Twins In Poetry and In Braille

By Daniel Simpson
A little over a year ago, a box from my publisher, Poets Wear Prada, containing twenty complimentary copies of my new book of poems, School for the Blind, landed on my front porch. I tore it open; rushing toward a moment I had long anticipated—that moment when, for the first time, I would hold my own book. I caressed its smooth cover, traced its binding, sniffed the paper, and turned a few pages. “Mine,” I thought. “I wrote this. I have officially joined the ranks of authors with a book.” People wrote thoughtful, even glowing, reviews. People bought the book, either directly from me at readings and conferences, or online through Amazon. It was all quite thrilling.

Book Covers of School for the Blind and The Way Love Comes to MeAt about the same time, MutualMuse Press came out with my identical twin brother Dave’s poetry collection entitled The Way Love Comes to Me. When I received my copy, I went through a similar routine of touching and sniffing. I could even make out the general shape of his poems through the slightly embossed print. It, too, got a warm welcome into this world, garnering great reviews, generating a nice volume of sales, and spawning some memorable readings. (In fact, after Dave’s reading from The Way Love Comes to Me at New York University, poet Stephen Kuusisto wrote, “I believe he gave the finest reading I’ve ever heard.”)

Still, one thing separated our experience as authors from that of our sighted counterparts: We couldn’t actually read directly from our own books. I could only extrapolate what it must be like by reading from a loose-leaf binder of pages I had brailled myself, or by copying an electronic version of the final manuscript into my notetaker.

simpson-brothers

Dan Simpson with this twin brother, Dave, at the age of three.

Suddenly, that all changed. Diane Croft read our books and decided they ought to be in braille. To make all of this even sweeter, National Braille Press decided to bind our two books into one braille volume. Here we were, twins in braille, with my book coming just before Dave’s, in accordance with our birth order.

All of this took on even greater poignancy and significance with Dave’s death from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) on December 1, 2015. He never actually got to hold our books in braille, but he knew they were on the way, and it pleased him immensely.

It’s difficult to articulate just how happy having my own book in braille from National Braille Press makes me, but the biggest gift of all is having the essence of my brother’s heart and mind, enshrined in his work, available to me, nestled right next to my own book, bound together in one braille volume which I can pull from the shelf and read any time I like.

Note: The braille edition of Dan and David’s collections (School for the Blind and The Way Love Comes to Me) are available from National Braille Press for $10. Print editions can be purchased through Amazon.

Customers Are Like Family

After 18 years in customer service, Joanne Sullivan will be leaving NBP at the end of 2015. We asked her to recap her most memorable moments on the job.

Joanne Sullivan stands behind NBP tableWhen I say I work in customer service at National Braille Press, people envision a bank of phones with reps waiting to handle orders. Actually, there’s just me and Jamie. After answering more than 10,000 calls, I can honestly say our customers have become like family. “Hi, Joanne, it’s me.” No need for introductions, “Hi, Jeffrey, what’s up?” I know the voice and I probably remember the order.

But people don’t just call to place an order; people call NBP when they’re looking for anything in braille. In the early days, I had a five-drawer filing cabinet filled with braille resources to share, but now I rely on the Internet. The most challenging calls are from parents who have just discovered their child is visually impaired. Emotions are heavy. We navigate this loss together and then we move on to more practical things: What is Braille? What resources can they access? What about education, parent groups, agencies and blindness organizations? I pass along as much information as they can handle for now. I tell them about the blind people I know who work at NBP, practice law, teach, parent, live full lives. The dream is not lost, but it has changed and it will take a different path to get there.

I’ve sent out more technology books than I care to remember, dating back to the early ‘80s. I’ve personally distributed over 8,000 braille literacy bags through the ReadBooks! program, umpteen children’s books, bazillions of Harry Potter books, and so many other exciting adventures in the publications department—from kids’ cookbooks to print/braille Valentines. But my fondest memories are the many conventions of the blind where I exhibited and sold braille publications.

Joanne and friend at ACB

Joanne (right) and friend hold up a NBP t-shirt at the 2014 ACB Convention

I love meeting some of the people I’ve chatted with throughout the year, adding depth to my initial over-the-phone impressions.

I am not able to put into words the feelings I have about the people I have worked with at NBP through the years, and it would take a few more blog posts to acknowledge each and every one. I am grateful to have shared my work life with them and will cherish many lifelong friends. But, I would be remiss if I did not recognize the person who hired me, Diane Croft.

I interviewed with Diane, and former president Bill Raeder, all those years ago and knew from the start that NBP would change my life. Diane and I did not stay within the traditional question-and-answer format of an interview. We connected on so many levels and our discussion that day was all over the place. We had to continually remind ourselves to get back to the facts. How often does that happen at a job interview? Diane took me out to lunch on my first day on the job. We were talking non-stop as we walked to our lunch destination and somehow ended up in a liquor store. “Hmmmm,” I thought to myself, this is NOT the impression I had of Diane. “What kind of lunch is this?” She saw my perplexed expression and started laughing. There was a deli at the back of the store. Whew!

I’m near the end of this blog and I can’t say good-bye. It’s too hard. So I’m ending this post by saying, let’s stay in touch. My email is: reallylowtide@yahoo.com or you can write me at 12 Florida Street, Marshfield, MA 02050. I will miss you all more than you know.

Plaque given to Joanne Sullivan

NBP presents a print/braille photo plaque to Joanne.

Presented to Joanne Sullivan

December 18, 2015

 With love & gratitude from the tens of thousands of blind children and adults whose wishes you fulfilled with the gift of literacy, and from our employees to whom you gave your heart for 18 years at National Braille Press.

 

A Revolutionary Tea Party: A Moment of Shared Accessibility

Boston fashioned its revolutionary identity hurling tea into the Boston Harbor—an iconic event that inspired a second Tea Party movement hundreds of years later. But this post is about a third Boston tea party event, not as well-known, but revolutionary in its own right.

Several months ago, four of us—Mike Mellor, author of Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius, Ann Cunningham, a renowned sculptor and tactile artist, JoAnn Becker, an NBP Trustee and technology trainer at Perkins, and myself, a publisher at NBP—attended the unveiling of the Edgar Allan Poe statue in Boston. Edgar Allan Poe statue in BostonOne of the best-kept secrets of Boston’s literary history is the fact that Edgar Allan Poe was born here.

Moments after they removed the covering from his life-size statue, the four of us pushed hard against an enormous crowd to get close enough to touch Poe’s swirling cape, to trace the enormous wingspan of his raven, even to insert our hands into the raven’s screeching beak. It was a moment of shared accessibility and we felt giddy.

In fact, it was the second time that day that we shared a moment of culture and art. Earlier, passing by the Museum of Fine Arts, we spontaneously decided to venture in to see what might be accessible to us all. As we walked through the heavy doors, Ann suddenly remembered that she had worked with Steve Landau at Touch Graphics, and Hannah Goodwin, Manager of Accessibility at the Museum, to create a tactile book that explores American Style through the centuries by showcasing contrasting teapot designs!

Each era was illustrated with an example of a teapot MFA book in print and braille on period teapotscreated in that period’s style, and embossed in low relief. Accompanying text, in large print and braille, described each design in detail. The coup d’ grace was an electronic pen that, when any element of the design was touched, would provide even more information. Unfortunately the battery in the pen had run out and we were not able to access this feature. But by now our batteries were already charged with this unexpected treat, as Ann and JoAnn sat down on an ancient museum bench to explore Style: Period Details Explored in Teapots as tactile designer and art devotee respectively.

“I feel I have as clear a vision of what those teapots look like, and each unique period’s design, as anyone sighted,” said JoAnn, as we left the museum. “I had no idea until today that I prefer the Federalist period of teapots over the Empire era and precisely why!”

It seemed an ordinary and an extraordinary afternoon among friends—as simple and yet as exquisite as a teapot.

 

 

What Braille Readers Found Interesting in 2014

What blog posts did braille readers and others interested in National Braille Press find  interesting in 2014? Our  annual report for our blog, Inside NBP, revealed the answer.

The top posts were:

  1. Ruby Bridges and Her Teacher Reunite Because of a Print/Braille Book” by Diane Croft
  2. Blind iPhone Empowerment” by Barry Scheur
  3. Observations Without Sight: Teach Your Children Well” by Wynter Pingel
  4. No One Told Me Braille Was Hard, So it Wasn’t” by Edward Bell

Hands on braille page

Here’s an excerpt from the Annual Report:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. Inside NBP was viewed about 11,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

The Creative Partnership of Shirley and Irma

On Saturday, I went to the movies to see Life Itself, an unsparing documentary that exposes the complicated relationship between film critic Roger Ebert and his co-host Gene Siskel. For nearly two decades, they sparred publicly and passionately—issuing “thumbs up/thumbs down” movie reviews—and opened our minds to the fact that art is subjective.

On Sunday, I opened the Times to read “The End of ‘Genius’” by Joshua Wolf Shenk (NYT July 20, 2014), who opines that the idea of the lone genius is a myth. “The pair is the primary creative unit… at its heart, the creative process itself is about a push and pull between two entities….” The article references numerous creative pairs—Freud and Fliess, King and Abernathy, Picasso and Braque, Einstein and Besso, McCartney and Lennon. Each brought something the other didn’t have, tensions ensued, creativity blossomed.

On Monday, I received an email message that tactile artist Irma Goldberg had died. She was watching her two young grandchildren, making tea and Jell-O, and suddenly she was gone. Irma had been part of a creative team for 23 years, working alongside Shirley Keller, founder of Creative Adaptations for Learning. Irma was the creative director, Shirley the driving force behind its remarkable products.

“Her desk and my desk abutted each other for 23 years,” said Keller, over the phone. “We sat that way all day—sometimes not saying a word, sometimes we couldn’t stop talking. We were closer than a married couple.”

Shirley would have a brainstorm—and storm it was—and Irma would put pencil to paper and work out the details, sometimes going to the library to research an animal or object for weeks before she actually began to render the tactile drawing. The result of their collaboration was a rush of tactile books that surpassed anything that had come before, classics like Goodnight Moon to Touch, Humpty Dumpty and Other Touching Rhymes, Let’s Learn Shapes with Shapely-CAL, Touch and Learn Tactile Activities, Touch the Stars, and the endearing ABC Illustrated Flashcards.

Tactile image of two mittens from Good Night Moon to Touch

Tactile illustration by Irma Goldberg from Goodnight Moon to Touch

So today I am grieving the loss of a beautiful woman, outside and in, Irma Goldberg. I grieve as well for her tireless co-star, Shirley Keller, who pushed the limits of their remarkable union to the benefit of blind children and adults everywhere. When Shenk speaks of “the push and pull of love itself” as a creative force, he’s talking about Shirley & Irma: a pair of geniuses.