeing emerging talent – not necessarily younger poets – finding their voice and doing justice to their talent. Someone recently said that poetry is a ‘giving economy’ and I agree with that. There is no real money in it. The people, their creativity and their voices are the currency.

6. If you could tell your younger self some key pieces of advice, what would it be?

I would tell her to learn British Sign Language! I did this in later life, and it has been a wonderful journey and one I am continuing with my weekly online Deaf Club meetings run by Caroline Palmer. I am also pleased to have achieved a level 6 qualification with Signature.

7. Out of all of your poetry pieces, which has been your favourite to compose and why?

I think the title poem, A Map Towards Fluency from my first collection was a breakthrough poem. I wrote it when I first started learning BSL at City Lit and the class and learning a new language was pretty over-whelming. It helped me process the experience of meeting new people and some of the stories I learned about Deaf history from my teacher including how she was forced to sit on her hands when she was young to prevent her from signing. It was a revelation as growing up I had no introduction to Deaf history or culture. I think everyone should learn about it.

8. Here at Signature, we are incredibly excited about the prospect of a BSL GCSE. How important is this for those in the deaf community and also in the hearing community?

I went on the march in support of the BSL Act in 2022 when everyone was gathered in Trafalgar Square. That felt exciting, and I saw Daniel Jillings get up on the stage and share his dreams about the BSL GCSE. It is another milestone. The challenge is implementation and how it is rolled out. A lot of work needs to be done to ensure that Deaf children get the opportunity study and pass their first language and it is not an ‘add-on’ language that only private schools can afford to offer.  Many hearing people say how much they love BSL when they see interpreters at events, but they don’t realise how hard it is to master and the years of study required to get to that level. The investment in the teachers and the students needs to be rock solid, but hopefully we are heading in the right direction.

9. Finally, do you have any future aspirations that you would like to share with us, either within poetry or more generally?

I would love to improve my BSL to the point where I feel confident enough to create signed poems. I would like to work with more Deaf creatives – if anyone is out there with projects in mind, please get in touch! I am conscious though that BSL is not my first language, and I don’t want to risk any appropriation. There are so many different ways of being deaf and BSL is very important to me. I feel between deaf and hearing worlds and sometimes that can be a challenge but ultimately it is a generative place to be for my work and exciting to be part of two cultures.

Here at Signature, we would like to thank Lisa for taking time out of her poetry to share with us where this love for literature began. Lisa highlights her breakthrough moment as well as her thoughts on the importance of a BSL GCSE.


Thank you Lisa!

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