The Cardiff Poetry Tea Party
On Your Marks, Get Set
My time slot was 20-25 minutes. Many blind people have fantastic memories, I am not one of them! I have the memory of a sieve, so I knew I couldn't memorise enough poems to fill 20 minutes.
But what better way to give the audience a glimpse into the life of a blind poet than talking a little about the technology I use, how that makes the writing experience different than when I was sighted, and demonstrating it in action.
When Cinnamon Press first announced that Dressing Up was one of the winners of their 2016 pamphlet prize, I began to think about how I'd be able to do any readings to launch it. My first idea was to use the talking gglasses I've blogged about several times to read from printouts at the event. Although the glasses work well they are very dependent on lighting levels, and guaranteeing a word-perfect rendition from them was never going to be possible.
When I write my poetry I'm using the screen reader on my laptop which I have configured not to read every character as I type it, but it reads the whole word as I press space, or a punctuation mark, by which the screen reader knows I'm starting the next word. Was there any reason why I couldn't use the screen reader on my tablet computer to perform some of my poems at an event?
Dress Rehearsal Rag
As the scouts say, “Be prepared.” On the Tuesday I did a dress rehearsal run-through of my set, with my friend Antoinette, watching over Facetime from Ireland. My first running order had me reading 4 poems from memory, then talking about blindness and poetry and the technology I use, before continuing with the screen reader reading 7 more poems from Dressing Up, and finally me ending with 3 more poems read from memory.
It was a decent run-through. I didn't make any memory slips and the poems formatted for screen reader rendition were fine. After three of the screen reader poems however I became conscious that the voice was probably too unemotional to keep the audience's attention. Antoinette suggested exactly the same, the moment I'd finished, before I'd said anything. She told me I needed to talk more in introducing each screen reader poem. That demanded a re-think.
Mixing it Up
I'm sure there's a nugget of sage advice out there that urges people not to make last minute changes! Always one to throw caution to the wind at four in the morning I started jiggling my running order. Although I have good introductions for a lot of the poems, they are often the ones that I have memorised, and the screen reader ones don't always have any particularly interesting story behind them. The only way I was going to be able to talk more between the screen reader poems would be to alternate me reading a poem with the screen reader reading one. Instead of talking about the blindness-poetry relationship in the middle of my set, I'd start the set with that, explaining how I'd be alternating with the screen reader for the poems. That worked a treat :)
Performance and Cocktails
I woke up on Thursday morning and decided I'd keep my mid-morning gym session and then return home at lunchtime and have a relaxing soak in the bath. Before I ran the bath water I checked that the tablet was charged up and the one minor alteration I'd made to one of the poem texts had transferred onto the tablet's version.
First I checked the battery level, which should have been 90+ percent; it was 4 percent. I don't think you can describe it as ‘a sinking feeling’ when your heart bounces off your big toe. I made sure that the charger cable was properly re-connected and then turned the tablet back off so that it could re-charge most efficiently. At which point Windows perked up and said that it wanted to perform an update! I swear, the programmers at Microsoft must have some kind of telepathic app that knows the most inconvenient time in your life to do an update! I didn't want to be dealing with that as I turned my tablet on at Waterloo Tea, so I allowed the update to proceed, after which the tablet shut down and re-started ... and failed to re-start! My screen reader kicks in as the login page appears, but something was stopping it from getting that far. I took it to my sighted support (my mum) to ask her if anything was visible on-screen. Yes, there was — my tablet needed me to run an emergency recovery process to fix something or other. I was beginning to feel like I needed an emergency recovery process!
Thankfully the emergency recovery did what it needed to do and finally I could get back into my tablet. I checked how the battery was doing at that point and it was back up to 26 percent. I made a resolution that if the battery recovered to a minimum of 50 percent then I'd chance using the tablet at the reading; if it didn't reach 50 percent before I needed to set off for Cardiff then it was plan B time — which would have entailed surprising Cinnamon editor Jan Fortune by calling her up to the stage to read the poems the screen reader would have read!
I went to soak in the bath to try and unwind a litle while the tablet charged. I had a snack and did a final check of the battery level; it was up to 58 percent, which passed my threshold test. Phew!
Lights, Camera, Action
I've been friends with Alex, receptionist at the Ken Picton Hair Salon in Cardiff Bay for ages. He is always interested in my blindness and my poetry.
In a Twitter conversation with him he asked if he could ‘officially film’ my launch event so that I could use it on my website. I said yes, sure! Another friend of mine, Amy, videoed my very first public reading on her iPhone, when I read 3 poems at Risca Library back in 2015; I had no problem with Alex doing something similar.
The day of my last haircut was his last day in the job. He was leaving to join DigiChemistry Film and Television Studio in Sully, Vale Of Glamorgan.
So instead of arriving to find Alex ready with his phone, there were 3 people, Alex, Craig (founder of DigiChemistry) and an American guy who, I'm ashamed to say, I've forgotten his name, but he was in charge of sound and was holding what I think might have been called a boom mic all through my set! They didn't plan on merely filming me reading my poems, they intend to make it into a documentary that looks at my blindness as well as my poetry.
Before people started arriving they sat me down and filmed a short interview discussion, during which I related the trauma caused by my tablet that afternoon. The lovely American told me he had a power bank that I could use that would have my tablet back up to 100 percent no problem by the time I started my set; maybe it's a sign I've lived a good life! :)
It's a Wrap
And that's pretty much it! The reading went well, I thought. On my tablet I had a folder open with the poems in running order, so I started at the top of the list and worked my way down. The screen reader announces the filename so I know whether it's one that I'm reading or one for the screen reader. For the screen reader poems I hit the enter key to open the file, say any intro text I want to, then press the Caps Lock key and the down arrow, which sets the screen reader off reading the poem right through to the end. Then I close the text file down and press the down cursor to hear the name of the next file, and that would be one for me to read. One minor hiccough I need to avoid at my next reading is that, when I read a poem from memory, I don't open the text file because I have no need for it, other than for the filename to remind me which poem I'm up to. Three or four times, on autopilot, I tried to close the text file and ended up closing the running order folder, meaning I had to navigate back up through 5 levels of folders and sub-folders to return to the running order window, which annoyed me and likely the audience too! I have a solution for that — if I put a shortcut to the folder on the desktop, then when I mistakenly close the folder I'll be on the shortcut and only need to hit the enter key to re-open the running order folder.
The End Credits Roll
If you have a copy of Dressing Up and want to follow along, this is the running order from 27 April 2017 At Waterloo Tea. The screen reader poems are indicated with an asterisk. I end by reading 3 poems from memory, including Colours, which is a non-pamphlet poem that gives an idea of what colours mean to a blind person — even people who have been blind since birth can have favourite colours :)
- Introduction — a little about my blindness and how I'll be using the screen reader
- * Breakfast is the Most Important Meal of the Day
- Tomorrow's Dancers
- * Dressing Up
- Wandering Eyes
- * Somebody Said I Looked Hot
- Ordinary Lives and Painful
- * Glad Rags
- Four Walls
- * Reader's Wifi
- * The Kapluna Effect
- Dressing Down
#Poetry #Performance #DressingUp #Blindness #WaterlooTea #DigiChemistry #CinnamonPress @CinnamonJan @waterlootea