Aural anarchy from the sound of silence
Deaf poet and musician Aaron Williamson gives explosive `recitals’. Susan de Muth was among the shell-shocked
SUSAN DE MUTH
He stands outside the performance space and peers in through the glass doors. He holds up words printed on boards, burns them, throws them at the window, posts them through a gap. In weighty silence the audience strains to read them. The “joke” slowly dawns on those who know. Aaron Williamson has turned the tables on us, the hearing. For he is profoundly deaf, always seeking to decipher words through lip-reading or sign language. There is some uneasy laughter.
When he bursts through the glass doors, it is like an explosion of noise. People step back, tread on each others’ toes, stumble; we’re assaulted by the violent cacophony of his roaring, screaming, jibbering, weeping and moaning. Stamping so that the floorboards resound, Williamson strikes a balletic pose and suddenly, from the echoes of this aural anarchy, brings forth a serene and lucid stream of poetry. The feedback from his wayward hearing aid produces an eerie accompaniment which could be the music of the spheres. Some people cry. The experience is overwhelming.
Williamson’s subject is his deafness, the intense inner life of a person isolated in silence, the frustrations and limitations of verbal communication. That the audience participates in this experience through sound and words is ironic, but also part of what makes the work so original and powerful.
Drained by his performance, Williamson happily accepts the suggestion of a few drinks. As we move through the shell-shocked remains of the audience in the foyer, a girl of five breaks free of her father’s hand and tugs at Aaron’s sleeve. “I thought you were really excellent,” she pipes up. A grin, an undisguised expression of surprise, sweeps away his frown as he thanks her. “People don’t normally know what to make of it,” he confides.
The bar is noisy and conversation is harder for me than Williamson who is an astonishingly adept lip-reader. Although he started losing his hearing at seven years old, he covered it up, staying in mainstream education until he left at 16. “I feared rejection – social and personal – and preferred not to tell people I was deaf,” he says. He fooled most of his teachers.
At 34, Williamson is doing well. His books of verse, Cathedral Lung and Holythroat Symposium, are sold out and being reprinted. He has a growing following and lectures in Performance Writing at Dartington College in Devon. There is a deep-rooted sense of purpose and self-reliance about him, yet his poetry and performances testify this was not always so.
Although the adults around him hoped for a miracle cure, Williamson says that he “knew the truth” at 10. “I felt the world drifting away from me,” he recalls in a voice that still bears traces of his Derbyshire roots. “At night I would be secretly traumatised. But I blocked against the initial feelings of terror and isolation; I decided never to accept not trying to communicate as an option.”
With deafness encroaching by stages, cruelty, rejection and “intense, hermetic friendships” characterised his teenage years. These eventually spat out a fully fledged punk rocker who fronted a band with his own brand of violently energetic vocals.
Music remains a passion. “I often wish I could hear new records,” he says, “but I get a lot out of reading really good reviews.” He still performs with musicians and recently touredeastern Europe with Alex Balanescu (of the Balanescu quartet). “I am keenly sensitive to vibrations,” Williamson explains. “I can feel the beat through the floor and I can see the musicians’ rhythm as they play.”
Pronounced “profoundly deaf” at 27, Williamson changed course. He gave up playing with bands and went to university, where he gained a first- class degree in Literature. He also embarked on his career as a poet and performer, realising that his unique perspective gave him a lot to say about language in a phonocentric world.
Williamson challenges conventional ideas of what is “beautiful” in poetry. His work explores the inner life not only emotionally, or mentally, but also physically. In Cathedral Lung, for example, he graphically describes the process of forming words, the labour of utterance: “Tongue/pulls along/pulleys, tarpaulins and traps … the whole thing groaning … a snail slides towards daylight/tunnelling iron/into the roots;/ winches hoisting the/dead mass of dead purple/weight.” That this effort is ultimately futile – the poem ends with the words entering his throat rather than leaving his mouth – is a powerful description of the frustrations of conversation.
The relationship between language and the body is one which fascinates him. For Williamson, writing, as well as performance, should be a radical exploratory exercise. “English poetry at the moment tends to be defensive of already established positions,” he says. “Yet there are so many more seams to unearth in language. The words themselves, the modes of saying, are as significant as meaning. I am looking for a more physical currency of accord. My work is neither `mainstream’ nor `experimental’. As a deaf person, I haven’t made an aesthetic choice; my work relates to actuality.”
Although Williamson did not grow up in the deaf community, and does not see himself as a role model or spokesperson, he is intensely aware of social attitudes towards the deaf. “Even `politically correct’ newspapers say so-and-so was deaf to something,” he says. “I suppose they mean ignorant. There is a perception that deaf people are bad-tempered, like Beethoven , which surfaces if you show signs of assertiveness or ill humour.”
The average British male, he says, refuses to facilitate communication. “I rarely have a problem with anyone else, though. If I can’t decipher what they’re saying, they’ll write it down. For some men this is unthinkable – as if the act of writing were giving something away,” he laughs incredulously. This reticence, he believes, is also class-based. “The upper classes rely on attracting and controlling people by saying not very much at all,” he notes.
In the past few years, Williamson has developed “almost constant synaesthesia”: sounds from the stock in his memory superimpose themselves on to visual events – an effect he finds fascinating. Equally interesting are the lapses of communication which occur in personal relationships – “It’s like, oh, there’s a misunderstanding, quite a funny one too,” he smiles. Intimate friendships, however, are treasured and guard him against “the inherent danger of withdrawal”.
“Being deaf,” he concludes, “helps me to explore language as an unstable, fluctuating medium. My position as an artist is absolutely my position as a person. This statement is always greeted with incredulity, but I actually prefer being the way I am.”
Aaron Williamson will be performing in London tomorrow at 7-12pm at 148 Charing Cross Road, W1, as part of the launch of `Dust’, a Creation Books poetry anthology.