Lisa Kelly interviewed by Maria Sjöstrand
Lisa Kelly has been published in several literary magazines and teaches creative writing and performance poetry at the Torriano Meeting House. She is both partly deaf and partly Danish but unable to understand her mother’s native tongue. Her first poetry collection, A Map Towards Fluency, focuses on the idea of fluency and the power of words. It was published in 2019, and Kelly is currently working on a pamphlet of IKEA-poems. Our interview took place online, which meant that I got the added benefit of seeing Kelly’s workspace: A slightly cluttered lounge with a comfortable-looking armchair, an old-fashioned grandfather clock, and plenty of books – as required by anyone who writes. Kelly herself was everything polite, and she agreed readily to have the interview recorded.
Maria: Do you have a favourite poem in your collection?
Lisa: I suppose ‘A Map Towards Fluency’, the title poem. It was the one where it really felt like it was coming together. It represented both my experience of deafness and of learning a new language – and all the people I met while doing so. I also learned about deaf history. The teacher was brought up during a time where she was forced to learn oralism. She had her hands tied to her chair to stop her from signing.
I believe that was quite a typical experience, and it’s not that long ago. There were a lot of things that I didn’t know about deaf history, growing up in the hearing world. There’s a lot more activism now, and you often see interpreters on the national news.
I also liked the shaping of the poem. I showed it to some people, before I got it into any form, and some of the reactions were quite hostile. They didn’t consider it a real poem, and they didn’t see the point of it – they said that the shape wasn’t evident when they heard it. But it’s very important to me what a poem looks like on the page.
I find concept poetry very exciting, and I admire poets who do it. Having an idea and seeing how it is used and how it interacts with language – I dabble in it now and again. You can see this in some of my poems, like ‘Ø’. It means island in Danish, and I’ve never been able to pronounce it! That poem brought up a lot of feelings of loss around my mother – she was an only child, so I don’t really have any contact with her language. I did try to learn it for a little bit, but I ended up learning sign language instead. ‘Ø’ was a way of exploring that loss. My mother died of blood cancer, and an Ø kind of looks like a blood cell as well – or the “No Entry” sign you sometimes get on roads. I think that symbols and visual signs are exceptional and that most people respond to them much more quickly than to a word. I think sign language is like that – it’s a very embodied language. You’re quite literally using your whole body.
Maria: Yes, I’ve seen a little sign language, and often it just makes sense. What you’re saying is going to fit with how you move your body. You’re not going to say “I’m cold” by wiping sweat off your face.
Lisa: That’s true; there are several iconic signs, which are recognised by everyone. If you wipe imaginary sweat off your forehead, you’re saying “summer”, and you say “winter” by pretending to be shivering. Adjectives are really interesting as well. A lot of people think sign language is limited because there are fewer signs than words, but you’ve also got all these non–manual features – how you’re doing the movement means so much, and you see that in poetry as well as in sign language.
Maria: I once heard there are dialects in sign language. Is this true?
Lisa: Definitely. You use different signs depending on where you’re from regionally and also how old you are. Signs that generally aren’t considered acceptable anymore might still be used by some of the older generation. It’s evolving like any language. You create new signs when new technology comes in. I’m not an expert in linguistics, but I think that’s one of the markers of a living language. That is serves a community, and that it’s still evolving and changing.
Maria: Moving from one language to another, what are your thoughts on the Danish language? In your poetry collection, you seem a bit frustrated to be unable to speak it.
Lisa: Yes, very frustrated. My mom had a very powerful personality, and she was very strong and very loving. But she also took a very submissive role in society. She never had a chequebook, and she married when she was very young. She came to England as an au pair, which was probably the most adventurous thing she ever did. I once asked her why she’d never taught us Danish, and one of the reasons she gave was that she didn’t want her husband to feel left out. But when my grandparents came over, I couldn’t understand them. They had this secret language. My grandfather could speak English, so I had more of a relationship with him. The only thing my grandmother ever did was that she’d stroke my cheek and say, “Du er en sød pige.” That was it. You’re a sweet girl. We used to joke about it, my brother and me. But it is frustrating. No matter what I write about, there’s always an element of what language can mean and how it can be distorted or corrupted. I’ve been writing poems about IKEA recently – how they use language to sell and what the words actually DO mean.
Maria: When you write poetry, do you feel that it energises you, or taps you from energy?
Lisa: For me, writing poetry demands different parts of my resources, whether it is my feelings, my energy, my brain, my ego, my sense of self, or my sense of audience. But I’m probably at my happiest when I’m writing a poem. The process is what excites me the most, and when I’m done, it feels quite removed from me. I’m not reluctant to send it out, which I think some poets are – they fear rejection. I think having been an actress helps. Nobody likes rejection, but it’s not going to kill me. I’m quite pragmatic; I see it as just another part of the process.
Maria: When you’re done with a poem, do you feel done with it? Or do you feel like you could work on it forever, if you didn’t stop yourself?
Lisa: Probably the second one. I feel that once a poem is published, it has reached a milestone – a stage where I’m just another reader of it. One of the useful things about rejection is that it can be an opportunity to look at your poem again. Of course, sometimes it’s just not to the taste of that specific editor or magazine.
But you can definitely overwork a poem! I teach a poetry workshop, and I see it all the time. They’ll write a really good poem, and then they’ll bring it back again later – absolutely savaged. It’s like with a sculpture. If you keep on whittling, you’ll end up destroying it. There’s a danger in that sort of revision. Of course, it’s up to the individual to judge what “too much revision” is, and that can be difficult. I read about a poet the other day, Marianne Moore, who revised everything she did later on in her life, but her earlier poetry was what she was remembered by.
Maria: Do you read a lot of poetry?
Lisa: Yes. I buy a lot of poetry books, and I enjoy reading other poets – especially contemporary ones.
Maria: Do you have a favourite one?
Lisa: No, I wouldn’t say that. I get crushes, though. At the moment, I have one on Eat Or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick. She’s exploring political situations in Ireland, religious ecstasy, and self-denial through food. It’s quite shocking in places and pretty visceral. I stumbled upon it, and I’m very impressed by it. There are plenty of poets, where I love what they’re doing – I got room for so many contemporary ones.
Maria: What got you into poetry to begin with?
Lisa: My father. He was exceptionally intelligent and very strongly opinionated. He also loved literature and poetry. When I was young, I had these little books called Flower Fairies in the Trees, which were little poems based on particular trees, and there’d be a fairy attached. And we used to go for walks in the woods near our house. I remember that we used to walk past Roald Dahl’s house – and the gypsy caravan he sometimes did his work in. His books hadn’t been made into movies yet, so he wasn’t as famous back then. Anyway, we used to go for walks in these woods, and we’d make up these silly little nonsense rhymes. I still remember one of them:
I thought I saw a chicken,
I didn’t see a cat.
Don’t tread in that puddle,
Or else you’ll get a smack.
And it made me laugh. No matter how many times he said it, it’d make me laugh.
Being partly deaf also meant that I didn’t like being in big crowds, and the playground was kind of a torturous place. But I liked books and writing and poetry. I’d walk around and write poems about birds and eggs and turtles, and my mom would say: “One day, you’ll be published!”Bless her.
But even though I enjoyed it, and though I did study poetry in school, we were only taught about dead white men. It was something I enjoyed, but I didn’t see myself as having a place in it. Instead, I did playwriting, and I did acting, and I toured around Spain for half a year with someone I met at drama school, which was quite fun. And then I decided I wanted children, and I retrained as a journalist.
But now I write poetry.
Maria: When you wrote A Map Towards Fluency, did you set out to write a collection? Or did you focus on the individual poems without worrying about putting them together until afterwards?
Lisa: That second one. I wrote most of the poems in A Map Towards Fluency a long time before I was invited to submit a collection. It was just a question of selecting the right poems and how to divide them up. I think the pamphlet of IKEA-poems is easier because it has a clearer theme – the theme being either real or made-up words in the Swedish language. But it’s only a pamphlet. I don’t think anyone would want to read an entire collection of IKEA-poems.
Maria: Do you ever experience problems with copyright when writing poetry?
Lisa: That’s an interesting question. I recently took part in a debate about it at StAnza. It was very fascinating. You can, for example, use titles from music without any problem, but if you start using lyrics, you’re in tricky, tricky territory. But it would definitely be interesting to get a class action lawsuit for a poetry publisher!
Maria: I did wonder how much poets generally thought about things like copyright laws – but if there are debates about it, it’s obviously something they’re aware of.
Lisa: Definitely. I think you make your own judgment call. Poetry is kind of like the poor relation in art. Not in terms of what it can achieve, but in terms of making money, so I guess it goes below the radar of these big corporations. If it became popular, I think it would draw the attention of the lawyers. But poetry isn’t particularly popular, and that’s why you can do all of these things. The downside is perhaps that you’re gonna be a penniless poet, but the upside is that you’re going to have a lot of freedom. You can afford to experiment, and you don’t have to feel that your wings are being clipped. I can’t think of anything worse than writing a bestseller and having your publisher say: “Okay, we want more of this, please,” if you don’t want to write more of that. It’s like being typecast as an actor.
Maria: That’s an interesting analogy – poets in comparison to actors. But it’s probably one that comes naturally to you when you’ve been both.
Lisa: Definitely. I write about being deaf, but does everyone who wants a poem from me want me to write about deafness? No. Well, I hope not. I hope there’s flexibility because we are so many things. And you go through different stages, and you develop.
When I first got into the poetry scene, I used to go to this meeting house. The guy who presided over it was an anarchist. He was a massive character and a fantastic person. I’m so pleased he was one of the people I met when I first got into poetry. He was intimidating, though. He had such great knowledge and was such an interesting character. He was a chess champion and had come over here as a refugee. And he’d seen his grandmother shot by the Nazis. But it felt like you were only judged by your poetry, and that was really nice. You have to have room to change and develop, and not be pigeon-holed.
Maria: Is there something that connects all of your poems, though? Like a playfulness with structure or anything like that?
Lisa: Probably an exciting idea. I can write a poem about something that I’m upset about, but once it’s out of my system, it’s out. But I get obsessions. Like an obsession with language and how it can be used to process feelings. And I think poetry can be a way of working through obsessions without it becoming a negative experience. I used to have OCD as a teenager and as a child. I drove my mom mad during my exams because I had to have very neat handwriting, and if I made any mistakes, I’d tear my notes up and start over.
It was like it had a physical impact on me. I could feel frustrated, irritated, upset, worried, anxious, and I wanted to be allowed to do all of these things that I knew were ridiculous. And when I did them, it was such a relief, but it’s a vicious circle because the relief never lasts.
Maria: Did you ever write poetry about your OCD?
Lisa: I did write one poem, but no one has touched it because it is quite strange. I’ve read it to people because when you read something, you can test it out, and I’ve had people come up to me and say stuff like: “That’s brave,” or “I’ve got similar issues to that.” But I don’t know if I’d be happy if I had it in print. It would probably have a different impact. Once it’s in print, you don’t know where it’s going, and people don’t know who you are, and you don’t know what context they’ll take it in.
And it might be the one poem that everybody associates with you because it’s so shocking or out there. I think that’s something that other poets grapple with as well. But poetry is a very obsessive occupation. You can spend ages working out whether or not you want a comma there. It probably feeds into the obsession – in a positive way, hopefully.
Maria: Most psychiatrists do agree that art is a healthy way to process things. And even if we never get to see this specific poem, I’m definitely looking forward to your next collection – or pamphlet, as it is. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to do this interview.
Lisa: No, it was a pleasure – thank you for being interested enough to interview me.