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Disability Arts Online

21 November 2011


By Allan Sutherland

We get looked at a lot, and talked about a great deal, but we don't get listened to very much. This does not mean that we have nothing to say. Any number of stories are told about us, as poison dwarves, wicked hunchbacks, pathetic cripples, brave survivors or benefits scroungers. What the story is depends on who is doing the telling. That's why it matters that the stories about us are so rarely told by us.

Neglected Voices attempts to rectify that situation by giving four disabled people the opportunity to tell their own stories. These cycles of poems tell the life stories of a wider group of disabled people, drawn from the range of people involved, to a greater or lesser extent, in the Centre for Citizen Participation. They all have important and interesting stories to tell. But then so, in my experience, do all disabled people.

Since 2003 I have been developing a way of creating poems by editing the transcripts of oral history interviews with disabled people. This has led to two major commissions from Disability Arts Online and my 2010/11 Leverhulme-funded residency at the Centre for Citizen Participation, Brunel University.

In a happy coincidence, early in 2004 ‘Oral History’ carried Krista Woodley’s article: ‘Let the Data Sing: Representing Discourse in Poetic Form’. This suggested using poetic devices as a way of creating more informative transcription. As I am primarily a writer rather than an oral historian, that led me to wonder whether poetic devices could be applied to transcriptions to create poetry.

I experimented on the transcription of my interview with Paddy Masefield, and created ‘Paddy: A Life’, a set of 32 poems describing Paddy’s work in the theatre, acquisition of ME and subsequent career as a disability arts activist. More recently I have worked with artist Nancy Willis to produce ‘The Explorer’ a series of 23 poems based on Nancy’s descriptions of her works and life.  She has used these to make a short film, ‘Transformations’.

Found materials

This procedure of working with words that I did not create myself fits into a long artistic tradition. In particular, the incorporation of found materials was an important aspect of twentieth-century modernism, most strongly evident in visual art. Marcel Duchamp from 1913 created what he was to call ‘readymades’, exhibiting such items as a bicycle wheel, a bottle rack, a snow shovel and, with the infamous 1917 ‘Fountain’, a urinal.

Many artists used collage, starting with Braque and Picasso, who would frequently incorporate external printed materials into their drawings and paintings.  The German Dadaist John Heartfield developed the technique of photomontage, showing that it was possible to use found images.  He manipulated them strongly, to serve as anti-Nazi propaganda, but later artists such as Andy Warhol were to use photographs in something much more resembling their original form.

Picasso frequently used found materials, as in his delightful 1944 ‘Bull’s Head’, created from the saddle and handlebars of a bicycle. The Disability Arts version of this is Tony Heaton’s 1995 ‘Great Britain from a Wheelchair’, a map of Great Britain made from parts of two old NHS wheelchairs.

In 1953 the American neo-Dadaist Robert Rauschenberg demonstrated that use of external materials could be subtractive as well as additive when he erased a drawing by the celebrated abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning. A later canvas, the 1955-59 ‘Monogram’, incorporated a stuffed goat.  In the 1960s Pop Art drew heavily on found images, often from commercial art, using such sources as comic strips, flags, police photos and soup cans.

The use of found materials was slower to catch on in literature.  In the 1920's T.S.Eliot was noted for his habit of including chunks of work from other writers, to the extent that ‘The Waste Land’ is followed by a set of notes giving his sources.  But this is material that is already ‘poetic’, not true found material.
The Dadaists and the Surrealists created a number of techniques such as automatic writing and cutup, where existing texts are cut into pieces and rearanged. These are techniques aimed at dislocating the written text, rather than bringing out any truth in the source material.

One has to wait until after the second world war to find stronger use of true found materials. William Carlos Williams had in 1934 produced ‘This is Just To Say‘, a lovely little poem which, interestingly, written as a note left on a refrigerator, takes the form of a found poem, even though it is not one. But real found elements do play an important part in Williams’s epic  ‘Paterson’, published in sections throughout the 40's, 50's and 60s. This brings in a variety of external materials, including excerpts from historical documents, newspaper articles, a surveyor’s report and sections of his correspondence with fellow poets such as Marcia Nardi and Allen Ginsberg.

The Jewish objectivist poet Charles Reznikoff in 1965 produced ‘Testimonies’, a long book of poems based directly on court records from 1855-1915, subdivided according to geographical region and subject matter.  The American poet and critic Aldon Lynn Nielsen has said about the sections titled ‘Negroes’,  ‘These sections, taken as a whole, constitute the most substantial consideration given to black life by a white poet during the modernist period, and for once they let that life speak for itself, in the form of dispassionately reported depositions.’2

I am not working from dispassionate depositions - quite the contrary - but it is my intention to let disabled people speak for themselves.

A later book by Reznikoff, the 1975 ‘Holocaust’, used material from the Nuremberg trials and the trial of Adolf Eichmann. This is generally held to be less successful. It is clear that Reznikoff’s intention with both books is documentary.  This was not an exercise in linguistic abstraction.

A common feature of most work from found sources is that it starts from written sources. Reznikoff deliberately chose the very formal language of court testimony to provide dispassionate sources that would let the events speak for themselves. Such work also tends to bring together a collage of text from different sources.  Working at length from a single oral source does seem to be something new.

The work I know that is closest to what I am doing is by a British poet, Graham Harthill, writer of the 2003 ‘Life-Lines; transcription poems from the Ledbury Poetry Festival’. These poems are based on conversations with older people, including some with cognitive loss. (Harthill has worked for some years with people who are affected by Alzheimers.) He describes his working method as ‘poetry as process: I listen and jot down notes, or try to remember what was said, or sometimes even tape-record it. Then I try to turn it into poetry.’ This is evidently a more subjective form of transcription than the very full transcription of an oral history interview from which I like to start.

What does the introduction of poetic techniques add to a transcription?

Let me take the example of repetition. Anyone who has read a full transcription of an interview will be aware that all but the most extremely precise of speakers repeat themselves. A question I asked in a recent interview transcribes as: “So, what, what was, what was it like at home, tell me where you lived?”

This sort of repetition is the kind of thing I would cut when making a ‘cleaned up’ transcription of the sort I would use for journalism, or writing a book.  I edit out repetition, along with ums and ers and slips of the tongue and unfinished sentences and signs of speech impediment and non-meaning-bearing utterances like ‘you know’ and ‘well’ because they are superfluous, they are just noise, slowing things down and impeding communication. They are part of that gap between what Chomsky refers to as linguistic competence, the Platonic perfection of underlying syntax, and linguistic performance, the messy stuff that comes out of our mouths.[3]

But when it comes to turning transcription into poetry, it’s a different matter. Repetition has always been an important part of verse, especially so when it is closest to song.  Consider that extraordinary mediaeval survival The Lyke Wake Dirge:

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle_lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

Shakespeare uses repetition for a huge variety of purposes. It gives us Hamlet’s indecision,

‘To be or not to be’,
Lear’s anger at Cordelia,
‘Nothing will come of nothing; speak again.’
and Othello’s jealous torment,
‘But yet the pity of it, Iago! O! Iago, the pity of it, Iago!’.
Blake uses repetition for visionary intensity:
‘Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the Night’

In ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, Tennyson uses repetition for onomatopoeia, summoning up the galloping hooves of the doomed cavalry:

‘Half a league, half a league, half a league onwards’

And we can carry on all the way up to Bob Dylan:

‘And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall’

where repetition is used to keep the listener waiting, and thereby emphasise the full statement once we get there.

The skill of converting transcription into poetry

As part of my residency with Brunel University’s Centre for Citizen Participation, I worked with Jennifer Taylor, a member of Lambeth People First. The following excerpt comes from a section of the interview where Jennifer describes how she was hit by a car in childhood, the accident that left her learning disabled.  She describes how her mother came running out.

And that’s when she started
crying her eyes out.
And were kind of saying to me brother
where’s Jennifer? Jennifer’s dead.
Jennifer’s dead. I wasn’t dead,
just laying there, laying there.

An extraordinary change has taken place. A hesitant or tentative form of speech has been transmuted into a very potent form of poetry. As the above examples have demonstrated, repetition is capable of communicating a very wide range of emotions. In the lines I have just read it gives us first the emotions of the frantic mother, then those of the victim, lying there like an observer while the life she has now left behind goes on around her, with the counterpoint of ‘Jennifer’s dead’ and ‘I wasn’t dead’ elegantly bridging the gap between the two. The great thing for me as a writer is that, because such repetitions are a feature of the transcription that can perfectly respectably be edited out, I have choice of whether to use them or not. The skill is to make the decision that tells the story rather than works against it.

This idea that converting transcription into poetry changes the emotional content potentially has great implications for Krista Woodley’s argument that the forms of poetry can be used to aid analysis of the material.   

Specifically, I would caution that the use of poetic form introduces another level of decision making, and this is not value-free. I am happy to shape the material, make it say what I want to, but this is not necessarily appropriate behaviour for an academic researcher.  (Not that you can ever completely avoid such shaping.)

I mentioned telling a story. Most of the skills I am applying to these transcriptions are not the conventional skills of lyric poetry, but the skills I have learnt from fifteen years as a radio and television scriptwriter.  In particular that training has given me a grasp of structure, whether on the level of the individual line, the scene or the overall story arc. For example, I am at present working with two people who acquired their impairments suddenly - Jennifer Taylor from the car accident described above and Catriona Grant from a stroke in her forties. My opening question in both cases has not been "How did it happen?", but "Tell me about your childhood". I want to know who this thing happened to. So you get a three act structure: once upon a time there was this person; then this thing happened to them, overturning their life; and then they went forward like this. Each poem is like a scene in that drama.

Division into lines and stanzas gives timing, something I learnt a lot about when writing comedy.  It allows one to control what emphasis is given to particular pieces of information.  This is not necessarily the emphasis originally given by the speaker.

The other key skill from scriptwriting is characterisation. Each of these sets of poems has a single central character - the person I have interviewed, or the version of them that I create using their words.  But the reader has to find out about them and care what happens to them.  So when making choices about what parts of the transcription to use, one of the things one has to consider is: does this build character?  Although the poems are all in the first person, it is really important to remember that the person speaking is being described.

The use of grammar

I like to make a very full transcript, with as little editing out as possible.  It’s worth distinguishing that from a full transcript made as an end result, an accurate document for researchers to use.  For me the transcript is an interim stage. I want to maximise flexibility, give myself as much to work with as possible. When I wrote ‘Paddy: A Life’, I worked from a very ‘clean’ transcript with all the noise edited out. When I worked with Nancy Willlis, I decided to explore using the ums and ers and hesitations, and kept them in while transcribing.

This proved very productive. For example the poem ‘Self Portrait’, discussing Nancy’s picture of that name, and the events that provoked it, begins:

I think this might be the first time
that I’d done anything about
this little image here
of a tiny baby and
er one of the things I’d been..
probably had led to
the most difficult period of my life

That starts as a perfectly grammatical sentence until it gets to the phrase ‘tiny baby’, when it suddenly collapses into dislocation. An unfinished sentence, a pause, another unfinished sentence, a sentence that starts in the middle until the stanza suddenly comes back into focus with the phrase ‘the most difficult period of my life’.

Nancy goes on to tell a shocking story, but precisely the sort of account that I want to put on record to show what disabled people’s lives have been like. It needs to be recounted calmly, but not dispassionately.  Nancy does not say what feelings these events left her with, but we don’t need to be told.  That fractured opening has already told us all we need.

Literary solutions

Creating literature from transcriptions means that one has access to literary solutions to problems that arise. Let me give you a couple of examples.

The first relates to interviewing somebody whose memory, or other mental faculties, are impaired. I have encountered this both with Jennifer Taylor, who has learning difficulties as a result of a head injury, and with my partner Victoria, who has MS. I have not found it at all easy with Jennifer to be entirely clear what order things have happened in. She gives differing accounts of the same incident, or conflates things that have almost certainly taken place separately. I realised as I was interviewing her that, before starting interviewing, I should have had a session, possibly with a support worker present, where we established a timeline.

But even with such extra work, one is likely to get aspects of the story where what really happened can not be pinned down. Interviewing Victoria I sometimes know she’s wrong, or not giving the full story, because I remember what did happen, or at least the story about what did happen that she used to tell. But there are other things she mentions that make me think, "is this just something she never told me about before?" So how do we deal with not being able to establish exact truth?

One useful literary device is the unreliable narrator. Novels and, to a lesser extent, films sometimes employ a narrator who turns out to be other than what the audience thinks - as in Agatha Christie’s ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’, where the narrator proves to be the killer, or the film ‘The Usual Suspects’ - or who knows less than the reader, perhaps by being a child, being under-educated, (such as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in both cases) or just failing to understand what is clear to see, as with Rob Bryden’s character in the series ‘Marion and Geoff’, the taxi driver who does not realise that his wife is having an affair.

If, therefore, in creating the narrative that comes from our transcription, we establish that the narrator is not always right, or at least may present different versions that are true in different ways, we alert the reader to the fact that they have to think about the information that they are presented with. Interestingly, in that context some things will come blazing through, obviously not to be doubted. This technique is only available as an option because I am telling a story, creating something with which the audience has to engage as construct.

Working with Victoria, I have thought that it might be interesting to cease holding back from disagreement, have the discussions, record the whole thing and create dialogue poems.

With Catriona Grant I am currently thinking about the issues involved in making poems from interviewing someone with aphasia. I had assumed that this would mean that I would end up with a transcription containing a lot of anomalies - unfinished sentences, wrong words, malapropisms or whatever - which could be interesting to work with. But the transcription is actually very lucid - and really quite inaccurate. When interviewing Catriona, it’s evident that she is having a struggle to get each word out, ar-ti-cu-lat-ing syllable by syllable. And she gestures constantly, dramatising the work she’s putting in to each word. None of this comes through in the transcription. So I find myself wondering if I should create dislocations, in order to be true to what I can see is happening rather than to the transcription or even the recording.

It might be possible to create an interesting piece of work using stage directions - She clenches her fist and pulls, as if trying to heave the word out of obscurity or whatever. But to make that work I think one would have either to videotape the interview or move much further into fiction than I really wish to do. What I am doing is documentary, but it is creative, not academic. I am not trying to be impartial. My telling of these stories is to some extent a dramatisation, a quite strongly edited version of the original transcription.

I am finding that this is an immensely valuable way of documenting the lives and experiences of disabled people. Its strength is an ability to deal in emotions, to make the reader really feel the truth of those experiences. But I would emphasise that the devices that are valuable to me in producing a literary work are potential dangers for the academic interviewer, particularly if adopted unconsciously. Story and characterisation and the timing of dialogue are immensely powerful tools. Words can have meaning in written form that was not there in speech.