Poetry is a Job for Life: The x of y by Colin Dardis
Throughout secondary school, I wrote poetry: it started off as writing silly little verses to entertain my friends, and then onto more serious matters, namely girls and affairs of the young heart. But before that, during primary school, I attended speech therapy classes.
I had (and to a certain extent, still have) a speech impediment when younger. During school, I hating having to read in front of the class, or do Bible readings during assemblies. I was highly conscious of the sound of my voice, knowing it differed from everyone else. Occasionally, people would ask me where I was from, thinking it was down to a different accent. However, I was never bullied due to the impediment; I can only recall one occasion of someone mocking me over it.
In the classroom, the teacher would sometimes struggle to understand what I was trying to express, and ask my twin sister to translate. This was incredibly frustrating. So I was sent to Omagh Health Centre and saw a speech therapist once a week. She taught me to shape my mouth and tongue in the precise way required to manipulate syllabic sounds – I remember spaghetti, squirrel and hospital as particularly challenging.
To help me tackle these words and more, the therapist and I read aloud many books together: Spot the Dog, Meg and Mog, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. This had an unforeseen advantage: I was reading more than my classmates, being exposed to more books, and having to think about language. Already, I was skilled in rephrasing my sentences, avoiding words I couldn’t pronounce and using easier ones instead. By the time I was ten, I had the reading age of a thirteen year old. All of this was an excellent head start into the world of poetry.
Skipping ahead ten or so years into my early twenties, I attended my first ever open mic poetry night, in Arcadia Coffeehouse, Belfast. That night, I didn’t even stand up; I read my little verses from the sofa, wanting to divorce the actual speaker from the poems. If I was going to be judged, judge me on my writing, not on my voice. Thankfully, people were welcoming and supportive, and I was encouraged to come back to future sessions. That initial backing was vital: I had found a new platform not just for my poetry, but for me as a person. This is why we always try to be open and welcoming as possible at our own Purely Poetry open mic nights: early encouragement is vital to new readers, and everyone needs a chance to become familiar with and develop in a live setting.
I became a regular reader at Arcadia, and with them, read at the first ever Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in Belfast. Even though I didn’t trust my voice to always craft the correct sounds, it still felt amazing to be part of a scene that just wanted to hear good poetry, and nothing else.
Nowadays, as an old pro with nearly twenty years’ experience of live readings, I have no problem getting up in front of people and talking. But sometimes, my tongue still stumbles over words and phrases; afterwards, I tell myself I could have read better, that I should have prepped myself more for a tricky line or difficult phrase. I still don’t really like listening to recordings of myself, and I sometimes wonder how my speech impacts on audiences engaging with my readings. Every time I get up to read, in a way I am confronting that schoolchild that was afraid to speak, rewriting his actions, trying to reinforce a more positive behaviour.
In my twenties, I was diagnosed with depression, which affects your speech in a different way: you don’t want to talk, you feel incapable of doing so, and whatever you have to say would not be of any interest to anyone. One of the reasons why I feel I starting writing poetry was that it was a lot easier for me to express myself on the page that in person. With the written word, no one was judging me on my pronunciation. I didn’t have to worry about sounds, only text. I struggled with this for years until I did learn to talk more openly: to my doctor, to counsellors, to therapy groups, to my partner (now wife).
Years of reading and writing poetry afforded me a fluency, where others fight with silence. Nowadays, part of my writing involves exploring issues of mental illness, trying to make people aware of what life is like for someone with depression. There is a long poem sequence, ‘The Escapist’, which ends my collection, the x of y. It deals with self-identity, having to first come to terms with who you are, before then trying to figure out your place in the world. Depression can strip away your identify, and all sense of logic: the illness takes over from the personality.
I couldn’t hide my speech impediment when I was younger, as it soon became evident the more I spoke. I learnt to embrace it: the first poetry zine I ever edited was called Speech Therapy as a sort of tribute. Similarly, I decided early on not to hide my depression, not to feel embarrassed or apologetic. If I can write something which helps someone feel better, stronger, or just more accepted, then I’ve done my job as a poet. It’s a job for life, and I’m still learning; my faulty voice will never change, but poetry can change how people feel.
(c) Colin Dardis
Colin Dardis is a poet, editor, and arts coordinator from Northern Ireland. His debut collection, ‘the x of y’, was released in 2018 from Eyewear. His work has recently been listed in the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing, Over The Edge New Writer of the Year Award, and Best Reviewer of Literature, Saboteur Awards 2018. Colin co-runs Poetry NI, a multimedia platform for poets. His work has been published widely throughout Ireland, the UK and USA.
About The x of y:
Reality and escapism, protection and peeling away, prayer and sacrilege, resistance and surrender. Navigating an often complex and uneven playing field, Colin Dardis strives to find balance from a life constantly fluctuating between profit and loss. The poems on offer here explore questions of existence and identity, asking who we really are, and how we can possibly be.
‘The poetry of Colin Dardis is multi-tonal. He can be tender or enraged, applying his observant eye and attuned ear to the every-day and the eternal and treating each with the same seriousness. His is a humane voice in a world of increasing dissonance, where identity politics threaten to overwhelm and dehumanise, where the kerbstone and telegraph pole blind too many to the real lives behind, where salvation may just lie in the revealed glory of a peeled boiled egg.’ –Nessa O’Mahony
‘In the x of y, Colin Dardis is a poetry sleuth, a gentle but dedicated interrogator of humanness; a subtle seeker-sifter who works to uncover and carefully examine evidence taken from the yin and yang of everydayness, from the daily dust of our routines and interactions with those around us, especially with those we hold dear. And, like all good sleuths, he invariably gets his wo/man.‘ –Adrian Rice
Order your copy online here.