Interview with Abi Palmer

Could you reflect on your relationship to the telephone, in the past or in the present, and say something about how this might have informed your poem?

At the moment, my mobile phone is a huge source of access to the world – I do everything from it! I have very severe chronic hand pain and recently used my phone to write an entire book, jumping between the touchscreen and the audio recording device.

I also use my mobile phone as a huge source of friendship. Even before a global pandemic, I was not able to leave the house as much as I would like to. Much of the disabled/chronically ill community are in a similar situation. Over the years I’ve developed very significant relationships with a series of queer disabled artists via social media. Because of our fluctuating energies and different time zones, we often communicate via voice notes on WhatsApp. This feels like a really intimate way to learn a person. The poem I wrote is about one friend in particular who I met through an Instagram meme account. We clicked instantly, but it wasn’t until we felt safe to move our relationship to WhatsApp that I knew her name, gender presentation, and a lot longer until I learned what she looked like.

I would consider this person one of my closest friends – we talk, text and leave each other voice notes a lot, and hang out in multiple WhatsApp groups with other people. But, because of our disability and location, we’ve never met IRL. I wrote the poem about the intimacy of getting to know a person through their voice and their internal world, without getting to see them.

How did you go about producing the work for this project? Were there any materials, anecdotal, literary or otherwise, that proved generative for you?

I used the relationship with my friend to inform the poem. For the opening I used a collection of the most bizarre and lovely text messages I had received or sent in the past week.

How much was the recording of the poem, and the format(s) through which the poem will be reproduced (i.e. a public phone booth and mobile app), a consideration in the composition? 

I spent a lot of time thinking about the attention span of public telephone users and the way people flip through mobile technology. I was aware that some of this audience might be accessing poetry for the first time, and also that I was writing about a subject that is unfamiliar to many people. As a result, I chose clear (but unusual) images and let the poem be guided by rhyme, and began with an element of surreal playfulness that might attract their attention. The emotion came later – I wanted it to feel like a journey. This is also how most of my online friendships form, developing in sincerity over play.

Do you have any thoughts on how the project might have affected the way that you think about the relationship between poetry and telephony, or between writing and technology more broadly?

As I wrote the poem I became much more aware of how significant, meaningful and real my mobile phone relationships are. It’s been interesting to watch people switch to online and mobile technology during a global pandemic and lockdown scenario. Slowly I feel like people are valuing those interactions more, whereas for many of my disabled friends, nothing’s changed.

As an aside, I keep thinking about Shania Twain, who I was a huge fan of in the nineties. Apparently, she met her then-husband, Mutt Lange (of the Boomtown Rats), via phone while they were working together on her album. This is all from memory so my facts may be wrong, but they fell in love over the phone and didn’t meet IRL for maybe six months. I actually think this is a really good way to get to know someone.

Are there any other reflections you can make about the process of producing the poem, or your participation in the project?

I have been interested in Dial-a-Poem for a long time and it’s been a pleasure to be involved in the project. I’ve talked a lot about disability interactions but I also feel there’s a strong element of queerness in forming relationships via the phone. Existing and thriving outside of the contexts of gender we can explore elements of otherness framed by our queer and/or disabled bodies in these safe, secret spaces. The queer/crip spaces I interact with via the telephone are vital, strange and intimate in ways that I struggle to explain to heteronormative friends. Hopefully the poem does a better job at this!

May 2020