Interview with Lisa Kelly

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?

My relationship with the telephone is at the heart of this poem. It was through the telephone that I discovered I was deaf in my left ear following mumps as a child. It was not spotted by adults or teachers except there was a perception I was rude or stupid. However, it was through playing with a rotary phone and holding the receiver alternatively to my left ear and my right ear that I realised the difference or ‘phenomenon’ as I saw it. I did not realise it was deafness, but thought it was ‘magic’. This feeling of otherworldliness is what I also found fascinating about Thomas A. Watson’s experience with early telephone experiments and his description of static currents. These two ‘histories’ directly inform the poem in their interweaving and asynchronous conversation.

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 visited the BT Archives after researching the digital archives and finding materials I was interested in investigating further. I was in touch with Heritage Collections Manager Anne Archer who was very helpful, and I requested the below materials. Watson’s autobiography proved most fruitful, but I also worked with research materials about developing a Deaf Aid for another poem that was offered for the project. Being able to see the type of rotary phone that I used as a child at the Archives was helpful for the sensual aspect of my history in the poem, ‘Static Currents’ that was eventually chosen. I found the visit extremely generative.

Resources in the BT Archives:

1) The Mechanism of Speech; Vowel Theories (HIC 002/012/010)

2) Telephone service for the deaf (TCB 318/PH 632 (1938))

3) Picture of a deaf woman using experimental communications system with sign language (TCC 474/HF 41-35)

4) Robert V. Bruce’s Bell: Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude

5) Avital Ronell, The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech

6)  Exploring Life: The Autobiography of Thomas A. Watson

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?

During the composition of the poem, I was aware of the final recording and the app aspect of the project, but I did not want that to limit my imagination or where a poem might take me. I did write a poem, ‘Call an airborne loved one’, which I am happy with, but it is not right for this project as it has a big focus on British Sign Language, which I am learning; it is very much a visual poem so it would not work in a purely aural format. When it came to recording the final poem there was a challenge with the two different voices – my younger voice and the voice of Thomas A. Watson. There was some discussion with Sam and Sarah about having another person record Watson’s voice, but I felt it was important for the listener to gain an impression of inter-related psyches and for the sense of ‘magic’ or ‘supernatural’ that is present in both attitudes to the phone, and this is best achieved with one voice, aiming for a fusion of two distinct registers. Several recordings were carried out to find the right balance ranging from the very theatrical voice of Watson to contrast with my younger whispered voice. It was agreed that distinction was key to help the listener, but I think having two different people record the two different strands would have ruined the sense of the surreal and compromise the ‘mystic music’ that Watson mentions in his autobiography.

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?

The project has certainly been very generative in terms of new work – three poems I am excited by and the visit to the BT Archives was particularly helpful because of the range of materials from books to photos to actual phones and sound recordings. It did make me consider the value of archives for poetry and how research and creativity go hand in hand, which is something that is not always appreciated by artists who wait for the ‘muse’ to strike. Poetry and telephony have been part of my poetic explorations in the past because telephony has been so critical to my experience of deafness, but the project has expanded my approach to the relationship between poetry and telephony by introducing me to other facets. These include the work for people who are hard of hearing, the invention and centrality of the telephone in our lives and how new technologies are evolving. These are all generative for my ongoing work. In the future, I would think about writing some more experimental poems that focus on this relationship with the technological aspects of telephony and how poetry can reflect this.

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

I am extremely grateful to have been invited to take part in this project. The process and the guidance from Sam and Sarah and the visit to the BT Archives was invaluable and gave me the time to produce a poem that is fully realised. I think the time and the opportunity that provided is critical. It allowed for real engagement with the project’s aims. I am looking forward to the next stages of the project and how other poets responded to this fascinating subject.

May 2020