Aural anarchy from the sound of silence

Deaf poet and musician Aaron Williamson gives explosive `recitals'. Susan de Muth was among the shell-shocked

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.

News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

    Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

    Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

    £40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

    £40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

    Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015