by Stephen Lightbown, author of Only Air

It’s Thursday, 6pm, no other poets or members of the audience have arrived. I am calm. This feeling of serenity is freaking me out. But not enough to dent the calmness. Before any reading I am usually overcome with nerves. My appetite deserts me, sweat patches start to take over my clothing and I am quiet, solitary and contemplative which are always great things to be before speaking to an audience. Yet, ahead of the launch of my debut collection Only Air, published in March, I didn’t feel any of these things. I tried to think why this might be and wondered if it was because this was a reading done on my terms.

I’ve been lucky enough to secure some Arts Council funding as part of the Developing Your Creative Practice Fund and this has enabled me to put on a series of launches, the first of which was this one at Spike Island Café in Bristol. What the funding has enabled me to do is choose the venue and other poets, oversee the promotion and have control over the day and time. As a disabled poet writing about my experiences of being a wheelchair user this has been hugely important to me. I can sometimes feel like an outsider at a poetry event. I don’t often see people who look like me in a wheelchair talking openly about disability. Sometimes the access isn’t quite right, sometimes events take place on days that make it difficult for me to attend due to personal care routines and often I can be anxious about whether the audience actually want to hear what I have to say.

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With the launches I knew I wanted to put on an event that was accessible to as many people as possible and showcase other D/deaf and disabled poets. As a venue I’ve had my eye on Spike Island Café for a while. It’s terrific and I’ve wondered why more of the regular poetry events in Bristol don’t hold nights there. It can take 50 seated, the wheelchair access is good, there is disabled parking, public transport links and the cost of the venue is offset by takings at the bar. Plus the staff are really friendly. I really would recommend it. I’m indebted to Fiona Hamilton a Bristol based poet, who is also currently mentoring me, for hosting. Fiona is brilliant and got exactly what I wanted to do with this event and was great about making the point about access being something that is overlooked too often without labouring the point.

So what is Only Air all about then? In 1996 when I was 16, I went sledging in the snow, hit a tree and suffered a life changing accident which left me paralysed. Through Only Air I relive my journey over twenty years from accident to the present day. But I try to do it in a way that celebrates the normalness of my life and how much aiming for normal is important to me. I couldn’t have asked for a better line up to share this journey with.

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Giles L Turnbull is a blind poet living in South West Wales. Published in many magazines, pamphlets and anthologies and shortlisted for the Bridport Prize in 2017. I’d been aware of Giles for a while after hearing him speak on an episode of Lunar Poetry Podcasts discussing accessibility and he was high on the wish list of people I wanted to invite. I was also delighted to invite Donna Williams to perform as well. I hadn’t seen any deaf poets perform in Bristol and knew that was something I wanted to rectify. Donna is a deaf poet who uses English and British Sign Language in her performances. Interested in translation and how to make work accessible to all audiences Donna has performed across the world. As well as Donna it was also crucial to have all of the poems performance interpreted and Nikki Harris signed the whole event.

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I didn’t realise how much seeing a handful of people in the audience who had come for the interpreting would make me emotional or how much the other audience members would also be moved watching Donna perform. That is exactly why I wanted this to happen. Yes there is a financial cost to having performances interpreted and there is a bit more work for poets to do in sharing their set in advance but the pay off in making a performance accessible to as many people as possible has to be worth it.

Whether you have a disability or don’t have a disability there should be a safe and welcoming space for you at poetry events. That is something I’m hoping to achieve with my two further launches in London on the 4 May and Darwen on the 20 June. Come along if you are free it would be lovely to share some poems with you. You’ll have a great night, I promise.

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