Amy May Nunn: A dyslexic poet, and the wrongness/rightness of words

I couldn’t read until I was 9 years old, I stared at the words and imagined all sorts of things, longingly filling in the blanks for myself. I pretended to read out loud, I loved the sound of words and how it felt when I was telling a story, but the idea of words was something I only ever enjoyed in private, in places where there were no consequences. School was a treacherous place, and words were hostile, they humiliated me, they played cruel tricks. At the age of nine, after weeks of unsuccessfully tackling the classic b and d problem (confusing one for the other that is), in a fit of intense frustration, I marched up to the white board in front of my entire class and wrote ‘Amy is dumb’, or that’s what I meant to write, what I had in fact written was ‘Amy is bum’. There was of course much laughter, the creation of a new nick name ‘Nunn bum’ and an ongoing practical joke involving a peanut butter sandwich left on my chair. Okay so not my finest moment, but one that began a strange and significant chain of events. This was the moment I quietly promised myself to get even one day, to use the enemy’s weapons against them, wreak havoc, to show them all.

At the age of 12 I moved with my family to Australia, where unfortunately dyslexia is barely recognised within the education system. I was put into a ‘special needs’ class with children who had severe mental disabilities, and spent my days feeling utterly lost, isolated and deeply ashamed. After a few years of my mother pleading with teachers and doing everything in her power to bend a very rigid system, it eventually became clear that my best option was to live with my father back in London for a trial period, where I could attend a dyslexic school.

Being accepted into this dyslexic school felt kind of like being accepted into Hogwarts, except that it was the size of a postage stamp with a student population of about 80, and looked like the Berlin wall, post 1989. No one could speak to snakes or fly, but the students did have special abilities, things they were exceptionally good at that might have gone completely unnoticed somewhere else. One student who had trouble spelling his name at 14, could play Mozart by ear and have a basic understanding of almost any instrument handed to him within the space of a music lesson. Another student, who is now an actor, learnt all his lines in our school play by listening to them recorded on a Dictaphone by our drama teacher. Our headmaster lead yoga classes before exams and quoted the red hot chilli peppers in assembly, my English teacher had numerical dyslexia and barely knew her 5x’s tables. I felt as though i’d discovered an island of lost toys, we were part of a clan, and it didn’t matter that we’d been rejected in the past, because now we were wanted. There was nothing wrong with us, and maybe there never had been.

The occasional jeering from other schools on the way home (not helped by the words ‘dyslexics can achieve’ sewn onto our jumpers in lime green) seemed like a fair toll for this sanctuary. It was there that I learnt not to implode every time I made a mistake, to laugh with myself and not at myself, I found friends who’d all experienced some version of my humiliation at their previous schools (some much, much worse!) and I had teachers who recognised me as an individual, not a bad grade. Of course this institution, like all institutions was not without its problems, but I don’t feel I’m exaggerating when I say that in many ways, it saved me. Perhaps most significantly,  It was also here that I began to write. I didn’t know it was poetry at first, I didn’t really care what it was, only that for the first time it wasn’t about being right, it was about being free. My English teacher leant me books of poetry, Stevie Smith and Dylan Thomas were among the first, then Carl Sandberg and Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman and Sylvia Plath. The words petrified me but not in the same way the had before, they were alive in my stomach, they meant business. I read more and more, suddenly I was hungry, scribbling in note books every chance I got, I began discovering language in a way I had never thought possible for myself. This was when it first occurred to me, something I’d always considered a hindrance, could in fact be a help.

Happy accidents are all around us, and are bountiful if not fundamental when it comes to the arts. Man Ray (once described as ‘the great poet of the dark room’) and Lee Miller discovered the technique of solarisation when a rat ran across the dark room floor and Miller flicked the light on in a panic. There is a deep intellectual fear of wrongness, of being humiliated by your own limitations or your inability to dazzle the world. We freeze, become hostile and rigid. This is the death of creativity, and of our vulnerability, without which genuine creativity would be impossible. Mistakes can also lead us to something infinitely more wonderful, they can lead us to our gifts, remind us why it is we love what we do.

I can’t help but wonder, had I not been told I was wrong so often, would I have been compelled to discover my own language, or been interested in poetry at all? Who can say, but if I’ve learnt something from my experience as a dyslexic poet it’s this, sometimes we should let them see us naked, let our poetry be bad in bed, expose the syntax cellulite and pock marked prose, put it all under the most unflattering, stark lighting available and just let it be wrong. Sometimes being wrong is so damn right.





Amy May Nunn is a Melbourne based poet, she has been published in various literary journals and is currently working on her first collection.