Touching the Wild Shape of Poetry

Well, this essay was supposed to enter a contest, but it doesn’t meet the specifics. So I’ll share it with you instead!


Last semester, I returned home after a long day of teaching and found a large flat box on my bed. I could just make out a logo in the top left corner, the stamp of a local organization that provides free braille materials. I quickly grabbed a pair of red-handled scissors and opened the box. I pulled out four massive braille volumes and one small print book. In large, rounded capital letters, the print book bore the title Seamus Heaney: Poems 1965-1975, and its 230 pages corresponded with the four thick volumes in the box.

I had requested the Heaney poems in braille because I needed the reading practice. Though I learned braille during high school, I preferred large print materials and text-to-speech software. I regularly employed braille for labeling household appliances, school notebooks, and makeup, but I did not do serious reading in braille. The only braille book in my possession was a piece of choral music, collecting dust on a forgotten shelf.

Then, in the summer of 2012, I discovered a need to reexamine braille. Working in a program for blind and visually impaired teenagers, my co-teacher and I led our reluctant pupils through extensive touch-typing exercises. As I examined each student’s progress, I noticed that the students who used braille frequently misspelled words when typing on a print keyboard. To address the issues, I initiated a braille spelling bee, asking one student to contract a word and the next to spell it out.

Though the contests helped students address incidental spelling confusion, I wanted a long-term solution. I questioned students and vision teachers about existing braille materials, hoping to find a system that re-oriented braille users to print spelling. I found none. I decided, then, to brush up my braille skills; I hoped to develop a system to guide braille users through the convoluted field of print spelling. I began a routine and pragmatic review of the braille contractions I had learned years before.

The braille users around me recommended that I order a familiar book in braille, and I thought that poetry would be a less daunting choice. I ordered Seamus Heaney’s North, a short collection of poems I adored. However, the women who brailled my book could only find a copy of his larger collection, which included North and three other short books. I found myself running my hands over the extra volumes in delight. I took North to work so that I could read it whenever I had free time. Because I teach several introductory composition courses and tutor writing, free time comes at unexpected moments. Seamus Heaney’s braille volume sits in my office, waiting for twenty extra minutes between classes. When this time appears, I treat it as a gift. I leave my office – a space I reserve for grading, student conferences, and other obligatory work tasks – and search for an amiable reading space.

When I am looking for a good place to read a print book, I must consider the lighting of my environment. Because I am extremely light-sensitive, I prefer to read in dimly lit areas. I am unable to read print in any bright environment. Despite my long-cherished desire to nestle against an old oak with a volume of Romantic poetry, I cannot do it. Behind my favorite dark sunglasses, I still see words as faint scribbles on pale pages.

Remarkably, the arrival of Heaney’s poems in braille has changed my reading experience. I have been able to carry the book into any environment. Whether I’m sitting by a sunny window or in a patch of sun on a garden bench, I can comfortably read the poems. While on campus, I can carry them deep into the nature trails or settle into the wide bench swing beside the small lake. Since my hands are not disturbed by the presence of light, I can enjoy the warm Florida sun, casting glaring rivulets across the wide, white pages.

Previously, I had approached braille as a means to an end – a step I had to take before my students’ grammar could improve. I prepared myself for hours of dedicated reading, annotation, and memorization. I welcomed the task in the service of good writing. I did not expect a serious confrontation from the neat rows of small dots, pushing themselves against my hands. Thinking that I had already met everything on the printed page, I could not predict the wild transformation that braille would bring.

Braille has given me a new kind of accessibility – not just access to a text, but the freedom to experience that text in its most fruitful setting. What once functioned as a utilitarian method for labeling everyday items has entirely altered the way I read, imagine, and compose poetry. Still learning, I read slowly and carefully, and this deliberate contemplation, this meticulous immersion, carries me deep inside each poem. I think all poetry, regardless of language, is meant for braille and outside reading. The tactile act of reading braille poetry, of imbibing its potent words through my fingertips, is a kind of meditation. To read poems in braille outside is to allow my whole body to celebrate the ability to feel.

My interactions with braille poetry have not changed the shape of my daily reading. I continue to use large print materials in digital and paper form. But braille offers me the freedom to take poetry to the places that feed my creativity and fire my imagination. With braille, I escape the prosaic routine chosen from visual necessity. Breathing deeply, I retrace the words of the original poet, against the sun and wind.

Uncommon Reader

On Friday morning, I sit across from Elena, a soft-spoken student with a thick Cuban accent. She is a cellist and a dear friend who struggles with writing in English. She explains that she needs help with an essay assignment for one of her music theory courses. Her voice is gentle and husky, full of warmth.

She slides her paper across the table, and I pick it up. The white sheets contrast strongly with the muted color of the desk. I begin to scan her work.

“Okay, some of these sentences are very long,” I explain calmly. “Let’s try to break them into shorter ones. That will make the essay easier on the reader.”

She picks up her mechanical pencil—identifiable by the sound of the lead rattling around in the plastic casing—and writes my suggestions on her paper. I guide her through the revision process, offering changes and listening to the changes she wants to make. When we finish the two pages, she turns to me and asks, “So that was easy for you to read?”

I want to reassure her, to let her know that her English is comprehensible. “Yes, I understood what you were writing about.”

“But the font, the size, you could read it? It was easy?”

“Oh…well, it wasn’t difficult, but it was a little small. I normally ask my students to print in size 18.”

“When I came in, you were reading,” she continues. “You are always reading!”

I laugh. I had been reading Georgina Kleege’s Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller. I’ve been reading this book for a while—it’s the book I carry with me for incidental reading, reading while running errands or during odd moments at work. “I love to read,” I confess. It’s not much of a confession. Anyone who has spoken to me for more than 15 minutes knows I adore reading.

“I am glad you can read so well,” Elena finishes sincerely. “You love it, and I’m glad you can do it!”

She leaves and I pick up my book, flipping to the page where a large paper clip marks my place. I begin reading and thinking about reading, the book an inch from my nose.

I read from left to right. I read avidly. I read slowly. I read with one eye. My right eye tracks lines, recognizes characters, and takes me deep into a book’s pages. My left goes along for the ride, responsible only for keeping me in three dimensions.

As with most activities, I prefer to read by dim lighting. I’ve recently discovered yellow lightbulbs, which give my room a soft, Old World glow. When I was younger, Mom would come into my dim room, see me reading, and flip on a light, “Is that better?” she’d ask cheerfully, and I’d reply, “No!” in a surly tone.

When I was a child, all my reading materials passed beneath the weight of a glass dome magnifier. The magnifier, about the size of my fist, would gather light and enlarge the text. I remember its weight well—so many times, I fell asleep on my back, a book in one hand and the magnifier resting against my face.

Later, on advice from a low vision specialist, I exchanged the heavy magnifier for 10x bifocal bubbles in my glasses. These allowed me to read more comfortably; I could hold the book in one hand and a pen for annotating in the other. The bifocals are my current favorite because they help me read without distorting the appearance of text. Other, more intense magnifiers will change the color and contrast of text, but they transform the cozy warmth of the yellowed page into a digital encounter. These technologies are incredibly helpful when I must accomplish a large volume of reading or when the print is too small for bifocal access. But they do change the character of the reading encounter for me.

However, I am realizing that the shape of reading is infinite. Beneath the heading, “How I Read,” is a collection of processes involving several senses. I read books in print, listen to audiobooks, read texts in braille, engage with materials through text-to-speech software, and, more often than not, combine these methods to access a text. Reading for me is a dynamic encounter with printed, embossed, or typed material. Reading involves more than visually tracking letters. It’s the willingness to engage and be transformed by literary work.

Elena is glad that I can read, and I am excited by the thought of transformation. I can encounter poetry, prose, neuroscience, nature writing, books on linguistics, books on music, books on love. At any given moment, I have a pile of books on my desk that I haven’t read and a long line of audiobooks I’ve downloaded but haven’t heard. I have more than 200 titles on an online wishlist, waiting to be read. I have several volumes of braille poetry, waiting to be experienced. One volume sits on a shelf in my office, ready for a warm, sunny morning and an hour of free time. A retractable purple pen rests on the desk beside me, poised for annotation. I know it won’t bleed through delicate pages or smear as I underline. So, you see, I am ready.

I will let Virginia Woolf, one of my favorite authors, end this passage, with words from her essay, “How Should One Read A Book?”:

“Yet who reads to bring about an end, however desirable? Are there not some pursuits that we practise because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? And is not this among them? I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards — their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble — the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, ‘Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.’” *

* from The Second Common Reader, Woolf’s volume of literary essays.

Deliberate Communication

Subtitle: A letter for Henry

I have decided to break out the Perkins braillewriter. Henry and I are going to exchange braille letters with the hope of improving my braille skills. As the novice, I must write the first of these missives. Henry says this will force me to remember my skills, but I suspect he wants me to write first, so he can chuckle over my garish braille spelling.

I’ve cleared a space for the machine on my desk and pulled out four sheets of thick braille paper. The paper measures 8.5 x 11 inches and already has holes punched along the left margin. I flip back the two levers on the brailler and slide the first sheet of paper between the long, thin rollers. I flip the levers forward, securing the paper. I begin to turn the knobs on either side of the machine, causing the paper to retract into place.

There’s nothing glamorous about a Perkins brailler. It’s a sturdy, no-nonsense machine, built for endurance. Made of a dull, bluish-gray metal, it offers two rows of three keys, much like the Home Row on a print keyboard. Just before these rows sits the space bar. The “backspace” key sits in the “shift” position to the right of the two rows, and the “next line” key sits in the “shift” position on the left. To go to the next line, I press down on the small carriage and slide it to the left, across the front of the brailler. It dings just like a typewriter, but the click-click of the braille keys is lower, deeper, more sonorous.

The first row of three keys corresponds to dots 1, 2, and 3 of the braille cell. The second row of keys embosses dots 4, 5, and 6. Since the keys are arranged horizontally on the brailler and the dots are arranged vertically inside the braille cell, typing the correct letters requires a specific set of cerebral gymnastics.

With my paper in place, I begin my letter. October 9, 2012. I press dot 6 for a capital sign and dots 1, 3, and 5 for an o. Perfectthis is easier than I thought. Thinking of the word “October,” I type a t (dots 2, 3, 4, and 5)—and realize that I’ve already missed a letter. Immediately, I remember Henry’s stern commandment:

“You must think in braille, not in print.”

I realize that I have been thinking about the holistic look of the word October, not how it feels, letter-by-letter. I reach over the keys and feel the o, perfectly embossed, and the t, which shouldn’t be there. Carefully, I use the nail of my left index finger to scratch out the extraneous dots (2, 3, and 5). Then I press the “backspace” key and emboss a dot 1. Now, I have a c (dots 1 and 4), but, as I type the rest of the word, I remember another piece of our conversation:

Henry, grinning with the enjoyment of his superior knowledge, tells me not to bother with a braille eraser (a small wooden tool with a blunt tip for rubbing out extra dots). “Just press all 6 keys over your mistake,” he says calmly. “That will cross it out.” His tone becomes admonishing, “Don’t you dare try to scratch out your mistakes with a fingernail! I’ll know—I’ll be able to feel that for sure!”

Well, I am certainly not going to cross out a word on the very first line of my letter! I’ll leave the fingernail marks in there, just to see if he’s paying attention.

I continue with the letter, trying to imagine each word in braille before I type it. My fingers hesitate over the two rows, the balls of my fingers nestling into the indentations on each key. I feel like a four-year-old at the piano, excited and reticent all at once. As I move into the first paragraph, I am amazed at the effort needed to press each key. My fingers start to ache, and I’ve only typed three sentences!

However, the brailler offers certain aesthetic compensations. Each time I complete a line, I am rewarded by the musical ding of the brailler bell—which adds a strange spatial awareness to my epistolary efforts. I find myself choosing different words because I know their size and contractions. I choose shorter words when I’m nearing the end of the line. The hesitation and deliberation over each letter forces me to meditate on the words I emboss. When my thinking becomes too fast, I slip back into print and make careless mistakes. I type an sh (dots 1, 4, and 6) instead of an -ing (dots 3, 4, and 6). I must think word by word—breaking each word into phonemes, or sound-components.

In the middle of the second paragraph, I realize that I am typing much more quickly. Contractions I learned years ago are dancing into my conscious mind; I easily recall the shorthand for the, have, this, and just. The click of the brailler keys synchronizes with the rhythm of my thoughts, and the melodious ding at the end of each line keeps me aware of my place on the page. My mind fills with the notions of space and texture, and I occasionally check my progress with the index finger of my right hand.

At the bottom of the first page, I decide to stop. My hesitant thoughts have given way to cramped fingers. I feel a sense of relief, amazed that the braille seems so familiar after only a page of embossing.

I cannot ignore the contrast between my slow, deliberate embossing and the rapid, intuitive process of typing on my familiar laptop keyboard. Something is blossoming in my consciousness: an awareness of the effects of the medium on the process of writing. It is not that the brailler makes me think more slowly or choose different words; using the brailler, exerting more physical effort when I write, changes the shape of my thoughts.

Now, I want to attempt a writing task using different media—pen, computer, brailler, and even slate and stylus (the pen and paper method for braille) to see how each would change the timbre of my writing.

Blind Student

Before time pulls a fine, shimmering mist over my academic experiences, I must write from the perspective of the blind student. Though my studies pass beyond each graduation, I find myself in a new role, the teacher’s role, and my ideas about students are changing.

So, meet me at the door of all my classrooms, and let’s wander through the experiences of a student like me.

First, you’ll notice that I arrive early. I’m here a few minutes before you, running my fingers over the braille at the classroom’s entrance. Paranoid that I’ll enter the wrong class, I want to appear competent. Let’s walk through the door that our instructor has just unlocked. I’ll want to find a seat close to the front of the room. I’ll fold my cane, place my large schoolbag under the desk, and pull out my notebook and pen. Depending on the classroom’s lighting, I’ll either remove my shades or keep them on. I’m hoping for dim lighting; I’d rather take off the shades.

No doubt, our instructor will begin passing out a syllabus. Two things about this process will make me anxious: 1) I won’t be able to tell that the instructor is handing me a paper unless he or she announces this, and 2) I won’t be able to read the syllabus, since the instructor has probably printed it in size 11 or 12.

Of course, each circumstance has its exception. When I choose classes with an instructor I’ve experienced before, I can count on some measure of accommodation on the first day. In one such case, a Rhetoric & Composition professor printed my syllabus in size 24! When he placed it before me, I felt surprised and gratified. I immediately flipped through it, delighted that I could hold the paper farther from my face.

In most cases, however, I endure the first class without accommodation. I cannot expect instructors to intuit my needs before I introduce myself. After that first class, I hurriedly shove my books into my bag, whip out my letter from the Disability Resource Center, and attempt to catch the instructor in conversation.

Most professors are kind, willing to assist, and welcoming. I’ve never had an instructor refuse me accommodations. I tell them, “If there’s something on the board, I won’t be able to read it.” I say, “If you’re calling on me, you have to use my name—otherwise, I won’t know that it’s my turn to speak.” I explain, “Any materials you pass out in class need to be enlarged for me, to size 18, Times New Roman.” (I tell them how I hate Courier New, that it was handcrafted in Satan’s workshop as the bane of all visually-impaired students.) Finally, I tell them that I am excited for the class and that I readily speak up for myself. “I won’t let you ignore me,” I insist with a smile.

My professors ask me for basic reminders and offer benevolent disclaimers:

  • “Could you shoot me an email the night before the exam, so I’ll remember to print yours?”
  • “You’ll have to remind me to call on you—I might forget! And it will take me a while to learn everyone’s name.”
  • “I’ve never had a blind student before. I’m happy to help, but I might take a while to get used to what you need.”

“Don’t worry,” I want to assure them. “I’ll actively participate in class! I will be so talkative and engaged that you won’t be able to forget I’m here. I’ll muster enthusiasm for texts I don’t enjoy, attend carefully to your lectures, and attempt to make brilliant observations—all in the hope that you won’t forget to enlarge my tests or use my name.”

But of course, they forget. They show up on exam day with an armful of copies printed in size 12. They look at me with confusion or embarrassment and ask sheepishly, “Is there any way you could just use the regular copy?” Inclined to say yes, I learn to say no. I answer, “I’m sorry, that would be really difficult for me to read.”

When they don’t forget to enlarge my copy, they forget to bring it. They say, “Oh gosh, I left your copy in my printer! Let me just run to my office and get it!” Meanwhile, they don’t collect the copies they’ve already passed out. Around me, students begin the exam, and I wait for my test. My anxiety mounts—I’m painfully aware that other students are completing their exam while I don’t even have mine. I’m aware that it will take me longer to read the test. I worry that I won’t finish on time, not because of my reading speed, but because my instructor takes 20 minutes to dash to her office and return with my exam.

In these moments, I cannot panic, pontificate, or patronize. I cannot say, “Why don’t you put a sticky note on your computer, reminding you to print my exam in size 18?” Just between you and me, I can read size 14, but I’ve since learned this valuable lesson: when you ask for size 14, professors try to give you 12. They say, “Well, I mean—it’s close, isn’t it? Can’t you just make it work for today? I’ll print your next one larger, I promise. I won’t forget.”

Occasionally, the forgetfulness sparks a creative solution. A professor who forgets to enlarge poems for me begins reading them in a slow, sonorous voice. When he reads, I don’t miss the print copies; I easily follow the poem. His reading precipitates an excellent discussion and furthers my blatant preference for the oral approach to poetry.

Another professor rushes across the room to narrate scenes of a film for me. He crouches by my desk and whispers (not very quietly) into my ear, describing an important scene. I assure him that this isn’t necessary – the classmate sitting beside me excels at audio description – and, reassured, he hurries back to his desk.

When I feel frustrated with my professors’ absent-mindedness, I remember the inclusive efforts of a certain Dr. Rae. She treats me so well that I take five courses with her. After the first day of class, and across those five courses, she forgets to enlarge one assignment. ONE assignment. When she realizes her mistake, she insists on typing the homework, a piece of Old English prose that we must translate, by hand. I find it waiting in my inbox just two hours after class.

She doesn’t tell me, “You’ll have to forgive me—I’ve never done this before.” She doesn’t say, “Oh dear, I’ve left your copy in my office.” She says, “I have a disabled sibling; I know what it’s like. I’m going to do my best for you.”

She spoils me for other instructors. When they forget to accommodate me, I remember that she rarely forgets. I begin to measure them against her, thinking, “If she can remember, why can’t others?” Surely, she has the same workload, amount of courses, lists of names to memorize, and piles of articles to read. But I never have to fight for anything in her class. I never receive a sigh of frustration, confusion, or embarrassment. When the rest of the class easily navigates a text that hasn’t been enlarged for me, she understands my acute feelings of exclusion. And I suspect that she gets my bravado as well. She helps me feel the value of my whole self,  mind and body connected.

I intend to model myself on Dr. Rae. Already, I have adopted her circular classroom arrangement and short response papers. Now, I am waiting for my population of disabled students, so I can extend her fervent consideration to them. I cannot wait to accommodate!

Intimate with Print

When venturing in search of new (or used) books, the Serious Bibliophile requires a few essentials: canvas bags for carrying the books home, a bottle of water, a dedicated and equally bibliophilic companion, a list, and a lot of time. The canvas bags are necessary for two reasons: 1) they won’t tear when you cram them full of books of different shapes, and 2) they represent environmental consciousness. Using the cloth bags will help you resolve your eco-guilt from bringing home a dozen print books. The bottle of water will keep you hydrated as you make use of the ample time you’ve allotted for this session. When you want to go dashing down every aisle, whisking books off shelves with the irrepressible glee of a 5-year-old on a sugar rush, the list of titles to look for will help you to exert some self-control. The companion will also help you make use of your time; her enthusiasm for finding and reading the books you desire will the hours disappear quickly.

My most frequent book-buying companion is Katie, and she is meticulous about observing the rules above. We regularly schedule trips to one of Jacksonville’s largest used bookstores, our canvas bags, shopping lists, and protein bars in hand. If the trip to the bookshop occurs somewhere in a long day of errands, we have learned to eat before we step across the sloping threshold. Book-buying on an empty stomach is a dangerous business. Combine our crankiness from hunger with our desire to buy four times the amount of books our budgets allow, and we represent a serious threat to ourselves and all other customers.

Because I am a lover of literature – poetry and prose, drama and nonfiction – you might assume that a book’s content is the only thing that matters. However, accessing literature is a multi-sensory experience, an indulgence for the hands, eyes, and nose – as well as the mind.  The books I purchase are stories I want to read, in formats I can easily access. So, aside from interesting content, what am I looking for in a good book?

While shopping with Katie, we wandered into the Classics section in search of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I had read the book eight years ago, for my AP Language & Composition class, but I’d somehow lost track of my beloved copy. Katie found the card with “WOOLF” printed in large, blocky lettering, and began to scour the stacks for the book I wanted. She found several editions, published by different companies – their fonts, pages, and binding wildly varied.

Our process is a simple one: Katie pulls an edition off the shelf and hands it to me, I open it to check whether the print is easy to read, and Katie uses my observations to filter the books she passes to me. I rarely require books in standard large print (size 18), because I apply a collection of magnifiers, reading glasses, and bifocals to texts I read. For me, ideal print is dark against the page, not a spidery or blocky font. Fonts like Courier New that echo the look of a typewriter are a recipe for disaster, while seriffed fonts like Times or Garamond are easy on my eyes. (WordPress tells me that the font I’m using now is Times.)

The quality of the page is also important. Often, I prefer to shop for used books because the yellowing pages are easier for me to read. Bright white pages can be glary, making the letters difficult to distinguish. Yellowed pages, on the other hand, soften the glare of overhead lights and contrast well with most fonts. If the book has any markings in it, it becomes exponentially more difficult to read. Occasionally, I can read a text that has underlining throughout, but, if someone has highlighted in the text, forget it!

The book’s spine is worth considering as well; if the book does not open easily, it will be difficult for me to get close enough to the pages to read them. When I was younger, I used a dome-shaped glass magnifier to read print. Now, I prefer reading glasses with 10x bifocals; I don’t have to worry about wedging a heavy glass dome in between the pages, but I do need to get about two inches away from the printed text to read it. Since I regularly underline in books, I must be able to get close to the text.

Because of my necessary textual intimacy, I have to give all my books the sniff test. Unless a book smells appealing – musty, old, and well-loved or crisp, new, and papery – I am reluctant to read it. I once avoided a textbook for my Mark Twain course, because, when I got deep into the pages, I could only smell the acrid glue of the binding.

The olfactory pleasure of books prevents me from switching to an all-digital experience of literature. Arguably, many more books are available online as e-books and free texts, but I know how desperately I would miss that Good Book Smell. Plus, my tactile relationship to texts helps me to navigate them with ease. I often remember where a passage is located because I remember reading it halfway down the page, on the left side, in the second column. My spatial awareness of text on a paper page disappears when I switch to texts on my computer. Audiobooks, however, are a welcome addition to my library, and I enjoy listening to a book while following along in the print edition.

If you’re thinking that my preferences sound like a load of cumbersome specifications, you’re very close to the truth. It is certainly easier on my eyes when I have an audiobook doing the reading and I can simply skim the pages with a pen, underlining as I listen. Yet I continue to gravitate to the printed page, even in the absence of audio recordings. Something in the experience of curling up with a good book – my nose, without exaggeration, deep in the pages – conveys a coziness, a tranquil absorption. As my body performs the posture of reading, the book is a reassuring weight in my hands. Getting my fingers around the edge of a page, sliding my bookmark into place, drawing a thin bracket around a particularly moving passage – these gestures comprise the sensory pleasures of a revitalizing experience.