I find myself at a loss for the words to adequately express how much it enriches me, my artistic practice, and my work I as a singer, songwriter, poet and photographer, to consider how much I don’t know, and to work collaboratively with those who do.
First off, it is scary to bring something new to life. Fear rides in on the back of all that hope, all that exuberance. Any one of these forces will knock you right off your horse, but all three? Let’s just say, anything that makes it out of our imaginations onto the page, or the canvas, or into a conversation, is a miracle.
Now let’s say you have an idea, it’s working, you enjoy the process and the result, and people are responding. The fear steps in. Let’s just keep things going as they are, it says.
But you know there is more. There is a whole world of people who, literally, see things differently than you.
Maybe you know this firsthand, through friends undergoing changes in vision. Maybe you watch your parents navigate a new and terrifying world as their vision deteriorates. Or maybe you are grappling with your own changes in vision. I had all three. Suddenly, it hits: how do people with low vision experience the visual arts?
I wanted to be part of answering that question.
I turned to my friend, visual artist and musician Deborah Maris Lader, for an introduction to the good people at Chicago Lighthouse. She connected me with Julie Stark, Board member for the Chicago Lighthouse and President of JS Consulting, Inc.
Julie’s insight proved integral to the drafting of the audiobook. I was thrilled when she agreed to be a co-editor. She served as a counselor throughout the process of bringing the Haiku Milieu audiobook to life.
Julie said: people who have low or no vision may not know color. They may never have seen a horizon. They will, however, intimately understand shapes, sounds, smells, tastes. You will find the words you need within your own senses.
BOOM. What? A whole new world of expressive language, an entirely new vocabulary, laid itself out before me.
And the writing was just one part: there is the music that goes with it, the spoken delivery of the haiku, and the descriptions. Each had to learn how to hold hands with the other, while navigating – you guessed it -- hope, exuberance, and fear.
There is more to that story, but I want to get out of the way and let you enjoy guest blogger Julie Stark’s post.
Then, if you have time, take a listen to the first chapter of Haiku Milieu, attached. More on my website, jennybienemann.com
As you do whatever you do next, just know that thinking about people who experience the world differently than I do has made me a deeper, truer, more authentic artist. Maybe it would do the same for you.
Haiku Milieu Re-seen
Who could have imagined these days of Corona virus? I am adjusting to the reality of shelter in place - and the daily inside / outside risk assessments we are all making from our 4 wall spaces (that is, if we are lucky enough to have one).
On these post work afternoons, I find myself getting reacquainted with things I love, but do less and less at this time in my life… puttering, puzzles, cards, yoga, and the almost NEVER: leafing through our many coffee table books.
But here I sit, with the most recent addition to my collection… Haiku Milieu. It is signed with heart by my friend and author, singer-songwriter-photographer and haiku artist Jenny Bienemann. And I am smiling at the memory of her launch party at Fitzgerald’s, where we sang, drank and marveled at the beauty of the arts.
It’s 41 degrees outside right now, but the sun is out in a clear sky. And through my windows’ east-west-south exposure, there is still plenty of light left at this 5 o’clock hour. But the truth is, there’s basically no amount of light that can give me the access I want to this beautiful book.
When you are a low vision person as I am, and your eyes don’t perform at the level of marvel your heart requires, leafing through any written ANYTHING is a unique sort of endeavor indeed. In the case of Haiku Milieu, I am able to make out the intriguing images Jenny shares. And on some pages, thanks to the large, sans serif type, I can even make out the poetry, with its word economy and philosophical punch.
As for the other pages, it’s to adaptive technology and handheld magnifiers I turn to enjoy the rest. And of the 10 million blind and visually impaired people in the United States, I am clearly one of the lucky ones to be able to access this work of wonder at all. For the most part, the visual arts and many table top books are minimally accessible to those with low or no vision. That is, UNLESS you have an author like Jenny, who thinks to reach out with an email like this:
From Jenny, to our mutual friend Deb Maris Lader:
"As I work on the haiku book, I [am] attentive to how I might record the book to make it enjoyable for all listeners, including those with low vision. Not having low vision myself, I would like to get advice from people on the front line. I am wondering if you can put me in touch with someone who can fill me in on the things I should be thinking about as I plan and record the audio book. If yes, I will be grateful!"
With Deb’s connection to the Chicago Lighthouse, where I sit on the Board, Jenny and I become connected, and thus begins our unique collaboration.
I am looking back over the many emails Jenny and I exchanged from September 2018 until the book release concert in May of 2019. And what strikes me right away is the presence overall of what any good discovery must have: genuine curiosity.
It’s hard to believe, but it is a very rare thing to be asked: “How can I help you feel the beauty I see through my lens, my paintbrush, or my pen?” The honest answer is that it’s different for every low vision or blind person, depending upon what points of reference we already have. What is a shade of blue? A full moon? A creek? Or a shadow?
Our 6 month process to answer these questions and many others is heartfelt and fascinating.
It is Autumn.
I am looking at the digital manuscript…the haiku poems themselves and their companion images. The chapters are Love, Loss, Longing and Life. There is no shortage of deep feeling here about who we are, how we link our hearts to each other, and how we challenge our assumed constraints. I am already thinking about how challenging it might be to describe some of the images. 2 silhouettes on a sunny pavement, a potted plant reflected on a glass table, and my personal favorite: a dollop of cream, heart shaped in a cup of latte coffee. It’s not just that some of these things may have never been seen, but it’s the light and shading in Jenny’s stunning photography. I fear the audio descriptions may come up short. But then again, the world has little idea how beautiful the intentionality of the attempt itself feels. Access of any measure is better than no access at all.
And then it is Winter.
I am receiving Jenny’s audio descriptions. Each MP3 aims to give context and depth to the image on each page. We exchange ideas on how to anchor each section. How do I know if I can’t see, the difference between the poem and the description of the photo unless you mark the distinction somehow? How do you make the description details as textural…as touch / taste oriented as possible?
Creating context where no context may exist…no small task.
But back and forth we go, until all 120 poems have audio descriptions.
It is Spring.
With the grass and early flower buds comes a new layer of creativity from Jenny. Who could have imagined the next series of audio clips? I click on the description files and now, they are bookended by original music / percussion compositions. They are laid into the background as little magical lifts to the words. I hear bells, chimes, and sounds which please entirely, though I can’t pinpoint the source instruments. It has all come together: the art, the poetry, the descriptions, the music. And the voice of this thoughtful artist, bringing to us, as she says, “the extraordinary in the everyday”.
By the time May comes around, it is no surprise that as part of her release event, most of the concert proceeds go to none other than the Chicago Lighthouse.
By June, the Haiku Milieu audiobook is sitting on my iPhone Audible account.
And I am grateful. For the experience of bringing, in some small way, this literary gem to those who see differently, and for a unique engagement with this artist, whose big talent is only made more immense by her huge heart. - Julie Stark