Alison Smith

Alison Smith in Sandra Alland's "Fingers"

Alison Smith is a remarkable poet from Scotland who incorporates sign language in her work. She is the poet/performer in Fingers, the video by Sandra Alland that is the $300 first prize winner in LitLive's VidLit contest. This first-person profile of how her work is taken from her correspondence with LitLive writer Kaie Kellough.

 
Alison Smith:
 
My identity as poet has taken many forms. Speaking poetry doesn't come naturally to me and I found my voice and expression through sign language and naturally gravitated towards performance poetry as it is called in the UK. So I have been called a performance poet and a sign poet.
 
Much of my work has been observational, political and extremely personal. Most theme around identity, operations (and scars), being out of control, trying to find myself. At first much of my poetry was about angst, the issues going on in my life, but over time became more observational, and I even discovered I wrote great poems for children. My best poems still are the personal ones written in the early hours of the morning even at 4am! 
 
[The use of sign in my work] was a result of being interviewed for See Hear, a Deaf TV programme on BBC2 about my poetry. The interview was translated into British Sign Language by Deaf actress Paula Garfield who I knew. That opened my mind to using sign language in my performance and then I became a sign poet! I learned to sign in my 20's. Although born with severe hearing loss, all my family were hearing. I went to mainstream school and spoke, relying heavily on lipreading.
 
I started performing my poetry in the early 1990s. I showed my first four poems to a trusted friend who was also a visual artist and poet (Bushy Kelly) and sat on a park bench squirming with fear as she read my work. Every artist at the start of their career needs a mentor—I'll always appreciate Bushy's response and she really encouraged and supported me. I started going to poetry workshops led by an organisation called Survivors' Poetry. The great thing at that time was it was a really supportive environment to be in and any comments were constructive and supportive. It was about improving your craft.
 
As sign and not spoken word was my tool to expression I had to find ways of presenting it. At first I signed and spoke, but performing in two different languages at the same time was hard work even if it was visually striking.
 
I then recorded my own voice reading the poetry aloud and used a tape recorder to play the poem while I signed that. The first time I did that (at a gig in London in the basement of a cafe where The Rolling Stones had once performed(!) - it was a wee space almost in a corner. It was my proudest moment in that constricted space, almost trapped and my feet practically touching the people in the front row. Being on that stage I could perform my work using my own expression of sign and was in awe at the reception I got. 
 
It worked but it was hard work for me signing in sync to the tape cos of my deafness and trying to think in two languages.  I think and speak with a Glasgow accent but sign British Sign Language like a Londoner (where I learned to sign).
 
Finally I risked asking other poets performing on the same bill if one of them would read my work aloud—it was always another female artist. It was fantastic—the audience didn't expect it (the other poet was on stage but at the side almost narrating). I was free to perform and use the stage to move around and lose myself in the poem. So in effect each performance of the same poem is different as a different voice speaks.
 
I discovered—as a result of performing with sign language interpreters—providing the voiceover didn't work for me. It was too prescriptive and poets have a natural rhythm to reading other people's work.
 
Each performance I've been in and each workshop I've led has been an experience and I've always learned something valuable that adds to my craft and will continue to.
 
In many ways sign poetry, performance and spoken word fits nicely together both visually and aesthetically and whilst you have two different interpretations of the same work taking place on stage - it always becomes one performance.
 
About “Fingers”
 
Since those early days I've dropped in and out of performing my poetry, writing and performing commissions in different places and countries. Working with Sandra [Alland] came after being away from performing [for nine years] and if you had asked me in 2009 before I met Sandra if I was an artist I'd have said no.
 
I've evolved from being on stage to wanting to work more with film and present my work in that medium. I love the opportunities it offers and the freedom it gives. Performing live is incredibly stressful and I've found myself getting more nervous at being on stage. 
 
Working with Sandra to film my poetry (the first I'd even done) took my poetry to another dimension (Fingers was especially written for the b)other exhibition)) and I had clear ideas about how I wanted it presented visually to make it work artistically rather than a straight on filming of the poem. Working with Sandra was fantastic and we discussed in great detail how it would be presented and the deeper meanings I wanted to convey through it.