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Quiet Riot: The Poets Who Do Not Talk, But Have Plenty To Say

21 April 17 interview: Bridie Squires

Nottingham’s Maresa MacKeith is a poet, educator, and member of the Quiet Riot collective – a group of wordsmiths who are unique in their literary plight, in that each member communicates nonverbally. We visited Maresa to find out more about creating poetry by tapping on a letter board, what it feels like to have it voiced by a personal assistant through facilitated communication, and the Notts launch of the Quiet Riot anthology at Sobar…

illustration: Alex Verity

Tell us about your first experiences of poetry…
When I was around fourteen, I had I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou read to me. It felt like she was talking directly to me – a voiceless girl. I think that was the moment I thought, “Yes, I want to tell my story.” I wrote a lot, not always poetry, but poetry had a music to it that I loved.

Your first poems, do they differ a lot from the kind of thing you’re writing now?
Not in terms of the themes, subjects and experiences. I would like to think I am better at being clearer and braver in my poems now than I was at fourteen, but I still share old work and it can connect.

Are there any milestones in bravery and clarity that are particularly memorable to you?
A poem jumps to mind – it’s called The Sting. I wrote it on an Arvon [writing residential] with Mouthy Poets, years ago. It’s about my family, in a sense. I get nervous sharing it every time. Not sure if I will ever not get nervous about it.

It features in Quiet Riot Collected – am I right in saying you’re the one who instigated the anthology?
In a sense, yes. I knew most, if not all, of the group wrote or had things to say. Also at that time, the group was struggling to meet. Contact was difficult, so I wanted the anthology to tie us all together.

What did the curation process look like?
A lot of emails. It’s so complex because each member of the group has specific needs and PAs with different skills. We really had to learn when to give deadlines, when to be direct, and when to take control without wanting to leave anyone behind. It took well over a year from the idea to the end result to emerge, if not longer.

How did the collective initially meet?
Quiet Riot is a collective of individuals who all cannot communicate verbally, so use alternative methods of communication. We met around 2010 in Manchester, and continue to meet when we can. They are my friends, and I believe in their voices. Joe Whittaker helped bring us together. He was instrumental in creating links, a venue, agendas, and being open to what we, the members, wanted to become.

What kind of challenges and frustrations have you felt both as a collective and as an individual poet?
I feel I can only speak for myself, but even the act of accepting once I have written a poem. To share it aloud requires handing it to someone else – this is something that can be a positive but also can feel like giving the poem away to a different voice. Lately, I have thought more about venue access to poetry nights and what I need to feel comfortable.

Can you tell us more about facilitated communication and how it works both in the initial creation process, the editing process, and what kind of effect it has on your work?
I usually start with having the PA set up a dictaphone, or recording device, to speak into. I tap away like crazy on my board – a freewrite kind of thing. I like the word ‘splurge.’ My PA just says each word I spell out loud, no editing or writing down yet. We listen back and I work out the juicy bits to write down, then they print, show me and we work through each word, each line. It’s intricate, but very intense.

Do the other members of Quiet Riot have a similar writing process?
I believe it’s very varied. I need to ask them. It could make a good topic for a future Quiet Riot meeting.

With stories of struggle in education and psychological assessments, the anthology Quiet Riot have created together feels like a call to arms, revolutionary…
The name is symbolic in the idea of a riot, of quiet, in the way we cannot make a noise with our mouths. But writing? Yes. We face struggle in being seen as unintelligent with limited things to say, but we are loud in our collective voice. The anthology will hopefully prove this. It’s good that you mention the struggles in the anthology – it is not necessarily an easy read, but it is about being honest. Things are awful just as much as they are wonderful. We wanted to provide the world with our stories. The pain and the progress, and whatever response comes from that is at least discussion.

What has it been like working with Inclusive Solutions as publishers?
They are two incredible humans who travel the world educating organisations on what inclusion can be. They were on board very quickly, but challenged us, too. They wanted precision – what does it feel like to be us? The most powerful words we have written, gathered together and refined.

The Quiet Riot collective, and the different styles that exist within it – where do you think you fall in relation to the rest of the group?
I see myself as almost a mother figure. I spent so long taking care of all these poems; sending them out into the world in the form of this anthology was terrifying, in a way. Would anyone listen or care?

The cover of the anthology has an illustration of two birds on it...
Not an easy process. How to capture the group in one image? My friend Ni Smith designed it, but we took a long time to be satisfied. One of the group, Thiandi Grooff, came up with the idea of two storks – she liked the simplicity of them, and the idea of being birdlike comes out in her poetry, I think. So, we took it from there. Such a long, sensitive process.

If there were one message or feeling you would like a reader to take away from the anthology, what would it be?
I think simply to say our mantra: Just because we do not talk, does not mean we have nothing to say.

What can people expect from the Nottingham launch?
We’ve launched the anthology in Amsterdam and Manchester because we have members from all over. Nottingham’s launch will fall on the opening night of the Poetry Festival. We love that connection. It will be an evening of sharing work from the anthology, talks, poetry, videos – a celebratory validation almost, of all the work put into it. We wrestled with the event being public or private and the reality is that due to the diverse needs of our group, opening up the space to anyone may risk the enjoyment and the comfort of our own members. Also, Sobar, the venue, talked about rearranging the space to suit these needs and with that a very specific number of people could be there.

Beyond the Nottingham launch of Quiet Riot Collected, what are your future plans for your own personal poetry career and those of the collective?
For myself, I have been sitting on a small pamphlet of poetry for a while now – poems dedicated to the memory of my gran. For Quiet Riot, we have a July meeting planned and talks are beginning about a potential Dublin launch.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to LeftLion readers?
Keep reading LeftLion. Keep reading in general. And if you would have liked to be at the launch in this city, you can still get in touch to find out more about Quiet Riot and future events.

Quiet Riot Collected is available to buy now via Inclusive Solutions.

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