Redact took place at the offices of New Writing North (NWN) in 2014. It was a self-designed project to help me explore, from my perspective, what it means to be a dyslexic poet. I spent a week in residence at NWN, devised and facilitated a poetry workshop using assistive software, and worked with a digital developer to create a pilot website. Assistive software helps with writing and reading activities and I use text-to-speech packages as part of my professional and scholarly work. I also misuse the software by getting it to jumble up my words – the software, in effect, takes my dyslexia experience and transforms it in creative ways.
At the time of the Redact project – while already a published poet and experienced freelance writer – I had never looked at my own Specific Learning Disability (SpLD), or dyslexia, in a public context. I’d only been diagnosed the year before and was still processing the report and its implications. When you have an SpLD you become adept at cover-up, you create complex coping strategies and internalize your struggles. Until recently, I didn’t reflect at all on the amount of time it takes me to read blocks of text, how challenging the ‘losing’ of words and language is, how everyone else seems more capable than you, and how you must read and re-read so many times that things lose all their meaning. And that’s aside from the moving letters in a sentence, spelling backwards and seeing nothing on a page where the words should be.
To be diagnosed as dyslexic – and I use the term loosely as it’s a broad spectrum and is experienced in so many different ways – was a gift and a revelation. However, looking at something so personal and sensitive, in a public context, felt very different from the creative work I was used to, and this required an understanding and open partner to support my journey. New Writing North was that, and more. The freedom to set my own agenda and lead the project was vital and I was given complete autonomy.
To see some of what happened, visit the wordstobirds website. I wrote new poems and found out that WB Yeats struggled like me (what a revelation). I worked with a group of poets who gifted their time and writing and I made links and discoveries that have contextualized my issues, making me feel a lot less alone.
Something I really wanted to capture was how the assistive software interprets my spoken voice, and the animation on the front page of the website is a digital re-enactment of a very poetic mishearing by the software. I had written the line – “this sentence is full of words” – in my project journal and then spoke it into the Dragon Dictate headset:
this sentence is full of words
The software “heard”
this séance was fall of birds
Speaking quickly, with a hand across your mouth and/or with a strong accent, confuses the software and I always love to read how my words are mashed up when I talk into the headset. For a poet this is a good thing. In this creative context, I use the software mindfully: I am in control of potential mishearings, and how the program mishears resonates with my reading and writing issues hugely.
Working with the digital developers made me realise how fruitful the web could be for dyslexics – as well as for opening out poetry more generally – and I have now launched my own poetics and digital agency Literal Fish to explore the potential of poetry in digital spaces. The wordstobirds website is now the name for Redact; while currently parked, we are keen to develop the project in the future.
Without the residency at NWN I am not sure I’d have taken the step to look at my SpLD. And to everyone who recognizes some of my reading/writing experiences I say embrace the chaos in creative ways and make the art you want.