Deaf Poetics: A conversation with Josephine Dickinson

Editor’s Note: After we have published our first Roundtable Discussion on Poetics And Disability in early 2018 (which was followed up by our Roundtable Discussion on Deaf Poetics) we have received many e-mails, indicating much interest. There were also numerous requests to continue this work. Our response was to start a series of individual interviews with poets exploring Deaf poetics. The conversation with Raymond Antrobus appeared in late 2018.

Here, I am especially pleased to begin 2019 with the conversation on Deaf poetics with Josephine Dickinson.

The the well known UK poet, Dickinson has been deaf since the age of six, due to childhood illness. Having studied classics at Oxford, she went on to careers as a composer, poet and musician. Writing about her work in The New York Times, James Longenbach stated that “her acute relationship to the physical sensation of language” distinguishes her work.

“I work in the rich hinterland between language and sound, sound and sign, sign and sema, and on the edge of what is often described as ‘wilderness’ in the high Pennines of Cumbria,” says Josephine Dickinson in this conversation with Poetry International. “As a Deaf artist I have made this my eco-niche. Recent works challenge narratives of meaning, boundaries between senses and place.” For Josephine Dickinson, “the sense of hearing, like all the senses, is a deeply mysterious thing.” When asked how as a Deaf person she can hear voices, music, poetry, Josephine Dickinson responds: “How can a hearing person hear?”

For her, “actual living language — sign or speech — constantly crosses boundaries, blurs categories, thrives on ebb and flow.” She says: “I am constantly trying out a poem that isn’t a poem. If it dropped on your foot it would hurt.”

If you missed our earlier discussion on Deaf Poetics, you may find it at this link. Thank you for reading.

— Ilya Kaminsky


What does it mean to be deaf, Deaf or Hard of Hearing poet in this moment in time?

These words of Jonathan Skinner, writing in Jacket2 come to mind: ‘form emerges when we make our own limitations available, as a contact site for the other’

To be deaf, Deaf or Hard of Hearing in this time and in this country means, amongst other things, and not necessarily all at once for everyone, and not in any particular order:

To be misunderstood, to be or not to be a member of a community, to be cut off from communication, to be derided and ridiculed, to be invisible, to be an individual but lumped with others in one category, to have a social problem dismissed as a medical problem, to be a member of a linguistic minority in a world where everything is contingent upon accessing videos and using the telephone, to be constantly at a disadvantage, to be denied medical treatment, to be denied technical support, to be denied social support, to be discriminated against, to be marginalized, to be denied one’s birthright British Sign Language, to be constantly tired, to be vulnerable to loneliness, to be vulnerable to mental health problems, to be poor, to lose lose standing in one’s chosen profession, through lack of support and other factors.

Mainstream Western culture lumps all deaf/Deaf/Hard of Hearing people together in one category. It is vitally important to make it clear to the world that every deaf/Deaf/Hard of Hearing person is different. As a Deaf person I can really only speak with authority of my own experience. My experience encompasses ‘normal’ hearing (up to age 6), profound deafness (overnight at age 6), using hearing aids (from age 6), sudden total deafness (six years ago), extreme tinnitus (from six years ago), use of a single cochlear implant (from four years ago). This experience has been compounded and shaped by my education according to the convention of the time according to the ‘oral’ tradition, ie, by forcibly putting me in a hearing school with no support, and preventing me from accessing British Sign Language or associating with other Deaf people when I was growing up, thus condemning me to a lifelong position of being in the ‘in-between land’, neither in the Deaf nor the hearing worlds. This unique position profoundly shapes and informs my work as a poet and artist.

Often, when the conversation about deaf, Deaf, or hard-of-hearing poets takes place at mainstream conferences and/or media, the recurring subject is that of equal access and discrimination. This subject is very important and should be discussed and addressed. But one also wonders if enough spotlight is placed on the poetics. With that in mind, could you speak about your poetics and your relationship to language?

My personal history of deafness and my trajectory — through ‘normal’ hearing in childhood, to sudden profound deafness at age six, then hearing-aid-assisted hearing from then until I suddenly became totally deaf in 2012, when I experienced a powerful and complex inner sound world constructed by my brain in the absence of outer auditory stimulation, and finally my experience of receiving a cochlear implant in December 2013 and the subsequent ‘switch-on’ and aftermath — informs my aesthetic practice in its phenomenological approaches to the sounds in the landscape, to which I have become more and more attuned and about which I have become more and more questioning. My essay on the early experience of receiving a cochlear implant (I specify ‘early’ because the experience is ongoing and evolving) was commissioned and published by Aeon in August 2014:

On the morning of 6th December 2015, the morning of what would be known as Storm Desmond, I and a small band of artists and friends calling ourselves Earth Companions took part in a dawn vigil on the banks of the swollen White Sike river in Cumbria, close to Garrigill. Here I was filmed reading my climate protest poem Bountiful ( as part of a video (

On April 29th 2012 as I was driving over Hartside to join friends near Penrith I was suddenly plunged into total deafness. Cut off completely from the outside world of sound, I was now immersed in a completely different internal sound world.

Two totally immersive experiences at the edge of extreme experience. Both expressing one aspect of the governing aesthetic and enduring concern of my work as a poet, in which my life itself, alone on a tiny hill farm in the remote high Pennines in direct contact with the seasons, the soil, animals, weather and geological formations is the centre.

In various ways all my poems exist, or aim to exist, in this space where things are directly experienced in the world, where senses break down and phenomenological questions become acute and urgent. They explore the basic unity between humans and nature, at all scales. They explore synchronicities, symbolisms, and natural allegory. They explore the extremes of language as experienced orally/aurally on the one hand and iconically on the other. On the edge of the spoken language of the hearing, of the sign language of the Deaf, they explore alphabets of semiotics, an ecology of orality, perception and social placing as in the poem Alphabetula (

At the same time my Deafness leads me to use language as a ‘clay’ to mould with, tactile and physical. As a Deaf person forcibly raised in an oral culture and deprived of my natural ‘mother tongue’ of sign language, I uniquely occupy the space in between these two worlds and claim the right to make use of that perspective in my work, just as hearing poets may make use of sign language, either in actual fact or in the aesthetic of their imagery (for example much of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry).

In the poem On Not Yet Opening My Parents’ Love Letters I am on the cusp of experiencing a new sound world in the new, very limited form provided by a single cochlear implant. Unapologetically exploring the notion of a ‘spectrum’ traversing the whole range of arts, music, poetry, philosophy I live in astronomical metaphor in NGC1999 (published in ‘Caduceus’) and the structures of mathematics and physics  through the use of the eight symmetries of the square in Newton’s Lantern.

At all times the position is consciously to be ‘in the midst’ of it, as in Earth Journey 30:

This is a planet

This is a place on a planet

This is a river in this place

This is the place the river made

Here I am standing in it


And so, my process is:

  1. Gather material
  2. Map (looking from above)
  3. Walk (looking from below)
  4. Orientate (looking from true North)
  5. Investigate (looking from within)
  6. Listen (structure in time)
  7. Research: History/culture/industry/3rd landscape/place-nomenclature (structure in time)

The first four of these are described as forms of ‘looking’ (our language privileges sight over hearing), but only the fifth and sixth relate to time.

I consider how they all intersect with ‘listening’ and use to create a multi-dimensional sound-work/poem/art-work.

I work in the rich hinterland between language and sound, sound and sign, sign and sema, and on the edge of what is often described as ‘wilderness’ in the high Pennines of Cumbria. As a Deaf artist I have made this my eco-niche. Recent works challenge narratives of meaning, boundaries between senses (eg ALPHABETULA, snow (published in ‘This Place I Know’, Handstand Press) and Peat (published in ‘English’, OUP) especially in live performance).

The sense of hearing, like all the senses, is a deeply mysterious thing. People often ask me how as a Deaf person I can hear voices, music, poetry? I respond by turning the question round. How can a hearing person hear?

Actual living language — sign or speech — constantly crosses boundaries, blurs categories, thrives on ebb and flow, as does all physical movement and process. Who says that there is no such thing as a red plastic heart shaped inflatable boat balloon picture frame (with appendages)? The rigors of communication require that we pretend that things are governed by clear-cut categories. But cognitive modelling preceded speech in human history, and in our dreams we have experiences which defy categorisation and therefore description.

The artist Richard Artschwager once wrote ‘Art is not an idea; it is a THING. If it dropped on your foot that would hurt.’ So I am constantly trying out a poem that isn’t a poem. If it dropped on your foot it would hurt. A cross between a sculpture and a piece of music, a boat and a balloon, or indeed a bridge, the boat’s squat brother.

As a poet and an artist, I ceaselessly interrogate the conditions and possibilities of my art. I am after something hidden from the normal physical senses, in which the difference between light and darkness, sound and silence first becomes manifest. My creative act is itself a work of art. If the hearing are disquieted by the work of a Deaf poet this is simply because, to paraphrase the words of blind photographer Eugen Bavcar, she enacts a return of the repressed but real deafness of the hearing. The capacities of physical hearing and of the inner listening for the voice are two quite separate and distinct things. Sounds on the one hand, which can be represented on paper by a needle on a graph, and on the other hand the voice are by no means at all the same. The creation of poems by the Deaf poet gives the Deaf a voice in the hearing world. I may be profoundly deaf but in a world where the hearing are profoundly insensible to their own deafness I make in my poems the field of sounds more intelligible to those who hear.

‘Bavčar is no more alienated from the world of light by the descent of a shutter on his physical apparatus of seeing than are the sighted. For no matter how hard light shines objects rear up opaque and inaccessible like Daphne metamorphosed into a laurel tree in defiance against the advances of Apollo the sun god, like the tree which stands brilliantly illuminated at night in one of the ‘Souvenirs de Slovenie’. The descent of the shutter is the moment of blindness between perception and possession. What is possessed can never be the thing itself. Photography attempts to get in before the moment of contact and salvage something from this blindness. If that something is what is sought for its own sake it then becomes something to touch and to be untouchable. As death is not an event within our experience, so a photograph is not an event within our vision, nor is it something we can touch, hold or own. As John Cage said, of music recordings, (in the introduction to Lecture on Something in ‘Silence’) “Let no one imagine that in owning a recording he has the music. The very practice of music is a celebration that we own nothing.” ’

Working with assistants in the darkroom and on location, Bavčar raises questions about what it means to say we see, or hear. What it means to create an image, a piece of music, a poem. What the senses mean, with their dedicated pathways in the brain. These pathways which have developed by evolution as a way of connecting our bodies to the world. In his book Listening and Voice, Don Ihde develops the point that there is no essential phenomenological distinction between light, sound, touch, smell and taste. It is a distinction in the neural pathways. We could quite well imagine different pathways that might pick up, for example, radio waves.

And so, what do any limitations on those pathways mean in terms of creativity? A photograph, after all, cannot happen without an aperture in the camera. It is required to be both open for a measured instant, and more or less tiny. There are precise mathematical relationships that govern the relationship between these parameters. As makers, as artists, what are the many different forms of pinholes that we invent and make use of? We choose sound only, colour and line only, a certain material, words. Then we choose, by whatever means and criteria, a method, which may be as prescriptive as an algorithm, or as intuitive as improvisation.


Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap