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Poet Philip Schultz Details Life-Long Struggle in New Memoir ‘My Dyslexia’

October 5, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Poet Philip Schultz details his life-long struggle to overcome dyslexia in his new memoir. Jeffrey Brown profiles the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet's latest work, "My Dyslexia."
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, another in our occasional series on poets and poetry.

Philip Schultz won acclaim and a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his collection titled “Failure.” His new memoir, called “My Dyslexia,” details a lifelong struggle he had to overcome to get there.

PHILIP SCHULTZ, poet: My name is Philip Schultz. And I’m a poet and a teacher. I founded, and direct, run a school called The Writers Studio.

I think I was 16 when I had the thought of maybe being a writer. And this is complicated, something I only now understand, because when I was young, having dyslexia and not knowing it made reading such an ordeal. In fact, I couldn’t. I didn’t learn how to read until I was at the end of fifth grade and 11 years old and held back.

Well, this poem, which comes right out of writing the book, the memoir on my dyslexia is really the first poem I have written that deals with the subject. “Hitting and Getting Hit,” it’s the experience of being bullied.

“They could say what they liked, imitate the way I stuttered the morning pledge mashed the alphabet, ask how many chickens one plus three made, why my brain sat in the corner in a class of one, refused to read or write, was nailed to my tongue, just as long as they understand that some with my fist would be kissed, yanked off bikes by their hair, their eyeballs, thumbs scrubbed, faces autographed by sidewalks, that under no circumstance would they ever make me cry.”

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I was not only held back in third grade, but I was placed in a class of three. We were the slow kids, the kids who were separate. And a memory that persists that I have that is a teacher coming by and saying that the principal or somebody was coming by and gave me a book and said, “Pretend to read it.”

And the humiliation of this was so enormous that, if I don’t think of this every time I open a book, it’s every other time. And I taught myself how to read by imagining a little boy who could read and who didn’t make his mother ashamed of him, who didn’t get held back and didn’t get bullied and laughed at.

And I created a way of writing where writers event personas, I’s and hes and shes who can say the things they’re afraid to. And I didn’t know until I wrote this that my approach to writing comes out of my dyslexia.

When I found out I won the prize, the kid in the dummy class that I was in was suddenly in conflict with this guy who had won a prize for his poetry that made him visible — for a moment at least. And it was so jarring, that I couldn’t bring them together. But winning that prize really forced me to make peace and understand it.

“My poems poach nearly everything, my fears, schemes, conjectures and astonishments. After evidence of infidelity, scraps of inspiration. Indifferent to the suffering they describe, they dislike everything I love, believe only in their own insularity. Because I never really had one before, my career never used to ask for much. Now, disguised as letters, e-mails, phone calls, it never lets me forget it’s there, a new best friend whose only purpose is to prove its inevitability.”

JEFFREY BROWN: You can watch Philip Schultz read more of his poetry online on our Art Beat page. The poem “Hitting and Getting Hit” will be published in the literary magazine “Ploughshares” in November.