Lisa Kelly: Why I’m co-editing an issue of Magma that focuses on deafness through poetry

Posted on April 21, 2017

The deadline for contributions of poetry is 30 April. To find out more, please visit

I am deaf in my left ear through contracting mumps as a child, and am on the board of UK contemporary poetry magazine, Magma, which has a different editor or co-editors for every issue.

When it was my turn to choose a theme for issue 69, to be published this November, I knew I wanted to explore the issue of deafness through poetry – poems that explore how people with varying hearing abilities interpret sound, poems that look at what it means to be deaf, poems that make us rethink our relationship with sound and language, poems that break down prejudice.

There was only one person I wanted to co-edit ‘The Deaf Issue’ with – Raymond Antrobus. I met him for the first time at the launch of Magma 63, ‘The Conversation Issue’, which I co-edited in 2015, and asked him to read to a packed audience at the London Review Bookshop.

I loved his moving poem, ‘To Sweeten Bitter’ about his relationship with his father but during the selection process, I had no idea about his deafness. The poem does not touch on Ray’s deafness – at least ostensibly – and it was only at the launch that I noticed his hearing aids and we had a conversation about our deafness and different experiences.

Ray is deaf/Deaf from birth and a former pupil of a deaf school in North London. Ray’s experiences are his own, as are mine, and they are unique, but what we do have in common is an understanding of what it is like to be misjudged.

Growing up, before my deafness was diagnosed (following a conversation with my mum when I reassured her I had slept through her noisy house party because I’d slept on my “good” ear) teachers and adults, on different occasions, thought I was either rude or stupid.

The playground was a nightmare – I preferred a one-to-one with a best friend, and when a schoolmate discovered my middle name is Doris, ‘Deaf Doris’ stuck. I like the alliteration and can laugh at myself, but I still get negative reactions today – if someone speaks to me on my left side I won’t hear them and will be regarded arrogant – or often I reply with a non-sequitur because I’ve misheard the question, and am thought of as dippy.

Conversations in noisy environments are impossible and I avoid them where I can. Being unilaterally deaf, I also can’t locate the source of a sound, so will often go the wrong way when called, and have no idea about the joys of surround sound. It also makes me incredibly jumpy, as noise will appear to come from nowhere!

But there have been good things that have come out of my deafness – my love of books because it is a retreat from the strain of trying to hear; my love of sound because I must focus so hard to hear, and a relish of words.

All these elements have helped inform my poetics – why I love rhyme as it gives me something to cling onto as it anticipates sense; my love of form because aesthetically I respond to an effort to shape sound; and my use of repetition because ‘What?’ is a question often on my lips. Mishearing also leads to fun, generative creativity and word play, which are key elements of many of my poems.

Magma has received funding for this issue and for that we are very grateful to Arts Council England, because it means we can do things we couldn’t normally do – run events, and ensure access with BSL interpreters for example.

Unfortunately, without funding, we will not be able to afford the same level of access for every issue. Magma board members are not paid. We are all volunteers and as everyone in the poetry world knows, selling poetry magazines is a hard slog, whether because of tough economic circumstances or the general shift from print to online. Money is, and will continue to be, an issue.

However, there is something compelling and pleasurable about having a physical magazine in your hands that cannot be usurped by the glare of a screen, and I fully expect Magma 69 to fly off the shelves!

So, in conclusion, my hopes for ‘The Deaf Issue’ are that it gets a conversation going about deafness, about sound, about what we are deaf to, that it includes poems from poets who have never contributed or been published in Magma before, that it explores hearing through poetry at all levels of hearing ability, that we include BSL poetry on our website.

Most of all, I hope it is an issue which includes amazing poetry – whether from a poet who is profoundly deaf or an aurally-enhanced poet that can hear one hand clapping on Mars.

The deadline for contributions of poetry is 30 April. To find out more, please visit

Lisa Kelly’s poetry collection, ‘Bloodhound’ is published by Hearing Eye. She is a regular host of poetry events at the Torriano Meeting House in Kentish Town, London. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University and runs poetry workshops.

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