Sign language, Braille and Harry Styles don’t immediately form in the mind as a natural trio, but Co Down’s versatile poet Bebe Ashley has a way of clashing colors and weaving words and symbols together and make them work.
The 27-year-old author of Gold Light Shining – who is interested in celebrity culture and Harry Styles in particular (recently published for reprint by Banshee Press) – uses his poetry to raise awareness of sign language and also the need for easier access to the arts for blind and partially sighted people living in Northern Ireland.
A Northern Bridge AHRC (Arts Humanities Research Council) funded PhD student at the Seamus Heaney Center in Belfast, Ashley is currently monitoring her progress [in poetry] towards qualifying as a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter whilst working on another major project – Confetti – involving the creation of a 3D printed poem in Braille.
At the same time, she was one of 10 poets commissioned by the Poetry as Commemoration Project to write a poem about events inspired by the records of Ireland 100 years ago in relation to the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War .
Selected by the Arts Council and Future Screens NI, Confetti was one of nine projects to receive a Digital Evolution award for its work exploring the poetic potential of braille and 3D printing – the results of which can be seen this month- ci at the Crescent Arts Center when the result The 3D Poem is exhibited.
And, as part of the Bounce arts festival hosted by Atypical University which showcases new work by deaf, disabled and neurodiverse artists and writers, the Killinchy poet will take part in a special poetry workshop “New Encounters ” at the Crescent in October.
This will be Ashley’s second tutoring gig at the Crescent – a writer-in-residence role for the Belfast Book Festival in June had to move online when she came down with Covid.
Meanwhile, the poet – who cites recent highlights as an editorial volunteer at the Tokyo Paralympics and reading a poem at the inauguration dinner of Queen’s University’s first female chancellor, Hillary Clinton – has been working on the new poem inspired by words from festival audiences and translated into Braille using a 3D printer.
“The poem is printed in recycled plastics with the idea of raising awareness about the accessibility of literature,” she explains.
“I’m excited about the poetry workshop – I have braille bananagram tiles, kind of like Scrabble tiles, where every letter is ‘Braille’, so we’ll be doing some prompts using those to create new poems.
“At the end of the week in June I was supposed to reveal the big poem but couldn’t due to Covid so can’t wait for it to be on display now – just in time for the new workshop.
“Confetti was a very important project for me because I started to realize how little access there was to the arts in terms of guides for the blind and visually impaired, so I wanted to do something very tactile and also beautifully presented for an audience often overlooked in the arts.”
She taught herself Braille as a new language during lockdown when face-to-face sign language lessons were on enforced hiatus.
“I love languages, I love translating, and sign language is a very social language, so when classes stopped due to lockdown, I withdrew into myself and was very lonely. “, she recalls.
“That’s when I learned braille because it’s a very lonely thing that you can learn at home.
“I just needed my textbooks and I would sit in front of my Brailler, which is kind of like a mechanical keyboard, and hit six keys in different combinations. It was almost like playing the piano and I found it was very rhythmic while requiring a lot of concentration; it was like learning to read again.
“I think we take our ability to read in our native language for granted. Learning braille also helps you understand how difficult life can be for someone with vision problems. I didn’t realize how much point we read in the periphery, for example, even just signs on the street or labels on things, or a name badge at an event.Most of us assimilate this additional information very quickly without having to ask lots of help.
Originally from Bedfordshire in England, Ashley moved to Northern Ireland to study for an MA in poetry at Queen’s – her second choice after failing to land a cleaning job at an Antarctic research station – and loved the place so much that she decided to stay.
“I found people here are so happy to talk about writing all the time – in pubs, in taxis, in airports… and I’ve never felt that way before,” she recalls. .
“In Northern Ireland I was surrounded by the arts and wanted to make the most of it.”
While in school part-time, she took an administrative position at Kinghan Church for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing on Botanic Avenue – a move that reignited interest in accessibility, particularly as it relates to the arts.
Now, having reached Level 4 of her studies in BSL, she hopes to combine poetry with sign language as well as Braille in the future, using her role at the Seamus Heaney Center – funded until 2025 – to raise awareness the community to sign language. in general.
“It’s a difficult journey to reach the level of a performer, and my poems reflect that challenge,” says Ashley, nominated for the Ivan Juritz Award for Creative Experience and winner of the President’s Award last year. Ireland Poetry Trust.
“They chart every emotion, the progress, the obstacles, the frustration, but also, I hope they motivate me too, given how far I’ve come.
“It’s a real privilege to be able to learn this beautiful, expressive language and it’s important to keep track of the journey, so that hopefully more people will consider learning sign language, while also being more open to other people’s experiences of the world – and how we can improve it on every level.”
As for the subject, his poems, seen in publications such as Poetry Ireland Review and Modern Poetry in Translation, tend to reflect life in general and the way we perceive and experience it, in relation to others.
They are, she says, “quite visual” poems, “usually with a lot of color” and reflect personal interests, including pop culture and celebrity culture on which her first poetry book of 2020 was based.
“All the poems are different, but normally I’m interested in pop culture and everyday encounters – how we meet different people in different spaces,” she says.
“With Confetti, I was thinking about fragmentation as well as celebration – that moment when you throw everything up in the air and it comes floating down.
“I wanted to capture a version of it, reflected in the fragments used in the 3D poems. It is necessary to create poetry that is not limited to a single form.”
:: Bebe Ashley’s 3D braille poem is currently on display at the Crescent Arts Center in Belfast, where she is taking a poetry writing course for absolute beginners, starting September 15. The New Encounters Poetry Workshop for the Blind and Visually Impaired takes place on Saturday October 8th.