On Being a Dyslexic Poet

            I had a question from a friend about his granddaughter’s struggle with writing and spelling. She’s a good reader so it sounds mechanical. It seemed familiar. We are born with certain brains structures and spend our early lives figuring out how to use them, or work around them. I responded with a bit about my journey.

            Language is where ideas dance with meaning and rhythm. Much of the world (school, family, problem solving) can feel stodgy and slow. Sound and pattern swirl like the aurora borealis, seething with creation.

            Language also seems arbitrary. Why is crowd not spelled like cloud? Why does occurrence have two Cs and two Rs, an E instead of an A? Why is anything spelled the way it is? The centuries of developing sound and meaning are brought to today’s vocabulary and for some of us it seems like a minefield. But if one learns to play their own game there is a way through.

            The dyslexic’s mind can be moving at the speed of light but to corral “acceptable” pieces and render them in “correct” form takes years of practice. Being “different” invites frustration from the inside and shame from the outside. I started to hide parts of myself very early. I found methods to cover those parts, to go around them, learn strategies to reframe, rephrase and divert. These things can be a burden that turns into lifelong coping skills.

            It took six years to cobble together a degree in American Studies. It was my pattern, created inside the framework of the university. I also worked, tried to live with being in the Army National Guard during the Vietnam War, and of course drink a little beer. By the way, alcohol (and other substances) is an escape and a trap.

            Strangely, I became a librarian. I started in a small library with a small budget who was glad to try someone without an advanced degree. Organizing books and other material in an everyday public library employed many of the skills I had learned. I started before the digital age: circulation involved thousands of cards marching inside a daily calendar, cataloging at the time was using the Dewey books to classify incoming material so they fit with the existing collection, helping patrons was about listening and imagination. Cataloging helped me ingest the Dewey Decimal System, so when a patron wanted something, however vague, I could walk, mentally and physically, toward the solution. After many years, and doing all the jobs in a public library, some employers considered me a professional, others didn’t–just another thing to work around. The public brought their questions, ideas and lives through the front door and I had the honor of helping. The shelves seethed with stories, discovery was a daily occurrence.

            Neither of my parents graduated from high school, but they valued reading and my father was a storyteller. He would trade stories and long jokes with friends. Often a sly exchange, and  you never knew when the story would arrive in a conversation. My mother grew up poor and wanted my brother and I to have more possibilities. She read to the family in the evening before television came into our lives. I think that helped in my language development; stories chiming in my growing mind. I remember her reading Ralph Moody novels about ranch life, a way of life that she knew intimately. She wanted us to have “more.” That took the form of piano lessons for me starting in the second grade. Scales and simple songs are boring, so early on I learned to play my own music. My mother was tone deaf so I could explore rhythm and pattern on the piano as if I were “practicing.” When I went back to the teacher I would have made little progress on the piece I was supposed to work on. At a recital three years later I inserted a bit of my own in the middle of my assigned work and the only one who could tell was the teacher. I later realized that I couldn’t read the notes on the page fast enough to fit a certain tempo.

            When I switched to tenor saxophone in sixth grade I would continue my errant ways. By high school I generally could play my own version in band class without raising the eyebrows of the maestro. In pep band and an extracurricular Dixieland band I could cut loose. I would learn there was a name for what I was doing, improvisation. Somewhere in my senior year I discovered Miles Davis–oh my, yes. I never got that good and I couldn’t afford a great horn but lord-love-a-duck the sun rose.

            It was in high school I discovered that words could be improvised, played with, juxtaposed and jammed. I could barely read but I wanted to create interesting sounds. I wanted to paint images on the page. I wanted write stories that came alive in the air and in me. I’m lucky to have been born in the twentieth century, an imposed form is a straitjacket to me. The poem or story develops a voice and form as it comes alive.

            School at all levels was a combination of enticement and rejection. On one hand I could seldom read fast enough to read all the material for a class; on the other, I learned to listen in class developing a good memory. There were interesting ideas buried in the stilted prose of textbooks I would never get unless I found them in lecture or conversation. My freshman year a very good English teacher had us devour Huckleberry Finn. We lived it paragraph by paragraph for days, reading aloud and talking about every nuance–another oh my, yes.

            In college, economics and anthropology were downright impossible to read. So as a slow reader I found myself interested in history and literature, mountains of words. I read what I could, or what pulled me in so dramatically that there was no choice.

            Between high school and college I worked for three year at a VA hospital. I could work effectively with people. It was during that time, on my own time schedule, I read Anna Karenina. It was a transcendent experience. The great heart of that novel beat in me for months. People in my world said the Russians were too hard to read, all those crazy names and that weird history. I learned that real literature pulls you in and won’t let you go, that the inner workings of humanity could be felt in those slowly turning pages.

            Thank goodness for spell check, underlining the misspelled words that I need to go back and look up. I remember writing term papers on a typewriter, dictionary nearby, hoping to get the spelling close enough to find it in the damn book. I’m disgraphic as well, scribbling at a snail’s pace, then trying to decipher it later.

            As a children’s librarian I rehearsed stories until I could read or tell them smoothly, sometimes walking them into my brain. The vocal and visual are held in the vessel of the body. The kinesthetically programed vessel is the petri dish of mind. Once I had the stories down, they stayed. To this day I have to rehearse my own writing before a public reading, otherwise I stumble. Anxiety rises. Trying to inch through syllables destroys the rhythms I hear and the listeners want to hear. If I know the material, the bones of the story, I can do a pretty good presentation. A reading is more than a recitation, it is a creative act in itself. Sentence patterns are the vehicle for story growth in the writer and the observer.  

            I wrote a few poems in high school, more in college–some young women seemed to like poetry and poets. It has been my path, no one else’s. It took many years to grow into a trusted voice among the cacophony and to believe in its value. No matter the brain structure, we live in a culture formed by strictures of belief and prejudice passed down through generations. It is our job to break free to find ourselves. Language was one of my tools in becoming.

%d bloggers like this: