Interview with Sandra Alland, Khairani Barokka and Daniel Sluman
WG: The recent publication of your anthology Stairs and Whispers: D/Deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back is quite an accomplishment. As I understand it, it is the first ever anthology of UK disability poetry. Can each of you talk a bit about how you got involved in the project?
DS: I had been involved with an online anthology of disability poetry in protest to the UK Tory welfare cuts called Fit To Work: Poets Against Atos with Markie Burnhope, and around the same time I was starting to engage with Beauty is a Verb. The book had a profound effect on me, and that combined with how well the online anthology was doing gave me the courage to approach Jane Commane at Nine Arches Press with the possibility of a major UK disability anthology in print form. Sometime in 2014, I think, we got the go ahead to start the process of getting submissions in and later we received funding for the book that meant we could promote it with a number of accessible events that have been amazing experiences. Anyway, that's how the project was conceived at the start, I'll let Sandra and Okka explain how they got involved!
SA: Stairs and Whispers is likely the first ever anthology featuring disabled and D/deaf poets living in the UK. It's hard to know everything that's been out there, and I would never want to discount zines and other small-scale publications I might have missed. Survivors' Poetry can be credited with creating anthologies around mental health long before this, for example. But this is probably the first book of this kind and scale – providing works by 54 poets and focusing on cross-disability collaboration. Stairs and Whispers highlights poetry and essays by disabled/crip writers and performers, and includes neurodiverse, mad and/or D/deaf poets who might identify outside of the label 'disabled', too.
In October 2014, Markie and Daniel invited me to join their ace selves as editor. I had poems in Fit To Work: Poets Against Atos, and was wild about that project. So I was really chuffed to be asked to conspire with people I admired. We dreamt together about what kind of anthology we wanted to shape – one that featured disabled and D/deaf poets in unexpected ways and against the usual ableist narratives. One that used various accessible formats, engaged with intersectional activism, addressed the current political climate in the UK. Our first call-out went into the world in January 2015, and it was its own small Work of Art. I also co-created some captioned British Sign Language call-outs, with Deaf poets Donna Williams and Alison Smith, to gather some BSL and other performative film-poems.
KB: Before I ever thought of becoming co-editor with Sandra and Daniel, I'd read the call-out that they'd created with Markie Burnhope for the anthology, and had gushed about its brilliance – in sync with how I thought an anthology should be, in terms of political basis and creative sensibilities. As a friend recently told me, Stairs and Whispers is pretty much exactly what I'd been wanting to create for years, and I'm deeply grateful to have been able to co-create with co-editors and poets so keenly attuned to lyric, emotion, and ideal praxis. When Markie had to sadly step down from co-editorship due to health issues, Sandra and Daniel recruited me to the team mid-2016, just after the project had received funding for us, and right before the final selection of poems had been made. So with San and Dan, I was able to look over each poem and discuss similarities and differences we had in terms of style and substance preferences – in quite a lot of detail. Certainly hundreds of hours were spent going over details that an abled co-editor might likely have glossed over. It was a fascinating experience, and I value the lessons learned from co-editing this book.
WG: Since Stairs and Whispers is really a first of its kind anthology in the UK, what were some of your considerations when you started talking about what you wanted the book to be? What kinds of decisions did you have to make about what you wanted to include or exclude? I imagine there were points you differed on; what were some of those?
KB: Yes, we do think it might be the first of its kind in the UK. The call-out that Sandra, Dan, and Markie made had already laid out the vision for the book well, and it all matched up with my own. In terms of decision-making and differing points, as I mentioned, we spent hundreds of hours reading, editing, comparing notes over Skypes and emails, and it was difficult but meaty work. All three of us co-editors have different tastes in poetry in terms of style, different predilections in terms of editing, and it was a pleasure, actually, to discover more and more about each other's tastes and rationales as the process went on. We really went over every little detail with a fine-toothed comb, and I think what I enjoyed about this project is that the poets themselves were by and large so open to editing suggestions and our occasional requests for clarification on a decision of theirs in the text.
SA: That's so true, Okka. The poets were a dream to work with. And the three of us really bounced off each other well, keeping what felt to me like a surprisingly ideal balance of style, form, content. Something about working with two disabled and chronically ill co-editors who just got things, like needing time to rest or deal with doctor's appointments, also made this experience a bit like magic. I can remember lots of minor disagreements about whether we thought a particular piece should be included, but overall our dream of what the book would mean, what it would look and feel and sound like, was pretty much always in sync. It's hard to believe we edited the whole book together before we were ever in the same room!
One thing we wanted to examine was the intersection of systems that oppress disabled and D/deaf people –Whispers has with other systems like classism, racism, cissexism, heterosexism, misogyny and transmisogyny. For example, the UK publishing world, and the UK disability arts scene, both have a really white and middle class focus. So we felt there were things to address there. Also we were keen to publish works by us, about us, for us. Most representations of disabled and D/deaf people are written or embodied by non-disabled and hearing people, and are geared towards non-disabled audiences. So we didn't want poetry by parents of autistic children, for example. We wanted autistic people to tell their own stories (whether or not they were 'true'). We didn't want pity narratives, or narratives of supercrips, or disabled and D/deaf people as terrible metaphors for non-disabled people's woes. Also, we didn't want the book to be always 'about' disability, as in not every page would be a description of our different impairments and what specific challenges they might bring us, or how we fight systemic barriers and oppression – though for sure we wanted that juicy stuff in there, too. But some poems might be about fantasy worlds, sex, turnips. In the end, I think we were all searching for poems that moved us to think and feel deeply. We wanted to include visual poetry, experimental poetry, Surrealism, essays to mark particular movements or phenomena in disabled poetics, and British Sign Language and other performance poetries on film. The last one was really important, because BSL-users are often left out of publishing. And of course we wanted Stairs and Whispers to be as accessible as we could manage, with things like audio versions, captions for films,e-books, and descriptive text for visual poetry. The most difficult part was that there was just so much excellent work to choose from.
DS: As San said, there was so much great work to choose from, and I was pleasantly surprised not only by the quality but the wide scope of disabilities the book represents. I think we all came into this project with vague ideas about how we wanted it to be but the final direction was very much shaped by the work we received, and having the visual poetry and the critical essays especially meant we could alternate the poetry and show off different methods of writing in the anthology.
I don't think we really disagreed on many things in this process, and in some ways the few points where we did differ with some of the submissions were really interesting for me. I won't talk for San and Okka, but I learnt so much from those areas where one of us felt something the other hadn't on an initial reading; I learnt a lot about my own subconscious biases, and I got to vicariously experience aspects of the able gaze that I wouldn't have otherwise.
WG: What was the process of gathering material for the anthology like? Were there certain previously published pieces that you knew you wanted to include or did you want only new work? Were there a core of people whose work you wanted to be sure to include? Was there a general call for material? How were you able to contact people who might not ordinarily be online?
DS: I think this is where the differences in our skills and knowledge really played to the overall strength of the project. Whilst I've mainly been concentrating on poetry within the kind of mainstream (almost completely able-bodied) British scene for the last few years, San and Okka both have a great knowledge of other writers who we were able to get to submit, and this meant we have been able to represent writers from a more diverse range of communities. The main call out was the primary means of getting people to submit, and we got to read a lot of great work we wouldn't have otherwise, but it was also nice to know a number of great writers who were willing to send us their poetry.
SA: When I was invited to join the project, it had zero funding beyond Nine Arches' commitment to the printed book. Markie, Daniel and I posted the initial call-out as text on a free and very basic Word Press site. A few months later Jane found me a tiny bit of money to make a captioned BSL video for the general call-out, additionally inviting film-based work by Deaf BSL-users and other disabled and D/deaf poets who worked without or beyond text. We shared the call-outs as widely as we could.
We were very clear about wanting to include a wide range of poets, and wanting to forefront queer, BIPOC , racialised, trans and/or working class perspectives. Our focus was mainly new work by any disabled and/or D/deaf writers and performers who wanted to submit, though we didn't insist on unpublished work, and of course there were some specific folks we hoped for.
I did a lot of research, then invited people to submit individually, sometimes in person, before and after we posted the call-out (and then I re-contacted and reminded, stopping short of being annoying I hope). Call-outs are democratic in theory, but they don't reach as far as is ideal, and deadlines and lengthy applications with online information can be tough for disabled people. Also, everyone's networks come with biases and limitations.
I've learned a lot over the years from curating arts projects, and was also thankful to writer Nalo Hopkinson for her piece on how to improve practice around reducing homogeneity when editing anthologies. You'd need an ensured salary to implement all the things Hopkinson suggests, but most of her ideas are really manageable, and you probably shouldn't edit an anthology if you can't do these things. There were some people I wanted work from that I just didn't get to in time, and there are poets I've learned of since, but we received a hugely wonderful crop of submissions in the end.
In terms of presenting a through-line of UK disabled poetry, that was tough. Historically very few disabled and D/deaf poets have been published here, or at least documenting them as disabled hasn't happened. When I contacted libraries in Scotland, they told me they had no such work. Of course they did have some (problematic figures like Milton and Byron should have at least popped into their heads), but this is a common response. Most institutions don't think of disabled and D/deaf writers as existing in the context of having a uniting poetics – or at all. So it would have been a huge additional research project to uncover any through-line. As far as I'm aware, we don't have a Larry Eigner, for example. We maybe could have examined the impact of Christy Brown's work, but he was Irish – and it would seem dodgy to me to take someone from the Republic and claim them in a UK anthology.
Daniel and Markie's impetus for the book was more current anyway, based partially on recent violent governmental actions and cuts (and how disabled and D/deaf people have been resisting them). So we put a lot of our focus there, in the now – and our call-outs were shared in a lot of activist communities as well as poetry ones.
KB: I must applaud, as always, the call-out posted on the website by Markie, Daniel and Sandra. Even referring people to that call-out felt like a sure step towards bringing together the kind of poets we wanted to publish, with an ethos of inclusivity. Like Sandra, once hired, I contacted a few poets individually in my networks that hadn't submitted. In one case, I met someone at a Society of Authors meeting who was a disabled poet, told them about the anthology, and they submitted and happened to be accepted. In addition, there is at least one poem that was previously published that we just had to have in the anthology because it fit perfectly, so we thought of contacting the poet and thankfully were able to include it. So the process was varied, and conducted with as much enthusiasm as three busy and disabled poet-editors could muster.
WG: One of the most striking things about Stairs and Whispers is degree to which it is concerned with accessibility. In the hard copy version of the book, the first thing that a reader encounters after the table of contents is your "Accessibility Information." Sandra referred before to the importance of addressing the needs of BSL users, but I think Wordgathering readers who have not seen the book yet would be interested in hearing more about some of the many things that you have done to make the book accessible and perhaps some of the issues you faced in doing so.
SA: We really wanted to have an audio book of Stairs and Whispers, but knew such an undertaking in the traditional sense would be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. With our limited funds and time, it wouldn't be possible unless Jane made separate funding bids after the book was out. Having access for blind and visually-impaired people (maybe) available long after the original seemed less than ideal, so I thought of asking the poets and essayists to record something on their laptops or phones.
Most of them managed to send me something, some after excellent conversations about generational gaps with technology – that resulted in them making their first recordings ever! I have to say it was an amazing experience to hear the voices of people I had only read up to that point, and in some cases it was really moving. Plus, audio versions can give complementary or totally different readings of texts!
I collated the audio, and then also recorded the access information pages and the section of descriptive text Okka and I had composed to describe visual poems and stills from the films. Jane then uploaded everything to Nine Arches' SoundCloud, and inserted a URL after each relevant piece in the book. You can find them in a playlist at https://soundcloud.com/ninearchespress/sets/stairs-and-whispers. The access information is at bit.ly/saw87descriptbit.ly/saw1access and at bit.ly/saw87descript.
I think it's useful, too, that people who can read the book have the option to listen and read at the same time. Or people with partial vision can listen to descriptive text while exploring Aaron Williamson's visual poems about tinnitus, for example. Obviously this isn't equal to an audio book that you can download and listen to whenever you like (it's dependent on internet access), but unlike most audiobooks it's free and made by the writers themselves. I also think audio descriptions of art books are pretty rare.
KB: The notion of a book as also multimedia to this extent, with a specific focus on access, is one I've yet to find anywhere else in the UK, and it's terrifically exciting to envision this as just the beginning – building on, obviously, many years of disabled people's activism in the arts and elsewhere.
When I think of Stairs and Whispers, I think not only of the book, but of the events we've done to celebrate it, so far a pre-launch at the Roundhouse in London, the launch at Birmingham City University, and an event at Ledbury Poetry Festival, with more planned. People have been really blown away by our insistence at BSL interpretation, audio description, accessible venues and invitations, etc. — thank you to Sandra especially who has been a brilliant organisational guru — and remarked on how effortless and seamless it seems. I'd like to think it's really inspiring people to rethink access who previously hadn't given it a thought, and reaffirmed the wish for access in those who have. Particularly speaking as someone who really struggled with understanding of my bodily needs even within disabled artist communities I'd come across, this is all very meaningful.
DS: My experience of books is very similar to Okka's in terms of a lack of accessibility with the book as a form generally. Obviously nowadays there is a greater focus on audiobooks but even that is genre specific and when it comes to poetry, even online journals generally don't include audio (Wordgathering being an obvious and wonderful exception!). So I've learnt how lacking in flexibility the print book form is, but how a lot of that can be circumvented with the help of the internet, which will hopefully only make things better in the future so long as people continue to think about accessibility as a must, and something that needs to be integrated rather than a self-congratulatory add-on.
SA: Good point, Daniel. I sometimes find this super difficult. That non-disabled people publishing or presenting a disabled- or D/deaf-themed issue of a magazine, or book or event, will provide access for that particular thing – but then immediately go back to not providing access. They take credit for being 'leaders' but have in fact only done what disabled people have been doing for ages, and on top of that they haven't changed their practice in any lasting or radical way. I would love it if people came to understand things like Stairs and Whispers, Deaf Poets Society and Wordgathering as templates for all poetry publications and events.
KB: Co-sign absolutely all of this.
WG: I'd like to follow up on Okka's comment about the success of the book not being only in your accomplishments with accessibility to the book itself but in the events that have taken place around it. Can you give some specific instances of some of the reactions of people at your readings and other celebrations that you found particularly interesting or encouraging? (You used the word "inspiring." In the U.S. that is a loaded term when referring to disability literature. Do you consider yourselves inspirational?)
Okka: I'd like to clarify that I — and I think San and Dan as well – meant "inspiring" here not in the loaded, super-crip adulating way that is indeed problematic not only in the US, but worldwide. Our anthology is vehemently against inspiration porn! I meant inspiring in the sense of sparking hope that access, inclusion, and disability justice were a possibility in poetry, for fellow D/deaf and/or disabled creators specifically. Our book was created specifically with our communities in mind, not for abled readers/consumers to see it as "inspiring" in aforementioned problematic sense. It's a great point of clarification!
SA: I interpreted Okka's use of the word as un-loaded, as a suggestion that interacting with this project has inspired (as in 'prompted' or 'influenced') non-disabled people to re-think the way they're doing things – or disabled people to keep doing things that might be difficult in an ableist world. I have a Scottish series of short films about queer and trans D/deaf and disabled artists called I'm Not Your Inspiration; I'd say in a UK context, people are pretty aware of the dangers of 'inspirational' disability narratives made by and for non-disabled people.
And yet – now that we're talking about it, let's reclaim inspiration a bit, why not? I think we have inspired each other, in that other sense of being deeply moved, and in the sense of breathing in. And we deserve to enjoy that moment. For me, it was holding the book in my hands, and then the performances and feedback from contributors at the launch, that moved me in the deepest way. As I think I've said elsewhere… 25 poets from the book showed up, only a few of whom I knew before then. I nearly fell over. I fall over a lot, but this time it was with joy. We had mandated for a pretty accessible book, and we had demanded a step-free location and stage, BSL interpreters, captioned films, projected text, audio description, gender-neutral accessible toilets, and a room to rest in if we were exhausted or couldn't deal with people or lights. And we got it all.
In that room in Birmingham University, we suddenly knew we would keep demanding access, and keep improving on it, and eventually have to do less of the work ourselves. We felt that finally non-disabled and hearing people in the poetry world might start providing access without so much fuss, and if they didn't, there were enough of us – and we were excellent enough – to just pass them by. It was a powerful moment. Poets from across the UK who had been publishing and performing for years told me it was the first time they had felt truly comfortable at a reading, truly allowed to be themselves. And whether or not poets made it to that room, they said that they finally felt they had a community, or were part of a movement. I'd have to agree that for the first time since moving to Scotland in 2007 I've had a true sense of home, and of wanting to keep writing. Okka, Dan and Markie were the beginning of that. I can't describe how much of a gift they were to work with, politically, personally, poetically. And then 50 wonderful poets gathered around our ideas and helped make a damn fine book. Aside from the word being ruined by jerks who talk about us overcoming having no legs to win the Paralympics, 'inspired' is the perfect word here.
But it isn't inspiration porn. We didn't do it all 'despite' our impairments and we don't want congratulations for managing to leave the house, or for being exceptions to the 'norm' of 'unaccomplished' crips. And like Okka says, we didn't do it for non-disabled people, we did it for other crips. What we've done is big; we've become certain of our own worth, while sometimes even revelling in our impairments – and lauding their unique poetic value. There is no excellence 'despite' here, there is a defined 'because of'.
DS: The readings have been just fantastic, they've felt so celebratory and communal and unlike any readings I've ever been involved with before. There have been a few events I haven't been able to make due to my back condition, but I've also been following mentions of the book on twitter. People are talking about it or adding it to their virtual bookshelves on Goodreads which has been great in not only seeing the interactions that's taking place, but also in initiating communication with people, some of whom are doing similar research to me and we've swapped ideas on disability and book recommendations. That aspect of it has been brilliant bcause otherwise it can feel very lonely in researching within Disability Studies.'
KB: The process of editing the book over the year I was with the project, then the accessible events we had, meeting people we hadn't before, were deeply meaningful to me as the culmination of working within inaccessible environments for so long. It felt like a huge relief to be amongst friends, and to take the reins and create the kind of space we wanted, within which our work could live and grow.
WG: As I know that you all are all too aware, finding publishers who are not only willing to take a risk of D/deaf and disabled poetry but who have some understanding of the issues involved is a rare thing. It sounds as though you have found an incredible partner in Nine Arches Press. Can you comment on some of your interaction with them that helped to make the publication become of the anthology become a reality. There are so many more questions that we could dig more deeply in to but from a practical point of view, we have reached a point where we have to finish up. Is there anything else that you would like to add or think it is important bring up before closing?
DS: Whatever you’re doing you end up dealing with people, and Jane Commane essentially is Nine Arches Press. I’ve had my two collections with the press as well as this anthology and she’s been an amazing editor, incredible professional, and she has been so supportive during the process of getting this book into the world. I think a lot of publishers wouldn’t have been as comfortable in sorting out all the other issues of accessibility that are less commonly seen in publishing – things like the audio versions, and visual poems, but she’s been fantastic.
There’s been some funding from our arts council here in England for this book, and that’s something that we should acknowledge. It reminds me that any publisher trying to bring out something truly much more accessible than the average anthology would have difficulty without external financial help, and that’s something to be thankful of in getting this book out, but it’s also worrying that without extra money more projects like this may not out.
KB: The independent nature of Nine Arches Press, and the more personal relationships/communication that publisher Jane Commane had cultivated with Daniel and Markie Burnhope as a result, and then with Sandra and finally myself, I think played no small part in getting the anthology moving forward to fruition. Obviously, we think Nine Arches should be commended for taking on a project that gave us the reins in terms of designing and editing the manuscript to accessible standards, though instead of ‘risk-taking’, I personally see it as opening up new audiences in a way that will make sense both business-wise and artistically in publishing as a whole. Hopefully more and more institutions will agree! These are all approaches that D/deaf and disabled communities have been pushing for the world over, for quite a while, so I think it behooves publishing as a greater industry to take heed, and open up. (I know that one reason I chose to submit my debut collection Rope to Nine Arches is because I saw that they were publishing Stairs and Whispers, and I wanted publishers like them and Indigenous Species' Tilted Axis Press that were amenable to accessibility thinking. I'm not alone in this want, as co-editing < em>Stairs and Whispershas certainly shown! Ethics matter, and should count for something in this very difficult state of current affairs.)
SA: Well said, Okka. I wouldn't frame publishing disabled and D/deaf people as risk-taking, especially when there's a thirst for our work. Nor do I think publishing us should be framed as an unwieldy or ‘special circumstance’ expense. Publishers need to be thinking about this stuff for all their books, not just when disabled and D/deaf writers are involved. Big publishers can totally afford this, and in terms of the indies, funding bodies should include money for access in the basic amount they allocate per book. We need to start positioning costs for audiobooks, for example, as equally important as printing costs. These aren’t additional considerations, and they aren't so costly if thought about and integrated from the get-go. Like with how ramps and lifts are now integral to most new architecture, the book needs to become an object always designed for easier entry. And anyway, neither quality nor equality should be about who costs the least.
KB: I'd like to thank Wordgathering so much for this interview opportunity, and for your work generally for D/deaf and disabled writers as communities.
DS: I’d like to join Okka in thanking Wordgathering as well; whenever anything happens with literature and disability Wordgathering is always supportive and hopefully this anthology can help influence some of the readers in the US, just like Beauty is a Verb influenced many people here in the UK.
SA: Yes, thanks so much, Mike. And to my favourite two co-conspirators — for ace insights, as always.
KB: If I close with one thing, it would be that working side by side with Daniel Sluman and Sandra Alland has been an enormous pleasure as editor, writer, and human being, and I remain deeply honoured to be a par of this project. I dearly hope we will all watch D/deaf and disabled poet communities grow from strength to strength – societal challenges remain plentiful, but Stairs and Whispers was published, and is out there in the world, trying for accessibility and inclusivity with the hopes for more of both from other books. Writing back. That means so much; nothing about us without us.